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Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the “show farmer,” one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone’s student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, “It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.”

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaqueños continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Touré, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and Gérard Zoundji 2017 “Seeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,” pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, Gérard C., Simplice D. Vodouhê, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 “Beyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers’ Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.” Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

Three generations of knowledge January 20th, 2019 by

“As a youth I planted a little and my grandparents told me nothing about these bioindicators. My potatoes had a lot of worms. I was discouraged and decided to seek another life,” said don Miguel Ortega when we visited his farm a while ago in Voloco village. Now in his mid 40s don Miguel runs a prosperous organic farm in the Northern Altiplano of Bolivia (see also our previous blog: Harsh and healthy).

During his interview in front of the camera, don Miguel explained why he returned to his home village and picked up farming again: “Because when you work in a company, coming on time, leaving on time it is a form of slavery. So now that I work for myself I am a free man.”

In the meantime, don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, expert farmers who shares his knowledge with his peers and anyone who is interested in learning from nature and learning about healthy farming. But to become an expert farmer who can predict the weather based on observing plants, animals and insects has not been easy. The elders in the village were not forthcoming with sharing their knowledge about natural indicators, as don Miguel explained:

“When I asked the elders, they said “in this way.” But you do not ask them just like that with the mouth empty. You have to give them a little soft drink. I managed it this way. I did not pick up a piece of paper at that moment. I held it in my mind. I held it in my mind and when I arrived home, I wrote it on paper. That is how I worked. By questioning. If we would pick up a sheet of paper and write they would not want to tell us everything.”

Five days after meeting with don Miguel, we drive to the village of Ch’ojñapata, at an altitude of 4,250 meters. We interview Mery Mamani, who is in her early 20s. She runs a little shop where she sells soft drinks, beer and home-made cheese. Although we planned to interview her about an app that forecasts the weather, it soon became clear that this young woman had much more to tell us.

Full of energy she guides us down the steep slopes to a valley behind her house. A pretty cactus with red flowers, called sank’ayu in the local Aymara language, is what she wants to show us. “The app is great to tell us which day it will freeze or rain in the coming days, but this cactus tells us when is the best time to plant potatoes,” she said.

While Marcella films Mery in her little shop, she opens WhatsApp on her smart phone and shows photo after photo of various plants, mainly cactuses. All are bioindicators (see previous blog stories below that define “bioindicator”). Mery is clearly interested in making the right decisions on when to plant and do the other activities on her farm and she cleverly combines knowledge from the past with modern forecasting. Youth like Meri who remain in the countryside, and who are interested in ancestral knowledge can share those ideas and their observations with peers in other communities and other parts of the country. New communication devices can keep old knowledge alive.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform in the coming month

Recording the weather

Weather forecasting

Related blogs

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information, and to Edwin Yucra from UMSA for introducing us to farmers in Ch’ojñapata.

Death of the third flowers January 13th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Uncertainty is a way of life for farmers.  But the better they can predict what’s going to happen, the more successfully they will adapt. One of the main uncertainties is the weather, particularly in harsh environments like the Bolivian Altiplano, the high plains, where the periods and patterns of rain, hail and frost are different each year. Miguel Ortega, Enrique Huallpa and Constantino Franco explained to me last December how they try to forecast what is going to happen by observing when the t’ola plant flowers. They live in the municipality of Waldo Ballivián, in the Altiplano, where the t’ola plant usually flowers in three bursts in August. According to Miguel, Enrique and Constantino each of these three blooms indicates what the frosts will be like later in November. The farmers then use this information to schedule potato planting.

These farmers of the southern hemisphere plant potatoes three times in the springtime between August and late September, roughly one or two weeks apart.

As don Bernabé, another local farmer, explained in last week’s blog, if the flowers get wet from the rain, they die. Which flowers survive the rains of August foretells which potatoes will survive the frosts of November. Or so farmers like Miguel, Enrique and Constantino believe. But is this happenstance? Or maybe even wishful thinking? Another explanation is that a lifetime of living in the elements has given observant rural people the skills to predict the weather.

Miguel Ortega is a yapuchiri or farmer extensionist, and one of his jobs is to share information with other farmers. In 2018, don Miguel told his neighbors that there would be a frost late in the spring because he had seen that the third flowering of the t’ola had withered. Not everyone listened. When it froze, on the last two nights of November, some people lost the potatoes that they had planted late. Don Miguel had planted early, and he avoided the frost.

