At daybreak on a freezing cold day high in the Andes, dozens of Peruvian peasants clamber up a mountainside to carry out a centuries-old tradition of shearing the highly-prized wool off vicunas, which are relatives of the llama. One week each year, the peasants of Totoroma, a village 50 kilometers (30 kilometers) to the southwest of Lake Titicaca, join forces for a process of herding and shearing known locally as the “chaccu”. They trudge up the mountainside and herd around 500 vicunas back down the slope into a pen made of posts and three-meter high mesh-a necessary precaution to keep the agile members of the camelid family from escaping.
The comuneros-men and women, some even carrying children-wrap up against the cold and wear wide-brimmed hats to protect them from the sun. This year, they’re also wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19. “It’s an ancestral activity that has been going on since time immemorial and now we’re helping out as a public state administration,” vet Jaime Figueroa told AFP. Jesus Pilco Mamani is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers.
“I started working as a comunero in 1986,” he told AFP. The vicuna appears on Peru’s national coat of arms and there are an estimated 200,000 of the Andean camelid in the country. The annual chaccu helps support families in 290 communities in the Peruvian Andes. Vicuna wool is highly-prized for its soft qualities and is one of the most expensive in the world. The vicunas live at least 3,500 meters above sea level so getting their wool-by rounding up and shearing them-is a difficult task.
The communities in the Peruvian Andes produce around 10 tons of vicuna wool a year. Unlike llamas and alpacas, amongst Andean camelids, vicunas and guanacos have not been domesticated. Alpaca wool is far more common, while llama wool can be used to make rugs and carpets but is considered too rough for clothing. Guanaco wool is also highly-prized, although not as soft as vicuna. Inside the pen, the comuneros hold each brown vicuna down on a blanket on the ground while an expert quickly shears them using a machine powered by a portable generator. The wool of each vicuna is collected and placed inside individual plastic bags.
Once shorn, the vicuna is immediately released from the pen and runs at top speed back up the mountain. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of unprocessed vicuna wool sells for $400 — much more than alpaca wool. But a single sheared alpaca produces three kilograms of wool, compared to “150 to 180 grams” from the much smaller vicuna, Erick Lleque Quisoe, an official in the regional Puno government, told AFP. He said that in Totoroma the locals “took off 35-40 kilograms” of wool from the 500 vicunas. In 2019, Peru made $3 million exporting seven tons of vicuna wool, whereas alpaca exports bring in around $300 million, according to official figures. – AFP