If you were hoping for an environmental twist on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, I would move on now. But if you’re interested in how communities living in the cloud forests of Peru and Bolivia are beginning to experience the fifty shades of green forest that their ancestors once enjoyed, then read on.
For many years, settlers have lived in areas of the forests also inhabited by the Awajun, the indigenous communities. Renting land from the Awajun, the settlers’ preferred method of farming was to clear away the forest and plant seasonal crops to feed their families until the quality of the soil was so depleted that it was no longer productive. The families then had to move on. This was clearly not sustainable and led to conflict with the Awajun, whose land no longer had any value.
Working with the Awajun and settlers, Practical Action researched how the forests used to look, using local knowledge to identify the diversity of plants and trees (hence the fifty shades of green) that once grew naturally in the area. Using this knowledge, we worked with the communities to find ways of recreating the cloud forests while still providing them with a realistic living. An agro-forestry system was devised, which ensures that areas of indigenous forest are conserved for future generations, while at the same time communities are able diversify their crops, for eating and selling. I love the diagram below, illustrating simply how by working together, the Awajun and the settlers really can bring ‘fifty shades of green’ back into their lives now, and for future generations. It’s also a partnership beyond the cloud forest communities – we have been able to achieve this because of the partnership with three great Foundations: Innocent foundation, Waterloo Foundation and Z Zurich Foundation.
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When I said we were off down hill I hadn’t appreciated that in order to get out of the valley La Paz is in, we first had to drive up to a mountain pass 5,500 m above sea level (18,150 feet). We then dropped down over a couple of hours on a mainly good quality but winding road to reach a small town called Coroico, situated at just 1,600m (5,380 ft) above sea level.
The area here is very different to that which we visited yesterday. Instead of a flat open and treeless horizon we found steep forested mountains intersected with deep valleys and fast flowing rivers. The air was more humid and drifting clouds hung over the valleys, shrouding some of the mountains form view and explaining why this type of environment is known as ‘cloud forest’.
We are about to start a new project looking at agro forestry practices and sustainable farming of, amongst other things, cocoa (the raw ingredient for chocolate) and coffee in this type of forest. We were visiting Coroico for two reasons. Firstly, it was an opportunity for me to see a well established example of agro forestry and understand what we will be trying to do (our project has yet to really start and the site is a further 6 hour drive from Coroico so it didn’t make sense to go there yet). And secondly, Coroico is the site of an agricultural university and Alfonso, Mario (the head of our office in Bolivia) and Miguel (the new project manager for the agro forestry project) wanted to explore the possibility of future collaboration with the university.
The area around Coroico is interesting. It has been colonised by people from the upland areas we saw yesterday over the years (there doesn’t appear to have been an indigenous population in this particular area prior to the upland people’s arrival). But there is not much evidence of farming for food. Spaces are cleared in the forest to plant mainly coca, which is financially rewarding. Although coca is the source of cocaine and therefore associated with drug trafficking, it can be grown legally in Bolivia, if the fields are registered with the government. The leaves are chewed as a stimulant and it’s also used in a tea. Both are said to be good for helping adjust to or cope with life at high altitude. A coca plant can last up to 60 years and can provide up to 3 harvests of leaves in a year. A small plot we saw, perhaps less than ¼ hectare could produce, according to our guide, an income of around US $750 per year, which explains why it remains a popular crop.
The downside to the way the forest is cleared and farmed here is that there is no attempt to restore organic matter to the soil and, as a result, land becomes less and less productive over time until it has to be abandoned and a fresh piece of forest cleared. The bare soil is then prone to erosion which means that secondary regeneration of the forest once the land is abandoned does not always happen. The ago forestry approach tries to avoid this problem by leaving some tree cover but managing it so that enough light gets to the soil to allow the cultivation of crops in between. The technique can reduce soil erosion and increase soil fertility if managed well. The example we were able to see today included coffee, bananas and orange trees interspersed between native tree species. It had been cultivated by the current owner for more than 13 years in this way, and had recovered land that had previously been cleared to grow coca.
We finished the Coroico visit off with a meeting with the Vice Director of the agricultural university. It seems that the faculty has a research programme on agro forestry and its catchment area extends out to the area where our project will shortly commence. We discuss the possibility of future collaboration, including the possibility of research students tailoring their theses to deal with specific issues in project design or the assessment of impact.1 Comment » | Add your comment
So, I hear it’s snowing in the UK.
