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Protecting Bolivia's delicate ecosystems

Poor soil management and uneven rainfall patterns have resulted in severe erosion (© Greg Benchwick/IFAD)
Poor soil management and uneven rainfall patterns have resulted in severe erosion
© Greg Benchwick/IFAD

In Bolivia's remote Chaco region, where reverence and respect for Pachamama (Mother Earth) remains an integral part of everyday life, poor natural resource management coupled with changes in the climate are making family farming a very risky business. In response, the Natural Resource Management Project of the Chaco and High Valleys (known by its Spanish acronym PROMARENA) has been promoting age-old practices of terrace farming and also healthy competition to support eco-friendly development, sustainable poverty reduction and environmental stewardship.

Continuous farming and heavy use of fertilisers with little long-term planning for sustainability have taken their toll on Pachamama's domain. In recent years, poor soil management and uneven rainfall patterns have resulted in severe erosion. However, after eight years, the US$15 million PROMARENA project has helped improve the livelihoods of nearly 20,000 poor rural families.

Competing for funding

"The environmental achievements are quite impressive," says Francisco Pichón, Bolivia Country Programme Manager for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). "Through public contests, project participants have competed for project funding which has resulted in PROMARENA supporting the planting of over 8 million trees and construction of over 803,000 hectares of new terraces. These new trees and new farming practices have reduced erosion and helped minimize the impact of climate change."

Quispe and colleagues won first prize with their three-dimensional 'Talking Map' (© Greg Benchwick/IFAD)
Quispe and colleagues won first prize with their three-dimensional "Talking Map"
© Greg Benchwick/IFAD

Peach farmer Efraín Condori Quispe competed, as part of a village group, for a grant to build a small dam, irrigation canals and terraces for the community's orchards. Quispe and colleagues won first prize with their three-dimensional "Talking Map" that mapped out how community members have managed their natural resources and their future plans for management improvements.

The public contest model is being used by IFAD across Latin America to promote community-based, demand-driven projects with long-term sustainability. "Through the concurso (public competition) approach, 4,800 concursos with almost 40,000 participants have been held, transferring over US$4.5 million to project participants," states Pichón.

Mapping the past, present and future

Talking Maps have become a centrepiece of the contests and range from elaborate models to simple hand-drawn maps. In areas with high-levels of illiteracy, the maps have proven an effective method for poor rural farmers to set out their plans for the future and gain expert insight from project technicians on their overall environmental and financial sustainability.

Quispe's Talking Map included plans to replace fertilisers with organic compost and create irrigation canals. With technical assistance from PROMARENA, the farmers added new terraces to their farms to reduce erosion and improve crop quality. The terraces serve as natural catchment systems, optimising rainfall use, while the irrigation canals make watering in the dry season easier and more efficient. "Everything we laid out with our Talking Map, we've accomplished," says Quispe proudly. "We drew with our hands the past, present and future, and we've achieved these goals."

Investing in change

Farmers have added new terraces to reduce erosion and improve crop quality (© Greg Benchwick/IFAD)
Farmers have added new terraces to reduce erosion and improve crop quality
© Greg Benchwick/IFAD

The project has worked with various international and national programmes and during an eight-year period, nearly 2.5 million hectares of farm land have been converted to organic, family-based vegetable gardens. New rainwater tanks with the capacity to store over 1 million cubic metres of water have been constructed, and around 1 million llamas and alpacas have benefited from better animal health and production practices, including vitamin supplements and improved holding pens.

"PROMARENA has helped renovate over 4,000 kitchens, substantially improving the living and working conditions of women, youth and children," says Pichón. "The project has also financed around 950 livestock, agriculture, handicraft and rural services business proposals with around US$2.4 million in investments, which has generated around US$10 million in income for small producers."

Some of the most notable knock-on effects from PROMARENA's environmental work have been the rise in land prices across the region and improved earnings for farmers in the project area. Land prices for project participants have increased ten-fold over the past eight years as a result of better ecological health and management, coupled with higher food prices and other macro-economic forces. While this has made it more difficult for young people to start their own farms, causing many to migrate to the cities, a richer asset base means reduced risk and better access to credit for the farmers that remain.

At the beginning of the project, Quispe's land was valued at only US$200, now it's worth around US$11,000. Quispe is hoping to create a micro-business with his children, who he has been able to send to the university. "I won't sell our land. It's ours, and it's not for sale because each day we learn more about how to manage it, how to conserve what we have," he says.

Addressing extreme poverty

The government is improving natural resource management and strengthening productive infrastructure (© Greg Benchwick/IFAD)
The government is improving natural resource management and strengthening productive infrastructure
© Greg Benchwick/IFAD

Beyond the project area, however, there are still high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition across the region, and the natural ecosystems remain at risk from climate change and unsustainable farming practices. To build on the lessons learned from PROMARENA, the Bolivian government recently signed a new loan agreement with IFAD for the US$15.2 million Plan Vida-Peep Pilot Project to Strengthen the Capacity of Communities and Families Living in Extreme Poverty.

Implemented by the same government agency behind PROMARENA, the three year programme will focus on improving natural resource management and production systems and strengthening productive infrastructure, to help farmers improve their farming, make more money from their farms and protect the environment.

Written by: Greg Benchwick

Date published: January 2012

 

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