Poor farmers in the heart of Bolivia’s Amazon are being encouraged to embrace the annual floods — by using a centuries-old irrigation system for their crops. They are experimenting with a sustainable way of growing food crops that their ancestors used.

It could provide them with better protection against the extremes of climate change, reduce deforestation, improve food security and even promise a better diet.

These are the bold aims of a two-year-old project being carried out by a non-governmental organisation near Trinidad, the capital of the department of Beni.

The system is based on building “camellones” — raised earth platforms of anything up to 2 metres high, surrounded by canals. Constructed above the height of flood waters, the camellones can protect seeds and crops from being washed away. The water in the canals provide irrigation and nutrients during the dry season.

Pre-Columbian cultures in Beni from about 1000 BC to AD 1400 used a similar system.

“One of the many extraordinary aspects of our camellones project is that poor communities living in the Beni today are using a similar technology to that developed by indigenous pre-Columbian cultures in the same region to solve a similar range of problems,” says Oscar Saavedra, the director of the Kenneth Lee foundation.

He experimented for six years in his own garden to develop the complex system of hydrology.

Ancient and modern communities face the same problems — regular flooding followed by drought. ``The floods were the basis for development and the flourishing of a great civilisation,” says Mr Saavedra.

There were bad floods in 2006 and 2007, but last year the region saw the worst flooding in at least 50 years.

The floods affected some 120,000 people — a quarter of Beni’s population — and caused more than $200 million (119 million pounds) of damage. That experience prompted many local women to enlist in the camellones project.

“I had planted rice, maize, bananas and onions on my plot of land. But the water left nothing,” explains Dunia Rivero Mayaco, a 44-year-old mother of three from Puerto Almacen near Trinidad.

“I lost my house too. We had to live three months in temporary accommodation on the main road. The children got ill there.

“So that’s why I am working here on the camellones. I didn’t want to lose everything again.” About 400 families are now enrolled in the project in five locations, growing mainly maize, cassava and rice.

Many of the sites are still in an experimental phase, but the early signs are promising. Productivity appears to be on the increase. International charity Oxfam is supporting the project in part because it offers poor people the possibility of adapting to climate change.

Mr. Saavedra is convinced the camellones project can be expanded, even to other countries.

“This process could be repeated in various parts of the world with similar conditions to the Beni like parts of Bangladesh, India and China. It could help to reduce world hunger and combat climate change,” he says. — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate

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