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High Andean Climate Change February 10th, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Recently Paul wrote about how people in Ch‚Äôoj√Īapata, a small village in the mountains high above Lake Titicaca, blend old and new ways of predicting the weather. While we were filming in the village, we also learned more about how climate change is affecting crops.

At this high altitude, 4250 meters above sea level, farmers grow bitter potato, or luk‚Äôi. This is related to the common potato, but a separate species, Solanum juzepcuzukii. Luk‚Äôi was domesticated in the Andes thousands of years ago and is well adapted to high altitudes and conditions which favor few other crops. Little else will grow in Ch‚Äôoj√Īapata besides luk‚Äôi potatoes and some pasture grasses where the villagers herd their alpacas on the steep slopes.

Veteran farmer Juan Mamani explained that in Ch‚Äôoj√Īapata it is now getting too warm to plant luk‚Äôi potatoes. And even when people can grow luk‚Äôi potatoes, it is no longer cold enough to properly process them. To make bitter potatoes edible, villagers have to freeze them outdoors for four nights. ‚ÄúNow, in mid-winter (June) when we would normally get a long freeze, it may only last one night, and when it then rains the luk‚Äôi rot.‚ÄĚ

Don Juan’s friend and neighbor, Celestino Laime, adds that the rains once came at predictable times. Now it can rain at any time, often with heavy downpours, making it difficult to farm.

There are other signs that the normal patterns of weather are changing. The farmers told us that the glaciers around them are disappearing. The mountains, once covered in solid white ice, are starting to turn grey. Now people can see the rocks appear as the ice melts and retreats.

The farmers are adapting, as they always do. With the warmer climate, folks in Ch‚Äôoj√Īapata are growing more of the common potatoes. It is not a perfect solution. They show us a potato field killed by summer frost. The bitter potatoes would have survived that cold snap.

Some people in northern, industrial countries are still denying climate change; villagers in the high Andes don’t have that luxury. They live with the changing climate and worry about it every day.

Related blogs

Three generations of knowledge

Death of the third flowers

Harsh and healthy

Acknowledgements

We were accompanied on this trip by Ing. Edwin Yucra, a professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. We thank Edwin for being generous with his time and his knowledge. His work is funded in part by the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

CAMBIO CLIM√ĀTICO ALTOANDINO

Por Jeff Bentley, 10 de febrero del 2019

Recientemente Paul escribi√≥ acerca de c√≥mo la gente en Ch’oj√Īapata, un peque√Īo pueblo en las monta√Īas en lo alto del Lago Titicaca, mezcla viejas y nuevas formas de predecir el tiempo. Mientras film√°bamos en la comunidad, tambi√©n aprendimos m√°s sobre c√≥mo el cambio clim√°tico est√° afectando a los cultivos.

A esta altitud, 4.250 metros sobre el nivel del mar, los agricultores cultivan papa amarga, o luk’i, que es pariente de la papa com√ļn, pero es una especie separada, Solanum juzepcuzukii. La papa luk’i fue domesticada en los Andes hace miles de a√Īos y est√° bien adaptada a las alturas y a las condiciones donde pocos cultivos crecen. En Ch’oj√Īapata nada m√°s crece adem√°s de papas y algunos pastos donde la gente pasta sus alpacas en las laderas.

El veterano agricultor Juan Mamani nos cont√≥ que ahora en Ch’oj√Īapata hace mucho calor para sembrar papas luk’i. Y aun cuando la gente puede cultivar luk’i, ya no hace suficiente fr√≠o para procesarlo bien. Para que el luk‚Äôi sea comestible, hay que congelarlos al aire libre durante cuatro noches. “Ahora, en el invierno (junio), cuando sab√≠amos tener una buena helada, puede helar s√≥lo una noche, y cuando llueve el luk’i se pudre.”

El amigo y vecino de don Juan, Celestino Laime, agrega que antes, las lluvias llegaban en su debido momento. Ahora puede llover en cualquier momento, a menudo con fuertes lluvias, y es difícil sembrar.

Hay otras se√Īales de que los patrones normales del clima est√°n cambiando. Los agricultores nos dijeron que los glaciares que los rodean est√°n desapareciendo. Los cerros, antes tapados de hielo blanco s√≥lido, empiezan a ponerse color plomo. Ahora la gente ve que las piedras aparecen a medida que el hielo se derrite y se retira.

Los agricultores se est√°n adaptando, como siempre lo hacen. Con el clima m√°s c√°lido, la gente de Ch’oj√Īapata est√° cultivando m√°s papas comunes. No es una soluci√≥n perfecta. Nos muestran un campo de papas muertas por heladas que antes no ab√≠an en el verano. Las papas luk‚Äôis hubieran sobrevivido a esa ola de fr√≠o.

Algunas personas en los países del norte siguen negando el cambio climático; la gente rural andina no tiene ese lujo. Ellos viven con el cambio climático y se preocupan por ello todos los días.

