"We are, for the most part, in denial about global warming's impact on humanity," said Robert Rhoades, editor of the new textbook Development with Identity: Culture, Community, and Development in the Andes. "Regardless of whose fault you believe it is, or if you think that this is just a natural state of progression for the planet, the real issue is how to deal with it."
To develop a clearer picture of the societal and economic impact of global warming, Rhoades studied a specific indigenous population in the Andes Mountains. Cotacachi is the highest volcanic peak in northern Ecuador, and the Cotacacheños live on and around the base of the mountain, which has completely lost its glacier over the past 5 years.
"The Cotacacheños believe that they live on the mountain's 'skirt' under the watchful eye of the goddess Cotacachi," Rhoades said. "She is a mother-figure that regulates and supports their society."
As a result of the glacial melting high on Cotacachi's peaks, the agriculture-based local economy is suffering as rains become more sporadic and sources of irrigation dry up. Many older members of the community refer to the weather as "playing" with them and their livelihood, although younger members tend to cite global climate change and scientific factors as the cause.
"What makes this community so interesting and this study so important is the way that local lore is influencing reaction to a major environmental issue," Rhoades said. "Because current cultural memory views the mountain – and its glacier – as a provider, reactions to the decrease in water availability and agricultural adaptations – for example, changing the types of crops planted on the mountain's slopes – has been sluggish. Societal memory dictates that the mountain is unchanged; when researchers requested local drawings of the mountain, even the most recent depictions display a non-existent snow-capped peak.
"There is definitely a mental lag between what they [indigenous people] know about the past and what is now happening," Rhoades said, "and I think this case is a microcosm for all of humanity." This lag can slow the social changes that are imperative to the survival of these local communities, such as revamping outdated water concessions to achieve more equitable distribution and creating more efficient irrigation and potable water infrastructure.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.