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CLIMATE CHANGE-BOLIVIA: Climbing a ‘Dead’ Glacier

Franz Chávez

CHACALTAYA, Bolivia, Oct 28 2009 (IPS) - The rapid disappearance of glaciers and the subsequent exhaustion of water sources are pushing indigenous communities in the Bolivian highlands even further into poverty, Bolivian experts told IPS, adding that an increase in awareness about climate change is desperately needed.

Global warming has led to the loss of snow and ice in the Andes mountains, said Carmen Capriles, head of the climate change unit in the Bolivian branch of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

She spoke with IPS during a visit to Chacaltaya, a mountain 30 km from La Paz whose peak reaches 5,530 metres above sea level.

Chacaltaya is an example of a “dead glacier.” Until a decade ago, it was still the world’s highest ski run. But adventurous skiers from around the world can no longer bomb down its slopes.

The glacier finished melting away earlier this year, and Chacaltaya is now an expanse of grey and brown rock and soil.

But when around 100 activists and reporters climbed the mountain last weekend in an activity organised by Bolivian NGOs as part of the international 350.org global grassroots campaign against climate change, we were caught off guard by an unusual spring snowstorm, which quickly covered the roof of the only shelter on the mountain, while snowflakes landed on our faces and clothing.


“It’s a miracle from heaven,” said the president of the association of tourism journalists in Bolivia, Jorge Amonzabel, who is a defender of the environment as well as a skier.

Around 20 local organisations took part in the activity as part of the 350.org campaign, which takes its name from 350 parts per million, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere considered by researchers like NASA scientist James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as a safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point.

The 350.org campaign wants the December climate change summit in Copenhagen to adopt a new treaty that would set a 350 ppm target for CO2 concentration.

A snowstorm in late October (which is springtime in the southern hemisphere) is unusual in Bolivia and could be attributed to climate change, said Amonzabel, as he gazed at the world-famous ski run, now just an expanse of rock and earth, with a mixture of shock and sadness.

Bolivia is highly vulnerable to global environmental, social and economic changes, said Capriles.

The food security of highlands communities is facing a serious threat, she noted, because drought has reduced the harvests of potatoes and grains, and hay for livestock, while the increasingly infrequent periods of low temperatures are a hurdle to freeze drying potatoes as “chuño”.

This staple food item is prepared by freezing the potatoes overnight, dehydrating them by squashing them flat and laying them out on rooftops to dry in the sun.

Traditionally, subsistence farming families in rural areas of Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, have sold their surplus crops at market to be able to pay for other necessary goods and services. But now they are forced to sell what little they grow, which leaves them without food, said Capriles.

Psychologist Daniela Leytón, head of gender issues with 350.org Latin America, said that instead of being mere spectators of global warming, Bolivians can become “active in a country that is vulnerable due to its high levels of poverty, where physical effects are visible, like the melting of the snows of Chacaltaya.”

“We have the chance to mobilise and channel our demands in an effective manner,” she told IPS.

Leytón said women feel the effects of global warming because of their traditional roles and the discrimination and poverty that affects them disproportionately. That is why she became part of a movement that, as well as defending women’s rights, is urging the world to take action to fight climate change.

Women in low-lying areas in eastern Bolivia now know ahead of time that in January and February, they will be forced by the floods to leave their homes and move to areas that are not necessarily suitable for living.

The activist underscored the creativity of women heads of households who are fighting malnutrition by producing and preserving healthy, safe protein-rich foods in solar cookers and driers.

Capriles said the Chacaltaya glacier did not only suffer the impact of rising temperatures but also of the extraction of ice for use in ice cream and butcher shops in the nearby city of El Alto, which is basically a vast working-class suburb of La Paz.

Luis Tórrez, an engineer who specialises in climate change and urban development, recommended that housing be redesigned to adapt it to events like storms and mudslides, since in his view the world will continue to use fossil fuels for many more years.

 
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