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What Climate Change Adaptation Programs in Peru Are Missing: Indigenous Women’s Knowledge

A woman from Chillca, Peru and her daughters with their herd. Source: Allison Caine

As climate change in the high Andes threatens alpaca herding, the primary source of livelihood for many of Peru’s Indigenous communities, development programs are teaching men how to use technical herd management strategies such as herd immunization, selective breeding, and modern pasture management. New research from anthropologist Allison Caine, however, reveals what these projects are excluding: the knowledge that Quechua women have about their herds which increases their communities’ resilience in the face of climate change.

Herding is becoming more difficult in high alpine regions as glaciers are disappearing, reducing the stream-flows that support pasture and provide drinking water to herds and people. Additionally, rain and temperature patterns are becoming more unpredictable, disrupting the seasonal patterns that have long guided Quechua communities’ decisions to shift their herds between pastures. During the rainy season, the herds graze on valley floors where precipitation fuels plant growth, whereas during the drier season herders bring their animals higher up the mountains to areas where glacial meltwater supports rich meadows. 

These annual movements of animals have been greatly impacted by increasing global temperatures and changes to rain patterns. In areas where glaciers have drastically shrunk or disappeared, pastures receive little water in the drier months. In areas where glacial-fed grasses still grow, changes to rain intensity and frequency have made planning herd movements more difficult.

Caine, a researcher with the University of Michigan, noticed during 22 months of fieldwork in Chillca, Peru that predictable pasture rotation is essential in this community. “As the seasons change, the alpaca herds need to be rotated to decrease stress on wetland ecosystems,” Caine told GlacierHub. “However, unpredictable seasonal patterns mean that herds have to continue to be pastured on depleted grasslands, causing nutritional distress and a cascade of health impacts for humans and animals alike.”

Alpacas grazing in a Peruvian wetland. Source: Pranav Bhatt via Flickr

To help communities adapt to these changes and maintain flourishing animal herds, development initiatives from organizations such as Heifer International, an international nonprofit promoting agricultural development, have held workshops to teach herders technical breeding, feeding, and harvesting techniques. Most of these workshops, which are taught in Spanish with technical language, instruct herders on the use of technical tools.

The technical strategies taught in these workshops include keeping records of animal bloodlines and selectively breeding, using electric shearing clippers to harvest wool, administering medications and immunizations, and introducing certain plant species into natural pastures. 

Caine observed that in Chillca these workshops were attended predominantly by men. Many men in Chillca speak both Spanish and Quechua, whereas most women only speak Quechua. And while men were able to find time to attend the programs, women stay home as the primary herd caretakers.

“Including women in development programs can be logistically difficult in a dispersed rural community where women do the majority of domestic labor and animal care,” explained Caine. “Most programs will come through these communities for a few hours, when they really need to spend more time reaching out to women and forming sustained relationships over the long term. Only then can they really create spaces for dialogue, and craft approaches that center women’s experiences and perspectives.”

Because of linguistic and labor-related barriers compounding the prioritization of Western scientific knowledge, women herders and their unique knowledge are excluded from development and adaptation discussions. In her article about the women of Chillca, Caine shows how indigenous women herders draw on relationships with other community members to share their experience-based knowledge of their animals and environment. 

While in Chillca, Caine observed how women herders cultivated knowledge about their animals. “Women herders are attuned to their animals, so much so that they are able to pick up on the subtlest changes in their animals’ health and behavior. This makes them keen and insightful environmental managers: they can detect and respond to broader ecological changes before they become glaringly obvious.”

A herder in Chillca gives her alpaca an herbal tonic. Source: Allison Caine

In addition to understanding their animals, these herders are familiar with climatic and environmental conditions and are committed to community relationships. “Knowledge is cultivated through the close relationships of care and communication that they share with their animals—relationships that are built upon shared knowledge practices that women pass down through the generations,” said Caine. Without women’s insights, communities in the Andes would not be able to efficiently adjust to changes in the alpine pastures. And when NGOs favor the expertise of men, these essential experiences are overlooked, she said.  

Caine’s research illuminates the importance of including Indigenous women in initiatives working to make communities more resilient in the face of climate change, an issue that is starting to be addressed by organizations like the Women’s Environment and Development Organization

“Concerns around gender equity and inclusivity are widespread in development programs, and I hope this article provides another angle for thinking about the routine ways that women’s knowledge and experiences become marginalized, even by those with the best of intentions,” Caine told GlacierHub. “When development or conservation programs seek to engage with ‘local experts,’ assumptions of expertise can go unexamined. By recognizing the diverse forms that knowledge, skill, and experience can take in local communities, these programs can learn from a broader range of community members and work towards more collaborative and inclusive decision-making processes.”

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Juan Eduardo
Juan Eduardo
3 years ago

This is an article of interest; especially linked to a global phenomenon with very local repercussions; In the high Andes of Peru, an area with high vulnerability to climate change, there are interesting experiences that must be rescued and shared; Well, the inhabitants for many years have adapted to the changes of the climate; however, public policies such as water harvesting, irrigation, reforestation, use of renewable energies such as solar and wind energy should be developed to use them in teh so-called ecological housing.