Addressing cultural barriers to nutrition in Nepal

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the Nepali context, household access to sufficient food does not ensure that all household members are well-nourished. Cultural beliefs about food consumption can lead to low nutritional status, particularly for highly-sensitive groups such as pregnant and lactating women and young children. Deep-rooted beliefs about food can present barriers that inhibit adoption of new, more nutritious food consumption practices. These barriers are in turn compounded by low levels of formal education in rural areas of Nepal and by strong hierarchies in families in which older, more traditionally-minded family members make decisions about food consumption in the household. This article explores the importance of engaging multiple stakeholders within the household in order to change cultural perspectives on nutrition.

One example of a common cultural practice that affects nutrition in Nepal is the categorization of foods into ‘hot’ or ‘cold’. These categorizations, unrelated to the physical temperature of food, reflect perceptions of how foods will affect the body after consumption. During critical periods such as pregnancy, lactation and illness, it is common practice to avoid eating foods classified as ‘cold’ in order to protect the body in its vulnerable state. For example, pregnant women may be warned to avoid eating certain vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables like papaya or spinach because these foods are considered cold.

Other cultural practices that affect nutrition may affect various household members differently. Baby boys are commonly exclusively breastfed until six months of age, while baby girls are generally offered their first solid food earlier, at five months of age. In some cultural groups, women family members eat meals last, after everyone else in the family has had their fill. Ultimately, these practices can contribute to poorer health status, including anemia and malnutrition for children under three and for women during pregnancy and lactation.

Lack of nutrition knowledge is the main reason for the persistence of traditions that negatively influence nutrition status in the community. In order to address this situation, the Rural Institution for Community Development (RICOD) has been disseminating appropriate nutrition knowledge and skills in rural communities of the southern Lalitpur district. In these trainings RICOD raised awareness about effective nutrition practices aimed not only at mothers of young children and pregnant women but also at those who traditionally hold decision-making power in their households, namely, the women’s in-laws and husbands. In order to ensure that such trainings, which aimed to change traditional practice, were also  culturally sensitive, RICOD’s staff focused on providing general nutritional advice, such as counseling pregnant women to consume diets rich in vitamins, rather than targeting and criticizing specific cultural practices, like avoiding green leafy vegetables (a ‘cold’ yet vitamin-rich food) during pregnancy.

Trainings generally targeted women with young children by teaching an in-depth nutrition curriculum in mothers’ groups and then reviewing and doing refresher trainings on that curriculum. Mothers-in-law were also often part of these groups, so these workshops included more powerful players in household decision-making. Additionally, RICOD organized workshops for men in the targeted households, because decisions in Nepal about buying food and about agricultural plans are traditionally made by male heads-of-household, including fathers-in-law and husbands of women with young children. Therefore, men’s understanding was crucial for households to start acting on new nutrition knowledge. RICOD also promoted learning and sharing opportunities between women and men on the importance of nutrition for women and children during vital periods. These meetings aimed to lower cultural barriers to acting on good nutrition knowledge.

More recently, RICOD organized nutrition awareness trainings for school-aged adolescents (men and women) to provide knowledge to younger generations. Not only are the nutrition facts important for these adolescents to know as future parents, these young men and women also tend to be well-placed to disseminate the information to their parents and neighbors.

In addition to teaching new information, RICOD recognized the importance of peer education in changing traditional practice. To promote learning and sharing opportunities among women, RICOD worked with existing mothers’ groups linked to local health posts to strengthen their functioning. Through these meetings, participants exchanged ideas and shared knowledge about nutrition and health. Participants then also shared the new knowledge they gained from the groups with their neighbors and relatives. RICOD also promoted kitchen gardening and empowered women by providing access to capital via revolving loans administered by these women’s groups. Kitchen gardens increased women’s access to homegrown vegetables while revolving loans stimulated small enterprises that in turn generated additional income for households to buy nutritious food.

Besides promoting peer education through women’s groups, RICOD provided in-depth training to volunteer peer educators on good nutrition practices. Peer educators are youth residing in the local community who regularly visit targeted households to encourage them to practice good eating habits. Additionally, some peer educators attend the monthly mothers’ group meetings, where they lead discussions on nutrition-related topics.

