ISDR Informs - The Americas


Ancestral Bio-Indicators in Andean Highland Regions:
Disaster warning and resilience mechanisms

This article is related to Priority 3 of the Hyogo Framework for Action which refers to the use of “knowledge, innovation, and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels.”

During the last few decades, climate variations have been experienced worldwide, and the Andean communities have not been the exception. Their agricultural production has been seriously affected by different phenomena such as uncommonly intense cold waves, snow storms and drought. If we consider the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of these countries, it would seem like these events are not “transcendental” in socioeconomic terms. However, many men and women from the Andean highlands live under of conditions of poverty and their economies are based on the trade of their limited, year-round livelihoods.

Our fieldwork, done jointly with Andean communities and our partners in disaster risk management and humanitarian aid programs, has enabled us to identify age-old bio-indicators (also called biological or climate indicators) in Andean areas. In 2004, we identified more than 60 bio-indicators, and now, in 2007, we have records of more than 89 such indicators, in lands whose altitude ranges from 3,800 to 4,800 meters above sea level, from the Arequipa region in Peru to the province of Pakajes in Bolivia.

Our interaction with indigenous elders and sages has not only enabled us to understand but also to observe the use of bio-indicators as early warning mechanisms for hydro-meteorological phenomena that appear suddenly or over time, and which may become disasters due to current vulnerable conditions. On many

occasions, the same warning criteria have helped communities reduce the impact of disasters on their livelihoods, as well as recover faster when their losses do not surpass certain magnitudes.

Reclaiming knowledge
We have seen how some areas have been seriously affected by climate variations, but also how some communities have used their ancestral knowledge about natural and climate signs, as well as celestial bodies as bio-indicators, considering them climate predictors.

We believe that not all communities have yet lost their knowledge about biological diversity and their rituals. But in order to contribute to keeping it, all climate bio-indicators must be gathered, systematized, validated, disseminated and put into practice. The challenge in the next few years will be to regain the social capital that Andean communities have and make it available to Quechua and Aymara populations in the Tawantinsuyo, and verify, through other actors, whether such indicators are applicable to other territories as well.

A number of related initiatives have been carried out and others are underway. Although different in terms of methodologies and goals, all of these efforts will be relevant to the extent that they enable Andean men and women to use this knowledge in their daily lives. We hope to obtain at least three outcomes from this process intended to recover local knowledge: first, comparative research on traditional indicators and the climate predictions of scientific institutions through a retrospective study of the last ten years. The second product is the validation of bio-indicators, drawing upon age-old knowledge and current experiences. Finally, the third anticipated outcome is to develop popular bilingual material to disseminate and promote the use of these biological indicators. An additional outcome would be the development of an appropriate local follow-up methodology, as part of institutionalized mechanisms for disaster risk reduction.

Andean early warning: Traditional or scientific?
It is possible that decision-makers and staff working on early warning systems may become confused after reading this article, especially in terms of the level of accuracy of ancestral bio-indicators. Reality shows that these indicators are complementary to climate predictions issued by national meteorological services. However, in terms of the correlation between action and reaction, these indicators are effective since there is usually a real-time communication gap when issuing meteorological warnings.

In addition, after assessing the distribution of meteorological stations, it was found that the investment needed to broaden and strengthen the National Early Warning System does not always represent a priority, and there is the need to devote further efforts should a real connection be established between these warnings and their beneficiaries. Consequently, traditional knowledge becomes, in this context, a mechanism that allows Andean highlanders to have advanced warnings of any type of hydro-meteorological variations.

Research conducted in Bolivia and Peru by the University of Missouri, between 2001 and 2003, revealed that climate indicators used by Andean farmers had a high level of accuracy predicting climate characteristics in different farming cycles. In light of this reality, it is worth mentioning that, at the Andean level, both types of climate signals complement each other within an early warning system, and that ancestral bio-indicators vary depending on the altitudinal belts. For this reason, these indicators should be validated.

Bio-indicators must be regarded as part of community strategies for disaster risk reduction, based on the knowledge they use for predictions.

In many cases, men and women in the country-side base their crops and other production strategies on local knowledge systems, which have been developed after years of observation and experience.

Therefore, this age-old cultural and social capital must be regarded as a basic strategy that may build the resilience and response capacity of Andean peoples to hydro-meteorological hazards.

New challenges in the face of climate change
Climate change represents a global hazard, especially for Andean countries, since it could modify or eradicate those climate warnings that many Andean people use, which in turn would directly impact their lives. It is very likely that most of these indicators might disappear since, to an extent, they are related to water.

But, meanwhile, the identification of these bio-indicators will continue to be part of the early warning and resilience mechanisms among the Andean populations.

We cannot simply overlook the traditional knowledge and the survival mechanisms that Andean indigenous peoples have had for hundreds of years. A number of tasks undertaken in disaster mitigation and prevention are based on these practices, which must be revalued and, in many cases, used in the 21st century as alternate strategies.

For further information, please contact
Sergio Alvarez Gutierrez
Regional Coordinator
Risk Management and Humanitarian Aid Program
Office for South America– Oxfam America