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As Glaciers Melt, Bolivia Fights for the Good Life

Bolivia is watching its glaciers melt, early casualties of a changing climate. As communities struggle to adapt and the government tries to pioneer an alternative way forward, rural Bolivians believe the answer lies not in consumerist striving to live better, but in learning to live well.

Jessica Camille Aguirre

Don Alivio Aruquipa is smiling as he gestures around his community. Behind him, groups of yelping children kick a soccer ball around a sloping green plaza. Every so often, the ball goes flying off the mesa into a plot of cultivated land below, and the children send someone to go retrieve it.

Looming over the verdant square that stretches among squat square buildings is Illimani, a blue, breathtaking colossus of craggy rock and snow. On the other side of the mountain sits La Paz, the burgeoning capital city of Bolivia. But here, in the village of Khapi, the hush of remote tranquility is interrupted only by children's cries.

Alivio, stocky and affable, is one of Khapi's community leaders. He turns somber as he explains how yellow water is beginning to come down from Illimani. The animals don't like it, he says; they get sick or they refuse to drink. The water flowing down from the mountain has also become unpredictable, he adds. It has become impossible to know when to plant the crops.

Khapi is a village of 40 families in the western part of the Bolivian altiplano; its residents rely on agriculture to survive. It is the closest community to Illimani (the name for both the mountain and the glacier atop it, which provides water not only to Khapi but also to La Paz). For as long as anyone who lives here can remember, the community has relied on water from the glacier to drink, wash, cook, and cultivate food. But now Illimani is disappearing.

Disappearing Glaciers

The melting of glaciers worldwide is one of the starkest effects of global warming. In the Cordillera Real mountain range, part of the Andes, glaciers have lost 40 percent of their volume between 1975 and 2006. The glacier Chacaltaya, which sits approximately 20 miles from Illimani, has disappeared completely. Five years ago Chacaltaya was proudly heralded by Bolivian tour agencies as the highest ski slope in the world. Now the Bolivian Ski Club's welcome sign angles forlornly on a barren incline.

Bolivia, which is home to 20 percent of the world's tropical glaciers (glaciers that are located at high altitudes around the equator), is clearly panicked by the rapidity of glacial melt. Bolivia's tropical glaciers are especially susceptible to climactic changes: they depend on the increasingly erratic rainy season to regenerate, and their altitude compounds the effects of rising temperatures. Edson Ramirez, one of Bolivia's most respected glacier experts, predicted that Chacaltaya, at least, would last until 2015. Now, some scientists express doubt that any Andean tropical glaciers will exist in 30 years.

The trouble is that the tropical glaciers depend on seasonal regularity. In tropical zones south of the equator, seasons are generally divided into rainy and dry: dry is May through November (southern winter) and rainy is November through April (southern summer). During the rainy season, glaciers accumulate moisture and ice mass. This thaws during dry season, filling streams and rivers with fresh water precisely when it is most needed.

"Water Is Life."

When speaking about climate change, people in Bolivia use this refrain with reliable predictability. It is an uncomfortable, unavoidable aphorism. The glaciers are an indispensable part of the national water supply system; as much as 30 percent of the water supply for the 2 million residents of La Paz and its sister city of El Alto come from glacial melt. On a global scale, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center estimates that 75 percent of the world's freshwater is stored in glaciers.

But warming temperatures mean that the glaciers are melting at a rate that outpaces their ability to accumulate mass during the rainy months. The consequence is that an important source of water is dwindling dangerously.

And Khapi isn't just struggling with a deteriorating water supply. As a community that relies on intimate knowledge of weather patterns in order to survive, erratic weather has introduced unforeseen challenges to food production. Sagrario Urgel, with Oxfam Bolivia, is particularly worried about the effect of unpredictable weather on rural communities like Khapi: "They don't have ways to anticipate things like they had before, for the times of planting and harvesting," she explains, "and all of this change in climate is causing considerable crop losses."

Javier Cortez, a farmer in Khapi, bemoans that he is forced to use chemicals that he considers poison to protect his crops from new plagues. Some community members are bewildered but pleased that a few crops-avocadoes, for example-that could once be cultivated only lower in the valley now grow in the village. 

But most are concerned about the new pests and the unreliability of water.

"The weather is already changing," Don Alivio laments. "In the old days the rain would come down for a whole week, it would rain slowly ... Now, how does it rain here? Only for two or three hours. It rains tremendously with storms, with hail-sheesh, it plows our crops too."

Khapi is the first community in a chain of villages that descends down a lush valley on the northern side of Illimani. Don Alivio estimates that more than 40 communities rely on the water that comes down from the glacier. On hot sunny days, they say, the water rushes down in torrents. It has forced many towns to build heretofore-unnecessary bridges. But most days, it trickles down at an exasperatingly meager rate.

Living Better, or Living Well?

For many of the people that live at the glacier's foot, the disappearance of Illimani means more than a threat to the water supply. The glacier plays an important role in the cultural and spiritual lives of Khapi residents, and many describe its retreat as equivalent to the loss of a family member...

Maria Teresa Hosse is the director of the Center for Andean Communication and Development (CENDA). Audacious and outspoken, Hosse explains climate change as the result of a fundamental loss of relationship to the Earth. Speaking at a climate change meeting in La Paz last December, Hosse spoke about capitalism as the root of the rupture between humans and the environment. She has been working with climate change adaptation in Bolivia for more than 20 years, and she moved easily around the conference, chatting casually to community organizers and UN representatives alike. "The most important thing about the Andean culture is that it doesn't demand individualism; in fact it's more important to be part of a community," she says. "It doesn't pursue profit, it's much more important to vivir bien."

