Publication Date August 25, 2017

Climate Change Is Making this Bolivian Village a Ghost Town

The population of Santiago K, which had been thriving with growing demand for quinoa, fell sharply as a drought lingered into a second year in Bolivia. The artificial surface of its soccer field stands out against the dry ground. Photo: Ben Walker

Today, Santiago's farmers draw much of their income from the production and sale of quinoa. A nutty grain indigenous to the Andean regions of Bolivia and Peru, quinoa traditionally was harvested by hand on smaller plots. In the dry Andes, scarce rainfall kept plants watered. Farmers sold most of their yields at a regional market or through cooperatives; the rest they set aside for personal use. South America's upper-class spurned the grain as "Indian food."

But then the world caught on. 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.


Of all the countries impacted by climate change, Bolivia is among the most visibly affected. Whole glaciers have melted. In 2016, the country's second-largest lake, Lake Poopó, dried up and vanished. In the same year, the worst drought in 25 years led Bolivia's government to declare a state of emergency in 142 of Bolivia's 339 municipalities. 


The increasing frequency of climate shocks, matched by the vulnerability of Bolivia's population, makes Bolivia uniquely prone to natural disasters. Where climate change does not force migration directly, it sharpens existing points of insecurity.