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Who are fighting the Sacred Valley bushfires?

For years we’ve contributed toward reforesting Peru’s Sacred Valley. Now we’re also adding some charitable dollars (and energies) towards fire prevention. Here’s why…

“Thank God there have been no fires in our area this year. In previous years there were many fires,” says Carlos Olivera Puma, community leader and President of the Fire Prevention Brigade of the community of Rumira near the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ollantaytambo. “Especially in 2020 when people were forced home to the rural areas by the pandemic.”

As one of the cradles of global civilization, the Sacred Valley – the epicenter of an Inca Empire that once spanned from modern-day Colombia to Patagonia – has a 7,000-year history of deforestation, says Joaquín Randall who is the founder of Valle Sagrado Verde, the NGO championing these volunteer fire prevention brigades. “If you look at photos from 100 years ago, there’s actually less forest than there is now. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to restore it to its pristine state.”

SA Expeditions Fire Brigades Valle Sagrado Verde Planting Event

Staff from the Antigua Casona boutique hotel join forces with Valle Sagrado Verde for a community planting event near the Sacred Valley floor. (Photos: Joaquín Randall)

Randall – a dual US-Peruvian national who grew up in the Sacred Valley, went to college in the US, and now runs a couple of hotels in the area – was heavily involved with EcoAn, a reforestation charity that’s planted over five million trees in the highlands of Sacred Valley in the past 15 years. As EcoAn picked up international donors, and started expanding its operations to neighboring countries, Randall started to wonder whether his efforts might be better channeled towards a smaller and more local cause. He’d long wanted to try reforesting the Valley’s lowlands (in the Sacred Valley this term refers to altitudes between 9,000 and 11,000 feet!) and while EcoAn was full of encouragement, its focus on endemic, endangered highlands species meant they couldn’t do it themselves.

Fate intervenes

The onset of the pandemic in early 2020 gave Randall the push he needed. “We had all of these hotel staff with nothing to do,” he remembers. “And a farm growing organic micro-herbs for hotel guests who weren’t coming.” So, he turned part of the farm into a tree nursery which grew 30,000 Huaranhuay, Chachacoma, Molle, and Tara trees from seed in its first year. Since then, the regional government has been inspired to get involved. It planted a million lowlands trees in 2021 and is planning to do another million this year.

SA Expeditions Fire Brigades Sacred Valley Bushfire Day vs Night

Top: An uncontrolled fire burns along a Sacred Valley mountain ridge at night. (Photo: Jenny Byrne) / Bottom: What that same ridge might look like during the day, sans fire. (Photo: William Felipe Seccon)

But the pandemic also posed massive environmental and societal challenges. Peru endured one of the world’s strictest lockdowns and, with 6,500 deaths per million people, it also had the highest per capita rate in the world. During the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Peruvians who’d been working in big cities like Lima returned to their Andean hometowns. With no income and lots of time, they turned to farming to put food on the table. Their families gave them land that hadn’t been used for years and, to clear the land, they burnt it. Many of these planned burns got out of control – not just in Ollantaytambo, but throughout the Andes.

“That whole experience made us realize that planting on its own can never be enough,” says Randall. “Years of hard work can be undone in a single day. We had a few devastating fires, including one that burnt 20,000 replanted trees in one go. Worse still, eight people died in a fire in August 2020.”

SA Expeditions Fire Brigades Sacred Valley Jenny Byrne

Smoke from a controlled agricultural fire on the Sacred Valley floor. (Photo: Jenny Byrne)

Randall is quick to point out that there is a place for some burning in traditional agriculture. Carefully managed burns, at the right time of year and in the right weather conditions, can clear land of brush and understory. But reckless burns can be catastrophic: “High Andean valleys are fragile ecosystems that don’t repair quickly,” he says. “Thousands of years’ worth of topsoil can be washed away if it rains after a fire. Some valleys have suffered permanent damage and won’t be restored in our lifetime. It’s part of the debt of humanity.”

Prevention is better than cure

The Sacred Valley has aways had a few fire brigades, but anyone who’s ever witnessed a bush fire will know that – even in places like California which have massive firefighting budgets – there’s not much you can do once it’s taken hold. Randall felt that the time, money, and energy spent on putting fires out would be better used preventing them. “It’s much easier to stop someone from lighting a match than it is to put out a 1,000-acre fire,” he says.