Blogs relacionados

Three generations of knowledge

De t’olas y papas

Harsh and healthy

Agradecimientos

En este viaje nos acompa√Ī√≥ el Ing. Edwin Yucra, catedr√°tico de la Universidad Mayor de San Andr√©s. Agradecemos a Edwin por ser generoso con su tiempo y su conocimiento. Su trabajo es financiado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigaci√≥n de Cultivos de la Fundaci√≥n McKnight.

Three generations of knowledge January 20th, 2019 by

‚ÄúAs 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,‚ÄĚ 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: ‚ÄúBecause 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.‚ÄĚ

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:

‚ÄúWhen I asked the elders, they said ‚Äúin this way.‚ÄĚ 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.‚ÄĚ

Five days after meeting with don Miguel, we drive to the village of Ch‚Äôoj√Īapata, 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‚Äôayu in the local Aymara language, is what she wants to show us. ‚ÄúThe 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,‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúbioindicator‚ÄĚ). 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôoj√Īapata.

Death of the third flowers January 13th, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

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

Cultivating pride in the Andes

 

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 adaptar√°n. Una de las principales incertidumbres es el clima, particularmente en ambientes hostiles como el Altiplano boliviano, donde los per√≠odos y patrones de la lluvia, del granizo y de las heladas son diferentes cada a√Īo. Miguel Ortega, Enrique Huallpa y Constantino Franco me explicaron el pasado mes de diciembre c√≥mo intentan pronosticar lo que va a pasar observando cu√°ndo florece una planta, la t’ola. Viven en el municipio de Waldo Ballivi√°n, en el Altiplano, donde la t’ola florece tres veces en agosto. Seg√ļn don Miguel, don Enrique y don Constantino, cada una de estas tres floraciones indica c√≥mo ser√°n las heladas a finales de noviembre. Los agricultores usan esta informaci√≥n 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 explic√≥ don Bernab√©, 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 qu√© papas sobrevivir√°n a las heladas de noviembre. O eso creen los agricultores como don Miguel, don Enrique y don Constantino. Pero, ¬Ņes esto una casualidad? ¬ŅO hasta una ilusi√≥n? Otra explicaci√≥n es que la gente rural es observante, y despu√©s de toda una vida viviendo en los elementos, han desarrollado las habilidades para predecir el tiempo.

Miguel Ortega es un yapuchiri o extensionista agr√≠cola, y uno de sus trabajos es compartir informaci√≥n con otros agricultores. En el 2018, don Miguel dijo a sus vecinos que habr√≠a una helada a finales de la primavera porque hab√≠a visto que la tercera floraci√≥n del t’ola se hab√≠a marchitado. No todos escucharon. Cuando se congel√≥, en las √ļltimas dos noches de noviembre, algunas personas perdieron las papas que hab√≠an plantado tarde. Don Miguel hab√≠a plantado temprano, y evit√≥ la helada.

La meteorolog√≠a moderna puede informar relativamente poco a los agricultores sobre el tiempo a dos meses de distancia. Poder pronosticar eventos clim√°ticos cruciales dos meses en el futuro es una habilidad crucial para la supervivencia de los peque√Īos agricultores que deben confiar en sus propios conocimientos para planificar sus cultivos cada a√Īo.

Historias de blogs relacionadas

Harsh and healthy

Cultivando orgullo en los Andes

Reading the mole hills January 6th, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n.

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.

Bernab√© doesn‚Äôt 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. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs worrying,‚ÄĚ don Bernab√© said. ‚ÄúThe rain will be irregular and it may not start until the end of January.‚ÄĚ

But I was most impressed by don Bernab√©‚Äôs observations of moles, called ‚Äútuju‚ÄĚ in Aymara, which dig their burrows along the river bank. Don Bernab√© showed us the openings to the mole‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚ÄĒnot 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 c√≥mo va a ir el a√Īo. Los conocimientos meteorol√≥gicos de los agricultores los gu√≠an en la toma de decisiones a principios de a√Īo.¬† En base a predicciones sobre cu√°ndo y cu√°nto 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 pron√≥sticos cient√≠ficos del tiempo son bastante precisos hasta para una semana, pero menos para los pr√≥ximos meses, que es lo que se necesita saber al planificar un cultivo.

Yo ya hab√≠a o√≠do hablar de los pron√≥sticos locales, pero hace poco pude apreciar c√≥mo los agricultores leen las se√Īales naturales del tiempo como un sistema integral de informaci√≥n que se refuerza mutuamente. Los agricultores no leen los indicadores meteorol√≥gicos de forma aislada; cada se√Īa de la naturaleza reconfirma y apoya a las dem√°s.

Mientras film√°bamos un video con Paul, Marcella y nuestros colegas de Prosuco, visitamos a Bernab√© Choquetopa, un experto agricultor aymara del sur del Altiplano boliviano, quien nos mostr√≥ varios de los indicadores naturales que √©l usa cerca de su casa en Aroma, Oruro. Era noviembre, principios del verano en el hemisferio sur, y todas las se√Īales indicaban que iba a ser un a√Īo seco, con cosechas bajas.

