As Climate Change Summit Nears, the Chaco Offers Some Clues

Chris Herlinger | September 18, 2014

In the Chaco region of northern Argentina, Wichi indigenous communities and non-indigenous cattle raisers have different understandings of the land. The Wichi, who traditionally survived as hunter-gatherers, have suffered from the systematic expropriation of their land for over a century by mestizo cattleraisers who migrated into the region from elsewhere in Argentina. The mestizos often denude or cut down the region's trees in order to provide feed for their cattle. Photo: Paul Jeffrey / CWS

In the Chaco region of northern Argentina, Wichi indigenous communities and non-indigenous cattle raisers have different understandings of the land. The Wichi, who traditionally survived as hunter-gatherers, have suffered from the systematic expropriation of their land for over a century by mestizo cattleraisers who migrated into the region from elsewhere in Argentina. The mestizos often denude or cut down the region’s trees in order to provide feed for their cattle. Photo: Paul Jeffrey / CWS

In the last three months, assignments have taken me to northeast Uganda and the Chaco region of Argentina and Bolivia. In both locales, change is afoot – those who have tilled the lands for decades and those who work with them say that conditions are different. Something is happening and it’s not good.

“Seco, seco, seco,” is one refrain I heard in Bolivia. Dry, dry, dry.

Sure, some of the change is due to specific practices that are endangering the land. In Bolivia, for example, roaming cattle are causing problems when they eat sparsely available vegetation. When combined with the changes in climate, the results are land erosion and less-than-optimal conditions for planting.

“If you took the plants (that still do exist) away, this place would be a desert,” said Angelo Lozano, a forester by training and now program coordinator with CERDET, our partner in Bolivia. He and I were looking at the results of land erosion in one corner of the Gran Chaco region, the world’s largest dry forest and a place where CWS is working alongside rural (and largely indigenous) communities that have long felt the weight of poverty, inequality and, now, changes in the land.

Guido Cortez, CERDET’s director, amplified this: “The old people are clear: they know the climate is changing. They could once tell when a planting season would be dry or wet, and could plan their planting.”

Now, they have to adapt to a new, uncertain and potentially perilous world.

That’s becoming a global refrain – which is why over the next week, the world’s attention will be focused (we hope) on the need for changes that will ease, and perhaps reverse, the results of climate change.

Next week, the United Nations here in New York will host an historic climate change summit at which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will seek concrete commitments by political leaders and heads of state to reduce reductions in fuel and gas emissions in their respective countries. Next year, in Paris, world leaders will meet to take that a step further and adopt a legally binding document to respond to climate change.

As a prelude to this year’s event, a massive climate change march on Sunday, Sept. 21, here in New York will, its organizers hope, galvanize public support for change and action on the climate change issue. As organizers are saying, it is time to send a message to the U.S. government – that there is a need for bold and ambitious leadership on the climate issue before it’s too late.

As part of the events, faith leaders are also gathering here for a two-day interfaith summit on climate change; representatives of CWS will be attending.

John L. McCullough, CWS’s President and CEO, has said this about climate change: “This is a human-made problem that cries out for a human solution in the form of fully engaged leaders, advocates and ordinary citizens working together to save our planet from the devastation of climate change.”

“By taking action we can ensure that as stewards of God’s creation our voices will be heard in the halls of power when policymakers debate the common good” – and that includes our brothers and sisters in Africa and South America.

Chris Herlinger is CWS’s senior writer.


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