Jasmine Wilkins is a graduate of the College of William and Mary . She is serving as New Project Development Intern at Population Action International for the Spring 2009 semester.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer you’re assigned to work with a particular sector, be it community health, small business development, food security, etc. You receive countless hours of sector-specific training – culture, language and technical – and inevitably bond with other volunteers in the same sector. After all, for the first three months in country they’re usually the only Americans (besides select Peace Corps staff) with whom you have contact.
Consequently, each sector takes on a personality of its own, along with a cutsie nickname like “aggie” or “TEFLer.” You become so immersed in your sector that you begin to adopt singular characteristics and behaviors. An anthropologist would have a field day with the study of adaptation patterns among PCVs. Within a short three-month period you essentially evolve into a member of a tribe, and you ascribe – heart, body and soul – to the language, culture and customs, of that tribe.
In my case I was assigned the role of TEFL (Teaching English as a foreign language) Teacher Trainer for the pilot TEFL program in Nicaragua, the first of its kind in the Inter-America and Pacific Region. This meant that I worked in and around Nicaraguan public schools and their students. And while the assignment brought with it a unique set of challenges and frustrations (i.e. classroom management for 75 mixed-sex adolescents on a 98-degree day during the height of the rainy season with open windows), I rarely strayed from the duties and responsibilities I solemnly swore to take on. For better or worse, the local public school became my home away from home.
As the Spring 2009 New Project Development Intern with PAI, I was assigned to work with the Population and Climate Change Initiative as well as the Emerging Donors Project. From Day one I researched international development issues like foreign aid, health, governance, education, agriculture, environment and gender. And yes, I shamefully admit that I hadn’t the faintest idea what the UNFCCC or MDGs were before the fact. But that’s beside the point. The research I did led me to reflect carefully on my experience in Nicaragua. I now realize that while in Nicaragua I saw for myself the real impact of climate change in a tropical developing country, and failed to capitalize on the invaluable opportunity to educate and inform the community at large. I was so focused on sector-specific projects that I lost sight of the bigger picture. That is to say, I lost sight of the interconnectedness of the world around both me and my students.
The majority of my students were the children and grandchildren of agricultores (farmers) and – for all their academic shortcomings – they themselves were expert tillers of the land. These same students understood the seasons and crop cycles better than any technical expert sent by a development aid organization to save the proverbial day. They also understood that the earth upon which they depended was changing before their very eyes. I often heard students, parents and – in particular – grandparents, talk about how they used to be able to count the days until the seasons changed or the land yielded crops. They also commented on the water quality and quantity they used to receive during the rainy season. Those are heavy-hitting used tos for a small agriculture-based pueblo.
The climate change impacts on agriculture directly affected all aspects of life in the pueblo. It became more and more difficult to feed traditional large families. Inevitably less money was available to pay for healthcare and medication. Therefore family members would unnecessarily endure illness and injury. The illness or injury they endured often turned into a more serious health complication. Consequently family members would be forced to miss work and school. In doing so they often risked unemployment or poor grades. From there it is easy to imagine how one becomes trapped in a vicious cycle of chronic poverty.
Over the course of a few generations the familiar seasonal pattern that sustained the livelihood of the pueblo had all but disappeared. I like to believe that if I knew then what I know now I would have worked with town hall or local cooperatives to educate and inform the community about the impacts of climate change in order to brainstorm ideas and forge alliances to tackle the issue. For all my hopes the past is past. I now look forward to future opportunities to discuss and make connections between population, environment and climate change, in order empower people and their communities.