Tanks, tunnels and determination

how rainwater harvesting and greenhouses
lift smallholder resilience in the Colombian Andes

Maria Hilda Moreno // The variety of crops grown in the greenhouses improves the diets as well as the income of local communities.
© Zoï Environment Network 2022

Each morning, María Herlinda Espinel takes a moment to appreciate her mountain home: “I get up and look at the beautiful lake and admire God’s creation”. She lives in Aquitania, a village located on the shores of Lake Tota, in the Colombian Andes, about 200 km northeast of the capital Bogotá.

Aquitania, project site on Lake Tota.
© Zoï Environment Network 2022

She is 67 years old and has been farming since she was 14. All those years of experience have allowed her to observe how climate change is shifting the seasons, upsetting rainfall patterns and making it harder to earn a living. “The weather has become very un favourable,” she says. “You don't know what to expect, because sometimes we are fine and then there are terrible downpours that give you no respite. And sometimes it gets really hot.”

Espinel and other farmers blame the altered climate for water shortages and crop diseases threatening their food security and incomes. Projections suggest rainfall in the area around Lake Tota, which lies 3,000 meters above sea level, may become even more erratic as temperatures rise in the coming decades.

Fortunately, she is a member of the Association of Proactive Rural Women of Aquitania (known locally as ASOMUC), an organization founded in 2010 that works for women's rights, food security, and environmental sustainability by promoting good farm practices. With farming in the area dominated by monocultures of green onions – and by male farmers – the women were considered crazy for planting a variety of organic products. But the scepticism only stiffened their resolve to continue what they called their “divine madness” and become conscious, independent and capable rural women, taking care of the environment as well as their families and communities.

In 2011, their determination was rewarded when the SWISSAID foundation implemented the project "Food production of women in Aquitania, Boyacá." Greenhouses were built and orchards developed. ASOMUC was strengthened, and its members started to commercialize their products on a small scale. But as time passed, the infrastructure deteriorated and the women could only grow their organic produce in those greenhouses that were still in good condition.

Since 2018, and to enhance sustainability and strengthen the initiatives in the basin, a major project to promote climate change adaptation in the Andes region started working in the Tota Lake Basin. The AICCA Project identified the basin as an area at high risk of decreased precipitation, increased temperatures, and extreme weather events, including crop-destroying frosts. It also homed in on ASOMUC as an ideal partner for a drive to make local livelihoods more resilient to the growing challenges.

Teresita Ávila // Growing vegetables in greenhouses and harvesting rainwater helps smallholders reduce climate risks in the Lake Toba basin.
© Zoï Environment Network 2022

Under the AICCA project, members of the association received assistance to upgrade 16 greenhouses with rainwater harvesting systems and storage tanks, enabling them to keep their crops watered even during droughts and heat waves. In Aquitania, water is delivered via an aqueduct to 120 families in the area, but the supplies are scarce, especially in summer. “Thanks to the tank, we now have enough water to raise seedlings, and for our home gardens. We hope we can start selling some produce again, because the pandemic closed everything down for us,” Espinel said. She listed lettuce, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower as the crops she is nurturing or wants to grow alongside local staples like onions and potatoes.

Gabrielina Ramírez, another member of the association, said she had just sold a crop of greenhouse-grown organic lettuce for 2,000 pesos (about 50 US cents) each. She has also sold several bottles of liquified chilli peppers as a natural pesticide. “With that I got an income that I normally don’t have,” said Ramírez, standing in the greenhouse with the next crop of lettuce and chilli sprouting around her. “I had enough money to buy new seedlings, and what I don’t sell I take home or give to my family and friends. It’s not a lot, but it means that, now and again, I can buy a piece of meat, a piece of chicken for my family.”

The women look to the heavens to explain the support they have received, which has also included coaching on protecting crops from pests and disease without using chemicals. But their good fortune is a consequence of their own desire for transformation, and their ability to organize themselves. Future generations will benefit most from the climate resilience that resolute local leadership can promote.

Nubia Alarcón // Members of the women's association say they get good prices for their organic produce.
© Zoï Environment Network 2022

“Because it came amid this pandemic, the AICCA project is like a blessing from God. They also gave us training, motivated us, gave us things that we couldn’t even imagine,” Espinel said. “We are starting up again and, who knows, maybe it will turn into something beautiful for the future. We hope so.”

With contribution from :

Field research and text: Written by Stephen Graham, with contributions from Alexandra Garces, Ana Carolina Benitez and Lorena Martínez.

Photos and illustrations
: Original photos by AICCA Colombia Project, photo artwork by Zoï Environment Network

Web design
: Zoï Environment Network

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