As the moon waxed to fullness in June, tens of thousands of pilgrims trekked toward the Sinakara Valley high in Peru’s Andes Mountains for a ritual deeply rooted in the history and traditions of their Quechua ancestors. During the annual Qoyllur Rit’i fiesta, dancers whirl and musicians play at a Catholic sanctuary built in a place that was sacred to Andean peoples long before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the Americas. The Christian festival dates back to the time of an Indian uprising against the Spaniards in the late 18th century, and probably coincides with efforts to bring the area—in the Cusco region of southern Peru—back under official control.
For three days, the dancers stop only to eat and to sleep for an hour or two before musicians rouse them again with a melody. They dance in the sanctuary before an image said to mark the spot where Christ appeared to a young Quechua herder, then dance uphill to a small chapel and down toward the sanctuary again in a ring of color and melody. When the sanctuary bell tolls, several thousand pilgrims cram elbow to elbow in the church for liturgies in Spanish and Quechua. At this altitude, nighttime temperatures drop below zero, but the sanctuary is warmed by body heat and banks of candles lit by pilgrims. Outdoors, on the hillside and against the church’s stone walls, people build small miniature stone houses and light more candles in a ritual meant to bring good luck and a good harvest.
With no shelters for sleeping, a few pilgrims pitch tents, but most huddle under wool blankets and sheets of blue plastic sold by enterprising vendors. On the third night, as the full moon hangs in the frosty sky, hundreds of dancers file in darkness toward the foot of the craggy peaks at the head of the valley. Frozen tundra crunches underfoot as dancing shoes step gingerly over ice-covered rivulets. Musicians blow on numb fingers as sunlight tips the hills to the west and creeps up the valley toward the ice fields that hang on the steep mountainsides.
Suddenly dancers and musicians turn eastward and kneel, baring their heads. A halo rims the tallest crag, and as the sun appears, music bursts from scores of flutes, drums, accordions and saxophones. Moments later, the air fills with the sound of running water, as the skin of ice melts, freeing the rivulets. Backlit by the sun, long columns of men dressed in shaggy black robes evoking the spectacled bear, a native Andean species, stream down the mountainsides. In a test of endurance and devotion, they have spent the night on the glaciers that still cling to the rocks above the valley. Waving banners and surrounded by dancers, they return to the sanctuary of the Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i.
In past years, these men, known as ukukus, who intermediate between humans and the mountain deities, hacked off huge hunks of ice and hauled them down the mountain on their backs. That is now forbidden. They and the tens of thousands of pilgrims who stream up the mountainside every year are worried that the glaciers central to this ritual are disappearing.
Witnessing this spectacle more than 15,000 feet above sea level, it is easy to understand why Andean people have long worshiped sun and water, natural elements crucial to survival in this starkly beautiful landscape of climate and temperature extremes. In the dry season, from May to October, rivulets from the glaciers form streams that flow to rivers far below, providing drinking water and nurturing alpine pastures so livestock can survive until the rains come again.
Since the 1970s, however, Peru’s ice fields—the largest expanse of glaciers in the tropical belt around the middle of the Earth—have been disappearing at the rate of about 10 percent a decade. While the government seeks technical solutions to climate-related problems, Quechua-speaking farmers struggle to understand the events that are altering their livelihood. Drip irrigation and water reservoirs are only a partial response to this profound change in their relationship with their environment.
People in the Andes “lead vertical livelihoods,” says Jeffrey Bury of the University of California at Santa Cruz. They take advantage of every ecological niche, growing crops in valleys and grazing llamas and alpacas on bleak mountaintops. But farmers are being squeezed by warmer temperatures that shift crops up mountainsides—crops that used to grow only at lower altitudes (and warmer temperatures). They also face a corollary problem: Crops that only grow at colder temperatures may be squeezed out completely. Another challenge for them, Bury says, is the expansion of mountaintop mining that destroys high wetland pastures.
Visitors may marvel at the spectacular Andean landscape, but for local residents, the jagged peaks are more than scenery; they are protective deities, or apus. For generations, the massive and powerful Mount Ausangate near the Qoyllur Rit’i sanctuary has been white. Now, it is streaked where snow has melted and bare rock shows.
“The mountains are powerful in a very everyday kind of way. People speak of them; there’s a lot of ritual involved with them; and their darkening is very disturbing,” says Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the University of California at Davis, who has studied Andean communities since the 1970s. “There’s something very troubling about the glaciers being gone.”
Andean farmers struggle to understand the changes. Some say the mountains are turning black because they are angry or sad. Some blame pollution. Carmina Sicusta has another explanation. “The earth itself is sick,” she says. Sicusta lives in Amaru, a village of small adobe houses on a mountainside above Pisac, a picturesque town near Cusco that is best known for Inca ruins and a Sunday market that draw tourists from around the world. In the past decade or so, Amaru’s farmers have watched the pattern of hillside fields change. On the frigid hilltops, the tundra-like pasture suitable only for llamas is receding. Fields of grain blanket high hillsides that were once too cold for anything but animals. Families that used to own dozens of llamas now have only a handful. “The earth is warming. The waters are warming. The springs are drying up,” Sicusta says in Quechua, looking up from her weaving. “There is going to be a shortage of food. Our children will have less to eat.”
Farmers say weather patterns are changing, rain and frost come out of season, and the signs they always used to tell when it was time to till or plant are no longer reliable. Agriculture depends on predictability, Bury says. Early rains wash seeds away, a dry spell during the growing season keeps potato tubers from developing, and rain at the normally dry harvest time rots grain. All spell disaster for subsistence farmers.
Climate change is not new in the Andes. Based on pollen from lake sediment cores, French climate researcher Alex Chepstow-Lusty believes gradual warming beginning in 1100, after a long arid spell, facilitated the rise of the Inca Empire. A sudden explosion in the number of a type of mite associated with llama dung could indicate an increased supply of fertilizer that allowed the expansion of agriculture, he says.
Glacial ice cores also tell a story of climate fluctuations. Paleo-climatologist Lonnie Thompson of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University has been studying the Qori Kalis glacier in Peru’s Cusco region since the 1970s. The receding ice has exposed plants that were buried in what appears to have been a sudden “cold event” some 5,000 years ago.
While evidence from the ice indicates that sudden, severe climate fluctuations have occurred in the past, Thompson says, the indigenous inhabitants of the Andes may find it more difficult to adapt now, because they cannot relocate as easily as their prehistoric ancestors did. Even one or two bad harvests can force subsistence farmers to give up their traditional way of life and move to the city.
Nevertheless, the pilgrims at Qoyllur Rit’i face the future with faith. Awaiting sunrise on a ridge below the sanctuary, a tall, young ukuku with a short, braided beard and a single silver earring—himself an emblem of cultural change—says the rituals will continue even if the glaciers are gone.
Nevertheless, Thompson says, the retreating glaciers signal changes that must be heeded, and to which Andean communities will have to adapt. “Tropical glaciers are the canaries in the coal mine of climate change,” he says, “and they have no political agenda.”