For Ecuadorian village, a struggle to adapt to changing climate

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By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (July 18, 2012)

— Frosts aren’t on time for the 960 people living in this tiny, remote village, hidden on a chilly, windswept mountain ridge in South America.

A minor problem? Maybe for some. But in the Andean community, 8,800 feet above sea level, frosts – and their impact on crop cycles – are kind of a big deal.

In this agricultural community, crops are planted during the full moon, a tradition meant to help ensure a full harvest. But these days, the harvests aren’t as full.

Village residents say it’s the mark of climate change descending upon the Ayaloman people.

“In Ecuador, we’ve really experienced a sudden change in our climate,” said Ana Loja, a professor at the University of Cuenca, in the Andes of southern Ecuador. “We cannot say, ‘Maybe this is not happening,’ but I think everyone is aware it is a real problem.”

Ecuador isn’t alone. Since the early 20th century, global average temperature has increased by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The warming is caused by atmospheric heat-trapping emissions, primarily carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, development experts say climate change is slowly but surely showing its effects. By 2050, the world’s expected temperature rise of about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit will cost the region more than $100 billion annually, according to a recent report by the Inter-American Development Bank, which finances research and development efforts in the region.

Because of its location and dependence on natural resources, Latin America is especially vulnerable to climatic effects, the report said. By 2050, it predicted widespread flooding and coastal damage; the loss of Andean glaciers, Amazon rainforest and much of the Caribbean’s coral region; a $32 billion to $54 billion annual decrease in agricultural exports; and increased tropical diseases and severe weather.

Walter Vergara, chief of the Climate Change and Sustainability Division of the development bank, said climatic effects are very real to people in the region.

“We depend on agriculture for a lot of economic activity,” Vergara said. “We depend on forests and the services they provide. We’re very much aware of the role that corals and glaciers play in our daily lives.”

Loja, for instance, said she can see glaciers receding on the Chimborazo volcano, Ecuador’s tallest mountain.

“When I was a little girl, I lived in a city where it was very easy to see, every morning, a lot of the top of the mountain covered with ice,” she said. “But now, every time, there is less ice.” As glaciers melt, growing crops and generating electricity become more difficult, the World Bank reported.

In the past, Ayalomans would grow hard beans all year, said 60-year-old resident Rosa Aurora. Now the plant dries easily and dies. Corn, wheat and barley harvests have also shrunk, and Loja said that intense rains have eroded much of the Ayalomans’ land.

“Now some of those lands are sterile,” Loja said. “Some leave the field and go to the city and get a job, and even though it’s a low-paid job, at least they have a salary.”

In Ayaloma, small, adobe houses line the mountaintop ridge, bordered by rugged peaks and grassy, wildflower-lined valleys. Wild dogs, cats, chickens and children travel the dirt road, and oxen till a field nestled between two homes. A roadside stand sells fruit in a rainbow of colors and varieties; a papaya costs 25 cents.

Now, Loja said, instead of growing staple crops like potatoes and corn, community members often have to spend more to buy them from the market. She said they’ve had to change their diets, buying foods like rice and noodles instead of eating mostly homegrown vegetables.

Temperatures have become more variable, too. In Cuenca, it can be 32 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning, but up to 86 by noon, Loja said. So many crops freeze in the cold mornings or dry out in the hot afternoons.

“In the past years we had all rain in the coming months; we had rain and rain and rain,” Loja said. “And now June is different. We’ve had so much heat, so many sunny days, so now people are thinking, ‘How long is this going to last? When are we going to have rain again?’”

Latin America and the Caribbean contribute only 11 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the development bank report said. But in some ways, the region is a leader in efforts to curb global warming.

Take Los Andes, a Guatemalan village on the slope of the Atitlan volcano, home to just 311 people. The town, and its coffee- and tea-growing businesses, is run completely on hydropower from a river flowing down the volcano.

The village illustrates a trend in Latin America: hidden pockets of sustainable development.

For instance, in some parts of the Andes experiencing dangerously low winter temperatures, the United Nations University reported indigenous groups’ construction of adobe houses for their natural insulation.

In a Bolivian Amazon region, poor farmers have resurrected a 3,000-year-old technique: planting crops on raised platforms to prevent them from being washed away in floods.

And Colombia’s Guajira region built electricity-generating windmills to boost the local economy.

About 95 percent of major Latin American cities are planning for climate change, according to a recent survey by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the United States, only 59 percent of major cities are making similar efforts, the survey showed.

“The spotlight tends to shine on the bigger countries, but in our work, some of the best moments happen in unexpected places,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, an international conservation organization.

But according to Vergara, the region needs to adapt to the problems caused by a changing climate and also help prevent further change. Prevention would include strict power, transport and land-use policies, with two goals to eliminate deforestation by 2020 and emissions from land use by 2030. Adaptive measures would only respond to problems as they occur.

Andrew Steer, the World Bank’s special envoy for climate change, urged preventative measures.

“You can do all the adaptation in the world – that’s not going to stop the glaciers from melting,” he said.

However, the more sustainable solution isn’t cheap. According to the Inter-American Development Bank report, by 2050, prevention would cost the region $110 billion and adaptive measures $14.5 billion to $21 billion. For a region dealing with widespread poverty and other severe development issues, that’s a huge difference.

“Climate impacts exacerbate the problems of the government, exacerbate the gap between good education, good health, good housing, good transport,” Vergara said.

“The intensity of the impacts are growing,” he added. “We need all the other countries to act as well, the countries that are very energy intensive.”

But he said global climate change discussions are “seriously impaired.” In May, during talks in Germany, developed and developing nations fought over who should do the most to combat climate change, said Tove Maria Ryding, Greenpeace International’s coordinator for climate policy. And she said June’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was “a waste of time” and a “failure of global leadership.”

To Vergara, however, such arguments are wasting time.

“If your house is being flooded, if your house is in flames – even if the problem wasn’t caused by you – you have to respond to it, because you’re the one who’s going to suffer,” Vergara said.

Email: Annika McGinnis is a McClatchy Washington Bureau intern and a student at the University of Maryland. Some of the reporting for this story came during a recent service trip to Ecuador with her university.


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