The Niños and the financial roller-coaster

By Nicholas Asheshov

Ferocious blizzards in the United States, a warm North Pole, biblical floods in Queensland and drought in northern China are being blamed on La Niña but here in Urubamba in the permanent eye, one supposes, of the Niño+Niña complex, the weather could not be more charming.

The shock pre-Niña rains a year ago which cut away big slices of the railway to Machu Picchu, have been followed this year by the traditional monsoon mixture of warm sunshine and refreshing rainfall. It’s sparkling, green and friendly, our favourite time of the year. We sense some of the mystery of the carefully-sculpted Cloud Kingdom of the Incas where dramatically chiseled rock walls controlled the rivers, the fields and the ciudadelas.

The first El Niño that gave Peru a headline role in the world’s climate drama occurred four decades ago in 1972. Newspapers worldwide published little maps showing Peru with arrows going in all directions. My sister Anna, an international skier, complained that Peru’s desert rainstorms were ruining the snow in the Swiss Alps – globalization avant le mot.

That Niño had been preceded in Peru by a famously remorseless anchoveta hunt by the brash new Peru fishing fleet led by the engaging, brilliant Lucho Banchero. Every single anchoveta from the beach breaks to the whale belt 100 miles offshore was netted. Boats would capsize and sink with too much fish. The catch was 12 million tons, one in every five fish caught worldwide that year.

The Apus struck back instantly and implacably. The dense horizon-to-horizon clouds of seabirds, the world’s greatest, have never returned. In Lima we watched thousands of starving pelicans fight for their last scraps outside the Surquillo market. The price of fishmeal, corn, wheat, sugar, cotton and soya skyrocketed on the New York and Chicago markets.

Serendipitously perhaps, OPEC doubled and tripled the price of oil to $15 the barrel. I myself moved the market. I reported to McGraw-Hill’s commodities wire on the strength of a good-humoured tip from the U.S. Embassy, then literally a stone’s throw away on Av Washington, that Arabs had come to Lima to buy copper. I practically had them mounting their camels in flowing robes at the door of the Hotel Bolivar before riding down La Colmena. The Chicago Board of Trade copper price jumped from 60 to 70 cents the pound but I was too young and poor to take advantage. In any case I had just come from Fleet St where you learn on Day One never to believe your own story.

Thus the first post-WWII price crisis. Nixon had de-pegged the dollar from gold. The oil people had no idea what to do with their billions –before that a million or two was real money– and gave it to Citibank who lent it to obscure states that even Brazilians hadn’t heard of, to Peronist bag-men and soldiers in Buenos Aires and to the Banco Popular in Peru.

Six hyper-crises later here we are again. Hundred-degree heat scorched the wheat crop last year in Russia and the Ukraine, The same economists who six months ago were gasping deflation are now fighting inflation by, of all things, reducing taxes.

So even here in Urubamba we all know that bumbling bankers, confused bureaucrats and a cascade of  Niños and Niñas have packaged themselves into a global roller-coaster, though I bet that in the Andes we’re safer than anywhere else.

Here in any case is where we stand, broad-brush, in the southern Sierra.

Four decades of figures from Senamhi, the weather bureau, show an average increase of between two and three degrees centigrade -the figures themselves are precise but it depends on the location. This is a lot. The glaciers from the Vilcabamba south to the Cordillera Real above La Paz and Lake Titicaca have all but disappeared. All you’re looking at now is a dusting of snow. The remains of old airplanes that crashed into the ice fields 30 and more years ago are being uncovered, frozen bodies of young pilots recovered and buried by their families.

A few hundred miles to the east the Brazilians continue mowing down the Amazon and Sertao, unthinkable even as recently as the 1972 widescreen Niño.

Average rainfall here has lessened, too, though the overall figures aren’t startling. But the rain now tends to come in sharp bursts, meaning there’s a lot less for farmers.

“We’re having to undo the work of decades where European NGOs brought in big, expensive cows and thirsty crops like alfalfa to feed them. Now there’s not enough water,” a Ministry of the Environment official in Cuzco tells me.

“We’re bringing back llamas and alpacas, smaller fields. We’re going back to how it used to be.”

As you might imagine, the Incas had it all clear. Their huge high-altitude polylepis –queuña— forests, now largely cut down for firewood, conserved water. Their great flights of terrace complexes made best use of it.

If I, like many of my friends, were running for President –Election Day is April 10– my Government Plan would be just four words and here they are:

Back to the Incas. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Feb. 17, 2011

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