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The Cotacachi volcano, which lost its permanent snow cap at the turn of the 21st century. Photo: Felicia Mello

As a young girl, Rosita Ramos heard old people tell stories of the mountain that towers above their Quichua village. This mountain was alive, the old folks said, and her name was Mama Cotacachi. She was a mother who provided for the children living at her feet.

"For us, the mountain is not a volcano filled with lava or rocks," Rosita Ramos says through an interpreter. "It's full of grains and potatoes and all of the energy of the crops that we have here. We have a lot of contact with nature. Our parents always had a good communication with the land. And because of this communication they always had good harvests."

Wearing bright beaded jewelry, Rosita sits on a couch in the coolness of her simple concrete home. She has taken a break from the harsh midday sun that shines down on Cotacachi, a wide volcano rising to 16,000 feet, just 20 miles north of the equator.

The people here, Rosita says, think of the mountain as a beautiful, pale-skinned woman with long white hair. Portraits show her wearing a cap of snow.


Rosita Ramos tells stories about the Cotacachi mountain. Photo: Pauline Bartolone

"I remember when I was little," says Ramos. "I would see Cotacachi after a snowfall and she would be covered with snow. And now I see her with very little snow. We had a creek right down there, a little waterfall. That's where we would get water to drink and to wash our clothes. That waterfall was big, but now it's really small."

Indigenous people have shared stories about the mountain for generations. Lately their tales seem to hint at troubling changes. Rosita gathers those tales. She takes us across mountain canyons to a nearby town, where Maria Perugache is sifting quinoa on a blue blanket in front of her mud home.

The two women talk in their native Quichua. Behind them, the bare brown peak of Mama Cotacachi pierces the clouds. Cotacachi is married to a nearby volcano, Perugache tells Rosita, but it hasn't been a happy match.

She says, "When they argue, the thunderbolts fall, boom, boom. And that startles us, and we say 'Oh my God, they are fighting!' And that makes us laugh."

Not everyone in Cotacachi's 43 mountain villages has heard the term "global warming." But according to scientists, that's exactly what's contributing to changes in their communities. Temperatures have gone up nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the Ecuadorian Andes in the past half century.


Shaman Jose Maria Montalvo in front of his home in Morales Chupa, Ecuador. Photo: Pauline Bartolone

Toward the end of our time in Cotacachi, Rosita takes us to a nearby village to visit a yacha, a Quichua spiritual leader. His name is Don Jose Maria Montalvo, and he uses herbs and prayers to cure patients in the patio of his tile-roofed home. He comes out to meet us in a tattered sweater and sweatpants, holding a glass ball that he says is made of ice from the mountain. The shaman's eyes are tired. As Rosita translates, he says he draws his powers from Cotacachi. But lately, their relationship is changing.

"Before, I could enter into the mountain," says the shaman through a translator. "She would come to me. But now it's not the same. I can feel her energy pulling away."

The shaman says the mountain is responding to changing cultural ways. In a dream, Cotacachi showed him that people were burning the grass on her slopes.

"And Cotacachi said to him 'I'm burnt, look how they have burnt all my skirts,'" says Rosita. "And since then, he sees that the water is going away. The rain is decreasing. The weather also is changing. And finally he realized that his energy is disappearing, too.

The view from one small corner of the Andes, where memory stretches back a long way. But not long enough to remember a mountain with no snow.


Back to Reports from a Warming Planet