Ethnography and Ecology in the Cordillera Blanca

Posted by Tony Wood, graduate student in Latin American History at NYU

View of the Cordillera Blanca from the Casa de Pocha, Carhuaz, Peru.

From 9th to 13th July I took part in an ethnographic field methods workshop in Carhuaz, a small town high in the Peruvian Andes, around 280 miles north of Lima. The town itself nestles between two mountain ranges – to the west the rugged Cordillera Negra, to the east the Cordillera Blanca, a chain of majestic, glacier-capped mountains that include some of the tallest in the Western Hemisphere.

The workshop was held under the auspices of the Center for Social Well-Being, which also runs Quechua language courses and retreats on its 5-hectare eco-farm a little outside the town (known as La Casa de Pocha). The Center was set up 15 years ago by the Peruvian ecologist Flor de María Barreto Tosi (the eponymous Pocha), and Patricia Hammer, an American anthropologist, aiming to put into practice the principles of sustainable living on the one hand, and of “participatory action research” on the other.

What is “participatory action research”? Prof. Hammer gave a seminar describing its emergence as a branch of applied anthropology, influenced both by progressive critiques of the discipline’s mainstream and by the ideas of Paolo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed; it seeks not only to effect change but also to take its cues and research agenda from the people being studied. Other sessions included examples of “PAR” by students working in the region: Isabella Chan (a predoctoral student at the University of South Florida), for instance, spoke about her work on women’s health in the highland communities, exploring the gaps between local conceptions of the body and its relation to the community on the one hand, and on the other the biomedical knowledge exercised in government-funded health-posts. Samuel Kane Hulsey (an undergraduate at Middle Tennessee State University), meanwhile, discussed local conflicts over water – between peasant communities, towns, local government, the Huascarán National Park authorities – and the impact of climate change on the area. The Cordillera Blanca contains a sizeable proportion of the world’s glacial water, but here as elsewhere in the world the ice is retreating. Rising average temperatures have also brought more variable rains and more uneven flows of meltwater, as well as “natural contamination” (from the exposure of heavy metals to the air after centuries buried under glaciers).

The workshop also included a hike up the Quebrada Hualcán, the valley in which the Casa de Pocha is located, in the company of Martín León Huarac, a local teacher affiliated with the Center. Born and raised in the community of Pariacaca a few miles further up the valley, Prof. León gave the group a richly contextualized description of the valley as we advanced, presenting us with not only Quechua terms but also the concepts and worldview that they embody. As we advanced up the valley, the breathtaking summits of Hualcán, Huascarán, and other glacier-topped mountains looming ahead of us, we saw at first hand not only how local comunidades had preserved and continued traditional ways of life and farming methods, but also the many ways in which they were adapting to climate change: cultivating new crops, or moving old ones to higher altitutudes; elsewhere, we heard, campesinos also engaged in informal mining, panning for gold in the mountain rivers. It’s this constant experimentation that has allowed these communities to endure and even to prosper, and their adaptability in the face of unforgiving environmental change – while retaining a sense of respect and responsibility towards the natural world – surely holds lessons for the rest of us.

2 thoughts on “Ethnography and Ecology in the Cordillera Blanca

  1. Very good article! We know the place. My wife Doris Loayza is a CLACS graduate and from Ancash. We didn’t know Pocha and Pat were still running programs there, good to know. Lot of stories in the area, no?

    1. Thank you! Yes, it’s a wonderful place, with a lot of interesting (and ongoing) stories – am hoping I can return before too long.

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