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Huayhuash : A future in doubt July 10, 2007

Posted by Jason in climbing, culture, Environment, mountaineering, Peru, South America, Travel, trekking, wilderness.
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 The mountains of the Huayhuash at Laguna Yahuacocha as the sun goes down

We have just completed one of the most amazing treks we have done in South America (or indeed the world) in the Huayhuash in Peru. A superb trek for wilderness, culture and just the most amazing mountain scenery.

Yet, despite this beautiful area not having changed a lot in the last 20 years, the next 20 years could be make or break for the region. So many pressures on a fragile landscape could be the breaking point for a once untouched land.

The Huayhuash has suffered in the past from crisis but has always come through. With the rebels of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) fighting a Guerilla War and using the Huayhuash as a base for its activities. The war was waged between 1980 and 1992 when its leader Abimael Guzman was caught. Some 23,000 Peruvians died in the conflict making the area a no-go zone for foreigners for several years.

A cross commemorating the loss of 2 trekkers in the Cordillera Huayhuash

More recently, in 2002, 2 Americans were robbed and killed on a pass at Punta Tapuish and in the same year 2 people were again robbed and murdered in Catajambo.

In 2004, in a 20 day period several people were robbed and threatened and 4 Isrealis were killed when they refused to hand over their money on a pass.  These shocking events have lead to private conservation projects where the local communities charge trekkers money at different campsites in return for security and installing certain facilities to protect the landscape such as long drop toilets. Since this time there have been no incidents of theft or killings and gradually visitor numbers have increased.

Yet, now more strife is on the horizon. The Japanese, who have large mining interests in Peru, have been given rights to mine in the mountainous areas around Huaraz and the Huayhuash.

There is a mine near Matacancha, and there are several areas of the Huayhuash under threat of more development.

Much talk is of a new mine opening near Huayllapa and indeed a road being built over what is now a remote pass.

The inevitable problem here is that there is much mineral wealth, but the exploitation of such will bring devestation to a wilderness area and traditional ways of life.

2 children waiting to greet trekkers at the top of a pass

The communities would obviously like to earn more money in a very poor area, and the conflict is between exploiting mineral wealth or developing tourism, which itself brings environmental problems and the invasion of modern life and development. This can already be seen with some areas showing signs of litter and some people polluting rivers by using them as toilet facilities.

Efforts are being made to keep the area clean and long drop toilets are being used.  However, with some ignorance in this area, some of these are far too near the rivers to prevent the pollution.

Cheryl looking over to the mountains of the Huayhuash

Compounding these problems is the fact that politics interferes with certain apparent solutions – why not make it a National Park? The answer is that the Huayhuash is split between 3 different provinces making it politically difficult with so many differing interests.

Maybe, the only answer is making it a UNESCO site of special interest, giving it protection.  But this is a long way off (and would require government cooperation). Indeed the Huayhuash area is not even on the UNESCO speculative list of sites at the moment.

Some in Huaraz are very concerned with the situation and are trying to bring the plight of the region to the attention of UNESCO, Alfredo from MountClimb being such a person.

Perhaps the only way of protecting the area is to make it such a money making trekking destination that the money generated would make mineral exploitation not advantageous to the region? Maybe like a Torres Del Paine? This would obviously destroy the local communities as we know them and the wilderness experience. But would give the area some sort of future without destroying the landscape.

No easy answers to a growing problem. But maybe we worry too much in these fickle times.  A much bigger problem will be facing this area soon which could be far more devastating to the entire region. It is estimated that all the snow and glaciation could be gone within 20 years due to global warming! Yes 20 years. This in itself will devastate the area – glacial meltwater is the bloodline of the local people. With no water from glaciers, agriculture and life in the region will be impossible.

This area is truly one of the most beautiful in the world, I just hope one day I can return to explore this area further and experience the delights of the last 11 days of wonder.

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