Monday, September 19, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Day 6 - A Story of Sheep and the Climate Crisis

This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. Day six of our trip was a long day of driving, ending in an indigenous village (Santiago de Okola) on the north shore of Lake Titicaca. Almost immediately after arriving, we learned a disturbing impact of the climate crisis on agriculture there.

We woke up early on Day 6 of our trip, still in Yungas, and boarded our bus to leave. Since we had all already earned our "I Survived the Death Road" T-shirts, we took the non-death road back to La Paz. In La Paz, we picked up our very beloved Bolivian guide, Gabriel, ate a quick lunch, and headed out to Santiago de Okola.

I've written at length about Santiago de Okola from my last trip to Bolivia, when we visited for three days. I was eager to return there because they'd been experiencing strange and unnerving weather patterns for the past few years and I wanted to get the scoop on what happened last year. Is this weather, or is this climate?

This year, at my request, my roommate Christina and I stayed with Don Juan Cayo, an agriculture expert. Lucky for me, Christina speaks impeccable Spanish. She spent more time with Don Juan and his wife than I did, and she also had more in depth conversations with them - which she is capable of and I am not. At least, not nearly to the same degree.

When we arrived, I gravitated RIGHT to the sheep. If there's one thing I love about rural life, it is cute baby animals. Last year when I visited, there were plenty of newborn lambs... I was hoping we'd be so lucky once again.

As you can see, we lucked out. Don Juan has about 15 sheep and they produced six lambs recently. All of his pregnant mamas had already given birth and there would be no more babies.

We arrived in the evening, and it's normal here for the sheep to be penned up already by then. In the morning, they are led out to pasture and each one wears a rope around its neck, which is then attached to the ground to keep the sheep from wandering off during the day. In the evening, the sheep come home.

But Don Juan told us that this was NOT normal right now, because he hasn't been letting the sheep out at all. There's no rain, and there's nothing to eat. So they stay in their pens and he feeds them grain and/or straw. He's a trained vet and he plans to give them some sort of "treatment" (as he called it) - vitamins or medications or something - to make up for the lack of pasture.

At this point I started asking questions. Isn't it normal to plan for sheep to be born when grass is plentiful? Yes, he said. The rains used to start much sooner but now they are coming several months late, not until December or January. So whereas lambs born now used to arrive when the rains came and the grass grew, now they do not.

And don't the mother sheep need lots of food in order to make milk for their babies? Yes, he said. This is a problem. Look - they are so hungry, they are eating one another's wool. And he was right. As we watched, we saw the poor, hungry sheep eating wool right off one another's backs.

Everywhere we went in the Altiplano, we saw baby lambs who had been born recently in anticipation of the annual rainy season that wasn't coming. And when the rain does come now, it comes all at once, sometimes causing flooding and even landslides. Without grass, the farmers had to feed their sheep grain and straw. Grain and straw that they grew that was to last the whole year - based on the assumption that during part of the year, the sheep would be eating grass. And while all the straw was intended for the animals, the grain was to feed the people for the year too.

If the grain and straw ran out they had a few choices. They could buy more food if they could afford it, or they could butcher or sell a sheep or two to reduce their food needs. Or perhaps they could do both, since selling a sheep would bring in money to feed the others. But, again, that was money intended as income for the family. And if they sold a ewe, then they would produce fewer lambs in future years, with the result of less food and wool and/or less income.

I felt terrible for the poor sheep, as I watched them eating one another's wool. I felt even worse when I visited another family's home the next day and saw their entire flock wearing muzzles:

I am not sure if the muzzles are intended to keep them from eating wool, but I cannot imagine what else they are for, since the sheep were all penned up and there was nothing else for them to eat that the muzzles might be keeping them from eating. I nearly cried when I saw those sheep in muzzles. Imagine being so hungry you would eat wool, and yet you have your mouth tied shut so you can't? This is what the climate crisis looks like to those it is impacting now.

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