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Vicuña: Maiden of the Heights

Photo: Alejandro Balaguer




Photo: Alejandro Balaguer





Photo: Alejandro Balaguer



Photo: Alejandro Balaguer




Photo: Alejandro Balaguer





The clang of the giant scissors wielded by the dancers cuts through the thin air of the high Andes like a church bell. Three weather-beaten mountain men whirl like dervishes, or maybe Cossacks. A drum, an Andean harp and the "quenas" or pan-pipes provide the musical accompaniments.

It is the eve of the third national chaccu. To the national reserve of Pampa Galeras, in Ayacucho department, have come some 2,000 peasant farmers from communities all over the Peruvian highlands. Their task: to help round up the shy and graceful vicuña for shearing.

One of the scissors dancers is Gabriel Hilario from Huancavelica, known to his friends as "Lucifer". Earlier, he and other members of his community have participated in an ageless hillside ceremony to appease the mountain gods, or apus, and ensure a successful chaccu. Outsiders are not permitted to watch the ritual, but he describes it.

"First I blow the pipe in all four directions. Poking with the scissors, we find the right spot to make a hole. Where it enters easily, that's like the mouth of a person and we make an offering of ground corn, of carnations, of minerals or herbs. The hill is like a person for us: the kind of offering depends on each hill. We ask for strength and courage to dance with joy, and not to become tired."

If the gods are pleased with the offerings, the scissor dancers will perform effortlessly, both in the warm-ups on the eve of the chaccu and, more importantly, on the day itself. That in turn, will ensure the success of the event.

The scissors dance is not the only ritual in this age-old festival, which has changed little since Inca times. Another band of peasants climb the mountainside to make their pagapu, an offering to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

Here, the central element is the coca leaf. Participants select an uneven number of leaves, those which are most perfectly formed. With their greenest side facing towards the sky, the leaves are placed with due reverence in a small hole in the mountainside, then doused with wine. The remainder of the leaves are chewed. Once the leaves are buried, to ensure the offering-place is not discovered by strangers, a small fire is lit. Then follows the tinka: a knife is inserted into the earth and the blade tasted. If it is sweet, then the offering has been well received by the Pachamama.

The chaccu

At Pampa Galeras in July, it would seem that the gods were pleased by the rituals. Long before daybreak, almost 2,000 men and women were already strategically positioned in the hills surrounding the corral, hidden but alert for the signal that would mark the start of the round-up. Once President Fujimori - the modern-day substitute for the Inca - arrived, a horn was sounded and the beaters advanced, driving the vicuña before them. At first, the delicate creatures seemed to have no sense of fear. Concealed behind rocks, we watched them from afar, slowly making their way towards the fenced "funnel" where finally they would lose their dark-gold fleece. But soon the solid line of noisy beaters was closer, waving ponchos and brightly-coloured flags. Realizing they were cornered, the animals became skittish, turning as a herd in an attempt to flee. For several nerve-racking moments they faced their captors head-on: but man prevailed and they swerved back into the pens. Here some 500 were sheared and carefully tagged to ensure that no animal loses its coat more than once every two years.

The fleet-footed vicuña is the smallest of the South American camelids. Living wild at heights of between 3,800 and 5,200 meters above sea level, it is perfectly adapted to its environment. Its fine incisor teeth neatly cut the fragile grass it feeds on, rather than tearing it up. Its cushioned feet do not harm the ground it walks on. It needs little water and is highly resistant to disease. Most importantly, its hair is the finest and warmest in the world, lighter even than cashmere.

Today's chaccu is a revival of an ancient Inca custom. Every two or three years, the Inca's subjects would gather, as they do in Pampa Galeras today, prepare traps and drive the animals. Dozens of the stone-built trenches can still be seen on the mountainside.

After the arrival of the Spaniards, the hundreds of thousands of vicuña gradually started to diminish. By 1963, experts say, there were fewer than 10,000 left in Peru: and Peru is home to more than half the world vicuña population.

A protection program commenced in 1964, with the Pampa Galeras reserve set up in 1967. For almost thirty years, the vicuña was on the CITES international convention list of officially endangered species. Illegal hunting of the coveted animals, however, continued. Poachers, well-armed with powerful sights fitted to their rifles handed over skins to highly-organized international bands of traders. Vicuña garments could be acquired in far distant markets with no questions asked.

In 1994, seeing that Peruvian herds were back to acceptable levels, the CITES committee was swayed by the argument that poaching would cease if the vicuña could be used as a resource and lifted the ban. Provided the animals are shorn live and subsequently released to the wild, their fine hair may be now gathered and sold: for the time being, only in Peru.

The benefits

Peasant communities of the Andes are the guardianship of the vicuña. Then four years ago, an international tender was held to select the company or consortium which would purchase, spin and weave the valuable hair into quality garments for the international market. Winners were Peru's Condor Tips, part of the Arequipa-based Inca group, which has many years experience in alpaca, in association with two prestigious Italian firms, Loro Piane and Lanerie Agnona. Known as the International Vicuña Consortium, they offered $300 per kilo for the 2,000 kilos of vicuña hair already stockpiled. The consortium also gave $700,000 to the communities to help finance the project.

Finally, after two years, the fruits of the initiative are being seen. At the July chaccu in Pampa Galeras, was formally presented the first vicuña garment legally produced in modern times, a scarf stamped with the "Vicuñandes" trademark and numbered 000001. In Inca times, vicuña hair (as the fine "wool" is known) was traditionally reserved for the high nobility. And, although vicuña garments can be found in remote areas of Peru, for the past thirty years it has been impossible legally to buy anything made of vicuña. Now vicuña hair promises to be an important source of income for the impoverished communities of the high Andes. The agreement between the International Vicuña Consortium and the government guarantees at least $500 per kilo of hair - that means the coat from five animals. Those which manage their herds well, like the community of Lucanas in Ayacucho department, are already investing the proceeds into improving local infrastructure. "Communities like Lucanas are producing much better quality hair than we expected" 

Giving the peasant communities the chance to benefit from the animals they are charged with safeguarding has had a dramatic impact on the illegal trade. Ronnie Garibay, president of the national camelids association, believes maybe 100,000 animals were lost to rustlers and the international bands of dealers they served before 1990.

Now, the international buyer who seeks the best can be sure of doing no harm to the most-prized and threatened of all South America's camelids: only garments stamped with the "Vicuñandes" trademark are legal. The mark guarantees that the animal was captured and sheared live, to be returned to the wild for two years before it is rounded up again. And, from this European autumn, high quality garments made from the Peruvian vicuña's coat will be sold under the labels of some of the world's leading fashion houses.

By Sally Bowes
Volume I/Issue 4, Page 46
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