When the Glacier Left

By Jonathan Mingle

Excerpt from an article produced by Project Word for The Boston Globe, published November 29, 2009. Full story here; PDF here.

Ishay Paldan, a lean man with a weathered face that crinkles easily into a smile, has been living and farming in Kumik for more than 80 years. Over a simple meal of kholak — a mixture of roasted barley flour and butter tea boiled on his dung-fired stove — he explained Kumik’s situation in incongruously upbeat tones. “When I was a child,” he said, “there were no problems with water. The glacier was much bigger.”

Now the village often runs out of water by mid-August, weeks before the harvest. So, in 2001, Paldan said, the villagers called a meeting. Everyone agreed that the single erratic stream could no longer support the village’s crops. Something had to be done. The Kumikpas quickly concluded they had two options: find more water or abandon their homes.

They had already tried finding water, repeatedly and quixotically, over the years. Paldan recounted the villagers’ multiple attempts to divert more snowmelt by building stone canals at the head of the valley, at heights of more than 18,000 feet. He described the splitting headaches and mimed the swollen hands of those who lingered too long at such high altitude to gather stones and dig trenches.

“It was just too difficult,” he said with a shrug. At the same time, inaction was not an option. So the villagers finally decided to do something radical; they would relocate the entire village to a new site three kilometers below, perched next to the roiling Zanskar River, where water would be more plentiful.

This choice involves a painful tradeoff. Their current land is rich, with fertile soil and plenty of wood and dung for fuel. The new land, though closer to reliable water, is poor, a few hundred acres of rock-strewn plateau donated by the state government.

So now, most villagers are laying plans to abandon their carefully tended plots and centuries-old terraces. Over the next several years, they will build new houses, fertilize open and dusty fields, and irrigate them with river water delivered by a new canal. They will uproot and replant themselves, with all the subtler emotional challenges that implies. A house in Zanskar is the locus of the family’s household deities, of shared memories and stories of ancestors. It is intimately linked to a family’s agricultural holdings, irrigation rights, and social status. This complex network of functions and meanings will have to be re-created or reinvented on the plains of Lower Kumik. A process that has taken, by some local estimates, close to a thousand years will now be compressed into less than a decade.

Bloody Palms: The Dark Side of Plan Colombia

By Teo Ballvé

Excerpt from a piece produced by Project Word for The Nation magazine. Web release May 27, 2009; print release June 15. Full story here; PDF here; media coverage of story here.

Brigadier General Pauxelino Latorre led the elderly farmer through a maze of concrete hallways, past a series of harshly lit rooms overlooking banana plantations, and deep into the barracks of the Colombian army’s 17th Brigade in northwestern Colombia. Soldiers saluted stiffly as the general barreled by. The farmer, Enrique Petro, poor, in his late sixties, shuffled a few steps behind, trying to avoid eye contact with the soldiers.

Petro was understandably anxious. Criminal investigations had repeatedly linked the 17th brigade to illegal paramilitary groups that had brutally killed thousands, including Petro’s brother and teenage son. As he walked deeper into the barracks, Petro had a feeling that something bad was going to happen. Latorre opened a door into a room of a building at the back of the base, where Javier Daza, then head of Urapalma, a palm oil company, was waiting. Daza smugly greeted Petro. In the ensuing encounter, Daza and the general did most of the talking.

It was August 2004. A few days before, Petro had complained to the general that Urapalma was growing oil palms on land that paramilitaries had stolen from him in 1997, in the neighboring province of Chocó. Living as a refugee since his displacement, Petro had repeatedly sought his land back and had endured numerous death threats for his troubles. In response to this latest effort, the general quickly suggested a meeting at the base. Petro supposed he had little to lose and agreed. But when the meeting was over, Daza and Latorre had intimidated Petro into legally validating the seizure of his own land. With General Latorre’s signature on the contract as a witness, Petro officially lost 75 percent of his 375-acre farm—for which he has yet to receive the money.

Enrique Petro was one of the lucky ones; he is still alive.