The University of Arizona

Seeing is Believing: Bolivian Farmers Experience Climate Changes

August 24, 2010
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Two days prior to leaving for the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, I had my vision tested by a testy optometrist. Once he found out I study the climate, I heard numerous vacuous arguments and twisted scientific facts about how climate change was just a hoax. Nothing I said mattered. It was not a discussion. Eventually, I escaped with my prescription and my same old scratched glasses. I had too much packing to do.

I have been in and out of Bolivia for the last 10 years, first arriving as a Peace Corps volunteer and later helping rural communities develop drinking water systems. Now I return as a scientist, studying the effects of climate change on water resources.

Bolivia has become one of the poster children for the impacts of climate change. Glaciers are vanishing, and with them important water resources that help quench the thirst of a burgeoning and destitute population. The twin cities of La Paz and El Alto house about a quarter of the country’s population. The mountains supply more than 75 percent of the water to the 2 million people living there.  As the glaciers melt, groundwater is growing in importance, and 15 new production wells will come on line this year.

Lago Tuni, in the foreground, is one of several reservoirs that capture glacial and snow melt that help quench the thirst of more than 2 million people living in and around the cities of La Paz and El Alto. Many glaciers are rapidly retreating in Bolivia, threatening to reduce part of the water supply. Photo courtesy of Zack Guido, 2010

For two weeks I motored over dirt roads to rural communities at the toes of the Andes sampling their groundwater, and I trekked to the margins of the glaciers to collect melt-water.  Hopefully, the samples will determine the proportion of groundwater recharged by glaciers and by rain and, therefore, will help determine the sensitivity of water resources to changing rain patterns and rising temperatures.

I talked about the climate with the people in the communities. Many I spoke with have never heard of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or about human-caused climate change. They wear sandals made from old tires, live in mud huts, and many stopped attending school to plow small plots of land with underfed cows. These farmers are far removed from the climate-skeptic versus climate-scientist arguments. Their memories are climate records, and like the glaciers in the mountains, they present an unbiased testimony of their experiences.

Aymaran Indian farmers living in rural villages on the flanks of the Andes Mountains are acutely aware that climate is changing.   Photo courtesy of Justin Bastien, 2007

I spoke to about 10 farmers, admittedly a small sample size. I heard unanimously that summers are hotter, the rain and snow arrive later, and when it rains the storms are stronger. Many people also pointed to the white-capped peaks in the distance and said that the ice is disappearing. Their observations match with the conclusions of many major scientific reports on climate change, including the IPCC.

These farmers don’t have a tree to cower under during the intense summer sun and they cue their potato crop to the start of the rainy season. For them, proving that the climate is changing, even if it is a subtle degree or two, does not take complicated statistics or advanced models. They feel it and see it. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s natural or human-caused. They have little choice but to plant potatoes in November when the rains come instead of in September as they used to do.

These conversations, along with my own personal observations of the changes in the Bolivian mountains in the last 10 years, make me wonder if the climate change conversation in the U.S. would be more productive if people could see tangible effects of the changes on the landscape. It’s not surprising that the optometrist is skeptical of human-caused climate change. Every day his job starts at the same time, regardless of the temperature or when the monsoon rains begin. Perhaps if he’s forced to use less water because Lakes Mead and Powell are perilously low, his opinion might change?

Have our rights to natural

Have our rights to natural resources restricted? What an admirable society we would be if we conceded to such a notion; live in harmony with our host the earth. 

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