Story last updated at 11/27/2013 - 2:10 pm
A dry, stiff wind pours through my layers, chilling the bones. It's coming from the direction of Sajama, a 6,500-meter volcano protruding aggressively like a stage-three zit on the smooth, flat face of the Altiplano. I slowly chew on a piece of llama sausage as I watch a herd of them graze on the river banks.
Behind me the crew is at work. Edwin the scientist, Alfredo the engineer, and Don Victor the chauffeur tinker away with gloved hands, connecting hoses to a 1,000 liter water tank. The project consists of a solar-powered pump that brings water up from the river, filling the tank which then delivers the flow to three different taps around the village of Lagunas Sing Jankoyu. Another hose directs water to an irrigation system in the new greenhouse below. The greenhouse is maintained by the eight school children and their teacher to teach them about growing food and maintaining healthy nutrition.
This project was implemented to help support the small community with water and food security as climate change strains the local resources. "We hope that this generation of children is going to be less dependent on purchasing water, because it is becoming increasingly limited," said Edwin the scientist, with a tone of satisfaction from a successful project. Hired as a volunteer videographer, I gladly accepted the opportunity to visit this rural work site with the crew and meet the thankful people of the community.
Beyond Sajama lies a chain of ice-capped volcanoes marking the border of Chile and the return of the Andes. On the other side of those mountains sits the Atacama salt desert, a place that Craig Childs called "the textbook definition of uninhabitable" in his book "Apocalyptic Planet." When I spoke with the teacher in the community, she told me that her goal is to keep the village habitable, maintaining livelihoods for the next generation so that they wouldn't need to move to the city to support themselves.
This seems to be one of the main motives of Agua Sustentable, the domestic Bolivian NGO running the water pump project. Agua Sustentable works to prepare Bolivian communities for the increasingly apparent challenges that climatic change imposes on the water supply of the country. By helping to improve accessibility to water resources the organization hopes to strengthen the resiliency of the Bolivian population.
In one of their educational pamphlets, Agua Sustentable explains the problems that climate change is amplifying in Bolivia and goes on to point out sources of these issues. "The populations of the poorest countries are those who must face the most significant impacts of climate change; having less capacity of mitigation and adaptation to the effects principally provoked by the countries of the North." The pamphlet calls to attention infringements of human rights, and while the main purpose of the literature is to warn citizens of coming challenges, it clearly informs the reader of the injustices imposed by more developed nations as the byproducts of industrialization warm the planet.
While these accusations may seem harsh, I must say that Bolivia is among the few countries that appear to be trying to walk the talk. With the latest government led by President Evo Morales, a constitution legalizing the "rights of Mother Earth" was adopted. This constitution included measures such as "the right to continue vital cycles," and "the right to not be contaminated" as well as more direct statements such as "the right to not be affected by major infrastructure and development projects that disrupt the balance of ecosystems and local communities."
From a handful of conversations with Bolivians about this, I gathered that Morales has a large following, with many citizens excited about the progressive goals of the government (around La Paz we saw graffiti calling for "Evo until 2050"). However, others feel that nothing has really changed, and that the innovative promises have not been fulfilled. It reminded me of a similar situation in Ecuador, where the government-sponsored propaganda billboards seemed to be claiming more triumphs than the citizens I spoke to were seeing. It was an all too familiar occurrence, reminiscent of Obama's "Change" campaign that resulted in far less than was promoted.
Though political election games may just be inherently unfulfilling, Bolivia's latest measures are inspiring nonetheless. Though many Bolivians may doubt the capacity of the current government it still seems significant to me that "the rights of Mother Earth" have made it into national law. If nothing else, this act has likely told the people that their government is at least concerned about the environment on which they depend. By putting that kind of language into national law it compels the nation to pay attention, creating conscious citizens. Indeed, an international poll by PewGlobal in 2013 found that 65 percent of Bolivians perceive climate change as a "major threat" while only 7 percent did not think it was a threat. In the United States 40 percent saw the major threat of climate change compared to 20 percent feeling unthreatened.
Agua Sustentable has been working to support the new "right to clean water." The mission of the organization is essentially to be the eyes on the ground for the current law and push for stronger measures, presenting their findings from projects in order to improve the process of updating regulations. By promoting water security and sustainability, they bring abstract words from elected officials to life in the real world. From what I gathered it appears to be a rather slow process, but perhaps that's just the way things of this nature go. The million dollar question is whether or not the legislation system will be able to act quickly enough to be ready for the rate of the climatic change.
With progressive government legislation, combined with groups like Agua Sustentable, Bolivia looks to be on a relatively strong path toward preparation for coming crises. With the current level of accelerated change in many of our planetary systems, each national path will progress and adapt uniquely. Only time will tell which ones will dead end in the sand and which ones will lead to the river.