When I asked Dr George Handley for permission to share his story from UN Habitat III, he was reluctant at first, because of what he felt was his limited involvement in the formal events of the conference. But a straightforward reporting on papers and panel discussions, was not what I had in mind. I’m certain having read George’s work, and followed his career and worked with him on environmental concerns, that his panel presentation at UN Habitat III was world class. However, it was a fortuitous and unplanned meeting that caught my attention, and bears more poetic poignance than any number of panel discussions could have planned to conveyed.
Here is George’s account of experiencing first hand the human cost of the ecological crises that Habitat intends to confront:
My involvement in Habitat III was that I gave a presentation that was sponsored by the Big Ocean group that I was a part of, and another group that started in Utah but was in Ecuador and elsewhere in the developing world, called Choice Humanitarian. So there were three of us on a panel and we talked about different ways in which the concerns about sustainability and climate change can be translated into very localized contexts. And I was talking about how that happens in religious cultures. And the representative from Big Ocean was talking about how climate change and environmental problems can be translated into the concerns of women, specifically in family settings, whose lives whose lives are consumed by domestic concerns and in what ways what she called an maternal feminine might rise to the challenges of not only children in the home and the larger environment in which they grow.
And there was a woman from Ecuador who’s been working with Choice Humanitarian, which helps develop sustainable agricultural practices among indigenous communities who are losing their cultural language and agricultural practice. And, because of the poverty and cultural erosion, a lot of indigenous communities have struggled to maintain sufficient levels of nutrition. If their diet increasingly less diverse and less balanced and they have fewer resources, then they end up with very little protein in their diet, a not very diverse diet. And that can lead to some health problems and malnutrition problems, and so on. So what they do is they go into indigenous communities and basically do feed loans and animal loans that can help them develop a more balanced diet. And then through daily contact they end up teaching these practices throughout the community.
So it was pretty interesting array of topics covered. And we had a lot of young Ecuadorans and a lot of Africans, and a lot of indigenous people from Ecuador who came.
And what had happened was there was a man in the audience who approached me afterwards. He had picked up on a thing I had said that you can’t expect to do something about climate change by going into these communities and telling people that they have the wrong story, that they need a new story, that they have to adopt a new world view. Somehow we’ve got to find a way to translate the story of climate change into local understanding and the local terms so that they can use their own values and beliefs as a motivator to do something about it.
He’s from an indigenous community down here Chimborazo, the great volcano, south of Quito, Quechua speaking man who lives in the city of Quito. And he described to be how indigenous people in Ecuador move to the capital and they kind of lose a lot of their practices and lot of their culture, in the process. And that there’s kind of an invisibility of indigenous cultures in cities in Ecuador, even though Ecuador, like a lot of other countries in Latin America, celebrate its multicultural heritage and its multinational heritage. He said there’s still a lot embarrassment of traditional of loss of indigenous understanding.
So when I was talking about preserving and respecting local traditions. He kind of keyed in on that and approached me afterward and challenged me basically to visit his community. When I asked him how far away he lived, he said four hours I said, “well that’s kind of far. And I don’t really have that much time.” I was really intrigued and he pleaded with me, “Come.”
Over the next twenty-four hours, I managed to arrange for someone to take us down to his village. It ended up being five hours away. And we drove all the way there. It was a very small community: a few hundred families, in the high mountains. We were at about 11,000 feet. And they had more problems than I can enumerate here. They spent about an hour just telling me about their problems. Many of which were educational. Many of which were agricultural: they had no sufficient irrigation.
As we were driving, we picked up a couple of men who were living in the community. And they were telling me how dependent on the rainfall for water. And they said the weird thing is that the rain doesn’t come like it used to. I asked him to tell me more about that. He said the seasons are all mixed up. We can’t depend upon rain like we used to. It doesn’t come when we expect it, it doesn’t stay as long as it used to. We just noticed that the weather is changing.
And then they asked me about climate change. One of them was very frank and told me that he, “Had never had it explained to me? Could you explain to me what climate change is and what causes it?”
So I didn’t have all of the cultural knowledge of his culture to try to put it in terms that he could understand as clearly as possible. But I did try to put it to him in pretty basic terminology. And of course he grasped it very intuitively. He understood it. And it was amazing to him as I was explaining it all to him how in international politics some individual politicians are denying it, or saying the problem is over there not over here even though they may play a major role, especially in my own country.
And he said, “Well how could anyone not notice it? It’s so obvious that the climate is changing, I just didn’t fully understand why.” And that was really powerful to me. That they could see the effects of climate change on the ground and it was directly affecting their ability to feed their families. So they knew it was a serious problem. There was no way of getting around it or denying or pretending it isn’t real. That is a luxury of the developed world where you don’t feel as dependent on the weather as people in developed countries are. So that really hit home for me. And then they were hoping that I could do something to help them.
Well, I had to explain to them that I was not a scientist. I was not a politician. I was not a businessman. So I didn’t have money, I didn’t have political power, and I didn’t have scientific expertise. But, I did have connections that they didn’t have.
And they felt like, “Our government doesn’t see us, they don’t respond to our needs and concerns. And we just needed someone to respond to our needs and concerns.” He felt that it would be important to invite you to our community. This man said that he felt like need to It couldn’t explain it and he understood that I couldn’t
In fact he was concerned that my visit might create expectations that I couldn’t meet. He didn’t give much advanced warning about my visit he only told a few people. He said that he was afraid that if he had told a whole bunch of people that their would have been this big gathering and everyone would assume I could solve all of their problems. I told him that I appreciated that.
But I have been working since I got back to get this community in contact with organizations that can help them. I am very hopeful that I can help this community once we get a complete assessment of their needs.
So that all pretty much just brought it home for me: this is not theoretical it’s certainly an international policy question. But a lot of what Habitat III was talking about was sustainable development in cities. But that leaves sort of in the background is, what about the rural communities that sort of get left behind, that don’t live in cities? And here’s this guy, who’s been living in the city, whose children are all professionals now in Quito, but his extended family all still live in this very rural area. And it was an area that was very obviously impoverished and that was very obviously not anywhere close to developing into an urban area like the city of Quito. So there’s a real problem with development. And it was really exciting to hear all that Habitat III was talking about: the really cool sustainable projects that are happening in urban areas with public transportation and other methods for getting people off the road. But it didn’t seem like much of that was going to have an impact on these rural communities.
Anything that reduces carbon emissions is a plus for everybody. In an indirect way a major city’s development of a sustainable practice will still help urban areas. But it’s also true that a lot of the things that really concern the developing world, are going to look and feel very different when you look at the need of these sorts of communities that are just trying to scrape by and make a living.
I felt like I needed a lot more wisdom when I was down there. I felt the inadequacy of my own training, my own abilities. I really did feel like, the one thing I’ve got is language. I don’t speak Quechua, but I do speak Spanish. I could communicate with them and they could communicate with me. We had a really deep connection. I felt a really great sense of love and appreciation for those people.
Their stories made me cry. I wept with them. I felt like I was changed for having spent that time with them. And I was really grateful that I did it. And it means now that I have a responsibility that weighs pretty heavily on me. But I was really grateful I did it. But maybe telling their story is all I can do. Networking so that they’re not invisible that their problems are addressed somehow. That feels good. That feels right. It’s not everything. But it’s a start.