(Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on “Rights and Dignity: Older People in Conflict and Crisis,” produced in cooperation with Amnesty International USA and HelpAge USA. Read the first article here and the second here.)

In a world grappling with the escalating climate crisis, evidence is clear that climate change has particularly devastating impact on the physical and mental health and the general wellbeing of older people. They often face greater health risks associated with climate hazards such as extreme heat and diseases spread by vectors such as mosquitos and ticks. Ageism and stereotypes also disadvantage older people, who too often are assumed to be passive, incapable, or withdrawn when it comes to climate action.

Yet, around the world, many older people are making crucial contributions to adapt their communities and mitigate against those impacts, drawing on lifetimes of experience, and, for indigenous peoples, centuries of traditions. An example emerges from the arid expanses of La Guajira Peninsula, at the northern tip of Colombia, where the indigenous Wayuu people have not only survived but sometimes even thrived for centuries despite harsh conditions.

One indigenous woman’s insights and efforts to build her Wayuu village´s resilience in the face of ever-worsening climate shocks and the related pressures to migrate offer a critical perspective on the intersection of age, gender, indigeneity, culture, and environmental challenges. Libia Patricia Ipuana Epiayu (known as Señora Livia), 60, is a village elder and a respected leader and keeper of traditional wisdom. Her life is a testament to strength, leadership, and resilience, but is also squarely situated amidst climate changes that threaten the Wayuu population´s way of life.

Traditional Farming and Ways of Life 

Spurred by droughts in their homeland about 25 kilometers to the northeast, Señora Livia’s family first migrated to the village of Santa Clara some 75 years ago, together with many indigenous families in the region. Scarcity of water and vegetation led her grandfather to seek a new beginning.

Decades later, the Wayuu people are again witnessing dramatic alterations to their landscape, in Santa Clara and across the peninsula, with irregular patterns of water scarcity and flooding. The changing climate reshapes the very existence of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous population in Colombia, and influences not only their environment but their traditional sources of food and livelihoods, as well as their movements to and from urban centers, whether they are young people moving away for jobs or others traveling for goods, services, and trade. These very difficult conditions in Wayuu villages have been acknowledged by human rights groups and by the Colombia Constitutional Court, which in a 2017 ruling determined that their living conditions violated their rights, especially in terms of access to safe water, food, and health care. This ruling and others point to the continuous struggle of the Wayuu people to secure their fundamental rights and to protect their ancestral territory in a world made more hostile by climate change.

Unpredictable weather patterns have disrupted Wayuu farming practices that have been in place for generations, handed down through families. It is increasingly difficult to plan and grow traditional crops for self-consumption and to sell. “Our elders used to be able to say, ‘This year I’m going to plant, because this year is going to be good,’ and that’s how it was,” recounts Señora Livia.  “Nowadays they cannot do it. Today they are unsure about when to plant because there is no certainty of what can happen [with the weather].”

Señora Livia, who in her youth served as a domestic employee in exchange for the opportunity to earn a primary and secondary education, explains further: “Climate change affects our indigenous peasant planters and growers, who every day dedicate themselves to cultivating and promoting commerce in our territory. It is also their livelihood for themselves and their families … our elders worry about the situation, not having food or water for our community.”

The soil that once provided for them now often lies bare, too dry to farm. The Wayuu’s loss of traditional subsistence farming creates an existential threat. The Wayuu population must now purchase more food items, which often do not provide the same nutritional quality. Many Wayuu households cannot afford to purchase the amount of food they need for all family members. Poverty is a hardship shared by many indigenous peoples, including those facing climate change; in Latin America, poverty affects 43 percent of the indigenous population, according to the World Bank.

Sadly, the Wayuu are not alone. Around the world, indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, despite contributing the least to greenhouse gas emissions. Many indigenous populations face threats and dangers to their survival, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship with, the environment and natural resources. This can be particularly true of older people. In a 2021 study on older people and climate change, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that “older persons in indigenous communities are sometimes more tied to traditional livelihoods, foods or cultural practices that are threatened by climate change.”

Migration Pressures  

Facing these economic pressures, many Wayuu young people are leaving or considering leaving their traditional villages in the La Guajira Peninsula in search of more stable conditions in populated areas. Traditional livelihoods of farming, herding, and crafts give way to jobs driving motorcycle taxis or other low-wage occupations. However, according to the U.N., migration is often not an adequate solution for adapting to climate change, and it sometimes places indigenous people at greater risk of discrimination, exploitation, and environmental hazards in their destinations.

Climate-induced migration doesn’t just impact the lives of younger people on the move. Older people who often remain in their villages then bear greater burdens of tending the land, upholding cultural traditions, and even raising grandchildren because the parents may not have the means to take them along. Research has found that older persons in areas experiencing climate effects may be reluctant to migrate, emphasizing cultural and spiritual attachments, including unwillingness to abandon traditional homes, land, and ancestral burial grounds. Older Wayuu people remaining in their villages can struggle to support grandchildren on their own, getting by through goat herding or selling traditional handicrafts.

Migration often also impacts traditional economic, social, and cultural connections and disrupts intergenerational processes historically shared between older and younger people. This can contribute the loss of traditional knowledge, which can be essential for climate action to be successful. Both older and younger people may experience a unique sense of loss related to the disappearance of cultural practices and traditional ways of life.

