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- “The environment to which a society actually adjusts itself is not the material environment that natural science can reconstruct and observe as an external object, but the society’s collective representation of that environment—that is, part of its culture.”
- V. Gordon Childe, Social Worlds of Knowledge, 1949
- A Quechua man wears the Incan flag as he ascends El Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i, the retreating glacier the Quechua believe is sacred.
One June afternoon, 15,600 feet up in the Eastern Andes of Peru, a man stops a matronly Quechua woman as she descends a steep, windswept moraine. He grabs a baggie from her hand and empties out the ice chunk held within, which she had just collected from the nearby glacier they both revere as sacred. Ice shards, like falling diamonds, bounce off a pile of other chunks behind him.
“But why can’t we take ice?” the woman asks.
“Nobody goes down with ice,” the man says and sends her on her way. Far below where they stand is a vast scrubland, encircled by an inverted moat of swollen, baking mountains. Milky glacial streams crisscross the land like veins. The red roof of a church stands out among an ephemeral tent city that shelters some forty thousand Peruvian pilgrims. They have journeyed here under the fat moon of the winter solstice to celebrate one of the world’s highest, most remote religious festivals in honor of “El Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i,” the God of the Snow Star—who resides in the area’s alpine glaciers.
Roner Ramos, the man perched on the moraine, wears a New York Yankees cap, fuzz on his chin, and a large gold cross. His eyes scan people who pass for any sign that they’re packing ice. He’s one of the festival’s thousands of ukukus, the dancing bear men who dominate Qoyllur Rit’i. Out of all the attending devotees, the ukukus have the most significant role; they protect and communicate with the glacier god by roaming and dancing on the glaciers from midnight until dawn.
Ukuku means “bear” in the Quechua language, and ukukus represent the wily offspring of an Amazonian spectacled bear and a peasant woman. They dress in shaggy smocks, woolen ski masks and speak only in falsetto. Ramos will don his costume later, when he joins his troupe. But for the afternoon, he is acting as a sentry. Everyone who passes is searched and forced to relinquish any glacial ice that they’ve collected to bring home.
“Long ago there was an abundance of ice here,” Ramos says, his forehead wrinkling. “But nowadays, as the earth suffers from this global warming, we ukukus have proclaimed that nobody will leave with even one block of ice.” In the night, when the ukukus climb to the glaciers, he says, it’s more dangerous than before because they have to climb much higher to reach the ice. The ukukus themselves used to carve large blocks from the glaciers by sawing away with their rope whips or using picks. They then tied the blocks to their backs and carried them down to the sanctuary, or sometimes on to distant villages, where the glacial melt was conserved as holy water for the year. Quechua people believe it possesses curative properties and bestows fecundity on families and their lands, that it is the holy nectar of the apus, or mountain gods. Sick people drink it. Women wash their babies in it. But as greenhouse gases warm the planet, this glacier is disappearing and the sacred water it spawns will soon be gone with it.
A voluptuous teenage girl walks by, swinging a bag of ice and carrying a plastic Coca-Cola bottle of glacial melt water.
“Your ice please,” Roner says, stopping her with his arm and seizing the bag.
“The glacier. Here, take this bit if you want,” he says, pinching a little ice out of the bag. She hesitates. “Take it if you want. But no more,” he says.
She takes the little bit of ice in her fingers and slowly brings it to her lips and sucks on it, watching as Roner empties the rest from her baggie onto his pile.
“What’s happening here?” she asks.
“It’s melting. We don’t have ice anymore. We have to climb higher and higher at night.”
“Look how it is,” Roner says, pointing to the glacier, exasperated.
“It shouldn’t be like that?”
“No,” he says, “it should extend much farther down.”
- A Quechua woman looks out at the thousands of pilgrims gathered in the valley below the glacier to pray to El Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i.
This isn’t the only glacier that’s melting, of course. Almost every glacier is melting. Melting has doubled in the Alps since 2000, the Himalayas have lost a quarter of their ice, Glacier National Park in Montana will need a new name sometime in the next decade or two. But nowhere is the melt faster than in the Andes, where ninety-nine percent of the world’s tropical glaciers can be found. The rate of retreat for Quelccaya, the world’s largest tropical ice cap, located in southern Peru, has increased tenfold in the last thirty years—from twenty feet per year to over two hundred feet per year—according to glaciologist Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University.
