Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

Bolivia leads the way in recognizing farmers as custodians of biodiversity

29 May 2014

Bolivia recognizes custodian farmers of agricultural biodiversity as key contributors to the conservation of biodiversity, food and income security — now and in the future — to sustain and nourish the planet.

The Bolivian Government through the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agropecuaria y Forestal – INIAF (National Institute of Agricultural and Forestry Innovation), has just announced that within the framework of the Network of Germplasm Banks of the National System of Genetic Resources, custodian farmers are important and complementary contributors to ex situ conservation of biodiversity and this is the first time that such a recognition has been made in the country. Their contribution to in situ conservation was also highlighted and both ex situ and in situ conservation actions were stressed as equally important in conserving plant genetic resources, considered as strategic resources for the food security and food sovereignty of the people.

INIAF marked this formal recognition at a custodian farmer workshop held last 30 April in La Paz, Bolivia, with the signing and presentation of a Manifesto of Gratitude for Agricultural Biodiversity Custodian Farmers (link below), who - throughout centuries and under different physical, social and cultural challenges  - have fulfilled their role as guardians of agricultural biodiversity. In this way, their ancestral work, as well as some of their tools as participatory on-farm documentation and monitoring practices for agricultural biodiversity, had the opportunity to be mainstreamed.

Don Ricardo Vargas is an Andean custodian farmer who has farmed land near the Titicaca Lake all his life. On his farm, he conserves 24 traditional crop varieties, including 15 varieties of potato, six of oca, and many others of  quinoa and barley. Now in his late sixties, Don Ricardo is seen as a leader in his community and works actively with his wife, Doña Francisca, to share their deep knowledge of agricultural biodiversity with other farmers in their community. Doña Francisca has particular knowledge about which seeds to select in times of drought and other environmental stresses which she learned from her mother. Custodian farmers like Don Ricardo and Doña Francisca have now been given recognition for the valuable contribution they have made to food security by the Bolivian Government.

The representative of INIAF, Dr Alvaro Otondo Maldonado mentioned: "We recognize that custodian farmers are a strategic asset to help Bolivia use and safeguard the country's valuable and rich crop diversity, found on farm and in the wild, to achieve sustainable agricultural systems for nutrition and income security in the future. The Manifesto formalizes our gratitude to the work of these custodian farmers carried out through the centuries for safeguarding our diversity heritage and the associated knowledge of its value, as today not just Bolivia but also the world looks for crops able to adapt to today’s climatic challenges."

An important contribution to this historical milestone has been the long-standing work on neglected and underutilized species, which has been implemented in Bolivia by Bioversity International and the PROINPA Foundation over the last 10 years — work funded by the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

"In IFAD, we consider agricultural biodiversity a valuable asset for improving food and nutrition security, adaptation to climate change, income generation, employment opportunities and boosting local community members' self-esteem." said Rima Alcadi, Grants Portfolio Advisor, IFAD.

"Through our work with Bioversity International and other like-minded partners as INIAF, PROINPA, CETHA Tupac Katari, Samaritan’s Purse and CARE Bolivia, we have been able to demonstrate that smallholder farmers play a key role in conserving agricultural biodiversity and the related traditional knowledge. Bioversity International has been very proactive in ensuring that the value of agricultural biodiversity is recognized – from the local level all the way to international policy engagement. We know that unless the value of biodiversity is recognized, there will be no effort to conserve it. We are extremely proud of the success achieved in Bolivia, and we hope we can scale up this result to other countries."

"We are really excited to see how these initiatives that we have been working on for a couple of years in Bolivia, are being taking into consideration in the construction of a National System of Genetic Resources, and seeing the government’s plans to follow the Manifesto by scaling-up a network of custodian farmers in Bolivia established in agricultural biodiversity centers around Lake Titicaca and others around the country through an IFAD-funded initiative," said Wilfredo Rojas of PROINPA.

"To effectively safeguard agricultural biodiversity you need ex situ conservation approaches, such as diversity safeguarded in genebanks and also in situ conservation approaches where diversity is conserved on farm or in the wild. It is fundamental that the different actors in the country - led by INIAF - work jointly to achieve the complementarity of both approaches".

For Stefano Padulosi of Bioversity International, conserving plant genetic diversity ex situ has many advantages such as being able to conserve many species in a limited space and that the users' access to material can be relatively easy. In situ conservation offers a complementary approach as unlike genebanks, it allows for dynamic evolution of the species through human and natural selection in their growing environments, for example, adaptation to climate change. It also safeguards the traditional knowledge associated to their use through the farmers that use and value them. But conserving in situ requires more understanding of what diversity exists, and where and how it is being used. It can also be vulnerable to land and ecosystem degradation or extreme weather events such as floods, so a back-up system is needed which is where ex situ conservation plays a complementary role. At Bioversity International, we are advocating for an integration of these two complementary systems.

"At Bioversity International we have a vision of a global network for in situ conservation to complement the one already in place for genebanks. Bolivia recognizing the two approaches as of equal value is a welcome move," concludes Dr Padulosi.

"There is a wide consensus now that agricultural biodiversity has an important role to play towards achieving sustainable food production and consumption systems, as well as reducing rural poverty. Within such a context, recognizing the role played by custodian farmers is a great step forward. Development of a supportive environment for on-farm conservation by developing incentives for local communities to act as stewards of diversity, linking custodian farmers to markets and enhancing capacities of value chains actors to enhance their use of traditional crops, will be the next important step towards sustainably securing our resources in situ."

Leer este artículo en español

Download the Manifesto of Gratitude to Custodian Farmers of Agrobiodiversity

Photo: Custodian farmer rescues potatoes from flooding along the banks of Lake Titicaca. Credit: Bioversity International/G. Baldinelli


This work is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).