LTRA-3: Watershed-based Natural Resource Management for Small-scale Agriculture

Research Focus

Most households in rural watershed regions of the Andes rely on agriculture or other natural-resource based activities for their livelihoods. SANREM researchers monitored the social, economic, and environmental effects of livelihood changes in watersheds of Chimbo, Ecuador, and Tiraque, Bolivia. The aim of this project was to improve farm families’ lives and incomes by finding profitable alternatives, to identify constraints to adopting these alternatives, and to encourage genetic diversity in crop selection.

Principal Investigators

Jeff Alwang 
Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics
Virginia Tech


After completing initial community surveys of natural resources and human assets, the SANREM team began analyzing soil erosion and monitoring stream flows, rainfall, and weather patterns. Geographic information system (GIS) data were used to show areas of highest productivity and where soil loss and erosion are most likely. Researchers and farmers experimented with conservation techniques such as contour plowing and integrated pest management. Alternative crops such as blackberry, avocado, lemon, tree tomato, kanuahua, maca, and strawberry were tested for their potential to raise family incomes.

In Bolivia, a field study was completed that analyzed how potato producers decide which varieties to plant. In Ecuador, researchers studied whether the current marketing system for profitable dairy products discourages farmers from participating. While biodiversity was being studied in both countries, researchers had already gathered data in Ecuador’s Illangama and Alumbre watersheds on aquatic species and chemical composition of water in streams.

Training and capacity-building were central aspects of this project. Professionals from Ecuador and Bolivia participated in  watershed modeling workshops at Virginia Tech in February of 2008. Integrated resource management and soil conservation training was conducted in Ecuador. A watershed modeling workshop in Bolivia was held in late summer of 2008. SANREM also encouraged cross-community study tours, offered undergraduate internships in watershed management, and supported graduate students in the host countries and at U.S. institutions.

Major Research Findings

The project reported several major findings:

  • Evidence shows that two alternatives have high economic returns: reduced application of agrochemicals, particularly integrated pest management for potatoes; and low-cost conservation techniques to improve soil quality.
  • An inventory of biodiversity and a study of the effects of human activities on this biodiversity show that the Ecuadoran watershed is ecologically diverse, but many plant and animal species are threatened by land fragmentation.
  • The main sources of water quality problems in Ecuador’s Chimbo River are urban, not agricultural.
  • Access to water is becoming increasingly problematic for household consumers as well as municipal, agricultural, and potential industrial water users. The project and its partners are investigating how water allocation decisions are made, with the hope of developing more equitable policies.
  • Natural resource-intensive activities such as cultivation of medicinal plants represent an important income-earning alternative.