Back in the flow

After El Niño, farmers in Peru learn how to bounce back from disaster

A brigade of farmers hard at work clearing irrigation channels after fierce El Niño floods. ©Soluciones Prácticas


After days and days of heavy rain, Hernan Espinoza looked out over his fields. They were waterlogged, some completely destroyed. He was like many others in his small community of Tambogrande on Peru’s northern coast: grappling with devastation, their farms and fields severely damaged by flooding, storms and landslides, caused by the El Niño Costero (coastal) phenomenon that pounded the region from January to March of 2017.

Hernan saw his village, located deep in the San Lorenzo Valley, lose 60 percent of its fields. "After the El Niño floods, our crops were wiped out and almost all productive capacity had been lost," he recalls. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before. 

The farmland provided their food and their livelihoods, and its destruction was an emergency for Tambogrande. But before they could think of the land, they had to contend with other problems: the storms had filled the irrigation channels full of stones and mud. As Hernan points out, “The storms caused landslides that in turn blocked our irrigation channels. It was a sad contradiction.”

More than 60 kilometers of irrigation channels that served the farms of 1 000 families were blocked. Clearing them posed a monumental undertaking. Hernan and his neighbors formed 25 special Irrigation Commissions, and working together for almost a month, managed to release the water and drive it to their fields. "With the support of FAO, each of us received a daily wage of USD 10 in addition to machinery and training to work on this goal of releasing our water.”

The work with the brigades and the training for rehabilitation have made our community of Tambogrande ready for a quick response in case of an emergency… This will allow us to better respond to future floods. - Hernan Espinoza

FAO uses “cash for work” programmes in emergencies like this one because they provide short-term employment to economically vulnerable people. They also focus on rehabilitating shared community resources, like irrigation channels. Thanks to this programme, farmers earned an income, enabling them to maintain their self-sufficiency and to meet their most pressing needs. These programmes considerably reduce the likelihood of farmers abandoning their fields in search of income elsewhere.

After unblocking the irrigation channels, the Tambogrande farmers turned their attention to the storm-ravaged fields. Many farmers in the area didn’t know how to restore the land to health and productivity. Hernan and his peers volunteered to learn these techniques and to spread the knowledge to their community.

Almost 1 000 families took part in clearing irrigation channels and planting family gardens, thanks to training and supplies provided by FAO. ©Soluciones Prácticas

“It’s not enough just to sow to ensure that the land is productive. I, and 30 other leading producers in the valley, have been trained in agronomic management, seeds, irrigation and risk management. We had to train for a week and those of us who passed the course were then in charge of spreading the knowledge to the members of our Irrigation Commissions,” says Hernan.

With the help of FAO, they planted small family gardens with fast-growing, commercially-valuable crops. The produce was not only consumed by those who grew it, but also bartered and sold to supplement family incomes and food supplies. In total, they rehabilitated 700 hectares of land with approximately 30 kilos of corn and cowpea seeds. 

“Corn and cowpeas are excellent crops because you plant them today and in a few weeks you may already be harvesting," explains Hernan.

The irrigation channels provided water for 1 000 family farms. Once cleared, the farmers were able to grow valuable cash crops such as cowpeas to support their families. ©Soluciones Prácticas

Hernan and his peers won’t soon forget the training they have received: they’re well aware that with climate change, another dangerous El Niño event could be around the corner. But next time, they will know how to handle it.

“The work with the brigades and the training for productive rehabilitation have made our community of Tambogrande ready for a quick response in cases of emergency; we know how to promptly set our water free and we also know what and how to plant to guarantee our food supply in upcoming events such as El Niño. This will allow us a better response to future floods,” says Hernan, fully convinced.

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