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The enemies of innovation August 26th, 2018 by

Sometimes even rational people fight innovation, as we learn in this recent book by the late Calestous Juma, a Kenyan scholar who taught at Harvard and who enjoyed the rare distinction of being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Science.

To condense Prof. Juma’s nuanced and complex thesis, there are two good reasons to oppose innovation, and one surprising outcome.

First, early versions of an innovation are often expensive, unwieldy and simply not very good at getting the job done. Thomas Edison’s first electrical wiring relied on noisy generators, was a fire hazard, and accidentally electrocuted 17 New Yorkers to death in two years between 1887 and 1889. These problems were eventually ironed out, but some of the failings of an innovation are never fully addressed. When tractors began to replace horses in the USA in the 1920s, three decades after they were invented by John Froelich in 1892, critics complained that the tractors (and automobiles) were wasteful and that buying, fueling and repairing them would place a financial burden on farmers,

Second, an innovation is opposed by the social network that uses and supports the incumbent technology. Electric lights were competing with a well-entrenched and profitable natural gas industry. Farriers, veterinarians and harness makers relied on horses for steady business and income. Older workers with the skills and experience to use an existing technology may resist an alternative. The Luddites were not a bunch of maniacs who liked to break things; they were skilled weavers in the 19th century who correctly realized that mechanized looms would replace experienced workers with unskilled ones.

Fortunately, the dynamic tension between the old and the new can be as creative as the original invention, refining the timeworn technology or promoting innovative social structures.

For example, margarine was invented in France in 1869 and was being manufactured in the USA by the 1880s. At the time American dairy farmers were poorly organized, but led by the butter factories, they eventually formed the National Dairy Council. This powerful lobby group harassed margarine makers, leading to legislation in five US states which required margarine to be dyed an unappetizing pink. They also spread disinformation, reporting bogus studies that claimed that margarine stunted children’s growth, for example. But nineteenth century butter was not the choice food that we know today; it was often rancid and adulterated with chemicals. Competition with margarine forced butter manufacturers to make a better product. And in the ultimate compromise, some spreads now blend butter and margarine.

In the end margarine’s saving grace was not technical, but social. In the 1940s US margarine makers switched from imported coconut oil to American soybean and cottonseed oil, acquiring farmer allies that allowed them to fend off the big dairy interests and find a permanent place at the table.

In the end, the innovation may never completely defeat the incumbent technology, which may settle into a competitive niche of its own. The gas industry fought electricity with all the imagination it had, creating gas-powered versions of every electrical appliance invented. There was even a gas radio in the 1930s (it had the added advantage of giving off a little extra heat). Electricity never completely replaced natural gas, which still provides heat and energy, but the rivalry lives on in the competition between gas ovens and electric models.

There are some clear lessons here for agricultural scientists, who are often dismayed when farmers do not immediately adopt ideas derived from research. As we learn from the optimistic Prof. Juma: your invention may have potential in the long run, but in the short term it may still have bugs that need to be fixed. Innovations often seek to replace existing technologies that have proven advantages, and are familiar to users; the struggle between old and new can lead to creative solutions.  Specifically, researchers can use farmer field schools (FFS) or other experiences to learn about the farmers’ point of view and work together to adapt innovations to meet their needs and circumstances.

Further reading

Juma, Calestous 2016 Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. Oxford University Press. 416 pp.

Asking the right questions August 12th, 2018 by

I once saw a quantitative survey turn to dust, literally. I was a young graduate student in Tucson, Arizona when an older anthropologist asked me if I would like to write up the results of a survey she had conducted on the city’s largely Hispanic south side. She swung open the doors to her storage shed, revealing a large, cardboard box. When the anthropologist tried to lift some of the forms out of the box, they crumbled in her fingers. Tucson’s warm, dry climate is perfect for termites, which had carved their galleries throughout the sheets of paper.

For that anthropologist, going door-to-door with her questionnaire had been the fun part of the survey. Analyzing the results and writing up the conclusions were harder. In the end the termites benefited the most from the survey.

A few years later, I found myself in northern Portugal, on a questionnaire study of smallholder farmers. I was part of a team of anthropologists and economists who designed the survey form, a straightforward task – or so we thought at the time. But at 20 pages, the form took about two hours to fill out. To encourage farmers to take part, we said that their answers would make policy-makers more responsive to agriculture, which may not have believable.

