Potatoes, quinoa, beans, peanuts, pumpkins, peppers, the local chirimoya fruit, medicinal plants and alpaca wool are just some of the natural products that the plateaus of Bolivia and the Andes valleys have to offer – a veritable treasure trove. Paradoxically, 80% of families in the Andes region, where half the population of Bolivia lives, live below the poverty line.
Following many success stories from the 1990s, the SDC and the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Biodiversity, Forest Resources and the Environment jointly developed an action plan. The BioCultura programme, which was launched in 2006, focuses on the economic, social and cultural development of the Andes' indigenous and farming communities, whilst guaranteeing the long-term preservation of local ecosystems.
The BioCultura programme was reinforced by the new constitution that Bolivia adopted in 2009. The basic law reflects the alternative approach to development and the indigenist turn taken by the country since Evo Morales was elected president in 2005. Evo Morales, who is of indigenous descent, created a stir by nationalising the country's oil and gas industry before putting the right of the indigenous populations to manage their land resources in the constitution and a governmental national development plan.
The cornerstone of all development projects in Bolivia is a new philosophy, "Vivir bien" (living well), which is similar to the "gross national happiness" coined by the King of Bhutan in the 1970s. "Vivir bien" reminds people of the necessity of respecting nature by using elements of indigenous cosmology. The idea is that people and nature cohabit in a harmonious, complementary manner.
The BioCultura programme, which is being led and co-financed (CHF 1 million) by the Bolivian Vice-Ministry for Biodiversity, fully embraces this vision. Tens of indigenous and farming communities (representing a tenth of the municipalities in the Bolivian Andes) have, so far, been able to benefit from the project, which is based on four specific priority objectives:
- Conserving biodiversity
- Increasing agricultural production and ensuring the population's food security
- Improving local management of natural resources
- Promoting traditional knowledge as added value
Several encouraging results have already been seen, thanks to the partnerships that have been created between the programme, the private sector and local communities:
- 2,500 families have seen an increase in their income
- 13,600 hectares of land have benefited from conservation and reforestation measures that guarantee the preservation of threatened animal species and 154 water sources
- 37 municipalities have developed clear initiatives for improving natural resource management
- 60 technical experts and175 local leaders, many of them women, have acquired specialist skills in biodiversity management
In 2012, another concept – enshrined in law – was added to the "Vivir bien" philosophy: "Madre Tierra" (Mother Earth). Taken together, the two principles, which have already been noticed by several United Nations organisations and environmental conventions, represent a conviction shared by the SDC in Bolivia: that the knowledge and ancestral practices of indigenous populations can contribute to development. Indigenous communities know how to innovate whilst using their resources in a sustainable manner.
Nevertheless, conditions favourable to the promotion of harvested products are often lacking. This may, for example, be because distribution networks are incomplete or because access to water sources is compromised.
Finally, the Andes are affected by the negative effects of climate change. Variations in temperature and rainfall levels increase the risk of drought, flooding and erosion. At a further stage in the project, the SDC is planning to focus on the protection of sensitive natural areas and affected populations. The SDC already provides financial and technical assistance to the new "Plurinational authority for Mother Earth", which is in charge of measures for preparing for and adapting to climate change.