Diagnostic action-research in San Carlos sub-watershed, Bolivia

This description of watershed planning in Bolivia in 2000 illustrates how action-research can contribute to collaborative watershed management. The project was carried out within the framework of FAO’s Inter-Regional Project for Participatory Upland Conservation and Development (PUCD).

The San Carlos sub-watershed covers 31 km2 of the Piraí river basin. It lies in the municipality of El Torno, about 30 km from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, one of Bolivia’s most dynamic towns. It has a population of 800 people, half of whom are subsistence farmers. Colonists and the beneficiaries of agrarian reform have been settling in this rural area since the 1950s. Land clearing for crops and rangeland caused forest cover to decrease from 72 percent in 1967 to 39 percent in 1997. The impact of this on runoff has been exacerbated by the construction of roads and trails and by oil exploration and exploitation, which is also a major source of pollution. Since the late 1980s, the San Carlos torrent has been unpredictable. Every year, sudden spates and landslides during the rainy season damage downstream infrastructure and property, while local farmers experience increasingly severe droughts during the dry season.

In 1999, the territorial management plan of El Torno municipality made controlling the San Carlos torrent’s hydrological regime a priority. The mayor requested technical assistance from the Piraí River Watershed Service and the PUCD project. A field visit to the area suggested that local farming and forestry practices were the causes of hydrological imbalances in the watershed, but conversations with farmers suggested that these practices should be viewed in the context of evolving local livelihood strategies and external interest in watershed resources - oil, speculation on peri-urban lands and trends in the Santa Cruz food market.

A three-month action-research process was launched to study the linkages among these factors. This exercise involved the PUCD project facilitation team, senior municipal staff and selected representatives of village-level grassroots organizations, as well as experts in forestry, land and soil science, and agriculture from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the University René Gabriel Moreno (Santa Cruz).

The action-research team focused on five complementary subjects:

  • population dynamics, particularly in- and out-migration flows;
  • land cover, i.e., the spatial distribution of natural and human-incurred vegetal formations (forests, rangeland, agricultural land, etc.) and how this changes over time;
  • livelihood strategies, i.e., the way in which people from different social strata gain a living (including on-, off- and non-farm activities);
  • social stratification, i.e., differences in wealth, status and ethnicity among local social groups;
  • political linkages, i.e., the relationships among farmers, village-level organizations, the municipality and departmental/national institutions.

Analysis of the historical interplays among these factors identified the socio-economic factors that underlie environmental degradation in San Carlos and the issues on which the new watershed management plan should focus.

The following research activities were conducted:

  • analysis of demographic trends, based on available census data;
  • multi-stakeholder discussions of watershed land cover and soil use maps (generated by GIS) for 1967, 1987 and 1997;
  • individual life history interviews with key informants, focusing on the evolution of land use in San Carlos over the last 30 years;
  • group interviews with members of grassroots organizations to elicit their perceptions of differences in social conditions and livelihood strategies in San Carlos;
  • in-depth livelihood analysis of a small sample of households, selected as examples of the major livelihood strategies identified in group interviews.

The following were the main findings of the action-research:

  • The immediate cause of torrents and landslides in San Carlos is the deforestation of critical areas such as hilltops, very steep slopes and river shores (7 percent of the total area). As these areas have marginal importance to local livelihoods, the action-research group agreed that the municipality must establish a stricter forest conservation regime, and enforce it through legal and social fencing means.
  • Earth movements related to oil operations and the construction of large houses and access roads on the hillside were confirmed as additional - but relatively self-contained and localized - causes of the watershed’s hydrological imbalance. It was recommended that the municipality’s territorial management plan include a soil movement monitoring and supervision service, capable of preventing abuses.
  • The most important cause of hydrological imbalance was found to be removal of the forest, agroforestry and sugar cane cover that had survived on medium-steep hillsides until the 1980s. This change occurred between 1987 and 1997 and was driven by several demographic and livelihood trends, including pest and disease epidemics affecting fruit trees, a drop in the sugar cane price on Santa Cruz market, the loss of household labour as young people out-migrated to town, the conversion of many farms to extensive cattle ranches, and the parallel shift of landless workers’ livelihoods from agricultural wage labour to charcoal production (promoted by farmers who wanted to convert forest and agroforestry land to rangeland).

The action-research team concluded that the best way of addressing the environmental situation in San Carlos was to create new sustainable livelihood opportunities for farmers and local landless workers. Team members suggested converting cattle ranches back into diversified and intensive farming land, to support cottage industries targeting the Santa Cruz food market. Fruit and vegetable production, medium-scale poultry raising, the introduction of milk cow breeds and the development of a cooperative dairy were identified as the most promising alternatives for raising farmers’ incomes and creating job opportunities for the landless. Refrigerator plants and the industrial three-phase power these require were identified as the basic infrastructure needed to implement these changes.

The action-research team recommended that the municipality of El Torno address the problem of torrent spates from a multi-cultural perspective. The municipality environment office should issue clear regulations to protect critical areas and decrease the environmental impact of roads, buildings and oil infrastructure. The local police should be trained to monitor major earth movements and motivated to report and fine abuses. The rural development office should promote linkages between local farmers and organizations that offer technical assistance and credit for agroforestry, milk livestock rearing, poultry, and greenhouse vegetable production. The infrastructure office should negotiate with the power supply company for an extension of the three-phase power line. The financial office should commit the municipality’s share of government royalties from oil extraction to supporting these and other collaborative management activities in the watershed.

Adapted from P. Warren. 2000. Ordenamiento territorial municipal. Una experiencia en el Departamento de Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Field Report No. 6. Rome, FAO, GCP/INT/542/ITA. Coordination Unit.

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last updated:  Thursday, October 4, 2007