Knitting for disaster relief in Peru
If you read nothing else about knitting this month, read this: help impoverished alpaca herders in Peru
We all love alpaca
All knitters, crocheters and felters who love alpaca fibre, raise your hands! Of course you do: the fibre from these beautiful animals is warm, soft, light and almost silky smooth. Combining many wonderful properties of wool and hair, alpaca wool contains no lanolin, making it more hypoallergenic than sheepswool – and it is one of the strongest animal fibres around, second only to mohair.
It’s beautiful undyed too: the alpaca has more variety in its coat colour than any other fibre-producing species in the world, with over 300 different shades. We don’t just love the wool, of course; the animals themselves are gorgeous!
With their impossibly huge eyes (and eyelashes to match), gentle natures and exquisite fleeces, it is very hard to watch alpaca mothers humming and chirping to their babies (‘crias’) without falling in love with these winsome animals.
But how many of us spare a thought for their farmers?
High in the Andes of Peru, thousands of people scrape a living, tending their flocks of alpacas and llamas. The poorest families, on average, will have around 60 animals, each of which may earn just a few pounds a year. This will usually have to support three generations living together, providing income for clothes, amenities, schooling and food. The only things that can really survive up here are alpacas and potatoes.
Even the hardy alpacas struggle in the harsh climate: on some pastures half the crias will not survive their first winter. To those who farm alpacas, the luxurious woolly fibre is not a self-indulgent treat; it is essential to their very survival.
At the end of last month, after an unusually harsh winter, the Puno region in Peru was hit by extraordinary snowstorms. Some areas had over 3 foot of snow (nearly a metre) in just a few days, and temperatures plunged to -20ºC (-4F).
The load of snow was so extraordinary for the region, the houses were not even able to withstand it.
Yes, that is someone’s home. Or it was.
Many houses have been completely destroyed; hundreds more are uninhabitable. Some organisations estimate there could be as many as 5,000 people homeless.
Farmers in the mountainous Andes areas have lost not only their homes but their livelihoods: alpacas, llamas and sheep are starving in their thousands as they cannot graze through the frozen snow. Even under their usual conditions the Andes are a perilous environment, with young alpacas especially vulnerable to the winter weather. After these storms and the bad winter, some estimate there could be 250,000 alpacas lost.
Families in peril
For anyone with an ounce of compassion, the loss of 250,000 alpacas is an incomprehensible tragedy. But for those who farm them, this disaster could be fatal. And it doesn’t stop there.
The alpaca herders of Peru rely on their animals not just to clothe themselves and provide a meagre income. The alpacas even provide fuel: farmers burn alpaca dung to heat their homes and cook their food. Now even this resource has been lost, just as they need it most. Buried under the snow, isolated, enduring terrible conditions, families are vulnerable to pneumonia, respiratory conditions, frostbite and other diseases – several people have already died. Some estimate that 100,000 people have been affected by these extreme events.
It will take years, possibly decades, for the farmers to restore their herds. Many of them will probably be forced out of the mountains and their traditional lifestyle altogether, compelled to a life of urban poverty.
Is recovery possible?
The President of Peru has declared a 60-day state of emergency in seven provinces, including Puno. Medical aid, blankets and food have been sent by the Peruvian government and other organisations. More, of course, is still needed – for immediate disaster relief, ongoing support, and to help alpaca farmers learn how to get the most out of their herds.
Charities providing support
In the aftermath of the terrible storms this winter, Practical Action is providing disaster relief. They are helping to rebuild homes, re-open schools, provide community shelters and reinstate safe water supplies. They are providing training in emergency response, coordination of relief efforts and technical advice. For farmers, Practical Action is sending out veterinary supplies, feed and their famous ‘Kamayoqs’. In the Incan empire a Kamayoq advised local farmers on agriculture, livestock care and market opportunities; and that’s exactly what the Practical Action Kamayoqs do today.
Practical Action has long-running programmes running in Peru. They don’t just supply aid: they train and equip locals to make alpaca farming a viable business. A Practical Action ‘Kamayoq’ will be trained in irrigation of pastures, alpaca healthcare and disease recognition, and crucially, in fibre classification and breeding programmes. The price an alpaca fleece commands depends hugely on its quality, and most small farmers do not have the knowledge and resources to compete with larger companies and their well-funded breeding programmes. By improving their breeding practices, and investing in better quality animals to improve their herds, alpaca smallholders can earn a decent living for their families. Without the help of the Kamayoqs, many more alpacas would have been lost this winter.
Practical Action needs to raise £45,000 to maintain the current programmes in Peru.
How can we help?
For the rest of September, and all of October, loveknitting will donate 20p from every ball of alpaca yarn sold to Practical Action (that’s every ball that contains alpaca fibre, however small the percentage).
We are asking loveknitting customers and blog readers to get those creative fundraising juices going: why not get your knitting group together and see how much you can raise? We are getting the ball rolling with a £75 donation, enough for an alpaca. Let us know your suggestions: we’ll keep you posted on ideas, and the money raised!
Last updated: December 6th, 2013.