Climate change and the crisis of reciprocal relations among the Q’eros (Cuzco, Peru)

Geremia Cometti
Postdoctoral Fellow
Swiss National Science Foundation at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale in Paris

The Q’eros are an indigenous group living on the oriental slope of the Cordillera Vilcanota, in the department of Cuzco, Peru. They are split into five transhumant communities spanning three ‘ecological levels’. The highest level, the puna, ranges from 3,800 to 4,600 meters in altitude. At this level the alpacas and llamas are bred. At the qheswa, the intermediary level ranging from 3,200 to 3,800 metres, the Q’eros cultivate different types of tubers. Finally, from 1,400 to 2,400 metres, there is the yunga, a wooded zone cultivated with maize. Climatic changes, especially through changes in rainfall patterns, significantly impact the agricultural productions of the Q’eros, and endanger the health and existence of their livestock.

The unanimous view among the Q’eros is that it rains a great deal during the rainy season and very little during the dry season. The second most important phenomenon concerns frost, which they normally expect to occur during the nights of the dry season. During this season, there are usually few clouds in the night sky. The general outlook of the Q’eros is that frost is becoming more persistent, and, as a consequence, the ground more frozen.

The majority of Q’eros explain these meteorological and climatic changes through a degradation of the reciprocal relations between themselves and non-human entities, in particular their divinities, the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apu (the mountain spirits). This interpretation tends to make the Q’eros feel guilty, particularly for thinking only of commercialising their ceremonies for the inhabitants of Cuzco and the tourists. For the past 10 years, an important number of them have started migrating to the Cuzco region to practice shamanic ceremonies, ‘exploiting’ their reputation as the most powerful shamans of the Peruvian Andes. By abandoning these ritual practices, or by undertaking them with less rigour and participation, they have, in their opinion, broken the reciprocal relations they usually maintain with their divinities. Consequently, the rain falls ever more profusely during the rainy season, and, by contrast, does not fall sufficiently during the dry season. In turn, cultivating crops and breeding animals has become ever more difficult.

At this stage, it is important to compare the representation of climate change presented by dominant scientific discourses with that of the Q’eros. Both the Q’eros and climate scientists acknowledge this ‘climate change’. However, the two representations strongly diverge on the explanation for this change. The scientific discourse has a tendency to conceive ‘deterministic’ relationships between human beings on the one hand and nature on the other. Climate change is explained by anthropic activities, particularly greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. On the other hand, in the Q’ero worldview, relationships between nature and culture are conceived as continuous rather than disjointed. In fact, the Q’ero explanation for climate change is rooted in their view that they are abandoning their ritual practices. On that particular point, it is possible to note a convergence between the two points of view: both emphasise human practices to explain climate change. Nevertheless, the two perspectives clearly differ on which type of practice ‘is to blame’. Scientific discourses accentuate human activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; the Q’eros construal points towards ritual practices that contribute to maintaining reciprocal relations with non-human beings.

Taking into account the point of view of the Q’eros helps to highlight the symbolic significance of climate change. Moreover, this comparison shows that an analysis which does not take into consideration the cultural consequences of climate change for involved societies like the Q’eros – putting the dominant western discourse together with the viewpoint of the society directly affected by climate change – is incomplete.

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