Chinchero — Lost in the Clouds of Poor Engineering, Bad Finance

By Nicholas Asheshov ✐

It seems President Kuczynski is to lay the First Stone of the new Chinchero Airport in Cusco this coming week. If so, it will be the third first stone for this sad project. Presidents Toledo and Garcia have preceded him. Some locals say Presidents Belaunde and Fujimori were others. We have to hope President PPK’s stone suffers the same fate. Chinchero is a disaster waiting to happen.

This week top regulatory officials in Lima resigned in protest at the illegal contracts for the financing for Chinchero. But crooked finance contracts are the least of of what has always been a rotten project.

The Cusco city fathers say they need a new airport. This is incorrect. Their object is to grab the valuable building land of the present airport. But even if Cusco needs  a new airport, Chinchero is easily the worst of the alternatives. The Pampa de Anta, nearby, is incomparably better. Anta is dramatically lower in height and is already runway flat.

Chinchero is outside Cusco  at an oxygen-less 500ms higher, on the road to Machu Picchu.

It started off, as these projects do, with funny money. Four years ago the Cusco Regional Government, run then by ‘Humala associate Jorge Coco’ Acurio, paid $70 million for a 330-hectare string of potato fields on the rolling, cold, cloudy massif of Chinchero.

The lucky owners of the fields were the 426 members of a couple of Chinchero’s comunidades. They received $230,000 for each hectare, making them by far the most expensive potato fields in the world. You can buy a hectare of potato field in Idaho, the world’s biggest potato region, for $5,000 per hectare. In expensive southern England, in Devon and Somerset for instance, the same potato field might cost GBP 10,000, one-twentieth of the Acurio Chinchero price.

The Chinchero potato fields are good for potatoes, beans, a couple of sheep and a burro.  They make a lousy airport. Difficult in fact to find a worse location. The average height of this ancient farmland is 3,700 m.a.s.l. The only commercial airport in the world that is higher is El Alto, at 4,000 m.a.s.l., the airport for La Paz. El Alto can be used only for local one-hour , max 90-minute hops down to Cochabamba and Tarija and Santa Cruz. Arica is a ski-jump away, Lima a hop up the coast. But that’s it. El Alto never will be commercial because planes cannot take off at these altitudes with a full load of fuel and passengers.  You can have either a full tank and just a few tourists or lots of tourists and a few gallons of fuel, enough to get down the hill. In the case of Chinchero, that means Lima. As Newton said, apples fall down for free. Bolivia’s international airport is at Santa Cruz at 400 m.a.s.l. Passengers to and from La Paz to Rio, Buenos Aires, Miami and even Lima go via Santa Cruz. Check the timetables.

It will be the same for Chinchero. The bureaucrats and politicians in Cusco and in Lima, at ProInversion and the Ministry of Transport, have taken to calling it the ‘International’ Cusco airport. This is a lie propagated by the under-funded concessionaire, Kunturwasi.  Flights between Chinchero, if this idiot, foggy project goes ahead, will continue to go via Lima, as they do today and till the next century. With one difference. The tickets will cost $300 more than they do today.

Fog, hailstorms, normal in high mountains, add to the Chinchero danger. The glaciers and snowfields of the Cordillera Urubamba, at 6,000 m.a.s.l., loom over Chinchero. They are just a few miles to the north of the Chinchero potato fields. Picturesque, dramatic. Dangerous.

Technological advances in aviation are focused on electronics and nano materials. But Newtonian physics will not change, whatever the Cusqueño powerbrokers seem to think.

It could not get worse? Yes, it does.

The Chinchero massif is a limestone base. For engineers, this means sinkholes. For instance, the Inca terraces at Moray close to Chinchero at the same height, are sinkholes.  The Chinchero lakes of Piuray and Huaypo reflect the same geology. Engineering studies reflect no deep drilling to assess this risk. A 200-ton airliner will one day  land at Chinchero and open a massive instant hole. Not good.

Cusco road, sewage and electricity services are already pathetic. There’s talk, but no plans exist for new transport between Chinchero and Cuzco, nor Urubamba. Power cuts are almost daily in Urubamba, the province in which poor Chinchero is located, thanks to state-owned Electro Sur Este.

