Peru: Cultural identity - a force for change

Coping with new climatic threats and responding to new institutional trends

Terraces farmed by poor families on the remote hillsides of the high Andes are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Farmers once had a long and knowledgeable history of ancient natural resource management practices, but over 500 years much of this had been lost and the terraces abandoned.

The past 13 years have seen this process reversed – using the communities' cultural identity in three IFAD projects.

Community cultural identity and pride – driving forces for change

Peru's national strategy for conserving the country's natural resources functions on two levels: centralized responsibility for regulation at the macro level is focused on watershed planning, and decentralized management responsibilities, user ownership and participation at the micro level developing and sustaining peoples' livelihoods. This duality represents a shift from traditional supply-driven services to an approach that empowers farmers as the motivators of development.

This is the very essence of three IFAD-funded projects, the first of which began in 1993 in the south-eastern and south-central regions of Peru. Most of the country's poor rural people live in this area, where natural resources have deteriorated to a critical level. Project staff did not ask what problems farmers had, but rather what they wanted to do and how they wished to do it – and each subsequent project effectively applied lessons learned in the previous project.

Reviving ancient practices

Most of the cultivation practices of the region's hillside terraces date back to pre-Colombian times. Although much of the knowledge and skills had been lost over the centuries, one small community managed to keep them alive and serve as the source for their reintroduction. Water is distributed among terraces of varying sizes (from 100 to 2,000 square metres – depending on the gradient of the mountain). Some terraces are irrigated. This requires considerable skill to avoid the collapsing of the stone walls, some of which reach 4 metres in height. Most women in the community have acquired the skill of judging when the soil profiles are sufficiently watered, and they use composturas – a long-forgotten, zig-zag furrow irrigation system.

The strategy

The Management of Natural Resources in the Southern Highlands (MARENASS) Project used farmer-to-farmer training to bring about technological change and increase the capacity of farming communities to undertake their own development activities. Innovative means were used, and they were soundly based on the traditional values of the community. Farmers needed support during this process, so the project trained well-respected local craftsmen and women to provide advice on cultivation practices, run on-farm trials and disseminate information. It established ‘short-chain' market linkages to connect rural production to urban demand for produce.

Many of these features may be commonplace in projects in other developing countries, but in Peru they were driven by three unique and innovative ingredients.

Pachamama Raymi

‘Pachamama Raymi' was the most important one. It refers to a community-managed programme of experimentation and information on new technological practices for natural resource management, agricultural production and living conditions. It differs from other programmes of this kind by drawing on Andean cultural, mythological and religious traditions. It particularly exploits the competitive nature of villagers. Competitions have always played a strong cohesive role among Andean communities, and regular competitions are organized between individuals and between communities.

These provide an opportunity for farmers to show off their newly found skills. Substantial cash prizes are offered to the winners and awarded at the annual Festival of Mother Earth, where the spirits are thanked for the harvest.

The impact on production and livelihoods has been considerable: competitions have improved social cohesion among communities and greatly enhanced the dissemination of resource management techniques. On some participating farms, production has doubled and even tripled.

Talking maps

‘Talking maps' support Pachamama Raymi. This is a planning tool that also enjoys wide social acceptance among Andean farmers. The ‘maps' are a means of focusing households and communities on their farmland and economic activities at three levels – the past, the present and the future. They enrich the community's oral tradition. Each year communities use the maps to develop community action plans and make collective decisions in a truly participatory manner that strengthens household and community interests. It is the coming together to talk about the community's future that is the true strength of the maps. Cash prizes at the festival for the best maps offer an additional incentive.

Contrato de donación con carga

In most aid-supported projects, funds are administered by either the Government of Peru or the project itself. In this case, however, the responsibility for public funds was consigned directly to community organizations, using a regulatory instrument called a contrato de donación con carga. This represented more than just a legal relationship between provider and recipient. It created an alliance and trust between the State and its citizens that enabled the two to work together in close cooperation – a win-win situation. A contract was drafted between the project and the community, and a bank account was set up to receive the funds. This had the added benefits of establishing a firm relationship with the banks and of involving communities in civil society and the formal economy.

Regaining ownership

Some 20,000 families have now moved from subsistence farming to a position of increased food security and production surplus, which has enabled many to increase their financial and physical assets. They have assumed ownership of the project and, with it, an increased sense of responsibility for something that is theirs already: the terraces, houses, water and pastures, as well as a labour-intensive technology that produces high returns with little or no external input. Above all, they have assumed ownership of community-friendly activities that involve technologies within their reach – rooted in their culture and ancestral practices.

The project's sustainability depends largely on this concept of regaining ownership.

This suite of projects was a useful pilot for the Government's poverty reduction programme, and ‘scaling out' has become a reality through the National Compensation and Social Development Fund.