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The Native Perspective, Episode 6: Quechua

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Along the Andes Mountains

The Quechua are a diverse group of indigenous people who live along the Andes Mountains in South America and are speakers of different varieties of Quechua languages. The majority of the population lives in Peru, and considerable populations also dwell in countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, and northern Argentina. [1] While a precise number of the Quechua populations is somewhat hard to come by, due to the complex nature of identifying people with Quechua heritage and the speakers of the languages, it is estimated that there are between 13 and 16 million of the Quechua indigenous groups today. Many of the Quechua population alive today are descendants of the Incas, although their ethnic existence antecedes the Inca civilization. [2] They typically live in high altitudes of the Andes where pastoral farming is practiced, while agriculture is the main way of life in the lower altitude regions. This range of altitudes also means that an array of different crops and livestock are cultivated. [1]

Perhaps the most distinct feature of the Quechua people is their traditional dress. They are known for being highly skilled at textiles, which plays a huge role in their culture and for their economy. The material used for clothing and blankets come from the wool of alpacas, llamas, and sheep. The wool is spun, dyed, and woven for different purposes. [3] The vibrant and brilliant colors come from native plants such as Chapi, which produces shades of orange, Cochineal, for red, pink, and purple, Ch’illca, which produces dark green, and Kinsa K’uchu, for light blue, teal, and turquoise. [4] These textiles are renowned worldwide and they a significant income for the local Quechua communities by selling them to tourists. [3]

The traditional mountainous Quechua diet is based on different starches and tubers, such as potatoes and corn, with over 3,000 different species of potatoes existing in Peru alone. They also rely on native animals, such as alpacas and guinea pigs, for meat, while trout, a freshwater fish, is also cultivated in highland regions. Additionally, a traditional method of cooking, Pachamanca, is used, which consists of “burying” the food and slowly cooking it over hot stones. [5]

Cultivation and Culture in the Face of Climate Imbalance

When looking at the different Quechua cultures and their struggles with climate change, two common themes or factors tend to stick out: migration to even higher altitudes and indigenous women’s knowledge. It is no surprise that with the changing climate comes a change with the overall lifestyle of indigenous peoples. These changes affect agricultural practices the most, causing significant insecurity in food supplies. In Pisac, Peru, for example, people are experiencing a notable change in the patterns of rainfall and temperatures which is highly affecting their potato crops, as “the soil is drier and the potato-growing season has already shrunk from five or six months to four.” A town that is already more than 3 kilometers above sea level, people in Pisac are moving their potato and other crops upwards into higher altitudes due to the increase in temperature. [6]

Livestock makes up a major part of the Quechua agricultural and economic aspects. They indeed rely on native animals for their meat but, as mentioned earlier, the Quechua people are known for their textiles which are derived from the wool of these animals. The intense shift in climate has affected the stream-flows on which people and animals depend for drinking water and caused an unpredictability in rain and temperature. All of this has made it more difficult to herd animals. “During the rainy season, the herds graze on valley floors…whereas during the drier season herders bring their animals higher up the mountains to areas where glacial meltwater supports rich meadows.” However, these journeys are now harder to carry out, since shrinking glaciers provide fewer amounts of water to pastures, and taking animals on herding movements in glacial-fed grass areas are becoming more complicated due to the changes in rain intensity and frequency. [7]

Some NGOs and nonprofits have held workshops in Spanish to train the Quechua herders on technical tools and strategies, like keep records of animal bloodlines, selective breeding, using medications, and electric shearing for wool harvest. Most of the people attending these workshops are men, as they speak Spanish as well as Quechua, whereas the indigenous women mainly speak Quechua. Women in Quechua communities are also the ones operating the majority of the domestic labor and animal care work. But, as anthropologist Allison Caine states, this creates a disparity in the overall knowledge on the herds. The experience-based knowledge is passed down and shared with other members of the community. Caine explains that women herders are in tune with their animals and can therefore notice any slight changes in their behavior and health. “‘This makes them keen and insightful environmental managers: they can detect and respond to broader ecological changes before they become glaringly obvious.’” By not including the indigenous women’s knowledge and insight, NGOs are essentially ignoring precious and vital experiences, which would hinder community adjustment efforts. [7]

The disappearing glaciers affect more than just agriculture. A tradition where men, dressed in black robes, would break off large chunks of ice and carry them down the mountain has now become prohibited by the Quechua people themselves. The culture is abruptly changing. Furthermore, a decline in the quality of agriculture has given a rise to the tourism industry within Quechua communities, a growing alternative being utilized to generate income. [8] Quechua are able to respond to climate change and the issues it brings to their communities, culture, and economy. They continue to show resilience and can come up with creative solutions to problems threatening their lifestyle and actual life.

Author: Rima Qayed


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  1. Quechua People (

  2. Quechua | people | Britannica

  3. Quechua People: A Living Andean Culture - Peru For Less

  4. Natural Dyes | Mosqoy

  5. What’s the Peruvian indigenous diet? | Pura Aventura (

  6. Climate Change Threatens Quechua and Their Crops in Peru’s Andes | Inter Press Service (

  7. What Climate Change Adaptation Programs in Peru Are Missing: Indigenous Women’s Knowledge - GlacierHub (

  8. Climate Change Equals Culture Change in the Andes - Scientific American