“Not paradise, but close to the heavens” – why gender and institutions matter in adapting to climate change in the Peruvian Andes

Farmers in the developing world are bearing the brunt of climate change. None more so than campesinos in the Peruvian Andes who already live and work in some of the world’s harshest conditions. Recent years have seen declining rainfall and increasing pests, both of which reduce farm yields. Reduced yields means less to eat and thus the only option is to migrate to the cities and the coast to look for work.

Farming at nearly 4,000 metres altitude

Farming “close to the heavens” at nearly 4,000 metres altitude

ITC’s Trade and Environment Programme is training farmers on good agricultural practices in Molloco and Caritamaya, two communities outside Puno beside Lake Titicaca. This will enable them to raise productivity and to get organic certification and thus sell their product for export. The farmers are all women and mostly over 40 years old. Their husbands work off-farm and help with some of the heavier jobs when needed.

The work is hard with sowing, tilling, weeding and harvesting by hand and livestock to tend. At almost 3,900 metres, the community must be one of the highest farms in the world. The sun burns hard and the air is bitterly cold. Earlier in that day, a technical officer at a quinoa cooperative we met welcomed us saying “we are not in paradise, but close to the heavens”.

Women farmers returning to the village from the fields

Women farmers returning to the village from the fields

The work is also laden with risk due to these harsh agro-climatic conditions. Two days prior to our arrival, a frost had hit the potato crop across the region. Elmer Ventura, the lead extension officer for the ITC project estimated it would reduce the communities’ yields by 10%. Climate change is increasing the levels of risk. In what was meant to be the rainy season, it had not rained for three weeks. The result of this veranilla (short summer) was an estimated 30% further drop in yield. Higher temperatures, whilst reducing the frequency of frost, was also increasing the prevalence of a pest called gorgojo that attacks the potatoes.

Improving agricultural practices helps the farmers adapt to climate change, for example by learning how to prepare homemade liquid organic fertilizers and natural pest controls. However, there is a more challenging task for the communities and that is to maintain its traditional crop rotation systems called inocas. Practicing crop rotation is vital to maintaining soil fertility and ensuring pests are not attracted to crops.

Farmer in Caritamaya shows her fellow farmers the liquid manure she has prepared

Farmer in Caritamaya shows her fellow farmers the liquid manure she has prepared

Inocas were created by the Incas. They are a system of agriculture, still found in parts of the Andes, in which the community agrees to organize cropping as a group rather than individually. Each farmer still owns their parcel of land but the choice of the crop is decided collectively according to the annual rotation plan. This means, for example, on a block of 20 plots, only quinoa is planted, whilst on the the next block of 20 plots only potatoes are planted and so on. Other blocks plant barley, alfalfa (for nitrogen capture) or are left fallow to give the soil time to build up fertility.

The advantage of this system is that pests can be managed so that they are less likely to invade the potato crop (which is vital for feeding the community) and farmers are not tempted to skip the fallow years.

According to Carlos Lozada from Fondo America, a company that buys quinoa from the community, these Inca farm systems broke down during and after the Spanish colonization into more individualist approaches to farming, with many farmers making their own choices about what to plant. As a result, farm productivity declined.

In this region, a changing climate means that a rigorous farm rotation must be employed so that the farms withstand the effects of increased pests and reduced rainfall. The traditional, community-driven inoca system ensures that the required rotation takes place. However the inoca system can only be maintained with strong community organizations, leadership and decision making. The weakening of community ties and obligations is partly determined by a historical legacy of individualism and more recently by an increasing population. Subdivision of land due to inheritance is prevalent. Furthermore, urbanization competes with agriculture for land use.

Robust responses to climate change are thus not just about putting money into farm training and research on new varieties and finding investment for irrigation but also addressing broader institutional issues like strengthening farm organizations, addressing issues of land inheritance and gaining access to distance markets. The role of women is important in terms of their access to land and sovereignty over income and thus having the power to make the right decisions to increase climate resilience. In this part of Latin America, they appear to have that power, but they need outside support to maintain their lives and culture in the face of the climate crisis.

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