The heat on Ecuador

Global warming is vanquishing ancient glaciers throughout South America, killing crops and threatening the water source for millions.

By Felicia Mello
April 7, 2006 2:00PM (UTC)
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When Rosita Ramos was a child, she heard elders tell stories about the snow-capped mountain that towered above their Ecuadorean village. "Mama Cotacachi" was a beautiful, pale-skinned woman with glowing white-blond hair. She seduced Imbabura, the older mountain to the south, marrying him and forcing him to give up his philandering ways. Inside her skirt was a storehouse of grain, which she dispensed little by little to the lucky villagers who lived at her feet, never giving too much at once, so they would not waste it. Venture too close to the mountain's peak, it was said, and her spirit might follow you home, to haunt you in your dreams.

Ramos, now a 34-year-old mother of four, guards these stories like the seeds from native corn varieties that hang in brilliant rows from the ceiling of her cinder-block house.


"Before we had respect for Mother Earth," she says in a soft, high voice. "She was not something dead. The elders still have a sensation that Mother Earth hears them. She has to let them sow their seeds -- otherwise they won't have a good harvest. If someone is dedicated and close to the earth, they have a good energy."

Like many of the other Quichua-speaking indigenous people that make their homes at the base of this western Andean volcano, Ramos relies on the mountain for food, water and spiritual strength. But lately, residents of the town of Cotacachi and the 43 indigenous communities that surround it -- some 30,000 people in all -- have noticed changes in their once familiar environment.

In the last five years, the ice cap on Cotacachi's craggy peak -- there for as long as anyone could remember -- has vanished, leaving her bare and brown. Since then, farmers complain that creeks they've relied on for years no longer give enough water to sustain their small plots of corn, potatoes and beans. Waterfalls where shamans once performed healing ceremonies have all but disappeared.


"We realize that it doesn't snow much anymore, and that the soil is drier every day," Ramos says. "Many people say they have no water in their irrigation ditches. When the corn harvest begins in the summer, it is like a desert here. Everything is ugly."

As conflicts break out over scarce resources, the struggle to explain Cotacachi's water woes has divided inhabitants between old and young, indigenous and mixed-race mestizos, townspeople and country folk. The older Quichuas whisper that Mama Cotacachi is aging, just like a person, and she must be taken care of so she will continue to produce. Young fieldworkers curse greedy plantation owners for hogging the water for themselves. Some townspeople blame the glacier's disappearance on merchants who climbed Cotacachi by donkey, hacked off chunks of ice, and carried them down to sell in the market below.

But science offers a different explanation, one that is gaining credence with younger mestizos who have studied outside Cotacachi. Rising global temperatures are melting glaciers throughout South America. At its relatively low height of 16,000 feet, Cotacachi was one of the first Andean mountains to lose its ice cap. Scientists predict that most small glaciers in the mountain range will disappear in the next two decades; 80 percent of glaciers in nearby Bolivia will likely be gone by 2015. The glaciers' retreat could contribute to water shortages and flash floods across the continent. If the warming trend continues, Cotacachi's problems may be a troubling sign of what lies ahead.


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From the edge of Laguna Cuicocha crater, halfway down the mountain, three rivers descend Cotacachi's green slopes, their channels cutting sharply into the rich soil. Further down, the ravines divide into quebradas, or creeks, that nourish the fields on the mountain's flanks where farmers eke out their living under the glaring equatorial sun. The creeks, in turn, reach their tiny fingers southward toward the valley, where the town of Cotacachi sits framed by taller mountains in the distance. Above, in the crater itself, the lagoon that feeds these waterways sits in almost supernatural stillness, a deep-blue jewel flecked with turquoise, with two small islands like sleeping animals at its center.


Apart from a single cement factory pumping out puffs of smoke on the horizon, the landscape gives the impression of having changed little in the past century. But water-resources engineer Xavier Zapata knows better. On a clear January morning, he leads me up the steep dirt trail that rims the crater, sweeping his hand to indicate the rivers below.

