For alpaca farmer Ignacio Beneto Huamani and his young family, life in the Peruvian Andes, at almost 4,700m above sea level, has always been a struggle against the elements. His village of Pichccahuasi, in Peru’s Huancavelica region, is little more than a collection of small thatched shelters and herds of alpaca surrounded by beautiful, yet bleakly inhospitable, mountain terrain.
The few hundred people who live here are hardened to poverty and months of sub-zero temperatures during the long winter. But, for the fourth year running, the cold came early. First their animals, and now their children, are dying and in such escalating numbers that many fear that life in the village may be rapidly approaching an end.
In a world growing ever hotter, Huancavelica is an anomaly. These communities, living at the edge of what is possible, face extinction because of increasingly cold conditions in their own microclimate, which may have been altered by the rapid melting of the glaciers.
A consequence is that Quechua-speaking farmers and their families, who have managed to subsist for centuries at high altitude, believe they may not make it through the next southern winter.
There have been warnings from meteorologists in Peru that this month will see the Huancavelica region hit by the worst weather conditions in years, with plunging temperatures, floods and high winds. The weather is already claiming lives; last month seven people died and scores were treated in hospital after torrential rain caused flash flooding in Ayacucho, the capital of the neighboring region.
The cold is tipping Pichccahuasi into a spiraling decline brought on by pneumonia, bronchitis and hunger.
Although designed to withstand the cold, Huamani’s house is crumbling and his roof, half-collapsed from the snowstorms that battered the village last June and July, offers scant protection from the freezing wind and rain.
His family, including four young children, sleep on wet ground night after night. His children have not yet recovered from illnesses from this year’s winter and he is terrified that they won’t be resilient enough to endure further freezing weather.
He points to his youngest son, aged two, who trails after him, soaking wet and racked with bouts of coughing, as he goes about his work.
“All the children here are sick, they all have breathing problems,” he says. “The problem is there is too much cold, too much rain. We have had no time to recover from last winter before it has begun again. There is nothing I can do.”
Climate change campaigners and development NGOs say that the failure of Copenhagen has signed the death warrant for hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest, and that a quarter of a million children will die before world leaders meet again to try to thrash out another deal at the next UN climate change conference in Mexico in December. Among them may be these children of the high mountains.
Enduring prolonged sub-zero temperatures is a matter of course for Peru’s indigenous mountain people, many of whom live at more than 3,000m above sea level. Scores die every year from the cold, but in recent years the number of people succumbing to the freezing temperatures has triggered talk of a national crisis.
This year the adjacent district of Puno saw a severe spike in child mortality as the winter brought months of high winds and relentless ice storms. Government figures record that more than 300 children died in Puno in May last year from the cold; NGOs say that the figure was probably much higher.