Helping Bolivian farmers gain ground against climate change

In much of the Andes, soil erosion is thought to be one of the most limiting factors in crop production. Soil is vulnerable to erosion where it is exposed to moving water or wind and where conditions of topography or human use decrease the cohesion of the soil. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés
In much of the Andes, soil erosion is thought to be one of the most limiting factors in crop production. Soil is vulnerable to erosion where it is exposed to moving water or wind and where conditions of topography or human use decrease the cohesion of the soil. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés

7 November - The Arque river, in the heart of the Andes, is surrounded by towering mountains. At the beginning of the dry season, it roars furiously with water from melting snows. It also drags away tons of fertile soil. When the sound and the fury stops, the river becomes a tiny stream, barely visible in the middle of a bed of debris.

Until a couple of decades ago, no one thought this debris could improve the lives of small farmers.

Now in Sicaya, a municipality about 80 kilometres away from Cochabamba, an IFAD-supported programme is helping small farmers improve their lives by “harvesting” fertile soil washed away by the Arque river and using it for cultivation.

It all began when a farmer from the neighbouring village of Capinota –  frustrated by the lack of fertile soil for farming – thought of building a wall with a small opening on one side that could collect some of the soil the river was washing away.

After some time, the opening would be closed and the wall would serve as a bulwark against the river, preventing the soil from being dragged off again and providing a plot of extremely fertile land to farm.

The farmer’s idea took hold and eventually spread to other communities in the mountains. Traditionally, these communities had relied on rain to grow potato and cereals. It was always a hard life, but now, due to changing rain patterns and extreme weather caused by climate change, it was becoming impossible to make a living.
 

Francisco Aranga – a community leader and small farmer in Bolivia – has seen the impact the changing climate has had on the environment around him. Now he is learning how to analyse the soil and conduct crop rotations so he can increase his yields. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés
Francisco Aranga – a community leader and small farmer in Bolivia – has seen the impact the changing climate has had on the environment around him. Now he is learning how to analyse the soil and conduct crop rotations so he can increase his yields. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés

Francisco Aranga is one of the leaders of the Palermo community, about 20 kilometres  from the Sicaya municipality.

Speaking a mixture of Spanish and Quechua, he explains why his community decided to migrate down the mountain 20 years ago.

"On the mountains there was almost no life. When it rained, we could plant. If it did not, we had nothing. Here, we can always farm," says Aranga, as he chews coca, the energizing plant typical in the Andean culture.

Aranga admits progress was slow at the start.
 

Farmers from the Palermo and Thaqo Pampa communities have built a wall that is allowing them to regenerate soil for farming that a river had been washing away. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés
Farmers from the Palermo and Thaqo Pampa communities have built a wall that is allowing them to regenerate soil for farming that a river had been washing away. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés

"We had to build walls to collect soil and defend it from the river. We had no experience in combating water and we had to learn in the process. We had no resources either, and everything had to be done with our own hands."

Two years ago, to help support farmers battling the impacts of climate change, Plan Vida, an IFAD-supported programme, entered the lives of Palermo and the neighbouring Thaqo Pampa farming communities.

Through funding from IFAD, Aranga and fellow farmers were able to rent heavy machinery to build and reinforce 480 meters of wall along the riverbed, allowing them to "harvest" a greater amount of fertile land. The new walls, built from concrete, were much stronger and ensured the protection of 50 hectares of farmland, including eight hectares of new land reclaimed from the Arque river.
 

Through funding from IFAD, farmers were able to reinforce 480 meters of wall along the riverbed soil which was becoming eroded (left), allowing them to "harvest" a greater amount of fertile land (right). ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés
Through funding from IFAD, farmers were able to reinforce 480 meters of wall along the riverbed soil which was becoming eroded (left), allowing them to "harvest" a greater amount of fertile land (right). ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés

Unlike previous development projects, the communities managed the project funds themselves. Some 117 families benefited from the financing. Assisted by Plan Vida, they opened a bank account and set up a management committee.

"The project is also about enabling communities to be the motors of their own development, and not mere recipients of aid," says Jaime Clavijo, Plan Vida’s coordinator for the Cochabamba and Potosí departments.

The farmers also decided to use the funds to learn how to improve their yields in a changing climate. They accessed technical assistance that helped them learn how to analyse the soil and to conduct crop rotations.

"You can see the results,” says Aranga, pointing to a nearby field. “The ground we are on was part of the riverbed and now look."

Indeed, if you look beyond the riverbed, you can see that Palermo has become a thriving rural community. Behind Francesco and other leaders, a couple dozen people crouch over the fields, harvesting their crops. There is an air of  satisfaction all around.
 

Women from the community played an active role in managing all stages of the project. Assisted by Plan Vida, they opened a bank account and set up a management committee. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés
Women from the community played an active role in managing all stages of the project. Assisted by Plan Vida, they opened a bank account and set up a management committee. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés

"Up the mountain, we only grew potatoes. Now we plant onions, garlic, beets, vegetables. We did not know vegetables. Now we eat them, and our food has improved a lot," says Aranga.

The farmers now sell their products in the department of Cochabamba and beyond. Higher incomes have enabled them to improve their lives: “We can now send our children to study and employ others who are not from the community, but who earn their daily wage," he says.

Rufina Colque is another community leader and small farmer who took part in the project.

"Here, everyone works. The whole family. Men and women complement each other, and children also help. It has been hard and we are getting old. But we take pride in seeing that we are giving our children a future. Once they have come of age, they can do even more than we have done," says Colque.

There is no shortage of plans for the future. The community wants to invest the income they earn from selling their products to keep expanding the wall and reclaim more land from the river.
 

Farmers in the community plan to invest the income they earn from selling their products to keep expanding the wall so they can reclaim more land from the river. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés
Farmers in the community plan to invest the income they earn from selling their products to keep expanding the wall so they can reclaim more land from the river. ©IFAD/ Juan I. Cortés

They also want to build a washing site to avoid having to travel to Capinota to wash the vegetables and tubers they plan to sell. In addition, they also intend to start raising cattle. Having cows would allow them to improve nutrition, thanks to the milk and dairy products, and take advantage of the natural fertilizer that the cows would generate for cultivation.

Talking about all the challenges they face, Elias Solis, another community leader, concludes: "We want to show that we are able to gain land from the river, to feed our family, and to ensure food security for our country."