Well, there’s a chill in the air here too.
Outside, the Mexican sun is pushing temperatures to a heady 28c but inside, around the negotiating tables, it must be feeling a bit frosty.
Yesterday we heard that Bolivia (the poorest country in Latin America, one of the lowest global CO2 emitters yet hard hit by climate change) is taking a tough stance.
In many senses this is nothing new – Bolivia stood firm at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen and are pushing for the most dramatic ceiling on the global temperature rise.
The Bolivian delegation feels that the Copenhagen accord (the non-binding ‘statement of intent’ from last year’s climate talks) is so weak that it’s not worth them supporting.
Developing countries have failed to uphold their pledges so many times that the Bolivians are holding out for THE ‘fair and binding’ deal.
Having visited Bolivia earlier this year, and seeing for myself the harshness of the climatic changes and communities’ determination to maintain and adapt their culture – for the sake of their survival – I personally can’t condemn the Bolivians for their position.
Why shouldn’t we hold out and demand for the international deal that will make the difference needed?
HelenNo Comments » | Add your comment
Whether drinking, cooking, showering, swimming or relaxing by it, I love clean water. It’s something that I have always taken for granted and so I was shocked at what I saw when I went to visit some of Practical Action’s water and sanitation projects:
Deep in the Peruvian Amazon jungle is a community in the middle of nowhere: We had to drive for about 2 hours from the nearest town across rough, muddy, mountainous terrain, take a ferry over a large river and then trek by foot for an hour down a mountain to reach it. The people who live here are literally in the middle of nowhere and they used to rely on nearby, (and by that I mean a good walk away) natural resources for their water needs.
They took me to see where they previously collected their water. It was a small, dank and dark pit with flies buzzing around it and a nasty smell. I couldn’t believe it; these people drank, wash up and bathed in this water. Thankfully our local team in Peru have worked with them to build showers and clean running water in the village using micro hydro. The community told me that they are delighted with the work Practical Action has done and I imagine it will bring huge benefits such as not having to walk so far to collect the water and cut down on water borne diseases. One man even jumped in the shower with all his clothes on and started dancing. That’s how much it means to these people.
Another very remote project I went to see was above La Paz in Bolivia. The community told us that until we helped them to create eco-toilets, via a micro hydro scheme, they had used the local river as a toilet as well as to wash and drink from. One lady said that needing the toilet at night was awful because it was pitch black, freezing cols – the temperature can reduce to below minus 20 degrees – and there are wolves and sometimes men that roam around, so it was dangerous too. A toilet outside their house with running water changed their lives.
Clean, running water is a wonderful thing, but there are millions of people around the world don’t have access to it. Practical Action is doing some fantastic work to help people gain access to water and sanitation. How can you help us do more of this?No Comments » | Add your comment
Unsurprisingly, at this altitude, the climate is very variable, with temperatures reaching up to 17oC in the day and plummeting to -10oC at night.
This year, however, over 400 people have died in the Peruvian Andes during ‘El Friaje’ (the cold wave), which saw temperatures plummet to -23oC, far below the normal lowest temperature of -10oC.
The night I spent in this family’s house was the coldest I’ve ever experienced. Whipping out my Tesco’s Emergency Blanket, I drifted off to sleep. This didn’t last long, as I remember waking up to the sound of incessant coughing, it was the worst cough I’ve ever heard, and it was haunting to hear that sound coming from an 8 year old child. I went to the next room to see if my overstocked first aid kit could be of use, and was astonished to find that the mother was trying to sooth Stefania (the 8 year old) by the light of the fire.
While this may sound like a normal situation for such an isolated location, and sadly it often is, the reality was that the fire was filling the room with smoke, stinging my eyes on entry, and certainly aggravating the illness and cough. Open fires are often the only means of providing warmth and light, but without proper chimneys to remove the smoke, smoke inhalation causes more deaths a year than Malaria. Access to modern energy would eliminate the need for children, particularly ill children, to be sleeping in smoke-filled rooms. I dread to think how the family coped with the unprecedented temperatures of ‘el friaje’ this year.
