In the rugged, wind-swept terrain of the high Andes, the Andean people have sustained an agricultural-based lifestyle for centuries, stretching back to the time of the Incan Empire.
Sustainable Models Under Threat
Growing what they need for their tables, and selling the rest in regional markets, Andean families have been able to survive on the fruits of their labor much as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
However, over the past few decades, things have been changing. A changing climate is depleting glacial water sources; bringing droughts, crop pests and diseases; and ushering in earlier frosts and severe hailstorms. With these new hurdles, getting by on the crops that have always sustained them is getting more and more difficult for Andean farmers.
LEARN MORE: Developing responsible land use.
As the conditions for optimum crop production are shifting, the people will eventually have to shift as well. But to where? To what crops?
And in a region containing some of the most endangered and rare species and habitats in the world, what will the implications of this shift be?
Mapping Tomorrow’s Farms
Using a GIS model called DIVA-GIS, these questions are being answered by scientists in Conservation International’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. DIVA-GIS contains a module called Ecocrop that describes the optimal growing conditions for a long list of plant species. By using climatic data for current and future scenarios (specifically for temperature and precipitation regimes) in another module, DIVA-GIS can be used to map the suitability of various regions for growing particular crops.
But as the Andean peoples’ experience suggests, climatic patterns are not static. Thus the suitability—and boundaries—of these growing regions is also in flux. The ways in which climatic conditions will change over time are predicted by Global Circulation Models (GCM) that have been generated for a variety of climate change scenarios.
By integrating these models with DIVA-GIS, it is possible to predict the way in which regions of optimal crop suitability change over time (in this case, from 2000 to 2050). To visualize how these changes in agricultural production might impact biodiversity, sites classified as high conservation priority by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) are included in the model. The changes in the amount of land suitable for crop production in the vicinity of AZE sites can then also be compared under different climate change scenarios.
IN DEPTH: South America is home to some of the most important ecosystems. Discover the priority areas CI is working to protect.
Early results suggest that for some crops, the range of suitable habitat will expand; however the level of suitability of that range will decrease.
In other words, the crop can be grown in more places, but crop maintenance may have to be more intensive. Land within a 20 kilometer (12.4 mile) buffer of AZE sites becomes of much higher suitability for several crops in 2050, suggesting that agriculture may soon encroach on these areas of high biodiversity concern. But these results are just the beginning.
Future research will incorporate more climate change scenarios; will examine changes in human population density in the Andes region and near AZE sites; and will also investigate the economic aspects of the changes in crop suitability. “Government planners might be able to use this information when doing regional landscape planning,” says project lead Dr. Nalini Rao, “taking into account urban, rural, forested, and agricultural areas and how they’ll change over time.”
A Tradition Of Change
The Andean people have a long history of adapting to the dramatic landscape they call home, cross-breeding optimal strains of the plants that they harvest, and developing innovative agricultural techniques. Though the environment is now changing more rapidly than it ever has, they will now be armed with the data to anticipate these changes. And they can adapt again.
READ MORE: South Africa Organic