How do you conserve a landscape? The case of Nor Yauyos Cochas

Protecting landscapes isn’t a novel idea. An appreciation for spectacular views and aesthetically special places drove the creation of the first national parks in Australia and many other parts of the world, long before we starting talking about things like biodiversity values and ecosystem services. In Australia we’ve protected these places by preventing their habitation or exploitation for anything more than tourism, but you can’t do that in a place like Peru where people have been part of the landscape for thousands of years, where the areas you want to protect not only hold great beauty, but also well-established communities, connected by roads and wires to the wider world and shaped by millennia of agriculture.

Nor Yauyos Cochas is a beautiful place; there is no arguing that. The territory of the Yauyino people, this Andean oasis boasts glacier-capped peaks and mirrored alpine lagoons revered as apus – natural gods – by the Andean people, as well as the spectacular turquoise waters of the upper Cañete river. The steep mountainsides are incised by ancient agricultural terraces and remnants of the old Inca road network – the Qapac Ñan – still connect the walking routes between villages, revealing the age and extent of human habitation in Peru’s central-western mountains. In the modern villages of Huancaya, Vilca, Tanta and Miraflores the modern world has made little intrusion. The houses are largely still hand-built adobe and special stone channels bring water from the river through the streets, where the Quechua-speaking locals collect it in kettles to boil for use.

Huancaya 1

The little town of Huancaya now bustles with city tourists on long weekends and holidays.

External plumbing

If you’re hoping for hot water and indoor plumbing you may be disappointed, but you can’t fault the authenticity.

Modernity has made its marks, however. Sheep graze the hillsides and trout glide through the crystalline waters of the river. Newer structures are built with brick and sheet glass, electric lights illuminate the plazas by night and on long weekends the cars of tourists from Lima clog the narrow streets. The mining boom that is eating Peru from the inside out began to nibble at Nor Yauyos, but the people fought back and in 2001 the area was declared Peru’s first landscape reserve: over 220 000 hectares of soaring peaks and sparkling cascades.

Since then, the challenge has been learning how to manage the reserve: how to protect the water quality, the biodivesity and the history of a place while providing opportunities for the inhabitants to improve their quality of life without over-exploiting the natural resources and destroying the very things that make the place special. In partnership with the local communities, SERNANP (Peru’s national parks service, under the Ministry of the Environment) has worked to develop tourism by promoting the traditional cultures and produce of the place as well as the scenery. By helping the inhabitants to celebrate and see value in their traditions, and to generate income through them, the communities become more resilient and independent and less inclined to import unsustainable modern industries and lifestyles.

There are now a tourism fair and a gastronomy fair to educate and inspire people to visit the place and to value its protection. Through dance and dress and damn good food the worth of Nor Yauyos Cochas is demonstrated and the visitor numbers grow despite the arduous 8 hour drive along dangerous roads up from Lima.

Cocha means lagoon, lake or wetland

Cattle graze on the river’s alpine floodplain near Vilca.

A long history

Agricultural terraces from millennia past line the valley, while a colonial-era bridge spans the river: humans have lived and worked here for a very long time.

In partnership with CIAT, CARE and WWF, the Ministry of the Environment has built relationships with the farmers lower down in the Cañete catchment to value the clean water the Reserve provides, with trials in providing payments for ecosystem services designed to give a real monetary value to this invaluable resource. New mining projects proposed in the Reserve’s buffer zone are assessed for potential impacts on the waterway, and if hydrological connectivity is proven they can’t go ahead.

It’s difficult to turn the tide. In an area where education levels are poor and economic opportunities are few it’s a tough sell to convince the people that conservation is the way to go to secure their family’s future. For this reason the conservation community held our collective breaths when an old mining lease was set to be activated within the protected area. You see, under Peruvian law the land rights granted before the creation of a protected area cannot be annulled, and thus any projects that have already been approved prior to 2001 can technically go ahead, Landscape Reserve or no.

This small mine, with the legal right to operate, promised jobs and economic growth in an area with few opportunities: short-term benefits with longer-term cost to the environment and communities. These types of trade-offs are considered every day in this country and normally the short-term view wins out, but in Nor Yauyos Cochas the unexpected happened. The community rallied against the mine, marching and blockading the site. They saw the potential impacts on tourism and the waterways and stood against the tide. More surprisingly, they found support in Lima, with a passionate group of landscape photographers and hikers protesting loudly against the mine.

Colonised calcite cascades

Limestone deposits form the distinctive stepped cascades of the upper Cañete river.

Impossible blues

The dissolved calcium and cold temperatures combine to colour the water this impossible hue.

Without social licence, the project lost its legitimacy. The local government bowed to community pressure and cancelled the project’s permits, citing inconsistencies in its approval process. The mine plan is no more, and so long as tourism, tradition and environmental protection continue to pay well enough, it is unlikely any other pre-approved projects will go ahead. Sometimes Lima’s new middle class is on the right side of conservation.

For now, the limestone-clear waters of the Cañete continue to cascade through this karstic landscape and condors soar from the mountain peaks. Tourists come to enjoy the views and to feast on the trout and potatoes that taste all the better for the clean water and soils the Reserve aims to protect. There might not be hot water but the hospitality is warm, as is the traditional herb-infused liquor that chases away the night’s chill, and on a sunny day there’s little better than sitting beside the turquoise waters and letting the world drift on by.

How to you conserve a landscape? By working with the community, by creating opportunities and giving tangible value to the activities and lifestyles that protect the area. You protect a landscape by giving the people both the means and the reason to care, and to act where the legal protections cannot. Conservation doesn’t work in a bubble: if we wish to change the world we need to take it’s citizens along for the ride.

Nor Yauyos Cochas

Nor Yauyos Perfection


2 Comments on “How do you conserve a landscape? The case of Nor Yauyos Cochas

  1. Thanks for sharing that story. I might have to look into it more. Working on similar thing here in northern Australia on Cape York. Years of talking about what a cultural landscape world heritage nomination would look like, how it would work and how various Traditional Owner groups could still realise economic aspirations.

  2. With population density increasing worldwide, there will be more and more people streaming into the designated beautiful areas (national parks, reserves, etc). So, when these beautiful places fill up with throngs of people, the landscapes will lose their beauty (and value) unless these people are beautiful. One should wish that this will be so!

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