INNOVATION IN ACTION
The Altiplano (high plains) of western Bolivia is a region of extreme climatic conditions – high altitude, low temperatures, frequent drought, risk of unpredictable heavy snow, hail and relentless winds unbroken by trees. It is home to 3.9 million Bolivians, nearly 40% of the country’s population who are the poorest in the country. Here, conventional agriculture is all but impossible. Consequently, approximately 250,000 people depend largely or entirely on llamas for both their food and income. Yet, traditional llama herding has been in a rapid state of deterioration putting in jeopardy for many what is their sole source of survival.
The principle problem is that infant llamas are dying at a very high rate. Nearly 30% of newborn llamas die in their first year of life and many that survive are in a weakened, fragile state. Climbing mortality rates had led some producers to give up breeding entirely. Instead they would purchase adult male llamas to raise, living off the meager profit margins they could yield from this strategy. It has also resulted in a large out-migration of youth to the cities in search of work.
Many factors contribute to this mortality, including predators, lack of access to veterinary services, poor livestock management techniques, and large calorie demands from direct exposure to the harsh climates. However, one of the most critical weaknesses is the ability to adequately shelter mother and infant before, during, and right after birth – the most critical and vulnerable periods.
Traditional corrals typically consist of a circle of stacked rocks that, while sufficient to keep llamas contained, doesn’t rise high enough to provide adequate wind protection. These corrals also lack any sort of covering, leaving mothers and infants vulnerable to predators and the elements. The challenge then was to find a way to create an efficient shelter for vulnerable llamas that would improve survival rates at low cost.
PCI discovered and began to solve this problem in 2001. At the time we started no one in Bolivia was addressing this problem. Based on several field investigations and multiple interviews with llama herders PCI came up with a prototype design as part of its MIS Llamas (from Sustainable Integrated Management in Spanish) project.
To be effective, the improved corral needed to provide both weather protection and physical security without being technologically or financially prohibitive to locals. After initial testing, designers settled upon a rectangular structure with rounded corners in order to promote stability in the face of high winds and facilitate cleaning. This shape was found not only be easier for producers to construct, but also required fewer resources than similarly sized circular structures.
A roof was added to one side of the corral, splitting the space between sun and shade. The sheltered side provided protection for birthing mothers and newborns and was covered with a specially designed roof that would allow the morning sun to enter the covered area, thereby providing a natural means of disinfection and warmth while protecting llamas from the cold at night.
The improved corrals were shown to decrease infant llama mortality by 64%. In field interviews the beneficiaries were adamant about project benefits, sharing anecdotes of even more profound mortality reductions. For example, one llama producer mentioned going from losing “half the births to just one” after the project. Llama herders in interviews attributed the success in mortality reduction most frequently to the corrals, though improved veterinary services were also mentioned. Additionally, an external study conducted by the Universidad Mayor de San Simon found that the improved corrals effectively reduced llama mortality from 21.1% to 3.8% (a 555% reduction). The same study also concluded that newborns’ birth weight had risen by 41%, while mothers’ milk production had increased 35%.
This reduction in overall mortality within the herd, specifically in newborns, has long-term significance for residents in the region. A minor increase in surviving newborns per year (i.e. two to three) begins to take on significance as these gains compound successively, with the results really beginning to show their impact as these survivors reach maturity and have offspring of their own. During just one single breeding cycle, there was a 15% increase in herd size.
Perhaps most impressive (and reflective of the overall success of the system) is the remarkable increase in the net worth of llama producers and their families. Over the course of the intervention period within the targeted communities (approximately 18 months) llama herders saw an average increase of net worth from $2,242 to $6638 – a 196% increase.
The survival corrals have had a direct impact on helping us transform the lives of these llama herders living in the Altiplano who now have more resources and income to provide for their families.