"These rivers supply the communities with irrigation and drinking water," he says. "I say 'rivers,' but actually they have become very small, because they have lost their source of nourishment."

Zapata is a German-educated native of Quito, Ecuador's capital; a short, solid man with a scrubbed baby face, he wears the customary fleece, khakis and hiking boots of a Western scientist. He first came to Cotacachi in 2003 to study land use as part of the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) project, a joint venture between the University of Georgia and Ecuadorean researchers.


"At the beginning, I had no idea about climate change and its effect on glaciers here," he says. "Then I saw old pictures of Cotacachi with a lot of snow and glaciers, and I knew that wasn't the current reality."

After seeing villagers tapping their own wells in a desperate search for more water -- one community tried to drill a tunnel to the lagoon -- Zapata built a hydrological model of the area. He traced the tiny creeks and springs back to the three rivers and up to the very top of the mountain, where the glacier once sat. And he began to suspect that Cotacachi's water problems stemmed not just from local weather patterns, but from the practices and policies of people hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

Scientists agree that global warming is melting much of the world's ice. While many of the glaciers on the globe have been gradually retreating since the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-19th century, the process has accelerated rapidly in the last 50 years, as factories and cars spew ever more pollution into the air.


And glaciers like those in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Bolivia are especially vulnerable, because their tropical location makes them more sensitive to changes in air temperature. These countries, like most other third-world nations, contribute little to the growing concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, but they will be among the first to feel the effects of climate change. While "tropical glacier" might sound like an oxymoron, much of the region relies on these ancient ice caps: Glacial runoff is a key source of water for millions of South Americans, and it supplies half of the drinking water for Quito.

"What we've seen in the last 30 years is very troubling," says Eric Cadier, a glaciologist with the French Institute for Research and Development, the primary group monitoring glaciers in South America. "And it's only going to continue." In the coming decades, Cadier says, Andean countries will face a radical change in the amount of water available from glaciers. "Quito's water company is concerned, but they should be even more worried than they are."

Paintings of Cotacachi from the turn of the 20th century show a massive glacier covering almost the entire mountaintop. By mid-century, the permanent ice cap had shrunk, but climbers still needed picks and crampons to scale the peak. Today, only the rare dusting of snow marks the path to the summit; otherwise, the mountain is completely bare.

Scientists refer to the line between a glacier's top half, where snow is accumulating, and its bottom half, where it is melting, as the line of equilibrium. In warming weather, the line of equilibrium may rise and the glacier can begin to retreat, giving off increasing amounts of water. Zapata believes that as Cotacachi's glacier retreated, the rush of meltwater cascaded from the peak into Laguna Cuicocha and the rivers and creeks below, providing an ample supply for the area's growing population. Other rivers that descended directly from the peak also swelled with the increased runoff.


When the glacier disappeared, however, that flow began to dry up, leaving residents more dependent on rainwater. It also made for harsher droughts. A glacier acts like a bank account, storing precipitation during the wet season to release later when the weather becomes dry. With the account drawn down and the glacier gone, Zapata believes, Cotacachi's farmers are no longer insulated against changes in rain patterns.

Ecuador's scientists often lack the resources to do basic research, so no glaciologist has specifically studied Cotacachi. But Cadier and his colleagues at the country's National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology find Zapata's hypothesis convincing. Cadier's team has been measuring glacial retreat on several mountains in Ecuador -- including Antizana, which provides drinking water and hydroelectric power to the capital -- and their research suggests that when a small glacier disappears, stream flow in the area can decrease by about a quarter.

"We could say that what is happening now in Antizana happened in Cotacachi a century ago," Cadier says. "And in countries like Peru and Bolivia, where there is less rainfall, the effect will be a lot worse."

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I meet Jorge Proaño, a tall, muscular mestizo, in the highland community of Imantag. It's a relatively wild place: Large plantations known as haciendas still control much of the land; boulders and thick vegetation clog the roads; and gang violence has killed a dozen people in the last few years. Proaño, head of the local water council, agrees to take me on a tour of the community's water sources. As our Jeep rumbles over the rutted road, he points to the parched riverbed we've just crossed, part of the river Alambi.

