Camels, Commodities, and Bankers Instead of the Incas

Peru is going through its most serious drought in decades.

The piece below on Camels etcetera was published half a dozen years ago in Caretas. The author adds this today (December 15, 2016):

I discussed the longer-term global warming issue the other day with President Kuczynski, asking what he has in mind, and referring specifically to the continued drop in fisheries stocks in the Peruvian Pacific, the disappearance of the glaciers in the Central and Southern Andes, and continued logging in the jungle. He replied it was essential to rebuild fisheries stocks, meaning cutting back in commercial and factory fishing. On logging, he said the first thing has to be a halt in gold placer illegal mining in the jungle. In the mountains, he said the government is planning high altitude forestry plantations a la Inca.

Let’s hope.

Camels, Commodities, and Bankers Instead of the Incas

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 close, one supposes, to the Niño+Niña epicentre, the climate could not be more charming.

The shock pre-Niña rains here 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 daily sunshine and rainfall. It’s sparkling, green and friendly, our favourite time of the year. Here we are in the mysterious, carefully-sculpted Cloud Kingdom of the Incas. They got it right.

The first El Niño that gave Peru a headline role in the world’s climate drama occurred four decades ago with the 1972 Niño. 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 for her championship schedule -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, as we will see, they are still furious. The horizon-to-horizon clouds of seabirds, the world’s greatest, have never returned. We watched starving pelicans fight for their last scraps in the Surquillo market. The price of fishmeal, corn, wheat, sugar, cotton and soya skyrocketed on the New York and Chicago markets.

Serendipitously possibly, 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 basis 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 Peronists in Argentina and to the Banco Popular in Peru. Six hyper-crises later, here we are yet 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 here in Urubamba we all know that bumbling bankers, confused bureaucrats and a cascade of Niños and Niñas have packaged themselves into a global rollercoaster. Stop the World, I want to get off, though I bet that here in Peru we’re safer than anywhere else.

Here in any case is where we stand, broad-brush, in the southern Sierra as far as global warming is concerned.

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. The remains of old airplanes that crashed into them 30 years ago are being uncovered.

Average rainfall has lessened, too, though the overall figures aren’t startling. But the rain now comes 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 expensive cows and crops like alfalfa to feed them. Now there’s not enough water,” a government 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 big polylepis-queuña forests conserved water and their thousands of terrace complexes made best use of it.

If I, like many of my friends, were running for President, my plan de gobierno would be just four words and here they are:

Back to the Incas.

This February, 2011 article was first published in Spanish in Caretas.

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