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Age-old indicators under stress in Bolivia

CUTUSUMA, Bolivia (AP) ― For centuries, farmers in the fragile ecosystems of the high Andes have looked to the behavior of plants and animals to figure out what crops to grow and when.

If reeds dried up in the late summer, rainless weather lay ahead, they believed. If the Andean fox made a howling appearance, abundant rains were thought sure to come.

But increasingly erratic weather that scientists attribute to global warming is rendering their age-old methods less reliable, endangering harvests in a region where life is hard in the best of times.

Experts may scoff at such folk science, but the men and women who till the high mountain soil continue to swear by the traditional indicators, and Bolivia’s government has even incorporated them into climate reports provided to farmers when it lacked modern data from meteorological stations.

“They work for me,” assures Francisco Condori, 45, after checking the previous night’s precipitation on a homemade rain gauge on Lake Titicaca’s southern shore, the hills around him shining purple with flowering potato plants.

Condori is a well-heeded font of ancestral knowledge for fellow farmers in these treeless climes frequently punished by frosts, hailstorms and drought.

In the reeds on Titicaca’s shore, he points out the height of the nests built by birds known as quilli quilli, a diminutive species similar to hummingbirds. Farmers have long used the locations of those nests as measures of how much the lake will rise and the amount of rainfall to come.

“This year they initially built their nests about 40 centimeters above the water level. Then they dismantled them,” Condori says. Twice, in fact, did the birds dismantle nests before finally reweaving them at nearly twice their original height.

“We knew it was going to rain a lot,” he says.

And so it did, so much so that rivers in the Amazon basin have flooded their banks, submerging thousands of homes. That rain augured well, by contrast, for this Aymara community’s potato crop.

Landlocked and poor, Bolivia relies on a weak meteorological reporting system ― with just 50 weather stations nationwide. Farming is also decidedly low tech in the mountainous part of the country. Ox-driven plows overwhelmingly outnumber tractors, a far cry from the eastern lowlands, where highly mechanized rice and soy farming yields the bulk of Bolivian agricultural exports.

Condori says the “bio-indicators” he follows most closely have helped reduce agricultural losses 40 percent in Cutusuma and surrounding communities. Scientists, however, stress there are no empirical data to support the beliefs.

The indicators are catalogued in what are known as Pachagrama, registries whose name derives from “Pachamama,” the native Andean word for “Mother Earth.” Communities compile and share the registry information, which is especially crucial from September to November when the dry season ends and farmers need to know how soon to plant, when the rains will begin and how long they will last.

It’s in that season they look for guidance to the southern lapwing, a long-legged plover that likes grasslands. If the female drops her eggs on the crest of a furrow, a lot of rain is expected and farmers will plant potatoes rather than quinoa, which requires less water. But if she deposits them inside the furrow, it supposedly will be a dry year.

The size of the spots on the eggs is another indicator of whether to plant potatoes or quinoa.

“If the spots are big, it’s potatoes. If they are small, it’s quinoa,” Condori says. Lately, however, the birds have been erratic in where they lay their eggs.