How archaeology holds the key to climate change adaptation in Bolivia

November 20, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

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.

November 20, 2009
Duncan Green