Weary from traveling all day to remote communities around Potosí, Bolivia, where we were learning how farmers are adapting to a changing climate, my colleague and I were grateful to pause for dinner. Members of the community shared a meal of freshly grown potatoes and vegetables, followed by a red bowl brimming with peaches for dessert.
The peaches were smaller than what I was used to, growing up near a peach region of southern Ontario. But they were bright, bursting with flavor and sweeter than any dessert I could have wanted.
A man from Programa de Desarollo Integral Interdisciplinario (Interdisciplinary Comprehensive Development Program, or PRODII) noticed our gazing eyes, maybe even saw us sneak some extra peaches into our bags for later. He asked if we wanted to take some for the road.
As staff for Mennonite Central Committee, which partners with PRODII, we still had one more place to visit. So we all nodded in agreement.
With a cheeky smile, he carefully placed each peach in his bag. I kept thinking, “Surely that’s enough for all of us,” until the bag was bursting at the seams. And with that, we packed into PRODII’s truck and continued to the next community, Kisi Kisi.
A bag full of peaches didn’t make a dent in the supply for a community that has fruit trees on every corner. But they didn’t used to have this kind of abundance. Ten years ago, you couldn’t find peach or apple trees here at all. In mountain climates like Norte de Potosí, with an elevation of over 14,700 feet, farmers are usually limited to a few varieties of potatoes and other hearty vegetables.
The abundance of fresh fruit raised a complicated question for me. The story I had set out to write was how climate change is negatively affecting remote farmers in Bolivia. But after visiting these communities, listening to their stories and delighting in meals with fresh apple juice and peaches for dessert, I was confronted with a confusing question: Was climate change actually helping these communities?
Nicolás Yucra Gómez of Kisi Kisi has been a beneficiary of PRODII’s program for years. He showed us his land and experimental plots and proudly held up the biggest onions I had ever seen.
When I asked how the climate has affected his work, he said: “Before, you couldn’t get peaches around here. But now with global warming, the weather has changed. Year after year, the heat is increasing. Now we can have other products like citrus trees. Over there, we have oranges, grapes, figs and lemons. There is tangerine now; before we couldn’t grow that. The weather has changed, and now we can plant citrus.”
Luis Mamani of San Pedro added: “When I was a child, we couldn’t produce this new variety [of potato] we have now, called wycha. We could only produce one variety. It seems like now it’s warmer, and I can produce varieties we couldn’t have produced before.”
Mamani and fellow farmers are taking advantage of the warmer climate to experiment with the recovery of native potato seeds from generations ago. From one potato, they are finding ways to transplant and multiply it into up to 17 new varieties of potatoes in many colors: black, blue, white, purple.
By rebirthing new and old varieties from long ago, these farmers are working toward food security. With more diversity in production, their children are no longer forced to migrate to the cities and can live healthier lives.
But talking solely of the abundance of new fruits and vegetables isn’t the full truth either. Climate change has brought complexity to everyone’s lives. And while there can be new and fruitful changes, it also brings an unpredictability that can be detrimental to crops and livelihoods.
These farmers walk on shaky ground. They work toward planting new citrus trees and developing new varieties of potatoes. But they tread lightly, never knowing when the ground will fall out from under them.
Gabriel Acarapi Chuca, a technician on PRODII’s team, explained: “Rains used to be spread out during the season, maybe from September to January. But now, rains that should be spread across a longer period come all at once, and it damages the crops.”
From one visit to another, we heard water is a source of worry. It’s either too scarce or too much. There’s drought, or it comes down so hard it wipes out entire crops.
Farmer Richard Ignancio experienced devastation last year.
“It’s getting warmer, but there’s also hail,” he said. “If the hail hits the potato plants, we could lose everything. Last year the frost took out the entire crop.”
One of the ways PRODII is helping these farmers is with Manejo Integral de Cuencas (MIC, or Comprehensive Watershed Management) systems. MIC systems collect water at every source: from the rain, the dew left on flower petals and from roots deep within the ground. Through gravity, this water flows down to a catchment system — and an otherwise untapped water source becomes a reliable option for farmers.
“The idea is to improve the amount of water that people can have,” Chuca said. “We want these MICs to be examples for other communities.”
I saw prodii adapting alongside vulnerable communities and working creatively to meet their needs. For farmers experiencing drought, PRODII’s work looks like setting up MIC systems. For communities with hail, it looks like setting up tunnels as incubators to protect baby potato plants as they grow strong. And some days, it looks like sitting together enjoying the fruits of their labor.
On our long drive home, I found a peach tucked away in my bag. Delighting in that peach didn’t represent a denial of the harmful effects of climate change. We experience heartbreak for the communities that have overnight lost their food supply for the year. We celebrate their victories too, like the juicy peaches, growing with abundance enough to share.
Rachel Watson is communications and program support facilitator for Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia. She is responsible for telling the story of MCC’s work and history in Bolivia. She and her husband, Graham Watson, SEED facilitator, live in La Paz, Bolivia.