Living landscapes: climate change in the Andes

is a PhD student in social anthropology at the University of Manchester, studying climate change at local and international level, and writing a full length descriptive narrative of her experiences carrying out fieldwork in the Andes, for completion in 2015.
I sit, cradled in a crevice of an adobe wall, waiting for the bus which will take me away from Kaata for what I suspect is the last time, at least for a while. It dawned clear, the snow-covered crater of the mountain revolving slowly in rose-coloured light, and has become a morning of harvested fields and tawny humming birds winging from eucalyptus trees to mud brown walls. I have been lucky enough to spend the summer here, returning for a couple of months to the fieldsite I have written about for the last year. It occurs to me I am seeing the same scene, sitting here, as I did when I first arrived in the village almost three years ago. It was the beginning of the rainy season then, the Day of the Dead festival. Thick mist had descended over everything, and I couldn’t tell where about me were the mountains, where would be valley. Just visible at the sides of the road were earth-coloured houses, yellow and scarlet flowers hanging delicately over their walls.

I had come to ask permission to conduct research on how the climate was changing, and what people thought about these changes. The mallku, the village leader, was standing talking to me, dressed in his ceremonial scarlet poncho, striped with colours and decorated with designs of the mountain animals, his amiable face embraced by the earflaps of a woollen cap. ‘Yes, we’re very concerned about climate change,’ he told me, and, indicating the fragments of crisp packets and drinks cartons at the verges of the road. ‘People bring foods now which come wrapped in plastic. Where to put it afterwards? And with this road coming up’ — meaning the one-lane track by which we had wound our way up to the village — ‘the vehicles on it contaminate the air.’

I left that day struck by how close a relationship the people of this high Andean village saw between the changing climate and their own actions, considering that they live in houses of adobe brick, weave their clothes from the wool of the sheep they herd, and eat, mainly, what they cultivate in the terraced fields. From a Western perspective, the people of Kaata are about as close to ideal eco-warriors as we can envision, making minute contributions to climate change, with the bus that passes three times a week, and a few fragments of litter. They do however notice its effects, observing from year to year that temperatures are climbing, and accordingly moving their crops up the side of the mountain to cooler altitudes. The upper level at which potatoes are grown in the Andes has risen 300 metres in the last 50 years. In response to the increasingly irregular appearance of the rains, the villagers are building an irrigation canal, though promised funding for water tanks and salaries for those digging it have failed to arrive. Their ability to adapt is inspiring, the action of those who expect the world around them to be in constant flux and motion, able to read the season ahead by how early birds come down the valley to mate, or the visibility of a constellation. The knowledge that this relies on is extensive, the result of a lifetime spent in contact with the land, observing its changes. Depending on what they can cultivate to live from, Kaatenos don’t waste time denying obvious changes to the weather. It was how they would fit these changes in with their vision of the world, a living and mythological landscape, that interested me the most.

As time went on, I came to know better the community and the world they inhabit. One afternoon, I was chatting over the wall to a neighbour in the yard of one of the houses behind where I had spoken to the mallku, eating leaves from a mint plant climbing out of its cracks, and looking at the silvery threading trails on a piece of wood left leaning up against it. He explained lucidly how the world is changing. ‘Before, our ancestors would live till they were 120, and there was no sickness. In those times everything — the sun, the winds, the air, were different. People ate food from here: maize, wheat, barley, broad beans, peas, oca and potatoes. Now they eat rice and pasta and city foods, which don’t have the same nutrition.’ I ask whether investment in local agriculture can change this, and he laughs and indicates the deep valley behind us, where the road leads to the main town, Charazani, and on to the city. ‘No, how could it? The contamination is brought on the wind, from far away, from factories. The children are different now. We used to eat toasted maize and beans as a treat. They want sweets and crisps and yoghurts. You can’t stop it. And while their parents want them to be educated, they only want machines.’ What the Kaatenos call ‘contamination’ is connected directly with desire for Western city clothes and foods, for the culture of the city, which devalues the produce of the village.

