Occasionally I have been known to go on holiday. Nothing unusual in that. However, I do tend to take a tour off the beaten track. Here are a few observations from my travel journals over the years.
This page is still in development.
South America 2007 - Climate Change Already Here
Did you know that the Amazon rain forest is so large that it takes four hours to fly from the North to the South in a Boeing 737?
Did you also know that the fires burning in the Amazon can be seen from 33,000 ft above? ... they are so large that they look like the pattern of street lights you might expect to see from a town or city at the same site.
That is the sight that greeted us at 33,000 ft on a flight to Bolivia in 2007. I thought I was aware of human impact until I took this trip. The reality of the impact that humans have on the environment, from dropped litter to global warming, is so much worse than I had realised. Here in Canada we are surrounded by televised warnings, educated about pollution and the environment, and yet, for some reason, it still doesn't really impact on the senses ... it becomes a political game or someone else's problem.
However, when you find yourself thousands of miles from home, in a remote village which has no sanitation, no clean water and no where for the garbage to go, it becomes the personal problem that it should perhaps be for all of us.
However ... it is not all bad news!
My vacation became an eye opening visit ... allow me to elaborate if you will ... As you may have gathered from the opening paragraph, my education started on the way there during the flight to La Paz in Bolivia. It got me thinking ... for our relatively small individual size, humans collectively have a significant impact on the planet ... to see such large fires, deliberately set, raging across the "lungs of the planet" from a plane is quite disturbing, but these fires are visible from satellite.
On arrival in Bolivia, we were warned not to drink the tap water, even though it was treated - the treatment systems are so poor that even the locals do not drink it. Bottled water sells very well in Bolivia ... which leads to another problem - large quantities of plastic bottles everywhere. Our local tour guide, a French woman who has made her home in Peru informed us there are no such things as municipal recycling schemes in Bolivia, although Peru has one or two in some of the large cities. While she was willing to collect up all our bottles and take them to her local (home) recycling centre, the logistics of collecting so many bottles (it is recommended that you drink 2-3 litres of water a day at high altitude) would be impossible. However, in a country which is mineral rich but materially poor, many resourceful locals are already realising the value in recycling, small communities collect up the bottles and sell them back to the water bottling plants for refilling. (Of course, as a result, there is also an interesting black market in bottled (not treated) tap water, so it always pays to check the seals on your water bottle in Bolivia!!) On the other hand, other garbage would potentially be willingly collected but then burned or buried locally adding to a growing problem of the leaching of damaging chemicals into the soil. Indeed some of my more adventurous colleagues confirmed that they too have experienced this problem while on the Inca trail in Peru.
The Inca trail itself has a delicate balance between a need for industry (in this case tourism) to bring money and jobs to the local area, and a need to conserve. To their credit, numbers allowed on the trail are limited and the porters must now carry all garbage back to a central location, but the trail, having survived several hundred years of weathering, is starting to wear away due to human activity, with no *Inca to repair it.
Crossing from Bolivia to Peru via Lake Titicaca was another opportunity to experience both local and global environmental impact. On a local scale the news was positive. Intensive farming methods adopted by much of the west are starting to be rejected in parts of Bolivia and Peru, where the combination of Catholicism and the traditional worship of Pasha Mama (or Mother Earth) have lead to the preservation of the rotational crop system, and indeed the reintroduction o Quechua farming methods (ironically by external NGOs) using "fingers" of land which are partially immersed.
(*Inca - the people were actually Quechuan, Inca means 'king')
On the global scale, not so good ... I did say starting to be rejected. North America must have its bananas, and intensive farming methods are still used for many banana plantations, where burn-off is used to cut back the brush and dead trees from the previous year, adding to the fires burning in the region and removing much of the fertility from the soil. The lower education levels in the area mean that many of the farmers do not realise that year after year of burning like this reduces the amount their farm can support. At the start of the growing season, the whole continent becomes swathed in a misty haze which adds mystery to your Machu Picchu pictures, but plays havoc with your lungs. This is the fire season in South America!
