For Peru, global warming is not just "an inconvenient truth."
It's a daily reality, particularly for the residents in the spectacular Urubamba River Valley, the birthplace of Incan civilization. Watching the sun rise from atop the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, you can look around 360 degrees and see Andean mountains everywhere. The highest of them were always described in the guidebooks as "snow capped." Today, they're more "snow frosted."
They still have snow, but there is a lot of rock now showing through on many of them. If these trends continue, in a few years they'll just be described as "steely gray." The great Andean glaciers are melting, receding at about 100 meters a decade.
"When I first started trekking to the Andes mountains 30 years ago, many climbing expeditions would reach the top by climbing straight across the glaciers," said my traveling companion, Alfredo Ferreyros, head of Peruvian operations of Conservation International. "Now, expeditions have to negotiate crevasses and increased risk of avalanche, because of the instability of the snow pack. That's because of changes in temperature and fluctuations in precipitation."
Nearby, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Jose Ignacio Lambarri, who owns a 60-acre farm, is also feeling the heat. He grows giant white corn, with kernels that used to be as big as a quarter. This corn, which is exported to Spain and Japan, grows in this valley because of a unique combination of water, temperature, soil and sun. But four years ago, Lambarri said, he started to notice something: "The water level is going down, and the temperature is going up."
As a result, the giant corn kernels are not growing quite as large as they used to, new pests have started appearing, and there is no longer enough water to plant the terraces in the valley that date from Incan times.
He also noticed that the snow line he had grown up looking at for 44 years was starting to recede, which was making relations with his fellow farmers more difficult. Every year they decide by committee how to divide up the water. Now, "every year the meetings get more heated, because there is less water to distribute and the same amount of land that needs it," he said. "I tell my wife the day that mountain loses its snow, we will have to move out of the valley."
For many Americans, combating climate change is at best a cause for green do-gooders and at worse something to be debated. But in a developing country like Peru, where many people live on the land and close to the edge, climate change is neither a hobby nor a question for debate.
Peru's water reserves are the glaciers and snowpacked areas of the Andes. Since they have started to shrink, without replenishment, "we don't know what the future holds - whether we're talking about the water we need for agriculture or for drinking or for our hydropower," Ferreyros said.
Peru's plant and animal species are also being affected. The Andes region is one of the world's most megadiverse hot spots, home to unique plant and animal species. Its rain forests, mountains and varied terrain create microclimates that provide habitats for endemic species, which have evolved in isolation from one another. As climate change shifts the boundaries between these zones, species found nowhere else in the world are threatened and disappearing.
"Within the U.S., we worry about the impact of climate change when we suffer from coastal storms like Katrina. But we have the resources to adapt," said Glenn Prickett, a senior vice president at Conservation International. Countries like Peru not only feel the effects of climate change more, because they have many more people living precariously off the land, he added, "but they also don't have the national resources to adapt."
Worse, to take advantage of high energy prices, Peru is allowing more oil and gas exploration. In other words, lacking a diverse range of products to export, Peru has to feed the very global oil addiction that is coming back to haunt it in the form of climate change.
Sitting here, you can see the whole global vicious cycle we are in and have to break. To combat climate change, we need to break our addiction to consuming oil, while developing countries need to break their addiction to selling it. We need a different lifestyle model, and they need a different development model. Unless we work on both, the "snow-capped Andes" will exist more in history books than in guidebooks.
© 2006, New York Times News Service