LA PAZ — Nayra's calloused hands, sunbaked face and blackened arms reveal the hardship of living in the arid corners of Bolivia.
“We used to grow quinoa and potatoes and raise llamas but then the great drought came and changed our lives,” she said. Although she's from Tarata, a village in the heart of the Bolivian Andes, climate change has forced her to move to La Paz, a city where she now sells snacks and drinks on the street.
“We waited for the rain to come for more than a year, then we gave up and left. I feel like a stranger here,” said Nayra, who made the move with her husband and three children. “My only dream is to return home, but I know that'll never happen.”
In Bolivia, climate change isn't a remote danger or an academic discussion restricted to environmentalists. It's a reality that's changed the lives of many families in Latin America's poorest country. There are no statistics on Bolivia's climate refugees but estimates point to hundreds, even thousands, of people forced to flee their homes to seek refuge in the cities. They live in shantytowns rising on the outskirts of La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba.
Eugenio is a climate refugee who works as a hawker, returning home every night to his shack in El Alto, a working-class hilltop city above La Paz. “Pachamama — Mother Earth — gives us life, but now it's taking revenge on mankind for all the evil it's doing,” he said.
Where quinoa grows no more
There are two Bolivias. The country's eastern half is a lush and verdant slice of the Amazon rainforest, described by American author Jonathan Franzen as “a miracle of biodiversity between trees, rivers, and waterfalls.” Western Bolivia is a tall, barren plateau with towering volcanic peaks, deserts and geysers. This is the half of Bolivia suffering most from climate change.
The temperature recorded in the last year is two degrees higher than the historical average, according to the most recent government report. As a result, Bolivia's agriculture is suffering.
A woman showing onions ruined by the drought in Punata, Cochabamba — Photo: Fernando Cartagena/DPA/Zuma
“Quinoa is an exceptional crop because it only needs one rainfall to sprout,” said Rumi Araya, a farmer. “The problem is that it doesn't rain anymore.”
The grain, most popular with vegetarians in Western countries, struggles to grow in Bolivia, where a drought is causing shrubs to disappear and animals to die of hunger.
La Paz is a gridlocked metropolis that rises as high as 3,600 meters (11,811 feet), blanketed by a thick smog that renders the city almost invisible when viewed from the Cordillera Real mountain range that surrounds it.
The Cordillera was once dominated by the Chacaltaya, a glacier that has disappeared over the 10 years. “The worst thing is that we didn't even realize it, no one did anything to stop it,” said President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous head of state and a former coca leaf grower.
The only trace of the glacier that once defined this barren mountain is the rusted remains of a ski lift, part of what used to be the highest alpine resort in the world.
A deadly drought
The other symbol of Bolivia's struggle with climate change is the shriveled Lake Poopó, once the country's second-largest river basin.
Three years ago, it measured 5 square kilometers (1.94 square miles). Today, all that's left is a meagre pond less than a meter deep. The permanent droughts caused by the El Niño weather pattern, combined with pollution from mining and the overuse of the lake's tributaries for agriculture, have dried up this once mighty body of water.
Victor Hugo Vásquez, governor of the Oruro department where Lake Poopó is located, asked the authorities to declare a state of emergency. “The lake always had its cycles of rainfall and droughts, but now we've passed the point of no return,” he said.
A view of Lake Poopó taken from the southeastern shore near the village of Llapallapani — Photo: Lovisa Selander/Wikimedia
In the lakeside village of Llapallani, locals recall the disappearance of Poopó. “First the water receded, then the fish and flamingoes died and the stench of death filled the air,” said one resident.
Hundreds of families have been forced to abandon their lands and seek work in the coal mines further south or in the factories of Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. Even the ducks have forsaken this desolate wasteland.
“Every day I would look to the sky and pray, then at night I'd cry alone so my kids wouldn't see me,” said one man, his eyes tearing up as he chewed on coca leaves. “Here, we're all fishermen. Without the lake we have no future.”
Thousands of tourists, who used to flock to this Andean plateau to visit the algae-coloured lagoons, are no longer visiting because of the drought.
“Every year the water level falls. If it goes on like this, they'll disappear,” said Vladimir, a nature guide who takes visitors on tours through Salar de Uyuni.
He and his brother used to work at the mines in Potosí but his brother was killed in an explosion, leaving behind three kids. "The next day I quit and left the mines," recalled Vladimir. “Now I feel that my life could be turned upside down again. This time because of climate change,” he said. “But I'll still move forward, fear is useless.”