What does migration have to do with on-farm conservation? A field report from the Altiplano Norte of Bolivia.

Giulia BaldinelliBy Giulia Maria Baldinelli

Although this fact may not be immediately obvious to most people outside the region, the Bolivian Altiplano is the origin and heart of much of the world’s agricultural biodiversity. While most Western consumers have at least seen one type of potato and some health-conscious eaters have come into contact with quinoa, most of us would have never heard of other foods such as oca, isaño, papalisa, cañahua, and tarwi. This is because these crops have traditionally been excluded by developed countries’ agricultural research and conservation activities for a number of reasons.

Firstly, past and present efforts have aimed at increasing yields and productivity of a narrow set of crops suited to high-input, high-output farming, focusing on grains like rice, wheat, and maize, which produce more than half of the global food energy needs. Indigenous crop varieties are simply less commercially viable and thus remain relatively invisible. They are rarely sold for money, but are instead consumed directly by poor, rural people that grow them in order to meet their own families’ nutrition needs. The likes of oca, tarwi, and papalisa are thus relatively unknown outside rural areas; the demand for them in urban and international markets is scarce, and commercialization is difficult.

Although they do not hold much global-scale profit potential, these underutilized crops are incredibly important. They contribute to a nutritionally rich and well-balanced diet of some of the world’s poorest people, while being vital to the future of the world’s food supply, particularly in the context of climate change, since they are adapted to harsh, marginal growing conditions, like those of the Andean Altiplano. Conserving them in their numerous different varieties is now recognized as a global challenge because, as was put by the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species (GFU), “a wide food crop base is crucial for supporting local economies, traditions and cultures and, above all, for being able to provide farmers with options for dealing with whatever agricultural problems may emerge in the future”.

Thanks to centuries of experience and a close relationship with the natural world—for subsistence as well as for cultural and spiritual reasons—indigenous peoples and traditional smallholder farmers like have conserved numerous varieties of crops suited to local microclimates. Doña Viviana Herrera of the Aymara community of Cachilaya, provincia Los Andes, for example, conserves about 150 varieties of potato and quinoa (see picture). People like Doña Viviana hold rich ecological knowledge systems and, in their agricultural activities, they have been able to maintain the natural genetic interactions between crops, their wild relatives, and the local environment. In other words, they have preserved local agricultural diversity, while promoting sustainable food systems and the resilience of local farming.

Doña Viviana, from the community of Cachilaya, showing some of her potato and quinoa varieties. Image credit: Giulia Maria Baldinelli

Indigenous agricultural practices in the Andes have remained mostly unchanged throughout history. Although various non-local crops—including more productive/higher-yielding varieties—have been introduced since the fifteenth century, cultural and economic change has not necessarily endangered the diversity of crops. In fact, as the geographer Karl Zimmerer states, native plants have been preferred and conserved by indigenous farmers for gustatory appeal, traditional and ritual value, and climate suitability.

Nowadays, however, indigenous peoples of the Bolivian Altiplano are compelled to respond to a number of challenges that are driving changes in their agricultural and food systems. These include the rise of industrial farming, land dispossession, water scarcity, and climate change. But one that merits deep attention is migration, mostly from rural to urban areas, which is generally triggered by economic factors like poverty and the search for job opportunities and better living conditions in the cities.

In the Northern highlands of Bolivia rural-urban migration of Aymara farmers is affecting agriculture and, in particular, agrobiodiversity. Identifying the consequences of migration on indigenous communities and on their livelihoods is vital to developing effective strategies to promote on-farm conservation.

This is the aim of my PhD research project “Indigenous peoples’ rural-urban migration and agrobiodiversity conservation: exploring connections in the Bolivian Altiplano Norte.” Since August 2012, I have been collecting data with the support of the Fundación PROINPA in three Aymara communities of the Lake Titicaca region of Bolivia: Cachilaya (municipio Puerto Pérez, provincia Los Andes), Coromata Media (municipio Huarina, provincia Omasuyos), and Santiago de Okola (municipio Carabuco, provincia Camacho). I have worked mostly using qualitative methods such as participatory observation, surveys, and interviews with Aymara farmers to collect data on migration and on the use of local agricultural varieties. I have also used quantitative research methods for monitoring agrobiodiversity in these three communities, working with a sample of between twenty and thirty families in each one. In some cases, I visited the homes of the farmers and helped them with the harvesting activities to see which varieties they had; in some others, I took advantage of the agrobiodiversity fairs organised by the Fundación PROINPA, which are occasions for Aymara people to showcase the crop varieties they own.

Partial results have revealed that out and return migration can have contradictory consequences and both positively and negatively affect conservation activities and agrobiodiversity on family farms in the Northern Bolivian Altiplano. On the one hand, in most cases, migration is responsible for agronomic simplification, loss of diversity, and preference for high-yielding varieties. This is because indigenous farmers change their thinking and decision-making regarding their farms when young people come and go; they shift their resources away from crop biodiversity conservation when their income-generating activities changes and they sometimes use remittances to purchase high-yielding seeds, thus substituting native crops with high-value commercial varieties.

On the other hand, exceptions—where migration flows positively affect on-farm diversity and conservation—also exist. Returning migrants who have been exposed to urban and international ways of life can sometimes re-discover and re-invent agrobiodiversity by initiating new agro-tourism projects that are both profitable and sustainable. For example, in the community of Santiago de Okola an agro-tourism initiative, focused on the use of local agricultural varieties for tourists, was launched in 2006 and it is currently almost entirely run by return migrants. There, the returnees created incentives for more sustainable farming methods by actively spreading information about the positive environmental and income-generating outcomes of conserving farm biodiversity.

The final results and an analysis of their implications will be available in my PhD thesis, which is going to be published in September 2014 with School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

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Giulia Maria Baldinelli is a Development Studies PhD candidate at  at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. 

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