"I remember when I was little that river could make you deaf with its noise," he says. "My grandfather bought me a burro when I was 12. I used to send it over the river to get firewood. One day, while it was in the middle of the river, the water swept it away." Looking down at the stony ditch, with its trickle of water only 3 feet wide, the idea seems laughable.

I ask Proaño if he thinks the river will grow again to its previous volume. "Only if there is once again ice on top of Cotacachi," he replies. "And that is difficult or impossible."

Water councils in the communities face the daunting task of finding new water sources and meting out the precious supply to the area's subsistence farmers. It's but the latest chapter in the farmers' centuries-old struggle with the land and those who own it. Until the 1960s, virtually all the land in the county belonged to a few wealthy hacendados, and peasants traded labor for the right to graze their animals or plant a few crops.


After the government instituted land reform, indigenous farmers founded small, semiautonomous communities in the hills around the town of Cotacachi. But while land reform gave soil to the people, they lacked the legal rights to water, either for irrigation or drinking. Villagers in the community of Tunibamba tell of sneaking onto the local hacienda at night to collect water from the spring there. Only when they occupied the estate and won government support to purchase it from its owner did their situation improve. The occupation was part of a grassroots movement that brought basic services like sewerage systems to many of the communities and eventually elected the county's first indigenous mayor.

Today, 80 percent of the county's population lives below the poverty line. Indigenous people dominate the outlying communities, while mestizos make their homes in town, though a few mestizo farmers live side by side with indigenas and till the same land. Public works in the villages are performed by minga, a traditional system where women cook communal meals and each household head volunteers time to dig wells or plant trees. The two ethnic groups often view each other with suspicion, hold different outlooks on the world, and even speak different languages. But they share a need for the same precious resource -- el oro azul, as it is sometimes called in Ecuador: blue gold.

Higher up, the Alambi widens and we pass women leading their animals and catch sight of one-room houses with tin and tile roofs. We park at a grassy field and make our way past clusters of blue and purple wildflowers to the river's edge.

Hopping from rock to rock, Proaño leads me to the other side of the canyon where two irrigation canals meet and their contents mix. One delivers river water to Hacienda La Maria, one of the largest plantations in the area. The other is a bright blue overpass built by Imantag and two other communities, carrying water from two springs to the east that, according to Proaño, have been relatively unaffected by the glacier's disappearance.

In the summers, Proaño says, the Alambi dries up and virtually all the water in the joint canal comes from the communities' springs. But the hacienda continues to take the same percentage as before, water he claims rightly belongs to the villages.

"We were the ones who worked for 10 years to bring the water from so far," he says. "There were entire weeks when everyone left their jobs to go to the minga. By hand, with sticks and picks we cleared the rocks from the canal. Now they want to take advantage of our ingenuity."

The hacienda's administrator, Marta Camacho, argues that a legal agreement to share the canal established new water rights, with access to all the water divided between both parties.

"The scarcity affects everyone, not just Imantag," she says. "But the water councils have become very political. Water makes enemies of everyone."

Such clashes are not uncommon in the area, but locals say they have worsened since the glacier disappeared. Ecuador's National Council on Hydrological Resources reports that requests to renegotiate water concessions have grown in recent years, as droughts and glacial retreat put pressure on the country's water supply.

The hacienda itself, a sprawling patchwork of organic vegetable plots, eucalyptus stands and cornfields, suffers from a drought that has made half its land uncultivable. With little water for irrigation, workers must wait for the rain to plant. Camacho says she is spending thousands of dollars to convert from flood to drip irrigation, trying to squeeze as much as possible from her meager reservoirs.

"Agriculture is no longer profitable here," she says. "Investment is a Russian roulette. We never know when or how much it is going to rain."

