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BOLIVIA: Artificial ‘Islands’ to Protect Cattle from Annual Floods

SANTA ANA DEL YACUMA, Bolivia, Jan 5 2012 (IPS) - Small-scale dairy farmers in this remote area of Bolivia’s northeastern Amazon region of Beni have a new hope for protecting their livestock from the fierce annual floods that start in December.

Dora Domínguez shows IPS the forage grown on the artificial hill and the feed storage shed, behind her. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

Dora Domínguez shows IPS the forage grown on the artificial hill and the feed storage shed, behind her. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS

The answer: artificial hills complete with grass and a feed storage shed, where the cattle can wait out the floods.

Dora Domínguez is president of the Association of Movima Milk Producers, which groups 36 families who own a combined total of 1,200 head of cattle. The Association is taking part in a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) initiative to build novel elevated livestock shelters, which also serve as areas for growing forage.

The project involves the creation of artificial hills up to three metres above ground level on the vast plains of Beni. The mounds are being built under the direction of the head of risk management in the FAO office in Bolivia, Óscar Mendoza.

The hills become islands when the rainy season starts in December and water begins to run down to the Amazon floodplains in torrents from the Andes mountains to the west.

The livestock, the economic mainstay of poor local cattle farmers, many of whom are Movima Indians, depends, can survive on the islands.

Ranchers who own 2,000 head of cattle or more per family can afford to transport their animals to higher- lying areas. But until now, small farmers have been left at the mercy of the floods, which within a few hours of the rivers overflowing their banks transform the plains into lakes up to one-metre deep.

The FAO initiative is covering 65 percent of the small dairy and beef farmers in the municipality of Santa Ana del Yacuma, some 900 km northeast of La Paz, who own between one and 500 head of cattle and account for 22 percent of the livestock in the area.

“People used to just adapt, trying to come up with their own contingency methods,” Mendoza told IPS. “That’s why we decided to take measures geared to dealing with climate swings, to mitigate the risks to agricultural production.”

The solution came nearly three decades after the biggest flood that Domínguez and other local farmers remember.

In 1982, the floodwaters rose up to four metres above ground level, and the main square of the town of Santa Ana del Yacuma, the capital of the municipality and province of Yacuma in the region of Beni, looked like a kind of Noah’s ark, because it was packed full of people, cows, goats, pigs and barnyard fowl.

“People set out from their farms on canoes at night, shouting, when the floodwaters took them by surprise,” Domínguez recalls.

With that memory engraved on her mind, Domínguez did not hesitate to join the FAO project, giving it the support of her association and even her physical labour to move several tons of earth to make the artificial island – a model that the U.N. agency wants to expand to the entire region.

“I carried dirt on my shoulders,” she says, sitting on the hill and gazing at the new grass growing there, which will feed the livestock during floods.

Early flood warnings

Another step in climate change adaptation was the implementation of an early warning system with FAO support, to back up the national weather service and provide radio alerts for people living in the country’s eastern lowlands.

The project involved the installation of networks of sensors near rivers to monitor water levels. When an early warning is issued, municipal emergency units are mobilised to order the evacuation of people and animals.

In addition, strategies are being applied that combine best practices and technologies to confront climate change and adapt production to the annual flooding and the drought that follows the rainy season, Mendoza said.

An alliance between the municipal government of Santa Ana del Yacuma, small farmers, and FAO made this possible, said Mayor Gustavo Antelo.

To build the artificial hill, the municipal government provided a 2,000-square-metre lot, FAO supplied technical support and financing, and the beneficiaries gave freely of their time and labour to haul in soil and build the feed storage shed as well as a facility where a veterinarian can treat animals.

New hope

Dairy farmers Hernán Suárez and Rinelson Arambel say the desperate situations seen in the 1980s have become a thing of the past. “The cows would bellow loudly as they drowned. We felt so helpless,” Suárez says.

“Everything would turn into a giant lake for several months, and the help would arrive, to a nearby town, in Hercules planes. The shortage of food would create a crisis among the local people, and some farmers would be left without any livestock,” Arambel says.

Only in 1992 was a dike built around the town to keep out the floodwater. But that did not help people on the surrounding farms.

Mariano Chávez, another member of the Movima Association, describes the worry and fear that used to start building up in December, when the rains began. But he is calm now, as he watches his 14-year-old son José enthusiastically help plant grass on the island.

Suárez learned new techniques for growing grass and hay, and storing fodder. Now he has a corral and a chute for vaccinating and artificially inseminating his cattle.

The difficulties faced by people in the municipality of Santa Ana del Yacuma arise from the area’s remoteness from the rest of the country – there is no year-round road to the capital of Beni region, Trinidad, 290 km away – and its geography, as it is crisscrossed by the Yacuma, Mamoré and Rapulo rivers, which are prone to flooding.

Santa Ana del Yacuma can only be reached by car in the dry season. During the high water season, the only way in or out is by small plane, and the ride costs around 57 dollars per person. “The pilots take advantage of people,” Suárez complains.

As the afternoon wears on, the temperature climbs to 36 degrees Celsius, the mosquitoes come out, and dark clouds on the horizon announce rain.

Each member of the Association produces between 50 and 60 litres of milk per day. The price per litre is no more than half a dollar in the town’s small market. At times of emergency, production easily falls to 10 litres a day, says Domínguez, who runs her family’s farm.

Suárez says his family earns around 500 dollars a month from their sales of milk – not enough to feed the household and cover the costs of feeding and caring for the livestock.

Chávez would like to see support for improving the local Nelore cattle – hardy heat- and insect-resistant cattle with a distinctive large shoulder hump – by crossbreeding with Holstein, to boost milk production.

He thinks a credit programme, rather than donations, would be a good idea. “It shouldn’t be free; facilities for people to pay, with their production, should be offered,” he says.

A milk cow costs between 600 and 800 dollars in this part of the country.

* This article was produced with support from FAO.

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anne churchland