By Chase Caldwell Smith
When I envisioned stepping off the plane into the parched coolness of the Andean dry season, the Peru of my imagination – an exotic jumble of ancient ruins and colonial cathedrals – was foremost in my mind. Peru, as a single word, has the power to conjure up all sorts of mythical imagery, from the misty heights of Machu Picchu to the post-card perfect peak of Alpamayo – an entire wealth of expectations to be fulfilled. But as with any nation, Peru is not just its historical past or its present landscape: the archaeological masterpieces and jagged peaks for which the nation is famous are not its only treasures. And when it did at last come time to step off the plane, with six full weeks in this country ahead of me, I had no idea how narrow my imagination would be proven to be.
The Cambridge University Expedition to the Cordillera Blanca began with a second-year geographer and her [rather broad goal: to journey to South America and research perceptions toward climate change in a way that had local relevance and benefit beyond its academic function. Both ‘South America’ and ‘climate change’ are admittedly rather wide-ranging geographical and environmental concepts, and when Cecily attended the Royal Geographical Society’s ‘Explore’ event last autumn, her initial meeting with Sam Williams of Project Cordillera helped her to begin narrowing down her focus to a particular area and the current challenges it faces. As the expedition goals began to crystallize, she sent out an email to CUEX, the Cambridge University Expeditions Society, and received interest from a number of students. From a series of interviews and selection, she settled upon three team members: Louise, who was to become our Medical Officer, Addye, our treasurer and photographer, and myself, Recorder and Publicity Officer.
Several funding travails later, we were overjoyed to learn of our support by the Royal Geographical Society, which I believe, looking back, became the turning point in the expedition planning stage: the point at which we finally felt that our research proposal – which by this time had been comfortably focused down further – mattered, and that it needed to be pursued. We continued applying to grants, received our vaccinations, and at long last, began to make final preparations. Months of planning after the conception of the idea, we boarded our planes, our bags packed, journals ready, prepared for an incredible adventure.
Upon arrival in Cachipampa, the Ancash village in which we were to be staying, we faced the task of making final preparations for our research plans. Our investigation was to be focused over a four-week period, during which we would create notes from observations, and attempt to conduct as many interviews as possible (our original goal was forty). Our investigation was focused on intra-household perceptions of water management, which is a particularly urgent area of climate change research as glaciers continue to retreat across the High Andes. There is already a significant body of research on inter-household differences, that is, differences between households, but we wanted to look closer at differences between the members of households: between genders and generation.
Gendered perceptions are critical to explore in this region because of the traditional division of labor between men and women: men generally tend to the fields and do construction work, whereas women work in the home, cleaning dishes, cooking food, and washing clothing, as well as pasturing animals and taking care of the children. Cecily and the team were keen to assess whether this division of labor affected the rate at which men and women used water, and the perceptions of this use. Generational differences – between the older members of the community and the younger members, is also an intriguing line of investigation, due to the introduction of electricity and drinking water during the lifetimes of some of the villagers. We were interested to see whether perceptions of water management differed among older people and younger people, and analyse the intersection of these differences with gender.
Our surveys had two key question types: – closed questions, including age, gender, and occupation, and open-ended questions, which aimed to probe an individual’s thoughts and feelings. The latter related to the recently-installed concrete canals, differences in water use between men and women and between older people and younger people, and whether or not the individual believed water levels had changed in recent years, among other questions. Finally, the interviews were recorded and transcribed if permission was given by the interviewee.
And yet, this simple model only sketches out the skeleton of the intensely rich relationships we entered into during our stay in the community. First and foremost, our research would have been impossible without the tremendous amount of dedication and support we received from Yesenia, our incredible interpreter and fifth team member, who not only welcomed us into the community and helped us to communicate with Quechua, non-Spanish speakers, but who became a wonderful friend to us as well. This is not an overstatement: we would not have been able to conduct to the research to the social depth we were, in the end, able to achieve, without her constant interpretation work.
Indeed Yesenia was a first-class interpreter, not just a translator. I remember one day, when we were strolling through the village of Tukipayuk, and Yesenia noticed an elderly woman sitting in a nearby field, crouched over her agricultural work. We wandered over, and Yesenia struck up a conversation with the lady in Quechua – which appeared a more comfortable choice to her than Spanish, a language in which she may not have been fluent – gossiping away as she began to help her shell her beans. The team gathered around and began to shell beans too, squeezing the dry husks until they cracked and burst, revealing the coveted beans inside, which we plopped into a waiting container nearby. And as we shelled away, Yesenia began to feed our questions to the lady, all the while assisting her in her task. We received our information, but we also developed a human connection through Yesenia and through our agricultural work. This, I felt, was one of the best types of interviews we were able to conduct – where we did not attempt to impose a one way flow of knowledge, but where knowledge travelled in two directions. We received something, but so did our interviewee: and in this whole process of cultural and intellectual exchange, Yesenia was the gatekeeper, holding open the doorway into an ancient Andean culture that lay, in all its splendour, on the other side.
