Bolivia: Life at the Extreme Edge of Climate Change

The Earth is really truly changing right before our eyes, weather patterns are more erratic than ever before, storms more severe, droughts more parched, and glaciers disappearing faster than ever. This is climate change, and it is different… different from what anybody remembers as a child while growing up. But, nobody on planet earth is more sensitive to these changes than the people who live in the high Andes where aerial photos that were taken in 1983, when compared to today, show one-half of the 20,000-year-old glaciers have vanished within the past couple of decades, much faster than climatologists predicted.

Glacial time is no longer a cushion!

By the time the oceans start lapping up on the doorsteps of Venice, California’s neighborhood beach homes, gushing thru the skyscraper-canyons of Wall Street, and flooding the city of Miami it will be way too late for finger pointing because by then humankind will be huddled together on high plateaus, perspiring, seething, and hungry, as the masses of people approach the gated communities, seeking recompense, but, in reality, it will be too late. By then, the masses can only point fingers at themselves for letting it happen!

That is the future, but today is now, and the people who deny global warming are the planet’s eco-terrorists, and they should be exposed today, not in the future hiding behind gated communities. Key climate change deniers, according to Rolling Stone magazine, are listed at: Who’s to Blame: 12 Politicians and Execs Blocking Progress on Global Warming, Rolling Stone, January 19, 2011.

The country of Bolivia is dedicated to opening the eyes of the world to upcoming disaster. To better understand this impending disaster it is imperative to read the following article from five years ago because it is even more poignant today: The Big Thaw by Tim Appenzeller, National Geographic staff, National Geographic, June 2007 .  The article is a must read for anybody who cares about global warming; it is an article that commands a re-read. Or, for an updated version on climate change, read this review of Extreme Ice by Nova/National Geographic, which aired on PBS, December 2011; a review of the film appears in Z Magazine.

Will the indigenous people of Bolivia lead the way to ecological salvation for Mother Earth? They intend to do just that. Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth categorizes natural resources as “blessings,” subject to special rights for nature and the right to pure water and clean air and the right not to be polluted.  Bolivia is on the frontline of climate change because of the high altitude of one-half the country with the tropical rain forest down below. Climate research conducted by glaciologist Edson Ramirez of Universidad Mayor de San Andres claims temperatures have been steadily rising for 60 years in the Andes and on track to rise another 3.5-4C over the next 100 years, turning much of Bolivia into barren desert!

In 2011 The Guardian’s John Vidal (UK) traveled to the high country to personally see the effects of global warming. Vidal traveled to the Andes’ foothills at 3,900 metres (2.5 miles) elevation to a village where methodical farming practices have been the same for over 100 years, and he met farmers who are on the front line of how climate change has impacted their decades-old farming techniques. Faustino Mamari, a village community leader, showed Vidal plants that consistently produced 50 beans per annum, year in year out, but now produce only 3-4-5 beans. With rising temperatures, infestations that previously did not bother crops because of the climate, have migrated up the mountainside, following the warmer trend. Furthermore, the normal seasonal weather patterns of the past decades have turned unpredictable and as a result, destructive to regular farming practices. Today, the century-old homesteads of the farming village are nearly half empty.

Regarding the warming trend in Bolivia: David Choque Huana, Bolivia’s Foreign Secretary, explains climate change this way:

If a person knows a plane on take-off only has a 50% chance of landing at its destination. Would that person let his son get on board? No, he wouldn’t. That’s the risk with two degrees centigrade the planet has a 50/50 chance of survival… We believe that everything on the planet forms part of a big family.

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, in December 2009, addressed the Copenhagen Climate talks as follows:

The budget of the United States is $687 billion for defense. And for climate change to save life, to save humanity, they only put up $10 billion. This is shameful.

Bolivians live with the suspenseful effects of climate change every single day. In recent years, Bolivia has suffered from extreme climate, heavier-than-ever rainfalls that have cascaded mountainsides crashing onto entire villages, severe frosts, and intense, scorching droughts. Rising temperatures are causing the glaciers to melt ever-faster. Dr. Edson Ramirez, Universidad Mayor de San Andres, has studied Andean ice caps for 20 years. He says temperatures in the high Andes have been accelerating since 1975, and entire glaciers he monitors like Chacaltaga Glacier (18,000 years old) have disappeared right before his eyes, disappearing for the first time in millennia.

Chacaltaya at 17,500 feet was the world’s highest ski area from 1939 to 2005. Now the glacier is melted beyond the slopes.

Landlocked Bolivia is the highest elevation country in South America and has the largest proportion of indigenous people, making up 2/3rds of the population. In spite of vast deposits of mineral and energy riches Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Wealthy urban elites of Spanish ancestry politically and economically dominated the country for centuries until the election of socialist leader Evo Morales in 2005, the first member of the indigenous majority to assume the presidency.

Morales’ policies include (a) reduction of poverty, (b) redistribution of wealth, (c) land reform and (d) public control of energy assets, which he has already partially nationalized; furthermore, as of June 3, 2012, he stated at a social summit, “Another policy ought to be how we recover, or nationalize, all natural resources, so they are in the people’s hands under state administration.” Meanwhile, for over seven years, his socialized government has not impeded an extremely buoyant national economy. This is capitalism working within socialism.

