Subsistence farmers in Bolivia have been given help to change their technology – moving away from pipe and sprinkle irrigation systems to an aeons-old technique of hand-built raised clay platforms that are surrounded by canals.
The platforms, called camellones, can be up to eight feet above the level of the fields they support, have two purposes: they protect seeds and crops from being washed away by floods and the water stored in the canals can be used when the river system is low, to irrigate the crops.
The camellone construction system is pre-Columbian dating back to around 1000BC to AD1400, which shows that communities, then, as now, faced the problem of flooding succeeded by drought. And this may have been one of the causes of collapse for those ancient cultures, because when workers were diverted from building and maintaining agricultural systems to joining armies, there may have been famines. In modern day Bolivia, serious floods in the past three years have caused more than £119 million of damage to agricultural systems. It’s hoped that with climate change driving more river flooding and more drought, reverting to old technology could help communities cope with water levels rising even as rains reduce.
Around 400 families have been supported by local and international charities to create camellones in five areas to grow corn, cassava and rice. The first results look good, as the Amazonian floods have now receded, and where the nutrients in the soil would normally be washed back into the river, the platforms have remained above the floods and conserved the rich vegetative topsoil that can grow better crops than the sandy subsoil.
The downside of ancient systems
If you’re thinking it all sounds too good to be true, you could very well be right. This kind of preliminary report on an agricultural or technological ‘throw-back’ is often followed by a bleak silence. The reasons for this are often more political than environmental and include:
1) The cost of investment in building and maintaining such systems, which is subsided by charities for three or five years and then the charity funding moves on and nobody is motivated to carry on the work
2) The transfer of local power from hierarchical systems (which are often based on government or international aid and support) to individuals who may be low ranking, illiterate and unable to drive forward change outside their own behaviour
3) The failure to recognise that while subsistence farmers claim to want to be self-sufficient, such projects tend to recruit the young, healthy and confident: all it takes is illness in the family, a child to win a scholarship or a vehicle or house to need substantial repairs and that family is likely to move away from growing crops to eat back into growing cash crops that generate income to meet their needs.
4) Calls on local labour – if a road or resort is built nearby, all the available labour may be pulled from agriculture to work on the cash-generating project.
What such projects need is a longer term investment, along with social support to ensure that the community recognises that the new systems can deliver everything that cash crops or illegal forestry did.