Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Visions of Pachamama

Visions of Pachamama - Ujol Sherchan and Tek Jung Mahat

As we raced through Lima for Miraflores – a happening place for tourists and Lima denizens alike – we passed many Eucalyptus trees lining the streets. Although native to Australia, these trees seemed to us like naturalized citizens of Peru’s botanical world. We’d read of the numerous negative impacts engendered by the Eucalyptus in the South Asian context. However, we couldn’t dismiss all alien plant species as being invariably bad on account of that alone, for our previous visit to the International Potato Center in La Molina had convinced us that the potato – which is native to the Andean highlands – was now a staple in almost all countries of the world. The role of the potato in enhancing food security in Nepal, even triggering population growth in Khumbu region when it was first introduced there (as recorded by Furer-Haimendorf), cannot be emphasized enough. Whoever introduced the potato in Nepal surely did the country an enormous favor.

As we sat enjoying cappuccino and tapas in Miraflores later that evening, our host told us of the growth of Lima city over the last two decades. But what interested us most was when he said that the coastal area stretching from Miraflores to Barranca and beyond used to be the stomping grounds for literally hundreds of thousands of seabirds when he was a kid. But over the years, development has transformed this ribbon of prime real estate into a vibrant commercial district. Seabirds are far and few around here: they have been crowded out. The only species of birds doing well, even thriving here, are the love birds of the featherless kind, many of whom we’d seen smooching in Love Park as well as on green patches alongside the walkway
overlooking the Pacific! 

A week later, we traveled down to Paracas some 250 km south of Lima along the Pan-American Highway, passing en route the city of Pisco famous for producing the grape-based liquor called Pisco, which is used to concoct Peru’s near national drink, the Pisco Sour. Once inside the Paracas National Reserve, we hopped on a motorboat bound for Isla Ballestas, a.k.a. the “Galapagos of Peru”, to observe sea life. En route, the boat stopped in front of a barren hill for a close up of the gigantic cactus-like figure (called the “Candelabra”) etched into it. Believed to date back to 200 BC-900 AD to the Paracas culture, nobody knows what purpose it served back then. Never mind, soon we were hurtling toward Isla Ballestas: feeding grounds for a great variety of biodiversity, including sea lions, Humboldt penguins (named after a German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt), pelicans, sea gulls, cormorants, and Peruvian Boobies. Not surprising considering that these islands lie where the cold Humboldt currents rise from the ocean floor carrying planktons and nutrients to the surface. And what was that rancid ammonia smell that soon had me in tears? Our guide told us it’s the guano, droppings of seabirds. Incidentally, guano – commonly used as fertilizer – used to be one of Peru’s biggest exports to Europe in the early 18th century. Even today, the droppings are scraped off the rocks of these islands, processed, bagged and sold. On our return, we were fortunate to see thousands of migratory geese flying in a formation spanning 5-7 km just a tad above the surface of the ocean, dotting the horizon like the scatter diagram!

Once on the mainland, we traveled to the Nazca Desert some 150 km further down south, unsure whether we would get tickets for a 45-minute flight over the Nazca Lines when we got there. A small plane carrying seven tourists had crashed near the site a month ago, killing them all, on account of which numerous planes had been grounded indefinitely, pending investigations into breach of the safety guideline. Lady Luck, however, didn’t disappoint. As a small plane carrying us and a few others flew over the Nazca Lines, we peered down at literally scores of geometrical patterns, anthropomorphic forms and stylized drawings of biodiversity such as the condor, humming bird, llama, shark, monkey, spider, and baby dinosaur etched into the flat desert. Dating back to 200 BC – 500 AD to the Nazca culture, these “geoglyphs” – many spanning 200-plus metres –can only be seen in full from the air. Even though colorful theories abound, some bordering on the absurd,nobody really knows what purpose they served. That way, Peru is a country full of unsolved ancient mysteries.

During our short stay in Peru, we appreciated the significance of the biodiversity from this part of the world, notably the role of the potato in boosting food security in the Himalaya. Not to mention the export of guano to Europe in the early 1800s that underpinned Peru’s economy, the popularity of Pisco Sour in and around San Francisco during the “Gold Rush” heyday, the artistic inspiration that the Andean plant and animal species had provided to the Nazca and Paracas cultures as reflected in their many extant geoglyphs and textiles, and the co-existence of all kinds of biodiversity on Isla Ballestas that attracted tourists by the boatload.

The trip also taught us that any development that comes at the expense of the natural ecosystem will likely backfire eventually. A case in point: the extinction of the Nazca culture circa AD 500. Recent forensic studies of old pollen samples appear to indicate that as the Nazcas deforested their once fertile Ica valley indiscriminately to make way for agriculture, it made them more and more vulnerable to El Nino-induced floods until finally they succumbed.

As the UN International Year of Biological Diversity stares us squarely and expectantly in the face this year, we would do well to commit to take good care of Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), mindful of the lesson from the Nazca past.

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