Climate Change hits Kiva Borrowers in Bolivia

By Suzy Price Marinkovich, KF9 Bolivia

“In a world that is hot—a world that is more and more affected by global warming—guess who is going to suffer the most?  It will be the people who caused it the least—the poorest people in the world, who have no electricity, no cars, no power plants, and virtually no factories to emit CO2 into the atmosphere.  Many of the 2.4 billion people who live on $2 a day or less reside in rural areas and depend directly on the soil, forests, and plants in their immediate vicinity for subsistence.” –Thomas Friedman, “Hot, Flat, & Crowded” (Pg. 158)

What I have learned the most since I arrived in South America as a Kiva Fellow seven months ago is that, not only is climate change real – it is making the poor poorer faster than we can create infrastructure to accommodate it.  Bolivia has been devastated by heightened temperatures melting glaciers around La Paz, for example, which have in turn dried up rivers that irrigated entire mountainous communities who are now going from poor to extremely poor—and dangerously fast.  In Cochabamba, the drying up of rivers can not only be felt but it can be seen nearly everywhere, in old riverbeds now littered with trucks filling up with gravel.  Even worse, these trucks are loading up gravel in the middle of “la epoca de lluvia,” or the rainy season, which now feels very much a misnomer for Cochabambinos.

Kiva’s newest partner in Bolivia, CIDRE, is by far most proud of its potable water and irrigation projects – and once you hear what they are up to, you will understand why. 

CIDRE approaches agricultural communities with recently dried-up river beds or nonexistent irrigation systems and arranges a community-style loan at very low interest.  I say “community” and not “group” loan because the loan is taken out for one purpose, to build a well, and then is repaid by each household as part of the larger sum.  I had the opportunity to attend the 6-year anniversary party of a CIDRE-funded community well in the rural area and was astonished at the overwhelming pride the community had for the well.  CIDRE’s veteran loan officer Juan and I were treated like the guests of honor; we were even asked to bless the well, give speeches, and shake hands with every single member of the community.  It was extraordinarily humbling.  I particularly loved Juan’s speech, as he introduced me by explaining Kiva to the community, and telling them how it will help CIDRE bring more wells to dry Cochabamba farming communities.  Seeing the joy in their faces at the potential impact this could have for their neighbors was my absolute proudest moment as a Kiva Fellow and it brought tears to my eyes.

Rigoberto, the president of the community’s agricultural cooperative, took me on a tour to tell me why exactly they were so proud about this well.  He showed us the irrigation canals and proudly turned on the well – which mind you, had to go 300 meters deep in order to hit the water table – and demonstrated how the rushing canals of water can be routed to different farms by manually opening and closing simple metal gates.  Rigoberto then told me that, since the well was built, their community has gone from planting one crop a year on their land to planting three.  Before, water was only counted upon during the rainy season, and now they have access to it year-round.  What does it mean to the community to have three crops a year instead of one?  Rigoberto told me that it quite literally triples their annual earnings.  That sounds like a great investment, if you ask me – and certainly a reason for throwing annual well anniversary parties.

CIDRE has operated all sorts of similar potable water projects, even once helping dig out a river bed that had filled with sand in order to re-route water back to a community that had lost its access.  With all these projects combined, CIDRE has single-handedly funded 25% of all potable water projects in the department of Cochabamba.  To give you some scale: Cochabamba department is roughly the size of Costa Rica.  No wonder CIDRE is just as proud as the communities they help.

As the “sequia” (drought) worsens, however, CIDRE is hurriedly trying to reach more and more communities for these projects.  Usually the construction of a well like the one in Rigoberto’s community costs around $6,000.  CIDRE also hopes to get these loans on Kiva, but as I lobbied in my last post, it requires Kiva allowing CIDRE to have a higher fundraising limit per individual or group.  And how fun would it be to make a loan on Kiva that had the capability of tripling an entire community’s income and bringing all its families potable water?!  I am sure, at the very least, those would be some of Kiva’s most anxiously-awaited journal updates.

