Climate vulnerabilities in the Peruvian Andes are not only a question of natural hazards but are also shaped by uneven power relations. Photo: Anna Heikkinen
The intensifying impacts of climate change pose increasing challenges for rural populations living in fragile environments. Their vulnerabilities are often portrayed as a consequence of ‘natural hazards.’ Yet, it is rarely questioned why certain people become more vulnerable than others in front of nature’s powers.
In her recently published article, Anna Marjaana Heikkinen discusses how uneven power relations compound Peruvian highland farmers’ vulnerability experiences under climate change. She argues that their vulnerabilities root in marginalizing socioeconomic structures in the past and present. Climate change acts like a spark that merely inflames their already precarious living conditions.
Demonstration at the ‘Héroes’ monument on May 15, 2021, in Bogotá (Photo by Andrés Cardona).
At the moment of publication of this blogpost, Colombia is completing more than 20 days of a National Strike (Paro Nacional) amidst the third and worst wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Colombians have been on the streets challenging not only a far-right government administration but their actual violent and very unequal social and economic model, which has proven to be more harmful than a pandemic. The current Iván Duque’s government administration, commanded de facto and via Twitter by former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, has only reinforced such a model. Duque’s administration tax and healthcare reform proposals were only the igniters of the social discontent. Although both reform proposals are temporally withdrawn and former Minister of Finance, Alberto Carrasquilla, has quit due to the protests, the Paro Nacional has always been meaning beyond that. The country has a century-long overdue social awakening.
Colombia was already in a social uprising before the pandemic (Paro Nacional 2019), but the imposition of one of the most restrictive sanitary measures and quarantines (including curfews) in the world, put a halt to the uprising. Yet, in September 2020 there were some demonstrations that included manifestations against police brutality all over the country that were, unfortunately, marked by more police brutality, with particular and dramatic implications in the Bogotá metropolitan area after the killing of lawyer Javier Ordoñez. Since April 28th, 2021, the ParoNacional manifested in a multitude of social discontent and political awakening, that, however, have been ferociously attacked by the (para)militarization of cities, the escalation of state violence, and police brutality that has extended to thousands of police violence cases that include around 40 people killed, hundreds of arbitrary detentions and abductions, and a dozen of cases of gender violence and sexual assault. The Paro Nacional committee, protesters and different political sectors reclaim as an imperative to set a police reform and dismantling of the heavy militarized anti-riot unit ESMAD, responsible for several killings and human rights abuses towards civilians still in impunity. Though this type of state violence has been the rule for many in the countryside and the urban marginalized for decades, this time has been unprecedentedly disproportionated against an extended part of the population. Human rights violations have been particularly brutal at night and the turn of the days during the first two weeks in the city of Cali but extended in several other cities and towns including the capital, Bogotá.
To write these words holds up personal grieve and pain, but, at the same time, a certain light of hope I have never seen before. As we discussed in a recent webinar held on May 14 about Finnish media representations on LAC in Covid-19 times organized by ESDLA, there is a morbid attraction in both Finnish and international media and audiences (outside Latin America) about social turmoil and violence based on preconceptions, ignorance, prejudice or even racism. Yet stories of resistance, resilience, and political innovations amidst humanitarian urgencies are less covered. For instance, in these ongoing protests their creative and peaceful character (even outside the country) have been stated, in a country where dissent and difference have been deadly stigmatized and persecuted for decades, even from state and private actors. The use of social media (Twitter, Instagram, etc.), the role of independent media, and NGOs have been key not only to dismantle the pro-government and propagandistic corporate media that demonizes and help to criminalize the right of social protest, but also to be a counter tool to denounce and report constant human rights violations by state and paramilitary forces. Likewise, social media and crowdfunding have been fundamental to support protesters.