Randall’s lightbulb moment tallies with a recent major UN report that advocates a radical shift in public spending on wildfires. Currently, a team of 50 global experts found that 50% of funding goes to extinguishing fires, and 1% is spent on planning and prevention. The paper advises spending 50% on planning and prevention, 30% on response, and 20% on recovery. If we don’t do this, the authors warn, global wildfires will increase by a third by 2050.

Randall approached the municipality with his idea and, in Nohely Yamelith Diaz Cusiyupanqui the Head of the Office for Risk and Disaster Management for the Municipality of Ollantaytambo, he was fortunate to find an open mind. The municipality already had a disaster management budget, and Cusiyupanqui could see the benefits of focusing on fire prevention instead of firefighting.

SA Expeditions Fire Brigades Volunteer Meeting

A community training session to outfit and prepare a Sacred Valley fire brigade. (Photo: Joaquín Randall)

Together they set up 13 brigades (comprising a total of 72 men and women) across Ollantaytambo. While the municipality gave logistical support, training, transportation, and organizational support, Randall provided 80 safety vests and 80 hard hats and a hefty financial incentive that would be paid out if communities were able to prevent trees from burning. “It’s completely normal to pay people to put fires out,” explains Randall. “So why shouldn’t we pay people to stop them from happening in the first place?”

Nuts and bolts

The prevention program focused on education, explains Cusiyupanqui. “Using the volunteers as community spokespeople, we explained how controlled burning should be done, and we made sure that they supervised all high-risk burns in the area.” The municipality also teamed up with Randall to train “volunteers on issues related to the use of fire, procedures, and sanctions” and encouraged them to spread the anti-fire gospel in their communities, she adds.

SA Expeditions Fire Brigades Volunteer Meeting2

During training sessions, community spokespeople explain prevention procedures, sanctions, and how to properly control agricultural fires. (Photo: Joaquín Randall)

Olivera Puma, the President of the Fire Prevention Brigade in Rumira explains how this worked in practice. “We attended all of the community meetings and created awareness around the need to prevent fires.” They also got the police to come in and talk to community members about the legal consequences of starting a fire. “The farmers understood the message and were welcoming to this way of approaching fires,” he adds. “We spoke with our neighbors and asked them to let us know if they needed to burn brush ahead of time. This way they could do so in a controlled and safe manner.”

Early signs are that the program has been a resounding success. As Cusiyupanqui reports, “The number of fires reported in the areas where the brigades are active dropped from more than 20 in 2021 to only seven a year later. More importantly, the natural areas that were burnt dropped significantly from around 450 hectares to barely 30 hectares in 2021,” she says proudly. There was little to no reduction in the number of fires in surrounding areas not under brigade supervision.

Regenerative tourism

SA Expeditions, like Randall, is passionate about the concept of regenerative tourism. In addition to working with hotels and other suppliers who share our vision, SA Expeditions supports projects that promote regeneration of ecosystems and cultures within the destinations our travelers visit. (For more on our business model, please check out this recent article.) We like to find causes where we can achieve maximum bang for our buck, which is why we’re excited to partner with Randall and Valle Sagrado Verde who are fully integrated in the region and intimately understand the cultural and ecological nuances of the area.

SA Expeditions El Albergue Pachamanca Farm Experience

Preparing the traditional Pachamanca lunch experience at El Albergue hotel in Ollantaytambo, which is also home to a tree nursery, elementary school, and distillery. (Courtesy Photo: El Albergue)

Randall’s hotel El Albergue isn’t just one of the finest hotels in the Sacred Valley (and one of our all-time favorites), it’s also the location of Valle Sagrado Verde’s tree nursery and the hub of Kuska School, a kindergarten and elementary school offering education for children aged six to 10, with a strong focus on the environment, since 2012. Much of the food served in the restaurant is grown on site using ancient Andean techniques, and every cup of coffee consumed is roasted in the on-site roastery and grown by local farmers. Guests are also invited to learn more about all of these charitable endeavors or to partake of a traditional Andean pachamanca – a meal cooked in a hole in the ground and a truly unforgettable experience.

What next?

Everyone we spoke to is keen to not only continue the program but to expand it. Olivera Puma, who has (with Valle Sagrado Verde’s help) already begun planting trees in his area, wants to increase the size of his own brigade and would also “like to invite other organizations and communities to join the program.” Cusiyupanqui echoes this view, saying she dreams of having “all 36 communities of Ollantaytambo participate and eventually bring the number of fires down to zero.”

Randall is equally passionate about achieving this goal. “Running all 13 fire prevention brigades for one year costs the same as flying a helicopter for two hours,” he concludes. “It’s a no-brainer.”

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