Reforesting a mountain desert on Bolivia's altiplano

In Brief: 

The Dorothy Baker Environmental Studies Center helps to empower altiplano communities for reforestation and erosion control, an investment for well-being

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia -- In the Andes mountains just to the west of this central Bolivian city is the altiplano: a high, rugged plateau on which only the hardiest of peoples can survive.

In isolated valleys, small communities of Aymara and Quechua people eke out a subsistence living, growing potatoes during the wet season and grazing sheep on the marginal pasture lands that cling to the slopes. They are among the poorest of the poor here, in this poorest of Latin American nations.

Among their problems is a scarcity of water. The wet season is only about three months long, and, even then, dry spells sometimes cause the potato crop to fail. Any trees which would have helped to hold the rain were cut for fuel or building materials long ago.

"It's really a mountainous desert here," said William Baker, director of the Dorothy Baker Environmental Studies Center, a Bahá'í-sponsored initiative which is devoted to exploring how appropriate technologies and education for sustainable development can be applied to improve the social, economic and environmental conditions in the Bolivian altiplano.

In its early years, the Center focused on helping families in the region build inexpensive solar-heated greenhouses, enabling them to grow vegetables and fruits inexpensively at high altitudes and during the off-season. [Editor's note: In early 1991, One Country reported on this innovative project. See Vol. 3, issue 1.]

More recently, the Center has sought to encourage altiplano communities with a simple yet potentially far-reaching project to build small check dams which can catch and hold the scarce rainfall. The promise -- which is starting to be fulfilled in some areas -- is that periodic dry spells will no longer mean disaster for potato crops, that the pasture lands themselves will become more verdant, that the slopes can be to some extent reforested, and that, ultimately, year-round supplies of water will be established.

"The soil in the region has a lot of fertility, but because of erosion and the fact that it dries out, many of the plant species that used to thrive no longer survive. But with water conservation, there is the possibliity of changing the whole ecology of the area back toward what it once was." 

-- Dr. William Baker

"In reality, the soil in the region has a lot of fertility, but because of erosion and the fact that it dries out, many of the plant species that used to thrive no longer survive," said Dr. Baker during a recent interview. "But with water conservation, there is the possibility of changing the whole ecology of the area back toward what it once was, and to use this for an environmentally sound base for other projects in agriculture and animal husbandry."

The foundation for the Center's efforts come from a program of environmental study classes for adults and preschool classes for children. These classes have been important in helping communities adopt new technologies. The accent is on showing a community how to help itself. Classes at the Center underscore the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings, for example, as well as emphasizing the essential unity and equality of all peoples -- teachings that help tap into the underlying aspirations that all humans share, empowering them to become increasingly responsible for their own development.

"In our classes, we advocate an idea of 'investment for well-being,' " said Dr. Baker. "The idea is based on basic principles of conservation and respect for nature. It also emphasizes the idea that we live in one world and that we really don't have the right to destroy it, since that affects the rights of other people, too."

Empowered by the knowledge that they gained in classes sponsored by the Center, graduates from four communities in Tapacari Province organized their friends and neighbors to help build more than 2,000 small check dams during 1994 and 1995. In all, more than 300 people have participated in the project in these communities, which lie about 120 kilometers west of Cochabamba.

The simple rock and fill dams, which take three or four people a few hours to build, are designed to help slow the rainfall runoff, so that the water filters into the ground and leaves precious soil in catch basins behind the dam. The effort also seeks to control the heavy erosion that has washed away much prime pasture land in recent years.

Small tree nurseries have also been started in these communities, to supply seedlings that can be used to reforest areas behind the dams once they fill in.

Although the project is less than two years old, it is already beginning to show results, said Dr. Baker. "In one community, we have quite demonstrable new wetlands, while in another we have increased the area of wetlands," he said. "In all, we probably have 500 or more dams that are now filling in with soil and starting to filter water. We have planted many with new trees."

"Now several other communities are asking to enter the program because they see the results," Dr. Baker added.