On the other hand, in times of planetary climate emergency, there has been very little mention among media and reports on what is the role of the environmental issues in the ParoNacional. This is extremely important given the megadiverse character of Colombia and the unfortunate trend of the killing and harassment of many environmental defenders who struggle against the national society and economic model. For instance, Colombia has not ratified yet the Escazú Agreement (a broken promise from the Paro Nacional 2019), which represents a light amidst the threatening of environmental activists in the Latin American and the Caribbean region. Moreover, it is (un)surprisingly that after more than two weeks of demonstrations and several human rights violations committed by the state and the police, the government of Iván Duque presents a bill to strengthen the investment of those who intend to exploit gold in an important and strategic ecosystem in the north-east Colombian Andes: the Santurbán Páramo.
Colombia has prominent environmental activist figures like Francia Márquez (who is a candidate for the 2022’s presidential election), Isabel Zuleta, or Francisco Vera, who are representatives of the diversity of Colombian environmental movements (Indigenous, Afrocolombians, peasants, urban movements, children and youth) whom like many others in the “Global South” are often overshadow over their counterparts in the north. A Colombian set of environmental organizations in its National Strike’s official declaration, pointed out eight points that the Colombian government must address: 1) to protect the life of environmental activists and defenders; 2) to ban to the aerial aspersion (using chemicals like glyphosate) of illicit coca crops; 3) to put a halt on a high rocketed deforestation of the Amazon rainforests; 4) to set a moratorium of several mining and extractive megaprojects; 5) banning of fracking prospections and projects; 6) to abide to the right of prior consultation, and local referendums for the developing of those extractive projects; 7) to guarantee of water as a human and ecological right; and 8) to require the de-escalation of megaprojects of all kinds (hydropower, infrastructure, tourism, etc).
On the streets and different territories, democratic institutions are being rethought to overcome extreme inequalities amidst many limitations and the state terror. In the heat of the protests and the warm that brings the assemblies, mingas, or the communitarian pots (ollas comunitarias) that feed the Paro Nacional, local solidarity is the base of this new awakening (‘Despertar’) after years of accumulated grievances. Colombians do not want to keep counting martyrs and unnecessary killings and, instead, seek finally a way of social and environmental justice that has been denied on several attempts towards reconciliation. Struggles for the commons in Colombia seek to rethink democratic institutions through dissent and for the public common’s sake. Therefore, this ongoing awakening need caring attention and international solidarity, since the government administration has never genuinely listened nor meant in doing so, as many are afraid of.
Bio: Germán is from Bogotá, Colombia. He recently finished his Ph.D. in Environmental Policy at the University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu. His work and research are focusing on environment/society relationships and their interplay with urbanization and socio-ecological inequalities, exploring their role in spatial planning practices in the defense of commons such as biodiversity. Before his Ph.D. studies, he worked with local environmental organizations and institutions in Colombia. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In his doctoral dissertation, M.Sc. Germán A. Quimbayo Ruiz argues that the environmental conflicts related to spatial planning and urbanization open opportunities to create more just spaces to rethink planning as a collective political task aiming for more democratic practices, and not only as of the duty of planners. By analyzing the environmental conflict cases such as profit-driven urbanization over protected areas, quarrying activities, or the impact of landfills in urban-rural areas over the last three decades in Bogotá, Colombia, the dissertation analyzes spatial planning practices embedded in Bogotá’s socio-ecological inequalities. The public examination of Quimbayo Ruiz’s dissertation will take place on Friday, 12 March 2021, at 12 noon and will be live streamed. The public examination will be in English.
Quimbayo Ruiz’s prompts on his previous experience as a practitioner and activist, to document environmental conflicts related to spatial planning in Bogotá. Through interviews, participant observation, content analysis of documents, and relying upon ecological and social science traditions, Quimbayo Ruiz’s research found that in recent decades there have been conflicting visions around urban nature in Bogotá, which together have triggered socio-ecological inequalities and new possibilities for urban politics to overcome them. Moreover, Quimbayo Ruiz argues that environmental conflicts do not correspond to a ‘lack’ or ‘absence’ of planning. Instead, they correspond to the consolidation of a city model that deepens segregation and inequality and is promoted by sectors of political and economic power. Nevertheless, this research also shows that political practices in planning processes around nature are constantly shaped, disputed, and negotiated along with social and non-human actors. Such practices have been mobilized through knowledge in ecology and law by (multiclass) social organizations and various citizen sectors that have flourished from the 1990s to the present, coinciding with the positioning of environmental imperatives on the neoliberal urban agenda.