It can also be seen from the neighbour’s account that climate change consists of the interaction of humans with the natural landscape: the sun, the winds, and the mountains, which are conceived to be characters in themselves. It was such an animate and enchanted landscape that I had come to Kaata to find, I now realise. Growing up in England, the countryside for me was the Lake District, a landscape construed as an escape from humanity, where nature and the wild were sacred. The English love of this wildness stems from the attention of writers like Coleridge, whose poems animated the mountains and vales with spirits, escaping the vision of nature as a set of natural resources to be categorised and exploited. When fields and valleys were fenced into the rational order of science and capital, we sought the exit point in animated mountains and rivers; in those elements in which ‘nature’ still flowed, enchanted with the character of a living world, of the sort we keep in fairy stories for children.

Forty years ago, Joseph Bastien, a missionary-turned-anthropologist, wrote about how Kaatenos perceived the mountain they live on as a living body, with villages pertaining to its heart, head and legs, and mountain lakes making up the eyes, where life springs up from an underlying world. People still believe today that they contribute their work to the mountain through farming and fertilising it, and at certain times of year, leaving gifts of flowers filled with honey in crevices of the cliffs, which the mountain reciprocates with the harvest. Given these ancient beliefs about human interaction with the living landscape, it seemed less surprising that the village considered that leaving their exchange relationships with the mountain for the manufactured foodstuffs and clothes of the city was inextricably connected to extreme changes in crops and weather.

Setting off for Kaata in the English summer this year, I arrive at the end of their winter — the terraced hillsides have spent six months in the sun, and, harvest collected, are waiting for the rains, while the residents have a series of fiestas in this season of relative rest and sunshine. One afternoon, we went to celebrate national independence day in Charazani, the little town in the valley, myself and the six couples who take the ‘turn’ of being the village authorities this year. We women sit on the earth sharing beer, ceremonially serving each other in turn from a single cup, thanking the server with a cheers each time we drink, while the men, standing, serve each other similarly. The main event of the day was a bullfight, considerably at odds with its European variant, with drunken men taking turns to streak by the free bulls, who occasionally toss and trample them, much to the amusement of the audience. The animals are not under any threat, though they seek to escape the limelight, and an especially spirited one manages to mount up through the crowds, sending lines of spectators fleeing from terrace to terrace up the amphitheatre of seats, much to the amusement of the rest. Some young men decide that this victory of nature over human willpower is too much for the national fiesta, and set to lassoing the animal to drag him back down to the ring. As they do so, he stumbles and falls over on a slope, and around me a heavy silence comes over the women, in contrast to their amusement at the fleeing spectators. ‘Why didn’t they just leave him up there?’ I say. ‘Exactly!’ agrees my friend, emphatically. I ask if the bulls escape every year. ‘Every year the same!’ she agrees.

I realised that if I didn’t manage to walk up to Kaata before dark, it would be a matter of spending the entire night drinking with the authorities in Charazani. I set off along the main road, bordered in this season with sweet-smelling moonlike thistle bushes. I turn off after a while onto a lane which zigzags up between adobe walls, a steep ascent of a couple of hundred metres, before meeting the ancient stone track that manages to strike an almost level route over the mountain to Kaata. Such stone roads were built under the Inca empire, and still connect the Andes chain from the north to south of South America, and from the west coast to the Amazon jungles in the east, 3,600m below, where the road I walk on now eventually leads. In Inca times, every 20 miles or so were tambos where travellers could sleep and eat — they were not charged as there was no concept of money. Clouds were coming up the valley, mighty-looking bodies of water vapour condensing, surprised at the changing temperatures as the land rose. Up here, clouds can lie lake-like below, veil themselves over a village above, or sail right by before your eyes, transfiguring the seeming solid, harbingers of the constantly descending mists of the wet season. Dreamlike is this landscape, constantly shifting. I walk through dry terraced fields, sandy golden and seeming ready to slip into one another, and steep hillsides where one still sees the ridges of ancient overgrown terraces — before the conquest came with its diseases, the land supported a much larger population, and the people would give the Inca a portion of their harvest to be repartitioned anywhere the crops failed.

