Receding lives

By Published On: June 15, 2005Categories: Indigenous peoples0 Comments on Receding lives

"My father says there used to be snow here all year around just above the village," said Mario as he pointed to the stone walls that mark the edge of his small village Chucura which lies below imposing dark brown peaks.

"When I was a child, most of the peaks were covered with snow. About nine years ago, the snow melted. It has never returned."

Mario, a gentle and shy 30 year old, was our guide for a three-day trek which wound its way through steep-sided valleys and over dizzy icy-cold passes to the foot of the brilliant white snow-capped Huayna Potosi.

Our escape from the political tension of La Paz was a walk through the hills of his childhood.

We camped our first night just outside his village. In the morning, as we ate breakfast in the gradually thawing sunlight, we watched families with their herds of llamas pick their way up the old pre-Inca road taking food to market. In small courtyards, women laid out potatoes to freeze-dry them while sun-burnt children rolled hoops along the bumpy frosty ground.

But despite the apparent tranquil village life, it wasn’t just the snow that was receding. Mario told us that the village had 120 families when he was a child. Now there were only 70 families left. When I asked how many families he thought would be left in 20 years, he half-jokingly said "One."

Mario had left the village with both his sisters. Only his parents remained. "I liked living here, but there were no possibilities for work." They had all moved to El Alto, the adjoining city to La Paz, which has become one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

It was disturbing to see so visually both a way of life and an environment disappearing. In some ways, they were strongly connected. The lack of snow melt-water meant that Mario’s village’s small hydro-electric power station now only temporarily worked.

As I looked up to see a glinting plane in the crystal-blue altiplano sky, I thought that many of the reasons for the change in their lives were completely out of their control. The villagers had little hope of ever flying in a plane, yet the growth in plane traffic is one of the major contributing factors to global warming.

The people in Chucura would also be unlikely to play any roles in trade negotiations which rarely prioritise small-scale farming which has been carried out for centuries in this beautiful but inhospitable landscape.

Yet, ironically when I asked Mario what he thought about global warming, he said he thought it was a good development. "The fact that there is no snow on the main pass means that the Government is more likely to build the road to the village that they have promised."

Roads of course mean easier access to markets. But roads are also often part of a model of development in which rural life and the environment are the first to be sacrificed. It seemed a tragic hope in the face of a receding world.



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