Spending four weeks on a single mountainside allowed us to move beyond our roles as outsiders – as mere tourists who would eventually go back home – and truly begin to integrate ourselves into the community. We were warmly welcomed, for example, by our incredible host family, the lovely Nancy and Carlos and their adorable children, Lenin and Juan Carlos. Staying with a family, rather than in a lodge or outside accommodation, was by far the most rewarding cultural aspect of our stay in Peru: I would not have done the expedition in any other way. Each day we would eat with the family, converse with the parents, and play with the children. As a result I feel like my team members and I found a foothold in highland culture: we became a part of daily life, rather than travellers who simply pass through, never to come again. Not only did this assist us in achieving great depth to our research, but it helped us form meaningful relationships that I hope will last us our whole lives.
The second aspect of our stay in the community, in addition to the research project, was a volunteering component. One of the most important activities in which we participated was assisting in the construction of four ‘cocinas mejoradas,’ or ‘improved stoves’ in homes across the villages. Traditional Peruvian stoves are not conducive to health for two main reasons. Firstly, the smoke can work to shorten a person’s life expectancy by up to twenty years. Traditional adobe homes with corrugated iron roofs lack chimneys, so the only way for the smoke to escape the house is through open windows, cracks, or the doorway, which is of course not ideal. Secondly, older Peruvian stoves are built in the ground of homes, meaning that the fire used to boil water and cook food is at the level of playing toddlers, who may fall into the flames, obtaining horrific second-degree burns. The ‘cocinas mejoradas’ provide not only a chimney to funnel smoke out of the house, but also a lifted cooking space, vastly reducing the chances of children becoming burnt.
The idea of a group of Westerners coming in and building stoves for local Peruvians is, I admit, not entirely unproblematic, but I feel that it does provide vital health benefits. Overall, this expedition has opened my eyes to different models of ‘development’ and how each is not perfect by any means: volunteering is not as simple as I once would have liked to believe. There are many models of development at work in the community: development from within, as can be found in the Yurac Yacu Centre of the Andean Alliance NGO, ‘reversed development’, as advocated by Sam Williams of Project Cordillera (with the aim of celebrating local cultures, rather than presenting them as in need of Western assistance), and even development by local people themselves, as evidenced by the incredible ambition and drive possessed by Nancy and Carlos, who have extended their house and are aiming to work on it further, inspiring their neighbours in the process of constructing more comfortable lives for themselves. Then of course there is our own project: it was vital for us to consider the ways in which our team was not quite as neutral as we might have hoped. In any case, for four weeks we spent time with our adoptive family, accomplished fifty-four interviews, helped to build new stoves, assisted in the planting of native trees in collaboration with the ‘Montikuna’ Project, mapped out two trails for a program called the Guias Locales, and worked in the Yurac Yacu Center Cafe.
We were especially excited about collecting over fifty interviews, which far exceeded our original goal! The data and results from our survey and opinion questions still need to be analysed, graphed, and reported, but some preliminary results are clear. Firstly, the vast majority of people believe that women use more water than men. And yet, one trend we began to notice as well, especially toward the end of the research, was that although women are believed by many to use more water, they appear to have less of a voice than men in determining how that water is managed. Women, then, represent a vulnerable demographic from the perspective of water management.
We also observed that responses concerning concrete canals were highly varied: not everyone agrees with them, most commonly because of the danger and inconvenience they pose to small children and animals, but others think they are useful because they help to conserve water. There were mixed opinions on whether or not water levels overall were decreasing, although there was a remarkable amount of pessimism concerning the question, ‘What would you do if there were little to no water in the future?’ The impression we received overall was one of disagreement over how water should be managed, and a lack of consensus regarding rights to that water. We hope that we can produce a useable form of data to be sent back to the village and to the organizations with which we worked, so that they can help to formulate effective solutions.
Indeed, it is critical that these solutions are found sooner rather than later. All of these issues – from billowing smoke to water disputes – are not just going to disappear. In the case of water management especially, conflicts are likely to intensify if no action is taken. Now that we, in many ways, are extended members of the community in which we stayed, these problems feel acutely as though they are our own, in a way. Even though I have returned home, back to a place where my tap does not run dry, I will never be able to, nor should ever allow myself to, forget what I have experienced on the mountainsides of Peru. People I care about immensely will still be facing these challenges today, tomorrow, this year, and the next.
If my time in Peru has taught me one thing, it is that ‘climate change’ is not an abstract issue to be debated in the academy and tossed about by politicians: it is the dilemma of Carlos, Nancy, and their children; of Yesenia, Eugenia, Carmen, and all the ladies we met at the Yurac Yacu Center; of Javier, Tito, and the many more incredible people we had the opportunity to meet. This is their challenge – and that means it is mine too.
Peru is so much more than a museum of ancient architecture or a nature reserve for endangered species – it is a place of problems to be resolved, fascinating people to speak with, and stories to be told. The expedition may have ended, but there is still much work to be done.
By Chase Caldwell Smith, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, part of the Cambridge University Expedition to the Cordillera Blanca 2015
22 September, 2015