This becomes a problem for many of the cities in Bolivia and Peru since the combination of mountainous regions and the colder (and higher) Altiplano mean that the majority of cities are located in basins which act as traps for the smoke and haze. In fact in the city of Cusco in Peru, locals often find their cars and homes covered in ash. In addition, the lack of infrastructure (it takes the train 3 hours longer than a car to travel from Puno to Cusco - more on that another time!) and private money (the train is more expensive than most people can afford) means that large fleets of small mini vans drive helter skelter through these cities, adding to the pollution problems.
The changes in the climate are being felt in these countries more than for us here at home - yes we have the sweltering 30+ degree temperatures in Summer, but we like summer. In a region known for its white capped mountains, the white cap is sorely missed. A mountain climb in Bolivia became a stroll and the (admittedly rickety) ski lift was lacking a purpose for existence, and has been for the last two years. Our local guide informed us that the work that the local meteorological office is doing in this area (where global warming was first confirmed as a phenomena) has indicated that snow will disappear in this region completely over the next five years.
In addition, in Bolivia the rains have come too early this year and are too cold (hail is as likely as rain), whereas parts of Peru have been so dry that they are concerned that the rains won't come at all - no trip to South America would be complete without a visit to the Amazon rain forest ... but where was the rain, and more to the point, something else I noticed from my flight, where was the Amazon - that mighty artery of the rain forest? Well ok, it was the end of the dry season, and there had been some rumbles of thunder ... but that was about it.
My trip into the Amazon was possibly the most hopeful and yet most worrying part of the adventure. The drive from Puerto Maldanado to the Rio Tambapata (a tributary of the Amazon River) was dusty from the dry season, but the dust wasn't the only visual hazard - thick smoke, ash and the occasional stray flame made for an interesting trip. Again the banana plantations were burning off ...
Once at the port, we traded the van for a boat and made our way up river to an Amazon Nature Reserve, its status recently reinforced by the government following repeated incursions by miners and intensive farming. As we journeyed along the river prior to reaching the reserve, we came across numerous small gold mining operations, where locals are attempting to better their circumstances. Unfortunately the process used for extraction of gold from the river leads to mercury being released in large quantities. Local fishermen have been told that they can no longer eat the fish they catch due to the high contamination levels and the gold miners themselves are often affected by mercury poisoning. However, a gold miner can earn more in a day collecting a few grams of gold, than a banana grower in this region - as usual, the middle man takes the greater cut.
I did promise some good news and here it is. The increase in tourism in the area, particularly ecotourism, has lead to stricter controls on farming methods and mining in the reserve areas. At one banana plantation we saw, they are using a combination of crop rotation and crop combining to ensure that the soil is always nutrient rich. Beans, grown only for their ability to fix nitrogen and carbon, are grown and allowed to decay down into fertiliser at the base of the banana trees. Eco lodges are springing up, where electricity is something that the tourist can escape from, basking in the evening from the gentle glow of oil lamps powered by grain oils. As the number of eco-lodges has increased in the area, the local people have seen an increase in trade and the benefits of eco-friendly growing methods. In addition, the increase in Fair Trade sales of coffee and bananas is also benefiting the region. Protected areas are being established where species, not been seen for years, are starting to creep back.
The trip, in addition to being fantastic, was indeed educational and left me thinking what can I do to help stop this. I'm not a huge activist, but I can do a little bit - whereas, I recycle ... "most of the time" ... now, I recycle whenever I can. When I buy my groceries, I think about how they were produced, and am more likely to buy Fair Trade bananas than before - yes they are more expensive, but in the grand scheme of things, not that much more, and the slight increase to me can make such a difference in the lives of the people farming them!! I have realised it doesn't actually take too much effort to do all those things they suggest, change the light bulbs ("yes, yes, I will get round to it when I have time!"), recycle ("one bit of litter wont make a difference") and that the excuses I make for myself could have life changing consequences for other people. So my (late) new years resolution is to do my little bit for the environment, because if we all do our little bit, we might actually make a difference.