Before the humanitarian workers came to his village just outside of Maseru, Lesotho, 24-year-old Makalo Makara and his neighbors mistook climate change for divine punishment.
“We thought what was happening here was a calamity of God,” he tells Teen Vogue, poking a wooden staff at a hard patch of dirt.
“I have been a herder almost my whole life. I started when I was 8. I would go after school.”
Like many other young men his age in Lesotho, to step into the profession of herding is considered a rite of passage into manhood.
In the morning, Makalo gets up before the sun with his seven cows and walks until dark while they graze. He does this in every type of weather: rain, sun, or, in recent years, occasionally abrupt snow.
It was only a few years ago that he started to see a marked difference in the soil and grass in his village because of the erratic change in weather. The rainfall, which for most of his life ushered in the planting season in September, has become unpredictable.
“The rains are late this year,” he says, pointing at a barren patch of dirt that in years past has been speckled with green buds by now.
“It affects the way we till the land and my herd doesn’t have enough to eat now. Because they don’t have enough to eat, [the cattle] are getting thinner and it’s harder to use them for plowing.” He gestures at a bull standing feet away, whose ribs are showing through a mat of bristled hair.
Lesotho is a country where more than 70% of people are dependent on just 10% of arable land, whether for commerce or to feed their families. Countries with large economies have long been the largest contributors to climate change that threatens the livelihoods of those everywhere, but a broader awareness about the issue within developing countries and their ability to act against it has been a more recent development.
Makalo’s testimony is one of many, another page in the endless story of climate change and the impact caused by neglect of the world’s second-largest climate polluter: the United States. In November 2017, Syria became the latest country to sign the Paris climate accord, leaving the United States as the only country to proclaim it will not align with the landmark deal.
The Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the agreement in June of 2017 has been felt worldwide, causing a ripple effect in countries like Lesotho, where the effects of climate change are felt the hardest.
“This has been very disappointing for us for several reasons,” said Moeketsi Majoro, minister of finance to Lesotho. “It sends a damaging message that the U.S. cannot be counted upon to deliver leadership in matters of global importance. So we are wondering and other countries are asking, can we still count on the U.S. at all?”
Lesotho isn’t a country popularly known to the West. Nicknamed “the Kingdom in the Sky” and surrounded by South Africa on all sides, its mountainous landscape covers a space slightly larger than the state of Vermont. Farmers and herders here, similar to many other African countries, are waging war against the elements.
When the delayed rains do come, they appear with increasing force that often wash away the nutrient-rich topsoil necessary for most plants to grow.
At the current rate, Lesotho is losing 3–5% of its topsoil every year. “It looks minuscule, but it’s actually a huge amount and it’s expected to get worse,” Eshan Rizvi, who runs the Natural Resource Management Program for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in country, tells Teen Vogue.
He’s worked in the field for 12 years to help communities become more resilient in the face of climate change. Citing findings from a recent CRS study on soil degradation, Ehsan says, “soil-loss rates are going to increase because of high temperature, less vegetation cover, and more intense rainfall.”
“What is happening in Cape Town is just one example of how climate change is affecting the continent,” Dan Shepard, an information officer who works on climate change for the United Nations, tells Teen Vogue.
“We are also seeing coastal erosion in Western Africa and changing currents in the water off South Africa, which affects everything from fishing patterns to penguin populations. Climate change exacerbates things, so as temperatures are rising across the continent, it causes more extreme weather, intense droughts, the list goes on.”
CRS says it runs climate and agricultural programs in 43 countries reaching over 9 million people. In Lesotho, they are possibly the only organization in-country that is focusing efforts on the youngest generation of agricultural workers to change their behavior to adapt to the changing ecosystem.
They start by teaching farmers what climate change is, enlightening communities on how pollution that occurs thousands of miles away is linked to the increasingly erratic and extreme weather patterns at home. Experts also ensure that locals understand not only the global impact of human behavior on their land locally, but also new farming techniques that are more resilient to global climate trends.
For the rising generation of farmers, that means learning how to plant smart crops and use the land as wisely as possible.
“As crop production declines with the change in rainfall, people make up for losses by cutting down more trees to expand their land. But that just makes things worse because it releases more carbon into the atmosphere,” Ehsan says.
“Those trees also prevent water-run off which keeps the soil moist, so they are taking away an important preventative mechanism that they might not know they need.”
CRS also trains farmers on how to diversify crops. Corn is often a staple crop because it is hearty and cheap to plant, but farmers are now learning that it isn’t good for the soil, Ehsan says. Environmental experts are promoting climate-smart agriculture by recommending intercropping, planting things like beans alongside other crops to put more nitrogen in the soil. Experts also show farmers how to rotate their crops, making them more resistant to pests.
“All of this is good insurance against [the changing] weather, and people get excited about it. They see the economic returns,” Ehsan says.
CRS is also arming Makalo and his fellow herd boys with an unlikely tool that both helps them economically and works to reduce the impact of climate change on the land: seeds for trees. Using apple, peach, and acacia seedlings, herder communities are trained to create nurseries that grow the trees, which they sell to the government.
The Ministry of Forestry, Range and Conservation (MFRC) then plants the trees in local areas as part of an effort to restore the degraded ecosystems.
The success of the new agriculture practices is clear. “It’s a win-win with long lasting impact,” Ehsan says. “Farmers get another way to make money, they learn importance of trees in fighting climate change, while helping to restore and protect their land in the process.”