Some bulls are standing at a curve of the path, left while their owner is in town, and to my relief walk on ahead of me. They stop to drink at the waterfall, however, and I wait behind, fearful after spending the afternoon seeing such massive animals chase people. I remember a mixture of stories from old ethnographers and contemporary villagers; the waterfall is a magic place, where a stream emerges out of the hidden world under the mountain, some say from the land of our ancestors, whose seasons are the reverse of ours, and who send water for our crops. Waterfalls, like lakes, are creative places where worlds merge into one another, where you can find treasure or be bewitched by the mountain spirits; once a man fell asleep here coming up the mountain drunk, and when he woke he was a woman. He lives in the village still, sitting by the fire with his long braided hair. Fortunately, he had never married.

As I wait here I can hear a young man I have caught sight of walking up the mountain behind me approach. ‘Are you going to Kaata?’ he salutes me, ‘nos acompañamos pues,’ we’ll accompany each other. Even very small children are left in charge of bulls here, with no other check than their voices and stones to throw, and he scarcely notices the creatures, driving them on before us. The young man, Noel, is exceptional in that although he has left the village school, he still lives in Kaata. His brothers and sisters, as nearly all the young people these days live, ideally, in La Paz, the capital city, or in the valleys where you can make a good living harvesting coca. I ask him why he lives here; well, there are cars there, and thieves. ‘It’s more free here,’ he says, as we turn into the tributary valley where Kaata lies, and see the snow-capped Akhamani mountains rising above it like a crown.

I comment on the shoulder bag he carries, which he tells me was woven for him by his mother. These rectangular bags were once used to carry medicines and have become the symbol of the region’s Callawaya culture. The Callawaya were ever a medicine people, and at least since the time of the Inca, traversed the spine of the Andes on stone roads, carrying hundreds of healing herbs from the slopes of this mountain, and incense from the jungle. They cured people up and down the empire, rewarded by their hospitality, and a seat at the right hand of the Inca throne. Few young men from Kaata now train as healers, although those from surrounding villages make good money practicing in the capital. Seeing my interest, Noel starts telling me the medicinal uses of some of the many shrubs around us; this one is for stomach ache, this one clears your head, this is for teas — he stops and picks some leaves between his fingers so I can smell them. It’s a resinous plant, like rosemary or lavender, but how to describe a new smell? A new colour, my knowledge of the world widens slightly. He straightens up and looks at the hillside around him. ‘In fact, all this is medicine,’ he summarises. The vision of the mountain as a living being who gives us all we need to live off has remained, though in many ways relations with the mountain deities are changing.

Martha, the lady I live with on this visit, is driving her small flock of sheep home above us. Elegant and long-legged, they stop to watch me with delicate faces. The sinking sun, obscured by the fine clouds clinging to the mountain, still sends some light through, making the edges of their fleeces shine silver. She walks on sandalled feet which tread lightly on the earth, in paths which reflect the weavings she wears wrapped around her head and shoulders, daily routes to work which connect up the elements of the landscape as do the vertical lines of the cloth the designs woven into it — symbols for the mountain’s animals, the levels of its fields, and the water springs, which are depicted as diamond-shaped emanations of energy. She has a beautiful face, wide cheekbones and dark oval eyes, around which there are many fine lines, which the strong altiplanic sun etches in, and the smoke and orange-brown earth delicately define.

I ask her whether there is less snow on the mountain each year. Yes, and it used to cover those other ones too, she says, indicating the peaks to the south. She hesitates, unwilling reveal to an educated person something so, well, unscientific, and then adds: ‘They say, well, they say, that when all the snow disappears the world will end.’ The mountain, it seems, is like a sand timer for the world at large, which again stems from the perception of the landscape as animate. To heal illness, the Callawaya carried out ritual curing the body of the mountain, burning offerings and leaving them in the river, which washes away contamination. The bodies of the mountain and those who live on it are analogous, and as such through healing the mountain they can cure people. As society changes, therefore, so does the mountain, heralding the end of the world.

Later Martha recounts that once she was walking on the mountain, and suddenly saw a goat, which had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. When she looked back again, it had disappeared, and though she searched, she couldn’t find it again. When she went home her arms and hands began to ache, and she sought the help of a relative who knows how to divine, throwing coca leaves to read what had happened. She was told that she had encountered the mountain spirit who was demanding payment, and that she would have to prepare and burn a ritual ‘table’ of sacrifices.