RICOD’s work has led to important learnings for future nutrition programs. In particular, understanding traditional beliefs and eating habits is essential for knowing how to promote improved nutrition practices. Broad dissemination of nutrition information should take place in order to teach many people within a community. RICOD also found that working with more than just one household member was a key to healthy changes in traditional practices. By training both men and women and both younger and older generations on the importance of nutrition and good nutrition practice, RICOD was more effective in creating change within households. Not all of this change came easily. Changing older generations’ traditional beliefs was a challenge, since it takes a long time to change traditional practice and behavior. Even now, not everyone has changed their traditional practices. RICOD’s work and encouraging results demonstrate, though, that exposure to better eating habits and continuous follow-up can lead to changed knowledge, skills and practice.

Additionally, peer education and coordination by non-governmental organizations like RICOD with other health providers, like Nepal’s Female Community Health Volunteers, are important so that people regularly hear the same message about good nutrition practice from multiple sources. Mobilization of local community members to disseminate nutrition knowledge can help lower cultural barriers through peer education and regular follow up. That regularity is key to changing long-held practices. Changing tradition is a slow process, but new knowledge and understanding can over time lead to positive changes in nutritional practice and health.

Honey Gurung is field coordinator and Ram Hari Ghimire is executive director for the Rural Institution for Community Development (RICOD).

Learn more

Adhikari, Ramesh Kant. Food Utilization Practices, Beliefs and Taboos in Nepal: An Overview. United States Agency for International Development, Global Health Technical Assistance Project (May 2010). Available at

Alonso, Elena Briones. The Impact of Culture, Religion and Traditional Knowledge on Food and Nutrition Security in Developing Countries. FOODSECURE Working Paper No. 30 (March 2015). Available at

Khatry, Subarna K., Steven C. LeClerq and Sharada Ram Shrestha. “Eating Down in Pregnancy: Exploring Food-Related Beliefs and Practices of Pregnancy in Rural Nepal.” Ecology of Food and Nutrition 45 (2006): 253-278. Available at

Spinning a safety net: community-based natural resource management in Laos

In the heart of southeast Asia lies Communist Laos, a landlocked country of seven million people, a country of 49 ethnic groups and as many native tongues, with an ever-changing geography unified by the mighty Mekong River flowing down from China and Thailand and out into Cambodia. Most Laotians are paddy rice farmers, relying heavily on the pulse of the river and the timing of the monsoon season. When conditions are favourable, villagers grow paddy and upland rice, the country’s all-important crops, and raise chickens, ducks, pigs, buffaloes and frogs. Women also make an income from weaving done in the shade of stilted houses. During seasonal food shortages villagers turn to communally-managed pieces of forest and hillside to fill food gaps. This article will explore how these community-managed resources have been negatively impacted by the presence of developers and argue that increased knowledge of legal land rights and community conflict resolution are necessary in order to strengthen the ability of communities to protect and once again manage their own resources.

In the average Lao meal, reliance on forest products is abundantly evident: fat, crispy fried insects, fermented river fish paste, steamed and boiled greens and bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms and small game. These dishes are all eaten with scoops of one of the 15,000 varieties of fragrant sticky rice grown throughout Laos. In homes, bamboo is used for traps and building materials, rattan creates baskets and brooms, and barks, leaves and roots are dried to make medicine.

Use of forest areas are traditionally negotiated among different villages and are generally managed through light harvesting and the delineation of forest territory into land for production, conservation and protection. In some forests food may be gathered, but trees may not be cut, hillsides may not be cleared and fires may not be lit. In this way, village authorities control the extent of harvesting and ensure the forest environment is not degraded.

On the banks of the Nam Xan River, the small village of Ban Thitnoon recently had the visit that changes the lives of so many villages: the arrival of developers in shiny black SUVs. Before their eyes, village leaders saw their seasonal food shortages disappear in a haze of promises for a luxury tourist resort that would lead to education, a market for villagers’ goods and a financial safety net for hard years. The contract between the developers and village authorities was signed and work began. Villagers awakened too late to the painful realization that the developers had misrepresented their intentions and had instead dug an open-pit mine in a fast grab for mineral resources that resulted in flooding and chemical runoff into the surrounding water.

