Climbing the peaks before us
The promise of a glorious view kept me huffing up a trail that seemed almost vertical to a son of a land where the prairies meet the rolling edge of the eastern woodlands.
Rocks, dirt and the bum of the person in front me on the steep path filled my field of vision as I breathlessly attempted to keep up with my guides.
Our little Sunday afternoon expedition climbed into the foothills of the Andes east of Santiago, Chile, aiming for a lookout onto the snow-capped peaks rising high above us. With an average height of over 4,000 metres, the 7,000-kilometre continental mountain chain, the longest in the world, stretches from Venezuela and Colombia in the north to the fragmented tip of Chile and Argentina at Cape Horn in the south.
Our leader, Solon Barraclough, and his son Kenny got us all up to our goal. However, clouds had filled the valley allowing us only to imagine the vista that they shrouded.
Breath restored, the conversation back down with Dr. Barraclough more than made up for any disappointment. Back then, in 1970, he was heading up an institute for research and training in agrarian reform in the heady, optimistic pre-coup days in Chile.
On later South American trips, I would have other opportunities to drink in glorious Andean panoramas. The week before last, I was treated again to high Andean scenes again, this time filling the screens at the Beringia Centre and the new Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre here in Whitehorse.
Doctor Constanza Ceruti from the Catholic University of Salta in northern Argentina, a speaker at the Third International Glacial Archaeology Symposium, took her audiences on a tour of Incan mountaintop religious shrines.
Professor Ceruti’s interest in ethnoarcheology also had her sharing slides of the annual Qoyllur Rit’i festival, which takes place around the feast of Corpus Christi in late May or early June. This contemporary religious event brings well over 10,000 Aymara and Qechua pilgrims to a sanctuary below the glaciers of Mount Colquepunku in the Cuzco region of southern Peru.
Like their ancestors in the days of the Incan Empire, today’s worshippers recognize and honour the life-giving role of these mountains as givers of their water. They believe that the ice from these glaciers has special curative properties.
Professor Ceruti noted that melting of the glaciers, induced by climate change, has begun to affect the annual pilgrimage. How will peoples from melt-water dependent agricultural communities on the Andean altiplano below respond to this loss?
Following the Chilean military coup in 1973, soldiers raided Dr. Barraclough’s house and closed down his agrarian reform institute. He continued his work, however. On the occasion of his death in 2002, an article in the Guardian noted that he had been “concentrating on the adverse social impact of the ‘green revolution,’ and examining the causes of famine.
“His researches soon became essential for the anti-globalization movement, concerned about the impact of neo-liberalism on the Third World poor.”
Constanza Ceruti told me that she has often had to hitch rides or find other ways to stretch her limited research dollars. But she has persevered, climbing more than 100 peaks over 5,000 metres in search of mountaintop religious sites. As she stated in her National Geographic Explorer biography: “With this cultural and historical context we can better explain things that happen today and help ensure these important areas will be protected.”
Whether as an economist like Dr. Barraclough or an archeologist like Professor Ceruti, the pursuit of knowledge demands commitment. Whether siding with the world’s poor majority in their struggle against the rich and powerful as Dr. Barraclough did, or seeking to preserve and understand our threatened cultural heritage as Professor Ceruti does, giving up is not an option.
As Solon Barraclough is remembered for having said, “You can never expect to win, but the greatest sin is to give up trying.”
We can all hope that those at the United Nations sustainable development meetings in Rio de Janeiro, as well, refuse to give up on us and our profligate, earth-destroying ways. Maybe they can find the ways to motivate us all to climb those peaks that lay before us all before we can achieve the height of a just, sustainable world.