Musuk Nolte
Peru -
April 03, 2022

Seeds of water: planting queñuas in the Andes

Peru is considered one of the world’s water paradises. According to world rankings, this country ranks eighth on the list of countries with the most water; this is because Peru has: part of the Amazon River basin, 1006 rivers, Lake Titicaca, another 12,000 lagoons, and at least 3044 glaciers. It means 159 basins that bathe the entire territory. However, according to Oxfam, between 7 and 8 million Peruvians do not have access to drinking water, and Lima is the most vulnerable city. That happens because most of Peru’s population lives on the coast, and below 1,700 meters above sea level, the problems of access to the water begin.

Maybe many people who now live on the coast get there looking for other opportunities and possibilities for life, such as study, health, or fleeing violence. However, given the water situation, many of them have become what Vandana Shiva called “environmental refugees” twenty years ago. She was thinking, at the time, of all those potentially affected by water scarcity or excess. It is not a reality unique to Peru. According to data from WHO and Unicef (2019), worldwide, at least 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water.

Musuk Nolte / Bertha Challenge Fellow 2022.

Musuk Nolte / Bertha Challenge Fellow 2022.

When Vandana Shiva was writing this, she was thinking about climate injustice. It is not only about the geographical place occupied by people but also about everything that has led to this situation deepening. Lack of water has to do with climate change. Environmental refugees are also people who, for example, have seen their homes die or who live with the consequences of development in the form of mining and dams.

The list of dead rivers, dried-up lagoons, and polluted bodies of water is endless and growing every day. We already know that we live in a sick planet. As Donna Haraway says in her most recent book Staying with the trouble, we need now to “rebuild quiet places.” She proposes being present, creating “rare kinships,” and becoming reciprocally.

It is difficult to know if we will manage to heal this planet; the utopia, says Gabriela Damian Miravete, is now to think about saving the earth and not reaching Mars. What is certain is that we need to address current problems and realize that all the beings that inhabit this planet are interrelated. Water, undoubtedly, allows us several ways to see it.

Musuk Nolte / Bertha Challenge Fellow 2022
Musuk Nolte / Bertha Challenge Fellow 2022

In school, we learned that water is a non-renewable resource. It is a very problematic vision for two reasons. The first is because it continues to assume that human beings can see the natural world as a pantry available for our well-being, one that we must exploit and from which we must extract resources. The first thing would then be to change this resource notion. The second reason is that now we know water can be reborn. Although for many, that is old news.

The Incas sowed water: they did so by digging qochas in the soil of the high Andean mountains during the rainy season, that is, between December and March. The qochas would gradually fill with water that would slowly filter through the earth and reach the lower lands, where they had their crops. The agroecological and hydrological knowledge of these people was broad and complex. But the sowing of water had a simple premise: water is born in the heights and bathes the world as it descends into streams, rivers, and lagoons.

Musuk Nolte / Bertha Challenge Fellow 2022
Musuk Nolte / Bertha Challenge Fellow 2022

Musuk Nolte / Bertha Challenge Fellow 2022.

The current descendants of the Incas took up this practice a few years ago, but made it even more sophisticated. In Cusco, with the help of the Andean Ecosystems Association (ECOAN), they initiated in 2014 the Queñua Raymi Festival or the Festival of the queñuas. A campaign to plant queñuas, high Andean plants belonging to the Polylepis genus.

Queñuas are native trees of the Andean forests traditionally used to feed animals in the high mountains and get wood, especially firewood. It has meant their deforestation. The characteristics of queñua make it resistant to cold; it is a tree adapted to survive up to an altitude of 5200 meters above sea level. Its importance lies in its ability to regulate the climate, prevent erosion, and store and filter water that feeds springs. A fact to understand its particularities is that just one of these trees requires 5% of the water that a eucalyptus needs to grow.

Andean forests are very vulnerable landscapes to climate change. This biome is the cradle of at least 60% of the water that reaches the Amazon basin. According to some estimates, Andean forests currently “occupy between 5 and 10% of their original area”. Deforestation rates in these biomes are very high, and their effects are severe. The Queñua Raymi is an initiative that, according to Constantino Aucca, biologist and president of ECOAN, was born out of the frustration derived from the low impact of many actions against climate change.

He and his collaborators, other biologists, foresters, and ecologists, understood that they did not have to invent anything new. The practice of planting water already existed, but they could also take advantage of it to restore high Andean ecosystems by planting queñuas.

Following cultural traditions, ECOAN proposed planting water through days, that is, community work carried out during festivals. The communities involved organize themselves to collect seedlings and grow them in community nurseries. According to ECOAN, the communities produce 100,000 queñua seedlings each year. Then they distribute these plants, and the people who participate in the planting party receive a paid. Between December and March, people organize themselves for planting.

In addition to queñuas, they also planted native trees such as qolles, molles and taras. Of course, it is not only about planting but also about caring for the trees. The populations involved are also in charge of monitoring. According to Gregorio Ferro, co-founder of ECOAN, the survival rate of the plants is 85 to 90%. This planting is an effective way to restore ecosystems and landscapes. Returning these native plants to the landscape ensures water planting and contributes to the recovery of the high Andean forest, the habitat of insects and animals. Restoration gives access to the benefits that queñua offers to the region’s people.

What is in this festival is what Donna Haraway proposes: to be present, through the planting of water and queñuas; to create kinships, with the plants and with other humans. The latter is perhaps the most powerful: indigenous and peasants people know that by sowing these seeds, they will not only have water and plants on their lands; the water will also reach the cities in other territories.

In this way, we reconnected different worlds with water as a thread. But this goes beyond that; the utopia is to make the planet a habitable place for future generations, something that is becoming increasingly challenging. It is interesting to think about this meeting of worlds and knowledge that is the queñua raymi: from the most traditional indigenous, to inhabiting and cultivating the territory and transforming it with the help of biology and ecology, all through a peasant festival of community work that unites the past and the future in the present. It also allows us to recover and nourish those world visions that remind us that there are no natural resources or ecosystemic services but lives and universes in contact.

The photographs are by Musuk Nolte as part of the Geography of Water project, supported by Bertha Challenge 2022. Musuk accompanied Queñua Raymis this year in the communities of Quelcanca, Patacancha, Rumira Sondormayo, and Abra Málaga in the mountains of Cusco at more than 3500 m.a.s.l., their peasants planted more than 500 thousand queñuales during this year’s rainy season.

Andes  /  enviroment  /  water
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