What to do with the 7 million tourists a year promised by President Kuczynski?  Machu Picchu is already at a standing-room-only 5,000, sometimes 7,000 visitors a day. A study commissioned by the government says the max daily entry cannot pass 5,400/day. Call it 2 million per year.

Cuzco thinks, says, it needs a new airport. The present one, Velasco Astete is at 3,250 m.a.s.l., 500ms lower than Chinchero, which is a big difference at these delicate heights.  Velasco Astete, run and owned by Corpac, the government airport authority, consists of 240 hectares of good flat land which could easily and cheaply have its runways extended and expanded, with new terminals and, above all, new electronics. The A219 and A320 used by Latam and Avianca can fly in on self-drive computers as they do routinely, of course, in Europe and North America where the weather, though for sure not the height, is much worse than Cusco ever is.

But the Cusco shakers, the chambers of commerce and the local politicos have other plans for Velasco Astete’s 240 hectares of land, which is only a few minutes from downtown. As building land it is worth already today $1,000/m2, $2,000/m2 before the end of the decade. Use your own fingers to work out how much this free gift of land will be worth to the imperial city’s top dogs.

In theory, the central government (all Peruvians) is owner of the land,  and indeed this is how it should be. But, no, the Cusqueños have already bought it. Under a quiet agreement with former President Humala, the $70mn it paid the Chinchero comuneros is being handed over to the central government in exchange for the 240 Corpac hectares of Velasco Astete.  Acurio was later thrown out of the regional president job by the Cusco Supreme Court for one of several instances of corruption. Acurio is one of the Humala-Heredia team being investigated by state prosecutors for corruption linked to the jailed Mr. Belaunde Lossio for thousands of millions of dollars in state construction contracts.

So Chinchero is shrouded in big money corruption, and should be stopped, investigated on these grounds alone. This apart from its technical stupidity, a characteristic of corrupt projects.

There is a good way for the Cuqueños to have their cake and eat it too. They can do the sensible thing and build a new airport on the Pampa de Anta, closer than Chinchero to their downtown and flat as a tortilla. It needs a few million bucks worth of drainage but none of the expensive earthmoving of Chinchero. Its approaches are no more dangerous than Cusco itself, better actually.

What height is Anta? Same as Velasco Astete, 3,225.

What is the Region Cusco to do with its world-record expensive potato fields, burro grazing at Chinchero? Forget it. The money has long gone on pick-up trucks and on a forest of dreadful cinderblock highrises.

Chinchero is a traditional Andean village with a fine cultural tradition in textiles, with superb views of the cordilleras reaching over to Machu Picchu. Leave it as it is. No airport means tourists will retain as fine a view as any in the Andes. The bells of the charming colonial church will continue to float out over the Inca ruins, the primary schools and the workshops of the internationally recognized weavers.

Nick Asheshov was editor of the Andean Air Mail & Peruvian Times during the 1970s and 1980s, and of The South Pacific Mail, Santiago during the 1990s.  He was Latin America Editor of Institutional Investor, New York over the same period.  He lives in Urubamba, where he writes a blog and where he has been prominent in the hotel and railway business.

This article appeared in the Peruvian Times on  January 26, 2017

Finance Tightens — Peru joins the Troubled Ten

By Nicholas Asheshov

Morgan Stanley has told its clients that its MSCI division, which monitors international markets, is preparing to downgrade Peru from EM, Emerging Market, to Frontier status.

MSCI has also expanded its Fragile Five 2013 list —Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia and South Africa— to its Troubled Ten for 2016, to include also Peru, Colombia, Chile, Malaysia and Singapore. MSCI says these countries have new and above-average currency risks. These countries will have increasing difficulty in covering their current account deficits, meaning that debt payments plus imports will be higher than today’s low, slow income from exports.

The party is over.

For Peru it was a good one, by far and away the best in memory. During the first dozen years of this century it catapulted Peru into a respectable new level of economic growth and management. An urban middle class expanded by millions. Poverty in the Andes dropped by millions. Pay levels and property values doubled.

