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Alpaca, a symbol and a source of hope in the andes

by Pino Cimo

According to an old legend handed down from generation to generation of shepherds on the Peruvian Altiplano, the alpaca came to the world from the streams, ponds, and springs of water, and will go back again if humans mistreat it. The day when the flocks of alpaca begin to diminish will be the beginning of the end of the world.

The legend's symbolism and beauty reveal the great importance that the people of the Andean countries - Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia - have always given to the existence and rearing of the alpaca, the most widely found members of the camel family found on the American continent.

For millennia the immense and desolate Altiplano which extends, at 3 000 to 5 000 metres above sea level, form the north of Ecuador past Lake Titicaca to the border of Peru with Bolivia in the south and has been the natural habitat of the alpaca. And today, as yesterday, the alpaca is the domestic animal without which the people of that hostile environment could not survive.

For Andean shepherds the alpaca is a source of milk, meat, leather, and bone for making shoes, musical instruments, and a variety of utensils, and - most important - it supplies a fine fibre from which they can manufacture clothing and blankets to protect themselves against the harsh temperatures (as low as 15 degrees below zero centigrade), frosts, hail, cruel winds, and drenching rains. They use even the dried dung as fuel for stoves and ovens in the particularly cold periods of the year, when it is more difficult to find firewood. The fleece of the alpaca has always been a valuable medium of exchange with which to procure foods and tools needed for everyday life.

The other three lamoids (see box), the llama, the vicuna, and the guanaco, which are relatives of the alpaca, have always been less important to the inhabitants of the Altiplano. The construction of roads and massive introduction of transport into the Altiplano have robbed the llama of its role as unique beast of burden, as it once was for the pre-Columbian civilizations, the Incas, and even the conquistadors. Unlike the llama and alpaca, the vicuna and guanaco are wild animals, and the utilization of their valuable hair and meat has never been particularly easy for the people of the Altiplano. In any case, the numbers of the two lamoids has been drastically reduced and today only a few tens of thousands of animals remain.

A source of income too. About the middle of the nineteenth century, the British, Italian, and Japanese textile industries discovered the softness, exceptional insulation value, resistance, and extraordinary richness of natural hues of the alpaca fibre and decided to cash in. Since then, the alpaca fleece sold on market days or at seasonal fairs has always been a precious, if modest, source of income for the Andean shepherds (see box).

Recently even the meat of the alpaca has acquired a commercial value in many parts of the Altiplano, an example being the region of Arequipa, in southern Peru, where the authorities now permit it to be butchered. Its sale used to be severely prohibited, as it was considered a carrier of disease, but now alpaca meat, especially the dried varieties, has assumed a place in the diet of the population of the Andean cities, to the benefit of shepherds forced to kill animals that are no longer good producers of fibre.

The alpaca rearers of the Andes are rediscovering that this funny animal with the thick coat, the typical long erect neck of the South American Camelidae, and the wary and frightened look is of irreplaceable value bath for the present and for the future of their children and of their communities. Today the alpaca offers more than just survival; it offers a first step out of poverty, under development, and extreme marginalization.

The Andean shepherds have not been the only ones to rediscover the alpaca. Over the last 20 years Ecuadoran, Peruvian, and Bolivian authorities, textile merchants and industrialists, and scholars and researchers have acquired new notions of the value and irreplaceability of the lamoid in bath economic and animal-breeding terms.

The alpaca was disparaged by both conquistadors and colonists, who did not eat the meat or value the fibre, and favoured the llama, which they needed for the transport of gold and silver. After independence the alpaca was neglected and given only token protection, and replacement of it by sheep and other European ovines was actually encouraged. Nevertheless, the alpaca has always been considered the domestic animal of greatest value and of most consistent economic potential of the Altiplano and the territory of the three countries - especially when the price of the fibre on the international markets rose spectacularly.

Censuses taken hastily and some what unreliably in the euphoria of the rediscovery, have shown a rise of the total of the alpaca population on the Andean Altiplano to over 4 million (of which 3 million in Peru, 800 000 in Bolivia, the remainder in Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile). Some breeders would hazard that the alpaca population could double or triple in only a few years, if sanitary conditions were improved; if the animal were assured a richer and more suitable diet; and if female alpaca received better assistance during the long gestation period (11.5 months) and during and after delivery to reduce the very high rate of neonatal mortality (50-60 per cent).

