In Bolivia’s Andean region, many rural communities rely on potato farming for food and income. Farmers have developed sophisticated strategies to grow food and livestock despite poor soils, erratic rainfall, high altitude, and steep slopes.
However, recent changes in markets, land tenure, technology, and other factors have led to soil degradation and erosion in the region, increasing the threat of poverty and food insecurity to farmers struggling to compete in the economy.
Keri Agriesti, a Virginia Tech graduate student in geography from Bucyrus, Ohio, is studying the connection men and women who farm in Bolivia have with the soil. Agriesti said she chose to focus on soil because it is what farmers touch every day for planting and harvesting crops and pasturing livestock.
“Recognizing and documenting the relationship farmers have with the soil is one of the first places to start understanding how to adapt local farming strategies and livelihoods,” Agriesti said. “To me, this means literally starting from the ground up.”
Because women perform specific farm tasks and often possess specialized agricultural knowledge that differs from that of men, it is important to understand how change affects men and women separately, she said. In Bolivia, Agriesti observed that men and women describe soils and the landscape differently.
“Too often, local farmers’ work and environmental knowledge, usually women’s, are left out of development plans. I want people to see that men’s and women’s knowledge and resource use is equally important and relevant to research,” Agriesti said. “All farmers are different, and one of those important differences is gender roles and spaces.”
Agriesti works under Maria Elisa Christie, program director of Women in International Development. The work is a part of a gender component of the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program, managed by Virginia Tech. This program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, focuses on implementing conservation agriculture in 13 developing countries, including Bolivia.
Agriesti spent two months in Sank’ayani Alto, Bolivia, where she worked with a nonprofit organization, the Foundation for the Promotion and Research of Andean Products, to complete her research. Before she was allowed to interview any farmers, she attended a few community meetings, where she explained her research — in Spanish, which was then translated into the local Quechua — to the farmers. She then received permission from them to live and work in their community.
Men and women were divided into two groups, and each group described containers of soil taken from the community. Next, the groups were asked to list and describe the types of soils in the community. They also mapped where those soils were on a satellite image.
Following the focus groups, Agriesti visited 10 households, where she interviewed men and women farmers. She asked them to map their resources on a blank sheet of paper and name the different types of soil. She then mapped the places where farmers said their “best” and “worst” soils were.
Agriesti saw that men and women have different, but similar knowledge of soil and soil uses. She found that women’s maps provided rich details about the landscape and agricultural plots as places for pasturing and providing food. Men’s maps generally included details about soils used for building houses, planting potatoes, applying fertilizers, or location to irrigation canals.
From the focus group, she found that men’s soil descriptions were more centered on what goes into the soil, such as water, wind, plowing, and location of plots. Women focused on what comes out of the soil, including food, fodder for animals, and how crop production affects soil health.
She also had samples from the farmer-identified “best” and “worst” soils collected from Bolivia and sent back to Virginia Tech, where the samples will be analyzed for soil health. This analysis will compare the farmers’ knowledge with a scientific evaluation of the soil.
Agriesti said she hopes her research shows the importance of talking to both men and women about their spaces, knowledge, and roles in agriculture in the community. She also wants other researchers to use her work to design agricultural practices that are good for the environment and benefit men and women equitably.
“I want my research to show how local voices — from both men and women — provide a fuller, more detailed picture in understanding local knowledge, needs, and livelihoods,” she said.
The Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program (SANREM CRSP) focuses on improving agricultural productivity and food security in the developing world. The program has seven projects in 13 countries focused on implementing conservation agriculture, a type of farming that can improve soil health and crop production.
The Women in International Development program seeks to ensure a gender-sensitive approach to programs in the Office of International Research, Education, and Development such as the SANREM CRSP and to raise awareness about gender and development issues at Virginia Tech.
Watch a video in which Keri Agriesti shares her experience in Bolivia.
Look through previous Spotlight stories