‘Environmental conflict’ as a territorial process and not as an outcome
In this research, the key question is understanding the dialectic between conflicts and spatial planning. Quimbayo Ruiz’s dissertation shows that the idea of nature in Bogotá’s planning consists of a diversity of narratives, practices, and local governance techniques, where there is a complex interplay of both social and non-human actors. Such an interplay is territorial and framed in a volatile and fragile democratic setting simultaneously placed at one of the most biodiverse metropolitan regions globally. The often negative notion of ‘conflict’ is key to understand this case, and it should be re-casted in a more positive light to find productive ways to address environmental issues and inequalities. A conception of planning that transcends the dualisms of state and society and instead, immersed in conflicting visions of nature, may afford new opportunities to understand the democratic practices fostering just urban ecologies. The mobilization of urban nature advocacy in Bogotá through individual and collective political mobilization, driven by continuous learning and reform, has always addressed the question of who urban space should be for. Planning practices are unavoidably political and embedded in conflicting values and dissent around nature.
Socio-ecological inequalities should be addressed to achieve just urban ecological transitions
The current land-use and planning tools in Bogotá (and elsewhere) urgently need to address urbanization without traditional politico-administrative boundaries of zoning polygons, or which perpetuate nature-society dichotomies. This dissertation demonstrates how urban and spatial planning processes are a source of environmental conflict, and how are related to several socio-ecological inequalities as such. One of the study’s recommendations is the further analysis of the kinds of social exclusion and constitutive ecological effects produced by environmental conflicts and dispossessions. Consideration of such exclusions is key for assessing territorial vulnerabilities to climate change, as well as cultural valuations of nature for climate change adaptation, but such a consideration remains scarcely documented in research on urbanization. The Bogotá case can therefore also shed light on concerns around urban nature and spatial planning elsewhere.
The doctoral dissertation of M.Sc. Germán A. Quimbayo Ruiz, entitled Reterritorializing conflicting urban natures: socio-ecological inequalities and the politics of spatial planning in Bogotá, will be examined at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business Studies. The Opponent in the public examination will be University Researcher, Docent, Florencia Quesada Avendaño of the University of Helsinki and the Custos will be University Lecturer Juha Kotilainen of the University of Eastern Finland.
Anna is a Ph.D. researcher in the Doctoral Programme of Political, Societal and Regional Change, in the discipline of Development Studies at the University of Helsinki. Her main research interests are water governance, water conflicts, climate and social vulnerabilities and climate change in Latin America. Anna’s research has mainly focused in the Andean region of Peru.
We encourage you to visit Anna’s website “Mondanna” to know more about her research and interests.
Here is the blog’s re-post:
Pachamama is crying – Climate Change in the Peruvian highlands
By July, the Mantaro River Valley had turned all yellow. The transition had happened slowly. One morning I was standing on the terrace of my appartment in Huancayo, looking at the surrounding mountains. All that had been covered with different shades of green when I had arrived few months ago, had now transformed into dry, lifeless colors of yellow.
It had not rained for weeks. Last time it rained, it came down as a furious thunderstorm. In the mountains, the thunderstorm feels so powerful. It seems to be born behind the mountains, crawling slowly on the top of the mountain peaks and then spreading its anger down by the slopes to cover all the valley. The sound of the thunder runs through your bones. The concentrated energy in the air makes your body shake. At the peak of the thriller – the sky breaks down and bursts out an outrageous rain that can last for hours.
The thunder scenery is magical and scary at the same time. You feel so tightly connected to the power of nature and realize that at the end, it will always be superior to you.