But often the stories of Bolivian farmers dealing with climate change aren’t about tripling one’s once-meager earnings.  They are about struggling to make any earnings at all.  If you take a look at all of the borrowers from CIDRE on Kiva, you will notice a theme of borrowers taking out loans to purchase “cattle feed,” “corn husks,” “soy husks,” and the like – all for the purpose of feeding their cattle.  One of the other huge effects of the drought has been skyrocketing prices of cattle food, to the point they become unaffordable and in the poorest communities, families are forced to let their cattle starve and die.  I read an article in the Cochabamba newspaper that due to drought conditions in southern Bolivia, thousands upon thousands of cattle have died of starvation there in the past year alone.  CIDRE has had to give many loans to prevent this very thing from happening in Cochabamba by making the purchase of cattle feed possible.  I am sure you can imagine how incredibly vital microloans from CIDRE become in such circumstances.

In July, Oxfam released an in-depth report on climate change in Bolivia that spurred articles on the front pages of, BBC World and the New York Times.  It covered everything affecting Bolivia, from the melting glaciers in the west to the burning Amazon in the east.

After this report, CIDRE decided they wanted to make an even bigger impact in global climate change.  They have recently signed a contract with Seattle-based MicroEnergy Credits, which would mean getting more sustainable methods of cooking in households.  The borrowers of these loans would be repaid for their carbon offset in the form of energy credits, after each year of their new sustainable stove cooking (in place of unsustainable and rainforest-depleting coal).

CIDRE hopes that once the project is up and running, these loans, too, will be posted on Kiva under the “green loans” classification. 

But this final point brings me back to the Friedman quote I initially referenced.  CIDRE, a microfinance institution in South America’s poorest nation, is working hard to combat the consequences of climate change, while at other ends of the earth, countries like China and the United States are only making their work more difficult as they pump unparalleled amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Many of us do not live off of the land ourselves.  We do not depend on a river to irrigate our crops and provide food for our families and financing for the education of our young.  We do not have to pray for rain because it is linked with our immediate chances of survival.  We do not have to worry that a nearby glacier melting could mean disease-carrying mosquitoes creep up to higher altitudes, infecting our communities.  We don’t have to worry about pests who now survive through winter because the cold doesn’t kill them off like it used to, and are thus destroying crops that we can’t even afford to spray with pesticides.

All these things have made me feel extraordinarily guilty about not caring about climate change before I came to South America.  But now, I realize the poverty alleviation I cared about so deeply is inextricably linked to the emissions we cause up north.  It’s bad enough many feel complacent about truly impacting global poverty.  It’s even worse to realize that, through carbon emissions, we are capable of making circumstances even worse for the global poor.

As was made clear during the talks in Copenhagen a week ago, nations are not islands when it comes to climate change; the acts of the developed world go hand in hand with the fate of developing nations.  We live on a shared earth.  Perhaps one of the most important philosophies to carry with us is the sheer power our developed nations have in either saving or starving that earth.  When I used to think about climate change, I would think about the politics of the debate, and my mind would preoccupy itself with Al Gore, congress, Kyoto, and the like.  Now, I think about the faces of Bolivian farmers’ children, dry riverbeds, emaciated cattle, and the future I want for my children.

“A lot of us think about not having kids anymore,” said Margarita Limachi Álvarez, 46, a blue Andean cap with ear flaps pulled over her head. “Without water or food, how would we survive? Why bring them here to suffer?” – NY Times, Dec 13, 2009 (full article)

To learn more about my inspiration for this post, CIDRE’s rural farmers on Kiva, read some of their bios at this link.

Suzy Marinkovich is currently training a brand-new Kiva partner in Chile!  This is the last post about her time with CIDRE in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the second of her three placements.  Suzy has a wholehearted passion for microfinance, social justice, and poverty alleviation; what she enjoys the most is listening to the incredible stories of Kiva borrowers in South America.  Follow Suzy on Twitter!

Special thanks to my husband Matt, a future veterinarian aiming to work in conservation medicine, who helped me write this post.


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Suzy Marinkovich