Modern meteorology can tell farmers relatively little about the weather two months away. Being able to forecast crucial weather events two months in the future is a crucial survival skill for smallholders who must rely on their own knowledge to plan their crop every year.

Related blog stories

Harsh and healthy

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DE T’OLAS Y PAPAS

Jeff Bentley, 13 de enero del 2014

Los campesinos conviven con la incertidumbre.  Pero cuanto mejor puedan predecir lo que va a pasar, mejor se adaptarán. Una de las principales incertidumbres es el clima, particularmente en ambientes hostiles como el Altiplano boliviano, donde los perĂ­odos y patrones de la lluvia, del granizo y de las heladas son diferentes cada año. Miguel Ortega, Enrique Huallpa y Constantino Franco me explicaron el pasado mes de diciembre cĂłmo intentan pronosticar lo que va a pasar observando cuándo florece una planta, la t’ola. Viven en el municipio de Waldo Ballivián, en el Altiplano, donde la t’ola florece tres veces en agosto. SegĂşn don Miguel, don Enrique y don Constantino, cada una de estas tres floraciones indica cĂłmo serán las heladas a finales de noviembre. Los agricultores usan esta informaciĂłn para programar la siembra de papas.

Estos agricultores del hemisferio sur siembran sus papas tres veces en primavera, entre agosto y finales de septiembre, con una o dos semanas de diferencia.

Como explicó don Bernabé, otro agricultor del Altiplano, en el blog de la semana pasada, si las flores se mojan por la lluvia, mueren. Las flores que sobreviven a las lluvias de agosto pronostican qué papas sobrevivirán a las heladas de noviembre. O eso creen los agricultores como don Miguel, don Enrique y don Constantino. Pero, ¿es esto una casualidad? ¿O hasta una ilusión? Otra explicación es que la gente rural es observante, y después de toda una vida viviendo en los elementos, han desarrollado las habilidades para predecir el tiempo.

Miguel Ortega es un yapuchiri o extensionista agrĂ­cola, y uno de sus trabajos es compartir informaciĂłn con otros agricultores. En el 2018, don Miguel dijo a sus vecinos que habrĂ­a una helada a finales de la primavera porque habĂ­a visto que la tercera floraciĂłn del t’ola se habĂ­a marchitado. No todos escucharon. Cuando se congelĂł, en las Ăşltimas dos noches de noviembre, algunas personas perdieron las papas que habĂ­an plantado tarde. Don Miguel habĂ­a plantado temprano, y evitĂł la helada.

La meteorología moderna puede informar relativamente poco a los agricultores sobre el tiempo a dos meses de distancia. Poder pronosticar eventos climáticos cruciales dos meses en el futuro es una habilidad crucial para la supervivencia de los pequeños agricultores que deben confiar en sus propios conocimientos para planificar sus cultivos cada año.

Historias de blogs relacionadas

Harsh and healthy

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Reading the mole hills January 6th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

Smallholders constantly read the landscape for clues on how the year will go. Farmers’ weather knowledge guides them as they make decisions early in the year.  Predictions about when it will rain and how much let farmers know if they should plant early or late, or if they should prepare the low-lying fields or the high and dry ones.  Scientific weather forecasts are pretty accurate for up to a week, but less so for the next several months, which is what one needs to know when planning a crop.

I had heard about local weather forecasting before, but recently appreciated how farmers read natural signs of weather as a whole system of mutually reinforcing information. Farmers don’t read the weather indicators in isolation; each sign of nature reconfirms and supports the others.

While filming a video recently with Paul, Marcella and our colleagues from Prosuco, we visited Bernabé Choquetopa, an expert Aymara farmer of the southern Bolivian Altiplano, as he showed us several of the weather indicators he uses near his farm in Aroma, Oruro. It was November, early summer in the southern hemisphere, and all the signs suggested that it was going to be a dry year, with fairly low crop yields.

Don Bernabé showed us a bush, the t’ola, or khiruta (discussed in last week’s blog). He explained that the bush typically flowers in September and October. If the bush fills with yellow flowers, it will be a good year for his crops. But if early rains damage the bush’s blossoms in October, then his crops will suffer and yields will be low in March. Don Bernabé showed us how the khiruta on his farm was not flowering very well, predicting a poor year.

Bernabé doesn’t rely only on the khirtu flowers for his forecasts. At a small stream he showed us the moss floating on the water. He has observed that when the moss is green in November, there will soon be abundant rains, but this year the moss was brown, except for one small green spot. “It’s worrying,” don Bernabé said. “The rain will be irregular and it may not start until the end of January.”

