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Looking Back with Fears for the Future

In the wake of election climate silence and a superstorm, Shawn, Leny and Aldo from the DC team reflect on their research with Bolivian communities impacted by climate change.

Democracy Center researchers Shawn Arquiñego, Leny Olivera and Aldo Orellana worked together on research for our project Climate Change is About…, first published in April 2012. They visited rural and urban communities in Bolivia affected by severe flooding, prolonged drought and the disappearance of mountain glaciers. As the warnings about rising global temperatures – and the potential impact on vulnerable populations – continue to worsen, they reflect on their experiences doing that research and the significance of what is threatened.   

Climate Change is About… is a growing and expanding project, and we are always seeking new contributions and collaborations to make the site more comprehensive and more accessible to educators, students and campaigners. Write to for more information.


The invitation to reflect on my experiences doing field research in Bolivia in 2010 and 2011 just happened to coincide with the conclusion of the longest and most expensive presidential electoral campaign in US history, in which neither candidate even mentioned what is perhaps the gravest national security threat facing the country – global climate change. Despite the bevy of warnings coming from all corners of the world – from melting glaciers in the Andes to deadly droughts in sub-Saharan Africa – President Obama opted for a strategy of silence throughout his first administration, a silence that must now be broken in his second if we have any hope of mitigating the already grave threat that our planet faces.

Up to this point, the outlook isn’t promising. Throughout his campaign, Obama tirelessly pointed to his ‘all of the above’ approach when formulating energy policy, one that he suggested would include the development of ‘clean coal’ and the tapping of the country’s vast natural gas reserves through the environmentally destructive process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” that many communities have rejected.

A satellite image of Hurricane Sandy

Absent a strong drive to take on climate change in a comprehensive fashion, I fear a deepening of the crisis I have witnessed in Bolivia, and now experienced firsthand in New York City. The devastation that Hurricane Sandy  unleashed on the Northeast in October 2012 is of a magnitude not experienced in the region in generations, but gives an indication as to what life has been like for many living in the global South and what we can all expect more of in the future.

Our project Climate Change is About… is an attempt to heighten the visibility of Bolivia’s most vulnerable populations by gathering their stories and gaining a better understanding of the problems they face. From town to town, the number one concern was the impacts that these climate events are having on clean water resources. Bringing these voices to audiences in the global North in a humane and authentic way will, we hope, help people to educate themselves further in understanding what is at stake.

For us to move out of this quagmire, it will require more than international negotiations or grand bargains within the global elite. Rather it will require a sustained effort on the part of civil society to pressure elected officials to take action now. Back in New York, while working with Occupy Sandy to assist communities most severely impacted by the superstorm, I was quickly taken back to Quillacollo and Pasorapa and remember that silence is not a strategy, it’s suicide.


“Pasorapa produces everything you can find,” said a vet who works in this agricultural town 280km from Cochabamba. His assertion was reinforced by people  explaining how things have changed in the last ten years. In the town, and around the main plaza a few blocks away, one could see papaya and banana trees – fruits from a tropical climate. At a distance from the town you could catch sight of large fields of corn, peculiar to the valley zone, and also carob trees and cactuses of all kinds. But all of this is more the exception than the norm these days. After several years of drought this kind of productivity is no longer the case in most of Pasorapa.

The people we interviewed mentioned that there had been mangos, and many fruits and vegetables that they said didn’t depend on state support for cultivation, only their own work on fertile soil to produce so many varieties of produce from different regions of the country.

I remember before we visited Pasorapa my father stressed that, if I could, I should buy cheese and charque, two items very characteristic of Pasorapa. On arrival, I asked in the market and they told me that there was no cheese because the cows had no milk. No charque either, because many cows had evidently dried out, not to be consumed like usual (charque is a regional kind of jerky or dried meat), but rather from starvation due to a lack of water. This beautiful dry valley in the Department of Cochabamba has changed sharply over the last few years.

Local resident Don Alberto confirmed the impact of the drought when he said that before, there had been so much cheese and corn during the celebration of carnival that they threw the excess among the performing groups until it whitened the ground. It was really sad to hear Don Alberto say:

“This year I don’t think we’re going to see a carnival (celebration)….look at how ugly this weather is… Now there’s no cheese to even try, damn it! There are not even cows. When it doesn’t rain there is nothing, if it just rains….uff! Well, then there is plenty.”


When I think back on the trip that we took to Pasorapa I always remember Mister Deterlino Hinojosa and his wife, a farming couple approximately 60 years of age who stayed to live in the town despite the difficult climate conditions. They lived alone, their children having left the town in search of new life opportunities. Mr. Deterlino was so friendly when he took us to visit the crops being devastated by the drought. His words were heavy and poignant when he told us, “If it doesn’t rain in a week this corn crop is going to die.”

Don Deterlino told us of the eternal debate farmers in Pasorapa have confronted every year for quite some time: what to do with the little water they received  – save the crops or save the animals? If he dedicated all the water available to crops surviving after germination, he did it with the hope that it would rain soon. If it didn’t, he would not only lose his crop harvest but also the precious water resources that could have been allocated to his livestock. Mr. Deterlino often opted to save the animals since the dead crops, despite being very small and with little nutrition, could serve as food for his cows.

Mr. Deterlino told us hopefully about a great project to carry water from the Mizque River, some kilometers from Pasorapa, to the town’s agricultural fields. But two years on this very expensive project remains just an idea. And worst of all, reports from 2012 indicate that after several years of intense droughts the Mizque River itself is now completely dry.

Meanwhile people living in the Southern Zone of Quillacollo, the second largest city in the province of Cochabamba, have suffered for two consecutive years due to floods caused by unusually heavy rains that overflowed the River Rocha. For these residents the water surprised them at dawn, when they awoke with soaked feet. On our visit to this city we spoke with people incredibly frustrated by the loss of their jobs, homes, crops, domestic livestock, or work tools. People complained of the passivity of the authorities in failing to prevent the disaster and demanded solutions once and for all.

These were the kinds of stories we found. This is the reality that confronts the populations of Pasorapa and Quillacollo. I got to understand firsthand that these people are not numbers or statistics, but people of flesh and bone that think, feel, and live.

Once again in 2012 floods and droughts continue to destroy livelihoods in these municipalities. All the residents can do is demand that local authorities take some measures to help rescue some of their life’s work. People expect structural solutions, big projects that allow them to adapt to the new realities they now confront. But resources are limited and demands are often not heard in time. And if a local or national response is hard to come by, it’s even less likely that notice will be taken by the decision makers formulating policy globally.

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