Swiss aid project in Bolivia

Listening to Mother Earth and modern science

Rosalia and Jesus don’t know each other and speak different languages. She’s an indigenous Aymara woman living on the high plateau in Bolivia. He’s a tour guide of Quechua origin, in one of the country’s most spectacular national parks. Between them stand the peaks of the Cordillera of the Andes.

Rosalia and Jesus do not know it, but they are linked by a common destiny. Both live close to nature. They venerate the “Pachamama” – the Earth Goddess – and cultivate the ancestral wisdom of their peoples. But in the face of global change, ancestral wisdom is no longer enough.

There is climate change going on, and water is getting scarce. Drought, frosts and floods are threatening the livelihoods of rural populations in the Andes who are poor enough as it is. For Rosalia and Jesus, the challenge is to adapt to these changing weather patterns.

Thanks to aid from Switzerland and scientific research, they can look to the future with a little more confidence. In this article reports on strategies for adapting to global warming in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.

Farming at 4,000 metres

A flat and desolate steppe. A few barren hills give variety to a landscape that is at once monotonous and majestic. In the distance are the snowy peaks of the Andes. On the Bolivian Plateau, at 4,000 metres above sea level, trees are few and far between.

In the middle of nowhere, between a brick house and a barn with mud walls, we meet a woman wearing a round-topped hat, the typical headgear of people in the Andes. Rosalia Mamani Alvares, 56, lives here with her husband. Her two sons have been gone for a while. “They emigrated to the city,” she sighs.

Rosalia has no intention of moving anywhere. Despite the arid climate, she wants to stay here in the district of Caquiaviri, where she was born and raised. With her hens, five cows and six sheep. “I don’t have much, but I have something. In the city I wouldn’t have anything,” she says.

Rosalia is a farmer. In little plots in front of the house she cultivates potatoes, quinoa, barley and cañahua, a pseudo-cereal rather like quinoa. Now, in August, her fields lie fallow. The reason is simple: there is no water.

In this region there are no rivers or lakes. Wells are few and far between. Water for cultivation only comes from the skies, and Rosalia’s fields haven’t gotten any rain for months. The rainy season, which comes between October and March, is getting shorter, she has observed.

Scarce water is not the only problem here. Frosts and unexpected bouts of hail can have disastrous effects. If they happen during flowering time, they can destroy whole harvests of quinoa, Rosalia says. 

The worst drought ever

For the farmers in Caquiaviri and the province of Pacajes, in La Paz county, climate change is a real threat. It’s tangible and it’s there all the time.

During the last (Southern Hemisphere) summer, numerous harvests were in trouble because of snow. In other regions of Bolivia drought was the problem. It was the worst ever, say the farmers in Cochabamba.

‘We need water!’

Water is an increasingly scarce resource in Bolivia. Switzerland supports rural communities with climate adaptation strategies. Resistant plant varieties, reservoirs and flood protection areas should help the Andean population.

Things turned out all right for Rosalia. Last season, the potatoes were smaller, but a good part of the harvest was saved. Thanks to a new idea she heard about from other farmers, she was able to cope.

Rosalia suggests we go down to the local school to find out more. All we need to do is follow the path that begins by the sheep pen.

Improving food security

At the school in Acero Marca, which is Rosalia’s community, there is a festive atmosphere. The month of August is special for the Aymara, as for all the Andean peoples. This is the time for venerating the Pachamama with offerings, propitiatory rites, food and dance.

Once the instruments and costumes are put aside, the women invite us into the inner courtyard of the school. They seem eager to show us their specialties. They have been using quinoa and cañahua flour to produce nutritious foods. At the school, all they needed was a machine to mill the cereals and an oven to convert the place into a little food processing centre.

“Thanks to the processing of agricultural products, people have nutritious foods. They can keep them, barter them, or sell them. The aim is to improve food security for the rural population, among the poorest in the country,” says Javier Gonzales, head of the Resilient Agriculture project of the Swiss development and cooperation organisation Helvetas.

Combatting frosts with organic products

The 40 families that make up the Acero Marca community farm without using pesticides. Yet they do not have the time or the skills to produce natural fertilisers at home, explains Gonzales. So another area in the school has been made into a small production centre for auxiliary materials for organic farming.

“In this region the soil is not very fertile. With natural fertiliser we can give the growing crops better nutrition, so they are more resistant to the stress of climate change,” says Gonzales.

Rosalia, who was able to save a large part of her last harvest thanks to these organic recipes, is well aware of this. “The fertiliser protected the plants from frost,” she tells us.

