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close this book2020 Vision Focus 4 - Promoting Sustainable Development in Less-Favored Areas (IFPRI, 2000, 18 p.)
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View the documentBrief 1 of 9 - November 2000 - Overview
View the documentBrief 2 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the East African Highlands
View the documentBrief 3 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Tropical Andes
View the documentBrief 4 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Southeast Asian Uplands
View the documentBrief 5 of 9 - November 2000 - Returns to Public Investment: Evidence from India and China
View the documentBrief 6 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for Semiarid South Asia
View the documentBrief 7 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for the East African Highlands
View the documentBrief 8 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for West Africa
View the documentBrief 9 of 9 - November 2000 - The Role of Agricultural Science

Brief 3 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Tropical Andes

Thomas Walker, Scott Swinton, Robert Hijmans, Roberto Quiroz, Roberto Valdivia, Miguel Holle, Carlos León-Velarde, and Joshua Posner

Thomas Walker is head of Social Sciences, Robert Hijmans is a geographic information scientist, Roberto Quiroz is head of Production Systems and Natural Resources Management, and Miguel Holle is Andean crops coordinator, all at the International Potato Center (CIP), Lima, Peru. Scott Swinton is associate professor of agricultural economics at Michigan State University. Roberto Valdivia is director of the Centro de Investigación de Recursos Naturales y Media Ambiente, Puno, Peru. Carlos León-Velarde is an animal production systems specialist at CIP and the International Livestock Research Institute. Joshua Posner is coordinator of the Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion (CONDESAN), Lima, Peru.

The heterogeneity of the tropical Andes has spawned many systems of agroecological classification, but the criterion that most effectively separates favored from less-favored areas is latitude. Proximity to the equator eliminates seasonal temperature change. In the northern Andes, rainfall is possible in any month of the year. In the southern Andes, both temperature and rainfall regimes are seasonal, and frost and drought determine the length of the growing season and periodically threaten crop production.

Seasonality defines the two great high-altitude grassland systems known as the Páramo and the Puna. The dividing line for these two systems crosses northern Peru at about the latitude of Cajamarca (see figure). We use this point of reference to group the tropical highlands above 1,500 meters into the northern and southern Andes. We briefly discuss technological change in the northern and southern Andes before focusing on the Altiplano, the least-favored production region of the southern Andes.


In the northern Andes, adequate natural resource endowments of temperature, rainfall, and soils have set the stage for some impressive examples of intensification in response to increasing population pressure and market access. The most outstanding examples are the thriving cut-flower industries in Colombia and Ecuador.

Pests and diseases potentially exact a toll on production in the northern Andes. These threats can be managed, however, by using disease-resistant varieties or more costly but still remunerative inputs. In spite of a moderately high incidence of these biotic stresses, specialized areas of potato production have emerged in the highlands of Colombia and Ecuador where yields of 20 (or more) tons per hectare are common and where it is possible to cultivate rain-fed potatoes throughout the year. In most cultivated regions of the northern Andes, applying inorganic fertilizer pays not only on high-value and fertilizer-responsive horticultural crops but also on cereals.

In contrast to the northern Andes, the rural residents of the southern Andes are significantly poorer than those in other regions of the same countries. In the southern Andes, drought is accentuated by the cyclical occurrence of El Niño.


The least-favored production environment in the southern Andes is the Altiplano, a high plains region encompassing Lake Titicaca and extending nearly 800 kilometers from north to south with a width of about 200 kilometers (see figure). Three-quarters of the Altiplano lies between 3,600 and 4,300 meters above sea level. Most land is in unimproved pasture. Potato accounts for the lion's share of value of production among native Andean and introduced crops cultivated on the Altiplano.

The Tropical Andes Above 1,500 Meters

Conditions for crop production are harsh. Drought, hail, and frost are frequent visitors. Floods can severely damage crops on the relatively fertile, flat perimeter of Lake Titicaca. Degraded soils are common; salinity is endemic in some areas.

The comparative advantage of the Altiplano is in the extensive grazing of livestock, mainly sheep, cattle, and alpacas. Compared with crops, livestock has greater commercial potential because of the availability of frost-tolerant forages, the abundance of rangeland in the drier, colder subregions, and the higher value of meat and fiber that respond to the economic reality of distant markets. But the Altiplano is not the ideal place to raise all species of livestock, especially small nonruminants. For example, guinea pigs, a prized source of meat in the Andes, have better commercial prospects in lower-elevation highland areas where the reduced requirements for maintenance energy are conducive to weight gain.

