About The Project

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The Sibinacocha Watershed Project

Steve Schmidt with Puca glacier_August 2012

Dr. Steve Schmidt surveys the disappearing Puca glacier and the principle source of Sibinacocha’s waters.

The Sibinacocha Watershed Project is a 501(c)(3)-designated non-profit dedicated to the research and conservation of the lake Sibinacocha Watershed.

The lake Sibinacocha watershed is located in the heart of the Cordillera Vilcanota range of southeastern Peru and it is one of the principal headwaters of the Amazon River. Lying entirely above 16,000 ft (4869 m) and surrounded by 20,000 ft (6100 m) high, glaciated peaks, the Sibinacocha watershed is an extreme environment by any standard, yet it contains stunning natural beauty and a remarkable array of wildlife. Herds of vicuña and elusive guemal deer roam the hills. Carnivores including puma, fox, and rare pampas cats stalk the mountains. Greater than 47 species of birds have been documented, setting altitude records for many species, and it is home to the world’s highest documented amphibian populations.

At its heart, covering twenty percent of the entire watershed, is Laguna Sibinacocha. This 11-mile (18 km) long lake is one of the largest water bodies in the Andean chain and the largest, high-alpine lake in South America. Despite its size, Sibinacocha itself remains virtually unstudied. No field research has been conducted to document its native fish and invertebrate species, yet they are under threat by introduced trout that are growing to enormous size feeding on native fauna, species that have evolved with no natural predator. There are also indications that Sibinacocha and its nearby mountains had spiritual significance to the Incan and pre-Incan cultures, and likely contain important ceremonial sites.

Sibinacocha aerial_scanSince 2000, a multi-disciplinary, multinational team of investigators has been working to understand and protect this extreme, yet diverse watershed and there is still much to do. In recent years, urgency has been added to our work by increasing threats from mining in the area. We have documented mineral prospecting at 17,700 ft (5400 m) on the pass located at the north end of the watershed, the very source of Sibinacocha’s waters. Alarmingly, we have learned that official mining concessions have now been filed there. Not only could mining pose a direct threat through the facilitation of access (through road building) and the physical destruction of habitat and undocumented cultural features, but the prospected ore is very high in sulfur-bearing minerals, notably, pyrite. Once the ore body has been disturbed and these minerals are exposed to air and water, a spontaneous and irreversible reaction may occur resulting in acid rock drainage. Acid rock drainage produces highly acidic water that leaches harmful constituents from the rock such as arsenic, copper, lead, zinc, cadmium, and chromium. These minerals are then spread throughout the waterway, potentially poisoning the environment for decades to come.

Researchers have suggested that the Sibinacocha watershed and even the entire Cordillera Vilcanota should be designated as a conservation area to protect its diversity of habitat and wildlife, and to preserve its cultural patrimony. Our work in the area will provide needed information and leverage for these efforts, and protection of the area will also help preserve the mature research programs that we’ve initiated there to date.


Sibinacocha Watershed figure

The Sibinacocha watershed (in orange). Sibinacocha covers 20% of its watershed.