But today in 2015, the rapid growth of China that helped Peru, Brazil and a score of others to flourish is finished. This was signaled last week by an initial 4.4% devaluation of the Yuan, the Beijing currency. It was this that woke up the Wall St. analysts even though the slowdown had started a year ago.

The practical effect is twofold.

One is that China is saying it will need less and pay less for oil, gas, copper, iron ore, lead, zinc, gold and silver. Second, it means that for the coming few years at least, China will be growing not at seven percent, much less the ten percent of earlier years, but more like one or two percent. This is the new normal, like the United States struggling to get higher than two percent a year, Europe which cannot get yet to one percent. China is joining them, just another shambling mammoth.

Peru, though no monster, marches to the same drumbeat. A remarkable part of the past couple of decades, here and elsewhere, is how much has changed for the good despite the weak quality and performance of the government, and the public administration. The ministries and the Central Bank have been slow and often indecisive. There is no sign that they are improving. Out in the provinces it has become seriously dysfunctional.

But this has always been a rough neighborhood. Few other countries in Latin America are any better and some are much, much worse. Brazil’s economy is falling this year as it will in 2016, in the midst of world-class corruption and mountainous mismanagement. Sao Paulo, for instance, has run out of water. Venezuela and Argentina, two of the best-endowed countries in the world, continue to sink into incoherence, apparently endemic. This is a level of political stress from which Peru has notably escaped with no sign of a turn, much less return, to the serious confusion of the 70s, the 80s and the 90s.

The most consistent measure of the perversity of today’s financial markets is in the commodities. These will continue to stay low and to sink. This is not, exactly, because the world is in recession. It is not even that demand for copper, oil, lead, zinc, tin has fallen but that it is not rising to absorb what is coming every day onto the market.

New iron ore mines and oil and gas fields and techniques have opened, paid for with cheap money. The problem is that even cheap money has a price, has to be paid for. The iron ore companies, including Vale do Rio Doce, Anglo American and BHP, have between them issued $200,000mn worth of bonds to finance mines without a market. China was supposed to buy it but is disappearing back into its Oriental mist. A part of this is the heat-hazy nature of Chinese accounting where statistics, profits, loans and taxes are spelled differently in Chinese. The same happened in Japan as of a quarter of a century ago.

Copper is in the same slow boat. In Peru, Toromocho (Chinese), Cerro Verde (Freeport M), and Las Bambas (Chinese), fine mines all, will be getting $2/lb instead of the $4-5/lb they expected just three years ago. Chile, led by Codelco, the state-owned, high-cost mammoth, has it even worse which is why it, too, is being downgraded.

Morgan Stanley says that its downgrade warning on Peru will be confirmed on September. 30 but this is a formality. It means that foreign funds will be selling their investments in companies like the Banco de Credito, Graña y Montero and Buenaventura quoted in Lima, and Peru-based companies quoted in New York and London. Many funds will be selling, too, some of their holdings of bonds issued by companies in Peru. The sums may be impressive. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, US$15,000mn worth of bonds were sold to international investors, according to Bloomberg. Peru is just a part of a bond bubble including China itself, as well as other members of the Troubled Ten.

Similar downgrades are being issued for other countries in Latin America and elsewhere. The government-backed debt of Brazil, not long ago a Wall St. high flyer, has been knocked down to a notch over junk.

This is not the case for Peru, which has just raised $2,000mn on Wall St at only 2.5% more than the rate paid by the United States Treasury. It is remarkable, looking back a couple or three decades, that loans of this size and price should have become routine, merely a note in the middle of the financial pages. The money is needed, this time, to shore up the government deficit that has appeared because of the slowdown of the economy, and they will certainly need more to fill an even bigger tax shortfall in 2016.

Another sign of homebrewed discomfort is that inflation is running strongly higher than the Central Bank’s target of 2%: it is probably higher than six percent. This week Mr. Velarde, executive president of the Central Bank, cited inflation, which he has a constitutional mandate to control, and the exchange rate as among his “growing fears.”

