The winter has been mild so far here in Paraguay. Usually, temperatures hit lows in the mid 30’s to upper 40’s on a more regular basis; this year, we’ve only seen a few scattered weeks like this. Right now, in the dead of the Paraguayan winter, some days are hot enough to wear sandals, shorts and a t-shirt, out in the fields cutting sugar cane. This is not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as we have only had one night of frost this whole season so far, but the noticeable changes in the weather underscore an even more profound climactic issue.
The farmer’s here in Guido Almada notice it; they can tell the weather is changing from year to year. Average temperatures are increasing overall. The rains are coming later, or earlier, or not consistently, or all at once. The pulse of the seasons, the pace by to which the life of a Paraguayan campesino is set, has been gradually thrown off beat. For now, the changes seem manageable. My neighbors will grumble and complain as we pick tobacco leaves or cut cane, but they have so far managed to get by. Still, even the slightest changes in their crop yields can effect their ability to provide for their families in the coming year. As global climate change continues on its dismal trajectory, it is only a matter of time before the typical, yearly agricultural gamble for impoverished families becomes more like a bid to stay or leave, to invest in their land or sell it, to eat or starve.
For those of us in developed countries, climate change might seem little more than no more “white Christmas’” or slightly higher produce prices at the local food market. But for the people of the developing world, especially those who subsist directly from the land--the farmers, the fishermen--their livelihoods sway in lockstep with the fluctuations of the seasons. These are typically people with small carbon footprints and whom bear little responsibility for the environmental neglect that has lead our world to the precipice of climactic disaster. Regardless, these are the very people who will shoulder a brunt of the burden that a gradually warming planet will bring.
This year, Paraguay was hit with a one-two punch of severe drought followed by intense rains, which then combined to cause massively destructive flooding in the northern and western parts of the country, displacing thousands of peasants. While this made national headlines, further damage may not always be so noticeable. Sometimes, it may be as subtle as a family forced to skip meals because the mandioca crop is failing. It may be higher instances of anemia, malnutrition and other diseases among children. It may be a quiet depression among parents who, despite their sweat and toil and love, cannot feed their families.
On a large scale, the issues surrounding climate change, its causes and effects and its potential fallout, are continually debated by politicians and global leaders as if it were part of a campaign strategy or bid for political leverage. The science, even at its best, cannot adequately convey in humanistic terms the social impacts of rising global temperatures. To grasp this properly, sit in a field with a farmer somewhere in the third world, ask him about his family and how his crops have been in the past few seasons. Ask his wife how far she must walk for water or what she does to care for her sickly child. Over diner, look at their calluses as they handle their fork and pray that their hands will always feel as rough as sandpaper, for the day these scars of the trade have faded is the day that the land has nothing left to give.
In this sense, and perhaps many others, the campesinos of Paraguay and of this world are proving infinitely smarter and wiser than any of our knowledge and all of our elected officials; they see what is happening to our planet, they feel the changes in the seasons, they can understand better than we the true gravity of our collective future in question.