As Peru prepares to host the 20th UN Climate Change Conference in 2014, its own citizens are bearing witness to the urgent need for action. Hundreds of people are dying each winter as the fragile mountain ecosystems are beset by the harshest weather in decades. Among the indigenous population of the Andes Mountains, lows of up to -24C are claiming the lives of children and elderly people, many of whom are freezing to death as they sleep.
For those who have grown up here, long bitter winters are a part of life. Up to 5,000 metres above sea level, the inhospitable mountains are racked with months of sub-zero cold every year. But for the last four years running winter has come early. The thatched villages are falling into disrepair. First the livestock and now the people are starting to die.
As the alpaca herds they depend upon diminish each winter, these communities are slipping ever closer to extinction. In the Puno region alone, more than 250,000 alpaca have died this year, and mortality rates among alpaca herds in Peru’s coldest areas have more than doubled since 2007. Extreme temperatures freeze the fresh water supplies and kill the grasses that sustain the herds. Pregnant animals abort their young, too malnourished to bear them to full term.
Rebecca Clements, who works in Peru for the UK-based NGO Practical Action, has seen the effects of these winters first hand. “Poverty is the real issue here,” she says. “The people have no resources. They don’t have electricity or heating. All they have to stay warm are blankets and whatever wood or dung they can find to burn.”
Certainly, the farmers of the Andes are used to poverty. Huancavelica, one of the regions hit hardest by the cold, has always been one of Peru’s most deprived areas, with up to 80% of families living below the poverty line. According to the World Bank Peru’s poverty rates have been more than halved since 2004, dropping from 48.5% to 25.8%. But increasing vulnerability to climate change is in danger of reversing these advances.
Maria Eugenia Mujica, one of the authors of the 2013 UN Development Programme (UNDP) report, warns: “if we disregard [environmental] sustainability, whatever progress we made in poverty reduction or improvement of human development will just be erased due to climate change”. Experts predict that environmental problems could begin to cost Peru between 8% and 34% of its GDP.
In the isolated mountain regions these fears are fast becoming reality. As their animals die, all too often rural farmers are faced with a choice; with limited resources and even less money, the needs of the children in these communities are becoming sidelined in an attempt to protect the herds that keep the villages alive. “If the alpaca die, then we all die,” says Ignacio Huamani, a farmer from the Huancavelica village of Pichccahuasi.
NGOs and children’s groups in the area are warning that, in this desperate situation, child mortality rates are rising fast. Figures from 2010 show that one in 10 infants do not reach their first birthday. “There have been many dead children,” says Rafael Rojas Haunqui, regional director for the national disaster protection agency, the Defensa Civil. “I don’t know how many, but there are more and more and mainly the deaths have been from pneumonia.”
While Peru’s mountain communities are devastated by the cold, other environmental changes threaten further catastrophe. Despite the fact that Peru contributes just 0.4% of the world’s greenhouse gases, the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change has identified it as the country third most at risk of climate hazards. Four of the five geographical areas most vulnerable to climate change are present in Peru’s bio-diverse landscape. The challenges it faces will be extensive.
Like the Andes, the rainforests may already be suffering from the effects of a shifting climate. According to the UNDP’s latest Human Development Country Report, droughts in the western Amazon in 2005 and 2010 have reversed its usual role as a lush carbon sink: In 2012 the Peruvian Amazon became a net emitter of carbon dioxide rather than oxygen for the first time.
Peru’s environmental vulnerability could have consequences for us all. As its rainforests die and its mountains freeze, incremental global effects may already be underway. And maybe, when the members of the 2014 Conference arrive in Lima to negotiate next year, the cost of inaction will finally seem a greater burden than the price of change.