In the Andean cultures, it is believed that humans, animals and nature are all one and that there are no divisions between these Earth Beings. If Pachamama, the Mother Earth is hurt, all the beings will go through its suffering. When you go walking to the highlands, before taking off you make a short ceremony for Apus, the mountain God. It is considered as a kind gesture to ask Apus for its permission to visit its mountains and for its protection for your journey. Nature, with its all different Earth Beings are valued and treated with respect.
In the Andean cultures, it is believed that humans, animals and nature are all one and that there are no divisions between these Earth Beings. If Pachamama, the Mother Earth is hurt, all the beings will go through its suffering.
On a one crispy Saturday morning in July – an expedition crew consisting of me, Dr. Armando Guevara Gil and our friends Don Cirilo and Don “Chalaca” from a nearby local community of Santa Rosa de Ocopa – was heading to explore highland lakes feeding the Achamayo River.
The red shades of sun were rising behind the mountains as our car was slowly climbing uphill on a rocky serpentine road. As we got higher, we could see the grass covered with white sheet of frost and feel in our lungs how the air had become freezer to breath.
A clear sun light was shining on our path as we began our walk surrounded by the sceneries of endless puna. The frozen grass was shuffling under our feet and the small mountain flowers growing tightened to the ground were waking up. We could hear echoes of dogs barking somewhere far away. Cirilo told that they came from the alpaca-herds’ camps.
We had sat down by the lake Chaluacocha to have some snacks when suddenly the sky turned all grey and a snappy gust of snow began to whip the ground. Our local friends said teasingly that Pachamama had gotten angry because we had been so eager to head to the punas that we had forgotten to make the payment to Pachamama.
In the middle of the snowstorm, we decided to make a short ceremony, sharing some of our fruits and bread with Pachamama. Don Cirilo gave a short speech to ask for good weather and thank Pachamama to permit us to visit its lands, lakes and mountains.
Ten minutes later the sky started to brighten and the snow was gone. We were joking that our presents had managed to calm down the anger of Pachamama.
“Rationally thinking” our little ceremony probably did not have the power to change the weather. But it forces you to reflect upon, how we tend to forget that after all, we are all just shortly passing visitors in our common home – the Earth. And the least we should do is to show respect and gratitude to our host.
Drastic changes in weather is not something uncommon in the highland punas, located in the altitude of 5,000 m above sea level. In the highlands, the flow of air is influenced by the mountains. This can cause rapid changes at micro scale. Though, Don Cirilo and Don Chalaco told us that it was quite rare that it would rain or snow at this time of the year.
In the Peruvian Andes, there have typically been very marked shifts between rainy and dry periods. Usually it rains regularly between December and April whereas from May onwards until November the rain remains almost absent.
For centuries, the farmers in this region have been used to live, sow and harvest according to these shifts. Now the regular climate patterns are changing. The highland farmers that interviewed, told me that they didn’t know anymore when they should sow or harvest. In recent years, their yields had often been destroyed due to lack or excess of rain. Last year in many parts of Mantaro River Valley, the farmers had lost their entire harvest due to harsh night frosts. As one farmer put it: “farming in the highlands has become a risky business.”
The way people in the highlands describe their environments and farming practices is often almost poetic. They would often tell me how “my little corn is suffering from the burning sun” or “our poor river is dying”. When I was asking, what does water mean for the communities, a very common answer was as the following one: “without water we cannot live, neither our cows, without water everything dies.”
These conversations reveal the relationship the highland communities have with the nature. Natural resources bring literally bread to their table. But nature for them is more than just a livelihood. It is a way of living and a way of being in a coexistence with and by the rules of the nature.
Last year in many parts of Mantaro River Valley, the farmers had lost their entire harvest due to harsh night frosts. As one farmer put it: “farming in the highlands has become a risky business.”
Unlike us – sipping our cappuccinos comfortably in a cozy café and speculating the latest scientific findings about rising temperatures or melting glaciers somewhere far away – for the Andean farmers, climate change has become an everyday reality. They feel the burning sun on their faces while working the whole day in their chacras, sowing corn, potato or quinoa. They wait desperately for the rain for their plants to grow. And hope that the unexpected rains won’t burst to ruin their harvests left on the fields to dry.
