Q&A: Eco-Friendly Farming Practices to Fight Hunger in Bolivia

Franz Chávez interviews Bolivian expert in natural resource management WILFREDO QUIROZ
Wilfredo Quiroz / Credit:Franz Chávez/IPS

LA PAZ, Apr 3 , 2010 (IPS) – The gradual loss of traditional farming practices that preserve the land has pushed into extreme poverty small farmers in Bolivia who 20 years ago were producing surplus produce to sell at market and now are barely able to feed themselves.

This was the conclusion reached by agricultural engineer Wilfredo Quiroz, who is working on follow-up and evaluation in the Management of Natural Resources in the Chaco and High Valley Regions Project (PROMARENA), a Ministry for Development Planning programme that receives support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The project, which operates with a 14.9 million dollar fund, including 12 million from IFAD and 1.1 million from the national treasury, is aimed at reducing poverty and boosting food security in rural areas.

In an interview with IPS, Quiroz discusses the work undertaken in the Chaco, a sparsely populated flat area of scrubland and thorny trees in the southeastern corner of Bolivia; the Valles Altos (High Valleys); and semi-tropical areas in the departments (provinces) of La Paz in the west and Chuquisaca and Tarija in the southeast, where support is provided to 247,000 peasant farmers in areas considered poor and extremely poor.

When impoverished areas in the departments of Santa Cruz in the east and the central Cochabamba are incorporated into the project, the total number of municipalities benefiting will increase from 26 to 56, and the number of communities to 900.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: What is the difference between the work of PROMARENA and that of other programmes that assist poor farmers?

A: We respect the decisions of local residents, who draw up ‘maps’ that describe the productive activities they carried out 20 years ago, as well as the present and the future as they see it.

In the past, they say, they had more food – enough to feed themselves, and to sell and store food. Although they lacked education and health care, they had enough food.

For the future, they imagine having sheds and barns for raising pigs, with troughs, corrals, sources of water and irrigation systems.

Q: What is their economic situation, compared to the past?

A: Instead of seeing things improve, they have been further impoverished, and their food production capacity is not what it was 30 years ago.

In past decades, they had water in abundance. But now they talk about water sources that have dried up as a result of deforestation in highlands areas where they used to take care of the land and vegetation was preserved and kept safe from livestock.

The need to expand grazing areas to the spots where water sources are located, the degradation of soil, landslides and climate change ended up damaging that source of life.

Q: And how have the lives of local families changed?

A: The damage to the environment has hurt the productive activities of families and reduced the quantity of food produced, and in the poorest regions only older adults and children are left, because young people have left the villages and gone to the cities.

Ten years ago, according to figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the families produced 80 percent of their food. But now they only produce 60 percent of what they need.

Q: Can you provide an example of old traditions that used to preserve natural conditions in farming areas?

A: In Charazani, a remote Andean village 272 km northwest of La Paz, the local community used to protect a mountain covered with grasslands. The straw was harvested at a certain time of year solely to thatch the local huts.

But shepherds stopped respecting that custom and began to use the area for grazing, which exhausted the grasslands, affected the water sources, and forced local residents to start buying corrugated sheet metal to roof their houses.

Another practice that has been lost is the custom of leaving a portion of land to lie fallow for eight years, to allow it to recover its fertility so it can be farmed again.

Q: And what effect does the poor road network have in impoverished rural areas?

A: Unlike in the hot plains of the department of Santa Cruz, where the roads are drivable, in the Andean highlands, communities are widely spread out and some are not even connected to roads.

Farmers have to carry their produce on their shoulders on walks of up to 10 hours, and although their production costs may be low, the distance and lack of roads drives up the final price, pricing them out of the big markets.

Q: Is there a formula for confronting their isolation and the lack of effective state policies for addressing the problems facing peasant families?

A: There are no macro-level policies for improving the living conditions of small farmers. The actions that have been undertaken are isolated and are focused on medium-scale farmers, and only in some cases do they involve subsidies to support low-income peasant farmers.

PROMARENA allows the beneficiaries to choose between projects involving soil conservation, livestock-raising, and the care of vegetation and water sources, with the idea of preserving natural resources and generating business opportunities.

The support includes technical advice for developing the projects. Later, the communities are invited to present their projects and products in a contest that grants a cash prize that is symbolic, because the overall value of the project is huge.

For example, a project in which a large number of families took part in restoring pre-colonial farming terraces and recuperating productive areas won a prize, as well as recognition from their local communities and municipal governments.

In PROMARENA, people learn from the experience of local residents and that know-how is then extended. The freedom enjoyed by the beneficiaries makes this project different from traditional technology transfer models. (END)

Source: IPS

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