Fortuitously for Bolivia, in the world of finance, deteriorating fiscal affaires of major capitalistic countries produce strange bedfellows; e.g., The Wall Street Journal reports: October 14, 2012, “Bolivia is Planning Global Bonds.” The Morales’ socialist administration has strong credentials with six straight years of fiscal surplus based upon six years of brisk economic growth, outmaneuvering democratic capitalists at their own game. As a result, this socialist country has hired Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs as co-managers of a $500 million global bond offering. Ironically, weakened Western democratic capitalistic economies, causing bond yields to hit multi-generational lows, have opened up an avenue for emerging-country high yield debt of socialist countries like Bolivia, which just goes to show capitalism is not prejudiced. The proceeds are to be used to finance infrastructure projects, in part, to counter the loss of melting glaciers.

Evo has a bigger immediate mission on his hands than most leaders in the world… Water… Now! If water problems are not solved, El Alto (population: one million), a sister city of La Paz in the high Andes, may become the world’s first large urban casualty of momentous climate change. The glaciers that provide water and electricity to this part of Bolivia are melting and disappearing… rapidly, much faster than ever expected. A World Bank analysis in 2008 claims climate change threatens to eliminate enough glaciers in the Andes within 20 years to threaten the existence of 100 million people in surrounding countries… because of the loss of the annual water flow from the melted glaciers!

Glaciologist Edson Ramirez, in 2006, predicted El Alto water demand would outstrip supply in 2009. It happened!  Ramirez is unnerved by how quickly climate impact is occurring. Years ago, he thought Chacaltaya Glacier would last to 2020. It disappeared a decade ahead of schedule! Climate change is happening way ahead of scientific predictions all across the planet.

For climate change skeptics who require convincing, Bolivia is the world’s first battleground country demonstrating how climate change affects humankind, and the results so far are chilling.  A generational shift in lifestyle is already occurring as third, fourth, fifth generations of farming families in the high Andes move to cities down below because climate change has deteriorated their farming opportunities. Now, the same climate change that chased them down the mountainsides of the high Andes is threatening their lifestyle in the cities down below. El Alto’s water supply for one million inhabitants has weakened considerably compared to a few years ago. Water pressure is lower and actual water availability has become erratic; hydro-production of electricity is becoming sparser.

Under the guidance of Morales, Bolivia is taking a leadership role in the worldwide effort to confront climate change as a result of global warming. In 2009 the UN general assembly approved Morales’ initiative of launching International Mother Earth Day every April 22nd.  Bolivia was one of seven countries that refused to sign onto the Copenhagen climate deal, resulting in the UK and the U.S. withdrawing climate aide to Bolivia because Morales believes the developed countries must slash emissions further than pledged.

Bolivia hosted, in Tiquipaya, the “Woodstock” of climate change summits April 19-22, 2010, called World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, attended by 30,000 from over 100 countries, a grassroots alternative to UN talks amongst the developed world.  At the opening ceremonies, President Morales said:

We are gathered here because the so-called developed countries didn’t meet their obligation of establishing substantial commitments to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Copenhagen. If those countries had respected the Kyoto Protocol and had agreed to substantially reduce the emissions inside their borders, this conference wouldn’t be necessary.

Morales challenges the impact of capitalism on the health of the planet. He says all the talk of carbon bonds and similar proposals turn nature into a commodity. These proposals are done for the survival of capitalism, not for the survival of the planet. Morales wants to usher in a new proposal for socialism for the 21st century, something he believes needs to be debated in the world. At the end of the day, the salvation for the world, as we know it, may very well result in a mix of socialism’s compromising societal tendencies with capitalism’s uncompromising focus on profits.

For Morales, “Either capitalism dies or nature… We have to abandon luxury, wasteful merchandise and not make other people pay for luxuries.”  In point of fact, capitalism dies with nature at the going rate of capitalism’s expansion, consider the following: Quasi-capitalistic/communistic China builds a new coal-burning plant every week, adds 40,000 new automobiles daily to gleaming new roadways while the U.S. turns to more drilling, antithetical to Germany, which has one of the world’s largest installed bases of solar power. The U.S. is crazed over hydrocarbons; it’s an epidemic of monstrous proportions! Thankfully, U.S. solar power has been growing fairly rapidly, and according to a report from Clean Edge and the nonprofit Co-op America, solar power’s contribution could grow to 10% of the nation’s power needs by 2025. But, is this enough soon enough?

Bolivia has launched a national platform led by the United Nations Development Program to deal with climate change, bringing scientist and policy makers together. Additionally, Bolivia, as part of the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (“UN-REDD Programme”), is carrying out efforts to improve regulations and strategies within the forestry sectors. Bolivia is 50% covered by tropical rain forests but loses 330,000 hectares every year to deforestation. As a preventative measure, and according to the WWF, Bolivia is now the world leader in tropical forest certifications.

The land-locked country of Bolivia is involved in a high-stakes epic struggle like the biblical story of David vs. Goliath against the perpetrators of global warming who place a higher value on profits today than on the health of the planet tomorrow.

Paradoxically, a socialist country is assuming an avant-garde leadership role to protect a capitalist world.

Postscript: A quote from Astronaut Ulf Merbold, Federal Republic of Germany (three space flights: 49 days, 21 hours and 38 minutes in space):

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.