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Saving Water – Saving a Way of Life

As agricultural communities across South America struggle to deal with the impacts of climate change on water resources, a cycling food activist provides some tales of inspiration from her journeys through the region.

Stories of Inspiration and Resilience from Argentina to Peru

by Lydia Caudill

I am an agricultural activist who steers away from the “NO” campaigns (‘Stop this’ or ‘No more of that’). I find strength and much more potential in fostering change by dedicating my energy to the “YES” people and causes, those that are successfully experimenting with diversifying and democratizing their agricultural systems – and I’ve committed myself to sharing their stories so that others can be inspired as well.

With this in mind, one year ago I bought a bicycle and began preparing for my journey home, from Paraguay to the NW United States. I’m giving myself two years to be on the ground, closer to the pace and the people who are producing the food for South America. I want to understand better what’s going on down here.

A home for the night, in front of a farmer’s house in Peru
A home for the night, in front of a farmer’s house in Peru

As an undergraduate student doing research, the challenges of small-scale farmers were always portrayed in such a dry and academic way. I wanted to see small-scale agriculture actually at work, befriending and working next to the farmers who are living this reality. With this driving force I picked up a camera, immersed myself in a teach-yourself- to-edit program, and am now sharing farmers’ stories from the view of my saddle.

I’ve now been cycling for nearly six months, through Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and am now in Peru. I’ve milked cows, butchered goats, harvested corn and quinoa, and celebrated birthdays and closures of community projects. I’m just starting to identify patterns. One of the emerging narratives that I hear from farmers explains why so many are leaving their farms and communities: WATER. The lack of water, disappearing rivers, contamination and the changing weather patterns. The older generations share their memories of how now-empty fields were once so full of farmers that there was no free land to be found. I am amazed by how many of the people I talk to, even those who speak a limited amount of Spanish, are powerfully and consciously using the term “climate change” to explain the altering state of their world.

I had read about climate change, but to hear it spoken about over and over again with frustration by farmers who just want to continue their lives in their homes, has been profound. The responses to it I’m finding have been even more inspiring. Watching their communities disappear, individuals are getting motivated and making changes.

Water projects in Vitichi, Bolivi

In a community with 200 houses, historically very agriculturally based, the disappearance of its river is not a priority on the national level. However, watching 85% of their graduating youth leave for cities is a concern at a very local level, and Vitichi has decided to address it.

A Vitichi youth showing me his goats
A Vitichi youth showing me his goats

In recent years, water had depleted to the point that many households only had water for about a half an hour a day, or every other day. The community and the municipality all agree that climate change and being downstream from the large mines in Potosí are the causes of their disappearing water. Individuals organized and found funds for two major projects: one is a water harvesting project and the other a water treatment project.

Water is now pumped in from a spring 6km away, doubling the quantity and improving the quality for the town. The people also value this resource so greatly that they prioritized being able to process the water and release it clean, back into the river for the communities downstream from them. The capital city of La Paz may not have a water treatment program, but Vitichi does. As it is a recently completed project with an eye towards the future, they are hoping that this improvement will give the younger generations pride in their community and reasons to stay. Here is a link to the video documenting a bit of their story.

Doña Trinidad of San Antonio, Aiquile, Bolivia

While walking through the streets of San Antonio, I asked people how they were doing and many responded, “We would be better with water!” The last five to ten years have seen tremendous, extensive drought, cutting their growing season in half and sending many people looking for jobs in cities. Doña Trinidad lives in a community of 40 houses and it is currently a disappearing community. After my time spent in her home and working with her in the fields, I saw in her an incredible potential for the future of San Antonio. Not only is she overcoming gender discrimination by having risen to be president of a local producers’ cooperative, she is passionate about educating herself and others.

Doña Trinidad has participated in any and all workshops offered to her by various organizations and is well versed in climate change and its effects on her community. She has participated in organic agriculture and international bee-keeping conventions, and women’s leadership development workshops. In her own words, “This information is an inheritance to me. I will share it with my children and grandchildren…. And I will share it with the other women in my community that have not had a chance to learn.”

