Our Bolivian community of Tiquipaya made international headlines this month for the first time in over a decade. After three years of drought, the rains came all at once this month, consolidating an entire rainy season worth of precipitation into one week. It wouldn’t have made such big news, except for the forest. The Cordillera de Tunari forms a 16,000-foot tall mountain wall that defines the valley we live in, and its lower elevations used to be draped in trees.
Over the past 25 years of mismanagement and overharvesting, the forest has disappeared, becoming cooking fuel, roof support beams, and furniture in Tiquipaya. And the rivers that flow from the mountains, the coursing lifeblood of this arid valley, have continued what they’ve always done: flowing down the steep slopes of the Andes, carrying away any soil that isn’t held in place by a strong network of roots. In a healthy forest, the moist, shaded soil acts like a reservoir: the rain soaks into the soil and is slowly released as it is pulled downhill through the soil by gravity, dried up in the following days, or transpired through trees and plants as part of their photosynthesis. As trees begin to disappear, that process shifts.
Drought has been in the news recently, along with questions whether we can call them droughts or whether they’re just new climates. Cape Town faces it’s “Day Zero”in six weeks: the day when all water supplies in their watershed will be completely dried out. California is plunging back into deep drought after a short respite last winter. The Colorado river dries out before it reaches the ocean. Glacial ice in the Andes and Himalayan regions is melting faster than climatologists had thought possible. Water shortages in populated areas are sparking political and social turmoil as well as very real suffering as they force people to shift their ways of living and farming. The drought here in the Bolivian Andes is troubling, but some of its impacts were unpredicted. They are being learned by hard experience.
What happens when you denude a steep Andean mountain slope of its trees, bake it in the hot, dry sun for three years, then pour torrential thunderstorms onto it? First, the soil acts like a clay pot: the baked and hardened surface repels water, which begins to flow over the surface rather than through the soil as it normally would. As rivulets combine together to form little streams, they strip the soil away, forming miniature canyon systems that grow bigger and bigger, carrying that soil downstream with them. This heightened erosion begins to tear away at what plants might remain, exacerbating the situation. As the soil moistens through the wet weather, entire slopes can begin to liquify into mudslides, carried downhill by the excessive runoff into swollen rivers.
One night, about two weeks ago, one of these mudflows crashed out of a river canyon upstream from Cochabamba and into the city, burying houses near the river in mud three stories deep. As the flow spread out over the flat land around the river, it slowed to a halt and left all of its soil in the town, blocking the road between Tiquipaya and Cochabamba for days. In some areas, cars are still buried in the mud. Luckily most families knew to evacuate in time and casualties were much less than what they could have been. The mudflow was a direct manifestation of our neglect for the health of the forest and the mountains, our overzealous consumption of the gifts of nature that could have, at a slower rate of taking, continued giving and giving forever in a wonderful display of reciprocity from a landscape that is actively tended and cared for.
What can we small humans do in the face of such complex catastrophes involving numerous interconnected natural and human causes? What can we do when they seem so insurmountable and huge, like mountains crumbling and liquifying and washing down into the town, right into our front doors?
In Tiquipaya, you call upon the cultural value of Ayni (communal reciprocity). You bring hundreds and hundreds of people together early in the morning. You converge on the mountain and walk into canyons where the mud came from. You face up to the errors of the past, acknowledge your mistakes. You apologize to the Pachamama (the Earth who gives us all life) for having neglected her and taken more than was safely and sustainably offered from her forests. You humbly prepare to kneel at the feet of her mountains and offer something, anything that might help seed new hope for a future of stewardship and giving back to the Earth. You put picks and shovels into the hands of the people. Then, as a grand prayer that we humans could have a relationship with our mother Earth that is productive rather than destructive, a prayer that people might light a fire in their hearts and take all the grief for the state of the world and cook that grief into hope, a prayer that no more families will have their livelihoods buried by the muds of neglect and short-sightedness, a prayer that our communities are still strong enough to stand together and perform acts of magnificent generosity for generations not yet born, a prayer that those future generations might live next to that same river and build adobe houses from the remnants of the mudflows of neglect, you climb right to the source of that mud and plant thousands upon thousands of trees.
We planted trees on Sunday. The people swarmed over the bare hills like ants tending to our home after some great disturbance. We came in sandals, carrying plastic buckets, backpacks, and grocery bags full of seedlings. Where they cut down the previous generation of trees, we planted another.
There on the hillside, I found holes dug into solid rock and filled with rich soil. Seeing those holes, I knew that somebody had devoted themselves to this task a decade or two ago: taking on the backbreaking work of breaking rocks, carrying soil to the new hole, and hoping that something would take root. I dug those holes again, reminded that taking care of the Earth requires constant effort, and that we don’t need to re-invent the ways of caring. Here in the Andes the spirit of Ayni, of reciprocity with the Earth, has caused the Earth to flower and flourish for hundreds of years. We just need to continue the work that has been started for us, the work that we’ve somehow forgotten was important.
Scattered across the slope, a few trees, two meters tall, sprouted from those little gardens dug into solid rock. It was beautiful: trees that had taken root in solid rock because of the generosity of an unknown villager from Tiquipaya. Something even deeper took root in the hearts of the hundreds of people on the mountain that day. We began a movement: humbling ourselves and picking up where our predecessors had left off, following in their footsteps one tree at a time.