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Mountain Of Misunderstanding: Ohio State Researchers Kicked Out Of Peru Village

Ohio State science team members walk through the village of Musho escorted by the Peruvian police on August 11, 2019.
Paolo Gabrielli
/
The Ohio State University
Ohio State science team members walk through the village of Musho escorted by the Peruvian police on August 11, 2019.

Sometimes science and culture collide. A group of The Ohio State University researchers working in a remote region of Peru was caught in the middle this summer when upset local residents ordered them off a mountain.

“It was very obvious it was a misunderstanding from the beginning,” says Paolo Gabrielli, a research scientist who was a part of the team working on the mountain Huascarán in the Cordilleras Blanca region of Peru.

The team from the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center was led by Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s preeminent scholars in ice core paleoclimatology. They’d drilled more than 470 meters of cores to transport back to Columbus, where the samples would hopefully reveal secrets about Earth’s air quality and climate going back some 20,000 years.

But all that work appeared to be jeopardized in early August when a group of locals gathered outside the researchers’ hut.

“They think we are here to mine the mountain for gold,” Roxana Sierra-Hernandez, another researcher who spoke fluent Spanish, told Thompson at the scene. “They think the government has sold the mountain to the Americans.”

It was a frustrating but not wholly surprising development for the team. Mining is banned on the mountain, but it’s still been the scene of some illegal mining.

On top of that, glaciers are often viewed as sacred places by Peru's indigenous cultures.

“They consider (mountains) a place where God is,” Gabrielli says. “They were afraid that we were contaminating their mountain with our operation.”

Expedition members construct a snow brick wall to shield camp structures from heavy winds on July 17, 2019.
Credit Forrest Schoessow / Ohio State
/
Ohio State
Expedition members construct a snow brick wall to shield camp structures from heavy winds on July 17, 2019.

Residents of the village of Musho initially ordered the researchers to leave within 12 hours. Team members considered that an impossible deadline, so they eventually brokered a compromise of two days. That bought them enough time to meet with local leaders.

They’d already received permission from Peru’s federal government, but had not met with local villagers. The president of Peru even flew in to greet researchers, but never met with local residents while he was there.

“We are sorry that we did not stop in Musho in the beginning to explain to you exactly what we were doing,” Thompson told residents in a town square meeting.

Ultimately the villagers agreed to give the team five days to pack up and leave. Not ideal for an operation of this size, but it would have to work.

All in all, researcher Paolo Gabrielli calls the venture a success and a teachable moment.

“Definitely it is a big reminder to us that we need to be even more careful to communicate with people,” he says.