Ambushing people and summarily demanding payment doesn’t sound like the benign mountain of Bastien’s stories, freely giving food and medicine. I ask why the mountain has become so malevolent, and am referred to the story of a nearby village visited by a wandering man, who was refused food or shelter by everyone, save for one family. When he left he warned his hosts to clear out, and, as they watched from above, the rest of the village was buried alive by a landslide. Years before, the villages would exchange what they could cultivate at the different ecological levels of the mountain through presenting it to one another as gifts. Labour on the fields was carried out in common, with people exchanging days of work with each other. As social relations have become about exploiting others’ labour and crops, instead of equality and sharing, so has the landscape changed in character, the mountains becoming exploitative masters.

Noel tells me that Akhamani, like Illimani, a national symbol which reigns over the capital city of La Paz, is in fact a volcano. Earthquakes have started to happen all over the world now, have they not?, he asks me. Indeed they have, I answer. ‘They haven’t come to Bolivia yet, but they will. And then Illimani will erupt.’ I am reminded of the other world that lies under the mountains, which can come up in springs, or, in this case, lava. The concept of world ending often used in the Andes is pachakuti, which means something more like ‘world turning over’. I have read that there are there have been 12 such revolutions of the world before this one, according to human memory, when what was below came to be above and vice versa. Volcanoes covering the surface of the world with what lies beneath them sounds like a modern envisioning of this Andean myth. We are perhaps on the brink of such a pachakuti, in which what is now above will be driven below, and vice versa.

What is below us up here in the mountains are the jungles, where the wild people, aucas, our ancestors live. On the very stone roads on which we are now walking, the Inca king, when he realised defeat by the Spanish was inevitable, went down into the jungle surrounded with some trusted retinue, leaving a kingly wealth in the villages who gave them hospitality along the way, and promising that one day they would come back for it, leading an army of wild auca out of the jungles to take back the high colonised places above. For years these stories were regarded by academics as imaginative myths, and the arteries of the modern states have reconfigured the region’s geography, such that the villages which the legend lists on the eastern flanks of the Andes have long ceased to have much significance or many visitors. Recently however, I heard that archaeologists had been to one of the villages, and were shown a case which, it was said, belonged to the Inca. It had never been opened in living memory, though the villagers eventually took it down. Inside were layered jaguar skins, of great value and rarity, layered with golden ornaments.

The end can hold the seed of a new beginning, or return, if we leave behind a linear view of history to embrace the idea of time as cyclical, or even spiralling outwards into the unknown. An account I read years ago describes the Andean concept of time as like sailing round an island — on every rotation, one sees similar characters and situations, though they are each time slightly changed. Sitting on the wall waiting to leave Kaata, I realise that what I too notice now is the rubbish at the verge of the road, under the stone walls. It tells a story of change, of the endlessly expanding consumer culture, that we cannot escape by travelling to remote places. I have spent ten years looking for new worlds in South American villages and mythologies, and come to see that people everywhere are making the same choices as we must. Kaata, through its myths, its belief in the unseen, creates a wealth of stories that embrace change, and tell us that it is desire for individual wealth that drives the destruction of community, radically altering our relationships with each other and a landscape in which everything is alive and constantly changing.

  1. Thank you Rosalyn for a most evocative read.
    The idea of embracing time as being cyclical rather than linear has enormous implications.
    If we are indeed living within an illusory sense of the linear, what would it mean to ‘let loose’ and wake up to a world where ‘evolution’ would be understood, and therefore, experienced as a holistic process? How would this affect our taken for granted attitudes and might it not help explain the sense of connection that nags at the peripheries of our day to day conventions?
    I imagine that the intellect is a devise that we never learn to use properly because the instruction book was tossed aside in the initial excitement of using the more obvious features, whereas in fact the deeper in and farther out potentialities are being lost through our being trapped in ‘linear’ mode.
    What good fortune you have to be meeting those people up there in the mountains.

  2. Thank you for the beautiful imagery and thought provoking observations. I am reminded of the current move to embrace a more spirit-centered approach to ecology, as in eco-buddhism, deep ecology, and spiritual ecology. They all attempt to get at the spiritual roots of our present crisis, and affirm that we have lost something precious, something that was and is known to indigenous people everywhere. There are glaring similarities between Andean rituals that acknowledge the livingness of the landscape, and Tibetan rituals.


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