Cultivating resilience among Bolivian farmers

April 29, 2016

Rosemarie Caward, SID’17, is approaching the final months of her master’s program in sustainable international development (SID). Like most SID students, she opted to conduct an off-campus practicum during her second year in the program with a recognized development organization. Caward spent eight months stationed with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in the Andes mountains near La Paz, Bolivia—one of the highest cities in the world. Just a few weeks after her return, Caward sat down with Heller Communications to share her experience in the field.

photo of Rosemarie Caward 

Heller Communications: Tell me about your practicum. What kinds of projects did you work on?

Rosemarie Caward: I primarily worked on three projects with the CRS South America Zone coordinator for monitoring and evaluation, accountability and learning. We spent a lot of time in the southern Andes and the Bolivian Amazon conducting field visits and talking to the beneficiaries of these three projects.

The first project focused on value chain development to strengthen local livelihoods for subsistence farmers. It involved building farmers’ skills in conservation agriculture, land management and capacity building for a farmer’s association. The project also linked farmers with local organizations to purchase and transform harvests into new products for the market.  For example, the project built a partnership between local the local government and schools to provide healthy snacks for children, such as amaranth biscuits and peanuts.

The other project was a greenhouse and water management project. In this area there are no public services, no electricity, sewer or water. In the past, people walked about 15 minutes away to a local river for water, which isn’t too far, but imagine doing that three or four times a day. It can take quite a toll. Project participants helped build cisterns to support subsistence agriculture for household consumption including water for washing, cooking, and drinking. Some of the women were then able to sell surplus production at the market, which provided additional income. So even though that was a water management and food security project, it had an economic benefit.

The last project was a feasibility study to expand CRS’s Global Coffee program to the Bolivian Amazon. The project is still being explored, but essentially it would help local coffee growers, roasters, and exporters improve the quality and quantity of their coffee beans through economic, environmental and social development.

HC: You created some beautiful videos that really captured the impact of these projects for the local farmers you worked with. Was this part of your practicum work for CRS, or was that a personal endeavor?

RC: A little bit of both, actually. Last spring I took a communications class, and was encouraged to use the skills I learned there in the field. Then the SID program developed the RoadSIDe project, which provides small grants to students to help them purchase simple multimedia equipment to document their practicum. I received a RoadSIDe scholarship and I really wanted to document these projects. I pitched the idea to my supervisor at CRS who was really excited by it. The videos were initially intended as a monitoring and evaluation tool, but they also became a communications tool to show the impact to donors and other people CRS wants to share the work with.

HC: What big takeaways do you have from this experience?

RC: One thing that was really significant for me was how the SID requirement to develop a case study connected so well to the work that CRS was doing. My topic was on the resilience of agricultural livelihoods, which CRS was exploring in that region of Bolivia. The process of the case study allowed me to focus and refine my interests. Resilience is new for the international development field and a lot of organizations are exploring it, but it hasn’t really been conceptualized and clearly defined. I hope to pursue that in my career after graduation.

photo of two Bolivian farmers in their field 

HC: And how do you define resilience?

RC: In development, resilience is defined as capacities to persist, adapt, or transform as you experience shocks and stressors such as natural disasters, market trends,  political instability, climate change and so forth. It includes developing positive management mechanisms, an enabling environment and the mindset to use these events as an opportunity to grow and even thrive.

Resilience questions our idea of sustainability, in that sustainability doesn’t necessarily mean that a system stays stable and constant. Nations, countries, and individuals coexist within dynamic systems, which constantly change and grow as they respond to positive or negative shocks.

close-up photo of grain spilling out of a farmer's hands 

HC: It sounded like a lot of the people you interviewed were referring to climate change. Is that what you’re looking at with resilience in these areas?

RC: Yes, climate change was a big challenge for them. That’s another reason why the experience was really significant for me. Learning the technical and theoretical aspects here at Heller, and then seeing how it impacted households on the ground was meaningful. What does climate change really look like for farmers in the field, day to day, and how does a development practitioner respond to that?

The most significant climate change issue for these farmers was erratic weather patterns, from hailstorms to droughts. These farmers are still practicing traditional, subsistence practices, which are built around the signs they see in nature. They may wait to plant until they see a certain flower blooming, for example. But all of those biomarkers are now changing and becoming unpredictable, so a lot of farmers are losing crops. In addition, the rainy season is becoming unpredictable: it’s shifting months in the calendar or sometimes not arriving at all. These patterns are severely threatening farmer’s livelihoods, as 85 percent of their work is completed through manual labor and 60-85 percent of their crop production is rain-fed. 

HC: Generally speaking, do you feel your SID classes prepared you for this experience?

RC: Yes, I do. And I think I can say that objectively. I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and I thought that this experience was going to be much easier than my Peace Corps service in Botswana, but otherwise similar. But while I was there I became much more aware of the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental. Each of them played into every project, and I was much more aware of that than I would have been without that coursework.