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Indigenous communities leading water resilience in the Andes

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Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

In the Andes some phenomena taking place simultaneously have created an incremental degradation cycle: 1) the loss of water resources due mainly to climate change, 2) the depopulation of areas where water sources were located, and, 3) the progressive impoverishment of the region. In parallel, traditional knowledge for water management and indigenous organizational culture are falling apart because of modernization and migration from rural areas to cities. In this context, ISW started working with the Cuchoquesera indigenous community on the headwater of the Cachi River Basin, in the Ayacucho Region in Peru in 2014. A public consultation for water organized by ISW and its local partners provided legitimacy to the process which led to the establishment of the JASSGAA – a new rural water supply, sanitation, water resources and environmental management committee-, as a replacement for the Rural water and sanitation committee. This new indigenous organization strengthened climate change and water resilience capacities, such as, land and water planning abilities, water resources management and traditional water harvesting and storage knowledge practices, as well as maintaining the drinking water and sanitation infrastructure. All these elements are converging towards the vision that water and climate are a single system affecting us all.

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

ISW respects community self-determination to carry on changes. In this sense, a consultation concerning options for change was held not only with the Cuchoquesera community with whom ISW was working more directly but also with all the other communities along the Cachi River Basin. This public consultation for water, which was held using the Blue Passport -a tool created by ISW to provide a water borderless identity to each inhabitant of a basin-, has counted on the participation of local public and civil society organizations as observers. This was a demonstration of the consultation process transparency. This public event raised many expectations, revalued the role of every community member, and had the full support of all communities located in the Cachi River Basin. After the decision of having a more integrated community water governance mechanism in the headwater territory of the River Basin was made, community members were trained and actively involved in land planning and water resources management, which allowed them - with the facilitation of ISW and partners - to elaborate their first land use and water conservation plan that was delivered to the district municipality for approval. The Community Land Use and Water Conservation Plan identified water-sensitive areas, water harvesting areas, areas for crops and livestock, as well as areas for new potential houses. In addition, the community voted to reform their traditional Rural water supply and sanitation committee into a more comprehensive committee that added water resources and environmental management as new responsibilities.

How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

Climate change in the Andes affects all inhabitants equally. Glaciers located in the Andean mountains are disappearing due to climate change at a rate of 22% every eight years, making water a scarce resource. Furthermore, the irregular and random distribution of human activities are polluting these important water sources, reducing their quality and availability. Also, since water storage was not a common community practice, the communities lost approximately 95% of the natural inflow and runoff of the basin. The Cuchoquesera community’s decision to implement a new rural indigenous committee responsible of water and environmental conservation for their portion of the basin (3.532,38 ha) and of the drinking water and sanitation infrastructure, substitutes the absence of the State in a remote territory. The implementation of this committee has thus created water resilience and institutional adaptation where water sources are located and from which 60 rural communities, including the third-largest Peruvian Andean city, depend on.

What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

Some of the water-related decisions that built a strengthened community of leaders for water resilience, are: i) a new institutional community entity that works to cover the empty space left by the State in community climate change adaptation and water resilience; ii) the participatory development of a land use and water conservation plan, that constitutes a tool to avoid pollution and damage to water resources and to enable activities that will enhance water conservation and storage; iii) the revival of traditional knowledge for water management and resilience as a key tool for Andean indigenous communities to protect their environment and to reinforce social cohesion; and, iv) an open and participatory community platform, formed mostly by youth, working on water resilience decision-making in real time. Special attention was given to women, who were incorporated in leading positions in the community and in the new rural water supply, sanitation, water resources and environmental management committee. Consensus was always obtained since Andean rural communities are used to make decisions in an assembly.

What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

One of the main challenges was to ensure the participation of governmental organizations in a process which was qualified, by some public officers, as an invasion of public functions or the disruption of the legal institutional structure. ISW and its partners thus explained that this process was complementary to governmental projects and a synergy to public efforts. Immediately, our initiative obtained the support of the Ministry of Housing, the Regional Government, the Provincial Municipality and the public university of the region. These last three public organizations endorsed the results of the public consultation, as well as the work developed in the Cachi River Basin. Another challenge was the participation of unidentified members of the Shining Path (a terrorist movement born in the Ayacucho region that has killed more than 25 thousand people in Peru) during the assembly that took place right after the consultation process. They were haranguing the participants from the basin to not believe in NGO’s and in civil society organizations because they were just using them for their own benefit. Change has never been easy, but with transparency, legitimacy and neutrality, change which leads to better conditions for the most vulnerable and their environment is usually accepted.

In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

The initiative created is not only continuing but scaling up in two neighboring indigenous communities in the same headwater territory. It is also scaling out programmatically, since, these two new communities and the Cuchoquesera community, where we started working, are very interested in creating a communal headwater conservation authority, a proposal which was approved in the public consultation for water held in March 2016. The creation of JASSGAA’s, the communal cornerstone for local water resilience, is an option that has the full support of the leaders of these two new communities of the Cachi River Basin where ISW is currently working. ISW is currently implementing the legitimacy and validation process that may eventually lead to the creation of the first communal headwater conservation authority in the country which would definitely have a great impact on water resilience and climate change adaptation in the Andes of Peru

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

One key lesson is that hidden powers are often present. These hidden powers are not necessarily negative, but unknown to our cultural and institutional mental structure, and influenced the work that was being done. For foreign organizations, the discovery of an ancient informal Inca authority that gathered several rural communities of the Region was a surprise. This organization’s assembly, which survived the Spanish invasion and the colonial times, is usually consulted by rural communities before they make decisions, including the approval of candidates voted during the municipal elections. Another lesson was the deep research made to analyze what could be and what could not be changed in the organization of rural indigenous communities in the Andes. Also, this experience has helped develop the GOSSA (Governance and Sustainable Sanitation) approach, recommended to implement water and sanitation projects while ensuring land planning, water resilience and governance.

In light of your submission, please describe or explain the extent and breadth of different economic, ecological and socio-cultural values recognized and taken into consideration within your journey.

Promoting water resilience with indigenous communities is a major challenge, and indigenous communities in Peru have never been consulted on what could be done with the river basin they live in, an issue that ISW and partners considered as the key to promote water resilience with the main involved actors, the indigenous communities. It was the first time that a public consultation for water took place in the country. Additionally, in general, in Peru and in Latin America there is the misconception that indigenous peoples do not have the capacity to carry out their own projects and activities that shape their destiny. It was in this context that a new emerging perspective promoted by ISW and partners became relevant, maintaining that indigenous communities are more than capable to make their own decisions sustainably and in a complementary way with the existing legislation and institutions. This was later demonstrated through the participatory land planning proposal prepared by the community -to the municipality- and with the participatory water conservation plan. Indigenous communities have different values and visions towards water (than public institutions), and our work is contributing to enhance indigenous knowledge and values related to water into public policies. In the indigenous wisdom, water is a living organism that could be seeded and harvested, which recognizes the water cycle and resilience as a key part of development, where headwater territories have a special role in this cycle. Therefore, it is important to strengthen governance in these headwater territories with other public and civil society organizations.