World Traveler Learns Climate Complexities

Juan Hoffmaister treks through northern Vietnam

Juan Hoffmaister's global journey grew out of a desire to collect adaptation success stories. But he says what he has seen are really "survival stories." Courtesy of Juan Hoffmaister hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Juan Hoffmaister

I met Juan Hoffmaister in mid-March, at a U.N.-sponsored meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The meeting was in a swank hotel, and Hoffmaister looked a little out of place; he had just flown in from India, and the airline had lost his luggage, so he was down to jeans and a T-shirt.

The meeting — on adaptation to climate change — was a lot less interesting than Hoffmaister's own story. I got to hear it after the meeting was over, as most of the other climate change experts headed for the airport.

Hoffmaister is 24 years old, a citizen of Costa Rica and a recent graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Since last summer, he has been on a voyage of discovery, a year-long tour of places that may bear the brunt of changes in Earth's climate. It's funded through a fellowship from the Thomas Watson Foundation, a charitable trust focused on education and world affairs. Hoffmaister also set up a blog at changingclimates.info.

"I really was trying to understand — how can we find global solutions?" he says. He planned to collect those solutions into a report. It would describe exemplary efforts by local communities to prepare for a changing climate. But the trip hasn't turned out quite as planned.

Collecting Survival Stories

"I started the journey thinking that I was going to go out there and collect success stories," he says. "Within a couple of months, I realized that what I was collecting was survival stories."

In Fiji, he saw coral dying, not so much because of climate change, but because people are clearing the island's trees. That lets soil wash into the ocean, choking the reefs. Residents of Fiji seemed powerless to change that. Many didn't seem to care. They saw no other options.

From there, Hoffmaister moved on to Vietnam, and arrived just after Typhoon Lekima in October.

"Suddenly, I was able to see firsthand how the livelihood of thousands of people in these districts had been completely destroyed," he says.

Hoffmaister pulls out his laptop and shows me pictures: farmers trying to salvage the pitiful remnants of a rice crop; people sleeping on roads because everything else is covered with water.

"There were some pretty tough moments, long days," he says. "And sometimes just not being able to fall asleep after seeing the terrible, terrible reality in which people were living. And yeah, sometimes a little crying ... just wondering if there was any hope."

Juan seems shaken, just looking at the pictures. He leans back and takes a breath.

"I think I probably need a little break," he says. "It's almost like I'm back there, and it's very draining."

The World Through Different Eyes

At that point in his trip he needed a break, too — some relief from scenes of disaster and despair. It came, unexpectedly, on a side trip into the mountains of northern Vietnam, near the border with China and Laos. It was a place, he says, that "seemed at first like a different planet."

He found villages of the Hmong people that seemed untouched by the outside world: mountainsides sculpted, centuries ago, into fertile terraces; people who welcomed him into their homes.

One meal, in particular, sticks in his memory.

"The head of the household came in, and she asked me if I like duck," he recalls. Hoffmaister told her he did — and an hour later he was eating duck. Not just any duck, though — it was the duck he had just seen swimming in the family's rice paddy.

It was a lesson in subsistence. Villagers there depend on the health of their natural environment in ways that most city-dwellers have forgotten. They have lived this way for generations, and it seemed to Hoffmaister like a sign of hope.

"They made me, for just a few weeks of my life, see the world through their eyes," he says. He saw "a world where respect for each other is very important, where the respect for your elders defines how you live your life — a way of life where you are so aware of what everything that you do every day means for your survival."

So, it hit him hard when he realized that these villages are doomed. The central government of Vietnam plans to build a dam nearby to generate electricity. It will flood the valley.

"In a matter of a year or two, it's all going to be underwater," Hoffmaister says. "These people were not given the choice. The decision was made for them, and they don't even get a chance to complain. I realized that it just was not fair."

Conviction amid Complexity

More than most people, Hoffmaister is a citizen of the world. Even before he started this trip, he had lived on two continents and traveled to others. He was ready for culture shock, he says.

"But I was not prepared for the livelihood shock," he says. "I was not prepared to see how marginalized people can be, and nothing can prepare you to see the injustices that you see in a lot of these communities."

At the meeting in Trinidad, Hoffmaister is once again among people wearing suits and polished shoes. He confesses that he is increasingly frustrated by meetings like this. He hears the same words over and over again, but he is not sure anymore that "food security" or "water access" or even "climate change" means much to a villager in Vietnam or India. What that villager wants is something to eat when crops fail, and a government that listens.

It was simpler, before he began this journey, to talk about adaptation to climate change. The trip has been disturbing and confusing, but Hoffmaister has not abandoned his conviction that we can make things better.

"Perhaps I just think so because I just saw that these people, regardless of how many times they lost everything, they still had the energy to stand up again and start all over," he says. "And if they can do that, there has to be a way in which we can help them."

Hoffmaister is now in southern Africa, in Namibia. He will continue on to Mozambique. And then, he says, he will write that report on his trip. It just won't be the report he had imagined a year ago.

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