After we surveyed six parishes in the Entre-Douro-e-Minho province I went to live in one of them, Pedralva. There I learned how much the survey had annoyed the farmers. One couple had missed their irrigation turn while answering questions. One prosperous farmer complained how long the survey took and said that: “They even counted the eyes of the chickens!” That was an exaggeration (we had asked how many rabbits and chickens people had) but a sign of how frustrating farmers found the lengthy, prying survey.

Even worse, the farmers mistrusted the survey’s intentions. The farmers assumed that the tax bureau would be informed of the results, so they claimed to have harvested a fraction of their real yields, inadvertently making their well-adapted farming systems appear unproductive.

Eventually I learned to write shorter, more focused surveys, and to enter the data every night on a spreadsheet. And prizes can help to take the sting out of lost time. Once in the Chapare, Bolivia my colleagues and I rewarded each farmer we interviewed with three kilos of mineral fertilizer, left over from an earlier project. They liked the gift so much that one of them took the survey twice.

Sometimes four or five questions are enough. In Bolivia I once worked with a project that gathered hundreds of farmers for three “technology fairs” to watch other farmers demonstrate new ideas such as metal plows or fertilized quinoa. At the end we simply asked the fair goers what ideas they liked and which ones they wanted to try. The questionnaire was so short that a dozen agronomists could administer it in a few minutes. We could get feedback from some 200 farmers before breaking for lunch.

Of course times have changed. Surveys in the city or in the villages can now be entered electronically on a tablet. The questionnaires being filled out today are immune to termites, and you can send them out on-line.

But one thing remains the same. People still don’t like to answer long questionnaires. When you fill out a questionnaire in person, the respondents may be too polite to break off the interview, but with an on-line version, fatigue sets in quickly. On-line surveys yield the best results when they are short. Some respondents are willing to share more during follow-up phone calls or emails (as we have seen in previous blog stories (Families, land and videos in Northern Uganda. Watching videos to become a dairy expert, and Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan).

Whether on-line or in-person, a few simple questions may be as revealing as a long and tedious questionnaire that tries too hard to gather information. If do you need answers to lots of questions, consider rewarding people for the time they give you.

Further reading

The results of the first Portuguese survey eventually contributed to:

Pearson, S.R., F. Avillez, J.W. Bentley, T. J. Finan, R. Fox, T. Josling, M. Langworthy, E. Monke, & S. Tangermann 1987 Portuguese Agriculture in Transition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

My community study in Entre-Douro-e-Minho:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

The short survey in the Chapare (where people received a gift of fertilizer for answering our questions) contributed to:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2003 Desarrollo Participativo de Tecnología en el Trópico de Cochabamba. Cochabamba: Development Alternatives, Inc.

The results from the questionnaire at the technology fairs:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Graham Thiele, Rolando Oros & Claudio Velasco 2011 “Cinderella’s Slipper: Sondeo Surveys and Technology Fairs for Gauging Demand,” pp. 276-301. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2004 as AgREN Network Paper No. 138.

Bentley, Jeffery W., Claudio Velasco, Félix Rodríguez, Rolando Oros, Rubén Botello, Morag Webb, André Devaux & Graham Thiele 2011 “Unspoken Demands for Farm Technology”. pp. 302-324. In André Devaux, Miguel Ordinola & Douglas Horton (eds.) Innovation for Development: The Papa Andina Experience. 418 pp. Lima: International Potato Center. Originally published in 2007 in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 5(1): 70-84.

Predicting the weather August 5th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

Most city dwellers are only interested in short term weather forecasting. Will it rain over the weekend when we plan to invite friends to a barbecue? Do I need to carry an umbrella or wear a coat tomorrow? Fortunately for urbanites, TV, radio and web-based services provide short term forecasts.

Farmers are interested in short term weather forecasting too, but also in long term predictions. Knowing what week the rains will start is crucial for deciding when to plant rain-fed crops. Knowing how much it will rain helps farmers choose whether to plant on high or low ground.

