Ancient Roots

20 Aug 2009

Rural communities in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon are embracing an ancient farming technique in order to endure annual floods. Poor farmers are being encouraged to use a centuries-old irrigation system for their crops as part of a project aiming to provide them with better protection against climate change, reduced deforestation and improved food security.

The old technique is based on constructing camellones – built up platforms of earth surrounded by canals. The camellones are built above the height of floodwaters and therefore protect crops and seeds from being washed away. The canals remain full after the floodwaters recede, and provide nutrients and irrigation during the dry season.

Regular flooding followed by drought is a problem faced by both ancient and modern communities in the Bolivia’s region of Beni. From around 1000BC to 1400AD, Beni cultures used a similar system as the camellones to counteract these problems. ‘We are only just now learning how our ancestors lived and survived’, says worker Maira Salas. ‘They did not have tractors to build the camellones, and they survived for years. It’s incredible.’

‘One of the many extraordinary aspects of our camellones project is that poor communities living in the Beni today are using a similar technology to that developed by indigenous pre-Columbian cultures in the same region to solve a similar range of problems,’ says Oscar Saavedra, director of the Kenneth Lee Foundation, the non-governmental organization carrying out the project.

In 2008 the region experienced the most severe flooding in 50 years, affecting a quarter of Beni’s population and causing over 200 million dollars in damage. The disaster prompted many local women to join the camellones project. ‘I had planted rice, maize, bananas and onions on my plot of land. But the water left nothing,’ describes 44-year-old Dunia Rivero Mayaco, ‘I lost my house too… So that’s why I am working here on the camellones. I didn’t want to lose everything again.’

Around 400 families in five locations are now enrolled in the program. Though many are still in experimental stage, there has been increased productivity and promising signs of success.

Source: BBC News

Simone Gie

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