The river that once flowed through the village of Santiago K in Bolivia dried up during the drought. Two years of drought and rising temperatures dried up the river and quinoa fields, pushing a wave of migration to cities as people searched for work. Photo: Ben Walker

By Ben Walker
25 August 2017

SANTIAGO K, Bolivia (InsideClimate News) – Someone's nearly always lived in Santiago K.

Cupped in the Bolivian highlands that border Chile, the small village is littered by centuries of conquest and expansion: from the pre-Incas, who ringed the surrounding hills with protective fortresses, to the gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors drawn to the region's mineral wealth.

But after centuries of settlement, Santiago K has become a ghost town. Drought, debt, and climate change have squeezed roughly 80 percent of Santiago's residents from their homes in search of work and a better life.

Justino Calcina, 58, is one of the few who stayed behind. As mayor of Santiago, he stayed because he had to. Only community leaders and the very old remain.

"Life in the community isn't guaranteed," Calcina says. Yellowed newspaper pages block the windows of abandoned houses. Herds of roaming llamas tramp through the streets. Most of Santiago's younger families, Calcina says, have fled to Chile. There, men scavenge for jobs in construction, mining and seasonal farmwork. Women find work as domestic employees, cooking, cleaning and washing the clothes of better-off Chileans.

About 125 families lived in Santiago before the 2015-2016 drought. An estimated 25 remain. […]

In 2012, a staggering uptick in demand for quinoa—from the United States especially—pushed Santiago's farmers to expand production. Flush with bank credit, farmers purchased tractors and encroached on land normally left to wild shrubs. The idea was to harvest more, faster. And for a while, business was good. From 2000 to 2014, the price of quinoa tripled.

Then the rain stopped. For two seasons, from 2015 to 2016, as the El Niño weather cycle combined with rising global temperatures, crops shriveled. Production dropped to nothing. The river that jags through Santiago slowed to a trickle, then dried to sand. […]

Nearly to the man, Santiago's farmers remarked on the unusual shifting of weather patterns closely observed. Calcina says he's noticed Bolivia's climate sharpen to extremes over the past half century: bitter cold and terrible heat, beating rain and punishing drought. "Before it was much stabler. Rain arrived in the rainy season. There was a time for wind, when the wind came. But now it's not like that," he says. [more]

Climate Change Is Making This Bolivian Village a Ghost Town

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