But I was most impressed by don Bernabé’s observations of moles, called “tuju” in Aymara, which dig their burrows along the river bank. Don Bernabé showed us the openings to the mole’s nests, in the moist, sandy soil. Then he pointed out the highwater mark from the previous year. There was a line of sticks and bits of wood left high on the bank by last year’s flood water. This year, the moles were digging their burrows well below that line, not far above the level of the current, dry season water. Like the moss and the khiruta, the moles were predicting a dry year—not very good for the quinoa crop.

The moles are intriguing, because like the people, many animals also need to forecast the rains, for example, to know where to build their nests. An individual mole that could somehow foretell the water level would have an adaptive advantage. The moles that could anticipate the water level would be selected for.

This folk meteorology could and should be scientifically validated. The method would be easy enough: document local forecasts and then record the weather over the year and compare the outcomes to the predictions. My colleagues at Prosuco in Bolivia are now doing this important research, in full collaboration with the expert farmers who know how to predict the weather. Don Bernabé for his part is writing a book to keep his vital knowledge alive.

Previous blog story

To see the future

Scientific name

The tuju is not really a mole; it is the highland tuco-tuco, Ctenomys opimus, a rodent of the Ctenomydae family.

LEYENDO EL NIDO DEL TOPO

Por Jeff Bentley, 6 de enero del 2019

Los campesinos leen el paisaje constantemente para encontrar pistas sobre cómo va a ir el año. Los conocimientos meteorológicos de los agricultores los guían en la toma de decisiones a principios de año.  En base a predicciones sobre cuándo y cuánto va a llover los agricultores saben si deben sembrar tarde o temprano, o si deben preparar sus chacras bajas o las tierras altas y secas.  Los pronósticos científicos del tiempo son bastante precisos hasta para una semana, pero menos para los próximos meses, que es lo que se necesita saber al planificar un cultivo.

Yo ya había oído hablar de los pronósticos locales, pero hace poco pude apreciar cómo los agricultores leen las señales naturales del tiempo como un sistema integral de información que se refuerza mutuamente. Los agricultores no leen los indicadores meteorológicos de forma aislada; cada seña de la naturaleza reconfirma y apoya a las demás.

Mientras filmábamos un video con Paul, Marcella y nuestros colegas de Prosuco, visitamos a Bernabé Choquetopa, un experto agricultor aymara del sur del Altiplano boliviano, quien nos mostró varios de los indicadores naturales que él usa cerca de su casa en Aroma, Oruro. Era noviembre, principios del verano en el hemisferio sur, y todas las señales indicaban que iba a ser un año seco, con cosechas bajas.

Don BernabĂ© nos mostrĂł un arbusto, el t’ola, o khiruta (discutido en el blog de la semana pasada). ExplicĂł que el arbusto suele florecer en septiembre y octubre. Si el arbusto se llena de flores amarillas, será un buen año para sus cosechas. Pero si las lluvias tempranas dañan las flores del arbusto en octubre, entonces sus cosechas se verán afectadas y los rendimientos serán bajos en marzo. Don BernabĂ© nos mostrĂł cĂłmo el khiruta en su lugar no estaba floreciendo muy bien, prediciendo un mal año.

BernabĂ© no confĂ­a sĂłlo en las flores de khirtu para sus pronĂłsticos. En una pequeña quebrada nos mostrĂł el musgo flotando en el agua. Él ha observado que cuando el musgo estĂ© verde en noviembre, pronto habrá abundantes lluvias, pero este año el musgo era color cafĂ©, excepto por una pequeña mancha verde. “Es preocupante”, dijo don BernabĂ©. “La lluvia será irregular y puede que no empiece hasta finales de enero.”

Pero me impresionaron mucho las observaciones de don BernabĂ© de los topos, llamados “tuju” en aymara, que excavan sus madrigueras cerca de la orilla del rĂ­o. Don BernabĂ© nos mostrĂł las puertas de los nidos de los topos, en el suelo hĂşmedo y arenoso. Luego señalĂł la marca de agua alta del año anterior. HabĂ­a una lĂ­nea de palos y trozos de madera en lo alto de la orilla por el agua de la inundaciĂłn del año pasado. Este año, los topos estaban cavando sus nidos muy por debajo de esa lĂ­nea, no muy por encima del nivel del agua actual de la Ă©poca seca. Al igual que el musgo y el khiruta, los topos predijeron un año seco, no muy bueno para el cultivo de quinua.

