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Harsh and healthy December 23rd, 2018 by

Hours away from any city and a half hour drive from the pavement, we meet don Miguel Ortega, a warm, welcoming man in his late 40s, along with his wife, Sabina Mamani, and three of their five children on their farm in Viloco village.  In this remote area on the northern Altiplano of Bolivia, I wonder how he manages to feed his family. But first impressions can be deceiving; later in the day we meet his daughter who studies at the university and I realize that this is a prosperous family that is investing in education and healthy food.

The landscape is quite unlike the Southern Altiplano, where the sandy soils and the mere 150 mm of rainfall per year allow farmers to only grow quinoa and rear llamas and sheep. Here, further north, there are more options; soils are more fertile and with 500 mm of rainfall farmers grow quinoa, potatoes, broad beans, barley and alfalfa as fodder. Dairy cows are as prevalent as llamas.

Don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, experienced farmers on the Altiplano who share their skills with their peers. He is hired by several NGOs to train groups of farmers on organic agriculture, including how to make organic inputs, such as biol (fermented liquid manure), and how to fill out the Pachagrama, a locally invented method to record natural weather indicators and cropping calendar so farmers can make better decisions.

Don Miguel’s home, a cluster of adobe buildings, houses animals and vegetables that produce a tasty and healthy diet. The farm also has three neo-Andean greenhouses, made with adobe walls and topped with yellow agro-film, a tough plastic that withstands the sun. But one greenhouse is not used to grow vegetables. It turns out to be a home-made biogas installation. The greenhouse structure ensures that the manure and organic waste keeps fermenting during the cold winter months. The unit provides the family year-round gas to cook for 2 hours per day. Being off the grid, a solar panel supplies the household the minimum amount of electricity.

Mid-morning, one of the young girls brings us a mandarin. We accept the fruit with a sense of wonder. At nearly 4000 meters altitude there are hardly any trees, certainly none that require mild Mediterranean temperatures. When don Miguel invites us in one of his greenhouses, we see a single mandarin tree with a few fruits.

In the greenhouse he opens a black plastic sheet laying on the soil. Hundreds of earthworms seek shelter from the light, crawling deeper into the decomposing manure. He tells us that he watched a video a while ago from Bangladesh where farmers were also rearing earthworms. The video had been translated into Aymara and Spanish. While don Miguel had been rearing earthworms before he saw the video, he was pleasantly surprised to see farmers growing earthworms on the other side of the world, and he realized that in the future he could perhaps make enough vermicompost to have some to sell. Training videos from other countries not only give farmers new ideas, they also give them confidence about their own innovations and practices.

The family treated their visitors to a delicious, traditional Andean meal with mutton, potatoes and chuño (potatoes that are freeze-dried outside during the winter nights). Unusual for household on the Altiplano, they also serve organic, leafy vegetables, fresh from the greenhouse. All comes with a delicious, yellow sauce, which later on, we are told is prepared by their teenage son who aspires to become a chef one day.

It is often stated that people in remote areas only grow organic crops by default, because they cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Don Miguel and the many Yapuchiris we have met during this trip confirm that such statements are an insult to the many farmers who decide to live in harmony with nature, with care for their environment, their health and their families. Enabling farmers in remote areas to learn from their peers within and beyond their own country deserves the necessary attention.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform. Shortly the following ones will be added:

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

Related blogs

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information.

Awakening the seeds December 16th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

In much of the Bolivian Altiplano, the native vegetation has been largely stripped away. A few people are doing something to replant the vegetation, but it is surprisingly difficult to germinate the seeds of native plants.

These Andean high plains were once covered by scrub land, comprising low-lying bushes, needle grasses and other hardy plants well adapted to the harsh conditions. Llamas foraged on this waist-high forest without damaging it. But as more land was plowed up for quinoa, and more of the bushes were cut for firewood, the native vegetation started to vanish.

Rural families in this part of Bolivia used to make long, narrow stacks of dried brush. But the bushes are now mostly gone, and so are the stacks of firewood.

Fortunately, explains plant researcher, Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, people are now cooking with bottled natural gas, so they don’t need to uproot brush for firewood, but this respite has come too late. In many places, the deforestation has been so complete that there are no seed-bearing plants left to provide for natural regeneration. So, Dr. Bonifacio and his team travel around the Altiplano, collecting seed of different shrubs, planting the seed in nurseries and then taking the seedlings to sympathetic farmers who are interested in restoring the dry plains.

Seeds of wild plants will seldom germinate if simply scattered on the ground. The plants are adapted to harsh environments, and the seed enters dormancy, only to be awakened by the kiss of some specific environmental signal.

Bonifacio and his students study each plant to determine what will break its dormancy.  For example, the k’awchi, a small woody plant, is so adapted to this land of high winds and rocky soil that its tiny seed must be tumbled over the rough ground and “scarified” before it will germinate. Bonifacio and his team have also learned that it can be scarified by rubbing it in sand or by putting it in a weak solution of sodium hypoclorite for 20 minutes.

