By Erik Struyf Palacios
PUNO, Peru (AlertNet) – From the air above the town of Puno, the Peruvian Altiplano appears an endless plain where only clumps of ichu grass withstand the harshness of the sun and lack of water.
But looks deceive: these parched lands in the country’s southeast, located at 4,000 metres altitude (13,000 feet), are home to thousands of poor farmers who for centuries have managed to grow potatoes and grain in this rugged environment.
Today, as droughts become longer, Puno’s inhabitants are relearning ancestral practices of cooperative farming and water harvesting to cope with the challenges associated with climate change.
“We cannot wait for the regional or national government to help us solve our problems,” says Zenon Gomel Apaza, an agronomist and farmer. “The consequences of climate change are occurring now. We have to cope with what we know and have.”
The agronomist won a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2006 for helping 500 families in Pucara, 60 km (38 miles) north of Lake Titicaca, to widen the genetic variety of their crops to increase food security.
For the past two years, the Asociacion Savia Andina Pucara (ASAP), a nongovernmental organisation focused on agriculture and food security and founded by Gomel Apaza, also has been working to improve water security in Peru’s highlands. In April, the new venture garnered him an Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Conservation Fellowship from the US-based NGO Conservation International.
In the village of Quenauni Alto, 20 km (13 miles) from Pucara, Mario Arapa has constructed several cochas (small ponds) on his land under the guidance of ASAP.
Each cocha is no more than two metres by four metres in size (6.5 feet by 13 feet) and only one metre (3.25 feet) deep, but for Arapa and his eight children these traditional reservoirs make the difference between surviving in a harsh environment and capitulation to worsening conditions.
“Frosts are (now) more frequent and last longer. The sun burns harder,” says Arapa. “Before (washed) clothes took two days to dry, now just one day.”
Eddy Wilber Ramos, an agronomist and Gomel Apaza’s assistant, says tougher times mean “there are dozens of families who are migrating from these areas because they are no longer able to tolerate the climate conditions in which they must work.”
According to Arapa, his crops of quinoa – an Andean highland grain - are threatened not only by flocks of birds but by new, previously unknown pests. But the biggest problem is the scarcity of water.
“Before, it began to rain in October. Nowadays we must wait almost until December for rain,” he says.
To deal with the problem, Arapa has dug a narrow trench in the ground to supply his reservoir with water. It channels a small spring welling from the hillside.
Gomel Apaza explains that the redirected water accumulates in the cochas. As these have no lining, water slowly seeps into the earth, recharging the aquifers. The cochas also serve as water reservoirs for the dry season.
Collecting and harvesting water allows Arapa to have a permanent supply for his cattle and has enabled him to double his production of fodder by irrigating more than three-quarters of a hectare (nearly two acres) of his land in the dry season.
Projects like ASAP seek to remedy some of the damage caused by the “Green Revolution” that began in the 1960s. The revolution – which focused on introducing high-yielding seeds and introducing more use of farm chemicals and other technology – dramatically raised crop yields in many places around the world.
But the revolution also reduced the once dramatic genetic diversity of crop species available in the Andes. As climate change worsens, this lack of choices has made farmers in the Andes more vulnerable to shifting conditions and less able to respond.
Some farmers also argue that the Green Revolution brought with it a competitive, individualist model for farming which weakened cooperation among farmers.
Gomel Apaza is quick to point out that ASAP’s project addresses these social consequences too.
“We are encouraging the farmers to recover old forms of cooperation between families – like ayni and minka,” he says, referring to practices of reciprocity dating back to the Inca period. Ayni means that one person helps another with agricultural work or construction, with the understanding that the favour will be returned in the future. Minka refers to the help that someone gives to another farmer in harvesting, in return for a share of the crops.
ASAP is also seeking to reinstate the rituals of earlier generations, such as thanking the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and asking her to be propitious.
“In this way we help strengthen social ties, and we promote the care and respect of the environment,” Gomel Apaza explains. “Regaining the awareness that we are part of nature and that this is not just a resource, but our mother, changes the feelings and attitudes towards it.”
PASSING ON KNOWLEDGE
In Ccochapata, a community near Queñuani Alto, Juan Francisco Idme examines his cochas in the company of 16-year-old John Roma.
“With the help of the engineers (Gomel Apaza and Wilber Ramos) and listening to our grandparents, I am harvesting water where before there was only dry land,” says the 62-year-old. “And this knowledge I try to convey to the young, because I don’t want it to be lost,” he adds, pointing at Roma.
Since schools do not teach the practicalities of water conservation and agriculture, Idme asks teachers informally for time to educate some students.
Gomel Apaza also worries about the intergenerational transmission of knowledge. And he is aware that for water harvesting in the mountains to be work sustainably, the scale of the effort needs to increase – something that often requires the involvement of political authorities.
The president of Puno region, Mauricio Rodriguez, says that he appreciates Gomel Apaza’s efforts and is convinced that Puno is primarily an agricultural area, despite recent attempts by some residents to open unlicensed small-scale mines.
But he sees a different way of bringing water to the region.
“We have great agricultural potential,” he says. “To solve the problem of lack of water we must build a chain of mega-reservoirs throughout the basin. We have over 30 projects needing funding.”
Gomel Apaza is sceptical. “With what money will they build these mega-projects?” he asks. He believes that Peru lacks the resources needed to tackle growing water stress, which is expected to worsen as the region’s remaining glaciers disappear and climate change shifts rainfall patterns.
In the coming weeks, ASAP is organising 10 community forums that will lead to a national forum for representatives of indigenous communities on Nov. 12 this year.
“The goal is to share experiences and take up the proposals of the peasants to face the consequences of climate change,” says Gomel Apaza.
He hopes that these ideas will become part of the proposal that Peru takes to the UN-led international climate talks the same month.
Erik Struyf Palacios is a writer based in Lima, Peru.