Geopolitics

​In Bolivia, "Climate Refugees" Forced Into Urban Shantytowns ​

Climate change is drying up the Earth and making Bolivians search for new livelihoods in Latin America's poorest country.

A couple of farmers tilling the ground in Toloma, Bolivia, on 2010
A couple of farmers tilling the ground in Toloma, Bolivia, on 2010
Gabriele Martini

LA PAZ â€" 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 â€" Mother Earth â€" 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.

“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.

City smog

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.

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.”

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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