Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
December 14, 2009
Climate change wreaks havoc among the poor
Water shortages, deforestation cause concern in Latin America
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
Julio Cusurichi worries about the weather in his steamy corner of Peru near Puerto Maldonado, where he and his Shipibo Indian neighbours plant small plots of corn, beans and cassava to feed their families.
"There used to be a pronounced summer and winter," he says. "Now it's crazy. One day it's cold, the next it's hot. You don't know when to get ready to plant."
Despite the thunderheads that gather almost every afternoon, he is also concerned about water.
"The streams aren't like they used to be," he says. "They're smaller."
Climate experts warn that the western edge of the Amazon basin, at the base of the Andes in Peru, could see hotter, drier weather because of climate change. Cusurichi is not surprised.
"I've been talking about climate change since 2000, even though people told me I was crazy," he says.
Throughout Latin America, from coastal fishing villages to urban shantytowns, from the Andes to the Amazon, poor people and indigenous communities are expected to bear the brunt of climate change. Decisions made at the UN climate conference currently on in Copenhagen, Denmark, will directly affect their ability to adjust to the changes.
CHURCH SPEAKS OUT
Church leaders are speaking out about the consequences of a warming climate and the need for financial and technological assistance to help poor people and small farmers adapt.
"Based on the teaching of the Catholic Church, we have the responsibility to be stewards of the planet," Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini Imero of San Marcos, Guatemala, told Catholic News Service. "That stewardship is lacking. And climate change has the greatest impact on the poor and the vulnerable."
Ramazzini was part of a delegation of prelates who travelled to the United Nations in September to talk with environment ministers from around the world about the need for strong action at the climate conference in Copenhagen.
However, he is concerned that major greenhouse gas emitters, such as the United States and China, are unwilling to commit to major changes.
"I have little hope that countries will make radical decisions in Copenhagen that can help stop climate change," Ramazzini said. "In addition, the voices of poor countries and small countries tend not to be heard in these big meetings."
Guatemala and other parts of Central America are already feeling the stress of climate change, with drought in some areas and unusually heavy rains in others.
"Small farmers say we no longer have stable seasons," the bishop said.
That perception is echoed elsewhere in Latin America. In the southern Peruvian Andes, indigenous farmers have seen glaciers shrink by about 30 per cent in the past three decades.
Farmers rely on rain to irrigate their crops during the growing season, between November and May, but glacial runoff provides drinking water for people and livestock during the rest of the year. It also waters the boggy high-mountain pastures where farmers raise llamas and alpacas.
Villagers in Machata, east of Cuzco, have watched Mt. Ausangate, a huge peak of rock that is sacred to the local people, turn from white to black as its snowcap melts.
"We're worried about our children's future," farmer Crispin Mamani Condor said. "We know that in other places, water is more expensive. We're worried that the water will disappear."
Local governments have been slow to respond, said Magda Mateos Cardenas of the St. Joseph the Worker Association, a Jesuit-run social service organization in Andahuaylillas.
While most climate change adaptation projects focus on technical solutions, such as installing drip irrigation systems and building reservoirs, governments need to take a long-term view and reforest watersheds with native tree species to help capture water and prevent erosion, she said.
Her view is borne out by historical evidence.
Recent research by British scientists Alex Chepstow-Lusty and David Beresford-Jones on the Peruvian coast indicates that the collapse of the Nazca culture, which flourished on the arid Peruvian coast until 500 AD, coincided with a drought that was probably aggravated by clearing of trees in the desert along the Andean foothills to plant cotton and corn.
On the eastern side of the Andes, scientists worry about the effects of deforestation in the Amazon. Worldwide, loss of tropical forests is responsible for about 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Peru's environment minister has pledged to cut deforestation to zero and is seeking funds to encourage reforestation of areas that have been cleared.
Recent satellite photos, however, show deforestation increasing rapidly in the southeastern Madre de Dios region, where a gold rush is drawing as many as 200 people a day from the Andes to the Amazonian lowlands.
In neighbouring Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has promised to reduce deforestation by 80 per cent by 2020. Critics worry that the goal is unattainable, however, because of government policies that have encouraged settlement of the Amazon, where large tracts of land have been cleared for cattle ranching.
The combination of deforestation and rapid development has placed Brazil - along with China and India - in an odd category of countries that are still classified as "developing," but which also have high greenhouse gas emissions.
"The great challenge for Brazil is how to continue developing without increasing greenhouse gas emissions," Sister Delci Franzen, a member of the Sisters of St. Katherine who works for the Brazilian bishops' commission on social service, justice and peace, told CNS.
To reduce its nearly 30 per cent poverty level, the government must step up efforts to provide housing, electricity, water and other social services for its 191 million people.
But Sister Delci worries that the dual policies of encouraging growth and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are "inconsistent."
Noting that it is important to switch from greenhouse gas-emitting fuels to cleaner energy sources, Bishop Ramazzini argues for small-scale hydroelectric plants that have a lower environmental impact.
"We need to change our model of development," he said. "We have to insist on local responsibility and more austere lifestyles."
In Guatemala, "many people live in poverty and deforest because they need the firewood to cook. There's not a policy to help these people change their way of cooking so they don't use firewood," he said. "That means changing the development model."
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