Her problems do not move Proaño. "With the water that the hacienda is taking from us we could irrigate at least 250 more acres," he says. "That would mean more work and more economic resources so our families can eat."

On the way back down the mountain, we pass two men trudging back from work in the fields, hefting shovels and lunch pails over their shoulders. Arturo Galindo, the younger of the two, tells me that shrinking water sources in his community have forced many to work on large plantations instead of tilling their own land. That often means less control over their time and a smaller share of the profits.

"We had a good water flow," he explains. "But now it's drying up. Before you could keep the land moist, but now sometimes we lose our crops. We live off the land and water is a vital liquid for us, so it's a disaster." o

In an era when people in his town clamor for cellphones and the latest cumbia CD, Proaño talks about water like it's a hot commodity. "You could say," he remarks with a grin as we continue driving, "that [here] water for irrigation is a lot more popular than Coca-Cola."

Marcelo Sevillano guns the motor of his small tourist boat and guides it out onto the lagoon's smooth surface. It's a trip he's been making for over 20 years, since he was 15. His family has led sightseeing trips at the lake for three generations.

When he reaches the islands in the center, he lets the boat idle, so the travelers can observe the bubbles of gas rising through the water from the active volcano below. After a moment of silence, he begins in the deep, deliberate voice of a practiced storyteller to explain the lake's history.

"This site, because of its majesty, was a sanctuary for our ancestors," he tells his audience. "Many rituals were celebrated here -- some pleasant, others cruel."

Legend has it, he continues, that the Incas tossed infants overboard into the lake as human sacrifices to appease the wrath of their gods. Later they would release guinea pigs -- both a sacred animal and a delicacy in the Inca culture -- on the islands. The rodents housed the spirits of the martyred children and gave the lagoon its name, Cuicocha, or "lake of the guinea pigs" in Quichua, the Inca language.

These days, Quichua-speaking indigenas still flock to the lagoon's shores every June for Inti Raymi, the festival of the Sun God. They pray, dance and bathe in the frigid waters to cleanse themselves of sin. The lake also anchors the county's ecotourism strategy, an ambitious effort launched by Cotacachi's first indigenous mayor as an alternative to less environmentally friendly industries like the flower plantations that are proliferating in the region. Fausto Garces, Ecuador's former minister of tourism, has transformed the lagoon into a destination that draws 56,000 visitors to Cotacachi each year. He employs 25 families, with benefits, and likes to say that while tourism isn't yet the most lucrative industry in the area, it is the one that distributes its income most evenly among the population.

Sevillano tells me that the water level in the lagoon has fallen more than 10 feet in the last 10 years, a change that troubles the owners of the boat company. On the shore, three docks range like steppingstones from a lakeside hotel down to the water; each was built and quickly had to be replaced as the water fell even further.

Zapata sees this decline as proof of his theory that rainwater cannot sustain the lagoon. When he first learned of the glacier's disappearance, he set up instruments to measure water levels and streamflow. At first, he was slow to believe the hotel workers who told of the changes in the lake. "I said to myself, five meters in 10 years? That's not possible." But Zapata's own measurements over two years showed the same rate of change.

"The lake is the star attraction of the county," Garces says. "In the short term, it can drop a little and it won't be a problem. But in the long term, we don't really know what will happen."

The changes worry a local government that has staked its future on alternative models of development. Mayor Auki Tituaña took office in 1996 and promptly shifted 80 percent of the county's budget from the richer urban areas to the resource-starved villages. The government taught townspeople to read using methods imported from Cuba, triumphantly declaring Cotacachi free of illiteracy last year. Posters of Che Guevara decorate the municipal building, and Tituaña has become so popular that he's said to be considering a run for president.

In 2001, the county's General Assembly declared Cotacachi to be an "ecological county," partly in response to an unpopular bid by a Canadian corporation to open a copper mine in the area. Everywhere in Cotacachi, there are signs and graffiti exhorting people not to litter, to conserve water, to take care of nature.