The importance and relevance of agricultural research is derived from the large number of poor, mainly indigenous peoples, who make up the majority of the Altiplano's 2.2 million residents. About 65 percent of the economically active population is engaged in agriculture. Since the 1970s, seasonal migration of working-age adults has been evolving into permanent emigration to the land-abundant rainforest and the coastal cities. Remittances are low or have not been used to invest in agriculture; therefore, the migration of labor has eroded productive capacity.

The harshness of the environment for crop and livestock production is mirrored by the limited adoption of improved practices and varieties. It pays to apply inorganic fertilizer to potatoes in good years; however, good years are not the norm, and amounts applied are very small. High- and stable-yielding potato varieties widely cultivated in the rest of the southern Andes of Peru have not been able to penetrate into the Altiplano, where native varieties and low-yielding frost-resistant cultivated species prevail.

In the rest of the semiarid tropics, it is possible to transform production potential with irrigation. Not so in the Altiplano, because cold temperatures impede sequential cropping.

Scanty evidence for the uptake of improved technologies may suggest an absence of investment in agricultural research. Indeed, more stability in research could have helped improve impact, and public sector support for extension has been weak. However, since 1970 considerable funds have been allocated to research on Andean commodities. Several hundred theses have been written on "forgotten" Andean crops at agricultural universities, mainly in Peru. Since 1975 one donor has invested in more than 20 development-oriented research projects on or near the Altiplano. Regional scientists and farmers have been trained. Germplasm of Andean crops has been conserved. The research process has improved. Regional and local institutions have been strengthened. But the record on practical impact has been, disappointing. Farmers have accepted few technologies. Productivity is flat or fluctuates in response to climatic events associated with El Niño. Moreover, rehabilitation of neglected labor-intensive terraces and raised beds designed to improve production potential in other times has required hefty subsidies to achieve targets.

A few production-oriented projects have also negatively affected production potential. Investment in poorly designed irrigation in the wake of the severe drought caused by the 1983 El Niño event resulted in salinity damage in some areas. Indiscriminate disc plowing to accommodate an increasing demand for quinoa, an Andean grain, has been indicted for accelerating wind erosion.

Nevertheless, there have been some successes in the past, and others are unfolding in the present. Improved temperate dairy breeds have been widely adopted. White clover, alfalfa, and other forage crops have been introduced in limited areas to improve forage quality. The production of alpaca fiber has increased from sire exchange among herds and from community investment in wetland areas for forage. The early acceptance of rustic greenhouses has been encouraging. Revolving funds for the purchase of higher-quality seed of selected native varieties of Andean crops have also met with some success. An export market for quinoa is emerging, and preferences are for white bold-seeded types that grow in the very dry conditions of the southern Altiplano.

Some promising technologies are in the pipeline. Several frost-resistant potato varieties are nearing the release stage in Bolivia. Halophytic plants could markedly improve feed supplies and rehabilitate saline areas. Low-cost shelters for livestock can substantially reduce energy loss during cold nights. Research on cold-tolerant forage crops and on range management of native grasslands also has bright prospects. Advances in information technology featuring computer simulation models built on digital databases and satellite imagery and incorporating GIS techniques are increasingly helping to define problems, evaluate risk, and design technologies.

The generation of new, low-cost, divisible components to improve the management of crops in cold temperatures is one of the foremost priorities in technology design. For instance, some impressive gains have been recorded in marginal production areas of China with the use of clear plastic mulch that has extended the length of the growing season and fueled the so-called White Revolution in maize. Several such techniques that have worked well in the production of crops in cold-growing conditions could be adapted to the Altiplano.

Biotechnology has been widely touted as a means to enhance plant resistances to abiotic stresses such as drought and frost. However, these stresses are poligenic, and few transgenes have been identified. Also, opposition to the use of transgenic varieties of Andean crops in or near the Altiplano, where many of the Andean crops were first domesticated, is strong on the grounds that it may threaten biodiversity. At this time in potato breeding, a more feasible prospect appears to be to increase the market value of frost-resistant cultivated species - that is, enhance the sweetness of bitter potato. Molecular-marker technology will eventually contribute to improving the efficiency of conventional breeding, but the question is when. Private sector investment in plant breeding could also contribute to productivity growth when cost-effective ways for hybridization of Andean crops are found.

Greater market access holds the key to unlocking production potential. Freer trade among Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru will enhance the competitiveness of trout farming and vegetable growing in and around Lake Titicaca. Continued progress in road construction will increase this remote region's comparative advantage vis-a-vis irrigated coastal and rainfed interandean valleys.

For further information see Luis Argüelles and Ruben Dario Estrada, Perspectivas de la investigación agropecuaria para el Altiplano (Lima, Peru: Proyecto de Investigatión en Sistemas Agropecuarios Andinos, 1991).