Winter has been mild so far here in Paraguay, where seasons are reversed from those in the northern hemisphere. Usually, temperatures hit lows in the mid 30s to upper 40s on a regular basis; this year, we’ve seen only 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 sugar-cane fields. This is not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as we have had only one night of frost this season so far, but the noticeable changes in the weather underscore a profound climatic issue.
The farmers here in the village of Guido Almada notice it; they can tell the weather is changing from year to year. Average temperatures are increasing overall. The rains come later, or earlier, or not consistently, or all at once. The pulse of the seasons, the pace by which the life of a Paraguayan campesino is set, has been gradually thrown off beat. For now, the changes seem manageable. My neighbors grumble and complain as we pick tobacco leaves or cut sugar cane, but they have so far managed to get by. Still, even the slightest changes in their crop yields can affect 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 who live 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 and fishermen—their livelihoods sway with the seasons. These are people with small carbon footprints who bear little responsibility for the environmental neglect that has led our world to the precipice of climatic disaster. Regardless, they will shoulder a share 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, other climate-related damage is not as noticeable. Sometimes it is as subtle as a family forced to skip meals because the mandioc 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 they were part of a campaign strategy or bid for political leverage. Science, even at its best, cannot adequately convey in humanistic terms the social impacts of rising global temperatures. To grasp this properly, ask a third-world farmer 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. Notice their calluses as they 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 are proving wiser than our elected officials; they see what is happening to our planet and feel the changes in the seasons. They understand better than we the true gravity of our collective future. —Mario Machado