During a visit from representatives from Laos’ National Assembly, the village mediation unit of Ban Thitnoon reached out for help. A government representative was dispatched to investigate, and the sham developer took the profits and left. With that victory under their belts, the small village of Ban Thitnoon was left to survey the damage: 70% of their paddy lands were permanently flooded and unusable, the water was polluted and degraded and the forest cover eroded away in a number of places. A village that had been seasonally food insecure was now in crisis. Ban Thitnoon’s story is all-too-common in Laos.

MCC has worked to address the threat posed by developers to traditional Laotian community-based natural resource management by raising awareness of villagers’ legal land rights. So, for example, since 2009 MCC has worked on a food security project with the Xaysomboun Provincial Department of Agriculture. MCC staff have explained to village authorities in the area their right to refuse contracts with developers, their rights to negotiate contracts and their options for legal recourse in the case of disputes over contracts. In Tha Thom district, MCC works with elected Village Mediation Units (VMUs) to strengthen their capacity to defend villagers’ legal rights and their ability to take recourse when developers fail to obtain permission or go beyond the bounds of negotiated contracts. MCC also works with local government officials to obtain land certificates for individual families, helping them prove their right to use specific land and thus increase their legal ability to retain their land. As the Landesa Rural Development Institute observes, “secure rights to land are a critical, but often overlooked, factor in achieving household food security and improved nutritional status” (Landesa Rural Development Institute, 1). Secure long-term land tenure is essential before farmers can invest time in agricultural development training on matters such as soil improvement, animal forage, techniques for better rice yields, fruit tree cultivation and animal raising.

In a period of unprecedented development in Laos, villagers are relocating throughout the country to make way for hydroelectric development, plantations, mines and other economic development projects. Such mass internal migration can result in serious disputes, especially as different ethnic groups come into contact for the first time, knowing little about each other’s customs. MCC assists in training VMUs to help solve conflicts that arise in both of these situations. As a result, VMUs deal with a variety of concerns, ranging from serious land boundary conflicts to disputes of the “your-cow-ate-my-vegetable-patch” variety. If these disputes can be solved locally, and in culturally-appropriate ways, it relieves the overburdened justice system and contributes to social cohesion. Laos has been described as having “the resource curse,” the seeming blessing of abundant natural resources undermined by weak regulation and powerful neighbours. With perseverance and the increasing interest of government and civilians, legal education about villagers’ land rights can protect this vital set of resources and keep the shelves of these natural food cupboards stocked for generations to come.

Emily Nigh is agricultural advisor for MCC Laos, based in Vientiane.

 Learn more:

 Landesa Rural Development Institute. “Landesa Issue Brief: Land Rights and Food Security.” 13 (March 2012). Available at

Baird, Ian G. and Bruce Shoemaker. “Unsettling Experiences: Internal Resettlement and International Aid Agencies in Laos.” Development and Change 38/5 (September 2007): 865–888.

Ministry of Justice Law Research and International Cooperation Institute. “Customary Law and Practise in Lao PDR.” (July 2011). Available at

Community-based land management in the Israeli-occupied state of Palestine

Palestinians have a long history of community-based natural resource management. Since 1967, Israel’s military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (the State of Palestine recognized by 193 countries and the United Nations General Assembly), has threatened these traditional management approaches and endangered Palestine’s natural resources. This article argues that the Israeli occupation has denied Palestinians the sovereignty to manage their own land and other natural resources, resulting in negative consequences for their livelihoods and well-being, along with harmful impacts to the land itself. The Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ) has therefore focused on investing in CNBRM initiatives in Palestine aimed at increasing the sustainability of Palestinian agriculture in the face of an Israeli occupation regime that denies Palestinians sovereign control over their natural resources.

Historically land management in Palestine was practiced by local communities according to customary traditions. In 1918 communal land represented 70% of historical Palestine (what is now the state of Israel and the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem). Most land thus belonged to local communities, meaning that land was managed in the common interest by a group of people, usually the whole population in a given village. Rights for grazing, access to water resources and wood harvesting were shared. Village elders had the right to divide land into portions and distribute it among farmers.

