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Betting on llamas in Bolivia

Llamas, alpacas and vicuñas are big business in Bolivia (© Greg Benchwick)
Llamas, alpacas and vicuñas are big business in Bolivia
© Greg Benchwick

In Bolivia's cold and harsh altiplano - a high-altitude plain at 4,000m above sea level - llamas, alpacas and vicuñas are big business. Llama prices are up, demand for shawls and scarves made from vicuña and alpaca fibre is increasing, and, as it turns out, llamas eat less grass, take a smaller toll on the environment than other animals like sheep, and taste good too. But how can smallholder farmers capitalise on these optimal market conditions?

One answer comes from the Bolivian government's Camelid Valorisation Programme (Proyecto VALE). Through the programme, which is funded by the United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), ranchers are increasing their incomes, protecting the environment and transforming their lives thanks to improved management practices, capacity building exercises and new initiatives designed to help traditional herders to protect their environment and make more money from their llamas.

"Before we didn't eat llamas, we just used them as pack animals," says Ide Fatima de Ayllu Mimani. "But now we are converting much of our sheep herd to llamas." Mimani is studying to be a lawyer and serves as the treasurer of a producers' association in her village of Cuyuri.

Support for ranchers

The support coming from the six-year US$14 million VALE project is taking many shapes and forms for pastoralists like Mimani. For the ranchers themselves, the project has focused on providing training on nutrition and animal husbandry practices. Llamas are being treated for parasites and receiving vitamins to keep them in optimal health, and ranchers are now working with technicians to improve the genetic lines of their herds. "Our llamas were so skinny but thanks to Proyecto VALE, now they are in much better health," says Mimani.

Many farmers have opted to use project funds to build value-added business enterprises (© Greg Benchwick)
Many farmers have opted to use project funds to build value-added business enterprises
© Greg Benchwick

With each llama worth about US$100, the average family farmer has equitable assets worth over US$8,000 with a herd of about 80 llamas. But for these asset-rich-cash-poor pastoralists, there has been little market and little know-how to make sustainable profits from their llamas.

"Through the VALE project, we are looking to open new markets and create new value-added projects from llama meat, and alpaca and vicuña fibre," says Francisco Pichón, IFAD's country programme manager for Bolivia. "Providing poor family ranchers in the region with new tools for market access, including improving overall quality of their produce and better packaging and marketing schemes, has enabled them to make more money from each camelid and take full advantage of their rich asset base."

Value added spin-off enterprises

Many farmers have opted to use project funds to build value-added business enterprises, working in llama processing, artisan goods or even tourism as a sustainable and green revenue source. Farmers present business plans to the project to receive funding for new machinery, training, marketing support, or even buildings to house their enterprises, and in many cases, they are re-investing their revenues. In the village of Curahuara de Carangas, a group of villagers decided to build a hotel. With the funds, they hired technicians to learn about hotel management, took classes to learn to knit sweaters and scarves from the alpaca wool they get from their herds, and even hired somebody to teach them to cook llama meat seasoned for their international clientele's tastes.

"Sustainability is made by following what the population wants to do," says Víctor Hugo Vásquez, Bolivia's Vice-Minister of Rural Development, the implementing agency for the project. "In our last review, VALE was one of the best projects we had. The results have also been good, in the transformation of the llama products, like charqui (jerky) and other foods."

The project has also been investing heavily in women (© Greg Benchwick)
The project has also been investing heavily in women
© Greg Benchwick

Assisting women

The project has also been investing heavily in women. "Half of the producers' committees are made up by women," says Vásquez, noting that they have seen stronger returns on investments when the money is managed by women, as women tend to re-invest in their communities, in education and in their future.

"I want to have 1,000 llamas and start a charqui business because llama meat is expensive now," says Mimani. Throughout Latin America - a region marked by high-fertility rates, complex inheritance structures and dwindling opportunities in the countryside - many young farmers like Mimani will no doubt find their futures halfway between the city and the countryside. Spending their weekdays in the city to earn a living and pursue their careers, while returning to the family farm on weekends to improve on the family business. "Now with the new laws, [presented in the new Bolivian Constitution in 2009] women have better rights and more opportunities," says Mimani.

The lessons learned through Proyecto VALE are currently being documented and will be shared throughout Bolivia and the rest of Latin America. And by working from a demand-driven development model and focusing on increased revenues and capacities, project personnel hope to ensure sustainable returns well into the future.

Written by: Greg Benchwick

Date published: February 2012


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