Peru’s Central Bank, the BCRP, and even the lame-duck Humala government, may want to take comfort from being in the same lifeboat as bigger, noisier countries. Peru is only three percent of the dollar investment to Latin America. Another way of looking at it is that Peru is being dragged down by the neighbors.

This is not going to persuade many Peruvians. They will remember that the economists at the Central Bank, BCRP, and the Ministry of Finance, the MEF, were predicting as recently as this past Christmas that Peru would be growing this year at a tear-away 5.6%.

This made no sense (PT, Jan 22 and 29, 2015) but set the scene for inappropriate policies. They should long ago have launched an emergency plan, with low Soles interest rates and a fast-track devaluation of the Sol, from S/.3=$1, as it was at the beginning of the year down to S/.4=$1, before the end of the year. This was the path taken by well-managed central banks like those of Japan and the EU, Canada, Sweden and Mexico. Instead, the Central Bank in Lima has moved the exchange rate only just a tad more than inflation, to just over S/.3.25, burning $1,000mn a month of dollars that are going to be needed 2016-2018. This is allowing bankers here and abroad to buy billions of dollars at a giveaway price. This questionable policy is why Peru has been dumped, as Bloomberg has it, into the bucket of the Troubled Ten.

Forget a recovery, even of the United States

There is no prospect that basic commodities prices will increase for years. Huge iron ore mines in Brazil and Australia will be producing at a loss. Oil will be priced at thirty-something dollars a barrel. Natural gas will be down to prices that only the huge fields in North America, Australia and the Middle East can do.

For Peru as for other third-level hydrocarbon areas, this means that the jungle oilfields and the Camisea gas fields are today, and maybe forever, worthless. They are, in today’s terminology, “stranded assets”, on the books as potential profit centers but in practice valueless.

Peru has great resources and fine prospects, in agriculture, for instance, as well as mining.

But in today’s world, Peru is nowhere for oil and gas. As part of a Peru emergency plan to ride out the recession, the government should close down Petroperu and write off the jungle gas and oilfields. Peru will be able to buy cheaper for years from Mexico, Canada and the United States.

Work on the Southern Peru Gas Pipeline should be halted immediately. This $8,000mn piece of corruption-ridden nonsense, being constructed by Odebrecht, Sao Paulo, whose chief executives are in jail for similar boondoggles at home, should be transferred to the Brazilian taxpayer.

Any expectation that the Peru economy might stay afloat is made unlikely by predictions in Lima, the United States and elsewhere that a big El Niño is beginning. Based on the experience of 1972, 1983 and 1997-8, this will subtract between two and four percent from the country’s output.

The good news is that a capable new government may take control in less than a year’s time, ready and able to turn the progress of the past several years to good account.

Published in English by the Peruvian Times on August 21, 2015.

A Spanish version of this article appears in Caretas No. 2399 under La Fiesta se Acabó

S&P Shot across the bows for Peru banks and government

By Nicholas Asheshov

The downgrade in New York by Standard & Poors, S&P, of Peru’s banking system last week came a day before S&P whammed the Brazil government debt to junk.

The Brazil move is a much bigger hit to a much bigger player but the Peru bank rating is a new sign that Peru is being priced firmly down even though its numbers are better than those of most of the neighbors.

The bank downslide came days before the Minister of Finance, Alonso Segura, was in New York to try to talk Morgan Stanley’s MSCI unit into postponing its decision, announced last month, (PT, Aug.21, 2015) to push the category of the Lima Bolsa de Valores, the stock exchange, from Emerging Market out to Frontier. Other countries to which this has happened this year include Morocco and Argentina.

Peru’s handful of international-style companies, like the Banco de Credito (BAP), Cia de Minas Buenaventura (BVN), Southern Peru Copper (SPCC), Graña y Montero (GRAM) and Hochschild (HOC) among them, are quoted in New York or London. But the downgrade of the Lima exchange will have a negative effect on the finances of the AFPs, the pension funds which by law are forced to invest in local paper.