Don Bernab√© nos mostr√≥ un arbusto, el t’ola, o khiruta (discutido en el blog de la semana pasada). Explic√≥ que el arbusto suele florecer en septiembre y octubre. Si el arbusto se llena de flores amarillas, ser√° un buen a√Īo para sus cosechas. Pero si las lluvias tempranas da√Īan las flores del arbusto en octubre, entonces sus cosechas se ver√°n afectadas y los rendimientos ser√°n bajos en marzo. Don Bernab√© nos mostr√≥ c√≥mo el khiruta en su lugar no estaba floreciendo muy bien, prediciendo un mal a√Īo.

Bernab√© no conf√≠a s√≥lo en las flores de khirtu para sus pron√≥sticos. En una peque√Īa quebrada nos mostr√≥ el musgo flotando en el agua. √Čl ha observado que cuando el musgo est√© verde en noviembre, pronto habr√° abundantes lluvias, pero este a√Īo el musgo era color caf√©, excepto por una peque√Īa mancha verde. “Es preocupante”, dijo don Bernab√©. “La lluvia ser√° irregular y puede que no empiece hasta finales de enero.‚ÄĚ

Pero me impresionaron mucho las observaciones de don Bernab√© de los topos, llamados “tuju” en aymara, que excavan sus madrigueras cerca de la orilla del r√≠o. Don Bernab√© nos mostr√≥ las puertas de los nidos de los topos, en el suelo h√ļmedo y arenoso. Luego se√Īal√≥ la marca de agua alta del a√Īo anterior. Hab√≠a una l√≠nea de palos y trozos de madera en lo alto de la orilla por el agua de la inundaci√≥n del a√Īo pasado. Este a√Īo, los topos estaban cavando sus nidos muy por debajo de esa l√≠nea, no muy por encima del nivel del agua actual de la √©poca seca. Al igual que el musgo y el khiruta, los topos predijeron un a√Īo 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 meteorolog√≠a popular podr√≠a y deber√≠a ser validada cient√≠ficamente. El m√©todo ser√≠a bastante f√°cil: documentar los pron√≥sticos locales y luego registrar el tiempo a lo largo del a√Īo y comparar los resultados con las predicciones. Mis colegas de Prosuco en Bolivia est√°n haciendo esta importante investigaci√≥n, en plena colaboraci√≥n con los agricultores que saben leer las se√Īas de la naturaleza. Don Bernab√©, por su parte, est√° escribiendo un libro para mantener vivos sus conocimientos vitales.

Previa historia del blog

Para ver el futuro

Nombre científico

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 versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

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‚Äôt be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chu√Īo 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‚ÄĒor commuted‚ÄĒto 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 Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

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Organic agriculture and mice

Awakening the seeds

Scientific names

Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

El ingeniero agr√≥nomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me cont√≥ por primera vez c√≥mo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 a√Īos, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacci√≥n que yo ense√Īaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por m√≠ mismo c√≥mo el af√°n por un sano grano andino podr√≠a comer el paisaje de su pa√≠s natal.

Recientemente tuve mi oportunidad, cuando Paul, Marcella y yo hac√≠amos videos para Agro-Insight. Junto con Milton Villca, un agr√≥nomo de Proinpa, conocimos a Genaro en Uyuni, cerca de las famosas salinas de Bolivia. Genaro, que est√° a punto de cumplir 70 a√Īos, pero parece que tiene 55, nos dijo que hab√≠a trabajado con la quinua durante 41 a√Īos, y que hab√≠a sido testigo del cambio dram√°tico de un alimento b√°sico local y menospreciado a un renombrado alimento mundial. Empez√≥ a explicar lo que hab√≠a pasado.

Cuando Genaro era un ni√Īo en la d√©cada de 1950, toda el √°rea alrededor de Uyuni, en el √°rido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetaci√≥n natural. La gente cultivaba peque√Īas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t‚Äôolas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el √ļnico cultivo que sobrevivir√≠a al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engord√°ndose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el m√°s grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles m√°s bajos, para trocar sal por ma√≠z y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chu√Īo 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 a√Īos de la d√©cada de 2000, el precio de la quinua aument√≥ constantemente. Cuando lleg√≥ a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que ten√≠an 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 hect√°reas de t‚Äôola para plantar el ahora valioso cultivo.

Pero para el 2014 el precio de la quinua comenzó a bajar y para el 2015 se colapsó 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 dif√≠cil ver c√≥mo podr√≠a recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. √Čl cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotaci√≥n de cultivos. Eso requerir√° investigaci√≥n. No se puede cultivar mucho m√°s que adem√°s de la quinua a esta altitud, con s√≥lo 150 mm de lluvia al a√Īo.

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 llev√≥ a ver uno de los pocos manchones de vegetaci√≥n nativa que queda. No por casualidad, esto estaba cerca de una peque√Īa comunidad de llameros, que queda en Lequepata. El pastoreo de llamas sigue siendo la mejor manera de usar esta tierra sin destruirla.

Milton nos mostr√≥ c√≥mo 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 est√°n ense√Īando 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 erosi√≥n del suelo. He conocido a muchos agr√≥nomos a trav√©s de los a√Īos, pero pocos que en mi opini√≥n hac√≠an un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucci√≥n.

Agradecimiento

Genaro Aroni y Milton Villca trabajan para la Fundación Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos de la Fundación McKnight.

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