Peruvian merchants and textile industrialists have predicted that their country, uncontested top producer of alpaca fibre, could realize fabulous earnings on the order of tens and tens of millions of dollars. In order to reach these ambitious goals, it would be enough, they say, for the small and large rearers to increase the production (well beyond 2 000-2 500 tons a year) and improve the quality of the fibre offered for sale. To prevent the earnings of the textile industry from going abroad, the safest solution - according to Peruvian businessmen - was to take the working and marketing of the fibre away from the big European and US companies, which had formed a sort of monopoly, and give it to Peruvian managers, who would be more sensitive to the interests of the country and of the rearers of the Altiplano.

Some bitter surprises. But the rediscovery of the value and potential of the alpaca has held some bitter surprises both for the shepherds of the Altiplano and for governments, businessmen, technicians and university researchers who have placed great hopes on the future of mass rearing.

The shepherds realized very quickly that the compensation obtained for their fleeces from the fibre merchants - whether alcanzadores, who collected from house to house in individual communities; rescatistas, owners of warehouses in towns; or agentes, representatives of the big companies that buy raw materials - was, at $2-3 per kilo of unwashed fibre, much lower than it could and should have been if they had offered a higher-quality, more select product and if they had greater negotiating power. But the conditions were impossible. They were not technically able to produce a higherquality fibre; they had no idea of the price they could have obtained on the basis of the international market; and finally, very often the middleman was also their creditor.

The authorities, experts, and economists, for their part, have quickly grasped that the real situation - with respect to both the integrity of the alpaca wealth and its promised growth and the possibility of increasing and improving production of the alpaca fibre - was far less rosy than that which the quick censuses, guesstimates, and facile plans for massive interventions to change the techniques of selection and rearing had made them think.

According to a 1977 projection based on data then available, the total population of alpaca in Peru, which was then 3 020 240, should have risen in 1980 to 3 127 940. In actual fact, the statistics published at the time by the Ministry of Agriculture reported 2 385 350, with a decrease of 21 per cent. Production of fibre, which according to the same 1977 projection, should have been 3 348 tons, in reality in 1980 did not exceed 2 456.

The prospect of a more or less rigid increase in the alpaca wealth of the country, of an improvement in the animal's physical characteristics (size, strength, resistance) and of its productive capacity (quantity and quality of fibre) is reduced by the weakening of the breed, by the reduction and by the impoverishment of the pastures at its disposition, and by the crude and antiquated rearing techniques used by the greater part of the Altiplano shepherds.

Huscayo and sun. There are two alpaca subspecies. The huacayo, which is the sturdier and more robust, has a wavy or crimped fibre; the suri, which is more slender and delicate, has straight or widely waved hair. The suri seems to have suffered the more over recent centuries, for the lack of an adequate diet and for being forced to live in the highest and poorest sections of the Altiplano with their harsh temperatures and violent winds.

The suri's fragile constitution is one of the principal reasons for the very high mortality rate registered by the alpaca and against which, till now, top health experts have found no remedy. More than half of alpacas die before or during birth or, more often, a few days after.

The distribution of the flocks of alpaca in the various zones of the Altiplano seems capricious: that is, it corresponds neither to the exigencies of welfare or survival of the species nor to any sort of planned breeding. In Peru, for example, more than 1.1 million alpaca, or about 60 per cent of the total, are concentrated in the southern department of Puno, near the waters of Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. Here in the famous "Puna" region, largely flat and constantly whipped by freezing winds, the sun scorches during the day and frost falls at night. The cold, hard ground crunches like glass under foot, softening only where little streams of water form ponds and mini-swamps: the famous "bofedales" where the alpaca and other lamoids seek the short, sharp grass on which they like to feed.

The rest of Peru's alpaca population is distributed in the regions adjacent to the Puna - Arequipa, Cusco,Ayacucho, Huancavelica, and Apurimac or dispersed, in minimal numbers, in the north-central zones of the country, which, some think, would actually constitute an ideal habitat thanks to the abundance of natural pasture and milder climate.

Against all logic, then, a high presence of sheep, goats, horses, and bovines of European import is found in the same zones as a high concentration of alpaca. The consequence is all too obvious: overpopulation and scarcity of forage both for lamoids and for the imported species. In addition, the invasion by sheep and goats of the lamoids' traditional habitat causes deterioration of pasture: the ovines tend to uproot the tufts of grass when they are very hard and short, while the alpaca, llama, guanaco, and vicuna have specially developed canines that cut the grass practically to the soil level. The ovines' hooves cause damage to the alpacas' pasture. While the lamoids tread lightly on the Puna, the heavier footfall of sheep and goats leaves deep prints and erodes the ground where grass should grow.

