A holistic approach to climate adaptation

A man holding a potato fruit

Bolivia — Apr 2023

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Lidia Chambi recalls stories from generations ago where farmers in her community grew hundreds of potato varieties. But as decades passed, and temperatures rose, the names, shapes and colours of these abundant varieties got lost along the way. During her childhood, her family only grew a few types of potatoes.

Chambi and her family live in the remote mountain community of Chiro Kasa in Norte de Potosí (North of Potosí), Bolivia. At an altitude of almost 15,000 feet, producing more delicate vegetables like onions and carrots isn’t possible. So hearty potatoes have become a staple part of the diet for this community and a necessity for survival.

Climate change is making the harsh conditions at high altitudes even more challenging. Valentine Aguilar Ordañez is from the community of San Pedro and he remembers how things have changed from when he was growing up.

“When I was younger, the weather was different. Now, it rains anytime and very strongly. When I was younger, the rain was softer and very regular throughout the territory,” he says. He also recalls there used to be water holes and wetlands making water available all the time for humans or animals to drink. Because of the harsh and unpredictable weather these have dried up. And he’s noticed some local species of animals have disappeared. The changes worry Ordañez, “We don’t know what’s going to happen next year. That is a concern that we have. Because we live on what we produce. If there is no produce, we don’t know what will happen.”

A man standing in a field pointing
Nicolás Yucra Gómez works with MCC’s local partner in Bolivia and is using soil conservation and irrigation techniques on his land to help adapt to the changing climate. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

One of the ways these remote communities are adapting to climate change is by reviving ancestral agricultural techniques and finding heartier, native potato varieties that can better withstand the new harsher weather. Potato recovery creates more food security for their families.

This work started in Chambi’s community, and one of MCC’s local partners Programa de Desarollo Integral Interdisciplinario (PRODII) noticed their efforts. PRODII has been supporting the community’s work for years and helping spread the work to other places. They’re helping them bring back native plants and find new varieties by harvesting seeds from the fruit of the potato plant instead of replanting the root. When you replant seeds from the potato fruit that grows above ground, the new plants will be a wide variety of potatoes instead of an exact copy of the plant it came from. This revived agricultural technique helps farmers recover old varieties of plants and also find new ones that will be able to withstand the harsher climate. PRODII also supports this work by providing micro tunnels to keep potato seedlings, which are fragile at the beginning of their growing cycle, safe from the extreme weather caused by climate change.

While the act of nurturing and protecting seedlings may seem small, the impact is no small potatoes. By finding new and old varieties, these farmers are working towards food security for their families and communities. As more potatoes are recovered, they are helping guarantee food and extra income for their families. “I and my family continue to work, looking for better days, producing our food for self-consumption,” Chambi says.

A woman standing in a field
Lidia Chambi is a farmer and the vice president of a local agricultural producers association that helps farmers grow varieties of potatoes that are more resistant to the harsh conditions caused by climate change. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht MCC

Climate change impacts strain community ties

Climate change’s impact doesn’t just affect crops. It can cause ripple effects throughout communities, throwing the relationships and peace of a community into conflict and exacerbating existing inequalities.

As water becomes scarce, it leads people to take more desperate measures like taking water from one another, says Patrocinio Garvizu, MCC Bolivia rural programs coordinator. Municipalities get in conflict with each other over which water source belongs to them, and at an individual level, farmers will divert water sources that used to flow to a neighbor’s land and bring it to their own instead.

For rural families with livestock, the decreasing amount of water also causes issues. The land is generally communal, but there was always an understanding of which families had access to which sections for the animals to graze. But as the waterfall decreases, livestock go through the grass much faster. To keep their animals alive, some families allow their animals to graze on land that has traditionally belonged to their neighbors, causing a breakdown in relationships. “In normal times, there is a general recognition of what land is allowed for grazing by which family. During desperate times these norms of respect can break down causing families to overstep their boundaries,” says Garvizu.

Climate change is also increasing inequality. For example, in areas where water use is rationed, families who already have more resources will pay neighboring farmers to buy some of their allocated water time. “This economic inequality can create tensions in a community where a family with more access to water continues to increase their access, while families who already had less continue to lose access if they sell their access to water,” says Garvizu.

A man standing in a field
Valentin Aguilar Ordañez , is a farmer living in the remote community of San Pedro where he has noticed the effects of climate change. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Climate change increases migration

Another effect of climate change is splitting families apart through migration. When farmers cannot produce enough to provide for their families, people will migrate to larger city centers to seek paid work.

