Amantani. Ancient culture and modern struggles.
Amantani is the largest island on the Peruvian side of lake Titicaca, located 40 km (25 miles) away from the city of Puno. Its 2 highest peaks Pachamama – Mother Earth – and Pachatata – Father Earth – protect around 4000 islanders from the chilled winds of the world’s highest navigable lake, that was once considered by the Inca to be the birthplace of humanity.
The islanders are Quechua speakers but strongly influenced by the Aymara culture, a precursor of the Inca culture in the Andes. Quechua-speaking islanders are distinct from most of the surrounding islands and very rarely marry people from a different island. The influence from the Aymara culture has created throughout the centuries a very strong sense of community and identity.
A visit to this island usually involves a one night stay in houses that are very simple and with basic services. There is no running water in many of the houses, toilets are basic and there are no showers but that doesn't matter. Getting to know this friendly and warm people is a very touching and fascinating revelation.
Tourism in Amantani has developed in the last few years after indigenous local communities had asked for years to get better treatment and payment from national and local tour operators. Homestay tourism is the only way to stay overnight on Amantani as well as other islands on lake Titicaca. The hospedajes - family-owned inns - provide basic accommodation and the community rotates visitors to lodgings, in order to make sure that everyone receive an equal shares of profit.
It was my honour and pleasure to be hosted by Roje and his family. Roje is an old man who returned to the island after some decades spent working in Puno as a taxi driver. He now helps his wife farming the small piece of land they own, while his 9 sons and 12 nephews live across the lake.
This is not unusual on both the islands of Amantani and Taquile: while adult men leave the islands seeking for job opportunities in the inland cities of Puno and Arequipa, women stay. They take care of the house, farming and grazing livestock as well as selling handicrafts to tourists, though usually at a very low price that does not generate any profit. Roje instead, just like the majority of the male Amantaneños, spent a few decades away from his family in Puno.
There are many reasons for families to leave Amantani. For instance it may take more than 1 hour for a child to go to school, depending on the community of origin. For this reason, and to make sure they have access to a proper level of education, most of the fathers leave the island with their children and bring them to the bigger cities. They will start and complete their studies on the mainland, which will provide them with better life opportunities.
On the other hand, some of the younger children remain on the island. As machines are not allowed on the island and all agriculture is done by hand, they are too weak to help their families in the fields but they happily help selling handicrafts to the tourist that visit the island. There is not much on the island, but tourists can definitely help the local communities by bringing basic school supplies for the children, as well as items that are not easily available on the island - cooking oil, rice, etc.
Money and candies are possibly the worst things anyone can give to these children, as it can eventually encourage them to beg.
Exploring Amantani does not take long. The two hills and the ruins of top of both peaks are devoted to Pachamama - Mother Earth - and Pachatata - Father Earth. Normally the ruins are closed except for the annual festivity day on January the 20th, where the population divides in two groups and climbs up the two hills. Both gods are revered as they bring fertility to the earth, they embody the mountains, and cause earthquakes.
This year has been quite dry, and the islanders are waiting for rain as a blessing from the Mother Earth. Before he starts drinking, Roje pours a little bit of his beer to the ground as a tribute to Pachamama. It's December now, and he has been waiting for rains to come since April. This is a very important tradition in the pre-hispanic cultures, as any sort of drink has to be devoted to the Mother Earth before anyone could start drinking. Today they hope she will grant copious rains to irrigate the fields, and tonight their prayers might be heard.
The lack of resources is a serious issue for the islanders of Lake Titicaca. The ground does not provide much more than potatoes, green beans and quinoa, and livestock is limited to sheep and alpacas.
The lake has become quite poor of resources as intensive fishing all across the lake has increasingly deprived its waters of fish. Lake trout has become a very rare catch and most of the boats don’t sail anymore, overwhelmed by the fleet of fishing vessels coming from the mainland. This unfortunate circumstance, mainly caused by other players from the shores of the lake, represents another reason why men have to look for other ways to sustain their families away from home.
It's hard to understand how it has been possible to end up in such a situation if we think about what has been done on the lake in the past decades with the introduction of about half a million North American trouts in the 30's and with the introduction of the Argentinian silverside in the 50's. The growth of these non-endemic species has had a double impact on Lake Titicaca. On one side the introduction of these 2 very invasive species resulted in the displace of most of the native species of the lake.
Trout became a predator and consumed many karachi - as the locals call killifish - while starting a fierce competition for food with the the ones that were not eaten. Two types of native killifish - humanto (Orestias cuvieri) and boga (Orestias pentlandii) - are thought to be extinct and all the other species of killifish are considered in critical danger, whereas the native catfish is extremely rare to catch.
On the other side the intensive fishing boomed in volumes consistently until the late 60's. After that period an unsustainable exploitation of resources led to a slow but constant decrease that has not been halted by the regulations governing Lake Titicaca in Peru or Bolivia. Rules are there but they are not enforced.
Pollution is another concern. Due to its shallow waters - the lake's deepest point is about 180 meters - and to rising temperatures - several areas near the shore are now dry - the pollutants dumped by industries, farming and mining activities concentrate in the lake. The authorities of Peru and Bolivia share a common will to fix the lake's environmental problems, however the high costs involved and corruption may stall the progress of these important cleaning projects.
Overfishing has been going on for more than 50 years now, and I could feel the subtle anger in Roje's voice every time he touched the argument.
Roje does not think, possibly doesn't even know, about North American trouts or Argentinian silversides or about pollution in the water. At the end of the day the only thing that matters is to find some food for the day.
Every morning he wakes up at first light, climbs down the hill and reaches the harbour in order to buy some fresh fish. On my last day on Amantani I followed him, the both of us hoping to find some fresh trout. He could only buy few small killifish, as he did the day before and every day in the past 3 weeks, for his wife to make soup. He has not lost hope though, and he praises Pachamama everyday for a better tomorrow. And the soup was delicious.