Monday, November 14, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Day 9, Part 4 - Agroecology in Cochabamba, Part 3

On our ninth day in Bolivia, we visited Agroecología Universidad Cochabamba (AGRUCO). This section is on AGRUCO's chuño project. It is the third diary on AGRUCO. The first provides just a basic introduction to them and their work and the second tells about their continuing education program.

The talk below is somewhat poorly translated because the speaker sounded like he had a mouth full of marbles. However, please at least check out the bolded sentence toward the bottom and the paragraph below it. This is probably the most important thing he said - and it is VITALLY important!

On our 10th day, AGRUCO took us to one of the communities they work in, a Quechua community in Cochabamba. It was FANTASTIC. So please read this with the knowledge that a very fun application of what you learn about AGRUCO is on its way.

The final presentation was on the chuño project of AGRUCO. It was led by one of the people in charge of the project, which is devoted to improving the value chain for potatoes, quinoa, and cañawa. The project takes place with five communities in a specific Aymara-speaking ayllu in the department of Cochabamba. There are 311 beneficiary campesino families in the project.

AGRUCO is focused on improving the value chain of these products from production, harvest, post-harvest, processing, storage, and marketing.

Their work is promoting sustainable production of potatoes, quinoa, and cañawa using locally available resources. For example, to make natural pesticides. After improving the production part of the potato, then they work on the process of turning the potato into chuño. They are also working with producers to improve storage methods. For example, the campesinos will often keep the chuño in a big plastic bag in the corner of the house where it is subject to destruction from rats or humidity.

It's been really important in the project to discuss gastronomy and the food and the food production, and incorporating women into the projects. They see it's really important to work with and to strengthen the social organizations. So they don't work with individual families, they work with producer organizations. This is an integral project that works with the cultural spiritual components. They don't just go in as technicians and leave, they live together with the peasants to experience all aspects of life. The final step of the participatory research is monitoring. They do this as they go along and then every 6 months they do an evaluation.

A beginning step in the project is informing everyone about the project and doing an exchange trip (farmer to farmer) - taking campesinos to another community so they can see it first hand before they start the project. For example, the campesinos might visit a community that uses a different method to make chuño.

The next step is to do social learning workshops. These are horizontal. Everyone talks about interests, priorities, and problems they are having. This helps identify key themes, like how to develop organic fertilizers, developing an agroecological calendar, or working on seed potato propagation.

They also generate discussion and reflection. AGRUCO brings materials and videos on organic agriculture, the use of toxic chemicals and their impact on the environment, so they can all discuss those issues.

They also promote agroecological production of Andean grains in order to improve agrobiodiversity and to promote those crops. They also work on potato production, which is having issues with a loss of biodiversity. This is a result of the introduction of commercial potato varieties. In the communities the families were managing five or six varieties of potatoes, and they've increased this to 21 varieties of potatoes. Before, families used manage 40-50 varieties of potatoes and now that's been greatly reduced. (Santiago de Okola, for comparison, grows 45 varieties of potatoes, and of that, they consider 15 to be staples.)

Another nearby region, a little higher in altitude, AGRUCO discovered an ayllu managing 70 potato varieties. The different varieties of potato can be used to take advantage of all of the different micro-climates of Bolivia. If you lose one, it's gone. It's really important, for example, only certain varieties are used for chuño, which are an important food security necessity. If those are lost, they cannot make chuño.

They have other varieties of potatoes that are for direct consumption (unlike chuño). And then there are other varieties that cannot be eaten directly or made into chuño. A fourth category of potatoes are the commercial varieties eaten in the cities.

In Bolivia, there are many varieties of potato, and the idea of the project is to develop a germ plasm bank. But the bank will be in situ, on the farms, with the campesinos themselves, and not ex situ, in a building somewhere. This is why they are very concerned about the issue of GMOs as a threat to diversity of germplasm in Bolivia and they are trying to see how to prevent or mitigate it.

