UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


Waru Waru, a cultivation and irrigation system used in flood-prone areas of the Altiplano



Archeology, community participation, cultivation practices, cultural identity, drainage, irrigation systems, swamps


Introducing the practice

The waru waru restoration project began in 1991 in the southern Andean department of Puno, Peru. It is a rural development initiative for the Altiplano. The aim is to recover a technology, invented by the Tiahuanaco culture, that fell into disuse around 1100 A.D. It is believed that the system was abandoned when the Tiahuanaco culture went into decline as a result of extreme drought which occurred before the Spaniards’ arrival.

This system makes it possible to bring into production the low-lying, flood-prone, poorly drained lands found all over the Altiplano. Waru waru are being restored in areas where their remains could still be seen.

The project has introduced an ancient cultivation, irrigation and drainage system that made poor land productive: land with high salinity levels and poor drainage located in an area with frequent droughts and frost. The project involves the restoration of earthworks about one meter high and 10 to 15 meters wide. These are surrounded by wide, shallow canals which, when filled with water, ensure a microclimate that acts as a buffer against night-time frosts and provides moisture during droughts and drainage during the rainy season. The canals also act as barriers to keep out crawling insect pests.

Restoration of the waru waru system has demonstrated the potential of traditional knowledge which is applied with the help of well organized, collective work. As marginal lands are being reclaimed, the ancient system has proven both efficient and effective for improving soil conditions. The good results achieved in terms of productivity and climate mitigation have aroused the interest of many practitioners.

And so, after two five-year project phases, more than 120 communities have now incorporated waru waru into their crop production systems. The system currently covers more than 1600 ha of reclaimed land, 850 ha of which are intensively farmed to produce food crops. The first communities that began participating in the project during its first phase (1991-1996) continue to replicate and maintain the practice.

The main reason for using this system is that it provides a real opportunity to bring into production lands that would otherwise remain uncultivated. The system also achieves higher productivity levels than traditional cropping methods and reduces weather-related risks. Another important effect is that the system unites small, dispersed properties since the effect on the microclimate is greater when blocks of land larger than family parcels are used. At the same time, family-group productive units have been set up which form market-linked, second-tier associations.

Origins of the practice

The practice and its recovery are well known. Its recovery stemmed from archaeological research in the second half of the 1980s. Remains of these systems, which appear as small undulations on the ground, are scattered across a wide area of the plains. The potential area where waru waru systems can be restored is estimated at 100,000 ha.

Over the ten years of the project, the method of restoration has been systematized, as has the application of research findings regarding aspects of production, and the technical assistance and training provided to the communities.

Land tenure and organization

Waru waru have been restored under three different types of land tenure and organization:

·           As a communal initiative on communal land.
Here, all community members participate in the work of reconstruction and crop production. Field tasks are shared out equally among the families.

·           On communal land, as an initiative of a group of families.
In this case, a group of families united by ties of kinship or friendship join together to reclaim communal land that has been abandoned or fallen into disuse. Once the land is rehabilitated, the community awards it to the participating families. Generally each family is given the right to use a piece of land proportionate to its contribution, but permanent property rights are also occasionally granted.

·           On private land, at the initiative of a group of landowners.
In this case, interested families agree to combine their parcels of land to form a waru waru unit. They maintain their individual property rights, however.

If an initiative is undertaken by the entire community, the community assembly decides which families will perform which tasks. If a family group has taken the initiative, a system known as ayni is used, by which all members work together on one plot at a time until all the plots that make up the waru waru unit have been completed.


Content and approach

The practice makes it possible to bring into production lands that would otherwise remain unused. The fallow, low-lying and flood-prone lands of the Altiplano recover their value and become a resource for communities that suffer extreme poverty and land shortage. The waru waru system provides peasant farmers with greater harvest security and reduces the risks associated with frosts and drought. The farmers view this production system as another alternative to add to their diversified farming systems, which also include the cultivation of hillsides and plains.

