How archaeology holds the key to climate change adaptation in Bolivia

Bolivia climate changeClimate Change is giving Bolivia a rough ride. One of the poorest, most unequal, and most biodiverse countries in Latin America, it has been buffeted by ‘natural’ disasters in recent years and is home to 20% of the world’s tropical glaciers, which are melting faster than most experts thought possible. Bolivia is also home to an exciting change process under the country’s first ever indigenous president, Evo Morales – will climate change unravel any progress?.

A new Oxfam report gives chapter and verse (and some amazing photos) on the impacts and responses to climate change in Bolivia, but one story caught my eye, from the north-east Beni region, where flooding in 2008 was the worst in 50 years. One project there has turned to an unusual source of ‘new’ ideas – archaeology – in search of ways to adapt to climate change.

In the 1960s, archaeologists revealed an ancient agricultural system, developed by a pre-Inca civilisation, which not only coped with environmental challenges such as flooding and drought, but also improved soil fertility and productivity. Three thousand years later, this ancient irrigation system has been revived.

Elevated fields of up to two metres high, known as camellones, are camellones 2constructed to be above the height of floodwaters, and are surrounded by water channels. The elevated fields are somewhat like the raised beds that some vegetable gardeners construct, though on a much larger scale. During the rainy season, the surrounding channels fill with floodwater, preventing the crops in the fields being washed away. The water can then be used to irrigate and provide nutrients to the camellones during periods of drought.

The project is in its early stages, but initial results have been promising. The first trial camellones, built in 2007, were the only structures that survived the 2008 floods, which proved the system could help communities adapt and strengthen their livelihoods.

Improved fertility of the camellones means that farmers are able to produce up to three crops a year and much higher yields than can be achieved by conventional practices in the region. The water channels are vital to the success of this system, providing irrigation and year-round nutrients. Fast-growing aquatic plants called tarope purify the water, encouraging fish to colonise the canals, and these in turn provide an additional source of food and income.

This is one of a series of country reports by Oxfam on the impact of climate change – the latest, on Pakistan, was published yesterday. The full list (includes Uganda, Malawi, Nepal, South Africa, Vietnam and Russia) is here.

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Comments

5 Responses to “How archaeology holds the key to climate change adaptation in Bolivia”
  1. Christine Zarzicki

    Duncan,

    Thank you for posting this blog, it is very informative and interesting. The concept of utilizing indigenous techniques that have been in existence hundreds of years ago is fascinating. While it is very upsetting that Bolivia must deal with the horrific consequences of global warming, it is promising to know that a sustainable solution may exist.

    The aspect of this idea that is most appealing to me is the utilization of nature to combat “natural” disasters. Generally speaking it seems that the world frequently looks toward scientific approaches to solve various ecological problems. While science and the respective outcomes of the green revolution (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) are most certainly useful in a multitude of ways, the long-term effect of these solutions may actually contribute to the problem. The concept of redesigning nature to combat flood, drought and produce fertile land, appears to be more sustainable and does not further deteriorate our global environment.

    Essentially this article allowed me to realize it that while the global community tends to turn toward science for remedies, perhaps the most organic and natural methods represent the most viable solution.

  2. Thanks for this post. It might also interest you that a version of this camellones method is commonly used in parts of Aceh. In their version, tree crops (in particular, citrus) and vegetables are grown on the raised beds, and rice in the long troughs.

  3. Pete

    The re-introduction of this ancient system of maintaining the land and living with the local climate sounds like a great improvement for those people using this system and I hope it works as well as it sounds like it could for them.

    However, my understanding is that part of the area in the raised camellones is used to grow seedlings that are planted out on the normal farm land after the floods have receeded, giving them a headstart. This might allow them to cultivate a larger crop on these normal fields – but these areas where the seedlings are planted out are created out of the forest in traditional ‘slash and burn’ technique. So a side effect of better prodcution of seedlings might be to increase the amount of forest that is cut down every few years. This will be bad for CO2 levels in the climate, bad for the forest and will cause increasing flooding (as the report says “the cause of the flooding was linked to the La Niña weather cycle…. However, the underlying problem was that of the widespread deforestation in the main river basins of the area. This had led to the silting and sedimentation of rivers and a reduced capacity to carry water.”).

    So a good deal for those who can improve their lives, but at the cost of increased CO2 and environmental degradation. Us rich westerners don’t have a monolpoly on harming the planet – just a headstart.

  4. Laura Melkonian

    Extant methods provide practical approaches to present-day problems by dint of their long survival. The Bolivian camellones appear to offer a win-win agricultural solution for the South American farmers faced with detrimental climate changes and natural disasters.

    The Oxfam Report articulates five main impacts on Bolivia that may result from climate change: less food security, glacial retreat affecting water availability, more frequent and more intense ‘natural’ disasters, an increase in mosquito-borne diseases, and more forest fires.

    In addition to addressing the issue of less food security and the amount of available water, it appears (from my non-scientific viewpoint) that the structure of camellones may also help mitigate the problem of diseases spread by mosquitoes and forest fires. As the water rises and falls between elevated fields, rather than pooling stagnant water in few large areas, maybe this method will reduce the rampant breeding of mosquitoes and thus limit the spread of diseases. Also, if seeds are planted on elevated soil dispersed between water, maybe new crops and trees would be less susceptible to fire, as the water could slow the breadth of destruction.

    Regardless of my speculations, hopefully the camellones will help Bolivians to combat their unfair burden of climate related problems.

    Nevertheless, these methods alone cannot manage an ever increasing environmental challenge. As Oxfam lists in the recommendations section of its report, the international community should reduce green house gases and increase foreign aid in order to assist developing countries like Bolivia that bear an uneven cost of climate change.

  5. The elevated fields would never work. Why? Mosquitos.

    One may think of mosquitos as mild distractions, and they would be right, coming from a community where the insects pose no threat.

    However, in Bolivia these pools of water are prime breeding spots for these disease carrying insects. Malaria, West Nile, Dengue to name a few.

    This is why this idea has been brought up and discarded time and time again.

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