They see the issue of agrobiodiversity as intertwined with the issue of food security. These practices that are helping to promote and recover are not new practices; they are ancient. They are revaluing native seeds and seed exchange networks.

They also work in the production of organic fertilizers and pesticides, like producing foliar spray. They always use local, endogenous resources like alpaca milk or ashes. They are promoting reconversion to organic agriculture, but sometimes they face doubt by the campesinos that their yields will drop if they convert. So they must help them do a gradual, slow conversion to organic. You could see that with the introduction of the Green Revolution, especially 20 years ago, with the heavy, heavy introduction of agrochemicals. They themselves have more consciousness about the harms of agrochemicals because they have seen the degradation of their soil and biodiversity.

They grow potato seeds by sprouting a potato, then removing the sprout and planting them in a bed in a nursery. It then takes 3 years to produce seed potatoes for the campesinos. They remove any potatoes with diseases. This is done to reduce the incidence of diseased potatoes used by campesinos. (Here in the U.S. it's also the common recommendation to purchase certified seed potatoes that are certified disease-free.)

They also work on improving the storage system for campesinos. As noted before, potatoes are often stored in sacks of plastic bags and they have problems like humidity, pests, or mold. This is not a good system. There is an ancient system that they used to use to store potatoes, since Incan times. They are bringing this back. In the old system, the chuño can keep for 15 to 20 years. When you have a bad harvest, you can eat your old stored chuño. This old system uses a structure of adobe with a straw roof. Now they are trying to improve that. Now they use a tile roof and cement. Thus, they are reducing the incidence of pest outbreaks.

They are also building seed silos for potatoes. The potatoes will sit for a month or so in the silo and they get a little light. Then when you plant them, they are more productive. These are some of the simple techniques that they are recovering for the campesinos so they don't have to buy things to improve the quality of their seeds. They showed us a photo of a structure that could hold 800 lbs of potatoes. Each family would keep its own storage facilities. The family also stores its quinoa, canawa, barley, and maize. (Maize would be purchased from another region because the region in question is at too high an altitude to grow corn.)

They have done some evaluations for what the best materials are for the quinoa. They said clay mixed with mud is the best material to build these storage facilities. Plaster could crack and contaminate the chuño, but mud and clay will not crack. This kind of information comes out of dialogue with the community. They use locally available materials.

He concluded by saying that all of these actions are toward the goal of improving food security.

In the Q&A section, we learned the following:
AGRUCO has seen very little if any support of production in these communities (beside the support they provide). Small producers have never had any support because they were seen as being unimportant to the economy. But AGRUCO thinks they are of critical importance, and fortunately the new constitution includes language saying that the state must support smallholder production and the building of these storage facilities.

They are still in a process, in which this is in the constitution, but making it happen requires more work. As an institution, AGRUCO has worked with several other institutions to implement the laws and to pressure the government to do so as well. They have the hope that young people and the young technicians will be able to push forward this mission and to replicate the successes they are achieving now. This is a longterm projects. They are also working on other projects like creating value added products from Andean crops, like flour, cookies.

For example, canawa is such a small grain. It's smaller and more nutritious than quinoa. For example, they are trying to introduce some of those products to state supported school breakfast program, like chuño, cañawa, etc. What AGRUCO most wants to do is to raise the self esteem of campesinos. (emphasis added)

[The following bit is somewhat rambling but of utmost importance!!!]

If they can be in charge of their own lives and their own production and really achieve the goal of Living Well... because we see over time, campesinos have a different kind of rationality especially from those who live in the city. We are seeing so many policies time and time again, trying to transform campesinos into capitalists or small entrepreneurs, but that goes against their rationality. To force them to go into the markets to sell their products so they can also be buyers. We try to respect their specific rationality, which is what we've outlined, and that's all part of a system that is often more important to them than increasing their profit margin.

About climate change, he answered, that the campesinos live so close to nature that they see all of the little changes and adapt incrementally. As the climate changes, some people are just abandoning the land because it's too difficult. The use of agrochemicals has also rendered the land less fertile.

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