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Mountain-grown barley helps Peru herders keep their alpacas strong

By Coco McCabe

Chinosiri, a tiny hamlet of stone huts perched about 16,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, is the only home alpaca herder Jose Gonzalez Condo has ever known.

At 39, he’s content there—even if he doesn’t have enough money to build his animals a shed to protect them from the cold and snow. That will come in due time, he says. For now, he’s focused on another project that has helped to make his life in these remote mountains a little more secure: the field of barley growing on a steep slope near his hut.

That barley, soon to be harvested and carefully stored in a giant pit not far from the field, represents a lifeline for the 100 head of alpaca from which Gonzalez and his family make their living. The nutrient-rich grass will help tide his herd over should severe cold and snow damage their pasturelands again, as it did—with devastating consequences—in the winter of 2004.

With the help of Oxfam America and its local partner, Asociación Proyección, herders in this rugged region of southern Peru have learned how to seed and harvest small plots of barley and oats at an altitude some people thought was just too high to yield a productive crop. They were wrong.

“Two-and-a-half years ago we came here because the local government asked us to come, and when we suggested planting barley, everyone said we were crazy,” said Arturo Rivera Vigil, the field coordinator for Proyección. Today, small patches of deep green barley and oats dot the mountain plains, a buffer against future disasters.

“It has changed all of their lives,” said a translator, speaking for Gonzalez.

“The most important thing now is they can harvest and save the grasses for when the wind and snow hit,” said Simon Quispe Chipa, the mayor of nearby Caylloma, who has been supportive of the program. “Before the project, they couldn’t do anything to save the grasses.”

With the help of the two agencies, villagers planted a total of 110 hectares—about 272 acres—with barley. Family plots are more than half an acre in size—large enough to produce sufficient fodder to help sustain their animals through the roughest weather between May and September. The yield was about 23 tons per family. And since the first successful season, the families and the wider Caylloma community have been buying the seeds themselves, without the assistance of the two agencies.

The mayor has stepped in to help. Shoving open the door to a storage room in the Caylloma town hall—about a three-hour drive from Chiosiri—he showed off a huge stack of sacks. They bulged with barley seeds, filling the air with a sweet, earthy smell. The local government has been buying the seeds in bulk at a low price and selling them at cost to community members.

But it’s not just the barley that is helping to keep the region’s alpaca herds strong. Oxfam and Proyección have also been working with the community on restoring and expanding 272 acres of swampy natural pastures on which the livestock grazes.

By digging a series of narrow channels at a slight slope, villagers have fed water down into the pastures, allowing them to thrive and expand--with the help of clover they also planted.

Speaking through an interpretor, the mayor, Quispe, emphasized the importance of these simple, but vital projects.

“He knew how important it was to have shelter and improve the planting and seeding,” said the interpretor. “He knew that people living here didn’t have a chance to get a better quality of life, and felt strongly the people should improve their lives where they live.”