On the arid Altiplano, much of the native vegetation is cactus, some of it bearing delicious fruit. In a boutique restaurant in the big city of La Paz, Bonifacio was shocked to that the chef was asking for a supply of one native cactus, called achakana. Yes, achakana is edible, but it takes many years to grow to the size of a tennis ball. The Aymara people used to eat the cactus as famine food when the crops failed, but achakana could be driven to extinction if it starts to be served up in the fashionable eateries of La Paz. So, Bonifacio taught himself how to propagate it.

It was tricky. At first, the seed failed to germinate. Bonifacio learnt that as the fruit matures the seed goes into a deep dormancy. Then one day by serendipity Bonifacio discovered a little bag of fruit had had been harvested green and then forgotten. When he opened the rotting fruit, he found that all of the seeds were germinating. He proudly showed me a small, three-year old plant that he had grown from seed.

The pasak’ana is another endangered cactus that grows so tall that the Andean people once used its ribs to roof their houses. The fruit is also delicious, yet getting the seed to germinate was impossible. Then Bonifacio found that the pasak’ana seed would germinate if it was taken from immature fruit. With the help of a student he now has 1200 little pasak’ana plants, all in demand from a municipal government in Oruro which wants to plant them out.

More people than ever want to grow native plants for fruit, fodder and soil conservation, but each species has its own unique requirements for coming to life. Fortunately, there are patient researchers working to unlock these mysteries and come up with practical recommendations that can help restore degraded lands.

Scientific names

The k’awchi is Suaeda foliosa, belonging to the unfortunately named “seepweed” genus.

The achakana is Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

The pasak’ana is Trichocereus pasacana (Echinopsis atacamensis subs. pasacana)

DESPERTANDO LAS SEMILLAS

Por Jeff Bentley, 16 de diciembre del 2018

En gran parte del Altiplano Boliviano, la vegetación nativa ha sido arrancada. Hay personas que se dedican a replantar la vegetación, pero es sorprendentemente difícil germinar las semillas de plantas nativas.

Estos altiplanos andinos estaban cubiertos de t’olares (matorrales), que incluían arbustos bajos, paja brava y otras plantas fuertes y bien adaptadas a las duras condiciones. Las llamas se forrajeaban en este bosque enano sin dañarlo. Pero a medida que más tierra fue arada para la quinua, y más arbustos fueron cortados para leña, la vegetación nativa comenzó a desaparecer.

Las familias rurales de esta parte de Bolivia solían amontonar las t’olas, o arbustos, en forma de cercos largos y delgados, para leña.  Pero la mayoría de los arbustos han desaparecido, así como los montones de leña.

Afortunadamente, explica el investigador de plantas, el Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, la gente ahora cocina con gas natural en garrafa, así que no necesitan arrancar las t’olas para leña, pero este respiro ha llegado muy tarde. En muchos lugares, la deforestación ha sido tan completa que ya no quedan plantas madres para la regeneración natural. Así, el Dr. Bonifacio y su equipo viajan por el Altiplano, recolectando semillas de diferentes arbustos, sembrando las semillas en viveros y luego llevando los plantines a agricultores que simpatizan con la revegetación de las pampas secas.

Las semillas de las plantas silvestres rara vez germinan si simplemente se echan al suelo. Las plantas se adaptan a ambientes hostiles, y la semilla entra en dormancia, sólo para ser despertada por el beso de alguna señal ambiental específica.

Bonifacio y sus alumnos estudian cada planta para determinar qué romperá su dormancia.  Por ejemplo, el k’awchi, una pequeña planta leñosa, está tan adaptado a esta tierra de vientos fuertes y suelo pedregosa que su pequeña semilla tiene que caer sobre el suelo áspero y “escarificarse” para poder germinar. Bonifacio y su equipo también han aprendido que una alternativa frotarlo en arena o dejar la semilla por 20 minutos en una solución débil de hipoclorito de sodio.

En el árido Altiplano, gran parte de la vegetación nativa es de cactus, algunos de los cuales producen ricos frutos. En un restaurante boutique en la gran ciudad de La Paz, Bonifacio se sorprendió al ver un cactus nativo, llamado achakana, solicitado para el menú. La achakana sí es comestible, pero tarda muchos años para alcanzar el tamaño de una pelota de tenis. Los aymaras solían comer el cactus como alimento en tiempos de hambre cuando las cosechas fallaban, pero la achakana podría llegar a la extinción si empiezan a ser servirla en los restaurantes de moda de La Paz. Así que Bonifacio se enseñó a sí mismo a propagarlo.