I learned this recently from Edwin Yucra, a researcher at UMSA, the public university of San Andrés, in La Paz. Edwin has spent years working with Andean farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano, helping them to make use of weather forecasts based on the latest scientific data. For example, not long ago, Edwin noticed that there was an unexpected rain forecast for two or three days hence. Farmers usually like rain, but not on this occasion. The farmers he works with were about to freeze-dry potatoes into chuño, when dry nights are essential. To warn the farmers, Edwin didn’t have to meet with them. He let them know on social media. The farmers were able to delay making chuño and save their potatoes from rotting.

Scientific weather forecasting is not particularly accurate over a whole year. This leaves farmers more or less to their own devices. One group of master Andean farmers, called the “yapuchiris” (which means “farmer” in Aymara) is paying attention to long term weather forecasting. During the dry season, the yapuchiris notice the behavior of animals, plants or stars. For example, birds nesting on high ground are interpreted as a sign of a wet year, while low-lying nests suggest a coming drought.

The yapuchiris write down their meteorological predictions, and then painstakingly record the weather every day for the next year, to see if their forecasts are accurate. The yapuchiris use a paper form which they and their partners at PROSUCO (an NGO) have been perfecting since the early 2000s. They use a large chart called a Pachagrama. They coined this term by blending the Aymara word for earth and weather (“pacha”) with the Spanish ending “-grama” (as in telegrama). The “Earth-gram” includes 365 columns for each day of the year and rows for different kinds of weather (sun, wind, rain, hail etc.) The yapuchiris draw a dot in each row every day to add further information. For example a dot placed higher in the sun column means a sunny day and a lower dot is a cloudy day. Later the dots can be connected to draw a graph of the year’s weather.

PROSUCO is now doing a statistical study to show how well a dedicated group of 18 yapuchiris have accurately predicted weather for several years. The university tracks modern meteorology sites for short-term forecasting, while the Pachagrama validates local, long-term weather predictions. These two efforts are different, but farmers value both of them, and will use them to see what the weather will be like this week, and this year.

Read more about the yapuchiris:

Farmers produce electronic content

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Or about chuño:

Feeding the ancient Andean state


This work with weather is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos courtesy of PROSUCO.


Por Jeff Bentley

5 de agosto del 2018

La mayoría de los citadinos solo estamos interesados en el pronóstico del tiempo a corto plazo. ¿Lloverá durante el fin de semana cuando pensamos invitar nuestros amigos a una parrillada? ¿Debo llevar un paraguas o un abrigo mañana? Afortunadamente para los citadinos, los servicios meteorológicos de la televisión, la radio y web hacen tales pronósticos a corto plazo.

Los agricultores también están interesados en pronósticos meteorológicos a corto plazo, además de predicciones a largo plazo. Saber qué semana comenzarán las lluvias es crucial para decidir cuándo sembrar cultivos de secano. Saber cuánto va a llover ayuda a los agricultores a elegir sembrar en terreno alto o bajo.

Esto lo aprendí recientemente de Edwin Yucra, investigador de UMSA, la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, en La Paz. Durante años, Edwin ha trabajado con agricultores en el Altiplano boliviano, ayudándolos a hacer pronósticos meteorológicos, incluso con métodos científicos. Por ejemplo, no hace mucho tiempo, Edwin notó que había un pronóstico de lluvia inesperada para dos o tres días. A los agricultores generalmente les gusta la lluvia, pero no esta vez. Estaban a punto de congelar las papas en chuño, cuando las noches secas son esenciales. Para advertir a los agricultores, Edwin no tenía que reunirse con ellos. Él les hizo saber en las redes sociales para que pudieran esperar para hacer chuño y evitar que sus papas se pudran.

El pronóstico meteorológico científico no es muy preciso para predicciones de un año entero, lo cual deja a los agricultores más o menos a sus propios recursos. Por otro lado, un grupo de agricultores andinos, los llamados yapuchiris (que significa “agricultor” o “agricultora en aymara), pone atención a la predicción del tiempo a largo plazo. Durante la época seca, los yapuchiris se fijan en el comportamiento de los animales, plantas o las estrellas. Por ejemplo, las aves que anidan en un terreno más elevado que el normal se interpretan como señal de un año lluvioso, mientras que los nidos más bajos sugieren que habrá sequía.