A warning and further downgrades

The latest bank ratings are shots across the bows of the government and of its creditors — there is no question about the stability of any of the four main Lima banks, the Credito, the Continental, Interbank and Scotiabank. But it means further downgrades by the New York rating outfits like Moody’s and Fitch are possible as Peru’s economy continues to slow down. The rest of the Emerging and Frontier world is slow and getting slower, too, but the main reasons for the latest S&P bank ratings is the poor performance of the government and of the Central Bank in Lima.

The immediate practical effects are a bruise rather than broken bones. It will add, perhaps, 50 or 100 basis points, getting on for one percentage point, to the still-cheap cost to banks here of borrowing in New York. This is currently around 4% to 5% p.a., a gift by the standards of other times.

The change in status comes, too, as financial markets everywhere see-saw with a general trend down. Commodities, products and companies are being reassessed. De Beers has reduced the price of its latest gem quality diamonds by nine percent. Silver continues below $15/oz, less than half the price of 2013, gold at under $1,100 instead of $1,900, and copper at $2.30, half its price three years ago.

S&P says the quality of the Lima banks’ business will get worse as the economy deteriorates.

This is another way of saying that the quality of the balance sheets of Peruvian companies is seen by S&P as deteriorating too, in line with the mishandling of public finances by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, MEF, and the Central Bank, the BCRP.

Dangerous increase of reference lending rate

Part of the problem is that the Central Bank continues to prop up the price of the Nuevo Sol, spending $1 billion of its reserves every month. Last week it revalued, not devalued, the Sol, from S/.3.31=US$1 to S/.3.21 defying, perhaps with a certain sense of humor, international financial gravity.

In the same vein but even more questionably, the BCRP increased its reference lending rate from 3.25% to 3.50%, signaling too that this will go to over 4.25% next year.

The reason for this startling move is to rein in inflation. It will have, in fact, no effect on inflation though it will slow the economy, increase unemployment even further, raising the possibility of a return of the stagflation of the 1970s and 1980s, a specter that is becoming a reality in Brazil.

Elsewhere, starting with China, those central banks where the reference rate is not already close to zero are lowering rates to as near-zero as they can in a well-established effort to blow life into sagging economies.

The increase by the Central Bank in Lima of the reference rate is dangerous to the point of incomprehensible. The experience of the past five years has been conclusive that the old monetary buttons to control inflation, which rarely worked anyway, today turn out to be a well-aimed shot in the dark straight into the foot. Instead, increasing rates produces in today’s leveraged markets a sharp halt, a sudden stop. With it comes deflation.

This happened famously in 2011 when the European Central Bank raised rates and produced an instant Europe-wide recession. Other countries making the same mistake in the past few years have included Norway, Sweden, Israel and Australia, all of which quickly had to do a U-turn and reduce rates to stave off a collapse in their economies.

Now Peru, with a government and Congress focused on other issues, is allowing a crew of olde economists to make the same mistake.

The Central Bank in Lima also continues to squander its reserves on propping up the price of the Sol. Everywhere else they are cheapening their currencies against the dollar, starting with the Chinese, the ones who are supposed to be buying Peru’s copper, Venezuela’s oil and Germany’s BMWs.

But there are no signs of a recovery in the world economy. The price of copper edged further down towards $2/lb.

At that price Peru’s budget deficit in 2016 will be 5%, as a proportion of GDP, not just the two or three percent that the government says it is projecting. Peru’s government has been in surplus for the past dozen years.

Peru and Brazil

Peru’s situation has some similarities with Brazil. Government finances in both are getting worse due to mismanagement and to the fall in commodities prices.

But Peru’s financial and political problems, however grimy as seen from Lima, are nothing compared to those of Brazil which is already into a solid recession with a surge in inflation.

Another difference is that Peru will have a new government in less than a year. In Brazil it is a lame duck government mired in confusion with the best part of four years to go, and with no Plan B. Peru’s total foreign debt, public and private, knocking on $40 bn, is a tiny figure compared with Brazil. For instance, Petrobras alone owes $135 bn — it is one of the world’s biggest issuers of bonds. The cost of insuring Brazil bonds against default is today as bad as Turkey and Russia. The Peru cost is, rightly, insignificant, a big change from 20 years ago and a huge difference from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador.

