REBIRTH OF A NATION: CHACCU

PERU, 2017 - 2019

In Peruvian Andes, vicuñas, small, elegant relative of the llamas  were seriously endangered for many decades due to its golden fleece, the rares and most expensive in the world.  The government  rescued an Inca tradition to sustainably gather and sell its fleece and give locals better options of income. 
Now,  the vicuña is the country’s national animal and it's no longer under risk of extintction.

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At the height of the Inca Empire, roughly two million vicunas roamed the Andes Altiplano, the desolate, wind-swept plateau that stretches from southern Peru to northern Argentina

 

 

 

I was born and raised in this village. My life is completely connected to the alpacas and the vicuñas.

The alpacas provides me food, fur and happiness. The vicuñas provide me money. All I can do in return is taking good care of them and doing my best for them to be healthy. Baby alpacas are usually born at dawn and I need to be there to help the mother if necessary . If the baby is born during winter I need to be extra careful because they could die due to the cold weather, but you know... I love what I do."

​Margarita's husband Genaro spends days working in nearby villages while she works at home, taking care of their animals. He says that his wife works hard and have to help the alpacas to get born.

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When the right time comes, usually during the 'warmest' period of the year, the community will gather for the most important event of the year: the Chaccu - an Inca name for the sheering of the vicuñas

A day before the chaccu, locals will ask permission to the nature so they can perform the Chaccu. In Picotani, usually only the shaman (healer) will go to the region’s apu (Quechua for 'mountain spirit') -the Incas used to consider the mountains as sacred places and each mountain would have its own spirit. 

Peru 18 -  Picotani day2 - Jon, esquila,

Nowadays, a few chaccus happens in rural communities throughout Peru. Some are open to tourists with costumes, music and dancing. This one though, was shot in a region that is not touristic (maybe because of it’s extreme altitude) 

In small communities, open to tourists, locals will set up two lines of wooden posts to create a bottleneck and fence in the vicunas. but in Picotani, all the adults will participate. First they will go on their motorbikes to try to corral the vicuñas. Once the animals are a bit more gathered, all the other people (women and men) will start walking in lines, shouting to scared the animals and push them  towards a bottleneck. Rangers monitor the chaccu to make sure the animals are not stressed or harmed in any way. 

Once the animals are gathered, everyone (women and men) will start moving in lines, shouting to scared the animals and push them  towards a bottleneck. They can be on motorbikes or by foot.

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Once the animals are gathered, everyone (women and men) will start moving in lines, shouting to scared the animals and push them  towards a bottleneck. They can be on motorbikes or by foot.

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Back in the Inca times, the indiscriminate killing of vicuña was forbidden. Chaccus were held annually. The vicuña, once counted, were separated; the old and infirm slaughtered for their pelts and meat. The females, their cria, and the best male specimens were shorn and released.  The finished cloth was treated like gold and stored in imperial warehouses.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532 and discovered the fleece, they began hunting the animals with guns. By the mid-20th Century, when vicuna overcoats were considered the height of luxury in the US and Europe, the vicuna population had plummeted to fewer than 10,000. They were on the path to extinction. It’s believed that by the 60’s there were no more than 7000 animals left in Peru.

Peru’s government decided to create a plan to save the vicuña.  In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) declared the vicuna ‘most endangered’, and placed its own ban on all international commerce of vicuna products.But poachers, driven by the high prices on the black market – around $1,000 a kilo – were undeterred. Enforcement of laws was nearly impossible: the vicuna habitat was far too vast and remote to patrol. The population continued to disappear.

Part of the plan was 'ressurecting' the  old Inca-style chaccu round-up was resurrected and declaring rural villagers the custodians of the vicunas that lived in their region and granting them  the rights to shear and sell the fiber.

The sustainable live-shearing generated income for some of the country’s poorest and most isolated communities, encouraging them to become warriors of the vicuñas, protecting them from illegal hunting. Their absence of hair becoming a shield against the poachers, because a shorn Vicuna has no value to the poacher.

The population started to rebound and, in 1994, the ban on international trade was lifted. In 2008, the vicuna was downgraded to ‘least concern’ on the list of threatened species, becoming one of the few species in the world that has recovered from being endangered

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The vicuñas are all tagged and monitored. The chaccu is the only time in the year they have to check on the vicuñas to see if they are healthy.

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To understand how the vicuñas it’s considered  one of the world’s finest natural fibres, in the world of textiles, the finer the fibre, the softer and more valuable it is. Vicuñas fleece is made up of individual fibres measuring just 12 to 14 microns in diameter, it’s(by contrast, cashmere ranges from 14 to 19 micron

 

The village of Picotani is fenced abd there's a blockage by the 'entrance', so either no vicuñas will escape as poacher or unauthorized people won't come in. There is no internet or phone signal. Electricity comes from solar panels.

If an animal leaves the protected area and go to the main road, the leadership of the village will mobilize the community to capture it back.

Locals now have an income from vicuñas, but obviously is not a ‘fair’ one. They earn around $150 per animal anually. The fulll amount of money will be divided to all the villagers. It helps when you think about a place where is not possible to grow trees or most vegetables due to the altitude.

Elder believe this is an advantage for the new generation. Rosa says  she is happy there is a school in the village, so her grandson Jon can attend classes.

 “My  granddaughter already knows which armband she can wear, the one that belongs to our clan. A little friend  of  her  once  told  her  to use a headdress that belonged to his clan and she refused. It is important to talk about these things to children.", says Rosa.

"This expedition will be very important for the teenagers to learn more about our culture"

When you are a child living in a small village in the Andes, chances are you're not going to school because there are no schools nearby. But Jon does go to a school which is 20 minutes away by bike. When he comes back he tells his little brother everything that the teacher told him during the class.

Just like Jon, dozens of other children expect a brighter future thanks to the rebirth of the vicuñas: the warm gold of the Incas.