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Resilient Bolivian Farmers Face the Changing Climate | Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

June 7, 2011

Re-posting from Resilient Bolivian Farmers Face the Changing Climate | Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy:

by Christina Bronsing

As weather patterns become more volatile, smallholders are facing new challenges. Climate change poses a severe threat to growing seasons, crop yields, and natural pest control for many peasant farmers. A marked rise in the number of ‘natural’ disasters has severely disrupted the global food system in recent years as climate-induced food insecurity presents a serious threat to livelihoods. Among the most vulnerable to climate change, Bolivian smallholders are at the heart of the battle for food sovereignty. From the highlands of the Altiplano to the lowlands of the Beni, resilient farmers are adapting and creating innovative solutions.

While bearing little responsibility for causing global climate change, Bolivia is hit hard by its effects. Native Andean crop varieties are disappearing and entire ecosystems are deteriorating with the drastic shift in weather patterns. Cristian Domínguez, a leader with the United Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers (CSUTCB), explains the changes he has seen in the past decades:

We used to sow our crops on September 24, before the rains come. Now we have to wait  sometimes until November until the real rain comes. There’s a two month delay. We used  to be able to harvest in January, but now we have to wait until March or April. The  months are out of sync. And the weather is more extreme. In 2007 and 2008 we had  unprecedented rains, and the dry periods seem a lot stronger. We are losing our variety  of some crops too. We used to have 27 different types of banana seed where I am from [in Pando], but now we have only 5. It’s the same with rice – we had about 50 types, now we have 15. In some parts of the country, there are more plagues of insects due to the weather and even mosquitoes at high altitudes due to the warmer weather. [1]

This reality is common throughout Bolivia, where the effects of climate change pose different threats depending on the region. The unpredictable weather patterns Dominguez highlights are devastating crops across the country as peasant farmers are exposed to drought, flooding, frost, glacial melt, landslides and erosion. Smallholders in the northern Altiplano region in particular have seen radical changes over the past two decades as frost has devastated staple crops. In 2007, the community of Inca Caturapi in the high valleys lost all its potato harvests due to frost and hailstorms. The Corpa Grande community, also on the Altiplano, began cultivating more water-intensive crops such as peas and onions instead – only to witness another frost destroy the harvest just two years later. A mile from Lake Titicaca, two of five community reservoirs in Corpa Grande have already dried up. [2]

In the lowlands, many communities are experiencing severe flooding. Maira Salas responds to the devastation in her community of Copacabana: “It was terribly sad. We never thought there would be so much water. Our whole community was totally flooded. We all had to go to Trinidad and live under tents. Three months we were there, and when we eventually came back, all our land was completely clean of everything. Even the weeds were dead.” [1]

Following the destruction of 2008, Maira and her community came together and organized to create solutions. One such project is the camellones or “raised fields” strategy, where smallholders build raised platforms from the existing earth, creating canals between them for excess water to flow. Seeds and crops aren’t washed away from the raised plots, and the water surrounding them serves as a source of irrigation during the dry season. The whole community of 34 families in Copacabana run the six camellones collectively.

Community member working on the camellones, Beni. Photo: Mark Chilvers, Oxfam

In the drier Chaco region, farmers are experimenting with strategies to capture water and prepare for times of drought with the Center for Peasant Research and Promotion (CIPCA). These complex water management systems are based on the inherent constraints that come with alternating wet and dry seasons. Agroecological approaches that incorporate the rhythm of natural cycles have shown notable results in adapting to climate change and reducing vulnerability for smallholders. As extreme weather events intensify and become more frequent, agroecology can help communities respond and rebuild systems sustainably with local knowledge.

The reality of climate change has brought an urgent call for this type of agroecological and adaptive response. As weather events are predicted to become more severe in the coming years, putting already fragile ecosystems and livelihoods at risk, Domínguez reflects: “Climate change takes away some possibilities and it gives you others. Part of our culture has always been to manage climate risks. We don’t call it ‘adaptation’ to climate change but ‘evolution’. But it’s becoming more difficult as the climate is becoming more extreme.” [1] Bolivian peasants are responding in times of unprecedented difficulty. With indigenous knowledge and coordinated action, they are building solutions and realizing successes through co-learning and farmer-to-farmer approaches as innovative results are emerging across the country.

Bolivian peasant farmers have proven they are poised to respond to our changing climate with strong, collective action. But they can’t do it alone. A broader shift must be made to reorient our global food system away from energy-intensive industrial agriculture to local networks and field-level solutions. Smallholders face powerful forces – economic, political and climatic – that pose significant and palpable threats. They have also demonstrated their leverage to craft sustainable responses. Addressing the reality of climate change demands a global solution. Now more than ever, we must elevate smallholders’ capacity to cultivate integrated ecological and social networks to build resiliency for the road ahead.

Click here to find out about Food First’s upcoming trip to Bolivia: Food Sovereignty and Climate Change, Aug. 6 – 21, 2011

1 | “Climate change, poverty and adaptation in Bolivia.” Oxfam International. October 2009
2 | “Rural communities perceptions of climate change and its effects.” Bolivia Information Forum Bulletin, Special Edition: Focus on Climate Change. October 2009

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