It’s time for a resurrection of the Hero series. Heifer International and all the good folks involved with it, definitely fit the bill, and today we have an insightful piece from a guest blogger (the first ever to appear on GCG) who visited one of their community sites in Peru. Enjoy!
By Guest Blogger Elyse Gordon on behalf of Heifer International
When I tell people that I recently won a sweepstakes to go to Peru for 7 days, everyone has the same response: “What? People actually win those?! I always thought they were a scam!” I cannot vouch for every sweepstakes out there, of course, but this one was, indeed, the real deal. Garnet Hill, a clothing company based in New Hampshire, is an ardent supporter of Heifer International, a global nonprofit that seeks to end poverty and hunger. To promote their partnership and share the amazing work of Heifer in Peru, the two groups jointly offered a trip for two to join them in and around Cusco for seven days. Magically, I won this trip and was able to take my mother along with me for an unforgettable experience.
Heifer International has been working in Peru for 50 years. Much like their work all over the world, they use sustainable and community-based development practices that are finely attuned to local cultural and environmental contexts. In the Peruvian Andes, this means raising alpacas, providing training to improve the quality and success of breeding, and working together to strengthen the artisanal process so that crafts will yield a higher price in the market.
While I am pursuing a career as an urban political geographer, I actually have a background in agriculture, development, and environmental studies. As an undergraduate at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was interested in agrarian change, sustainable agriculture, and environmental justice. Though these issues are not as central to my studies as of late, they ground the way I see the world. So, when I had the chance to see two Andean alpaca projects outside of Cusco, I was floored by both the strength of the local communities and the finely adapted environmental practices.
In Ocangate Upis, the community is learning how to raise alpacas with more precision. Alpacas are native to this part of the world and are well adapted to the highland climate. Their hooves have evolved to carry them through incredibly steep terrain amidst the Andes. They are grazing animals, too, so they trim the grasses as opposed to ripping out their roots, like non-native sheep have done (leading to increased erosion, especially on the steep ridges!) Heifer International, then, is not introducing new livelihood practices. They help fine-tune centuries old livelihoods so that they can be more predictable, efficient and productive. In Upis, this boils down to one core concept: more precise observation and record keeping. This concept translates to all parts of alpaca raising: immaculate record books documenting the breeding process, rigorous selection criteria for breeding, more extensive health records, birth records, and increased efficiency for shearing the wool from the alpacas.
Raising more, and healthier, alpacas, means they are less likely to contract disease, and they are better suited to do their part in maintaining the ecosystem and highland grasses. The animals are shorn in the summertime, (usually November in Peru). Having a robust and healthy alpaca population also means less need for resorting to sheep, which can be sold at market for their meat and wool, thus being a quicker (though less sustainable) source of income. Alpacas are often used for meat, but not until their wool diminishes in quality, which might be when the animals are 14 years old. Raising alpacas is a long-term investment; healthy animals will live longer and produce finer quality wool, and eventually provide a lean protein source for many families. And for those of us attuned to local culinary traditions, the fact that alpacas are keeping the soil healthy and erosion-free means that farmers throughout the Andes can continue cultivating some of Peru’s 3,000 varieties of native potatoes!
I certainly am no expert on Peruvian alpacas or Andean ecosystems. I was an interloper for a mere few days, seeing just a glimpse of village life in two of Heifer Peru’s project sites. Admittedly, these were two of the strongest communities who have benefitted the most from the Heifer International education, training, empowerment and environmental sustainability programs. As a result, I was impressed by how much individual families held a great sense of pride about their own knowledge, their practices, and the fact that they could communicate these to us. I was the student in this scenario, not the expert. This was incredibly refreshing. Too often, I’ve noticed, Westerners are presented as experts despite not having any local knowledge of the ecosystem or cultural practices. These two Heifer communities were proud to be the experts and teach us their craft.
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t end there. One week after our trip in August 2013, the Peruvian Andes were hit with one of the worst blizzards in decades, and unexpectedly late in the season. The alpacas had already been moved back up into the highlands, anticipating the turn towards spring and summer. This blizzard wiped out almost 100,000 alpacas throughout the Andes, including Upis, the town we visited, where the alpaca mortality rate was estimated at 15 percent. The storm also devastated crops to be used for both human and animal consumption as well as damaged homes. Immediately following the storm, the Heifer Peru staff was assessing damage, providing immediate aid, and identifying needs for the near future.
I have spent the last few weeks grasping for a silver lining here. I am reminded that resilient communities with social and cultural capital are more likely to bounce back after a natural disaster than fractured, disparate groups. After all, the knowledge, skills and social ties were not destroyed with this blizzard. Yet, as Peru’s government declared a state of emergency, I was reminded that even our most well-intentioned and successful small-scale efforts need to be matched with advocacy for broad-scale ecological change. With any luck, the Peruvian communities will acquire new alpacas and start anew. And, with any luck, they will be spared another natural disaster.