Madison 350.org – Connecting the Dots through a Peace Corps Lens
By Guest Contributor on Monday, May 21st, 2012
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers continue to make a difference long after their service overseas — Peace Corps service is just the first step in changing the world. Harry Bennett (Belize 2002-04) is one such Volunteer. Here, he writes about his climate change advocacy.
As a member of Madison 350.org and part of the committee that planned the participation in the worldwide action/education event promoted by 350.org, I had a hand in helping to shape the event. We decided to use the Dane County Farmers Market at the Capital Square in Madison as the location for our event, a “teach in” to educate the public on the relationship between climate change and food production. I volunteered to be a speaker at the event and decided my part would be a bit of information about my work and then a contrasting story involving my Peace Corps service.
After Peace Corps, Helping Farmers at Home
Since returning from Peace Corps service in 2004 I have been employed as Market Coordinator for the Kansas Organic Producers Association, a producer cooperative with 100 member/producers in Kansas and surrounding states. We market certified organically produced grains, oil seeds and hay to domestic and international buyers and have average sales of around $5 million annually. I related several stories about the radical weather that I have been hearing about daily from my farmer members: 100+ degree temperatures in April, winter wheat heading out 30 days early and at risk from frost and very violent torrential rains. Many of our farmers are older and have farmed for 40 years or more and report that they have never seen such unpredictable and hot weather.
Peace Corps Service in Belize
I then switched my story to a different group of farmers that I know. In 2002 my wife and I started our Peace Corps service in San Jose Village, Toledo, Belize, CA. San Jose is a Mopan Mayan village in the south of Belize in the foothills of the Maya Mountains about 40 miles from the coastal district town of Punta Gorda. The village has a population of 800 persons with about 130 households, everyone farms in the village except the primary school teachers.
My Peace Corps Volunteer program was Sustainable Agriculture/Rural Community Development and had me working closely with the farmers in cooperative marketing development and expansion of cash crops. All of the farmers grew corn, beans, rice and vegetables using primarily organic techniques, these crops were first and foremost for their own consumption with any excess for livestock and outside sale. San Jose does not have electric service and the pressure water system is by gravity from a tank on a mountain top that is filled by a pump on a well powered by a small solar photovoltaic array. There are no personnel vehicles in San Jose- transportation around the village is by foot, bicycle or horseback, there are two old used school buses that serve at transportation to Punta Gorda four days a week. Village youth whose families can afford high school tuition have to travel by school bus to one of two high schools in the district town.
On a visit back to San Jose in January 2012 we found that things in the village were mostly unchanged from when we left in 2004 except that there was some limited cell phone service and the village was almost finished with a new solar array that would supply electricity to the school and homes within a 700 feet radius. The plan is to construct new arrays in the future to bring solar electricity to other households in the village, several young people in the village are being trained to install and maintain the solar panels and equipment.
Farmers in Belize Experience Climate Change Effects
When we arrived in San Jose Village in 2002 I was amazed at the conversations and amount of knowledge that the villagers had of climate change and effects on their lives. The farmers had already begun to notice that the very predictable change from dry season to wet season was becoming erratic and that rain patterns were shifting. Temperatures during the dry season have risen markedly, causing increased fire risk. The changes have made corn planting, that must be timed at the end of the dry season before the onset of the rains, very difficult and threatening to the primary food crop.
Belize is also experiencing an increase in Dengue Fever outbreaks that are attributed to an overall increase in temperatures and rainfall that favor mosquito breeding. The coastal areas of Belize are feeling the effects of sea level rise with the destruction of the mangrove trees that are vital to holding the sea shore intact and providing a habitat for fishery health. Higher seawater temperatures are resulting in death to the coral in the barrier reef off the coast of Belize that is the second largest in the world.
Small Carbon Footprint, Doing the Right Thing
My point here is that in the village of San Jose there is a population of people with a “carbon footprint” that is hardly measurable when compared with a similar population in the United States. When you examine their lifestyle they are the model of what is being touted as the solutions to controlling climate change: highly developed local organic food system, exclusive use of public and non motorized transportation, low impact bio-degradable housing and developing renewable nonpolluting electrical generation.
Despite the efforts of San Jose, they are not going to reduce the effects of climate change because it is now known that the tropical areas of the world near the equator will be experiencing the most dramatic effects of climate change. The true injustice here is that the Mayan people in San Jose did not contribute to the fossil fuel driven rise in Parts Per Million of carbon in the atmosphere, yet they will suffer the consequences sooner and harsher than we in North America. I have no doubts that present and future Peace Corps Volunteers are going to find themselves having to observe and deal with the effects of climate change in their host countries.
Thanks to Harry Bennett (Belize, 2002-04) for contributing this blog post.