In the Peruvian Andes, the sacred valley of the Incas is witnessing a battle between climate change and human survival. The Apu Pachatusan (God That Holds the World in Quechua language) – a seasonal glacier that rises over 15,000 feet above sea level (4,842 meters) and one of the most important sites in the Inca religious world – is in danger of vanishing as a result of climate change and deforestation.
In some of the most pristine places on Earth, glaciers have become an indicator of how our planet's temperature is increasing. In Peru, there are currently 18 mountain glaciers. But 22 percent of their surface has been lost over the past 27 to 35 years.
The Apu Pachatusan is now facing the same potential fate.
IN PHOTOS: See Apu Pachatusan and the community that is working to save the historic glacier.
A Glacier with a Story
Located near Cusco and in the same valley that shelters the once-lost city of Machu Picchu, Apu Pachatusan has provided local villages with drinking water for centuries. The glacier regulates the water supply through runoff during dry periods and stores water in the form of ice during colder periods. As the glacier recedes, this water regulation is disrupted and eventually lost altogether, changing the lives of hundreds of people.
"When I was young and walked around the mountain, I could see a lot of snow that only melted after many weeks. Now there is no snow," says Cipriano Mayta García, an 82-year-old local farmer who recently remembered the mountain. "The lakes were always full but now they are dry."
Working toward a Local Solution
There is no immediate solution to the glacier's retreat. But the local governments have recognized the connections between climate change, Apu Pachatusan, and the lives of the communities they govern. To make that connection, they saw an opportunity to adapt to the new conditions by restoring the nearby forests that have disappeared due to unregulated logging and forest fires.
These reforestation activities will improve access to water, capture the carbon dioxide that impacts our earth’s climate, and provide other environmental and social benefits.
One of the first steps taken by three local municipalities sharing jurisdiction around the glacier was to proclaim the region a protected area. The local communities – with the support of the Machu Picchu Institute and Conservation International (CI) in Peru – joined the cause and started a reforestation project around the mountain. The community has reforested over 74 acres (30 hectares) and is planning to plant over 190 acres (80 hectares) of native trees by the end of 2008.
A Long-Standing Relationship
Alberto Delgado, executive director of the Machu Picchu Institute, has worked with these communities for several years.
"Three years ago we started the reforestation activities as a pilot project, but we didn't bring commercial tree species like the eucalyptus to be planted," he says. "We wanted to plant native species that could hold the water in the mountain and start the recovery of a natural habitat important for its biodiversity and cultural significance to the community."
Today the Apu Pachatusan has found longtime protectors. The local communities and their partners believe that every tree planted is another step toward recovering their ecosystem, slowing strong climate variations, and helping to protect one of their most sacred places.
"The impacts of projects like this are as much local as they are global," says Luis Espinel, CI-Peru executive director. "The trees planted in Cusco, and each hectare of forest that is conserved in Peru, will contribute to the global quest against climate change while ensuring human well-being. We all have a responsibility to act on the solutions."
IN PHOTOS: Saga Falabella and CI-Peru launched a campaign again climate change to support reforestation in Apu Pachatusan.