Demand for quinoa

Cow manure and herbal extracts are not enough to ensure farm productivity or increase it, however. There need to be more resistant crops.

In the last 10-20 years, many farmers on the plateau have started to focus on cash crops like quinoa, for which there is worldwide demand. But since then the price for quinoa has gone down, and in view of climate variability single crops are not the best approach, as Gonzales points out.

“So it’s important,” he says, “and it’s one of the top priorities of this project, to diversify production. Reintroducing the native varieties of quinoa and cañahua, experimenting with new cross-breeds.”

Quinoa: the downside

The steep increase in the price and production of quinoa between 1990 and 2014 has raised the living standards for many people in the southern region of the Andes, reports the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern. In a study on the production of quinoa in Bolivia it notes, however, that intensive farming has had negative environmental repercussions: soil erosion and pesticide contamination.

In October, Rosalia will sow five varieties of quinoa (on the right of the picture below). These are plants that need less water and grow faster. Four months instead of six. The Aymara woman thus hopes to be protected from late cold spells.

Guarding ancestral wisdom

Dieser Artikel entstand im Rahmen von, einem Austauschprojekt zwischen Journalisten und Journalistinnen aus der Schweiz und aus Entwicklungsländern.

This report was produced as part of En Quête d’Ailleurs (Looking Beyond), an exchange programme between journalists from Switzerland and developing countries.

For the people of the Andes plateau, climate issues are not a new challenge. For centuries – for millennia, in fact – they have been cultivating crops in extreme conditions. “They use the ancestral knowledge handed down from one generation to the next to figure out how the climate is changing,” explains Maria Quispe, executive director of Prosuco, a Bolivian association for the promotion of sustainability and sharing of knowledge.

The yapuchiri – the “good crop farmer” in the Aymara language – is a traditional resource in rural areas. Custodian and teacher of the ancestral knowledge of the Andes, he is the one the community turns to to find out what the coming season is going to be like. Will there be enough rain? Will there be hail? Is it better to sow crops on the level or on the hillside? What should be sown, and when?

Miguel Ortega is one of ten yapuchiri in Caquiaviri. He has learned to listen to and learn from Mother Earth. First by hearing the old people’s stories, then on a training course held by the Bolivian Ministry of Education with Swiss help.

The yapuchiri studies the behaviour of animals and the flowering of plants. He notes where birds are nesting, and watches insects on the move. If the Andean fox leaves white droppings, for example, it means that the potato harvest will be good.

Weather conditions on particular religious feast-days, or the configuration of the stars, also reveal coming weather patterns. The previsions of the yapuchiri are right 80% of the time, say locals in Acero Marca.

Miguel Ortega repeats the same message to everyone he knows: “If you sow different varieties, you won’t get rich. But you’ll certainly have enough to eat.” The “good crop farmer” believes that rediscovery of ancestral wisdom is the first step in adapting to climate change. The first step, not the only one.

With so many people moving to the cities, native farming know-how is disappearing, Ortega finds. And given the great climatic variability at present, local knowledge is not enough.

“Western technology, tracking stations and detailed weather bulletins help us to understand what is going on,” says Ortega. For the yapuchiri, the basic tool is the “Pachagrama”, a farming and climate register that compiles data on bio-indicators, weather conditions, extreme events, cultivation types, and fertilisers used.

Dialogue between worlds of knowledge

To add to his store of knowledge, the yapuchiri even consults academic research. At the Centre for Agro-Ecological Studies at the University of Cochabamba (Agruco), founded in 1985 with support from Switzerland, they aim at a rebirth of ancestral knowledge – to recover it, maintain it and combine it with modern science in what Rinaldo Mendieta, an agronomist and initiator of Agruco, calls a “dialogue between different worlds of knowledge”.

“The exchange of experiences, facilitated in part by the University of Bern, generates new kinds of knowledge, new skills, which let us support resilience in the farming population and adaptation to a changing climate,” explains Mendieta.

Glaciers and technology

Bolivia is one of the countries most affected by global warming. In the Andean regions, the temperature may be increasing by 2°C in just over a decade (compared to the mid-19th century); it may even increase by 6°C by the year 2100, as forecast by the IPCC, the United Nations group of experts on climate change.

Just like in the Swiss Alps, but at a much faster pace, the Andean glaciers are melting. In the last 40 years they have lost about half of their total mass. In another 20 years many of them will be gone.

One good example is Chacaltaya, a mountain that stands 5,400 metres high, and at one time boasted the world’s highest ski resort. The last bit of glacier disappeared in 2009, several years earlier than expected.

Drones to track glacier water

Bolivia, with a population of 11 million people, is a high-priority country for Swiss cooperation.