Los topos me intrigaban, porque al igual que la gente, muchos animales también necesitan pronosticar las lluvias, por ejemplo, para saber dónde construir sus nidos. Un topo individual que de alguna manera pudiera predecir el nivel del agua tendría una ventaja adaptativa. Se seleccionarían los topos que podrían anticipar el nivel del agua.

Esta meteorología popular podría y debería ser validada científicamente. El método sería bastante fácil: documentar los pronósticos locales y luego registrar el tiempo a lo largo del año y comparar los resultados con las predicciones. Mis colegas de Prosuco en Bolivia están haciendo esta importante investigación, en plena colaboración con los agricultores que saben leer las señas de la naturaleza. Don Bernabé, por su parte, está escribiendo un libro para mantener vivos sus conocimientos vitales.

Previa historia del blog

Para ver el futuro

Nombre cientĂ­fico

El tuju no es un topo de verdad, sino el tuco-tuco de la puna, Ctenomys opimus, un roedor de la familia Ctenomydae.

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster December 30th, 2018 by

vea la versión en español a continuación

Bolivian agronomist Genaro Aroni first told me how quinoa was destroying the southwest Bolivian landscape some 10 years ago, when he came to Cochabamba for a writing class I was teaching. Ever since then I wanted to see for myself how a healthy and fashionable Andean grain was eating up the landscape in its native country.

I recently got my chance, when Paul and Marcella and I were making videos for Agro-Insight. Together with Milton Villca, an agronomist from Proinpa, we met Genaro in Uyuni, near the famous salt flats of Bolivia. Genaro, who is about to turn 70, but looks like he is 55, told us that he had worked with quinoa for 41 years, and had witnessed the dramatic change from mundane local staple to global health food. He began explaining what had happened.

When Genaro was a kid, growing up in the 1950s, the whole area around Uyuni, in the arid southern Altiplano, was covered in natural vegetation. People grew small plots of quinoa on the low hills, among native shrubs and other plants. Quinoa was just about the only crop that would survive the dry climate at some 3,600 meters above sea level. The llamas roamed the flat lands, growing fat on the native brush. In April the owners would pack the llamas with salt blocks cut from the Uyuni Salt Flats (the largest dry salt bed in the world) and take the herds to Cochabamba and other lower valleys, to barter salt for maize and other foods that can’t be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chuño from other farmers, supplementing their diet of dried llama meat and quinoa grain.

Then in the early 1970s a Belgian project near Uyuni introduced tractors to farmers and began experimenting with quinoa planted in the sandy plains. About this same time, a large-scale farmer further north in Salinas also bought a tractor and began clearing scrub lands to plant quinoa.

More and more people started to grow quinoa. The crop thrived on the sandy plains, but as the native brushy vegetation grew scarce so the numbers of llamas began to decline.

Throughout the early 2000s the price of quinoa increased steadily. When it reached 2500 Bolivianos for 100 pounds ($8 per kilo) in 2013, many people who had land rights in this high rangeland (the children and grandchildren of elderly farmers) migrated back—or commuted—to the Uyuni area to grow quinoa. Genaro told us that each person would plow up to 10 hectares or so of the scrub land to plant the now valuable crop.

But by 2014 the quinoa price slipped and by 2015 it crashed to about 350 Bolivianos per hundredweight ($1 per kilo), as farmers in the USA and elsewhere began to grow quinoa themselves.

Many Bolivians gave up quinoa farming and went back to the cities. By then the land was so degraded it was difficult to see how it could recover. Still, Genaro is optimistic. He believes that quinoa can be grown sustainably if people grow less of it and use cover crops and crop rotation. That will take some research. Not much else besides quinoa can be farmed at this altitude, with only 150 mm (6 inches) of rain per year.

Milton Villca took us out to see some of the devastated farmland around Uyuni. It was worse than I ever imagined. On some abandoned fields, native vegetation was slowly coming back, but many of the plots that had been planted in quinoa looked like a moonscape, or like a white sand beach, minus the ocean.

Farmers would plow and furrow the land with tractors, only to have the fierce winds blow sand over the emerging quinoa plants, smothering them to death.

Milton took us to see one of the few remaining stands of native vegetation. Not coincidentally, this was near the hamlet of Lequepata where some people still herd llamas. Llama herding is still the best way of using this land without destroying it.

