Tuesday, July 3, 2007

I Forgot about the Equator

A flowering tajibo in a field of grass and giant ant hills

The equator isn’t very important to me. Sure, the world would be very different without it, but that’s true for lots of things I don’t think about.

When I left tropical Nicaragua for Bolivia, however, it became a lot more important. With Bolivia south of the equator, it’s winter right now and really cold. I had thrown a fleece in my bag at the last minute and wore it constantly the first few days.

Bolivia is known for its high Andes, similar in part to Peru, they share the largest high altitude lake and the mountain range. Its eastern lands, however, have much more in common with Brazil, sharing the Amazon rainforest. It also contains extensive desert climates as well in its southwest section. Santa Cruz is in the semi-tropical rainforest section (hence my lack of cold weather planning).

A view of the skyline near Santa Cruz. It doesn't get much less Andes-like than this.

Darkness fell during the long highway drive back from my first visit to the new home site out in the rural countryside. In the distance I could see occasional small pillars of smoke lit from underneath by fire. I asked Pascal what they were. He replied that they were either cleaning sugar cane fields after a harvest, or they were burning rainforest for more planting space.

I was stunned. Burning rainforest for farmland is something that only happens far away. But here it was, close enough to see through the night. Thoughts about soils lacking nutrients in tropical ecosystems (they’re generally held in the plants themselves) and therefore making poor farming land drifted through my head. Visions of an Indian woman, missing several of her front teeth, hair in long black traditional braids and layered skirts desperate to increase her income by the smallest margin followed. This wasn’t a random stereotype; this was the picture one of the girls at the house had shown me of her mother.

The soil is frequently sandy with a hard clay laying underneath, those are cow hoofprints and the pasture is definitely not high-efficiency

Bolivia is currently in the middle of a crisis. Developed countries hardly know how to make ecologically balanced economic advancements. How could we expect a nation where education is substandard at best for most of the population to navigate the troubled waters alone?

The rewards if successful are as astoundingly immense for the world as the tragedy will be if the wilderness and the people with it are lost. But how do we help without colonizing with our capital and our culture?

Similar to Bolivia’s future, there are no easy answers.

One way is to educate ourselves. Read. I stayed up late into the night just before I left finishing William Power’s Whispering in the Giant's Ear it was so compelling. Contribute to organizations which are already succeeding (for example the Trees for the Future link to the right). Support the US rejoining the Kyoto Protocol which Bush withdrew the US from. There are as many ways to help as there are undiscovered species in the Amazon, in other words, more than we'll ever know.

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