For nearly 4.5 million people a year, Peru is a destination point. A place to travel, to be in awe of and to leave. The Amazon, Machu Picchu and coastal Lima attract people from all over the world. It’s not just the sites that people are determined to see, but also the art and ancient Incan culture. While Peru may be a traveler's destination point, it’s also home to about 34 million people and 3.5 million alpacas. In Peru, alpacas are known as the Gold of the Andes. They compile a major portion of Peru’s culture. Peru homes 87% of the world’s alpaca population. This small South American country has been through the ringer over the last few years. Climate change and COVID-19 have devastated the Peruvian alpacas and the alpaca industry. Alpacas of Montana works closely with the Peruvian people and we were lucky enough to interview a head honcho at one of the largest alpaca fleece mills in Peru, giving us valuable insight into the current state of Peru.
So what’s happening in Peru?
At the end of July, 2021 Peru elected a new President, Pedro Castillo. Castillo came to power after several years of quick turnover. Peruvian Presidential terms are usually five years, so the last elected official was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski back in 2016, however he resigned in 2018 and his vice president, Martin Vizcarra, took over only to be impeached in 2020. Francisco Sagasti then came into power for the remaining term until the latest official election day on July 28th, 2021. Castillo was a school teacher for several decades and became a contentious candidate based on his Marxist beliefs. We spoke with an associate at one of the main alpaca fiber mills in Peru to discuss the country’s current political climate. He told us that the alpaca industry is based mainly in the rural parts of Peru where there is a lot of respect for the government. That respect endures Castillo’s communist beliefs. The people of Peru are worried that many of their constitutional laws will be undermined or manipulated by the people in power. Castillo has announced intent to alter the rules of the constitution by making a new one. The gap between the haves and the have-nots widens with each passing day, making the Peruvian people exceptionally vulnerable in the current political climate. The pandemic dramatically increased the poverty rates in Peru, further amplifying the wealth gap. According to a local source, there are a few families in Peru with a lot of money, who are controlling everything. As the communist movement continues to rise, a fear of a new Trump era taking over Peru rises. The rhetoric used in the election followed the sentiment of “no more poor people in a rich country”, following a similar line that Trump did in fostering bulk messaging that propagates a “we will take care of you” mindset, except the terms and conditions of such a sentiment left the majority of Americans out of the “you”. This mindset infers that people living in the lower and working class will all of a sudden find themselves moving up the socioeconomic rings; however, what is failed to be considered is the lack of mobility in the current governing economic systems. The fluidity we desire that perpetuates an “American Dream” is currently much more of a viscous caramel sauce than a watery lemonade. The promised mobility has been used as a tool to gain power, while ultimately leaving the poor poorer. Peru is experiencing a similar takeover, just a few years behind. With nearly 30% of Peruvians existing in poverty, the poor cannot bear to end up any poorer.