This is a painful reality for people who grew up in the small mountainous communities, where families have lived for generations. When there is no rain for long periods, production slows down or even stops completely. “Without production, there is no economic income, and that is why the children are migrating,” says Ordañez. “We see continued economic losses and the migration of our young people to the cities. This worries us because city life isn’t easy and there are fewer people to live and work in our communities.”

A man speaking in a field atop a hill
Nicolás Yucra Gómez is part of PRODII’s technical team, he is using soil conservation and irrigation techniques promoted by PRODII on his land. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Social cohesion through climate solutions

In addition to recovering native varieties of potatoes, PRODII also works to improve access to water. This helps farmers mitigate the effects of climate change and also can help reduce some of the tensions that arise when there isn’t enough water to go around.

One of the ways PRODII works with farmers is to create what they call Manejo Integral de Cuencas (MIC or Comprehensive Watershed Management) systems. These systems use the gravity of the hilly terrain to move water without the use of pumps. Farmers build a water catchment tank on their land and a series of tubes from a higher altitude flow from various springs to their land. Depending on the amount of water available these reservoirs can hold 10,000–20,000 liters of water or more.

One of the people benefiting from this system is Nicolás Yucra Gómez. He’s been working with PRODII for years and has been an early adopter of the MIC system in his community of Kisi Kisi. Gómez is a community leader and is passionate about ensuring that not only his family, but everyone in their community can benefit from this system. In his community, the MIC system is shared by about 15 families. It’s important to Gómez that everyone has access. “In this community, everybody has something for consumption, no one will be lacking. This is irrigated thanks to the MIC system.”

By helping the most vulnerable, rural Indigenous farmers receive reliable access to water, PRODII is supporting food security and reducing conflict in the communities that unpredictable access to water can bring. Improving access to water and increasing the variety of crops is also helping to reduce seasonal migration and increase community investment. During a good harvest season, these communities can sell whatever food remains for extra profit in the local markets. Earning enough income means generations of families can stay together and live in healthier and more peaceful communities.

A man speaking with a hilly back ground
Gabriel Acarapi Chuca is a technician with MCC partner PRODII, working in remote Bolivian communities. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Combining new and old approaches is the key to climate change adaptation

Through PRODII’s work in these communities, they recognize that bringing together new ideas with Indigenous traditions is the best way to holistically help communities adapt to climate change.

Gabriel Acarapi Chuca, who works for PRODII, has spent enough time working on crops in this climate to recognize the balancing act that plays out between ancient knowledge and modern technology.

There are farming techniques he learned from his grandfather, living high in the Bolivian mountains, that were passed to him through generations. “Ancestral knowledge was very present in my family and community,” he says. “For example, let’s say there are two mountains over there. My grandfather raised sheep and he would say, ‘This year, don’t take the sheep to these mountains to graze.’ We would ask him why, and he said, ‘Because we need to give space for the grass to grow and to reproduce.’ And that allowed the grass to rest, and it stopped soil erosion.”

At some point though, he says, with all the technologies that came along, the important ancestral knowledge started to fade away. And what’s been transformative is the work to recover it. “What PRODII is doing is not bringing new knowledge to people. That knowledge was already there. But it got lost at some point, and we’re trying to recover it,” says Chuca.

A woman walking through fields in a hilly countryside
A view from the community of San Pedro, Norte de Potosí, Bolivia. The communities PRODII works in are very remote and at very high altitudes, almost 15,000 feet above sea level. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht MCC

While those older practices are helping, PRODII also knows the value of combining that ancestral knowledge with new ideas like the MIC water catchment systems. Chuca says, “It’s important to adapt with ancestral knowledge but also by using new technologies that are coming up. I think that’s the only way that we will be able to learn to live with climate change.”

Combining new ideas with Indigenous traditions will give these communities the best chance at growing enough food to feed their families. The best chance at reducing conflict as resources grow scarce. The best chance at keeping families together because they don’t need to migrate for work. The best chance to live in communities that are strong, healthy and peaceful in the face of climate change.

MCC’s local partners like PRODII are working around the world to help farmers adapt to the challenges of climate change. But more support is needed to stop the progression of climate change and ensure that communities in Bolivia and around the world can meet their needs and remain in harmony with each other.

Both Canada and the U.S. are signatories to the Paris Agreement which established the global goal of investing at least 50% of climate financing in adaptation responses to climate change. Both governments have increased adaptation supports in recent years, but fall significantly short of meeting the Paris Agreement target. The urgent situation in many communities around the world calls for more action now, especially supporting more locally-led climate adaptation initiatives, designed and run by local partners from the ground up.

Join us and get involved in climate action for peace so that communities in Bolivia receive the adaptation support needed for communities to thrive and live in peace.