The concept of vivir bien (live well) defines the current climate change movement in Bolivia. The concept is usually contrasted with the capitalist entreaty to vivir mejor (live better). Proponents argue that living well means having all basic needs met while existing in harmony with the natural world; living better seeks to constantly amass materials goods at the expense of the environment.

The concept of vivir bien is gaining momentum as communities and social activists across Bolivia are meeting to talk about climate change. The underlying conviction is that climate change is caused by an absence of communication between society and nature. Many groups emphasize what they see as ancient Andean sensibilities-they propose a resurgence of communitarian-based consciousness with regard to resource consumption.

"From the Andean perspective of the cosmos, Illimani is a representation," Javier Villegas, a member of the national indigenous organization CONOMAQ (National Council of Ayllus and Markas of the Qullasusyu) says. He explains the significance of glaciers: "It's an Apu, a deity; a big being that is there that we respect. It is like a god to us."

Javier is sitting with Felix Iarme Poma, an indigenous community leader from the Cochabamba valley, and they fidget as they try to articulate what pachamama, usually translated as "Mother Earth," actually means. Their discomfort seems akin to how a Catholic might feel if pressed to define the soul. Felix, wearing a bright hand-woven poncho and a hat adorned with a burst of colorful flowers, explains that paying respect to the Earth is fundamentally important to ensuring a sustainable future: "For example, to do the planting, we give respect to the pachamama, to our wakas [places in nature that are considered sacred]. It's so that forever-for the people that produce-the rains will come through our mountains."

CONAMAQ and other national indigenous groups have drafted statements that demand recognition of the rights of pachamama. They are trying to incorporate traditional lifestyle models into national sustainability strategies. They believe that protecting the ability to vivir bien is a more compelling call to action than scientific data.

In Khapi, many of the younger community members are moving to the cities of La Paz or El Alto in search of work. They are anxious about the prospects for their village as the water supply dwindles and uncertainty abounds. Don Max is one of the elders of Khapi, and his voice breaks as talks about the future: "Now what water will we use to take care of our crops? With what will we live? And our children, with what? That's why they've gone to the cities-our children have gone."

A Different Model

Evo Morales is positioning to become a climate hero on behalf of the global South. The first indigenous president of Bolivia-who is usually clad in an embroidered blazer and who is committed to honoring ancient customs with state pomp-received the title "World Hero of Mother Earth" from the United Nations General Assembly last October.

In a time of global climate defeatism, the Morales administration is now setting its sights on establishing Bolivia as a forum for alternative approaches to developing climate change solutions. To that end, Morales recently announced a people's climate conference to take place in Bolivia in April.

"For us, it's the vivir mejor model that has failed: the model of unlimited development, of industrialization without borders, of modernity that devalues history," Morales declared in November of 2008. At last year's climate change summit in Copenhagen, Bolivia remained one of five countries that declined to sign the concluding statement. The government's objection, announced by Bolivia's UN ambassador Pablo Solon, was that rich, industrialized nations had put together an agreement without consulting leaders from the rest of the world. In an interview with Democracy Now! in Copenhagen, Morales asked, "If the leaders of countries cannot come to an agreement, why don't the peoples then decide together?"

Shortly afterward, he announced an alternative summit, officially titled the First World Conference of the People on Climate Change and the Rights of the Mother Earth.

Among Bolivia's demands are the establishment of an international climate justice tribunal, a global referendum on mitigation strategies, and the ratification of legal rights for the pachamama. Bolivia also demands that the international community recognize a historic climate debt owed by industrialized countries to developing countries. (In 2000, a recent Oxfam report notes, Bolivia was responsible for 0.35 percent of global GHG emissions, compared to the United State's 16 percent and the European Union's 12 percent.)

But Morales faces a confounding paradox in one of the poorest countries of the Western hemisphere, where 65 percent of the population lives in poverty: should the government exploit the country's abundant natural resources for the sake of economic development or maintain those resources in the name of sustainability? Marcos Nordgren, a climate change policy expert at the Center for Research and Promotion of the Peasantry (CIPCA) is wary of many national development schemes: resource exploitation, he explains, is equally damaging whether managed by a multinational corporation or a government.

Many around the world laud Morales for his anti-capitalist rhetoric and apparent commitment to protecting the environment; for many, his inauguration as a UN climate hero cemented him as a beacon of hope. Meanwhile, many Bolivian environmentalists remain skeptical of government plans for development, and it is unclear whether Bolivia will escape its history of unsustainable resource exploitation.

But the deeper question is whether a government can catalyze a movement that is fundamentally grassroots; or, indeed, whether it ought to try.

Khapi's Future

In Khapi, Don Alvio and other community leaders had been asked to discuss their trips to international climate conferences with members of visiting organizations. Khapi has recently received attention in media and climate circles as a bleak augur of the effects of glacial melt. Khapi residents say that Illimani will be extinct in 15 to 40 years. They believe that they can continue to survive here, but only with the assistance of international organizations or the government. Otherwise, they say, their way of life is gone.

As the sun slowly set over the snow-capped ridge, Don Alivio began to recount his experience at a conference in Sweden. Gesturing profusely, he resorted to Spanish when Aymara, the indigenous language spoken in Khapi, failed to adequately illustrate his thoughts. Arms waving, he described a Swedish supermarket in detail. He mimed a cash register for his listeners, his presentation dotted with Spanish words: "robot," "highly developed," and "automatic."

As we left, my Danish colleague turned to me in astonishment. "That's my world he's talking about," he said. It's mine too.

We left Khapi early in the evening. It was understood from the beginning that the visit had to be short; later that night an important ritual was taking place. Four men were to partially scale the craggy face of Illimani to make an offering to the glacier. They would play music and ask for a good season. Then the men would file down, as the sun rose, to be greeted by their community.

Jessica Camille Aguirre wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jessica is a researcher and project coordinator with the Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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