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Indigenous farming could become a motor for conserving biodiversity, promoting ancestral knowledge crucial for climate adaptation, and building alternative development models based on local markets. That is, if communities can hold the water-hogging mining companies at bay.
By Alexis Nicolás Ibáñez Blancas, Researcher at Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina
In the southern Andes of Peru, three processes have shaped small-scale community-managed peasant agriculture, beginning with the agrarian reform of the early 1970s. The reform, which sought to engage rural Quechua and Aimara populations in the broader process of national change, envisaged community management not only of land, in particular agricultural land, but also of prairies, water, forests, and the rest of the components of the agricultural ecosystem according to the communities’ worldview. Following several years of struggle by peasant and indigenous organizations, this approach was written into the Constitution of 1979, which established that peasant communities were “autonomous” regarding land use, and that their lands were “…not to be seized or reduced. They are inalienable…”
This was not as radical a stance as it may seem: back in 1920 the previous constitution had recognized indigenous communities as a collective entity. The agrarian reform of the 1970s recognized indigenous cultural diversity and reaffirmed several specific collective rights, including the right to ancestral languages, the rights to land and natural resources, and even the right to customary justice. Significant for smallholder agriculture were the recognition of ecosystems within communal territory, and the services provided by those ecosystems, as capital assets belonging to the community; also codified was the right to water.
“The 1920 constitution recognized indigenous communities as a collective entity.”
A second process occurred in the context of generalized crisis in the country during the 1990’s. An effort, mainly driven by actors external to the community, was made to integrate peasant communities into the market, on the assumption that small-scale producers needed to break out of their self-sustained communities and establish market relationships with the rest of the country. The productive system was seen as a constellation of small enterprises that ought to be linked by market relations. The political agenda derived from this conception called for increased investment in five areas: technology, credit, technological education, specialized technical assistance, and joint marketing.
The third process grew out of a different approach: the concept of well-being, whereby notions of growth and the market are set within a commitment to live in harmony with Mother Earth. This vision, perhaps best expressed at the “Summit for the Rights of Mother Earth” in 2010, entails a rupture with the development model based on growth and accumulation, and an embrace of balance between humans and the other key actors in the world. It recognizes that there are many ways of seeing the world, given our diversity; it acknowledges the value of ancestral wisdom and its specific local application; and it recognizes the earth as a subject with rights that is essential to life.
“There are many ways of seeing the world, given our diversity.”
Coming out of these three processes, peasant agriculture will confront three great drivers of change: i) expansion of mining activity to the detriment of grazing land and in some cases of complementary cropping land at the highest altitudes; ii) climate change, which will affect the flora and fauna in the plateaus of the high Andes and the Puna ecosystem, which may well become more desert-like; and iii) huge conflicts over water, in a context where people lose their human right to water and therefore their access to it—through wetland loss and through investment in large dams placing water management increasingly in the hands of the private sector—resulting in an exodus of families that now live from herding alpacas.
Such challenges will shape ongoing efforts to affirm cultural identities, as in the case of the Aimara nation in the Puno high plateau, or the Chanka nation in Andahuaylas. It could also build more solid bridges for the “knowledge dialogue,” Iskay Yachay in Quechua and Paya Yatiwi in Aimara, which seeks to address the main problems associated with the loss of ecosystem services, and to contribute to sustainable management of the Andes via the continued practice of peasant agriculture, which generates valuable knowledge.
“Small-scale agriculture’s role within the prevailing development model will come into conflict with large-scale investment.”
Given these changes, in the near future, small-scale agriculture in the southern Andes will likely be relegated to a subsistence level, with an impoverished Quechua and Aimara population focused mainly on supplying food to intermediate cities, due to the displacement of the rural population to these cities. Small-scale agriculture´s role within the prevailing development model will come into conflict with large-scale investment, particularly regarding access to water. Nevertheless, if social movements for cultural affirmation manage to achieve their goals, smallholder agriculture could become a driver for the conservation of biodiversity, a powerful unifying force for replicating ancestral knowledge, a storehouse of experience for adaptation to the global crisis, and an alternative to the current development model.
Here are three possible scenarios for the future:
- Scenario 1: A highly privatized agricultural system would have extensive areas dominated by mining activities in conflict with peasant populations, large infrastructure projects for water storage under private management, and the loss of wetlands and ecosystem services in the high plateaus and punas. Large-scale social fragmentation would make for conflict between cities and rural populations. Even if investment could ease life in the cities, the differences between higher-income groups and those living in peri-urban and rural communities would increase. The rural population would be a lot older and a lot smaller. In this case, the role of smallholder agriculture would be limited by restricted access to ecosystem services. Its function would be mainly subsistence, and the ancestral populations associated with it would be excluded from national development.
- Scenario 2: A segmented agricultural system would see the rural population still in conflict with mining activities and water control initiatives, and a lack of alliances with cities would worsen the impact of climate change and the loss of ecosystem diversity. The relationship between cities and rural communities would only exist through commerce. Cities may achieve higher technological levels and the main activities and livelihoods may become automated.
“The knowledge dialogue could help overcome the tensions between Western culture and local worldviews based on the rights of Mother Earth.”
In order to reduce conflict, there may be strategies similar to payment for environmental services or monetary resource transfers to rural populations. In this scenario, the role of small-scale agriculture would be supplying food to the intermediate cities. The local population would remain in poverty and dependent on resource transfers from public programs, with a limited role in the preservation of diversity and implementing only isolated initiatives to adapt to the global environmental crisis.
- Scenario 3: A more culturally diverse system would be managed at the local level by consolidated ancestral nations linked to each other through intermediate cities, such as Cusco, Juliaca, and Huamanga. Local production in the lower-altitude areas would focus on alpaca and mixed flock herding, linked to the water cycle, thus allowing for adaptation to climate change. Purely private activities would be scaled back. The knowledge dialogue would help overcome the tensions between Western culture (and its development model) and local worldviews based on the rights of Mother Earth. Smallholder agriculture would provide elements for an alternative development model, empowering the preservation of diversity and providing strategies and experiences for adaptation to the global environmental crisis. It would generate new routes to knowledge based on ancestral wisdom and the knowledge dialogue. Small-scale agriculture would become a profitable activity that allows families sustenance and choices for their future development.