What’s happening in Peru COVID-19 edition
According to our source, the Peruvian government handled COVID-19 quite poorly. “I think it was the worst”, our source exclaimed. Peru has the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate per capita. Nearly 10% of people are getting infected per month. The hospitals were completely overwhelmed during the first COVID-19 wave. The United State’s population is over 10 times the amount of Peru’s and we’ve only had 3 times the amount of deaths that they have. And many of the deaths in Peru are not being reported because they’re taking place in the Amazon jungle and rural areas that have no covid reporting abilities. The hospitals were completely full causing people to either not receive care at all or to have to receive care in alternative places to hospitals with little infrastructure. In Miami, Florida the hospitals were so crowded and overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that a patient suffering from COVID-19 didn’t have any medical professional available to help for 8 days. What did this look like? His bed wasn’t changed. He never received a washcloth to bathe himself. He didn’t receive medications. His basic needs were neglected. This happened in Miami. Imagine what the conditions were like in Peru as hospitals were flooded with people on their deathbed. While Peru acted accordingly in the beginning by going into a total lockdown for 7-8 months, they didn’t have access to the vaccine until very recently, so the second wave hit them even harder than the first. With limited ventilators and hospital space, many sick Peruvians found themselves without care. In May only 1-2% of Peru’s population was vaccinated. An employee at one of the main mills we work with came to the United States in April to receive his vaccine, since there was no sign of vaccination being available in the near future in Peru. As the summer is ending, Peru’s vaccination rate is up to 26% with vaccines only being available to those 45 and up. Peru, after receiving vaccines from China, now has enough vaccines to boost the national rates; however, there are only a few places for people to get vaccinated. In the states, you can receive your vaccine just about anywhere, but in Peru, you have to stand in lines for 6-8 hours at a time, in the heat, with no bathrooms, just to have a chance at getting one dose and for most people, they have to travel long distances to hurry up and wait in such lines. While it is almost comical how hard it is to get vaccinated in Peru, the government is making an effort to ensure that there are vaccines available in the rural corners of Peru, including the Indigenous population in the Peruvian Jungle. There are campaigns working to make the vaccine more widely available with people eagerly waiting to be vaccinated. The government is working to vaccinate low income communities as well, so they are bringing vaccines to the communities and offering a few points of vaccination in each. This is a new development that has helped the rates go from 1% to 26%, but point blank, it remains a challenge to find a vaccination clinic. While we see the U.S. opening up and many people have adopted the notion of “hot vax summer”, Peru has not been offered such luxuries. Masks remain mandatory at all times in public settings and under certain circumstances people are required to double mask in order to get into indoor settings. Similarly to the U.S., many people were infected without severe symptoms raising suspicion of the gravity of COVID-19, but as more and more people died and hospitals were and continue to be overcome with dying people, the general population began to comply with guidelines. With the highest death rates per capita, Peru is being devastated by the pandemic. As the United States enters another school year and is afforded the luxury of in-person education, the youth of Peru have yet to go back to school. They have been homeschooled since the beginning of the pandemic and schools in cities have yet to reopen.
The Mills and COVID-19
Alpacas have been noted as the Gold of the Andes in Peru. Southern Peru hosts the entirety of alpaca fleece production in the country. Alpaca is one of the fundamental and largest industries in Arequipa, Peru, a southernmost city similar in latitude to La Paz, Bolivia. Over 15% of Peruvians lost their jobs because of COVID-19--that’s over 6 million people. At the peak unemployment, over 16.5% of Peruvians were left without jobs. For reference, at the worst of things for Americans, our unemployment rate was 14.7%, but the United States has unemployment plans and government provided financial support -- Peru doesn’t have that. Their government has no unemployment benefit system. The person we talked to about the state of Peru is an exception to the unemployment hellscape. Aside from stores that had to close permanently as a result to COVID-19, their factory has not fired a single person. If an employee gets sick and cannot come to work, the sick person receives their standard pay and is given the time they need to recover. Only about 20% of people are working because of COVID-19 and compounding complications with medical issues. For example, if you have cancer you can’t work in the factory, because you can’t be running the machines, so there’s a growing rate of people unable to come to work. In this particular company, employees receive full pay to travel to a vaccination clinic, stand in the horrendous lines and wait out their temporary side effects. So what’s happening to businesses in Peru? When lockdown ensued in Peru, many farms and companies had to stop the production of alpaca fiber products entirely. No product means no money. As these companies watched their financial security dwindle, they had to make difficult cuts. For many this looked like the stopping the production of stock products in their own proprietary product lines. When businesses were able to