Doña Trinidad in her tomato field
Doña Trinidad in her tomato field

The workshops and conferences have given her information that she has taken home and uses to better manage her farm and its production. I saw technologies new to her being experimented with, such as clay pots to water her trees. By using porous clay pots semi-submerged underground, moisture is pulled in the direction that it is most needed, effectively eliminating wasted run-off and evaporation, efficiently using every drop. It also requires less frequent monitoring and watering (this is a fantastic link for more information). She did an experiment with two trees planted side by side; the tree with this clay pot was twice the size of the tree planted at the same time and with a traditional bucket watering system.

With a shared larger vision and through their continued education, she and her husband are also saving money from their small budget to buy a drip irrigation hose, which uses less water by slowly and more directly watering the plants’ roots. This will further save the limited water they have. They see no other way and are adapting to the changing world around them.

Doña Trinidad and her husband Don Lionsio, who has supported her and her education along the way
Doña Trinidad and her husband Don Lionsio, who has supported her and her education along the way

Luis de Amaicha del Valle, Tucuman, Argentina

Lydia standing over the dried river bed
Lydia standing over the dried river bed

Luis is another community leader who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting during my travels, and he shared his vision with me. He is of the original people Amaicha, and told me the story of his ancestry and his land. In a valley high in the Tucuman province, his people flourished for hundreds of years with an abundance of harvest and animals. The introduction of the Spaniards and mining in their region changed the landscape, most notably by deforesting their valley for use in those mines. Hundreds of years later, trees have not reforested the valley. Within the last 50 years, the community has seen their river run dry. As the reducing flow slowly receded up the valley, Luis said his people followed it and left the land as well, until it was completely vacant.

Until recently that is, when their community started drilling for water. Luis moved back to the land five years ago, and he and his community have since developed a cooperative to manage the well, lowering the price of the use of water and improving general maintenance. After nearly 50 years of his community being separated from their ancestral land, the last five years has seen a shift in the opposite direction; 27 families have already moved back to their land and 50 more are on a waiting list, wanting to first have their access to the water confirmed. The community intends to take advantage of their cooperative structure and use it to collectively sell their products.

Luis holding his corn, next to the irrigating water canal that his pump made possible
Luis holding his corn, next to the irrigating water canal that his pump made possible

What impressed me the most was a still greater vision. Luis had heard of communities all together changing their regional climate, such as Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Prize winning reforestation project in Kenya, The Green Belt Movement. This reforestation project brought jobs to people by offering agro-forestry projects, and has actually increased the rainfall in the area. Hearing about the success of another people that were on the verge of losing the strength of their community, Luis and his own people are organizing themselves to create a foundation, with the intention to reforest their valley as well. With this they hope to be recognized on a new level and seek support. They hope to fully bring back their people to their land. Luis spoke to me of this vision with a conviction and an assurance that it will happen. He told me that the river will run again, the trees will hold moisture, the grasses will grow strong, and he and his neighbors will be able to pasture their animals as they traditionally had for hundreds of years.

Lydia in Tucuman, Argentina
Lydia in Tucuman, Argentina

This trip across countries has been an inspiration to me. It is teaching me about resilience in a way I had not imagined. Of course, I’m personally developing a resilience of my mind and body, as I pedal through valleys and mountains. That is such a little thing in comparison to what I have seen from these farmers. These families are watching the weather patterns around them alter, which makes a difficult gamble of a job even more challenging and risky. Many have left their land for the cities. But many others have stayed. These farmers are experimenting with how they can adapt to their new reality and they crave new knowledge, techniques and technologies to continue to live the life they’ve always led, and that they want their children to continue living. This is the resilience that has hopefully taken root in my own life, one that I can take with me and spread to those around me, as we all are learning to adapt to the changing world and climate around us.

PedalPlowLogo-finalLydia Caudill is from Washington State, where her interests began with her parents and their own work in agriculture. She has worked with African refugees in farming projects, as a Peace Corps Paraguay Agricultural Volunteer and on various small-scale farms. She is thrilled to have created a project that combines her passions cycling and food sovereignty and is excited to explore what lies ahead in her path. Lydia is thankful to her Pedal and Plow team for helping make this project possible in the meantime.


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