Approaching on dirt roads from La Paz, barely 50 kilometers away, one sees Caluyo’s adobe houses rising in the desert-like landscape. A column of piglets trot across a dirt road, and a few cows wander nearby. Life here has its own rhythm.
A greenhouse, constructed with funds from the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), stands alone. Neat, tightly-packed rows of onions, parsley and carrots stand in stark contrast with the surrounding emptiness. Full-bodied heads of lettuce are lined up next to rows of chard. The air is heavy with the smell of abundance.
The Altiplano lays mainly in Bolivia, but spills into southern Peru, northern Argentina and a sliver of northern Chile at its western edge. It expansive high plains average 3,750 meters in altitude, and are surpassed in area and height only by the Roof of the World, the Tibetan Plateau. Since time immemorial, the inhabitants of this challenging land have subsisted on potatoes, the mainstay of Andean civilizations reaching back more than a thousand years. Growing almost anything else has proven difficult at best. The soil is poor, and the climate – at 4,000 meters above sea level – inhospitable.
Climate change has made things measurably worse in recent years.
Part of the FDA’s mission is to also spread the word about sustainable development, and how it can be applied to agriculture in the Altiplano. Exhibit A: a newly installed solar panel that powers the pump that draws the water used for the greenhouse veggies. Not only is the energy clean, it is cheap and efficient too. Gravity-fed drip irrigation – “gota-a-gota”, or drop-by-drop in Spanish – ensures that no water is wasted. “We use a reservoir of about 300 liters in three days,” said Maria.
Today, for the 15 families that depend on it, the greenhouse has become the epicenter of their lives. There’s the pump to maintain and operate; weeds need to be pulled; harvesting and divvying up the vegetables; selecting and planting new crops.
There’s enough to do now that at least one young man has returned from the Big City to build a future in his home town. “I went to La Paz, to go to school,” said 27 year-old William. “But the city is very noisy and crowded. I prefer it here. And with the greenhouse, there is plenty to do.”
In La Paz, William studies agronomy, and worked in construction. He realized very quickly, though, that urban life was not right for him. Married to Sofia, he has quickly become one of the pillars of Caluyo. Thanks to CIPCA, he has learned how to design the layout of vegetable gardens, and has training in animal health.
“Up to now, most of what we have produced has been for our own consumption – we don’t have to buy any more vegetables,” he explained. “Now that we have improved our yields, we have a surplus and can sell it at market. We can even make money,” he added. It is the first time that the villages of Caluyo have had enough veggies left over to sell.
Looking to the future, William and the other association members has big plans. The 15 families are eyeing a new market, in La Paz. “We are in the process of obtaining organic certification,” Juana said. “Our vegetables are organic, which is a big plus. Now we just need to expand our production. But for that, we can count on the community members – they are really motivated.”
Neighboring communities are beginning to take notice, and the concept of sustainable development is starting to take root. Indeed, other greenhouses may seem be popping up on the horizon.