There are two big problems for the Peru outlook. The first is that the world economy shows no sign of improving. The only country in the top ten doing well is India, at 7%, with the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom as also-rans at between two and three percent who dare not increase the cost of government credit from zero for fear of tipping back into recession. Brazil and Russia are in recession and financial distress. China has lost the plot and will be in no shape to rescue the third world or anyone else —Russia for instance— for a decade. The rising China tide that raised commodity boats so far this century is flowing back down and out, taking —for the moment, at least— Peru with it.

Citibank said this week that there is a better than evens chance of a world recession.

There’s not much Peru can do but prepare for this El Niño-sized rainy day.

Instead the government, at the end of its tether, is acting as if it believed its own starry-eyed projections. This includes putting soles interest rates up to slow the economy. The Banco Central economists apparently believe their projection of four percent growth for 2016 even though a recession is a certainty. They are putting on the brakes, the only country in the world to be doing so.

The banks 

Last week S&P said it had revised its Banking Industry Risk Assessment on Peru to group ‘5’ from group ‘4’. S&P also revised its rating for banks operating only in Peru to ‘bbb-‘ from ‘bbb’ due to a higher economic risk.

  • “We revised our economic risk score to ‘6’ from ‘5’. We consider that economic resilience has weakened amid lower growth prospects.
  • “The trend.” on economic risk remains negative because we’re still concerned that rapid credit growth could increase economic imbalances risk.
  • “As a result, we’re lowering our ratings on five Peruvian banks.”

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services lowered its ratings on the following Peruvian banks: Banco de Credito del Peru; Banco Interamericano de Finanzas S.A.; BBVA Banco Continental; MiBanco, Banco de La Microempresa S.A.; and Banco Internacional del Peru —Interbank.

S&P said it was not, however, marking down Scotiabank —three years ago the Bank of Nova Scotia, the controlling partner, increased Scotiabank’s capital.

The S&P report continues: “The downgrade (of the banking system) reflects our view of rising economic risk for banks operating in Peru. The greater economic risk reflects our reassessment of Peru’s growth prospects. We believe that Peru’s growth trajectory will no longer be consistently well above that of its peers with a similar stage of economic development.

“Also, our trend on economic risk remains negative, reflecting the persistent rapid growth in credit and private-sector leverage in the past few years, which has been weakening the Peruvian banks’ credit quality in the past three years.

“In our view, domestic banks now face tougher operating conditions, which we believe weakened their financial profiles, notably in terms of asset quality and capital and earnings.

“We expect growth to average 3.7% annually between 2015 and 2018 and to average 2.8% in per capita terms, which will protract Peru’s catch-up with more developed peers.

“We now expect Peru’s economic growth to be slower absent more successful concerted efforts to advance structural reforms to keep up productivity improvements and continue to increase social inclusion, such as improving labor market flexibility, infrastructure, reducing bureaucracy and informality, and improving education quality.”

Wall St does not seem to be taking its own warnings about Peru too seriously.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley, the New York bank that is downgrading Peru from Emerging Market to Frontier Post, is recommending clients to buy shares of the Banco de Credito, Credicorp (BAP.N): and predicts an impressive 40% profit by the end of next year.

MS says the Credito offers an “attractive Risk Reward”, predicting that the shares will go from today’s $107 to $150 by the end of 2016.

The MS Buy recommendation came only days after S&P’s rating downgrade of Credicorp from BBB to BBB- because of “rising economic risk for banks operating in Peru,”

“reassessment of Peru’s (lower) growth prospects,” “weakening credit quality in the past three years,” and “persistent rapid growth in credit and private sector leverage.”

MS Peru bank analysts see Peru’s economy accelerating to the 3-4% GDP growth range, fastest among the large economies in Latin America.

Nick Asheshov was editor of the Andean Air Mail & Peruvian Times during the 1970s and 1980s, and of The South Pacific Mail, Santiago during the 1990s. He was Latin America Editor of Institutional Investor, New York over the same period. He lives in Urubamba, where he writes a blog and where he has been prominent in the hotel and railway business. 

This article appeared in the Peruvian Times Sept 17 2015

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