Rural communities in the Altiplano occupy different agro-ecological zones where different production systems are used, depending on the soil conditions and climate. On the slopes the farmers use andenes (bank terraces); on the high plains they manage bofedales (marshes) and pastures; and on the low, flat plains they now use the waru waru system. All these production systems are used in a complementary way.


Parties involved in the practice

The communities themselves take charge of restoring the waru waru and are also responsible for their maintenance. The project’s role has been to demonstrate the restoration process and the proper use of waru waru under a crop rotation system, which is of interest to the region’s farmers. Having achieved that objective, the communities themselves then continue to replicate what they have learned by restoring other waru waru and providing maintenance during the initial years.

Waru waru are now a feature of the Altiplano landscape and offer new prospects for growth under market-linked, organized production systems.


First, an inspection is carried out to identify suitable communities where the system might be put into practice. Several training sessions are held in the selected community to explain the purpose of waru waru, the principles on which they work, and the advantages they offer. The response level of the community is analysed and preliminary agreements are made on that basis.

Within each of the communities taking part, an inspection is made of potential areas where waru waru can be restored. Topographical surveys are conducted, sites are agreed upon, and discussions are held to determine the size and characteristics of the blocks of land, the zones which will supply the canals with water, and the drainage areas. Once the plans have been drawn up, agreements are reached regarding the organization of the teams that will build the earthworks and the annual schedule they will follow. By the end of three or four years, the communities should have made at least 6 ha of land fit for cultivation (not counting the surrounding canals).

During this process, training sessions are held on the subjects of restoration, how the system works, and maintenance. As the restoration work progresses, credit is extended and technical assistance is provided for the growing, managing and marketing of crops. Each year the participants review the progress they have made in the areas of production, income-generation, and food security. Over the past two years, the project has emphasized organization-building.


The role of indigenous knowledge

This practice died out two or three centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. The colonial system, which relied on slave labour, introduced the hacienda (or large estate) system, and with it new forms of land ownership and use. As a result, traditional practices were lost. The identification and recovery of the waru waru system is now reuniting the people with their ancient culture and serves to strengthen their identity. They have therefore taken to the practice with great enthusiasm. Recovering an ancient practice used by their ancestors raises their self-esteem, and encourages among them a positive attitude towards forming productive organizations.

Traditional systems of agricultural production have also been found on flood-prone areas or zones with a high water table. Two examples demonstrate how these systems are based on indigenous knowledge and skills for managing soils and the crops that grow on them.

The first example is the crop system based on rounded ridges, which are two metres wide and crossed with furrows. The ridges are constructed with a traditional tool named chakitaclla, which is a pointed stick with which the soil is mounded up, softened and aerated. This creates a layer, safely above the water table, where the roots of plants do well. A second example is a crop system also based on rounded ridges, but the furrows run lengthwise instead of across the ridges. Because seeds are planted in two rows, the system is called panayra in Aymara. This means ‘two eyes’.

The first waru waru were rebuilt from existing ruins. Farmers incorporated the ruins into the canals and terraces they built in their fields on the basis of their own traditional knowledge and designs. Construction methods and the technologies for managing water and growing crops have been systematically improved through participatory applied research. It can therefore be said that waru waru systems are the result initially of combining two sets of traditional knowledge.

Transfer of knowledge

The restoration of an ancient technology has been strongly promoted by NGOs, first through archaeological research and later through the efforts of development agencies. The concepts involved in the practice are easily grasped and acquired by the farmers, who are already familiar with the basic principles of microclimates, soil management, drainage, droughts and frosts.

The purpose of the project has been to build up a critical mass of communities (more than 100) that are using the system. The demonstration effect can then attract new converts to the practice and ensure its further dissemination. The initial results show that there has indeed been replication, and that communication has taken place mainly through on-site visits and the sharing of experiences among peasant farmers.

Several documents have been produced over the course of the project: technical proposals, semi-annual reports, project files, and intermediate and final assessment reports.