Traditional Knowledge for Adaptation and Resilience 

In the face of such adversities, the Wayuu have not remained passive and have actively combined traditional knowledge of land and water sources as well as embracing new technology. Together with others, Señora Livia has seized on her role as a village elder to introduce creative local solutions to adapt to climate change and help curtail the pressures many feel to migrate.

Recognizing the critical need for water to sustain Wayuu agricultural practices, for example, she spearheaded the creation of her village’s first well and local purification and potable water distribution system, ensuring a reliable source of water. Access to water has enabled more consistent planting of traditional crops. It also lessens the burden on community members, especially women – all her life, Señora Livia had dreamed of not having to carry water in tanks on her head for long distances. The water system “brought a great change to the community, and we celebrated with laughter and tears,” she said in an interview.  “Water has been my greatest achievement as a leader.”

Señora Livia has also been pivotal in embracing new technologies that offer sustainable energy solutions, such as solar panels, which she learned about on the internet. “I did not know about solar panels and how useful they have been,” she said.  She helped bring solar panels to her village, which has been essential for providing energy to pump and purify well water.

Señora Livia with village residents in October 2023 in front of a treatment room that is part of the village’s first well and local purification and potable water distribution system. (Screen capture from video courtesy of Convite AC – Fundación Convite Colombia, via HelpAge International.)

The village’s response to climate change is rooted in a blend of innovation and traditional practices, from the conservation of water in traditional reservoirs to the strategic use of local potable water systems for agricultural and domestic purposes. Señora Livia speaks about the importance of the communal efforts to maintain resilience amid climate change and to preserve the community’s cultural identity and even its very existence. Older members of the village now participate in decision-making regarding climate adaptation measures and also advise younger herders, for example, on how to care effectively for their livestock such as cows and goats, and younger farmers on the best planting times, even amid the effects of climate change.

New adaptations are not without their challenges, as Señora Livia notes. “Sometimes the difficulties that arise are disagreements with members of the community. It must be explained to them when projects arrive that are of benefit to the community, not to individuals. Getting all the members of the community to agree to receive a benefit is the most complicated thing there is,” she explains.

Policy Implications and Recommendations

The realities faced by the Wayuu in La Guajira reflect the experiences of many indigenous populations around the world and should serve as a call for policymakers and stakeholders at all levels. The United Nations has highlighted that “traditional knowledge relies on nature-based solutions, passed on by their elders over generations [which] can effectively contribute to adaptation strategies at the local, national, and global  levels. Their time-tested practices should inform policy decisions and be reflected along with indigenous peoples’ rights into adaptation frameworks.”

The resilience and insights of older populations, their adaptation strategies, and the unique risks they face must be considered in formulating climate change policies, from local governance to global initiatives. That will require:

Empowering Older People´s Resilience 

With older people such as Señora Livia often acting as linchpins in community actions to mitigate the impact of climate change, governments must ensure that adaptation and mitigation policies are not only inclusive but also specifically tailored to bolster the resilience of older people. Income security is a cornerstone of such resilience, which can benefit entire communities like Santa Clara.  Including older people in local government programs that support climate-smart small and micro-enterprises could facilitate the development of small, senior-led businesses that focus on climate-smart products or services, while helping them to be more resilient.

Investment in Climate-Smart Solutions 

Investment in climate-smart agricultural practices is a necessary step forward. This includes providing farmers – many of whom are older – with access to accurate and timely weather and market information, subsidizing agricultural inputs, and extending credit and extension services. Access to renewable energy is equally important, as it can reduce the dependency on unreliable and unsustainable energy sources. These measures can significantly aid older people, who often bear the brunt of climate change’s impacts. 

Scaling Up Local Adaptation Projects 

Local adaptation and mitigation projects must be identified, supported, and scaled up. Initiatives such as the local potable water system introduced by Señora Livia are prime examples of successful community-driven solutions. Policies should encourage the replication of such models, ensuring they are inclusive and supportive of older people. Provision of seeds and supplies such as basic tools and hoses for household gardens, for instance, can enable more older individuals to grow their own food, promoting self-sufficiency and reducing vulnerability. 

Integrating Ageing in Climate Finance 

Climate change funding must integrate considerations of ageing. The specific needs of older people, particularly in adaptation finance, require acknowledgment and action. U.N. agencies, funds, and programs should lead by example, ensuring that stringent measures to address the climate crisis incorporate older people in their planning and execution of programs.  This could involve designing climate-resilient programming that takes into account the mobility and healthcare needs of older individuals, as well as actively engaging older community members in decision-making processes related to climate adaptation strategies and disaster preparedness. Global climate funds could also establish quotas for allocating a portion of adaptation grants to programming specifically designed and led by older people’s organizations. 

A Call for Inclusion 

As Señora Livia’s experience shows, older people are more than passive recipients of assistance; they are active agents of change, capable of leading their communities towards sustainability and resilience. Their participation in climate adaptation and mitigation efforts is not optional but necessary for the success of these initiatives. Policies must not only be reflective of the needs of all age groups but should also be flexible enough to adapt to the unique challenges posed by different cultures and communities. For policymakers concerned with security, democracy, and rights, the stories of individuals should inform and guide the pursuit of equitable and inclusive solutions.

IMAGE: Libia Patricia Ipuana Epiayu (known as Señora Livia), a Wayuu village elder in Colombia’s La Guajira Peninsula, works in October 2023 next to solar panels and a purified water storage tank that she helped bring to her community. The village painted the fence posts around the water facility as a sign of its importance. (Screen capture from video courtesy of Convite AC – Fundación Convite Colombia, via HelpAge International.)