Harsh winter takes a huge toll in the Peruvian Andes

Credit: Heather Thorkelson/Flickr

This year’s winter in Peru has been particularly harsh. At least 105 people have died and thousands of children have suffered respiratory illness across the southern region of the country, according to the government. The bitter cold has also killed an estimated 50,000 alpacas, putting a serious strain on Andean farmers who rely on selling the animal’s lightweight fiber for their livelihoods.

At the end of May – the start of this year’s winter – President Ollanta Humala declared a state of emergency across southern Peru. The government promised $3 million in aid to the region’s farmers, who live in high elevations of about 15,000 feet, and has been able to quickly distribute coats and blankets, food and vitamins, medicine and feed for livestock. But the emergency period ran out earlier this month.

The alpacas that roam and graze the high mountain plains are accustomed to the cold, but every winter sees a spike in deaths of the animals in the south of Peru. This year’s winter has been especially harsh, with last week’s temperatures dipping as low as -4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to AP. July is the coldest month of the Peruvian winter, with an average July temperature over the last 15 years around 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The temperatures can be expected to drop further in upcoming days,” Marti Bonshoms, a forecaster at the state weather service, told Vice News. “The situation will probably not get better until September.”

According to Bonshoms, cold spells in the mountains are not uncommon. Humid air that drifts in from the lowland Amazon normally limits how far temperatures in the mountains drop, but this year, the jungle weather has been “atypically dry.”

There is talk that the emergency period could be extended, according to Vice News. In any case, it will be difficult for farmers to recover from the loss of so many animals. Alpacas give birth to one offspring a year, and each animal is sheared of its fiber once a year, which means that the loss of each alpaca takes a major financial toll.

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Freezing temperatures are destroying the tough grasslands, where alpacas graze, as well as farmers’ crops. This loss of food, some have argued, is an even better explanation for this year’s rise in respiratory illnesses and deaths. The region has always been plagued by low temperatures, according to Peruvian newspaper Los Andes, which says the “only thing that changed is the incidence of mortality but because of poor food quality” as well as lack of adequate, warm clothing. If this is the case, it may be just as important for authorities to address the cold as it is to fight hunger, in order to combat illness exacerbated by weak immune systems.

The southern Andean region suffers from some of Peru’s highest rates of poverty and malnutrition. Although Peru is the world’s largest producer of alpaca fiber, coveted among wealthy international buyers, many alpaca farmers earn just $100 per month, according to Peru reports, which is less than half of the minimum wage. It is not unusual for homes to feature dirt floors in the most impoverished regions, despite the region’s freezing climate.

According to the AP, there have been some private attempts to give farmers a bigger share of Peru’s annual $150 million in exports of alpaca fleece. But for now, farmers continue to sell alpaca fleece for little more than $5 a kilogram to have it sold in high-end stores around the world for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per garment.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com