Pond farming

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Sketch diversified pond farming, Bolivia. Drawing: M. Verweij, SNV. Netherlands Water Partnership.

Before we had these farm ponds we could only farm in the wet season and everybody migrated to make money to survive. Now with these ponds we can work on our own land, year round, and we produce a surplus to sell at the market. These ponds give us hope for our community and children.” said Máximo Gonzales in the April 1996 issue of the ILEIA Newsletter (Maita and Verweij 1996).

Given the lack of other permanent water sources, farm ponds have become a source of water for domestic use, drinking water for animals, supplementary irrigation of summer crops and for small-scale irrigation of highly valuable dry season crops. The water in the family ponds is used to irrigate up to 0.25 ha of farmland on which onion, garlic, tomato, beans and other vegetables are grown. Some farmers even have enough water to grow fruit trees. It is common practice to protect the irrigated area and farm pond from cattle by building fences around them with thorny branches, barbed wire or stone or brick walls. The land inside the fence can range from 0.3 to 4 ha.

Although different local organisations have different working methodologies and pond designs, there is an exchange of ideas between them, one of which is to encourage farmers to make a 10 to 30% contribution towards their pond construction. Some organisations choose to build ponds for collective use, but - as these often encountered problems of ownership and maintenance - individual ponds prove to be the better option.

History and Modern day

The first farm ponds in Bolivia date back to the 1980s, when ‘k’hochas’ (small water reservoirs that the farmers had dug) were enlarged with the help of heavy machinery. Rainwater is collected in these farm ponds, taking advantage of the runoff from the higher slopes or water from a nearby watercourse during periods of rain. The pond water is used for irrigation and keeping fish.

In recent years, the area under irrigation was expanded considerably and production was intensified by increasing the number and size of the ponds. In the community of Aiquile, for example, more than 1000 new ponds were constructed in the nineties. Now, a large number of government organisations, municipalities, NGOs and peasant organisations are digging, with the use of earthmoving tractors, hectares of farm ponds in many Bolivian communities. Many different designs are used for the construction of these ponds.

Pond farming is now promoted elsewhere, following successful experiences in Bolivia. As ponds and pond farming become more widely known, they are becoming more accepted.

Suitable conditions

Make sure the soil is not deteriorated or eroded. If growing for high yields to sell, make sure the market has a need for such quantities.

Construction, operations and maintenance

Diversified pond farm. Drawing: Verweij, 2001.

Building the pond takes an average of 14 man days.

Things to consider

Farmers with access to farm ponds listed the following demands for improvement at a workshop:

1. Community/farmer organisation (production and marketing, awareness of collective values). 2. Soil and water management (farm planning, soil and water conservation practices, irrigation canals, gully control) 3. Integrated Pest Management (training, development of local practices). 4. Marketing (seeking markets for local products and opportunities for new crops, establishing relations with companies, seeking and creation of opportunities). 5. Financial management (loans, help in calculating production costs).

An increasing demand for technical support has been noted since farm pond construction was initiated. Often, farmers start to pay attention only when they encounter real problems. For example, the demand for high quality seeds is coming up only now after many diseases have been spread. Still, farmers express their need for holistic monitoring from a peasant farmers’ perspective. Once the problem of water shortage was solved, questions arose about a more sustainable, ecological and healthy way of production, applying integrated pest and soil fertility management methods.

Having worked on productive aspects, peasants are also looking towards processing, transforming and marketing of their products, which is something they cannot do on their own. Developing the farming community means that all these aspects have to be worked on. Anyone who intends to support this process has the moral obligation to go beyond farm ponds and technological packages. That is why today’s agricultural scientists and rural instructors must have a more complete understanding of sustainable agriculture and the food production chain. They also should be versatile and take an active part in peasant struggles.


  • Material: pond 1,000 m: US$ 200 - 1,600

The costs of the ponds differ from US$ 300 for a simple small pond of about 300 m3 to US$ 2000 for a larger and more sophisticated pond, and up to US$ 4000 for a 5000 m3 pond. The funding arrangements also differ per organisation. Funds come from the local municipality, the national government or a foreign funding agency. Farmers normally pay a contribution of 10 - 20 % of the total costs in advance.

Social Capital

Experience showed that it is fundamental to raise the self-esteem of peasant farmers before they can do anything for improving their situation. They must be made aware of their valuable know-how, skills and potential and realise that they are capable of making changes. Peasants can evaluate examples and alternatives and apply them, provided that they have the information, inputs and instruments, and, above all, self-confidence. Social capital was identified as an essential precondition for working together in a change process.

Social capital, in terms of self-esteem, credibility of the support agents involved, mutual respect and confidence between peasant families and the support organisation, and shared background and responsibility, is needed to obtain tangible results.

Field experiences

Once water is available, a part of the new farm pond users (about 25% of the farmers in CORACA’s operational area) concentrates on growing crops like onions, tomatoes and potatoes for the market. These market farmers tend to grow one or two crops intensively and then leave the land to lie fallow after the harvest, when the water runs dry. Their production system is intensive and yields are high: more than 40 tons per ha. of tomatoes and 30 tons of onions. Without much help from outside, they sell the produce in their own town as well as in Sucre and Cochabamba. In 1999, when prices of tomatoes were high, tomato farmers earned up to US$1800 from a 2000 square metre plot, spending US$425 on fertilisers, pesticides and transport. They had never before had so much money in their hands and earned back their initial investment in one year! But prices are not always high and increasingly farmers start to feel the economic and ecological problems related to monoculture market farming.

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