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Letting gravity do the work, Oxfam irrigates pastures in Peru

By Coco McCabe

Who needs gas when you've got gravity? That's the simple idea behind an irrigation system that could help transform the lives of poor villagers high in the Andes of southern Peru.

In a place where there is no electricity to run a pump, where llamas instead of trucks transport many of the goods, and where most people rely on a local spiky grass for their cooking fuel, gravity is the free and super-abundant energy source that is now powering Simon Ccalachua's sprinkler. And beneath the arc of water it sprays, a new growth of hardy rye grass is now sprouting—the guarantee that Ccalachua's alpacas will have the nourishment they need.

Here in Jachaña, a small hamlet in the district of Caylloma, Oxfam America and its local partner, Asociación Proyección, have launched a pilot project aimed at helping poor herders find ways to improve their resources so they can better withstand the hardships of mountain living—the cold, the snow, the remoteness. The sprinkler systems—there are now three scattered around the district—are part of a larger program that has helped 355 families in the area with everything from veterinary services to the production of high-altitude barley for their animals. The effort is part of Oxfam America's strategy to help Andean communities adapt to climate change, some signs of which are already apparent.

"They used to rely on nature and now they know how to work on channels and sprinkling," said a translator, summarizing the benefits for Ccalachua. "Before this project, the mortality of the animals (was very high). Now the mortality is 3 to 10 percent".

Using the resources at hand—a mountain spring and the pull of gravity—the agencies worked with Ccalachu to irrigate about two-and-a-half acres of his sloped, rocky land. Well-watered and well-fertilized (naturally, with alpaca droppings), a pasture that size is big enough to keep 20 alpacas happily nourished, said Arturo Rivera Vigil, the field coordinator for Proyección. The trick is to fence off portions of the pasture after the animals have grazed, allowing the grasses to recover. By the time the herd completes a full rotation, the grass where they started will be ready to eat again.

The system has a number of benefits, said Rivera. The robust diet the animals get encourages them to produce more wool. Instead of one or two pounds of wool, each alpaca can produce between two and four pounds—which in turn means more income for herding families. Keeping watch over the animals in a fenced pasture is a great deal easier for a herder than following them high and low as they roam freely looking for natural grasses, added Rivera. And the mechanism is easy fairly easy to construct: A small reservoir above the field, lined with plastic, is connected it to a pipe running down the hill. With the twist of a valve, the reservoir opens and the water gushes down through a pipe, shooting through slow-spinning sprinklers set in a line across the field.

The only stumbling block is cost. The price tag on each of these sprinkler systems is $1,625, and that doesn't include the cost of the machinery used to help dig the small reservoir.

"That's why (Caylloma) City Hall has to get involved," said Angel Chavez, an Oxfam America humanitarian officer who has worked on the project. Using tax dollars, local government needs to help support these kinds of projects, he added.

That's what the people of Jachaña want too—more sprinklers like the one Ccalachua has. A few pipes hooked to a few small reservoirs could go a long way toward improving the resilience of these mountain families. And though life at nearly 16,000 feet above sea level can be hard, there is no other place some herders can imagine living.

"There is no pollution. The water is nicer. And we have open fields," said Timoteo Ccalahua Quispe.

This activity is part of Oxfam America's adaptation strategy on climate change in Andean communities where already there are some signals of the climate change effects.