Besides the changing climate narratives of the local people, physical studies show that the climate in the Mantaro River Valley has changed in the last decades. Just as people told me about “plants burned by frosts or sun” or “the insane rains” – the climate studies indicate clear evidence of declining rain, rising temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events.
Scientists have also found that climate change is deepening the inequalities between the poor and wealthy nations. Countries in the so-called global south, that have contributed least in global warming are the ones who are now suffering the biggest economic losses caused by it. At individual level, the poor are often the most vulnerable to climate change due to lack of resources or living in ecologically and politically fragile regions.
It is paradoxical, that those who least exploit the nature are the ones that must bear the heaviest consequences. In the worst case, the farmers have no other options than leave their homes. In his book Environmental Refugees: Climate Change and Forced Migration ,Professor Teófilo Altamirano writes that the number of current climate migrants around the world is approximately 50 million and by 2050 the number is estimated to rise up to 150 million.
Countries in the global south, that have contributed least in global warming are the ones who are now suffering the biggest economic losses caused by it. At individual level, the poor are often the most vulnerable to climate change due to lack of resources or living in ecologically and politically fragile regions.
Altamirano reminds that most of migration due to climate is not voluntary. For example, in the rural Andean societies, there often exists a spiritual and emotional bound to the living environment and the community. The land, the animals, the fields and the surrounding nature have a strong religious and cultural value. When climatic conditions force one to leave, these cultural, symbolic and spiritual dimensions of life must be left behind. In the cities, the migrants often face discrimination due to their rural or ethnic backgrounds – making the vulnerable populations even worse off.
The past week was an official Climate Week. The young and ambitious climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has given emotional yet serious speeches in New York, urging politicians around the world to act upon climate emergency. Thousands of people around the world, from Helsinki to Sydney, were marching on the streets to express their concern on the miserable state of our Planet and the insufficient rehabilitation actions.
It is empowering to see, how the global community requiring for a change in status quo is expanding. Most importantly, these people are giving a voice for the most vulnerable populations in front of climate change – the ones who bear most of the climate weight but who are seldom heard.
In ESDLA we are committed to sharing different perspectives towards the environment and development issues research. Especially, if it is research concerned with ethical practice and responsible social and political engagement. This is an important concern not only for research on Latin America but for elsewhere. Also, this is precisely why we interviewed Diana Ojeda for our blog.
Diana is a professor and researcher at the Institute of Social and Cultural Studies (PENSAR) at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, in Bogotá, Colombia. She is interested in political ecology and feminist geography and holds a Ph.D. in Geography from Clark University in the United States. Beyond her academic credentials and high-quality scholar contributions, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Diana’s trajectory is how her research work has engaged with society and everyday research practice, favoring genuine collaboration with oppressed communities. Likewise, to use other means to disseminate knowledge and reach larger audiences, for instance, convert a full body of participatory research in a graphic novel. In sum, Diana’s work can show how research can perfectly address ongoing socio-ecological inequalities and contribute to public debates on local and global challenges. Although we did this interview in May, we were waiting to publish this in the best moment taking into account current debates on the planetary crisis. Environmental concerns about Latin America, and particularly in Diana’s case in Colombia, can also contribute to global discussions.
Most of Diana’s research contributions such as papers, books, interventions, and the graphic novel “Caminos condenados” (co-authored with Pablo Guerra, Camilio Aguirre, and Henry Díaz), can be found on her Academia.com website, or just drop her an email and surely she will be happy to reply to you!
Below is the 11 minutes interview. We apologize for some video quality issues in the interview, but we did our best taking into account the available means and resources! We must thank a lot to Diana for her time and generosity 🙂
PS: We invite you to the next call for the Ph.D. programs in Social and Cultural Encounters, and Past, Space and Environment in Society under the subject of Environmental Policy at the University of Eastern Finland is open until October 31st.