Forgotten people

CLIMATE CHANGE

Forgotten people

Marush Narankhuu, from western Mongolia. Photo courtesy: Julie Sheen Costa

A 15th century Dominican ex-monastery in Viterbo, about two hours from the Italian capital of Rome, seems an unlikely place to hear testimonies from around the world about what the changing climate is doing to the livelihoods and cultures of ethnic communities. But ‘Domus Quercia’, the beautiful Renaissance monastery now converted into an elegant and historically- atmospheric hotel, was where Italy’s influential environmental organisation Greenaccord, collected about a dozen individuals, mostly from rural and coastal communities, to tell their poignant stories. The individuals are called ‘climate witnesses’ by WWF who is executing this project worldwide to understand the impact of global warming. 

The warming of the world’s weather has had manifold impacts on various regions, the most notable being in the unpredictability of rains in most continents, hotter and drier summers which has impacted soils, lessening snowfall and thereby water sources, increasing disease from pests and vectors which now breed faster due to warmer temperatures.  

Steppes of central Asia
In the central Asian steppes of Tsagaan gol (or White River) in western Mongolia, 67-year-old Marush Narankhuu’s ancestors have been cattle herdsmen just as she is now a cattle herdswoman since her childhood. Marush has 14 children, of whom only four continue as herdsmen, the rest have migrated to Ulanbator. 

Marush’s cattle grazed on grasses near the Khar Us lake which provided water and fish for the villagers. But she now shows photographs that outline how dramatically the water has dried up in the last 4-5 years. No one seems to know why, except to tell you that the summers have become hotter and snows on the surrounding mountains have gotten thinner in recent years. Migration is now commonplace because of the inability to garner fodder and food from the lake’s environs, while the remaining villagers have been forced to move onto an island that has appeared on what used to be the lake’s centre. 

“I think I have reached a threshold where I have to decide whether I can keep my cattle and my old lifestyle any more”, Marush quietly states to 150 international journalists gathered at Domus Quercia. “But I will not move, I will contribute to saving my village.”

In Uganda
In the foothills of the Ruwenzori mountains in East Africa’s Uganda, 71-year-old Mbiwo Constantine Kusebahasa, a farmer since 1954, says he noticed gradual changes in weather patterns since the 1970s when their twice-yearly planting system slowly changed to just one. “Now we start planting in September, hoping the rains will come and also dread the new pests on our crops,” he says.  
Constantine says the snows the villagers would see on the top of Ruwenzori have disappeared steadily since the ‘70s, severely impacting their water source. Unpredictable rains and warming weather has also brought malaria right up to the higher reaches of these foothills, previously unknown.  “I am uneducated man,” says Constantine simply, “I have only studied up to the eighth grade. Please tell me what I should do to overcome my situation,” he requests his audience quietly.

“What is disturbing us most is the weather,” says Nelly Damaris Chepkoskei, a feisty woman from another area of East Africa, the highland area of Kericho in Kenya. “We are wives and mothers, charged with the responsibility of putting food on the table. But now we can’t predict even the rains,” she says, “Women are really pressured, spending long hours looking for food, water and fuel.” In 2009, Nelly’s community, already bothered with pests, malaria, lessening dairy fodder and milk, faced a serious, and unusual, drought.

At Guatemala in south America
Half a world away, in Guatemala in south America, David Tobar Franco, an accountant from the coastal town of Puerobarrios in Guatemala speaks of how the changing weather has ravaged his country’s main river Motagua and coastal towns and beaches. “The biggest change for me is in the sea where the tide comes in ever higher and often,” says Franco. “There is serious coastal erosion, native trees have disappeared and the rivers have already shrunk.”

At the Sunderbans, West Bengal
Leapfrog to another continent, Asia. Here, Jalaluddin Saha, a retired school teacher-farmer from Mousuni island in the Sunderbans, West Bengal, speaks of his home being ‘eaten up’ by the sea no less than twice, in 1970 and then 1992.
He has now built his third house, one and half kilometres in;and from where his first house stood. “ I don’t know the reason for the slow erosion of my island from 30 square kilometres to 24 sq. km. Either our island is sinking or the sea is rising; you may know better.” 

TERI’s executive director Leena Srivastava, says has there been effort ‘only in the last few months’  in the climate change negotiations to count those are ‘forgotten’: these communities who do not contribute to carbon emissions and do not consume energy at this point.

In Copenhagen, where the 15th COP (conference of parties on climate change), crucial because it needs to decide on future actions once the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, is negotiating adaptation and mitigation financing and technology transfer to developing countries a feature which was agreed to in Bali in 2007, even as international NGOs like Oxfam carve Masaai warriors in ice in the premises to highlight the human cost of global warming. But there continues to be disarray in moving forward.  
Warming temperatures have not singled out poor countries alone. In Australia, Tony Fontes, a diver from the Great Barrier Reef says the coral bleaching is now rampant. The impact to humans and to marine biodiversity is now urgent.  
In northern Italy, Diego Redini, a young farmer from Canneto sull’Oglio village in Pianura Padana area, says milk reduction  is becoming severe because of lack of rains and resultant aridity. The milk’s fat and protein content has also decreased. “ So you see there is a strong link between climate change and my job”, he says.  
The bewilderment amongst communities at this change however, spans all continents. 

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