Following the onset of the Israeli occupation in 1967, however, land ownership patterns, particularly of communal land, witnessed a total transformation. The Israeli occupation authorities ordered a halt to land registration and started confiscating Palestinian land and resources. In the West Bank, for example, Israel confiscated 43,100 hectares of land under the pretext of absentee land ownership (i.e. owned by Palestinians not present in the West Bank). Additional land was confiscated for security reasons and public use. This land confiscation paved the way for the construction of 196 settlements and 232 outposts in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization divided land in the West Bank according to a division of territory into areas A, B and C. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), created by the Oslo accords, was to have civil and security control over area A, while in area B the PNA assumed full control in civil matters, with Israel remaining in charge of security. In the areas classified as area C, Israel retained full control over land, security, civil affairs and natural resources. In Gaza, meanwhile, 24% of land is declared a prohibited border zone from which Palestinians are blocked from access to land and other natural resources.

While the United Nations envisions the State of Palestine encompassing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, this territory has been carved up by the Israeli occupation into discontiguous islands. The jagged distribution of areas A, B and C, coupled with the 771 km long wall constructed by Israel in the West Bank, turn West Bank lands into isolated cantons, physically separated from each other and from the Gaza Strip. Prolonged years of Israeli occupation have disconnected Palestinians from the majority of natural resources in Palestine. Area C in the West Bank, to which Palestinians have extremely limited access, contains 87% of the West Bank’s nature reserves, 90% of its forests, 48% of its water wells and 37% of its water springs. Lack of sovereignty over land and natural resources has denied Palestinians the right to manage those resources.

The lack of Palestinian land sovereignty has also resulted in ecological decline and prevented effective natural resource management. For example, indicators of desertification appear clearly in the eastern slopes of the West Bank, an area characterized by steep hills where agricultural activity is limited to animal grazing. The closure of 85% of this zone by the Israeli occupation authorities for military purposes has led to severe overgrazing of the remaining areas accessible to Palestinian herders. This overgrazing has resulted in the loss of the vegetation cover, along with soil erosion and desertification.

Within this context Palestinians continue to practice agriculture, mostly on small land holdings, 90% of which range between 0.5 and 5 hectares. Palestinian farmers face numerous constraints and challenges in their attempts to manage natural resources effectively in the context of occupation. Lack of access to water means that rain-fed farming is the dominant type of agriculture in the West Bank. Farmers are subsequently vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall and to changing climate patterns. To protect their lands from confiscation by Israeli military authorities under the pretext that land is not cultivated, Palestinians began planting olive trees in the 1970s to replace field crops. In response, however, Israel engaged in a massive campaign of uprooting trees. ARIJ estimates that since 1967 more than 1.8 million trees have been uprooted in the West Bank and Gaza.

Together with local communities, ARIJ is working to promote sustainable development in Palestine through community-based natural resource management. ARIJ partners with local communities to prioritize small and smart interventions, ranging from rain harvesting systems, land reclamation, field crops improvement, climate change adaptation and the promotion of urban agriculture. Additionally, ARIJ works to help small-size farmers protect themselves by organizing into cooperatives. One successful example of a social business intervention is Al-Jalemeh Women’s Cooperative, where ARIJ worked with the cooperative to improve its production, management and good governance capacities. Some women planted home gardens with luffa (commonly referred to as loofah), sweet pumpkin and safflower, while others worked to produce jam, dried safflower and loofah scrubbing sponges. Consequently, each woman managed to generate additional income of $560 per year. ARIJ has also worked with local communities to introduce plant-water production systems such as hydroponics and wicking systems, new agro-technologies suitable for both rural and urban areas. These systems take up limited room (10 square meters) and use less water, making them appropriate for small household farmers. Farmers who have adopted such systems can produce four or even five seasons of vegetables per year, fertilizing and managing their crops with natural solutions and fertilizers. These new plant-water production systems utilize half the water resources used by traditional irrigated systems and increase crop produce three times more than conventional agro-systems, with less effort. Such systems help improve food self-sufficiency, give opportunities to poor families to generate more income and help communities manage what limited resources are available to them. While the Israeli occupation places severe constraints on Palestinian access to and management of natural resources, ARIJ is committed to supporting rural and urban Palestinian communities in sustainably conserving and managing the resources to which they still have access.

