Bolivia suffered disastrous floods two years in a row in 2007 and 2008. Over 100 people died in the two years, 350,000 people were affected in 2007, and another 40,000 were made homeless in 2008. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency
Coping with environmental challenges while improving soil fertility and productivity.

Bolivia: Reviving ancient indigenous knowledge

Recurring natural disasters keep many people worldwide locked in poverty. Climate change will increase both the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as flooding or droughts. Beni, a district of Bolivia prone to alternate flooding and drought, is an example of a region where people are being forced to adapt to the changing climate. Oxfam is working with communities to develop adaptation strategies. One solution comes from long-forgotten agricultural techniques used by local farmers who lived 3,000 years ago.

Recurring disaster

Bolivia suffered disastrous floods two years in a row in 2007 and 2008. Over 100 people died in the two years, 350,000 people were affected in 2007, and another 40,000 were made homeless in 2008. Archaeological research gave hope that adaptation was possible in flood-prone areas. It revealed that the pre-Inca civilization living here before carried out vast modifications to the landscape, and developed an agricultural system that coped with environmental challenges while improving soil fertility and productivity.

A sophisticated system

Today, Oxfam, together with the Kenneth Lee Foundation, is working with the community of Trinidad to replicate this centuries-old technique. The system is actually very sophisticated, producing fertile soil, fish stock, animal fodder and localised drainage through clever water management, nutrient production and organic recycling. It also includes the construction of elevated seedbeds known locally as camellones, to prevent seasonal floodwater washing away seeds and plants.

Improving fertility

Around the raised beds are water channels where a combination of plants and fish produce a fertile environment. The plants are harvested and placed on top of the banks where, after six months, they help produce 10cm of fertile soil. The fast-growing, indigenous, plants can also be used for animal fodder. The community also gets an additional source of fish. Because water surrounds the beds, irrigation is very easy and once the system is established there is less need for watering.

Reaping the benefits

Local farmer Yenny Noza explains "In the old system we losta lot of plants and seeds when the floods came. Then we had to wait for the water to go down before we could start replanting. But now the plants don't get covered with water when the flood comes. So we can still harvest and then we can immediately sow seeds again." This system offers an alternative to cutting down the rain forest. And, according to Oscar Saavedra of the Kenneth Lee Institute, "it also creates a balance between the dry and wet seasons, enabling people to live with the process of nature rather than challenging it."

Winning over the community

Initially the local community was sceptical, "We thought it wouldn't work because we know that the soil is very poor – it's dead here and not good for agriculture," says Rafael Crespo Ortiz. "But with this technology we have learnt that it can be done. We even have bucheres [a fish that can live in the mud during the dry season] in the channels so we will have an additional fish stock supply in the community."

A sense of pride

Yenny Noza says: "We couldn't imagine what it would be like. When we saw it for the first time we became more and more curious. We wanted to know how it worked and when we saw how it worked we saw it was very good. And because it was developed by our ancestors we felt proud because we were recovering something old. It's very nice to be involved in this."

Other examples of communities adapting to climate change: 

 

Bangladesh: Preparing for flood disaster

 

Tanzania: Supporting the livelihood of Maasai pastoralists

 

Raising southern voices: The Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union