Archive for May, 2008

The ultimate in closed-cycle resource use: The Biodigestor. You put cow manure in one end and get out usable cooking gas and organic fertilizer. The odorless gas is piped into the kitchen where it can be burned for 4-5hrs a day, replacing the need to collect firewood. The liquid fertilizer is rich in nutrients to boost crop production. And, the patio is no longer littered with cow manure. Biodigestors are relatively simple to construct and made with cheap local materials. It’s basically a huge plastic bag laying on top of straw, insulated between adobe walls and covered with a roof.

Last week a team of adventuresome students from the University of Portland came to Peru to visit the community Micro-hydro and Wind projects, and then get their hands dirty building a biodigestor with a local family…

Thanks UP for making it happen!


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A Journey to Q’ero

After a Q’ero friend died giving birth, Juano and Barbara convened a meeting at Juano’s house in Cuzco. The injustice of the death inspired Juano and Barbara to want to help build clinics, but the Q’ero said no, we have our own medicine; we need to improve the education of our children first. The vision of improved schools, with light and electricity, led Barbara to seek out Green Empowerment in Portland. We put her in touch with our local partner in Peru, Soluciones Practicas-ITDG who sent an engineer out to the remote Q’ero area. On a 10 day rain-soaked horse-back journey, he measured the abundant mountain streams which are perfect for micro-hydro power, the most efficient way to bring electricity to schools and the entire communities.

Juano, from Cuzco, and Barbara from Germany via USA, have co-lead trips for people around the world to learn about the cultural richness and mystic traditions of the Incan and their living descendents, the Q’ero in the highlands of the Andes. Now, they have pulled together a network of NGOs and government agencies to help make the Q’ero´s wish for improved education and modern energy into a reality. Last week we journeyed up to the mountain passes to attend the big meeting of the Q’ero nation.

After acclimatizing to the altitude in Cuzco, we drove to Callacancha, and unloaded our bags from the truck. Kids gathered around curious and pushing. I gestured and smiled, but my ignorance of Quechua kept our conversations to counting and giggling. We met up with Hernan, Augustin, his son Lorenzo who brought horses to haul us, and our camping gear, on the journey. Augustin, as most Q’ero men, wore a colorful embroidered hat with triangular earpieces from which dangled big pompoms of yarn. This hat is topped with a felt brimmed hat, as if the Spanish influence was just placed on top of the Incan culture, and he made use of both for different things (in this case cold and sun). Augustin and Hernan threw everything into plastic sacks and roped them to the hearty beasts. We threw ourselves up on the saddles and lumbered off…

The meditative rocking of the horses, step by step, was a rhythmic background to observing the stunning views. As we walked, Lorenzo the 15 year old son of Augustin, led the horses, on foot through ice-cold creeks and over 13,000ft high mountain passes, with just sandals made of rubber tires. He went to 2 years of primary school and has never been past Callacancha, the dusty end-of-the-road town with not much going on (he says, they have everything…)

After 2 days on the trail, we made it to Hatun Q´ero, the center of the 5 Qéro villages. The village is a simple grouping of rustic stone buildings with dirt floors and straw roofs. This used to be the base of the hacienda (estate), when all the Q´ero worked the land for the Spanish master, until the agrarian reform in 1970. Today, there is no ´master´ but they still work the same land in hard conditions.

First we went to the school, since part of the project that we are putting together is to improve the educational infrastructure, and eventually instruction, in these remote villages. At the school we met the teacher, from Pacaurtambo, the seat of the district. When we walked in, the kids were going over a drawing of the human body. The students were almost all boys, which in part is due to the fact that most have to walk for hours to get to school, which most parents don’t feel comfortable sending their little girls out to do. We asked the teacher about the condition of the school, and he pointed to the ceiling. He had put plastic lining on the ceiling so that the bats don’t come in and give the kids illnesses…The windows of the schoolhouse had been broken, letting in the frigid air. We went to his living quarters, which were a corner of a room in the municipal building. He had put a few chairs together, placed a board on top, covered it with straw and some blankets, and called it a bed. I now understood how teachers considered going to teach in Q’ero as a punishment. Apparently teachers don’t usually stay the whole week, and this was the first time Barbara and Juano had seen teachers in action, after all the years of coming to Q’ero.

