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You are here: Home Magazines Global edition Caring for our land The Aynokas: sustaining agriculture

The Aynokas: sustaining agriculture

Written by Stephan Rist last modified Mar 18, 2011 01:23 AM

The Andes region is one of the zones with the highest ecological diversity in the whole world. This diversity also exists at watershed level, which means that frequently very distinct agroecological zones can be found within the limits of a single community.

ILEIA Newsletter • 10 nº 2 • July 1994

Despite the often extreme ecological situation, about half of the Andean population lives in this mountainous area which covers only 20% of the country. To overcome the Ecological limits to production of food and goods, a high level of organisational, social and technological creativity is needed. The peoples of the Andes have developed production systems which seek a dynamic equilibrium between society and nature. Respect for ecological principles and integration of cultural, ethical and agrotechnical dimensions strongly contribute to this equilibrium. This explains the sophistication and sustainability of Andean "agri-culture".

The ayllu (administrative land unit) of San Antonio de Mujlli, in the department of Cochabamba in Bolivia, lies between 3700 and 4500 m above sea level. It has a surface of 18,415 ha on which about 270 families or 2400 Aymaran people live. The climate has a rainy season from December to April, the annual precipitation is about 700 mm and the average temperature is 8°C. The ayllu, which covers more or less a watershed, is subdivided into four parts or catchment areas. Each part is again subdivided into 10-13 vertical sections known as aynokas. Each aynoka has its own characteristics in terms of ecology, microclimate and production, intimately known by the inhabitants.

All land is communal property and decisions concerning access to land are taken at community level. The agricultural system of the Aymaran is based on a rotation of one year potatoes, followed by one year quinua ( Chenopodium quinoa) or canahua (Chenopodium pallidicaule), one year barley or oats and 7-10 years of fallow. Each year in a particular aynoka only one type of crop is grown. This means that all the families have to sow, for example, their potatoes, quinua or barley in the aynoka destined for that purpose. Barley and oats, which because of the altitude do not produce seeds, are used as fodder. During the fallow period, the aynokas are converted into communal pasture with free access for all the families year-round. Because of the huge ecological variability, the yields vary according to their location: the yields of potatoes vary between 5000 and 15,000 kg/ha, whereas quinua produces 800-900 kg/ha in prosperous years and canahua around 1200-1500 kg/ha.

Private complements common

The sequence of rotation of the aynokas is decided at community level. The rotation is generally consecutive unless climatical or agroecological characteristics, such as soil fertility reached during the fallow period, make it advisable to skip an aynoka. In each aynoka a family has the right to cultivate a minimum number of plots with different agroecological conditions. Depending on the ecological variability, the families use between 15 to 55 plots in one aynoka. As these plots are the same as they or their parents cultivated previously, the families consider themselves "owners" by way of a temporary right of usufruct.

The community can redistribute landuse rights yearly, to equip all the families of the community with sufficient land for food production. Although the total area of land per family varies, the area per family member remains relatively constant. Distribution of land is the task of the traditional authorities. These posts, which are occupied by the older, more experienced men of the community, are subject to annual rotation. Since ancient times, the families have not only cultivated the plots of the aynokas, but have also received other land from the community which is excluded from the aynoka rotation.

These lands, called sayafias, are usually close to the houses and are surrounded by stone or mud walls. They are used by the families to complement the production of the aynokas. Cultivation and rotation is free but, like the aynoka, the sayana can be redistributed if it is no longer used. Apart from complying with the crop rotation, the family has sole responsibility for crop production. This means that the family takes autonomous decisions regarding management, technology, use and destination of their production.

Social reciprocity and the market

Another characteristic aspect of Andean communities are the interfamily relations, which are based on the principles of reciprocity, complementarily and redistribution. A number of agreements exist which, in essence, mean a redistribution of productive resources, based on the family requirements as a function of its life cycle. If a family possesses more land than it can cultivate with its own labour force, it associates itself temporarily with another family which has an excess of labour force.

Thus complementing each other, both families can increase their production. The products obtained are then distributed between the two families. As soon as the fields are harvested, the dry and cold period begins, when agricultural activities become impossible. This is why most families pursue off-farm activities. Relatives and friends are visited in bordering, lower-lying valleys, where cheese manufactured in the rainy season is exchanged for maize, rice and coca leafs. Money can be earned by selling one's labour in the urban centres and agricultural industries, but as such work is available mainly during the cropping season, few people migrate to seek it. As families have access to products from other families and communities and labour force can be assigned for reciprocity, the need to participate in the market is reduced. Despite the links between peasant communities and the market, the logic of the market economy has only limited influence on the landuse system.