Jad Isaac is director general of the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ), an MCC partner organization.

Learn more:

Hrimat, Nader and Munif Doudin. “Adopting Hydroponic and Wicking Agro Food Production Models in Palestine.” Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem, 2014. Available at

Bassous, Roubina. “Biodiversity and Human Rights from a Palestinian Persepctive.” Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem, 2014. Available at

“Agriculture in Palestine: A Post-Oslo Analysis.” The Council for European Palestinian Relations, 2012. Available at

Reynolds, Kyra. “Palestinian Agriculture and the Israeli Separation Barrier: The Mismatch of Biopolitics and Chronopolitics with the Environment and Human Survival.” International Journal of Environmental Studies 72/2 (2015): 237-255.

Food security strategies in Kenya

In the semi-arid region of Machakos County, Kenya, poor soil quality, population growth and shifting climate patterns make managing natural resources for food security a continual challenge. Kenyan organizations such as Utooni Development Organization (UDO), an MCC partner, are dedicated to promoting strategies for sustainable livelihoods under these conditions. UDO is known for promoting sand dams as a method of water harvesting, but also implements a range of programs designed to improve food security. MCC and Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) recently partnered with UDO on an extensive review of its programming to assess program impact and to identify factors associated with the successful adoption of strategies promoted by UDO. Building on the findings of that review, this article will argue that farmer ownership (or lack thereof) was the key factor in the success or failure of specific food security strategies promoted by UDO.

The UDO evaluation analyzed six food security strategies promoted by UDO: water harvesting through sand dams and terraces, drought-tolerant grain crops, agroforestry, livestock production and irrigation. The review affirmed the overall impact that UDO’s community-based approach has had on local communities and identified clear successes. For instance, villagers on average reported an increase in food security by 2.7 months due to UDO activities. Joyce Musyoka of the Kulunga Self Help Group tells a typical story illustrating the impact of sand dams on food security and gender roles: “before [the sand dam] I had to travel four hours every day to fetch water, and the amount I was able to fetch was not enough to cover our family needs.” Of course, the review also found that some UDO strategies, such as terracing and drought-tolerant crops, did not result in wide-spread adoption.

The review identified interesting variations in how a sense of ownership plays a key role in the successful adoption and impact of these different food security strategies. For example, the review found that in some cases projects that did not include the free distribution of external inputs (e.g. seeds) experienced greater success than projects that did distribute such inputs. This lesson was exemplified by the difference between the clearer successes of agroforestry strategies and the more ambiguous results of drought-tolerant crops and terracing. Communities spontaneously adopted a strategy of planting fruit trees and reforestation, despite very limited inputs. Indeed, the review found encouraging evidence of a high level of seed collection, seedling production, tree grafting and the establishment of orchards thanks to UDO activities. Planting of drought-tolerant crops, on the other hand, relied on a greater input strategy. Most farmers depended on free seed from UDO, rather than planting saved seed or purchasing new seed, and were not passionate about continuing to grow these crops. Likewise, with improved terracing practices, farmers readily improved terraces as part of food-for-work programs, but farmer enthusiasm did not continue once these food-for-work efforts ceased, and terraces often later fell into disrepair. Interestingly, farmers readily acknowledged that terraces improved yields and yet were not invested in continuing the practice in the absence of external inputs. Clearly the success of particular technologies was related to how motivated farmers were to personally invest in the practice. While I argue here that farmer investment can sometimes be adversely affected by input-intensive strategies, further study is required to explore other possible factors including farmer seed preferences, extension practices, household labour, market availability of seed and purchasing power.

