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Peru

The Blessing of Water in Peru's Coastal Desert

"If we can help generate alternative sustainable economic activities, we will be increasing the community’s chances for a viable livelihood in the face of climate change."

Juan José Rodríguez
The Nature Conservancy’s Coasts and Deserts coordinator

by Marcela Torres

If finding water in the desert is a blessing, then Atiquipa really is blessed! Located in the middle of Peru’s coastal desert, the lomas of Atiquipa bloom every year between July and November. Lomas are isolated, oasis-like pockets of vegetation sprinkled throughout the Peruvian desert. 

How do plants in lomas find enough water to survive? During the Peruvian winter and spring, a dense fog that comes in from the Pacific Ocean blankets the rolling hills along the coast of Atiquipa, where it condenses and provides moisture that nurtures these patches of lush, green vegetation. This fog also sustains the local community members who capture it in nets to collect water they can drink, and also use to nourish their crops.

Important Biodiversity

The lomas ecosystems are spread like vegetation oases throughout the coastal deserts of Peru and Chile. Atiquipa has the best-preserved lomas forest in Peru, covering over 103,000 acres (42,000 hectares), and is an important area for the conservation of flora and fauna. 

The lomas harbor some 350 plant species. Of these, 44 are endemic including the almost extinct Arrayán tree (Myrcianthes ferreyrae), three types of cactus (Eulychnia ritteri, Echinopsis chalaensis and Pygmaeocereus familiaris), and two types of bell flower (Nolana inflate and Nolata aticoana). The most common species found in the lomas is the native Tara, or Spiny holdback tree (Caesalpinia spinosa), whose pods and seeds are used to produce tannic acid and gum for domestic and international markets.

Wildlife is also abundant in this ecosystem, particularly during the fog season, and includes mammals such as:

  • the South American White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus sp.),
  • the Grey fox (Pseudalopex griseus),
  • the Guanaco (Lama guanicoe),
  • an endemic mouse (Calomys sp.),
  • an endemic species of scorpion (Orobothriurus atiquipa), and
  • more than 80 bird species, including the endangered Slender-billed Finch (Xenospingus concolor).

Unmanaged cattle grazing and informal mining activities are the main threats to this habitat. Local herders use the lomas as forage for their cows, goats and sheep. Small-scale mining is practiced in private lands next to the lomas, causing erosion on the adjacent slopes which in turn can bring about the pollution of scarce water courses.

Cultural Heritage 

Besides their rich biodiversity, the lomas in Atiquipa also harbor important cultural remains that attract an increasing number of tourists. The lomas are located close to Puerto Inca, one of the most important archaeological sites on the Peruvian coast. Puerto Inca is an architectural complex with several colcas, or food cellars.

The lomas provided the ancient inhabitants of Puerto Inca with game, fruits and seeds, which they complemented with marine resources such as fish and seafood that were distributed along the Great Road of the Inca (Capaq Ñan, in Quechua tongue), which skirts the lomas on its way to Cusco, the former political and administrative center of the Inca culture. 

What Is the Conservancy Doing?

Starting this year, the Conservancy is partnering with the Universidad Nacional San Agustín (UNSA) in Arequipa, the Yaku Allpa Association,the Atiquipa Rural Community Association, and the National Protected Areas Service, to carry out a three-year project aimed at the conservation and ecological restoration of lomas and community-based management of natural resources in Atiquipa, benefiting 80 families.

Juan José Rodríguez, the Conservancy’s Coasts and Deserts coordinator, explains that the project builds on previous and successful conservation and restoration activities carried out with community participation, and that “it intends to ensure a legal conservation status for the lomas in Atiquipa, to increase efficiency in obtaining water from fog by improving the design of fog-catching facilities and to support economic activities such as olive or Tara production.”

The Conservancy will also contribute to the development of alternative sustainable livelihoods, such as ecotourism linked to the area’s rich cultural heritage, by training local community members as tour guides and service personnel (for transport, food and lodging). Percy Jiménez, researcher with UNSA and project leader, is optimistic “because we have broad knowledge on how this ecosystem works and we have the support and participation of the local population, who also own the Lomas de Atiquipa.”

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