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Ecuador’s indigenous fear for wetlands as glacier recedes

/ 02:45 PM March 21, 2019
Ecuador's indigenous fear for wetlands as glacier recedes

A vicuna roams at the foothill of the Chimborazo volcano, Ecuador’s central Andes, on February 18, 2019. The Chimborazo and the Carihuairazo are two of the seven elevations that are losing their glacier coverage in Ecuador mainly due to the deforestation of the moorlands and burning of fossil fuels. (Photo by Pablo Cozzaglio / AFP)

Volcan Chimborazo, Ecuador – When the springs dried up, the local indigenous leaders raised their eyes to the heavens. They knew what they would find. Up above, the glacier that capped Chimborazo volcano was receding.

But something equally dramatic was happening further down the slopes of Ecuador’s highest mountain. And the consequences for the indigenous population living there are far-reaching.

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The paramo – the alpine wetland ecosystem, whose spongy soils hold water flowing from the glacier – had been taken over by crops and cattle.

Local community leader Gustavo Paca acknowledges it was an error that would shorten its life and hurt his people, who have long seen themselves as nature’s guardians.

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Paca, 49, protected from the biting cold by a huge red wool poncho and a black hat, put it down to his people’s “ignorance”.

Now it is they themselves that have caused serious damage to the ecosystem at the base of the 6,310-meter volcano.

For years, no one living in the shadow of Mount Chimborazo imagined the glacier that supplies the paramo could ever be diminished.

Scientists believe the use of fossil fuels such as coal has accelerated the melting process.

But the diminishing glacier would not have affected the ecosystem so much if the wetlands had not been altered at the base of the mountain.

But locals began to cultivate the paramo and introduced cattle that destroyed the soil. In other parts of the paramo, they planted pasture to feed the animals.

Shrinking glacier

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“Because in the lower part nothing was growing, we said to ourselves: let’s move upwards because there the land is fertile,” said Paca.

“We produced a great deal, but today, we can see that the water flow has decreased.”

In warm weather, the glaciers melting waters feed the paramo wetlands below. But with the glacier receding, there is less water supplying the wetlands.

Local populations have been feeling the change.

“They depend on glacial water for their crops, their animals, their consumption,” said Bolivar Caceres, an expert from Ecuador’s Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology (INAMHI).

Over the last 58 years, Chimborazo’s imposing mane of snow has receded to its peak, while its slopes have become a patchwork of crops.

Maria Chaza, 70, remembers the snow and the paramo with its vegetation of grasses and aromatic shrubs, now cleared for farmland.

“What a wonderful mountain it was, now there are only fields, cattle. Chimborazo has been skinned, and because of that there is no water,” she said. “Because of that we suffer.”

Ecuador's indigenous fear for wetlands as glacier recedes

Aerial view of the indigenous leader of the San Andres community Francisco Hidalgo, standing on a rock in the middle of a small lake surrounded by moorlands at the foothill of the Chimborazo volcano, Ecuador’s central Andes, on february 18, 2019. – The Chimborazo and the Carihuairazo are two of the seven elevations that are losing their glacier coverage in Ecuador mainly due to the deforestation of the moorlands and burning of fossil fuels. (Photo by Pablo Cozzaglio / AFP)

Water flowing away

Their wells drying up, men from local indigenous communities now have to forage for water, hoes in hand, ready to dig in the loamy soil for new water sources. It’s work that increasingly demands more effort.

Scientists first began recording a retreat in the Chimborazo glacier in 1962. They measured the glacier at 27 square kilometers (10.4 square miles). By 2016, it had shrunk to only 7.6 square kilometers

“It had lost 72 percent of its cover,” said Caceres.

Its nearest neighbor, the 5,020 meter Carihuairazo volcano is in an even more critical state, losing 96 percent of its glacier since 2003. Today it’s no bigger than a football stadium.

Five other Ecuadoran peaks have been affected.

“The water courses are drying up,” according to Francisco Hidalgo, head of the local government in San Andres.

While the indigenous communities once had springs about five kilometers (3 miles) from their village, they now have to travel up to three times that distance to draw water from natural wells, more than 4,000 meters above sea level.

Sterile lands

Some communities have been able to regenerate the paramo by planting native vegetation and replacing cattle with llamas and vicunas, native Andes species whose padded feet are kinder to the soil.

Many now have to pay for a resource they previously accessed from nature.

“We are buying paramos” to plant locally, to retain the water on the land, said America Guilcapi, leader of the Pulingui indigenous community on the mountain’s slopes.

There is no quick fix. They are currently managing to irrigate only 17 of their community’s 105 arable hectares.

But slowly, local communities have started to implement a wider plan to retain their water supplies.

That consists buying hundreds of hectares of virgin land to increase their water catchment.

“There are communities that are devastated, with useless land, which is why we are working to improve irrigation systems,” said Hidalgo. /kga

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TAGS: air pollution, coal, ecosystem, Ecuador, Environment, fossil fuel, glacier, indigenous people, International news, Mount Chimborazo, News, paramo, Pollution, technology, Water, wetlands, World, World News
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