Chiloé Agriculture: a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System threatened by drought

by Julián Caviedes

Fieldwork is one of the most exciting and fun aspects of doing research. You get the chance to travel, meet new people and places, and live unique experiences. In the field is were you get inspiration and energy to survive the endless hours in front of the computer you will spend once the fieldwork ends. For some, it is one of the main reasons for doing a PhD (but this is supposed to be a secret). However, fieldwork also comes with responsibilities derived from working with people. One needs to be humble and sensitive as you are engaging mostly with people you do not know and who do not know you, and have to be extremely careful in not creating false expectations. It is expected that you generate a symbiotic relationship where you try to get information to answer to your questions but also contribute with something that will be useful to the people you are working with. With all that in mind I got to the Archipiélago de Chiloé (south of Chile) in November 2021 to spend five months doing fieldwork for my PhD in livelihood resilience of chilote campesinos in the face of social-environmental change.

The Chiloé Archipelago, composed of one main island (isla grande) and around 40 smaller islands, is well known for its agriculture and potatoes. Yes, you read right, potatoes. With more than 300 native varieties grown on the island, Chiloé is recognized as a secondary center of origin for the potato (Picture 1). Small-scale agriculture in Chiloé, which includes the cultivation of potatoes, homegardens, orchards, apple farms, poultry, sheeps and cattle, is the fundamental pillar of the food sovereignty of the island’s inhabitants (Picture 2). In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), designated ‘Chiloé Agriculture’ as one of the 62 ‘Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems’ (GIAHS), thus recognizing the local and global importance of this agroecosystem. However, various global and local change processes are strongly affecting the resilience of agriculture in Chiloé and the campesino livelihoods of the archipelago. Note that I said campesinos, not peasants, not farmers[1].

The first thing that I did when I got to the island was to present myself to the local authorities, the political and the traditional ones. I told them who I was and what my research was about, and asked them for ways in which I could contribute with something that could be useful to deal with their own problematics. I also contacted the people in charge of the agricultural extension programs and people who have been doing research on the island. It was important that they all knew me, and all their inputs were very important for my research and my stay on the island. During my first field season I wanted to explore two main questions, (i) what were the observations of social-environmental changes perceived by campesinos in Chiloé, and (ii) what where the perceived drivers of those changes. After some weeks on the island, a chilote[2] friend introduced me to Patricia, a very experienced campesina who lives near Castro, the main city in the island. Since the beginning we got really well with Pati, the day after we met she invited me to mariscar (harvest seafood) and then we prepared a curanto, a typical dish from the island which includes seafood, chicken, smoked pork, potatoes (always potatoes), and faba beans, among other ingredients (Picture 3, 4). We spend several afternoons working in her potato field and homegardens and talking about the island’s history and the recent processes happening there. She also introduced me to some of her friends and then, using a snowball sample, I got to interview 15 people from three different Municipalities of the island.

From the interviews I surprisingly found that the main observations of change were related to drought. Chiloé has historically have main precipitations above 2.000mm a year. In 1935 Charles Darwin described the island like this: “In winter, the climate is detestable, and in summer it is only a little better. I should think there are few parts of the world, within the temperate regions, where so much rain falls” (Darwin 1860, The Voyage of the Beagle). However, the rainy Chiloé seems to be a thing of the past as all the participants mentioned that ‘it rained more in the past’, ‘droughts are more intense now’, and ‘temperatures are higher now’. This is extremely worrying for local campesinos as the agriculture in Chiloé is mostly rainfed. When asked about the drivers that there influencing those changes, campesinos mentioned global changes, but also processes that were occurring at a local scale. Most campesinos attributed drought to changes in the atmospheric system, derived from climate change. However, they also mentioned that the establishment of exotic tree plantations, the reduction in native forest surface and the extraction of peat mosses for international selling were all having detrimental effects in the availability of underground waters. As a participant told me “The water in Chiloé comes from the sky and the earth, from the rain, from groundwater, from the forest and peat mosses”.

Local communities, such as campesinos in Chiloé, are some of the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. Paradoxically, their voices are rarely heard by policymakers in charge of creating and implementing adaptations or response measures. Responses to climate change must be site-specific and not standardized, as for example an island as Chiloé, will have different adaptations requirements that a mountainous ecosystem. Therefore, it is imperative that local voices are heard and considered when deciding policies regarding adaptation to climate change. Overall fieldwork was great, the island is wonderful and chilote people were amazing. Now, while writing this piece and seeing at pictures, I realize how much I want to be in the field again. I am counting the days to return to the island and to see the people I met.

[1] Please read

[2] Chilote or chilota are the local names that receive the people who live on the island.