Christmas Appeal: Simple measures that help in extreme temperatures

In the latest in our series, Daniel Howden sees how Andean farmers are coping with climate change
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Indy Politics

A cloud crosses the sun. The temperature drop in the thin air is like a slap in the face. High in the Andes, it is springtime and, while the chill is sudden, it is nothing to what last winter brought.

Apolinar Tayro Mamani is an engineer who has been working with the indigenous alpaca farmers in Peru's highlands and had never seen anything like it. "When the blizzards came they were so strong," he said. "The snow fell for a full day and a full night without stopping. It stopped snowing, the skies opened and it was completely clear. Then ice fell from the sky in big shards like glass, and the cold front hit us."

The Quechua people, descendants of the Incas, living at altitudes of up to 4,500 metres, are used to harsh weather. But what they call the friaje is a new phenomenon, believed to be driven by climate change. Last year it sent temperatures plummeting to -35C, killed 50 children and left up to 13,000 people suffering from severe bronchitis, pneumonia and hypothermia. The snow killed all vegetation. And the animals on which the communities depend, the hardy Andean camel, the alpaca, died in their thousands.

Sabino Huillca Huallipe keeps a herd of several hundred alpacas. He was one of the first to join with the British charity, Practical Action, in a project to build shelters for the animals. Practical Action is one of the three charities being supported in The Independent's Christmas Appeal. The simple structures can each house up to 50 alpacas.

There are few climate- change sceptics at this altitude. "The temperature shifts here are getting more extreme," says Huallipe. Cold winters are followed by hot, dry summers and, recently, electric hail storms. "We are peasants, we didn't know what to do about these things."

Climate change can be beautiful as well as sinister. It has smudged a red stripe across the peaks of the Sierra. Less than a generation ago, the highest of these mountains were snow-capped all year. Apolinar, who works for Practical Action, says the people thought the end of the world had come last winter.

These communities depend entirely on the alpaca. The Andean camel, a relative of the llama, provides milk and cheese rich in essential nutrients. Its dense wool offers exceptional insulation. The rest is sold to pay for schooling and whatever can't be farmed.

Alpacas struggle to find food in the snow and ice. Pregnant animals miscarry, and those that survive are exhausted and prone to disease. Without the alpacas, farmers have no means of transporting their only goods to market.

Huallipe is already bracing for the next friaje. His small farm huddles into the side of the valley. Now it lies empty, soon to be filled during shearing season. At either end of the courtyard are two tiny rooms. To keep the warmth in, the rooms have to be claustrophobically small. Inside, the sickly scent of alpaca skins is overwhelming. Hanging from the thatched roof are two dried skeletons. They are alpaca embryos, which hang there, Huallipe says, as a handy insurance against a poor harvest. It is a custom unchanged for hundreds of years. Out through the doorway, the afternoon light reflects off a satellite dish, a modern assurance against being cut off from outside help by a new cold snap.

"It means we can telephone down to the town to get relief," says Huallipe. The solar powered dish, provided by Practical Action, is flanked by an alfalfa patch, laced with purple flowering potato plants. The charity has been teaching the community to use hydroponics to grow blocks of barley feed when the cold sets in. Hydroponics systems need just water and sunlight to grow food.

High above the valley, the wild vicuna make a fleeting appearance. The rare deer-like animal offers an annual bonanza to the Quechua. Once a year, the local people hunt a sustainable number of the animals, which die if they are kept in captivity or farmed.

Black scars mar the paths leading between the farms. Apolinar explains that they burn tyres to ward off lightning from the electric storms. The more traditional weather managers blast fireworks into the clouds, believing they will push the weather away. Ancient or modern, in the face of a changing climate, these people need all the help they can get.

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