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From garden to kitchen

Vegetable gardens bring life to Quechua families in the Bolivian highlands.

Born in a small community called “El Villar” in the Bolivian province of Chuquisaca, Nelvy was raised in a family of farmers. “My parents and grandparents used to grow garlic and onions”, she recalls. “Here in this community, we do farming and we raise livestock.”.

No wonder Nelvy and her husband Pastor, together with their four children, have built one of the richest family gardens in the community. “Now we have onions, carrots, lettuce and beets”, she says, referring to the colourful pile of produce now covering her kitchen table.

However, growing all these nutritious foods, and other medicinal plants like chamomile and lemon verbena, has been challenging for the family in the last few years. “In this valley area we have heavy snowfalls and droughts that affect our production”, she says. “We have droughts when it’s supposed to be raining, and we have rain when it’s not rainy season. And sometimes, while we are in harvest season, we have snowfalls. All this has really affected us.”

But climate change is not the only threat to the wellbeing of Quechua families in the region. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, high infant mortality and low life expectancy are the norm here awhile people need to walk hours to get to the closest health post.

The vegetable garden of Nelvy and Pastor has a wide diversity of nutritious foods like onions, carrots, chard, spinach and medicinal plants like chamomile and lemon verbena. | Photo: IFRC

We have droughts when it’s supposed to be raining, and we have rain when it’s not rainy season. And sometimes, while we are in harvest season, we have snowfalls. All this has really affected us.
Nelvy Zarate Cerezo,
Community leader in El Villar, San Blas, Bolivia.

The road towards sustainability

Despite these challenges, people here know how to organise. Through the coordination of community-based organizations, people who know the terrain, the people and the culture have taken charge, joining in partnerships and taking on projects to address these hardships in a sustainable way.

The Swiss Red Cross tapped into this energy to help build sustainable solutions that involve a range of local institutions, from schools, to health centres and local authorities. “This has been a very practical experience, in which we work hand-by-hand with families at a local level to improve their well-being, their access to health services and their food availability”, explains Roger Serrudo Leaño, project advisor from Swiss Red Cross. “With a vision to the future, empowering people is key for sustainability”.

One of the most successful collaborations involved vegetable gardens that the Swiss Red Cross helped support in 120 communities, allowing people to diversify their livelihoods while raising crops that resist changing weather conditions. Some have even built fish ponds that bring a regular source of animal protein as climate conditions have made livestock rearing more difficult.

The importance of hygiene and handwashing for disease prevention – especially during the Covid-19 pandemic – was also an integral part of each project. In addition to improving irrigation systems for the garden projects, communities also improved and protected key water sources used for their own consumption.

Fish ponds help families like Nelvy’s to diversify their food consumption and adapt to changing weather conditions. Through their successful example, Nelvy and Pastor are currently working with local authorities to scale-up the vegetable gardens and fish ponds in more parts of the community. | Photo: IFRC

Vegetable gardens mean life

“Today we will eat carp fish with beet salad,” says Nelvy excitingly, sitting in front of her family’s garden and ready to pick up all the ingredients needed for this traditional Bolivian recipe. Meanwhile, Pastor uses a hand-held net to gather small carps that they will later prepare for dinner – directly from their very own fish pond.

The extra sustenance comes at a good time. During the pandemic, Nelvy and Pastor’s elder children lost their jobs in urban areas across the region, and they were forced to return home. In the past, living under the same roof and providing for the complete family would be very difficult. But the garden and the fish pond source enough food for everyone.

This highly engaged couple have become community leaders in El Villar. They have learned and experienced first-hand the power of resilience and adaptation despite the challenges posed by extreme weather conditions. Currently, they are working together with local authorities to integrate and expand the vegetable gardens and fish ponds in more places within the community.

“We have seen successful results in this family. They are strong, resilient, empowered and sustainable,” says Roger Serrudo. “We hope that through their example, more and more families are encouraged to replicate the same results”.

Carp fish with beet salad is a traditional Bolivian recipe that Nelvy and her family love to eat. On this occasion, all the ingredients of this recipe were sourced directly from their own garden and fish pond.

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