Los yapuchiris escriben sus predicciones meteorológicas y luego registran minuciosamente el comportamiento del tiempo todos los días durante el próximo año, para ver si sus pronósticos eran ciertos. Los yapuchiris usan un formulario en papel que ellos y sus socios en PROSUCO (una ONG) han estado perfeccionando desde principios de la década de 2000. Usan una tabla grande llamada Pachagrama. Ellos acuñaron este término combinando la palabra aymara para la tierra y tiempo (“pacha”) con la terminación “-grama”. Ese Pachagrama incluye 365 columnas para cada día del año y filas para los diferentes tipos de clima (sol, viento, lluvia, granizo, etc.). Los yapuchiris dibujan un punto en cada fila todos los días para anotar la información. Por ejemplo, un punto colocado más arriba en la columna del sol significa un día soleado y un punto más abajo es un día nublado. Más tarde, los puntos se pueden conectar para dibujar un gráfico del clima del año.

Prosuco ahora está haciendo un estudio estadístico para ver si un grupo de 18 yapuchiris diestros ha predicho con precisión el clima durante varios años. La universidad rastrea los sitios modernos de meteorología para el pronóstico a corto plazo, mientras que el Pachagrama valida las predicciones meteorológicas a largo plazo en base a observaciones ecológicas. Estos dos esfuerzos son diferentes, pero los agricultores valoran ambos y los usarán para ver cómo será el clima esta semana y este año.

Lea más acerca de los yapuchiris:

Agricultores producen contenido electrónico

Inspiración de Bangladesh a Bolivia

O sobre el chuño:

Feeding the ancient Andean state


Este trabajo con el clima es financiado por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación sobre Cultivos (CCRP) de la Fundación McKnight.

Las fotos son cortesía de PROSUCO.

Making a lighter dryer June 10th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Fundación Valles, an NGO in Bolivia that does agricultural research and development, has developed a peanut dryer that uses sunlight to help prevent groundnuts from developing the molds that produce deadly aflatoxins. The prototype model had an A-shaped metal frame, raised off the ground, and was covered in a special type of light yellow plastic sheeting known as agrofilm, able to withstand long exposure to sunshine. The dryer kept out water, and with air flowing in from the ends of the dryer, the peanuts could dry even on rainy days.

Two years ago, in Chuquisaca Fundación Valles worked with farmers to develop cheaper versions of the dryer, making the A-shaped frames from wooden poles, instead of metal, and began distributing large sheets of agrofilm, 2 by 12-meters, for which farmers paid $14, half the original cost. Fundación Valles encouraged the farmers to continue adapting the original design of the dryer. In May 2018 I visited some of these farmers together with agronomists Walter Fuentes and Rolando Rejas of Fundación Valles, to find out what had happened.

When Augusto Cuba, in Achiras, received the agrofilm from Fundación Valles in 2016, he did not put it to immediate use. The weather was dry during several harvests, but during the rainy days during the peanut harvest in May, 2018, don Augusto put the agrofilm to the test. He took a plastic tarp to his field and laid it on the ground. He covered it with freshly harvested groundnuts, cut the agrofilm in half, and then placed the six meter length on top.

Don Augusto ignored the basic design of the dryer. He didn’t want to go to all of the trouble of cutting poles and building the raised platform of wooden poles. His design was much simpler and portable: as he worked in the field he could remove the agrofilm when the sun came out, and put it back when it started to drizzle again. The main disadvantage, however, was that the air did not flow over the covered nuts; humidity could build up, allowing mold to develop.

The original tent-like dryer has several limitations. It is expensive, and as don Augusto pointed out to us, it is a lot of work to make one from wood. At harvest, peanuts are heavy with moisture. The pods lose about half their weight when dried. So farmers dry their peanuts in the field, and sleep there for several nights to protect the harvest from hungry animals. A solar dryer must be carried to the field, yet these may be up to an hours’ walk from home and involve climbing up and down steep slopes. Farmers who are using the original solar dryer, as designed by Fundación Valles, are those who have their fields close to home. Yet even taking a simple tarp to the harvesting site would be an improvement over drying the pods on the bare ground.

