Saturday morning, 10:52 AM: At 4,492 meters, overlooking a lake of the Andes, I raise a champagne glass. Our group of seventeen Americans and two Peruvian guides raise a toast to celebrate the ascent that we have made through a five-hour climb, our spirits elevated and lungs challenged by lack of oxygen. Before we take a sip, we pour drops of wine to Pachamama, the Mother Earth, and we raise our glasses to the Apus, the spirits of the mountains and the glaciers that surround the Sacred Valley.
Descending from the summit, we look up toward the soaring peaks to see a glacier tucked between two mountains. For the past few years, the glacier has been melting; as the source of life and water to the community, a shrinking glacier means the threat of loss of ancient ritual, indigenous lifeways, and the fertility of the sacred valley.
Wednesday morning, 9:15 AM: Daily mass in the central cathedral of Cuzco begins as worshippers kneel before images of the Virgin Mary, speaking fervent prayers with eyes closed. I sit toward the back in observation of the crowd and notice to the left of my pew a black image of Christ, hung on the crucifix with his gaze directed below. His face reflects the anguish of hanging between life and death, the uncertainty that is the human condition, the physical and spiritual suffering that reflect his solidarity with the crowd huddled below him. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” the priest reads Jesus’ words from the scriptures.
Thursday afternoon, 3:52 PM: The plane lands without my noticing at Lima’s international airport. Exhaustion hits my spine after twelve days of trekking through the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, towns surrounding Machu Picchu, and the cities of Cuzco and Puno. Finally, I exhale as we have arrived in the capital, a site of global attention at the moment.
Right now, government officials, impassioned environmental advocates, and international representatives are gathered at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (UNCCC), also known as the COP20, in Lima, Peru. The rhetoric and decisions made at this conference will shape the next global treaty expected to be made in Paris this coming year. Unfortunately, the conference deadline has been extended, and a decision has yet to be reached.
When I walked to the market in Cuzco a few days ago, I came across youth protesting in the main square of the plaza. They are hip-hop artists that write about everything from the crisis of drug addiction to the injustice of water poisoning caused by local mines. Their signs read “NO to COP20” because they are sick of the hypocrisy of government inaction. They are exhausted by the current system, and are driven to reform the system.
From youth in the streets of the former capital of the Inca empire to farmers on the Aymara islands of Lake Titicaca, Peruvians have woken up to a reality that the planet and our climate is not as secure as it once was. Any taxi driver in Arequipa will tell you that this is the first year in history that the volcano Misti has not been vested in snow year-round. While scientists produce reports on rising atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, Peruvians measure crop output and mercury levels and realize something does not add up.
Traveling through Peruvian landscapes in the past twelve days, I have spent many hours thinking about the lifeways of humanity. Life in rural areas tended to be slower, governed by the cycle of the rains, held together by traditional religious rituals and respect for the tierra, the land. Areas that we visited have also been transformed recently by tourists’ presence and dependence on the market in order to preserve local customs, while the culture is constantly evolving. Children came from the hills to ask us for bread every few miles during the trek. As indigenous communities are targeted globally by violence and poverty, we are witnessing the death of species and ecosystems at the same rate that human lifeways and languages are disappearing. What will become of Andean religion when the Apus of the glaciers no longer are with us?
Meanwhile, cities are rapidly developing; five shopping malls have been constructed in Arequipa in the past eight years, while districts of Lima resemble the most elegant of global cities. The pattern is complicated by the history of violence; when the Shining Path hit Peru in the 1980s and subsequent years, over 600,000 were displaced and forced to move to urban areas. As a result, pattern of chaos, concrete, and pollution emerges that spills into underdeveloped “pueblos jovenes” of the outskirts, areas settled by rural populations searching for work in the promised land of the city. These hills are now being affected by landslides, unpredictable rain patterns, and droughts at greater rates than other areas of the city.
Given the reality that we are running with resources faster than the Earth can recuperate from them, the climate is as angry as the protesters at COP20, in a state of fever, heated and unsettled by the rapid changes that have taken place in the past era of anthropocentric industrialization. The people who suffer most at the hands of these changes are those in the “third world,” the “underdeveloped,” the nations with extraction-based economies and insufficient resources to combat the unpredictable and devastating effects of recent changes.
Where are we going, then, in this landscape of stalemate debates in COP20 conferences, an increasing amount of Starbucks on every corner, Andean farmers losing potato crops, and youth moving from their rural pueblos in search of urban opportunities?
I feel that we stand at a crossroads on a global camino – we face paths toward sustainability, and paths toward exhaustion. Hanging between life and death, we stand at the precarious liminal stage of chaos that reflects a process of systems breaking down and seeds breaking through the cracks. We are called to walk on the camino toward a new society, free of systemic injustice, but sometimes our eyes are too blinded by the images of this world to see it.
In the temple in Cuzco, a black Christ hangs, a sign of God’s compassion, a sacrifice leading to a new life. In the Museum of the Nation in Lima, a child orphaned by the violence of the 1980s Shining Path movement hangs his arms on a door in a crucified position. A memorial in downtown Lima holds a rock for each victim, but the ink of their names is being washed away by polluted rain. Memory is only as permanent as we create it to be.
Today, in the place of Christ, stands la Pachamama: the Earth and her children whose lives are at stake. We have the choice of we will hang on the cross with them; the yoke is easy, the burden is light, but the crown demands great sacrifice. There is no stalling, only a determination to not confront the situation.
The essence of wisdom from Latin America it is the importance of the heart. Global crises cannot be solved by governance and rationality; it demands passion, willingness to be vulnerable before the world and be crucified for it.
The question remains: will the sacrifice of champagne at the summit be enough to save her, or will we lay down our lives for her children being hung before us? My hands are as bloody as any in this situation. The Earth hungers for the answer.