El Alto, Bolivia

How it works

Growing vegetables at high altitudes

EL ALTO, Pedro Domingo Murillo department, Bolivia – Imagine trying to grow vegetables in a dry climate more than 4000 metres above sea level where the atmosphere is so thin your crops burn up and die before they bear fruit.

The alternative is taking public transportation for more than an hour each way to buy vegetables that are imported from far away and covered in harmful pesticides.

Mountains in the distance, as seen from El Alto, Bolivia, near the greenhouse projects run by MCC partner FCA.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

In these difficult circumstances, MCC’s partner Fundación Communidad y Axión (Community and Action Foundation, FCA), is working to improve access to nutritious food in El Alto by assisting more than 200 low-income families to build greenhouses or huertas on their properties.

But conventional greenhouses aren’t suited for this climate and FCA has had to get creative to help these families keep their plants alive and combat malnutrition.

Victoria Mamani Sirpa, an agricultural technician and teacher for FCA visits Luciana Llamaca de Condori’s greenhouse. De Condori has a greenhouse which she built with the support of FCA. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Financial and technical support

Many families can’t afford the materials needed to build greenhouses in the first place.

FCA has partnered with its project participants by covering the most expensive parts – roofing material, windows, doors and seeds so they can build greenhouses and grow nutritious fruits and vegetables.

The project participants must contribute too.

They show their commitment to the project by making a type of concrete called adobe, which is earth mixed with water and thick, dried grass to construct the foundation and walls of the greenhouse. From there they install the roof, windows and doors. Finally, they plant the seeds and tend to their plants with the support of teachers like Victoria Mamani Sirpa.

Families aren't just learning how to eat well, they're also learning to care for the environment." - Victoria Mamani Sirpa

Sirpa was one of the first people to build a greenhouse on her property through FCA. Now she passes on what she’s learned to other women in the community.

She says this initiative also incorporates an education component with the aim of teaching participants about the effects of climate change.

“We don’t just work with huertas, we work with climate change and teaching people about the earth. Families aren’t just learning how to eat well, they’re also learning to care for the environment.”

FCA, an MCC partner, works to improve access to nutritious food in El Alto by helping low-income families build greenhouses on their properties. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Specialized roofing 

In addition to this specialized support and education, FCA provides materials customized for the climate in El Alto.

A conventional glass or clear plastic greenhouse won’t work at such a high altitude because the atmosphere is so thin. The rooves of these huertas are made of yellow plastic called agrofilm because it lets in enough sunlight without burning the plants. 

“If the plastic was clear, the plants would die. If the plastic was any other colour than yellow, it wouldn’t let in enough sunlight,” Sirpa says. “Yellow is good!”

Leafy greens grow abundantly in the greenhouses built by MCC partner FCA in El Alto. Pop bottles are painted black to keep the greenhouses warm at night. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Heating

Although much of Bolivia is hot and humid, in El Alto and other areas in the Andes mountain range temperatures can hover around freezing at night and get quite chilly during the winter months. Frost can kill these vulnerable plants.

In addition to building the walls and foundation, the project participants are tasked with collecting plastic pop bottles which are used to heat the inside of the greenhouse.

FCA discovered that plastic bottles collect heat when they are painted black, filled with water and left in the greenhouse during the day when it’s warm. At night, the bottles release the heat keeping the huerta balmy.

In addition, the adobe bricks help conserve heat in the greenhouse.


Water gathers on the ceiling of a greenhouse built with the support of MCC’s partner, FCA. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Conserving water

On top of being cold, El Alto is dry. Last year the city saw no rain, the reservoir plummeted down below two per cent of its capacity, taps were shut off and people had to wait hours to get water from trucks parked around the city.

When it does rain, project participants conserve water by collecting rainwater in barrels to water plants in their greenhouses.

It makes me very happy to see the families producing and eating their own vegetables." - Victoria Mamani Sirpa

In the summer, they water once a day, but in the winter they only need to water once every three days because the adobe helps maintain the humidity in the greenhouse. The moisture from plants evaporates, collects on the ceiling and then drops down on to the plants to water them again.

Sirpa hopes to see the greenhouse model expand in the area.

“Our work is very difficult, but it makes me very happy to see the families producing and eating their own vegetables,” she says. “I’d like to get to a point where all of El Alto can benefit from huertas because it’s so cold and dry.”