Sand dam projects present a different strategy for encouraging a sense of ownership. Although UDO provides materials for sand dam construction, along with technical guidance on siting and design, communities must organize the construction event, provide the labor for dam construction, and together establish the guidelines for the sand dam’s use. Communities thus feel ownership of the dams and are motivated to use the dams to improve their livelihoods. For instance, farmers experiment on ways to take advantage of increased groundwater for cropping along the banks. Thus, sand dams are “adopted” in the sense that they are heavily utilized, a result which derives from the particular way they are implemented through a process of group investment. The review therefore noted a crucial difference among UDO projects with regards to inputs, but a common strategy with regard to promoting a sense of ownership. Whereas a practice like agro-forestry can be self-sustaining without external inputs, this is unlikely to happen with sand dams, which have high upfront costs.

Encouraging a sense of ownership can heighten certain challenges associated with communal resource management. For instance, because sand dams are communal endeavors, they are susceptible to conflicts or mismanagement of a limited resource (water from the dams will run out if overused). Communities must manage water resources in such a way as to avoid a “tragedy of the commons,” wherein individuals maximizing use of resources for themselves might compromise the long-term sustainability of the resource itself. For instance, a farmer’s livestock also benefits from water availability at sand dams, but the presence of livestock (and in particular their waste) can easily contaminate water supplies that impact the entire community.

A further challenge is that resource management conflicts can be heightened by the fact that available water benefits both users who invested time and labor in sand dam construction and users who did not help. As a result, users sometimes feel that the benefits are not equitably distributed according to the effort invested in the project. Conflict over ownership of the resource also occurs external to the community, most notably as the region is the primary source for sand needed to make concrete for the booming construction industry of nearby Nairobi. Sand dams are easy sources for trucks to harvest sand, with unscrupulous actors either taking the sand without consulting the community or negotiating with some (but usually not all) members of the community to extract this resource. In all these situations, an increased sense of ownership has the potential to heighten tensions over natural resources.

Climate change is already a reality in Machakos, as farmers are quick to explain how long-term rainfall patterns have changed, disrupting their farming practices. Evaluations such as the review of UDO’s efforts become all the more important as a means to pause and take stock of what strategies will effectively increase the resilience of communities to changing circumstances.

Doug Graber Neufeld is a water and livelihoods advisor with MCC in Nairobi, Kenya.

Learn more:

Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Video: “Dancing on Water: Sand Dams in Kenya.” (2011). Available at:

Cruickshank, Abby. “These Are Our Water Pipes, Sand Dams, Women and Donkeys—Dealing with Water Scarcity in Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands.” (2010) Available at:

Ertsen, M., and Hut, R. “Two Waterfalls Do Not Hear Each Other: Sand-Storage Dams, Science and Sustainable Development in Kenya.” Physics and Chemistry of the Earth 34 (2009): 14–22.

Teel, Wayne. “The Impact of Sand Dams on Community Development in Semi-Arid Agricultural Areas in Kenya.” Utooni Development Organization (2011). Available at:

Low German Mennonites, natural resource management and the Bolivian state

Traditional Low German Mennonite (LGM) colony land-use practices in Bolivia are rooted in a singular focus on agricultural production. However, new Bolivian laws for sustainable land-use practices, a global concern about land-clearing and shifts in long-term local climate patterns have implications for the future of traditional LGM livelihoods in the country. Within this inherently complex situation, MCC has a unique opportunity to come alongside struggling LGM communities and promote sustainable land-use practices.

In 2013, MCC Bolivia began an emergency response project working with the LGM Durango colony in the municipality of Charagua in response to a severe drought. MCC provided feed for cattle and later seeds for feed crops, allowing LGM farmers to maintain base livestock necessary to sustain their basic livelihood needs. In 2014, at the request of LGM community partners, MCC began a related project to help young, low-income families establish a new daughter colony of Durango called La Esperanza. This project included clearing land to establish the colony, but in accordance with Bolivian laws and regulations on land-use practices. Like the original Durango project, the La Esperanza project was also an emergency response to drought.

As with any project, MCC must work within a mix of different cultural assumptions that complicate the NGO-partner relationship. The Low German Mennonite productive economy in Bolivia is generally focused on the production of grains, milk and cheese. Farming relies on large machinery. These practices, combined with large families (often with ten or more members), create the need to find and clear more land. The challenge for MCC is to work alongside the insular colony system to validate its strengths, while working together to make positive changes that improve quality of life, the sustainability of colony land-use practices, compliance with Bolivian law and relationships with Indigenous communities.