Later I had a chance to discuss don Augusto’s method for drying peanuts with Miguel Florido, an agronomist with Fundación Valles, and with Mario Arázola, the leader of APROMANI (a peanut farmers’ association). They were concerned that don Augusto´s design would trap in too much moisture, especially if it was misty all day and the farmer never had a chance to remove the agrofilm. We agreed that a dryer had to have a few simple agronomic criteria; it had to keep out the rain, keep the groundnuts off the ground, and let air flow through.

After discussing don Augusto’s case, we agreed that a dryer also has to meet some of the farmers’ criteria: it has to be cheap, portable and able to handle large volumes of peanuts, while keeping them out of the rain.

Aflatoxin contamination is a serious problem worldwide, and while it can be addressed, inventing a simple technology is hard work. Researchers start with a problem and some ideas to solve it, like air flow and keeping peanuts dry. But it is only after offering farmers a prototype that researchers can see the farmers’ demands. For example, designing a stationary dryer helps researchers to see that farmers need a portable one. Making and using a small dryer in the field highlights the need for a larger one. These types of demands only emerge over time, as in having a long, slow conversation, but one that is worth having.


Por Jeff Bentley, 10 de junio del 2018

Fundación Valles, una ONG en Bolivia dedicada a la investigación y el desarrollo agrícola, ha desarrollado un secador de maní que usa la luz solar para ayudar a evitar que los maníes (cacahuates) desarrollen los mohos que producen aflatoxinas mortales. El modelo prototipo tenía un armazón de metal en forma de A, levantado del suelo, y estaba cubierto con un tipo especial de lámina de plástico amarillo claro conocida como agrofilm, capaz de soportar la exposición prolongada al sol. El secador no dejaba pasar el agua, y con el aire que entraba desde los extremos del secador, los maníes podrían secarse hasta en días lluviosos.

Hace dos años, en Chuquisaca, la Fundación Valles trabajó con los agricultores para desarrollar versiones más baratas del secador, haciendo los marcos en forma de A de postes de madera, en lugar de metal, y comenzó a distribuir grandes láminas de agrofilm, de 2 por 12 metros, para lo cual los agricultores pagaban $14, la mitad del costo original. La Fundación Valles alentó a los agricultores a seguir adaptando el diseño original del secador. En mayo de 2018 visité a algunos de estos agricultores junto con los agrónomos Walter Fuentes y Rolando Rejas de la Fundación Valles, para averiguar qué había pasado.

Cuando Augusto Cuba, en Achiras, recibió el agrofilm de la Fundación Valles en 2016, no lo puso en uso de una vez. No hacía falta porque hacía sol durante varias cosechas, pero cuando los días lluviosos durante la cosecha de maní en mayo del 2018, don Augusto puso a prueba el agrofilm. Él llevó una lona de plástico a su parcela y la puso en el suelo. Lo cubrió con maní recién cosechado, cortó el agrofilm por la mitad y lo colocó sobre su cosecha.

Don Augusto no copió el diseño básico del secador. No quería tomarse la molestia de cortar postes y construir la plataforma elevada de postes de madera. Su diseño era mucho más simple y portátil: mientras trabajaba en el campo, podía quitar el agrofilm cuando salía el sol y volver a colocarlo cuando comenzaba a lloviznar nuevamente. La principal desventaja, sin embargo, era que el aire no fluía sobre el maní cubierto; la humedad podría acumularse, posiblemente permitiendo que se forme el moho.

El secador original en forma de carpa tiene varias limitaciones. Es caro, y como nos señaló don Augusto, es mucho trabajo hacer uno con madera. En la cosecha, los maníes son pesados con la humedad. Las vainas pierden más o menos la mitad de su peso en el secado. Entonces los agricultores secan su maní en el campo y duermen allí varias noches para proteger la cosecha de los animales hambrientos. Un secador solar debe llevarse al campo, aunque puede tardar hasta una hora a pie desde su casa e implica subir y bajar pendientes fuertes. Los agricultores que sí usan el secador solar original, tal como lo diseñó Fundación Valles, son aquellos que tienen sus campos cerca de la casa. Sin embargo, incluso llevar una lona simple al sitio de cosecha sería mejor que secar las vainas sobre el puro suelo.

