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Page last updated at 12:08 GMT, Monday, 19 April 2010 13:08 UK

Bolivian villagers want compensation as glaciers melt

By Andres Schipani
BBC News, Khapi

Child playing with Mount Illimani in the distance
The water from the mountains is key to life in Khapi

For the Incas, and most of the Andean civilisations, snow-capped mountains were divinities to be honoured, as they supplied water.

But now it seems those gods are losing their powers. Researchers say that the glaciers are in dramatic retreat across the Andes due to rising temperatures.

In the small village of Khapi, below the stunning - and still snow-covered - Mount Illimani, the sense of anxiety is profound.

An idea has taken root there - that those who have caused the snow to retreat and the waters to slow should be brought before an international court.

You might be on one side of the world, but what you do is affecting somebody else in another continent very far away
Pablo Solon
Bolivia's UN Ambassador

What they want is an international court of environmental justice, an idea that is being pushed by Evo Morales, Bolivia's president.

"We are very worried because we have no water. Half the people of this community have already left. Those who remain are struggling with the lack of water," says Max, an elderly Aymara Indian who chews coca leaves as he speaks in heavily-accented Spanish.

For the indigenous people of Khapi everything depends on the streams flowing through their land. The waters, which they consider sacred, keep their animals alive and allow their crops to flourish.

But over the past 10 or 15 years, changing weather patterns have led to irregular water flows - the streams become torrents or dwindle to just trickles.

"The weather has drastically changed and it is now two or three times hotter than it was. We cannot water our crops and the sun and the heat are very strong. Our crops are dry now, our animals are dying; we want to cry," Max says, before asking their Andean goddess, Pachamama or Mother Earth, for help.

Lobbying

Given this situation, the 40 families that make up the community of Khapi have decided to fight their case before several international forums.

Among those leading them on this campaign is Alivio Aruquipa, one of the community leaders.

map

"For the past two decades, we, the people from the Andean regions have been suffering because of the greenhouse emissions from the developed countries. If they don't stop our glaciers will disappear soon," Mr Aruquipa says.

"We want those countries to compensate us for all the damage they have done to nature," he says.

Mr Aruquipa has been lobbying for their case to be heard by the international community. He even went to the United Nations' Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December.

"In Copenhagen I met a lot of people from all over the world with similar problems… Altogether, we have demanded the creation of an international court of environmental justice," he says.

The people of Khapi want compensation from the international community for environmental damage that they blame on communities and countries thousands of kilometres away.

"We don't know how to calculate the compensation because we are not professionals, we are simply farmers. But we would like assistance, and then to receive some money and, with that money, to build dykes to store the water, improve the water canals," Mr Aruquipa says.

It is a campaign supported - and started - by the Bolivian government.

Following the perceived failure of the COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen last year, President Morales called an alternative civil-society conference.

It is taking place this week in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, bringing together indigenous groups, NGOS, scientists, activists as well as government delegations.

Justice

Mr Morales hopes activists will lobby for the creation of an international environmental court where the people from Khapi want to be the first ones to fight for compensation.

The idea is to present a draft proposal to the next climate change meeting, COP16, that will be held in Mexico late this year.

Aliviro Aruquipa
Alivio Aruquipa wants his community's voice to be heard

"What we want to achieve is justice," Pablo Solon, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations, told the BBC.

"When we say climate justice tribunal, we are speaking about how to sanction actions that seriously affect the environment and have consequences for populations, for nations that may even disappear beneath the ocean," he said.

"You might be on one side of the world, but what you do is affecting somebody else in another continent very far away. But you rather protect your profits than nature", says Mr Solon, who is the mastermind behind the Cochabamba conference and the idea of the international climate court.

"There might be, there will be, millions of people who are affected, and may even die, because of those actions. Is this not genocide?" he asks.

The people of Khapi may want to be the first to lodge a case if an international climate court is established.

But there are hundreds of other communities throughout the Andes - and across the globe - that complain of environmental damage.

"The [environmental] situation we are facing deserves a new judicial system. This [Cochabamba] is the beginning of the discussion. The beginning of a very big fight," said Mr Solon.



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