Present on the ground here since 1968, the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency (SDC), along with the European Union and the international monetary institutions, is a major foreign player in the development of Bolivia, explains Roberto Daza, a staff member with Pro Rural. This Bolivian association for rural development is responsible for implementation of some of the SDC projects. “The strength of the Swiss projects” he points out, “is that they are models that can be replicated elsewhere”.

Out of a total annual budget of CHF21 million ($21.8 million), a third funds a series of projects to adapt to climate change and avoid disaster risks. Similar to what is being done by Helvetas, the approach of the Swiss government agency, particularly its Biocultura programme, involves recovering traditional knowledge and creating synergies with technological innovation. For example, using drones to preserve water left by glaciers.

Climate change and tourism

Back on the land, but several hundred kilometres from where Rosalia lives on the plateau, on the other side of the Andes, we meet someone else wearing eye-catching Andean headgear. It is Jesus Yapura, and he has just filled my hand with coca leaves. “Chew them on the right side. But remember to drop one on the ground. It’s an offering to the Pachamama.” With the coca leaves you feel neither tired nor hungry, he assures me.

The man in his thirties wants to show us his land. Since the age of 14 he has been guiding tourists through the Toro Toro National Park, in Potosi county. With 165 square kilometres of rock formations, it’s “an open book of the geology of the Earth” – canyons, caves, trails and dinosaur footprints. The harsh climate’s temperatures can range from 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the daytime to -10 (14) in the night.

As one of the indigenous Quechua people, Jesus is very attached to his ancestral home. He doesn’t talk about returning to Cochabamba, the city where he worked when his family’s fields were fallow and tourists were few and far between. “Traffic, dirt, lack of security, the feeling of anonymity… It doesn’t do anything for me.”

A beneficiary of the Biocultura programme, Jesus is one of the most experienced guides in Toro Toro. The work he does is based on a background of professional training. While travelling around the park, he shows me the rock sediments of different colours, three condors soaring in the sky above, humming-birds among the bushes, medicinal plants. He talks of traditional dishes, the peculiar sounds of his language, about animist beliefs.

His repertoire even includes music. “Know where the lambada started?,” he asks. Of course – in Brazil. “You’re wrong. It started in Bolivia,” he says, raising a set of panpipes to his lips.

Capitalism and community values

“For young people, showing the natural and cultural wealth of this territory becomes a strategy of climate-change adaptation,” says Xavier Carlos, a biologist and environmental planning expert. A staff member with Pro Rural, he refers to a “new kind of tourism” where the focus of the package is the community and its cultural, social and spiritual heritage.

With this biocultural tourism, “two opposites meet and complement each other: the capitalist, entrepreneurial model, and the native community model, based on harmonious relations between nature and human beings,” he explains. Generate profits, but redistribute them, is the approach; improve individual life, but community life as well.

In the high season, Jesus may make up to 3,000 bolivianos a month (about CHF420). That’s more than double the national minimum wage. His family and other locals in Toro Toro profit from local development, too; visitors have increased from 10,000 in 2014 to 25,000 in 2018 already. They grow old varieties of vegetables, cereals and fruits, which they can sell right there, to the food processing business or to tourist outlets. No more long, costly trips over to the market at Cochabamba. Local women are involved in running the park’s restaurant.

Reversing migration trends

With the development at Toro Toro, old types of knowledge have returned to the place, notes Jesus. “Many of my friends went to Cochabamba. Now some are coming back, attracted by opportunities for training and work.”

This kind of development also pleases Eleodoro Uriona Pardo, mayor of Toro Toro. “We want to reverse the migration trend with tourism and the transformation of farming. The community is rediscovering local varieties and learning to look after the water and the environment. Thanks to the aid from Switzerland, last year we were able to reforest an area of 40 hectares. These are small things, but they have an effect,” he says.

Happy clouds on August 2

Rosalia and Jesus are just two of a hundred thousand people who are benefiting from the environmental and climate-change projects funded by Switzerland in Bolivia. Provided with real alternatives and new opportunities, they look to the future with greater confidence.

Up on the Bolivian Plateau, Rosalia expects to double her production thanks to more resistant varieties and to sell part of her harvest. One day, her crops, certified as organic, might end up on Swiss menus. The association of Andean producers of cañahua are in contact with a major Swiss retail chain; they already export to the US, Canada and Germany.

For Rosalia, Jesus, and other Bolivians, the upcoming growing season is looking good. On the morning of August 2 – the start of the month of Mother Earth and one of the most important dates in the Andean calendar – the sky clouded over. That means a good growing year, without drought. The yapuchiri says so.


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