Half of the world’s population have no access to modern energy, and predictions show that if we continue with ‘business as usual’, that figure will be exactly the same in 20 years time. This is why Practical Action are launching a campaign called ‘Make the Call: Energy for All’, which asks people to leave a ‘missed call’ for their MP or MEP, telling them the importance of access to modern energy. Energy access impacts on every area of development, modern energy allows maternity wards to have much higher survival rates, it can provide light so that children can study after dark, or warmth to families suffering the most from extreme temperatures.
Modern energy can also provide refrigeration for lifesaving vaccines, access to the internet (which as you probably know if you’re reading this blog, provides access to a wealth of information, especially things like Practical Answers, which are vital for further escaping poverty) or even the ability to start small businesses such as sewing syndicates. Modern energy is the link which allows that much needed escape from poverty, modern energy is the catalyst out of poverty.No Comments » | Add your comment
In the first 5 minutes of our journey through La Paz I counted 27 pieces of graffiti dedicated to President Evo Morales.
You can feel the politics in Bolivia: in the streets, the mountains and the hearts of its people.
Since being elected in 2005, as Bolivia’s first ever indigenous President, Evo Morales has been determined to bring about a ‘democratic revolution’.
And Evo is fighting for the rights of his people on the world stage too.
Bolivia produces just 0.1% of the world’s CO2 but, as I have seen, its families are being hit first and hardest by the effects of our emissions. Following the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations, Evo is launching an alternative: ‘the People’s World Conference on Climate Change’.
It’s taking place in Bolivia, 19 – 21 April.
I for one will be watching (and hoping for a more just outcome for the families who I can’t shake from my mind).
Helen Marsh1 Comment » | Add your comment
People living in the Andes mountains of Bolivia are among the lowest contributors to climate change and yet they are suffering some of the most severe effects. Instead of blaming others they are learning to adapt to the changes in their environment through the help of Practical Action.
Sara-Jane Brown from our communications team is travelling across Peru and Bolivia to see examples of how Practical Action’s work is making a difference to poor communities. Follow my trip live on Twitter: #sarainperu1 Comment » | Add your comment
Walking miles to visit your nearest neighbour and to get rare water supplies is common practice for those living in Colquencha, high above the Bolivian city of La Paz. Helping them gain access to water and use it more effectively, is one way in which Practical Action is helping them.
Sara-Jane Brown from our communications team is travelling across Peru and Bolivia to see examples of how Practical Action’s work is making a difference to poor communities. Follow my trip live on Twitter: #sarainperuNo Comments » | Add your comment
Roberto Castro Mallku and his wife Andrea are the ‘mother and father’ of the community of Micaya. Here, in one of the poorest areas of the poorest country in Latin America (Bolivia), they have spent all 71 years of their lives.
But now they live alone. All 5 of their children have moved to Brazil. They couldn’t see a future for their families in the highlands of Bolivia – which essentially means no long-term future for the Aymara culture.
Practical Action is working with the families of Micaya, and other communities across this vast, challenging landscape to improve their lives and maintain their heritage. Roberto was passionate in declaring love for his lands; life may be hard but these families are fighters.
Here, the main challenge is water (the dry season is becoming more severe, the rainy season is shorter and the glaciers are disappearing).
We are helping families to cope with this change; a simple water reservoir, to capture and store any available water. Built in October 2009, this system holds 17,000 cubic m of water and is already making a real difference for crops, cattle and the community.
Knowing that Roberto, Andrea and the other 125 families of Micaya carried each rock for the reservoir 20kms is humbling. But it’s also hugely inspiring – this community may be poor and marginalised, but, wow, do they have strength and spirit.
Helen Marsh1 Comment » | Add your comment
In all the time I have worked for Practical Action, I have never felt more proud, or priviledged than today.
Here in Bolivia, the Aymara people live thousands of metres above sea level. Hearty hugs and huge smiles seem to be the order of the day, but this doesn’t mean that life is easy – far from it.
We are working with farming families in the area of Colquencha (which has a 90% poverty rate), providing them with the skills and opportunities to adapt to their changing climate and ensure that their traditional way of life survives.
From May to September, temperatures here will drop to -17c.
Crops will perish, livestock will die and families will be forced to make choices I can’t even comprehend (when your life depends on your cattle, do they or your children come first?)
Working with Practical Action, families now have a whole range of solutions (cattle sheds, fodder storage, more resilient crops, immunised animals, regular and fresh water supply). Small changes which make a big difference.
I can’t help but smile either …
Helen MarshNo Comments » | Add your comment