reopen, they were doing so with little to no inventory. Customers across the world were asking these Peruvian factories for products that they couldn’t deliver. This problem runs to the core of the system. The product a consumer sees and smiles about as they open their package on their doorstep goes through many hands that were all impacted by this global pandemic. Alpaca products obviously start with a cute, camelid animal. When an alpaca is deemed high enough quality for production, it is shorn and the fleece is washed and sent to the spinning mill. Mind you, just to keep that animal healthy is a huge feat. Alpacas in Peru live in the high altiplano of Peru: a region that is being devastated by climate change. The high Andes are projected to see 2-3 times the temperature increase that the lower valleys will see as a result of climate change. This drastic change in temperature affects crop growth and living conditions for livestock. Extreme droughts have been reported in the high altiplano, resulting in low crop production, leaving livestock camelids without enough food to survive the dry seasons. As extreme weather events increase, so does the importance of shelter for the animals. With the effects of COVID-19 additional infrastructure to support the camelid livestock has not been available. Even before COVID-19, Peruvians have been losing a significant portion of their alpaca herds each winter due to an inability to keep them fed and protected from the elements. Each lost animal is in turn lost fleece for production. The next notch in the alpaca fleece production ladder is the spinning mill, which is where the yarn gets washed and processed. The spinning mills are out of inventory and because of COVID-19, there have not been enough people to craft the yarn in the first place. Italian knitting and spinning factories faced the same problem as COVID-19 ravaged their communities. When this happened, the Italians purchased all of their yarn from the Peruvian mills, leaving them booked at full capacity. Pre-pandemic, during the busiest times of the year it would take spinning factories 1-2 months to get their products to the production mills, but now it’s taking 4-6 months for the yarn to make it into production. This means that if someone asked for a prototype of a product in the summer of 2021, they probably wouldn’t get that sample until February of 2022, making product development nearly a 12 month process. In addition to the time price, textile prices are up 16-18% since pre-pandemic times, because everyone is sitting on inventory waiting for products to be made. This new dynamic and timeline is forcing companies to try new business models and methods in order to react to such a harsh reality. Say a product can be made and is ready to ship from Peru to the United States, shipping costs are up an additional 50% right now due to such a high demand and pressure from all sides of the system. At the beginning of the pandemic, customers reduced and cancelled orders, since they had no idea how to financially survive such an event. This year, however, most companies placed normal or larger orders than usual. The mills are left facing huge supply problems due to a lack of people and because of the delays of yarn to start production. Delivery dates are chronically affected and no matter what every week someone gets infected and so then they have to replace them and they don’t have the skilled workers to replace them on such short notice. These infections are happening against the factory's best efforts to have online meetings (with computers provided by the company), mandatory mask use and sanitization best practices. With such a small percentage of the population vaccinated, best practices can’t combat such a ruthless virus. Alpacas of Montana is doing whatever we can to help our Peruvian brothers and sisters. Right now, these efforts are directed toward getting a nonprofit off the ground that will help provide hay and shelter for the alpacas in the high altiplano during the harsh seasons. We’re hoping that by providing food (since their food sources are becoming scarcer and scarcer due to climate change) and shelter (so the animals stay safe all winter during the unpredictable weather) that the Peruvian people will lose less of their alpaca herd each year, therefore providing them more animals they can use for production, which in turn will help bolster their job and economic scene.
What does all of this mean for Alpacas of Montana and our customers?
While we could outsource to companies in other countries for yarn and fleece, working with the companies that we do is our commitment to sustainable and ethical practices. By using these specialized companies with high values and integrity the consequences are suffering along with the people most affected by this global pandemic and the climate crisis. With the mills being increasingly devastated by the effects of COVID-19, many of our products will not be shipping until late in the season. As a small, family owned company, this means that we may run out of certain inventory. It means that we may not be able to ship your products until Mid November or later into December. It means that we have to ask a big favor from you, our community. Please continue to support us. Please continue to shop small. Please have patience with us. If we have your product in your size, it will ship within 24 hours. We are doing everything we can to support the people and companies that we believe in, even if it means enduring alongside them. Peru is in peril. They will never lose our business because that’s easier. We are a business built on relationships and doing it right. These holidays have a chance to look a little thin for us and we need your continued support. Shop early, be patient and know that we are doing everything we possibly can. You can always buy a gift card, which supports us and you can use whenever we have what you want.