Learning from the Past while Promoting Inclusive Decision Making for the Future: The Case of Bolivia

By Carina Bachofen and Edward Cameron

Speaking at the UN Climate Conference in Bali in December 2007, Al Gore quoted the Spanish poet Antonio Machado telling the assembled delegates, “Pathwalker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk.” The foundations for the path to climate change adaptation are built upon lessons learned from coping with climate variability in the past. Successful leaders in adaptation are those who create an enabling environment to construct this path.

Learning from the past

For hundreds of years, indigenous farmers in Bolivia have been using traditional knowledge to manage storms, droughts, floods and pests and to diversify food security. These hold tremendous potential to inspire, inform and complement the design of adaptation strategies for the future.

Indigenous farmer in Bolivia describes recent experiences with climate variability in the dry Altiplano region of Bolivia © Ana Bucher

Indigenous farmer in Bolivia describes recent experiences with climate variability in the dry Altiplano region of Bolivia © Ana Bucher

To prevent and cope with drought-related disasters, the Aymaran indigenous people have employed ancient engineering practices to harvest rainwater in the mountains and pampas by building small dams called qhuthañas. These dams collect and store rainwater for future use, freeing up time for women and children who may otherwise have to travel long distances to collect water. The qhuthañas also serve as a readily available source of clean water for local consumption, building resilience of local communities to cope with droughts over the long-term.

In the departments of Chuquisaca and Potosi, located in some of the poorest and most isolated regions of the highlands, elevation ranges from 1500m to 3500 meters above sea level. In these areas, subsistence farmers within different households may arrange to work different plots of land across various altitudes and the agroecological zones. Using this traditional farming technique, a farmer may on average tend to nine parcels of land located in distinct zones in order to maximize productivity across space and time, diversify livelihood options, and minimize risk of total harvest failure due to erratic rainfall, droughts, and frosts.

In order to best determine how traditional knowledge may enhance resilience to climate change, enabling conditions should be supported to ensure positive livelihood outcomes for vulnerable populations. For example, promoting labor-intensive construction of terraces and raised fields may not be appropriate without providing access to appropriate machinery. Combining the latest technology and scientific information with traditional ecological knowledge may be the best route to taking advantage of its potential.

Creating an enabling environment for adaptation in the future

In Bolivia today, it is common for decisions regarding municipal investments to be made in workshops at the community and municipal level where civil society is empowered to exchange information, as well as identify and prioritize investments. The benefit of such institutional structures for adaptation planning is that they can promote the exchange of best practices and ensure that those who stand to lose the most from climate change may benefit from future adaptation interventions.

In December 2009, the Government of Bolivia took a bold step towards expanding upon the existing participatory and inclusive governance processes across the country by approving significant changes to the national Constitution. These changes aim to bolster political and social inclusion of indigenous and peasant groups in decision-making processes. Specifically, indigenous and regional autonomies within departmental limits may form and exercise independent decision-making power regarding social, environmental and economic issues. While to date these autonomies have not yet formed, it is possible that once created, they will follow the participatory planning structure already established at the municipal level whereby investments are identified and prioritized and decisions are made in community and municipal workshops.

Decentralization of decision-making processes may have significant implications for adaptation planning across Bolivia. Amplifying the voice of indigenous groups and representatives of regional interests as well as provision of more direct access to information and decision-making procedures has the potential to improve adaptive capacity of these traditionally marginalized groups. Adaptation strategies for the future will be more resilient if lessons from the past are heeded and decision-making is conducted in a transparent, inclusive and participatory way.

Adaptation interventions are best pursued in an environment that learns from the past and provides a voice to those most vulnerable when determining interventions for the future. The case of Bolivia illustrates how these factors can converge to create a path towards resilience to climate change in the long-term.