Restoring Pasturelands at the Top of the World

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In 1996, Grupo de Asesoramiento Multidisciplinario en Medio Ambiente y Agroecología (GAMMA), a nonprofit organization based in La Paz, Bolivia, launched several pilot projects for managing water and livestock in the Bolivian altiplano. Water sources and pastures critical to maintaining sheep and llama herds had been hit hard by El Niño, a periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean’s surface that results in extreme weather patterns of drought and flooding across South America.

GAMMA received IAF funding in 1998 to help herders in Choquecota, located in the department of Oruro, some 13,000 feet above sea level, cope with the drought by constructing water holes and restoring pastureland. GAMMA also proposed to improve the ability of eight ayllus, or community councils, to coordinate municipal authorities. The Bolivian government had begun to decentralize functions and operations by transferring responsibilities for services, such as irrigation, to municipal governments and encouraging the participation of community organizations in drafting local development plans. 

The IAF awarded GAMMA $199,635, to be disbursed over three years. The grant was subsequently increased to $387,903, disbursed over six years. The funds were invested in the construction and operation of eight centers that were to improve llama stock and provide tractors for use in the construction of reservoirs. In collaboration with the municipality, the ayllus expected to construct 460 watering holes and irrigate 638 hectares of pasture, increasing income for 380 herding families. GAMMA’s original commitment of $55,600 to cover part of the costs increased to $98,725 by the end of the project. It also mobilized $66,081 from other sources. 


 GAMMA ditch

 Infiltration ditch

 water hole for llamas

 Watering hole

 Water hole

Llamas drinking from watering hole  

In 2010, four years after the IAF funding ceased, an evaluator from the IAF visited Choquecota to assess the impact of the watering holes and additional grazing land. Among the most noteworthy findings are the following:

  • Close to 1,200 hectares of pasture had been improved through infiltration ditches or plowing, exceeding the original goal by 88 percent. Herds have access to 444 water watering holes, 16 fewer than planned.
  • Ten wells built in 10 breeding centers still in operation. Instead of the eight breeding centers originally envisioned, GAMMA and local families and livestock associations built 42 centers.
  • Municipal authorities and traditional indigenous leaders (jilakatas) continue to work together to develop annual operating plans that maximize community resources and address priorities set by each ayllu.


A sample survey conducted four years after the IAF grant terminated yielded the following: 

  • Construction of watering holes continues. Inspired by the success of neighboring herders, additional herders, who had been unable to participate in the original project, took advantage of municipal funds available through “Evo cumple,” a government program.
  • Of the 33 families interviewed for this evaluation, 43 percent continue improving their land at their own expense or with funds from “Evo cumple.”
  • Improved pasturelands translated into heavier animals that commanded more income. Seventy-five percent of those interviewed said they used the additional income to buy more food, 54 percent to pay for education or health care, 46 percent to purchase clothing and 17 percent to acquire additional animals. (Those interviewed could check more than one option.)
  • Eighty-three percent of those interviewed cited the demarcation of fenced areas for grazing, funded by the IAF, as the principal benefit of GAMMA’s work because it reduced conflicts among neighbors.


Four years after the IAF had fully disbursed this grant, the infrastructure built and relationships developed between ayllus and municipal authorities are still functioning as envisioned. Project activities, especially the construction of watering holes, are being replicated in other parts of the Bolivian altiplano, which is testament to the GAMMA’s success. Municipal authorities consider breeding centers vital to the local economy and they are eligible for government support, if needed.


What worked: Harvesting rain is a practice that has been around for centuries but was not used by the herders of Choquecota until GAMMA began assisting them with the construction of reservoirs and ponds. All the reservoirs built during the grant period are still in use and the practice was adopted by neighboring herders. Another salient feature of the project was the cooperation between ayllu leaders and municipal authorities, which continue to thrive. Ayllu leaders participate in municipal planning processes, identifying community priorities and providing local authorities guidance on the allocation of public resources as mandated by Bolivian law. 

What didn't work: To revitalize pasture lands, GAMMA opted for agro-ecological methods considered sustainable but that proved time-consuming, such as building infiltration ditches and waiting for nature to take its course in reviving native vegetation destroyed by erosion and drought. Initially, the herders went along with this approach, but they soon realized their animals could die while they waited for grass to grow. To prevent such losses, they began plowing the land in earnest. Half of the pasturelands recovered resulted from proactive plowing and seeding, which is what the herders preferred. 

Conclusion: While its project was successful, GAMMA no longer operates in the region due to lack of resources, and its technical staff has dispersed. While the organization had to cease operations, its activities proved sustainable. GAMMA’s approach, which brought back ancient practices, continues to benefit hundreds of herder families in remote villages of this part of the altiplano as herders continue learn from each other and spread the word.

To request the full evaluation (available only in Spanish), email