Más tarde tuve la oportunidad de discutir el secador de don Augusto con Miguel Florido, un agrónomo de la Fundación Valles, y con Mario Arázola, el líder de APROMANI (una asociación de agricultores de maní). Les preocupaba que el diseño de don Augusto atrapara demasiada humedad, especialmente si estaba nublado todo el día y el agricultor no podía quitar el agrofilm. Acordamos que un secador debía tener unos pocos criterios agronómicos simples; debía proteger el producto de la lluvia, evitar contacto entre el suelo y los maníes y dejar que el aire fluyera.

Después de discutir el caso de don Augusto, acordamos que un secador también debe cumplir con algunos de los criterios de los agricultores: tiene que ser barato, portátil y capaz de manejar grandes cantidades de maní, mientras los mantiene fuera de la lluvia.

La contaminación por aflatoxinas es un problema serio en todo el mundo, y aunque se puede solucionar, inventar una tecnología simple es un trabajo duro. Los investigadores comienzan con un problema y algunas ideas para resolverlo, como el flujo de aire y el maní seco. Pero es solo después de ofrecer a los agricultores un prototipo que los investigadores pueden ver las demandas de los agricultores. Por ejemplo, diseñar un secador estacionario ayuda a los investigadores a ver que los agricultores necesitan uno portátil. Hacer y usar un pequeño secador en el campo resalta la necesidad de un más grande. Este tipo de demandas solo surgen con el tiempo, como en una conversación larga y lenta, pero que vale la pena tener.

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia May 13th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

For years I have thought of farmer experiments as fundamentally different from scientific trials. Smallholders live from their harvest and after trying an innovation for a while can decide qualitatively if it is useful or not. For the scientists it’s the other way around; the data are the precious material they need to write their papers, while the harvested crop is irrelevant. The scientists need replicable results to show that an innovation will work in different places. But the farmers are less concerned if their results are replicable over a large area; they only want to know if an innovation is helpful in their own fields.

That’s what I thought, anyway, but this past week in La Paz, Bolivia I saw how farmers who work together may become more concerned about doing experiments with replicable results. I was with Prosuco, a small NGO that promotes farmer research. Agronomist Sonia Laura, their research coordinator, introduced me to eight farmer-experimenters from all over the northern Bolivian Altiplano. They had travelled for three or four hours from different points across this cold, arid landscape to meet us in El Alto, the sprawling new city growing on the high plains just above La Paz.

These farmer experimenters call themselves “yapuchiris”, an Aymara word that means master farmer. A network of 70 yapuchiris meets irregularly, exchanging information, conducting experiments and teaching their neighbors new ideas (such as making organic fertilizers, natural pesticides and soil conservation).

The day we met in El Alto we discussed future experiments the yapuchiris could do. The president of the group, Miguel Ortega, suggested working on earthworms. He had raised earthworms and used their humus for years to fertilize his greenhouse vegetables. The other yapuchiris were mildly interested, especially because some of them already raised earthworms. They talked about carrying out an experiment on earthworm humus, but were a little vague on what this would be.

Then Sonia played an Aymara-language version of a video on earthworms, filmed in Bangladesh. A year earlier, Sonia had given the yapuchiris a DVD with this and six other videos in Aymara, Spanish, and Quechua. Some yapuchiris had watched the videos and some had not. At home, don Miguel had watched the one on earthworms four times.

After watching the video together the group came alive, defining more clearly what they would do in their earthworm experiment. With don Miguel taking the lead, they first agreed to standardize the types and amounts of food they would give their earthworms, so that the results would be replicable. In the video, Bangladeshi women had measured their materials in small baskets. On the Altiplano, most people have a 12-liter bucket, which Miguel suggested that they use instead of the basket.

Miguel said that the objective of the experiment was to get humus in one month. In his own, previous experience, it could take four months to get humus, and he wanted to speed up the process.

The video suggested mixing cow dung with chopped up banana stems, which are unavailable on the frigid Altiplano. The group kind of got stuck there. Sometimes a little outside facilitation can be useful. I helped them make a quick list of the plant materials they did have, including potato tops—stems and leaves normally discarded after harvest—and various kinds of straw.

That was enough to set the group thinking about how to adapt Bangladeshi techniques to Bolivian conditions. Don Miguel seized the lead again and asked each member of the group if they had potato tops. Only two others did, so he then asked how many had green barley straw. They all did, so they decided that each yapuchiri would make his or her earthworm trial at home with two layers of dung and two layers of barley straw.

