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Food Security and Indigenous Peoples

IDB backs use of indigenous agricultural technology in Peru to improve food security

The survival of indigenous civilizations over centuries in the Andean region has been largely predicated upon innovative adaptations to the natural environment. These innovations include rotating land use to prevent soil exhaustion, creation of agriculture land terraces and complex irrigation systems, as well as other practices that have helped foster greater yields and crop diversity.

A project by the Peruvian government, supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), will help restore this successful and sustainable technology to overcome a 30-year decrease of agricultural yields in the country. Agricultural productivity in Peru has suffered due to changes in policy and market demand and, more recently, changes in weather patterns triggered by climate change.

The Rehabilitation of Andean Terrace Project will provide US$740,000 in technical cooperation financing from the IDB’s Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Fund to support the preparation of a significant national investment program in the rehabilitation of this key agricultural infrastructure. Moreover, it will also support a pilot project to rehabilitate terraces and irrigation canals in Matucana, an indigenous community in the province of Lima.

Inca technology to boost yields

The project will help lay the groundwork to revitalize terraces and irrigation canals in the highland areas of Peru where the descendants of the Incas have a long history of adapting to steep slopes, scarce water resources and arid climates. It is estimated that indigenous farmers built and maintained more than one million hectares of Pre-Colombian terraces in the Departments of Puno, Tacna, Moquegua, Arequipa, Apurimac, Ayacucho, Huancavelica, Cusco, Lima, Junin and Amazonas. While some of the terraces have fallen into disrepair and disuse, some are still being cultivated by indigenous and campesino farmers.

Terraced agriculture involves a series of flat soil beds supported by rock and stone walls and interspersed with canals that are used to direct and control water flow. They are generally built on the sunny sides of mountain or hillside slopes using local clay and rock. They are somewhat labor intensive to build and maintain but the design of the terraces dramatically increases the amount of land available for planting which increases the amount of food available for subsistence and, in some cases, for market.

The terraces also control soil erosion which reduces the risk of mudslides, landslides and other natural disasters which can be devastating for the villages and communities that are located below them.

In addition, the irrigation canals that are incorporated into the design of the terraces direct and control the flow of water from rainfall and mountain runoff which is critical to the success of high altitude terraces especially those in arid climates; it is estimated that the irrigation canals improve water conservation by 30% and reduce the risk of drought.

Most Andean terraces are used to grow staple crops such as potatoes and quinoa but some indigenous farmers have experimented with other crops by changing soil composition and moisture levels in the terraces as well as the design of the terraces themselves (shape, slope etc).

The project

One of the first activities of the IDB project will be an inventory and assessment of the agricultural terraces in eleven provinces including recording exact locations using GPS and imaging technology, assessing the state of roads and trails used to access the terraces and an analysis of current environmental risks to the infrastructure.

The project will also ensure the participation of indigenous and other local communities by convening a national dialogue/consultation on the rehabilitation of the agricultural terraces (andenes) as well as a planning meeting regarding the mandate of the Scientific Steering Committee that will oversee the preparation of the national investment program.

The pilot project in Matucana will support the rehabilitation of terraces and irrigation canals as well as training for the local community. The project will also provide important diagnostics such as changes in air temperature, levels of precipitation, location of water sources such as aquifers, traditional knowledge and levels of past productivity that will provide important baseline data for monitoring the project.