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Coping with extreme cold - livestock in the Andes

On the altiplano, livestock herders are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions (© FAO)
On the altiplano, livestock herders are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions

Drought and freezing temperatures are a common occurrence in the altiplano, the high-altitude plain 4,000 metres above sea level that occupies parts of Bolivia and Peru. At these altitudes, very little grows. Most smallscale farmers own plots at a lower altitude where traditional crops such as quinoa, potato and tarwi (a legume) are grown. But on the altiplano, farmers rely exclusively on llamas and alpacas for their livelihoods.

In recent years, the frequency and severity of severe weather events have grown, increasing the vulnerability of smallscale livestock keepers. "We face challenges daily," explains Rosa Supho Callo, a llama herder from Occobamba, in southern Peru. "We face climate changes, extreme cold snaps, hail, snow and drought, and this affects our animals and our crops."

In 2008, extreme cold temperatures and hailstorms severely affected the altiplano, causing great economic losses to small herders. Disease and malnutrition, resulting from freezing temperatures, damaged pastures and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that lack of alternative fodder, in addition to significant damage caused to food crops, affected 90 per cent of camelid herds.

As part of an emergency support programme, FAO provided help to camelid keepers to improve fodder production and the management of their herds. Adding roofs to stables, vaccinating animals and providing improved conditions to grow fodder crops have enabled herders to develop better coping strategies.

Battling the cold

Corrals protect livestock against predators and severe weather (© FAO)
Corrals protect livestock against predators and severe weather

Over 240 llama breeders have been trained how to draw, plan and build corrals using adobe bricks, locally available stone, and thatch to protect their livestock against predators and severe weather. Training in nutrition, common health problems, disease prevention and processes to soften the tough highland grass using urea have also been provided to community promoters, who have then trained fellow herders to better care for their livestock. Over 300 portable veterinarian kits - containing multi-vitamins, de-worming medicine and vaccines - and an accompanying animal health manual were also distributed to support herders living in isolated areas.

For herders living higher than 4,000 metres above sea level, the availability of fodder is a serious concern. Drought and freezing temperatures reduce the quality and availability of fodder in community pastures, while the harsh climate makes it difficult to grow feed crops. Scarcity of fodder has been eased through the distribution of over 40 hay compressors. These machines enable communities to produce, stock and supply herders with dry hay, which provides 80 per cent of the herders involved with at least 200 kg of dry forage - enough, combined with scrub and other feed, to keep an animal alive during the worst of the dry season.

Herders are also taught to dig a trench two metres deep, improve the soil in the trench with animal manure, and to cover it with plastic sheeting, creating an environment warm enough to grow pasture. "This technique is quite simple and, with a trench five to six metres long, produces enough forage to sustain three llamas during the coldest parts of the winter," reveals Dennis Latimer, FAO's sub-regional emergency coordinator for South America.

Making progress

With help, herders have developed better coping strategies (© FAO)
With help, herders have developed better coping strategies

Alfredo Montesinos Sumire, a Bolivian community promoter, is one of over 4,700 herders in the country who has benefitted from the interventions. "With the support provided we now have food available for our families and forage for our alpacas that can be stored for periods when there is no forage available," he observes. On average, the interventions have decreased the mortality rate from approximately 42 per cent to six per cent, and enabled herders to be better prepared to face future cold weather events.

According to Latimer, alliances built during the project, between public and private institutions, local government and community disaster risk management committees have been key to ensuring the sustainability of the project. Municipality offices are now more aware of the problems livestock keepers face, and the solutions. They have provided personnel to provide extension services to the herders, as well as space in their buildings to store vaccines. "FAO is also seeking additional funds to continue and replicate these activities within bordering communities and other regions affected by cold snaps," he explains.

To ensure that the lessons learned and benefits from the emergency and rehabilitation project have a far-reaching impact, FAO has begun to incorporate all aspects of disaster risk management, including mitigation, into longer-term development programmes globally. "We hope that this will help the most vulnerable cope with complex emergencies that are affecting rural families all over the world," Latimer concludes. "The project in the Andean highlands does just that. It helps poor livestock owners better prepare for extreme cold weather and provides simples techniques to ensure their survival."

Date published: July 2010


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