Monday, November 8, 2010

Bolivia Diaries: Day 11, Part 1 - Agriculture in a La Paz Suburb

In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.

On our eleventh day was one of the best. We visited a La Paz suburb and checked out the (amazing) agriculture there. Then we had a delicious and very Bolivian lunch, and hit the town. Now that I wasn't suffering from jet lag and altitude sickness, La Paz was a kind of nice place! This diary covers the agriculture of the La Paz suburb of Chicani.

My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.

The La Paz suburb of Chicani is entirely built a slope that goes down into the valley that is home to La Paz. Our tour started at the top of the hill with a look back to Tiahuanaco times, when we saw some ancient terraces in the mountains. Lots of Tiahuanaco-era pottery has been found in this area, near the terraces. Here, they would leave each area fallow for seven years after cultivating it for one year.

When you zoom in, you can see the remains of ancient terraces

From the pre-Columbian era, we moved to the Spanish colonial era, looking at a canal that was built by the Spanish. Well, more correctly, it was built by the indigenous Bolivians, who were forced to build it by the Spanish. This canal is still used today. The water is supplied from a glacier, one that is a major water supply for La Paz. (Chicani is part of a separate municipality from La Paz, and La Paz is trying to lure them into officially becoming part of La Paz by giving them more services... but really La Paz just wants their water.)

Today, this canal still supplies water to this community for agriculture. Once a year, the community comes together to clean vegetation and garbage from the canal. The women cook for everyone, and everyone gets incredibly drunk.

The canal is completely open, and a considerable amount of the water evaporates, but there is enough water that nothing is done about it. In some areas in Bolivia, canals have been enclosed in pipes to prevent evaporation.

A canal dating from colonial times

Another view of the canal

During Spanish times, this area was an hacienda designed to provide milk to La Paz. If you consider the old plantations in the U.S. south, an hacienda would differ from those because they were not devoted to commercial operations. They might have some commercial operations, as in this case, but it was mainly local. Other than that, haciendas were self-containing. The peasants who lived on haciendas were allowed their own small subsistence plots. The "compensation" to the peasants was (in theory) that the hacendado, the owner of the hacienda, would teach them about Jesus. Thus, haciendas are often associated with a church.

This area has not been an hacienda since the 1953 land reforms, but you can see its history as a dairy producing area as it is full of Holstein dairy cows to this day. One side-note mentioned here on our tour is that there is one theory that food production went down after the 1953 land reform, leading to land shortages, but there is also data showing that actually food production went UP but now the peasants actually ate what they produced, so there were urban food shortages. When the U.S. passed PL 480, the law governing U.S. food aid, Bolivia was actually its first recipient.

The U.S. agricultural aid to promote food self-sufficiency in Bolivia largely went to increasing production of rice and sugar, which were urban foods, not foods that peasants ate.

From here, our tour focused on the present. Notice how much the agriculture here utilizes intercropping, the practice of growing more than one species of crop together in the same area.

A wild lupine plant, which is related to the Bolivian bean-like food tarwi

A view of the neighborhood

I can't tell what is growing here but it looks like onions and something

We saw a lot of fava beans here. They eat the beans, of course, but they feed the foliage to the animals. Fava beans are wonderful because they fix a lot of nitrogen into the soil and the plant is large, so it gives you a lot of animal feed or organic matter to use as a mulch or compost, whichever you are using it for.

Fava beans intercropped with something (I can't tell)

Potatoes growing together with onions

Very cute pest control

When we came to a greenhouse, we stopped. Gabriel, our guide, pointed out that it utilized the warmth of the earth to provide enough heat for the crops. As you can see, the greenhouse is located partially underground. Gabriel noted that this technique has an Aymara name, making me wonder how old this practice is among the Aymara people.

A greenhouse

Lettuce and chard growing in the greenhouse

As we walked and talked, a group of locals passed us, on their way to market. As you might have guessed from the greenhouses full of lettuce, the produce here is not just for personal consumption. The women who passed us had awayos full of lettuce (oh how I wish I could have gotten a picture!) and a man who was with them told us that the people here typically have arrangements to sell to nearby markets or stores.


There's another plant growing in with the gladiolas - see? It's oca (an Andean tuber).


Next, we ran into a few medicinal plants. I believe the first is called chioca (although don't quote me on it), and it grows wild but often grows near cultivated areas. This plant has a sticky leaf, and you can stick it onto your joints to prevent or treat swelling. It also helps with pain.

Wild medicinal plant used for joint swelling

Almost immediately, we came upon another medicinal plant which is used as a tea for stomach aches. This one is called coa.

A different wild medicinal plant (coa)

The same plant as above (coa), growing

Next, we passed what is either a pond or cistern of some sort. Gabriel stopped here to point out that we could see the layers of the soil. There is not a very thick layer good topsoil here.

A pond or cistern


Hay for the animals (likely oats)

We saw (and heard) quite a few animals in addition to cows. We saw plenty of chickens, some sheep, and a pig. We also heard donkeys and turkeys. Most of the cows were Holsteins, although as you'll see in my in my pictures, there are several that are not. My pictures are a rather biased sample though. Most were Holsteins.

A chicken

Manure on the field, ready to be spread

We came upon yet another medicinal plant. I did not find out the name of this one (Gabriel couldn't remember). You use it by warming it and then putting it on your back to reduce fever.

Yet another medicinal plant.



The indigenous people of Bolivia are rather shy about having their pictures taken and quite suspicious of foreigners. This is for good reason, as they certainly have a long history with foreigners, and historically they have often ended up getting screwed over by them. In cases like the picture below, I would have loved to get a shot that was closer up, but I didn't dare. When I asked if I could take the picture, the answer was almost always no. (When it wasn't a flat-out no, it was an "only if you pay me.")


Working in the garden

Fava beans and oats

Gabriel said you can tell how old a wall is by looking at the lichens. He guessed that the wall below is 30 to 40 years old.

A wall with lichens

We saw several people working in their gardens. Here, the land is tilled by hand, and not with a tractor or even (in most cases) oxen.

Fava beans interplanted with wheat

Potatoes, of course

Working in the field


Garbage. Plastic is a serious problem in parts of the world that don't have good garbage or recycling collection and facilities.

Gabriel pointed out the walls. In addition to adobe, they have a building technique that produces a type of wall called "tapia." You use wood to make a frame, then add the mud and press it down. After you do one layer and let it dry, then you do the layer above it, and so on.


A tapia wall done with layers of rocks

Look at how thick the walls are

The milk man

Watercress, growing in the canal

A cow

Another cow

A pig

Pigs are useful not only for producing pork but also for eating garbage. Often, if one family has a pig and another neighboring family doesn't, the neighboring family will have one of their children bring their garden over to the pig. Then, when the pig is butchered, that family will get a portion of the meat.

Walking a cow

Carrying garden tools in her awayo

Once a new building is completed, it is decorated and blessed, as you can see with the house below. This practice is called chaya.

A new building that has been decorated

In some cases, it looks like the dairy cows in Chicani were kept in rather tight quarters, like in this picture.

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