Built-in risk avoidance

As plots within an aynoka vary in elevation by about 200 m, each sector has a high diversity of microclimates. If the indigenous climatic forecast indicates a dry year, the plots are located in the higher parts where it is more humid. In rainy years, to minimise problems with fungal diseases, the lower plots are given priority, as they are warmer and drier. The difference in elevation between the lowest and highest aynoka is about 500 m. The inhabitants indicate that this characteristic must have been considered by their ancestors when they established the order of rotation. The highest aynokas are normally cultivated during the driest years, and the lowest aynokas are cultivated during the more humid years. There is a certain correlation between the cycle of rotation of the aynokas and the long cycle of macroclimatic conditions. By making use of the ecological diversity, climatic risks are minimised. The controlled rotation combined with long fallow periods is also a strategy to avoid losses caused by plagues and diseases. One of the most severe problems in plant health in the Andes are the nematodes, whose population is drastically reduced during the long fallow periods.

Crop-livestock integration

The integration of crop and livestock production is a factor which strongly influences the agroecological sustainability of the system. Raising livestock means a diversification of activities, which increases the food security .It actively influences the flow of nutrients and the dynamics of soil fertility. The accumulation and application of animal manure permits nutrient transfer from the pasture lands to the cultivated plots. In accordance with the level of fertility reached during the fallow period, each potato plot receives organic manure at planting time. The amount varies in quantity and quality, depending on availability and the requirements of the different varieties.

Figure 2 shows the nutrient cycle for a highly productive tuber crop. The nutrient balance shows that the applied organic manure not only covers the requirements of the first crop but also favours the following crops which are not fertilised. With regard to optimising the use of human and animal labour, the rotation of potato -Andean grains -cereals is the best option. After a fallow period of seven years, much energy is needed to bring the plots back into cultivation. After removal of the heavy vegetation, the land is ploughed. Harrowing must generally be done two or three times with plough and oxen. The plot is then ready to be planted with potato. As planting, earthing-up and harvesting the potatoes involves turning the soil each time, the land becomes sufficiently loose for sowing quinua/cafiahua in the following year.

Stock redistribution

Livestock-keeping is a family responsibility. The llamas, sheep, donkeys and some cattle graze freely in the whole territory of the community, except for the aynokas during the period when they are cultivated. A first analysis of animal ownership per family shows a marked differentiation. Some families have only 15 animals, while others have up to 120 head. However, if animal ownership is analysed in relation to the number of persons in each family, the degree of differentiation is reduced drastically.

This again leads to the conclusion that ownership and hence access to the common lands is, in the first place, adapted to the needs of each family. Redistribution of animals is not a communal decision, but takes place mainly by inheritance and gifts. When a couple forms a new family, the man inherits part of his father's land, while the woman receives some animals from her family and relatives. Thus, the young family has both land and animals. According to the growth of the family, it gains access to more cropland and the initial herd will multiply.

Strategies to control overgrazing

In many research studies, signs of overgrazing have been found. Demographic growth is the main reason for the increase in animal population. Unlike the arable land, the pasture land cannot be extended. This leaves two options to avoid agroecological deterioration in the medium term: either reduce the number of animals Dr increase the supply of fodder. The first would not be very viable because it would reduce the total production of each family. Therefore, same 20 years ago, the community autonomously started to grow barley and oats to increase the production of fodder. This has increased feed supply by about 12% (Jerez 1989). Lately, there has been a tendency to substitute barley by oats, as this produces more dry matter (5 t/ha rather than 2-3 t/ha). In a participatory research process which AGRUCO carries out in the zone, species with good feed quality are being tested as intercrop with barley and oats to accelerate the repopulation of the fallow plots with good pasture plants.

Privatisation reversed

In recent years, the traditional landuse system was put into question and called "unmodern", mainly by young community members. They proposed to subdivide the aynokas and to privatise land. But the questions as to who would receive how much cropland and where led to conflicts, and many plots of potato aynokas were not planted. Families became more or less dependent on the sayanas. Because of the different locations of the sayanas, some families could produce high yields, whereas the majority produced more or less low yields.

This experience demonstrated clearly how dangerous it is when production is restricted to a small privatised part of the territory and cannot be distributed over all possible microclimates in this mountainous terrain. For this reason, in February 1994, the community -with the agreement of young farmers -decided to stop all privatisation and to strengthen the aynoka system again. Until today in Bolivia, no alternative land- use system is known which has all the advantages of the aynoka system and also does not have its disadvantages. In regions where the aynokas have been given up in favour of "modernisation -privatisation", two tendencies can be observed:

  • an intensification of production, which has led to disintegration of social, economic and ecological relations; within two generations this has shown irreversible ecological consequences;
  • also in other communities where privatisation took place, this has been reversed to make communal land tenure possible again.

Sustainability maintained

The results of the study show that conservation and reproduction of the agrarian system are strongly conditioned by the community regulations concerning land use and socio-economic relations. Respect for nature, reflected in the cultural and ethical dimensions of the community and the limited need for integration in the market economy, has prevented the community from falling into the trap of modern agricultural development. As long as the traditional system of social and ecological ethics and community regulations functions and the community succeeds in adapting its farming system to population growth, it is expected that sustainability can be maintained.

Text: Stephan Rist, Agroecology Project University of Cochabamba (AGRUCO)
Casilla 3392, Cochabamba, Bolivia

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