But the water shortage has proven more intractable than some of Cotacachi's other ills. Along with the glacier's inexorable retreat, local people report that the rain comes more irregularly than it did a generation ago, a view in line with international climatologists' predictions for Latin America. Then there are the constant challenges of mismanagement and the lack of resources. Residents break the meters on their faucets to avoid paying fees, leaving little money to repair the system. The city's environmental director, Francisco Grijalva, has focused on the things he can control, vowing to plant thousands of trees near springs in order to trap more moisture and increase streamflow.

"We can no longer just sit around and wait for the ice to melt in order to capture water," he says. "Unfortunately, we are suffering the consequences of environmental problems that other countries are producing. We in Cotacachi can pass a resolution to use our resources more sustainably, but other countries have yet to do that."

Back at the lake, Sevillano's brother Elio, who runs a restaurant overlooking the lake, takes a more personal view: "Since we've known this area since we were kids, there's no other place for us. I can't tell you what we'd do if this lake wasn't here. We'd try to adapt, but it would be extremely difficult."

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One day last December, snow fell on Cotacachi. Though it only lasted for a few days, Rosita Ramos ran around excitedly to others in the village, crying, "Look at Mama Cotacachi, how beautiful she is." The neighbors just looked at her strangely. Ramos took it as a sign of how much her culture has changed in only a generation. For her, the glacier's disappearance symbolizes the loss of her community's relationship with nature.

Ramos wears the traditional glass-bead jewelry of Quichua women -- several gold strands around the neck and brilliant red bracelets on each arm. Sitting on a couch in her three-room house, she describes how in the past, when people didn't have enough water, they would go to a sacred spot on the mountain, bury grains and a fermented drink made from corn as an offering, and ask Cotacachi for help.

"When I tell my older children these stories, they just laugh," she says. The ceremony is no longer performed in her community, she says, and people have stopped taking care of the water sources. "They come in cars from the city and they dump trash in our creeks," she says. "And the creeks have now been dry for six or seven years."

Married at 14 in an arranged match, Ramos straddles the divide between traditional and modern life. She works outside the home -- rare among Quichua women -- and in her spare time helps anthropologists from SANREM document her community's legends.

In the last few years, new stories have evolved alongside old ones, stories that hint at Mama Cotacachi's changing fortunes. One has Imbabura leaving Cotacachi for Cayambe, a taller, snow-covered mountain nearby. He takes all of Cotacachi's grain and gives it to Cayambe, leaving Cotacachi barren. Some people say the mountain is withholding water to punish them for their sins. During times of drought, a local midwife organizes groups of children to pray to Cotacachi for more rain.

Spiritual leaders, who listen for the earth's rhythms, sense the changes most acutely. Jose Maria Montalvo's wife says that when he was a baby, he startled his mother by crying when he was still in her womb, and his mother knew that he was going to be a yacha, or shaman. Today Montalvo receives patients on reed mats in the patio of his tile-roof house, mixing potions of herbs intended to bring luck, vanquish enemies or aid in finding a wife. When we visit him, he shows me a clear glass ball marked with latitude and longitude signs, through which we can see the dirt-stained creases on his hand.

"This ball is the ice from the mountain, and I carry it everywhere," he says. "In it I can see the world turning."

In the Quichua tradition, each shaman draws his power from an element of nature. Montalvo says he can communicate with the mountains and harnesses their energy to cure. But lately, he says, he can feel their energy waning. After farmers burned a field of grass to clear it, he had a vision of Mama Cotacachi.

"Before, when people respected nature, Cotacachi was untouchable. And I had more energy, too. Then she came to me in a dream and told me that they had burnt her. Since then, the water level has been falling, and her energy is also decreasing. I used to communicate with her, and she would come right inside the house," he says, gesturing behind him to the darkened doorway. "Now she stays only at the gate."

Read other articles in the Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet directory.

Felicia Mello

Felicia Mello is a freelance journalist. This story was reported with Pauline Bartolone in a joint production of Salon, NPRs Living on Earth and U.C. Berkeleys Graduate School of Journalism.

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