This past Monday, we visited a unique ecological site in an extremely isolated part of the Bolivian altiplano, near the shores of Lake Titicaca. Here, a small group of farmers are trying to recharge diminishing underground aquifers by establishing tree root systems. Due to global warming and climate change, the glaciers that used to occupy this region have completely melted. These glaciers used to be the main source of potable water in the region, filling aquifers with water that could be accessed by wells. But now, the wells are running dry because the glacier is no longer there to recharge the water. The people living in this region were faced with the choice of finding another way to get clean water, or being forced to relocate. The area is extremely high, at over 14,000 feet, so trees don’t naturally grow there. However, these farmers were very resourceful and found a way to cultivate some non-native plants whose roots could hold water in the soil and recharge the aquifers. They insulated the plants by surrounding them with “cones” of stiff native grasses and grew them within stone-walled gardens to insulate the saplings from the harsh wind. So far, they have successfully grown about four or five full-grown trees, and more one- or two-year-old saplings.
This is such an important case to study, especially for people coming from countries with high carbon outputs. It’s easy to have a disregard for the environment, since many times climate change does not affect us directly, or in minuscule ways. But for the people of Jaillihuaya, climate change was literally destroying their way of life. This experience really engraved the frightening reality of climate change into my mind. My only concern is that if they’re bringing in non-native species, then some of these species could be potentially invasive and disrupt the native ecosystem. This has been well-documented in other areas such as with kudzu in the Southern United States and zebra mussels in the St. Lawrence River. All of these species were originally brought into the area with good intentions, but ended up taking over and causing other native species to die out. However, the people running this ecological development program seem to have a long-term experimental phase in mind before changing it to large-scale production. So, they should have time to catch an invasive species before it takes over if they are careful. If this program continues to be successful, these people will be able to live in an area that would be otherwise uninhabitable due to climate change, which is an amazing step for science in adapting to changing environments.