Surviving freak freezes

Fighting the extreme cold in mountainous regions

The indigenous communities living high up in the Andes (4,000 - 4,500 metres above sea level) are some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Peru. These isolated rural communities are often forgotten receiving little or no government help. There is practically no vegetation and communities are highly susceptible to adverse weather conditions. They depend entirely on alpacas and potatoes for both their livelihood and staple diet.

The "Friaje" of recent winters - a phenomenon of intense cold never experienced so extremely before is challenging highland communities' abilities to survive. In 2003, when temperatures dropped to -35 degrees centigrade, fifty children died, and as many as 13,000 people suffered severe hypothermia, bronchitis and pneumonia. 50 - 70% of alpacas perished and many more were left exhausted and prone to disease.

Practical Action is working with these communities to help protect their alpacas and potato varieties to improve livelihoods and biodiversity thereby reducing vulnerability to climate change.

Protecting alpacas

Alpacas are poor foragers and struggle to find food in the snow and ice. In the extreme conditions, pregnant alpacas miscarry, meaning that the recovery of herds take longer - up to two to three years. Losing the alpacas means the whole community faces crisis.

Without alpacas, villagers have no means of transporting their only goods of alpaca fibre and potatoes for miles across mountainous terrain to the nearest market. Nor can they bring vital medicine and food back to the village. The animals also give nutritious milk and cheese and thick wool with fantastic insulation properties. Manure provides indispensable fuel for heating and cooking.

Alpaca shelters

Practical Action has designed a simple shelter made from local materials to protect the alpacas, particularly the young and weak, from the extremely cold weather. The shelters, housing up to 50 alpacas, not only protect them from wind and cold in winter, but provide shelter for shearing the alpacas and sorting the wool in summer.

Nutritious food

When the cold hits, and the land dries up, what little vegetation there is blows away. Practical Action has worked with communities to enable people how to grow nutritious barely through hydroponics systems.

Barley grains fetched from the valley floor - with the help of healthier alpacas - are grown in a trough of water. The barley is milled, enriched with syrup and formed into blocks. Needing only sunlight and water the whole process takes just two weeks. These high energy blocks of barley keep the alpacas healthy and strong when no other food is available.

Veterinary skills

Practical Action has already trained 35 farmers from 15 communities to become 'Kamayoq', farmer to farmer trainers, who pass on knowledge on hydroponics and basic veterinary skills. This is vital, as many farmers have little understanding of techniques to protect alpacas from disease.

Native potatoes

There are 256 varieties of potato that can survive the harsh conditions of the high Andes. Practical Action is helping families living at altitudes of 3800ft to maintain this crucial biodiversity by developing varieties of local potatoes, as well as improve technical aspects of production. These methods ensure people are able to get enough to eat, as well as an income at local markets.

A revolving fund for accessing native potato seeds and seeders for local production has been set up. Ongoing technical assistance is being established through the training of 40 Quechuan farmers, chosen by the community themselves, as technological leaders.

Emilio Chalco Valladares, Alpaca Farmer, Peru

"Previously when an animal was sick, taking it to the town might take a day at least. While we were away more animals might become sick - disease spreads quickly. Now we save much time because we have the knowledge ourselves and diseases don't spread. Animals don't die any more."

Abrahan Quito Apaza, farmer from the Pumarorcco community, Peru

"As a farmer, I knew very little about plagues, I had no idea where they came from or what their lives were like. Now I know about the lives of these harmful insects and I have learnt new sowing techniques. I am becoming a field researcher and am now applying some of the practices I used to carry out which I learnt at the training sessions. I can also explain many of the practices I used to carry out which I learnt from my parents and grandparents, which I realise are very valuable, because I know they are good."

You can download more technical briefs and manuals on similar topics at Practical Answers, the technical information service of Practical Action, or you can submit an enquiry to the Practical Action staff via the online form

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