Llamas help Andes peoples survive, but youths are leaving

Stormy winds, frosty nights and a scorching midday sun make life difficult on the Andean plateau, but the docile, tough-natured llama is one reason why indigenous people have been able to survive the harsh conditions for millennia.

With an estimated 3.1 million llamas and alpacas in Bolivia, the South American country counts more of the coarse-haired mammals than any other nation in the world, relying on it to haul goods up steep mountainsides, provide meat, wool and leather.

The llama, which is a relative of the camel, also holds a sacred place in Aymara and Quechua rituals for Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Throughout various regions of the country, herdsmen bury llama fetuses that have not survived birth, hoping to receive rain and good harvests in return. Many local priests also water the earth with llamas’ warm, sacrificial blood.

“You have to give (the gods) an offering,” said herdsman Francisco Tellez, who lives in the town of Curahuara de Carangas and says that he has a special connection with the animal. “The llama understands me. I whistle and he recognizes me.”

But he added: “My son does not like herding; he prefers to be a driver in the city.”

It is a sentiment that speaks to the plodding decline of a traditional way of life in Bolivia’s wetlands, where young people have left behind ancestral customs in favor of taking a chance in the cities.

“Now you just see elders and children herding the animals,” said Carla Rodas, an anthropologist at the Higher University of San Andres in Bolivia’s capital, noting that the llama was once so sacred it was almost considered to be a person.

Friendly and endearing, the llama has wandered across the Bolivian plains in scattered herds since it was domesticated in South America more than 4,000 years ago. The animal, which belongs to a family that includes the guanaco, alpaca and vicuna, has been partly credited with helping the Incan empire expand to parts of modern-day Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Argentina until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.

As they adapted to living in the Andes mountain range at altitudes of up to 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), the animals also became a crutch for locals navigating steep, craggy terrain with loads of goods such as potatoes, salt, dried meat and quinoa.

On a recent morning, shepherd Genaro Arce left at 5 a.m. in sub-freezing temperatures to round up his eight llamas before taking the males and females to different pastures. Roughly 200 other animals and their young impatiently waited to graze.

His wife, Genoveva Usnayo, worried that foxes and stray dogs might attack their animals at night.

Once a year, she and her husband shear the llamas’ wool and sell the threads in markets to make winter clothing.

When she has time, Usnayo spins and weaves her own wear, but says it is nearly impossible to undercut the price of synthetic wool that saturates the market. The laborious, time-consuming process of making traditional clothes involves operating a spinning wheel and stretching fibers.

“It’s hard but you have to face it. Without getting your hands dirty you can’t live. Children do not think like that,” Arce said, noting that his youngest daughter, Maria Arce, is his only child who currently lives at home.

Her older five siblings migrated to cities to try their luck. Only a few decades ago, most Bolivians lived in the countryside. Now 75 percent live in cities.

For now, many elders still manage to eke out an income by relying on agricultural crops and their earnings from wool.

“The llama taught Andean people to adapt themselves to a cold and arid land, and still today, in spite of climatic and economic changes, it allows them to live,” Rodas said.

But Maria Wurzinger, a zoologist at the University of Vienna in Austria who studied camelids in Bolivia and Peru, worries that might not always be the case due to diminishing rainfall.

“There will come a time when there will be no more grass and you will not be able to breed llamas or alpacas,” she said, adding that Bolivia’s wetlands could eventually become a desert.

“With irrigation it is difficult to sustain grazing,” she said. “If climate predictions are right, many will stop breeding animals.”

US envoy optimistic about N. Korea despite latest friction

The Trump administration’s special envoy for North Korea on Friday expressed optimism about the diplomatic push to resolve the nuclear crisis, a day after the North issued a surprisingly blunt statement saying it will never disarm unless the U.S. removes what it calls a nuclear threat.

Stephen Biegun said ahead of a meeting with South Korean officials that the allies are committed to ending seven decades of hostility and creating a “new, brighter future for all of the Korean people.”

He did not directly address the North Korean statement, which jarred with Seoul’s rosier presentation of the North Korean position and could potentially rattle the fragile diplomacy between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang to defuse a nuclear crisis that last year had many fearing war.

Biegun’s comments echoed those of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told a Kansas radio station that Washington and Pyongyang were still working through the execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “commitment to denuclearize.”

“We are hopeful that in the new year President Trump and Chairman Kim will get together not too long after the first of the year and make even further progress on taking this threat to the United States away from us,” Pompeo said.

Upon his arrival in South Korean on Wednesday, Biegun said Washington was reviewing easing travel restrictions on North Korea to facilitate humanitarian shipments to help resolve the impasse in nuclear negotiations. The North has yet to respond to Biegun’s comments.

Thursday’s statement was the North’s latest display of displeasure over a deepening impasse in negotiations with the United States as they struggle over the sequencing of the denuclearization that Washington wants and the removal of international sanctions desired by Pyongyang. It also raises credibility problems for the liberal South Korean government, which has claimed that Kim is genuinely interested in negotiating away his nuclear weapons.

The comments may also be seen as proof of what outside skeptics have long said: that Kim will never voluntarily relinquish an arsenal he sees as a stronger guarantee of survival than whatever security assurances the United States might provide. The statement suggests North Korea will eventually demand the United States withdraw or significantly reduce the 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea, a major sticking point in any disarmament deal.

Kim and Trump met June 12 in Singapore where they agreed on a vague goal for the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula without describing when and how it would occur. The leaders are trying to arrange another meeting for early next year.

But North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of denuclearization that bears no resemblance to the American definition, with Pyongyang vowing to pursue nuclear development until the United States removes its troops and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan. In Thursday’s statement, the North made clear it’s sticking to its traditional stance on denuclearization. It accused Washington of twisting what had been agreed on in Singapore and driving post-summit talks into an impasse.

“The United States must now recognize the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and especially, must study geography,” the statement said.

“When we talk about the Korean Peninsula, it includes the territory of our republic and also the entire region of (South Korea) where the United States has placed its invasive force, including nuclear weapons. When we talk about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat, not only from the South and North but also from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula,” the statement said.

The United States removed its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in the 1990s. Washington and Seoul have not responded to the North Korean statement.

North Korea’s reiteration of its long-standing position on denuclearization could prove to be a major setback for diplomacy, which was revived early this year following a series of provocative nuclear and missile tests that left Kim and Trump spending most of 2017 exchanging personal insults and war threats. The United States may have difficulty negotiating further if the North ties the future of its nukes to the U.S. military presence in the South, analysts say.