Everything you ever wanted to know about llamas… and more

New development project looks to South America’s camelids for sustainable rural development

In Bolivia’s cold and harsh altiplano - a high-altitude plain at 4,000m above sea level - llamas, alpacas and vicuñas are big business. Llama prices are up, demand for shawls and scarves made from vicuña and alpaca fibre is increasing, and, as it turns out, llamas eat less grass, take a smaller toll on the environment than other animals like sheep, and taste good too. But how do smallholder farmers capitalise on these optimal market conditions?

One answer comes from the Bolivian government’s Camelid Valorisation Programme (Proyecto VALE). Through the programme, which is funded by the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), ranchers are increasing their incomes, protecting the environment and transforming their lives thanks to improved management practices, capacity building exercises and new initiatives designed to help traditional herders to protect their environment and make more money from their llamas.

“Before we didn’t eat llamas, we just used them as pack animals,” said Ide Fatima de Ayllu Mimani. “But now we are converting much of our sheep herd to llamas.” Ide is studying to be a lawyer and serves as the treasurer of a producers’ association in her village of Cuyuri, The support coming from the 6-year US$14 million VALE project is taking many shapes and forms for pastoralists like Ide.

For the ranchers themselves, the project has focused on providing training on nutrition and animal husbandry practices. Llamas are being treated for parasites and receiving vitamins to keep them in optimal health, and ranchers are now working with technicians to improve the genetic lines of their herds.

“Thanks to Proyecto VALE, we’ve been able to provide our animals with vitamins and remove parasites,” said Mimani. “Our llamas were so skinny. Now they are in much better health.” With each llama worth about US$100, the average family farmer has equitable assets worth over US$8,000 with a herd of about 80 llamas. But for these asset-rich-cash-poor pastoralists, there was little market and little know-how to make sustainable profits from their llamas.

“Through the VALE project, we are looking to open new markets and create new value-added projects from llama meat, and alpaca and vicuña fibre,” said Jaana Keitaanranta, IFAD’s Country Programme Manager for Bolivia. “Providing poor family ranchers in the region with new tools for market access like improved overall quality of their produce and better packaging and marketing schemes through technical capacitation seminars has enabled them to make more money from each camelid and take more full advantage of their rich asset base.”

Many farmers have opted to use project funds to build value-added business enterprises, working in llama processing, artisan goods or even tourism as a sustainable and green revenue source. In the village of Curahuara de Carangas, a group of villagers decided to build a hotel, leveraging project funds they won through a competitive resource allocation model in which area entrepreneurs presented their business plans in a public competition to compete for funding. With the funds, they hired technicians to learn about hotel trade, took classes to learn to knit sweaters and scarves from the alpaca wool they get from their herds, and even hired somebody to help them learn to cook llama meat specially seasoned for their international clientele’s tastes.

“Before we didn’t have a sure employment. Now with the hotel we have employment. Tourism has brought us many things. For example, we don’t throw trash everywhere anymore. You have to keep things clean and protect the environment to protect the future,” said Marcos Sebastian Ramírez Nuñez, a project participant who works at the hotel on the weekends and studies tourism at the University in La Paz during the week.

Other community organisations are following suit, developing enterprises in everything from shoe-making to llama-jerky processing. For these value-added enterprises, farmers present business plans to the project to receive funding for new machinery, training, marketing support, or even buildings to house their enterprises. In many cases, the farmers are now re-investing their revenues into their enterprises.

“Sustainability is made by following what the population wants to do,” said Víctor Hugo Vásquez, Bolivia’s Vice-Minister of Rural Development, the implementing agency for the project. “In our last review, VALE was one of the best projects we had. The results have also been good, in the transformation of the llama products, like charqui (jerky) and other foods.”

In order to ensure better protection and management of Bolivia’s wild vicuña herds, the project is encouraging catch-and-release sheering programmes. Over the past 100 years, Bolivia’s vicuña population was nearly hunted to extinction. Now, ranchers are able to capitalize on the high-price of vicuña wool in a sustainable manner by capturing, sheering and releasing the animals.

The project has also been investing heavily in women. “Half of the producers committees are made up by women,” said Vásquez, noting that they have seen stronger returns on their investments when the money is managed by women as women tend to re-invest in their communities, in education and in their future.

“I want to have 1000 llamas and start a charqui business because llama meat is expensive now,” said Mimani. Throughout Latin America – a region marked by high-fertility rates, complex inheritance structures and dwindling opportunities in the countryside – many young farmers like Ide will no doubt find their futures halfway between the city and the countryside. Spending their weekdays in the city to earn a living and pursue their careers, while returning to the family farm on weekends to improve on the family business.

“Now with the new laws, [presented in the new Bolivian Constitution in 2009] women have better rights and more opportunities. Times have changed. Not just here in Bolivia, but on a global level.”

The lessons learned through Proyecto Vale project are currently being documented and will be shared throughout Bolivia and the rest of Latin America. And by working from a demand-driven development model and focusing on increased revenues and capacities, project personnel hope to ensure sustainable returns well into the future.

Originally published in The New Agriculturalist


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