Achievements and results

The practice increases the value of unused, flood-prone lands, as well as helping to reduce the damage caused by drought and frost. Experience shows that the minimum night-time temperatures reached in waru waru areas are two to three degrees centigrade higher than those of the surrounding plains. The moisture provided by the canals lowers the impact of sporadic droughts during the cycle and, in the rainy season, prevents the subsoil from becoming waterlogged by ensuring adequate drainage. Crop yields, in particular yields of potatoes and other Andean tubers, are 50% to 100% higher than the yields obtained using traditional farming techniques.

The practice is sustainable, cost-effective and locally manageable. The restoration of 1 ha requires between 400 and 600 man-days of work (USD 1,143 to USD 1,714 per ha). Studies carried out over the past eight years, covering rotation cycles of five years of cultivation plus three years of fallow, and estimated on the basis of an economic life of 20 years, showed a 7% annual average increase in profits even after maintenance costs were deducted. This result has been achieved in spite of two El Niños. The replication of the practice without any direct prompting through the project is also a good indication that it is sustainable. The technology is simple and within the farmers’ reach.


Strengths and weaknesses

Its value as a practice is very appreciable in an area like the Altiplano, which has such adverse weather conditions. Specific strengths are the following:

·           It increases the cultivated area by recovering unused lands.

·           It acts as a buffer against night-time frosts and sporadic droughts.

·           It controls salinity levels in poorly drained soils with virtually no gradient.

·           It increases crop yields.

·           It encourages collective work by uniting individual crop parcels.

·           It strengthens local capacities by providing an alternative production method.

·           It provides a natural barrier against crawling insect pests (like the Andean weevil).

·           The silt at the bottom of the canals is rich in organic nutrients and can be recycled in the raised beds to boost soil fertility.

The practice has only one weakness. The amount of labour initially required to restore a waru waru can be a discouraging factor. This is why the project, during the first year, offered farmers tools and seeds as an incentive. This helped to win the commitment of the communities, which was sorely needed in view of the considerable amount of labour involved in the rehabilitation work. Each community agreed initially to rehabilitate an area of at least 6 ha. The communities later expanded these areas to 10 or 12 ha of their own accord. In the last two years one-third of the participating communities have begun, at their own initiative, to use tractors to shift earth.

The results of the system could be improved if crops, including pastures, were rotated on a long-term basis.


Source of inspiration

It would be possible to transfer the practice to other places, but there certainly would be conditions and prerequisites to consider. The practice is suitable for soils that are very flat, dense, poorly drained and flood-prone. Its adoption by farmers depends on the local tradition of collective organization, as restoration and maintenance work require considerable labour.

It is reported that in the Bolivian Altiplano efforts are also underway to restore this practice.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Additional remarks and information

‘The terraces throughout the Andean slopes, and the waru-waru (raised fields) and qochas in the Altiplano, are sophisticated expressions of landscape modification that have historically rendered more than a 1,000,000 ha of land for agricultural purposes.’ (Rengifo 1987). The past and present existence of these and other systems for intensive agriculture prove that indigenous farmers have been able to adapt successfully to difficult environments. ‘In fact, applied research conducted on these systems reveals that many traditional farming practices, once regarded as primitive or misguided, are now being recognised as sophisticated and appropriate. Agro-ecological and ethno-ecological evidence increasingly indicates that these systems are productive, sustainable, ecologically sound, and tuned to the social, economic, and cultural features of the Andean heterogeneous landscape.’ (Earls 1989). For further reading, see: ‘ILEIA Newsletter’ Vol. 12 No. 1 p. 7, at www.ileia.org/2/12-1/12-1-7.htm


Administrative data

Organization responsible for the practice


Av General Santa Cruz 659 Lima 11, Peru

Tel.: +51 1 4334781

Fax: +51 1 4334753

E-mail: postmast@carepe.org.pe

Website: www.care.org.pe/proyectos.html


Contact person

Alipio Canahua, canahuaa@puno.carepe.org.pe



The total budget for the period September 1996 to August 2002 is the equivalent of USD 2.5 million. These funds are provided by The Netherlands.


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Raul Ho


Tel.: +51 1 4334781

E-mail: ho@carepe.org.pe

To MOST Clearing House Best Practices on Poverty and Social Exclusion

To MOST/CIRAN Database of Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge

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