Only a forced massive transfer-well-nigh impossible-of hundreds of thousands of alpaca, with their shepherds, to the north-central Peruvian Altiplano - might permit better distribution of the alpacas on the Altiplano for more abundant and suitable pasture. The less drastic, but slower, solution is already being tried in the northern department of Ancash - a gradual transplant of the animals in the new type of habitat to achieve a progressive and not traumatic acclimatization.

Within individual zones with high concentrations of alpaca, the alpaca is found on the small holdings of the Puna shepherd, a classic figure who owns a few dozen animals and usually some sheep or cattle as well; or on the farms of medium-scale rearers with a few hundred animals; or on one of the big cooperatives (SAIS or EPS) introduced with the agrarian reform of Valasco Alvarado at the end of the 1960s, with several thousand animals and hundreds of hectares of pasture land. Medium sized farms usually have sufficient land, but the small rearer can count only on very scarce pasture land which is almost always insufficient to feed the lamoid.

The non-functional, not to mention unjust, distribution of the land within individual zones with high concentrations of alpaca constitutes a severe handicap to the harmonious and balanced development of lamoid rearing in the Peruvian Altiplano, as well as on the highlands of Ecuador and Bolivia.

Antiquated techniques. An equally serious handicap for the future of the alpaca in the Andean Altiplano is the truly antiquated techniques used by the small rearers, the true Puna shepherds. Very poor, obliged to live almost always in mud huts perched on the top of a hill or on steep mountainsides from which they can watch the movements of the flocks in the valley below, the shepherds of the Puna have neither adequate means nor the knowledge to rear alpacas according to those criteria of selection - type, color of coat, and other characteristics - that guarantee a production of fibre and meat of superior quantity and quality. Their flocks live in conditions of practically non-existent hygiene and are thus exposed to all the possible diseases. The "sarna", an infection that brings fever, weakness, and fits of vomiting, periodically slaughters the flocks. Even shearing - the most important and delicate operation for obtaining an attractive fleece all in one piece - is done on the bare, dirty ground with primitive equipment, sometimes even with sharp pieces of glass instead of shears. The coexistence in the flock of alpaca and llama, in addition to ovines and bovines, results in continual bastardization of the species and renders impossible the production of pure fibre and meat.

The road to obtaining, in a short time, an increase in the number and quality of alpaca and a consequent jump in the amount and in the genuineness of the product - meat and fibre - appears all uphill. But it is possible, as demonstrated by the successes obtained by medium-sized rearers and cooperatives in the selection of animals and in the clear improvement of quality of fibre and meat obtained. Julio Barreda, a rearer of Macusani, in the department of Puno, owner of more than a thousand head of alpaca, has no difficulty selling at the price of $4 000-5 000 some magnificent specimens of "breeders" which he selected carefully and reared. The Cerro Grande cooperative, also in the department of Puno, has obtained for the fibre produced by his selected alpacas a price triple (nearly $10/kg) that normally paid by alcanzadores, rescatistas, and agentes of the big companies for shepherds' fleeces.

A positive sign in the same direction is supplied by the partial success achieved by the state agency Alpaca Peru which has been entrusted to be the buying agent (at fair prices, and in any case higher that those offered by local operators) of the fibre produced by the shepherds of the Altiplano and to offer technical and health assistance to all the small rearers. Spurred by the prospect of more consistent and guaranteed earnings, the shepherds have begun to stop soiling the fleeces with sand and urine to make them weigh more. Thus it has been possible to halt the systematic and absurd deterioration of the fibre by shepherds who were unable to give a fleece a value other than that of weight.

The stakes are too high for the problem to be shelved just because it is too difficult to deal with. A wealth of more than 3 million alpacas cannot be valued, especially since the Altiplano is the only part of the world where the animals are able to live and reproduce (attempts made so far to transplant the animal in Australia or the United States have been without result), and South America is the only producer of the precious fibre. In fact almost 100 per cent of the approximately 3 000 tons of fibre produced in the world come from the Peruvian factories of Arequipa, Lima, and Tana.

It is a question moreover of a genetic heritage with a theoretically unlimited potential for growth in quantity and quality. If the mortality rate is lowered and husbandry techniques are improved, the population of the lamoid in the whole Andean Altiplano could '´explode". There have already been moments - for example at the end of the 1940s - when production of fibre has been at the top of the list of foreign exchange earners for Peru.

Finally, we should not forget that alpaca rearing affects about a fifth of the population of Peru, or 4 million people, and large groups of people in the other Andean countries as well, and that the only way to make use of vast stretches of the Andean Altiplano is to use it as pasture land, especially for lamoids. Almost half the territory of Peru could usefully be invaded by flocks of alpaca: it would then no longer be an arid wasteland, a land cursed by God.