The video shows making a home for worms in a cement ring, with a floor of sand, broken brick and earth. Even though the yapuchiris had just seen the video, they couldn’t quite recall all of the materials, their order and thickness of each layer. So we watched parts of the video again.

Again, the yapuchiris adapted. They didn’t have broken brick, so they decided to use small stones instead, to make an earthworm habitat of sand, with a layer of rock on top, followed by earth, straw, manure, a second layer of straw and a final top layer of manure. One advantage of a video is that farmer-experimenters can review it to recall specific details.

One yapuchiri, don Constantino, offered to bring a starter supply of earthworms to their next meeting, so they could all set up their experiments.

These yapuchiris have had a lot of contact with researchers. They were essentially organizing themselves so that each one of them would conduct a replica of a standardized experiment. They all live far from each other and they understand that each yapuchiri lives in a different environment, so they decided to take that into account. They agreed to measure the pH of the water (they have pH paper to do that) and the temperature, which will help later in understanding any differences that could be due to these independent experimental variables.

The yapuchiris need replicable results if they are going to share innovations with others. By collaborating with researches, the yapuchiris are learning the advantages of the scientific method.

The Bangladeshi earthworm video was filmed at sea level, about as far away as one can get from the Bolivian Altiplano (at about 4000 meters). Yet these yapuchiris found inspiration in what they saw and they said that the worm techniques in the video were simpler and more practical than others that they had been taught. This is a direct benefit of sharing knowledge and experience from farmer-to-farmer. Farmers who use an innovation for a few years will simplify it, validate it, and make it practical for other farmers to try, even if those farmers live on other continents.

Further viewing

You can watch the earthworm video in Aymara, English and several other languages at www.accessagriculture.org.


Our work in Bolivia is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program). Thanks to Sonia Laura, of Prosuco, for sharing various insights with me.


Por Jeff Bentley, 13 de mayo del 2018

Por años he pensado que los experimentos de los agricultores eran fundamentalmente diferentes de los ensayos científicos. Los campesinos viven de su cosecha y al probar una innovación por un tiempo pueden decidir cualitativamente si sirve o no. Para los científicos es al revés; los datos son el material precioso que necesitan para escribir sus publicaciones, mientras que el cultivo cosechado es irrelevante. Los científicos necesitan resultados replicables para mostrar que una innovación funcionará en diferentes lugares. Pero a los campesinos les importa menos si sus resultados son replicables en un área grande; solo quieren saber si una innovación es útil en sus propias parcelas.

Por lo menos así pensaba yo, pero esta semana pasada en La Paz, Bolivia, vi cómo los agricultores que trabajan juntos pueden interesarse más por hacer experimentos con resultados replicables. Estuve con Prosuco, una pequeña ONG que promueve la investigación de agricultores. La Ing. Sonia Laura, su coordinadora de investigación, me presentó a ocho agricultores experimentadores de todo el Altiplano boliviano. Habían viajado durante tres o cuatro horas desde distintos puntos a través de este frío y árido paisaje para encontrarse con nosotros en El Alto, la nueva ciudad dinámica que crece en las llanuras arriba de La Paz.

Estos agricultores experimentadores se llaman “yapuchiris”, una palabra aymara que significa agricultor experto. Una red de 70 yapuchiris se reúne irregularmente, intercambiando información, realizando experimentos y enseñando a sus vecinos nuevas ideas (como hacer fertilizantes orgánicos, plaguicidas naturales y la conservación del suelo).

El día que nos encontramos en El Alto discutimos algunos experimentos futuros que los yapuchiris podrían hacer. El presidente del grupo, Miguel Ortega, sugirió trabajar con las lombrices de tierra. Él había criado lombrices de tierra, usando su humus durante años para fertilizar sus hortalizas de carpa solar (invernadero). Los otros yapuchiris estaban algo interesados, especialmente porque algunos de ellos ya habían criado lombrices. Hablaron de llevar a cabo un experimento sobre eñ lombrihumus, sin especificar mucho cómo hacerlo.