Here in the Andes, where the sun shines hot all year long, scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate that 80 percent of the glaciers will be gone by the time today’s small children reach adolescence. That will cause all kinds of grief. Some 70 percent of Peru’s freshwater supply drains off these peaks during the five- to six-month dry season.
“When there are no more glaciers,” Patrick Ginot, a French glaciologist who works in Bolivia, told me, “you’ll have a big stream flow during the summer and no more water during the winter.” The 2007 IPCC report also projects that southern Peru will receive less rainfall with higher temperatures. To top it all off, while the water supply is drying up, the population in Peru’s capital, Lima, situated in a coastal desert, is skyrocketing. Two ice-capped mountain ranges that feed Lima, the Cordillera Raura and Huaytapallana, have lost 50 and 75 percent of their ice since 1970.
“In twenty or so years, we need to have an alternative plan for the dry season,” Robert Gallaire, another French glaciologist based in Lima, said. “We could take water from the Amazon, which would be a very large and difficult task. The alternative would be to displace all human activity into the Amazon. But I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”
But it’s not just lives that are at risk; it’s cultures—how people understand who they are. How they perceive their environment. Identity is on the line. Meaning is melting.
- A young ukuku and his father in the festival campground below the glaciers. The honor of being an ukuku is passed down only through family.
The Qoyllur Rit’i festival originates in the Quechua’s worship of the Pachamama, Mother Earth, and all her manifestations. The Quechua believe that apus are such manifestations—the spirits of the ice-capped mountains and rolling grasslands, where farmers graze their alpacas, where condors soar over sapphire lakes. Each apu is a distinct individual, the personification of the primeval landscape that predates all other living beings. They bestow health, fertility, and abundance on their devotees, but, of course, also have the power to take those gifts away. To keep them happy, the Quechua make regular, even daily offerings to the Pachamama. Even before taking a drink of chicha, a corn-based beer, many Quechua first pour some onto the ground.
The Qoyllur Rit’i sanctuary lies close to the region’s highest peak, Mount Ausangate, to which locals, who consider it their most powerful apu, used to sacrifice llamas—and even small children—long before the Spanish arrived in South America. When the Spanish did arrive, they understood that the easiest route to converting the natives to Catholicism was to combine the new religion with the old. Miracles occurred with suspicious frequency at sites that were already sacred. And so it happened at Qoyllur Rit’i.
In 1783, according to one version, a white child named Manuel appeared to an Indian shepherd boy named Mariano in the glacial valley below Ausangate. Soon little Mariano brought local Catholic priests up to the pasture to see his new friend, this blue-eyed child. When they arrived, a great white light suddenly emanated from the white boy and he transformed into Jesus Christ, dying in agony, suspended from the branches of a nearby tree (even though the site is far above the tree line). When the priests came to their senses, they saw that the tree had turned into a wooden crucifix and Mariano had died from a broken heart. They buried him under a boulder lying near the glacier’s edge.
According to the legend, as the local Quechua began gathering near the rock to light candles, church officials painted an image of the crucifix on the crag. A church was built around this crag and the painted image supposedly never fades. Many Qoyllur Rit’i pilgrims believe that the spirit of the boy lives in the rock and surrounding glacial landscape and that he roams the ice at night. The annual pilgrimage is simultaneously a visit to the Christian shrine and to the pagan mountain deity.
So—a charged place. Maybe supercharged. One prophecy about Mount Ausangate, as recorded by anthropologist Michael Sallnow, goes: “For the arrival of the final judgment, you, Apu Ausangate, little by little will become grey until you have turned completely black. And when you have changed into a mountain of black cinder, on that day will come the final judgment.” Throughout the Andes, peoples have long believed that when the glaciers melt, the world will end, or a mighty wind will blow everything away and a new epoch will begin.
“The disappearance of the glaciers is something that they had beliefs about,” said Ben Orlove, an environmental anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, who is studying the impacts of glacial melt in Peru and around the world. “I think, in a way, that they never expected the glaciers to go away—it was just an image of how things could never change. But now they are changing.”