The project includes improving school infrastructure, building latrines and potable water systems for the schools, and building decent teacher’s quarters with electricity and internet. The next phase would be to strengthen the teaching model. The first step would be to strengthen traditional education for the elementary students; teaching the old stories in Quechua and reaffirming their unique culture. Then, they would receive the basics of western education of math, science, history, reading and writing. The Q’ero even want to build a secondary school in Cuzco to get their kids up to speed and able to pursue higher degrees.

In the municipal building there were several computers, all powered by a solar array donated by the First Lady, some 5 years ago. Amazingly, there was a young Q’ero there who had gone to a technical school in Cuzco and returned to Q’ero and worked at the municipality. He had a laptop computer with him and a video camera. He showed a small group of us in the municipal building-teacher’s quarters, a video he’d produced. It consisted of interviews with potato farmers who had lost their entire crop this year due to an early frost. The farmers, all speaking in Quechua, pointed to the blackened leaves of the potato plants and pleaded with the Ministry of Agriculture to come to their rescue. The video would be distributed to government authorities. It was an impressive example of how indigenous people can use the latest technology for uses very relevant to their everyday lives. Seeing the pictures of the burnt potato crops from the unseasonable cold spell also brought home the effects of climate change. Climate change is not an abstraction here, it is a real felt experience of temperatures and weather patterns out of whack, melting glaciers and dramatic effects on the patterns of agriculture that have been developed by generations.

An Ancient Culture Faces Global Issues

Slowly the Q’ero men sifted in from the surrounding communities. About 100 men edged the courtyard formed by the small settlement. Most had the beaded and embroidered knit hats, with pompoms at the ears and down the back. Eventually the president convened the meeting and started down the agenda which included land titling, a mining concession, energy and electricity projects, elections, and health campaigns.

The community had recently come to agreement to try and title a large swath of open lands that the Q’ero have been farming for lower-altitude crops. These untitled lands form part of a watershed that leads down to the Amazon. A Peruvian environmental NGO, had tried to convince the Q’ero to put the lands in the NGO´s name as a Forest Reserve. The NGo would hire a few Q’ero guards and lead eco-tourism trips. They also said that this Forest Reserve would produce carbon sequestration credits. Some Q’ero were in favor of the plan, but many not. After much internal debate, the Q’ero decided to try and legally title all of that land into communal ownership. With the title in their name, they could then decide how to use and manage it. Even if they wanted to set it aside as a Forest Reserve, they, and not a distant NGO, would be the direct beneficiaries of any eco-tourism or carbon credits. Juano has been helping them navigate the beaurocracy and has laid out the roadmap to titling. The municipality is offering funding for the survey work necessary to title the land. The titling also gives them legal ground for defending the land against a mining company that has been prospecting in the area. At the meeting the community decided to establish a committee of defense against the mining company.

This was the second time mining came up along our journey. The first time was the day before, when we had stopped for lunch on a treeless field overlooking the vast canyons. There was a group of young men in hard hats sitting around on the other edge of the field. Always curious, I walked over to them. They were drinking alcohol and taking a break from cracking the rock with their axes, looking for gold. These low-tech local miners are referred to as ¨artisan¨ miners. While on the magnitude of environmental impact of these artisan mines is small compared to the mega mountain-moving mines of large (often US) companies, the artisan miner do not have any PR pressure to enact any environmental mitigation activities and can be haphazard with their use of toxic chemicals.

After several hours of meeting, sitting on the damp ground and the cool fog rolled in and have a mystic haze to the whole environment. Finally it was Juano and Barbara’s turn to give the update on the Energy and Education projects. Juano reported in Castellano, which was then translated to Quechua, that they had met with the Ministry of Energy and it looks promising that they will be contributing to the projects. The Regional government and signed an agreement to work with the Ministry of Energy to promote rural electrification, but what exactly that will look like (Grid extension? Renewables? To which communities?) has not yet been unveiled. Barbara and Juano have been invited to meet with the director of the ministry in Lima next week. On the Education front, we are still seeking funding and partnerships to start this initiative. (link to proposals)

There were a few other non-Q’ero who had hoofed their way to the meeting: a ¨regidor¨ (registrar from the Provincial Government), a health worker, three men from the Instituto Nacional de Cultura which recently recognized the Q’ero as a living national heritage site, two French and Peruvian masters students investigating the establishment of agro-biodiversity zone and the threat of genetic patenting of quinoa and potatoes. It was interesting to see these representatives, and ourselves, as the points of contact with the outside world.

