Global Warning: Colombia

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”), government officials and scientists from more than 100 countries, wrangled for weeks in Brussels in early 2007 as to whether global warming was a man-made or a natural phenomenon. They argued over droughts, air circulation patterns, snowfall, icecaps and a thousand other indicators of whether global warming was “likely” or “directly” our fault. In spite of the strong belief in the scientific community that all of our cars, factories and other activities were speeding up global warming at an alarming rate, the politicians managed to get the official word to be “likely”.

High in the Sierra Nevada (“Snow-Capped Mountains”) of Colombia, indigenous Arhuaco coffee farmer Javier Mestres had no such doubts. He did not see things in parts per million. He had never heard of the Global Circulation Model that tried to measure increments of change in the temperature of the ocean or dynamics of the atmosphere. He was unaware that the IPCC report stated that Colombia would heat up dramatically in the next twenty years, and lose ninety percent of its glacial snow caps by 2050. Javier saw the results of a warming planet clearly in the premature flowering of his coffee plants on his four-acre family farm in the slopes above Nabusimake, the capital of the Arhuaco nation. He showed me the smaller, weaker berries that dotted the stems and wondered why the outside world wanted to harm these beautiful plants. Why were we changing the world?

For centuries, the Arhuaco spiritual elders, the Mamos, known in their language as the “Elder Brothers”, have carried out monthly rituals in sacred sites throughout the Sierra Nevada, which they call “the Heart of the World”, to insure that the planet is kept in a geo-spiritual balance. But for the past two decades, the Mamos have been observing rapid changes in the Heart of the World. They have watched the snow caps on their sacred peaks shrink over time and have seen the plant life change. They have felt the lessening of the water in the air and soil, and noted the changing migration patterns of the birds and butterflies. They have shared these observations with the tribe, and increasingly with the outside world, with us - the “Younger Brothers”.

I was in Colombiato learn about the impacts of global warming on the Heart of the World. I was there to assist the Arhuaco in their struggle for self-determination, supported (and challenged) in part by coffee. I was there to heal the wound in my heart from the kidnapping and murder of my dear friend, renowned indigenous rights activist Ingrid Washinawatok, in 1999 by the leftist rebel group FARC (“Armed Revolutionary Front of Colombia”). It was a visit that had been delayed many times by war, weather or fear.

I met with Moises Villafanes, a young Arhuaco whom the Mamos had sent to university to learn to be an advocate for his people in the world of the Younger Brothers. I asked Moises about how the impact of changing temperatures on Arhuaco lands and coffee production. Moises talked for a long time about the drying up of rivers due to the lessened snow at the peaks and the erratic rainfall of the past few years, and the movement of plant species up the mountains as a result of greater heat and less water at the lower altitudes.

“It is as if you can see the plants trying to run from the sun and the heat, which should not be so strong in the lower zones.” Moises spoke with a combination of scientific awareness and poetry that made things incredibly clear. He introduced me to an 83 year-old Mamo, Don Faumbautista, who shared his insight with me.

“Beyond the Heart of the World, the Younger Brother is changing the whole earth. I don’t know everything they are doing, but they are changing the whole earth,”

“Are you talking about global warming?” I asked.

“I don’t know what you call it, but, yes, the Mother is getting warmer. The rain falls differently than before. It is later, but it falls harder. It is destructive sometimes when it should be nurturing. Many of the rivers are dry before they reach the sea. And the snows on the peaks that replenish the rivers are less each year. It is all happening very quickly. First, you took our gold. Then you took our land. Now you are taking the water and the air itself. The Younger Brothers are waging a war on the earth and it must stop!”

There is a lot of other evidence on the impact of global warming on coffee production (and, therefore, producers!) around the world. The United Nations estimates that 90% of Ugandan low-altitude coffee will disappear in twenty years. A similar report documents the impacts of erratic rainfall and increased temperature and withering forests on coffee production in India. But what you have just read comes from the farmers themselves, who are painfully aware of global warming and can’t do anything about it.

We can.

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