A Mountain Saved, A People's Ways Preserved - Waterkeeper

A Mountain Saved, A People’s Ways Preserved

By: Río Mapacho Waterkeeper

The magnificent Cusco region, in the Peruvian Andes, includes the world’s largest tropical glacier, Quelccaya, and many other natural wonders but faces increasing threats from mining activity and climate change. Photo by Daniel Prudek/Shutterstock.
By Ronald Catpo, Río Mapacho Waterkeeper

In 2008, the regional government of Cusco in Peru declared its intention to protect many of the most valuable ecosystems in the region by designating them Regional Conservation Areas because of their biodiversity, the environmental services they provide, and their spiritual and cultural importance to the Quechua native people. One of them was the chain of snowcapped Andean mountains of Ausangate, an area which includes the world’s largest tropical glacier, Quelccaya. In addition, the waters of the Ausangate range feed important rivers such as the Vilcanota and the Mapacho.

Río Mapacho Waterkeeper has been working on the dream of declaring the Quelccaya glacier and the Ausangate ecosystem a Regional Conservation Area since 2014.

Río Mapacho Waterkeeper Ronald Catpo
Río Mapacho Waterkeeper Ronald Catpo led the fight to create the 66,514-hectare Ausangate regional conservation area. Photos by Río Mapacho Waterkeeper.
This area has faced increasing amounts of pressure in recent years due to rising global temperatures and mining activity. These factors made it more challenging for the region to receive protected status. In fact, the official government agency that oversees mining activity, the Geological, Mining and Metallurgical Institute, granted mining concessions to many applicants, thereby preventing the integration of a considerable amount of the region into the Ausangate conservation area.

Between 2008 and 2013, there were a series of delays because the proposed conservation area was not a government priority. Changes in the regional government and bureaucratic delays were also factors. By August 2017, there were nine Quechua communities involved in the creation of the Ausangate conservation area.

By law, because of a long history of mistreatment and exploitation of the Quechua people, there had to be an extensive consultative process. This process was a contentious one with some arguing that the creation of the conservation area could have negative effects on their collective rights, such as the right to land, access to natural resources, and the ability to keep their cultural practices, since the regional government of Cusco would manage the protected area.

Río Mapacho Waterkeeper has been working on the dream of declaring the Quelccaya glacier and the Ausangate ecosystem a Regional Conservation Area since 2014.

In addition, there was also the fear among some of the communities that mining concessions would be granted and with them a host of environmental and health problems. Ultimately, of the nine Quechua communities involved, only two were firm in becoming part of the conservation area.

On December 12, 2019, the Ausangate Regional Conservation Area was officially declared with 66,514 hectares, including the Quelccaya Ice Cap; and with it approximately 20 percent of the mountains that give life to the upper basin of the Mapacho River received permanent protection. All in all, it was a great triumph considering the difficulties the process presented, and those of us who championed the initiative are confident that the successful preservation effort and the lessons learned can be put to good use convincing other towns to join in the future.