Milton showed us how to gather wild seed of the khiruta plant; each bush releases clouds of dust-like seeds, scattered and planted by the wind. Milton and Genaro are teaching villagers to collect these seeds and replant, and to establish windbreaks around their fields, in an effort to stem soil erosion. I’ve met many agronomists in my days, but few who I thought were doing such important work, struggling to save an entire landscape from destruction.

Acknowledgement

Genaro Aroni and Milton Villca work for the Proinpa Foundation. Their work is funded in part by the Consultative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

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Scientific names

Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

El ingeniero agrónomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me contó por primera vez cómo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 años, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacción que yo enseñaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por mí mismo cómo el afán por un sano grano andino podría comer el paisaje de su país natal.

Recientemente tuve mi oportunidad, cuando Paul, Marcella y yo hacíamos videos para Agro-Insight. Junto con Milton Villca, un agrónomo de Proinpa, conocimos a Genaro en Uyuni, cerca de las famosas salinas de Bolivia. Genaro, que está a punto de cumplir 70 años, pero parece que tiene 55, nos dijo que había trabajado con la quinua durante 41 años, y que había sido testigo del cambio dramático de un alimento básico local y menospreciado a un renombrado alimento mundial. Empezó a explicar lo que había pasado.

Cuando Genaro era un niño en la década de 1950, toda el área alrededor de Uyuni, en el árido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetación natural. La gente cultivaba pequeñas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t’olas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el único cultivo que sobreviviría al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engordándose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el más grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles más bajos, para trocar sal por maíz y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chuño de otros agricultores, complementando su dieta con carne de llama seca y granos de quinua.

Luego, a principios de la década de 1970, un proyecto belga cerca de Uyuni introdujo tractores a los agricultores y comenzó a experimentar con quinua sembrada en las pampas arenosas. Por esa misma época, un agricultor a gran escala más al norte, en Salinas, también compró un tractor y comenzó a talar los matorrales para sembrar quinua.

Cada vez más gente empezó a cultivar quinua. El cultivo prosperó en las llanuras arenosas, pero a medida que la vegetación nativa de arbustos se hizo escasa, había cada vez menos llamas.

A lo largo de los primeros años de la década de 2000, el precio de la quinua aumentó constantemente. Cuando llegó a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que tenían derechos sobre la tierra en esta pampa alta (los hijos y nietos de los agricultores viejos) retornaron a la zona de Uyuni para cultivar quinua. Genaro nos dijo que cada persona araba hasta 10 hectáreas de t’ola para plantar el ahora valioso cultivo.

Pero para el 2014 el precio de la quinua comenzĂł a bajar y para el 2015 se colapsĂł a cerca de 350 bolivianos por quintal ($1 por kilo), a medida que los agricultores en los Estados Unidos y en otros lugares comenzaron a cultivar quinua ellos mismos.

Muchos bolivianos dejaron de cultivar quinua y regresaron a las ciudades. Para entonces la tierra estaba tan degradada que era difícil ver cómo podría recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. Él cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotación de cultivos. Eso requerirá investigación. No se puede cultivar mucho más que además de la quinua a esta altitud, con sólo 150 mm de lluvia al año.

Milton Villca nos llevó a ver algunas de las parcelas devastadas alrededor de Uyuni. Fue peor de lo que jamás imaginé. En algunas parcelas abandonados, la vegetación nativa regresaba lentamente, pero muchas de las chacras que habían sido sembradas en quinua parecían la luna, o una playa de arena blanca, menos el mar.

Los agricultores araban y surcaban la tierra con tractores, sólo para que los fuertes vientos soplaran arena sobre las plantas emergentes de quinua, ahogándolas y matándolas.

Milton nos llevó a ver uno de los pocos manchones de vegetación nativa que queda. No por casualidad, esto estaba cerca de una pequeña comunidad de llameros, que queda en Lequepata. El pastoreo de llamas sigue siendo la mejor manera de usar esta tierra sin destruirla.

Milton nos mostró cómo recolectar semillas silvestres de la planta khiruta; cada arbusto libera nubes de semillas parecidas al polvo, dispersas y sembradas por el viento. Los Ings. Milton y Genaro están enseñando a los comuneros a recolectar estas semillas y replantar, y a establecer barreras contra el viento alrededor de sus campos, en un esfuerzo por detener la erosión del suelo. He conocido a muchos agrónomos a través de los años, pero pocos que en mi opinión hacían un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucción.

Agradecimiento

Genaro Aroni y Milton Villca trabajan para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Consultativo de InvestigaciĂłn de Cultivos de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

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