Luego Sonia tocó una versión en idioma aymara de un video sobre lombrices de tierra, filmado en Bangladesh. El año anterior, Sonia les había dado a los yapuchiris un DVD con este y otros seis videos en aymara, español y quechua. Algunos yapuchiris habían visto los videos y otros no. En casa, don Miguel había visto el de las lombrices cuatro veces.

Después de ver el video juntos, el grupo cobró vida, definiendo más claramente lo que harían en su experimento con las lombrices. Con don Miguel tomando la iniciativa, primero acordaron estandarizar los tipos y cantidades de alimentos que darían a sus lombrices, para que los resultados fueran replicables. En el video, las mujeres bangladesíes habían medido sus materiales en pequeñas canastas. En el Altiplano, la gente tiene un balde de 12 litros, que Miguel sugirió usar en lugar de la canasta.

Don Miguel dijo que el objetivo del experimento era obtener humus en un mes. En su propia experiencia previa, podría tomar cuatro meses obtener humus, y quería acelerar el proceso.

El video sugirió mezclar bosta (estiércol) de vaca con tallos de banana picados, que no están disponibles en el frígido Altiplano. El grupo se estancó allí. A veces, un poquito de facilitación externa puede ser útil. Los ayudé a hacer una lista rápida de los materiales vegetales que tenían, incluidas las hojas y tallos de las papas, y varios tipos de paja.

Eso fue suficiente para que el grupo pensara en cómo adaptar las técnicas de Bangladesh a las condiciones bolivianas. Don Miguel volvió a tomar la iniciativa y preguntó a cada miembro del grupo si tenían hojas de papa. Solo otros dos las tenían, entonces él preguntó cuántos tenían paja verde de cebada. Todos la tenían, por lo que decidieron que cada yapuchiri haría su prueba de lombriz en casa con dos capas de estiércol y dos capas de paja de cebada.

El video muestra cómo hacer un hogar para las lombrices en una argolla de cemento, con un piso de arena, ladrillo quebrado y tierra. Aunque los yapuchiris acababan de ver el video, no podían recordar todos los materiales, el orden y el grosor de cada capa. Así que vimos partes del video nuevamente.

De nuevo, los yapuchiris se adaptaron. No tenían ladrillos quebrados, entonces decidieron usar piedras pequeñas para crear un hábitat de arena, con una capa de piedritas, seguida de tierra, paja, estiércol, una segunda capa de paja y una capa superior de estiércol. Una ventaja de un video es que los agricultores-experimentadores pueden revisarlo para acordarse de detalles específicos.

Uno de los yapuchiris, don Constantino, se ofreció a traer algunas lombrices para la próxima reunión, para que todos pudieran empezar sus experimentos.

Estos yapuchiris han tenido mucho contacto con los investigadores. Se organizaban esencialmente para que cada uno de ellos llevara a cabo una réplica de un experimento estandarizado. Todos viven lejos el uno del otro y entienden que cada yapuchiri vive en un ambiente diferente, por lo que decidieron tomar eso en cuenta. Acordaron medir el pH del agua (tienen papel de pH para hacer eso) y la temperatura, lo que ayudará luego a comprender las diferencias que son como variables experimentales independientes.

Los yapuchiris necesitan resultados replicables si van a compartir innovaciones con otros. Al colaborar con las investigaciones, los yapuchiris están aprendiendo las ventajas del método científico.

El video de la lombriz de tierra de Bangladesh fue filmado a nivel del mar, lo más lejos que se puede llegar desde el Altiplano boliviano (a unos 4000 metros sobre el nivel de mar). Sin embargo, estos yapuchiris encontraron inspiración en lo que vieron y dijeron que las técnicas de lombricultura en el video eran más simples y más prácticas que otras que les habían enseñado. Este es un beneficio directo de compartir conocimiento y experiencia de agricultor a agricultor. Los campesinos que usan una innovación durante algunos años lo simplifican, lo validan y lo vuelven práctico para que otros agricultores lo prueben, incluso si esos agricultores viven en otros continentes.

Para ver más

Se puede ver los videos sobre la lombriz de tierra en aymara, español y varios otros idiomas en www.accessagriculture.org.


Nuestro trabajo en Bolivia es auspiciado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo para la Investigación de los Cultivos) de la Fundación McKnight. Gracias a Sonia Laura por compartir varias percepciones conmigo.

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