Hybrid Cultures

Here, the conquest is recent history. Its legacy is the defining character of this land, these people. And in a way, it seems like that process of colonization is still just getting going. A road is just now being cut into Q’ero territory, and growing daily. The contact with “Western culture”, which came in the form of servitude and Christianity, now comes in the form of roads, education in Spanish, philanthropic efforts to bring potable water, and yes, electricity. Walking though this barren land, you can distinguish between what was pre-Spanish (llamas, alpacas, potatoes, coca leaf, Quechua language, Apus and earth-focused cosmo-vision, stone and straw huts, indigenous last names) and what came after the Spanish (sheep, horses, rice, Spanish first names, adding Christian icons to rituals, mostly western clothes, interface with the state in the form of health workers, schools, government registrars, municipal structure).

Walking through these communities, and being engaged in helping them get electricity, demands reflection on isolation vs. connectivity, tradition vs. modernity. Is there a way to form a hybrid culture? (After all, all culture is an ever-changing hybrid). Is there a way to help them fulfill their expressed desires for formalized education, health, electricity and roads without washing away the last traces of pre-colonial culture? In all of my time in this field of renewable energy I have asked people if they have ever offered to help a community to access energy and been denied by a community that preferred to preserve the old ways of kerosene and candles. No one I’ve met has had that experience. There is one man who is a staunch activist against the energy projects….he dresses as a Q’ero, but is an Argentine who lives with the modern conveniences of Cuzco. How can you force a people into being a living museum when that often implies a poverty we would not choose ourselves? Everyone that I spoke to about this issue was confident that the Q’ero would maintain their traditions. After all, they have been interfacing with western culture for about 500 years. Quechua and the spiritual worldview is deeply rooted and has survived centuries of outside influences.

I asked Hernan, the Q’ero man who was leading the horses, what he thought about the idea of having electricity in his house. He said it would be good because they could weave at night. Electricity can be used to make life a little easier, save eyes and lungs from kerosene smoke and reduce expenses for home lighting and Hernan’s answer makes be believe that electricity can be consistent with cultural preservation.


It is easy to see how the Q’ero believe in Apus (Mountains as Gods). In fact, it seems irrational not to believe it, walking past these giants. Pachamama, the spirit that resides in the earth, seems to be so obvious here. The earth seems so alive, the elements all around you, the water rushing past, the intense blue sky and clouds continually shape-shifting.

Apparently the Incas took from Christianity what made sense to them. They too believe(d) in an overarching God (Yiracocha), and this masculine god has its pair in Pachamama, the feminine earth. To them Mary was this feminine earth-bound spirit, and together these two created mankind, the son of god, Jesus. Apus are like the angles and saints, lesser gods you can go to to ask for things. Machu Pichu became San Francisco. In Andean belief system, things come in pairs of opposites that join: man and woman, sky and earth, left and right. And everything works on principles of reciprocity. Give to your gods and they give to you. Wealth is defined by how many reciprocal social relations you are involved in. A “poor” man may have many things but lives alone. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…

The last day we stopped for a snack, and lounged on the grass. Augustin took out his ever-present bag of coca and passed it around. Everyone took about 3 leaves, held them up to their lips, blew on them and made a blessing to the surrounding Apus (mountain-gods). Augustin said I could also make a blessing to the Apu of my country. I blew on the leaf in honor of Mt. Hood, the Apu that protects my home…

Quechua, is a poetic language in which ‘thank you’ is roughly translated as ‘my little dove, my heart’. Luckily, they knew enough Castellano to understand my sincere ¨Gracias¨ as we parted ways…

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