Ayacucho: Painting a mountain to save a Peruvian village

By Gaia Vince 19 December 2010
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In an attempt to combat the effects of climate change, two locals are patiently painting a mountain.

AYACUCHO, PERU: When Salamon Parco was the same age as his son, Wilmer – 5 – a river ran through this valley. It watered the alpaca pastures around Licapa, Parco’s village, 100 km west of the town of Ayacucho in Peru. But the glacier at Chalon Sombrero disappeared completely 20 years ago, and with it the river. All that is left is a black rocky summit above a worn channel where a river once ran.

Now, Parco and his friend Geronimo Torres spend every morning painting the black mountain white, hoping to bring back the glacier on which 900 people depend.

Licapa, at 4200 m up, is an Andean village of 200 people whose livelihoods are based around farming alpaca, the domesticated camelid of South America. This part of Peru is one of the poorest in the country and was hit particularly hard in the 1980s and early ’90s during a decade of terrorism led by the Shining Path, a violent Maoist guerilla group who had their base in Ayacucho.

The farmers around here, who speak Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas, have spent the past 20 years trying to rebuild their broken communities, homes and lives, helped by various government schemes. But climate change is against them. Chalon Sombrero, at just 5000 m above sea level, is one of hundreds of other glaciers expected to vanish by 2015 because of global warming.

Novel climate change solution

IT DOESN’T OFTEN rain here, and what rain does fall is confined to January and February. The rest of the year, the high-alpine grasslands rely on glacial meltwater and, in its absence, turn yellow and die. More than 100 people have already left Licapa because they cannot feed their families, migrating to shanty settlements around Lima. Parco, with a wife and three young children, is considering the same. “But my home is here. What would I do in the city? I need to try and make it work here first,” he says.

They began painting the mountain in May and by September had turned 3 ha of black rock white, in a remarkable experiment that is backed by US$200,000 in prize money from a 2009 World Bank climate change adaptation competition. The money, which the experiment’s conceiver Eduardo Gold says he has yet to receive, will be used to build a factory in Licapa to produce lime paint for whitening the mountain.

The experiment is based on the principle that a black body absorbs more heat than a white one. By increasing the albedo (reflectivity) of the black rocks, using white paint, the mountain should be cold enough to retain the ice that forms on it – and eventually a glacier will form. That’s the hope, anyway.

There are plenty of sceptics, including Peru’s environment minister, Antonio Brack, who believes the money could be better spent on other climate mitigation projects. And Gold, who has no scientific qualifications, is also judged with some suspicion by agencies and public bodies.

Self-sustaining climate change project

NEVERTHELESS, PARCO IS already seeing results. “In the daytime, the painted surface is 5°C, whereas the black rock is 20°C. And at night, the white surface falls to -5°C,” he says. Ice now forms on the painted rocks over night, although it has melted by 10.30am. Now the race is on to get 7 ha more painted before the onset of the hail in January, so that results can be seen in April.

The plan is to dig a small reservoir of water above the painted section and pump water up to it using a wind turbine, which will then be released during the night in a slow trickle over the paint, where it is hoped it will freeze. In time, the ice will build up and the process will be self-sustaining, because glacial conditions would be there: cold generates cold, Gold says.

Parco and Torres have 70 ha to paint in total, a job they think will take 2 years. They started the paint job with two other men in May, but 15 days later, the other two dropped out because there was no money to pay them.

“We are still painting the mountain because it works, and because we have no choice,” Parco says. “If there is no glacier, then there is no water for us and we will have to move away.”

Lonnie Thompson of the Ohio State University, who has been studying Peru’s glaciers for the past 40 years, says that painting the mountain may have some success in the short term in a local area, but it is not feasible over greater regions. “Nobody is going to paint the entire Andean chain white,” he says. What is needed now that the glaciers are disappearing, is man-made water storage to replace them. “This means a big programme of building dams and reservoirs, which is tricky in such an earthquake-prone zone, but necessary,” he says.

It is unlikely that Parco’s remote village of Licapa will be prioritised for new water works in the next few years. Painting a mountain white may, however, produce enough ice in the next couple of years to buy the villagers time to adapt to a different livelihood.

Gaia Vince is an Australian journalist who is travelling around the world reporting on the effects of climate change and sending regular dispatches to Australian Geographic. She writes for the BBC, New Scientist and The Guardian. Find her blog at wanderinggaia.com.