With this in mind, MCC needed to take a number of factors into consideration when working with LGM colonies to clear land. First, MCC was mindful of Bolivian colonial history and the history of Indigenous land loss. MCC is also transparent before Bolivian law and the constitution, ratified in 2009 as a result of Indigenous activism and recognized internationally for its progressive promotion of Indigenous rights and priorities. It was therefore important for MCC to build good relationships with Indigenous Guaraní communities in the region, be aware of potential conflicts between LGM colonies and their Indigenous neighbours and help build right relationships and understanding between Guaraní and LGM communities.

A second important consideration was the new progressive Bolivian food security and forest restitution law number 337. This law forces Bolivian farmers to implement practices such as adequate pasture rotation, cover cropping, wind barriers and agrosilvopastoral systems (agriculture that includes crops, forests and animal pasturage). In this context of strong cultural traditions and new national laws, MCC does not play the role of a driver for change, but rather helps LGM colonies understand the new laws and build colony capacity to comply, avoid fines and build healthier and more profitable farms.

With these considerations in mind, MCC had an opportunity in La Esperanza colony to help low-income Mennonites make the necessary changes in their practices for a more sustainable future. Through the project, ten to fifteen trees per hectare are being left on cleared land, wind breaks are being implemented to reduce erosion, Cupesí trees (which cattle can graze on and use for shade) are being planted in pastures and, in the future, small, irrigated garden plots and fruit trees for home consumption will be introduced.

While La Esperanza’s short-term achievements are considerable, MCC also has a long-term vision. The implementation of cover crops, agrosilvopastoral systems and adequate crop/pasture rotations in the colony have yet to be achieved. However, with the build-up of credibility brought on by this project (itself made possible by years of trust- and relationship-building), the arrival of new personnel later in 2016 and the state’s implementation of Bolivian law 337, MCC hopes to continue to build on present gains and good practices.

Building participation and enthusiasm has been a successful part of the project in La Esperanza. The formation of La Esperanza colony was not MCC’s idea, but a community initiative in need of MCC support. According to past MCC Bolivia LGM program director Wilmar Harder, the idea for this project arose out of meetings in which, for the first time in MCC Bolivia history, colony leadership (bishop, elders and others) directly called a meeting and asked MCC to work with them. LGM participation was therefore never in doubt because the project was theirs from the beginning: the question was if MCC would participate.

Due to its long history of work with Bolivian Mennonites, MCC is uniquely positioned to work alongside LGM colonies. While LGM colony structure and culture can often seem to impede change, there are few other outside actors with which colonies willingly work. By supporting a small percentage of the land clearing for La Esperanza, MCC has accompanied the entire new colony in the process of implementing sustainable land-use techniques compliant with the law. Furthermore, this initial MCC investment provides the opportunity to continue building colony capacity to implement agrosilvopasotral systems, cover cropping and pasture rotations, while providing economic opportunities for low-income families and building resiliency to the effects of climate change.

In order to work within the complexities of the local partner-North American donor dynamic, MCC must remain flexible to the call and needs of partner communities. In Bolivia, the LGM colonies’ intense focus on agriculture as a means to make a living and their rapid population growth will likely become increasingly problematic as tighter government restrictions are placed on land clearing. In this situation, MCC might be tempted to play the role of the prophet of doom calling out from a smug North American perch. However, MCC must be willing to meet partner communities on their own development path, and help them bring about positive changes for themselves and those around them, even if those changes are incremental rather than radical.

 Jordan Penner is MCC interim representative for Bolivia. Patrocinio Garvizu is food security and sustainable livelihoods coordinator and grounds manager with MCC Bolivia. 

 Learn more:

Muller, R., Pacheco, P., and Montero, J.C. The Context of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Bolivia: Drivers, Agents and Institutions. Bogor, Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research, 2014. Available at

Fraser, Barbara. “Food and Forests: Bolivia’s Balancing Act.” (2014). Available at:

Slunge, D., and von Walter, S. “Environment and Climate Change in Bolivia: Challenges and Opportunities for Development.” (2013). Available at: