Peru's Glaciers Are Melting Away, Along With Ancient Andean Traditions

Photographer Dan Kitwood spent time at a traditional festival in Peru, where pilgrims are being forced to give up a centuries-old tradition due to climate change.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A man in ceremonial attire.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As the sun rises over the rocky Andean mountain range in Peru, a chain of dancers wrapped in colorful costumes snakes across the landscape. It’s the annual Qoyllur Rit'i festival, which draws tens of thousands of indigenous pilgrims from the Andes and beyond in a celebration of mankind’s connection with nature.

But the landscape is changing rapidly, cutting off access to crucial parts of the natural world. The festival rituals once took place on the mountain glaciers, which are seen as sacred by locals. Ice blocks believed to hold healing properties were carved out and carried back down the slope. But increasing temperatures linked to climate change mean the sacred ice is now scarce.

The indigenous Peruvians have been forced to adapt the traditions of the festival, which has occurred every year since 1783. Rituals now take place on the bare rock rather than in the snow, and ‘Pablitos,' or guardians of the festival, ensure that ice blocks are no longer removed. The ice is in urgent need of protection: the National Commission on Climate Change says that within 40 years, all the glaciers in Peru may have disappeared.

Translating as 'Snow and Star,' the Qoyllur Rit'i festival marks the upcoming harvest, a seasonal event that has been celebrated for thousands of years. Since the 18th century, a medley of faiths, including Christianity and paganism, have blended to create the unique and colorful three-day event that happens today.

The festival was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in 2011. Yet the loss of Andean ice caps means that the indigenous people are soon likely to lose access to a sacred part of their culture, making them yet another group to suffer from the destruction caused by global warming. 

Click through this Newsweek slideshow to see photographer Dan Kitwood's vivid photos of the Andean festival's vanishing traditions. 

 

A pilgrim walks the route over the mountains to the site of the final sunrise ceremony the following day. A warmer climate is melting much of the Qolqepunku's sacred glaciers.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A delegation takes selfies during the Qoyllur Rit'i festival. The rituals that were once undertaken on the ice often take place only on the rocky slopes left behind as the ice sheets retreat up the mountain.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Costumed dancers pray on the first day of the festival. Ice blocks that are believed to hold special healing properties would be carved and carried back down the slope and to their communities, a ritual that these days is prevented by the 'Pablitos', or guardians of the Qoyllur Rit'i.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Costumed dancers parade. The festival is the biggest religious gathering of its kind.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Pablitos descend the mountain after a ceremony. The festival takes place in the Sinakara Valley at the foot of Ausangate Mountain.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A young boy looks at the camera as pilgrims begin to arrive for the start of the half-day walk to the festival.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A delegation from Ocongate leave the sanctuary.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Delegations wait for sunrise on the final day of the festival. The festival has taken place every year since 1783.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Delegations line up to dance after celebrating sunrise on the final day of the festival. The festival draws tens of thousands of pilgrims from across the Peruvian Andes and beyond.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
A detail of the delegation's costume.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Costumed dancers parade at a chapel.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Pablitos descend a rock face carrying a cross after a ceremony on the glacier. The festival is a celebration of the planet and people's connection with the land.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images