The Sibinacocha Watershed Project

We are a US-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization dedicated to the research and conservation of the Lake Sibinacocha Watershed in southern Perú.

The Lake Sibinacocha watershed is located in the heart of the Cordillera Vilcanota range of southeastern Perú and is one of the principal headwaters of the Amazon River. Lying entirely above 16,000 ft (4,869 m) and surrounded by 20,000 ft (6,100 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 wild vicuña and elusive taruca deer roam the hills. Carnivores including puma, culpeo fox, and endangered Andean cats stalk the mountains. More than 60 species of birds have been documented, setting altitude records for several species, and the watershed is home to the world’s highest documented amphibian populations.

At its heart, covering 20% of the watershed, is Laguna Sibinacocha. This 11-mile (18-km) long lake is 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 aquatic invertebrate species, yet they are under threat by introduced trout that grow to enormous size feeding on native faunal species that have evolved with no natural predator. There are also archaeological remnants suggesting that Sibinacocha and its adjacent mountains had spiritual significance to the Incan and pre-Incan cultures, and likely contain important ceremonial sites.

A Threatened Landscape

Since 2000, a multi-disciplinary, multinational team of scientific investigators has been working to understand, monitor, and provide basis for protection of this highly biodiverse tropical alpine watershed. Climate change impacts are already advanced, as the warming high-Andean climate drives rapid deglaciation with a multitude of ecological consequences. Urgency has been added to our work by increasing threats from mining and uncontrolled road building in the area. We have documented mineral prospecting at 17,700 ft (5,400 m) in recently deglaciated terrain where a mining concession had been filed. Mining poses threats through the facilitation of road building, environmental contamination, 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.

A Pathway Forward

We advocate for the Sibinacocha watershed, and the broader Cordillera Vilcanota range encompassing it, to be designated as conservation areas in order to ensure protection of their biological diversity, traditional livelihoods, cultural patrimony, extraordinary aesthetic qualities, and mountain environments. Our comprehensive research programs and work with communities in the area offer needed information that could help leverage efforts towards these objectives. Protection of the area will also help preserve the mature research programs that we’ve initiated there to date.