This is how a village dies
Ovejeria: Three-quarters of a century of sun and toil have shrunken Luciano Mendez so that his dry brown skin wrinkles around his body like a walnut shell and his discoloured clothes hang loosely from his small frame. But under his hat, his face is sharp and pointy as a bird’s.
He walks over to us from his parched field and I ask him how his maize production was this year. The question has to be translated into Quechua because Luciano doesn’t speak Spanish. But the pause before his answer is overlong.
He laughs a dry, gasping sigh of a laugh and tells me that there wasn’t enough to eat this year, let alone to sell. Some of his cows died of hunger last year, he says, and more will die this year because he has only managed to store enough to last another week or so. Luciano points to the corn husks cradled in the branches of a tree.
He lives alone in his adobe hut, and walks the 3-hour journey twice a week to the valley, so he can pick up transport to Sucre, where his wife lingers on in hospital. Of his eight children, four live in Potosi, three in La Paz and one he thinks has made it to Brazil.
Climate change has devastated the village of Ovejeria: in 2000, there were 90 families living here; now just 9 remain. It is a village of old people.
But it wasn’t always like this. Up until fifteen years ago, the village was a farming community whose maize, quinoa, potatoes, avocados and fruit were sold as far afield as La Paz. The village is located in the fertile bread basket of Bolivia. In recent years, the bread basket has diminished somewhat, and now only includes the lower valleys that directly line the rivers’ course. Even there they are experiencing terrible drought, but up here, in Ovejeria, rain is a luxury that no one can be sure of.
Ovejeria is 2400 metres above sea level and a few hundred metres above the Rio Chico – those few hundred metres make the difference between hunger and plenty. The village relies entirely on rainwater for drinking, washing and supplying its agriculture and animals. In the past, the rains were reliable and sufficient, arriving in November and lasting well into April. But over the last decade, much has changed.
The rains now arrive, if they are lucky, in late December and last until April. The past two years, the villagers have had to wait till January for paltry rains, which petered out in March.
“We only get 20 minutes of rain every few days – a maximum of one hour a week during the rainy season,” Luciano says. By August, he will have to walk his animals up to 30 kilometres away over 2 days in order to feed and water them. It’s no job for a 75-year-old, but he has no choice. “The cows die first, then the donkeys. Goats are the hardiest,” he says.
Others in the village have had enough and plan to leave. Leaving the village that they were born in, that their parents and grandparents were born, in is impossibly hard, they say, but they also feel they have no choice. Villagers migrate away at the age of 14. Most end up in Potósi or Sucre, poor villagers easy to spot because of their country clothes, their belongings wrapped in a shawl over their shoulders and because it is obvious they are sleeping rough. Eventually, the lucky few amass enough odd jobs to sustain themselves with food, rather than simply sucking at a ball of coca leaves to numb the pangs of hunger.
Some even make it to Santiago in Chile, or to Spain, but it’s getting harder to emigrate with so many doing the same.
“There is nothing to keep young people here, no opportunities, not enough food even,” says Effrain Peducassé Castro, director of the department of agronomical engineering at Sucre’s University of San Francisco Xavier. “Because of the drought, the region has lost much of its biodiversity – the plants that used to survive here and feed the animals are gone, and so too are the cereal varieties that people planted.
“And the drought is also affecting the wild animals,” he says. “For the first time, pumas and other wild fauna are attacking domestic animals, which is leading to conflict. People are shooting endangered endemic species.” Last week, three of Luciano’s goats were eaten by a puma.
Effrain is working with an organisation, Pasos, that’s trying to help the villagers. Some have been given a potato variety that reaches maturity in just 3 months rather than 6, and the NGO is also building a large storage tank to supply water for the animals during the year. It cost more than $3000, and a lot of labour to build. But the villagers want more help.
In a meeting to elect new village representatives, they tell me that most NGOs from Europe or the US – of which there are many in Bolivia – send money that they never see. “Nothing changes. The NGOs are not helping. Nobody helps,” one woman says.
The water tanker is very welcome, however, although the villagers complain that they would like to irrigate their crops, rather. But it’s certainly better than nothing, which is what they had before.
Meanwhile, they discuss their planned migration. Many years ago, the ancestors of these people used agricultural methods that much better conserved water and their shared environment. They planted by digging small narrow holes for each seed, rather than tilling the land with donkeys, for example, and they used mud embankments to protect the moisture around each seedling.
Over the past 15 years, people here have all but denuded the mountain slopes, chopping trees for firewood and their cooking pots, for construction or for animal fodder. The soil is poor now and erodes quickly with each rain, or blows away in the dry winter.
Much can be blamed on the villagers’ poor environmental guardianship. But climate change has casued the rains to become irregular so that the farmers do not know from the first downpour whether to plant – whether the rains will last for the growing season. At the moment, they can be fairly certain the rains won’t last. And these Bolivian subsistence farmers, living in their mud houses have done nothing to contribute to climate change. They don’t even get to use the gas in the pipe that runs past their emptying village.
Of the 9 remaining families in this village, a member of every one told me they were thinking about migration. From producing their own food, to probable begging.