Fue difícil. Al principio, la semilla no pudo germinar. Bonifacio aprendió que a medida que el fruto madura, la semilla entra en una profunda dormancia. Un día, por casualidad, Bonifacio descubrió que una bolsita de fruta había sido cosechada verde y luego olvidada. Cuando abrió el fruto podrido, descubrió que todas las semillas estaban germinándose. Con orgullo me mostró una pequeña planta de tres años que él había cultivado a partir de una semilla.

El pasak’ana es otro cactus en peligro de extinción que crece tan alto que los andinos usaban sus palos para techar sus casas. La fruta también es deliciosa, sin embargo, hacer que la semilla germine era imposible. Entonces Bonifacio descubrió que la semilla de pasak’ana germinaría si se tomaba de un fruto inmaduro. Con la ayuda de un estudiante, ahora tiene 1200 pequeñas plantas de pasak’ana, todas solicitadas por un gobierno municipal de Oruro que quiere plantarlas.

Hoy en día mucha gente quiere cultivar plantas nativas para la conservación de la fruta, el forraje y el suelo, pero cada especie tiene sus propias necesidades únicas para volver a la vida. Afortunadamente, hay pacientes investigadores que trabajan para desvelar estos misterios y presentar recomendaciones prácticas que pueden ayudar a restaurar las tierras degradadas.

Nombres científicos

El k’awchi is Suaeda foliosa.

La achakana es Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

La pasak’ana es Trichocereus pasacana (Echinopsis atacamensis subs. pasacana)

Feeding the cities December 2nd, 2018 by

Last week, Jeff, Marcella and I explored the Teleférico in La Paz, an innovative public transport system that works like a metro with stops for people to get in and out. Using Swiss and Austrian technology developed to transport alpine skiers, the cable cars are the perfect solution to move people around in the Bolivian capital that has sprawled along the steep slopes of the canyon where the city is built, and onto the Altiplano at altitudes ranging from about 3400 meters to above 4000.

La Paz sits in a deep canyon, while its twin city, called El Alto, sprawls over the plains above La Paz. The two cities, side by side, make up the highest major metropolis in the world. One of the Teleférico lines takes us from La Paz to El Alto. I was amazed at the sheer number of people that have been attracted to the cities, perhaps two million, while El Alto was just farm land until the 1940s and may now be home to half of the population of the Altiplano.

Looking down from our cable car onto the rooftops and small courtyards, it seems that nobody is actually growing anything in El Alto. Only once we hear a cock crow. Supplying these fast growing cities with healthy food that is localy produced will be a challenge for the years to come.

Urban gardening is gaining popularity across the globe and smart innovations like the use of sack mounds to grow vegetables in people’s courtyards offer a great opportunity to make the most of limited space and limited fertile soil and organic material.

The recently released farmer training video produced in Kampala, Uganda, on growing vegetables in sack mounds is a practical example of how farmers and urban gardeners can grow tomatoes and greens in a sack, in a very small space. As countries like Bolivia and Uganda urbanize rapidly, they can learn from each other’s experience.

Through its specialised video platform and translation services, Access Agriculture strives to make this happen. As the Teleférrico moves people across places, so does Access Agriculture move farmer training videos across the globe.

Eating and talking about it November 25th, 2018 by

Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist, explains in a recent book about food that people perceive just a handful of basic tastes with our tongues: bitter, sweet, salt and sour. But our nose can sense many thousands of distinct scents. When we exhale, our nose smells the food in our mouths. Taste in the mouth and aroma in the nose combine to form the endless variety of flavor.

Other creatures cannot savor their food this way, because only humans have a glottis (vocal chords), covered by a flap that opens and closes to let air pass between our throats and our windpipe. This allows only humans to breathe in and out of our mouths, which is why we can speak (and unfortunately, why we can choke to death as well).

In all fairness, animals seem to enjoy their food, too. A dog will beg for a pancake and chickens get excited when they find a fat grub in the moist earth, but people go much further. As Richard Wrangham explains, humans have been adapting to cooked food at least since Homo erectus times. Cooking allowed us to evolve smaller guts and larger brains, which made speech possible.

And of course, one of the favorite topics of conversation is food. Whether it is fish curry in Bangladesh, millet and groundnut sauce in Uganda or chicken and tortillas in Guatemala, humans will sit down together to eat and talk, and sometimes to laugh.

Animals communicate, but only humans speak, compulsively spinning little stories for each other. Certainly discussing food is at the heart of the human experience. Whether eating, cooking or producing food, there is always something to say about it.

Further reading

Herz, Rachel 2018 Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science behind Our Relationship with Food. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 352 pp.

Wrangham, Richard 2009 Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. London: Profile Books. 309 pp.

Cultivating pride in the Andes November 4th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

“When we first started working with these innovative farmers, they were embarrassed to list ‘farmer’ as their occupation on their national ID card.” María Quispe, head of a Bolivian NGO called Prosuco, reminded a large crowd of villagers and visitors in the village of Cutusuma, La Paz.

Last week yapuchiris from many communities along with the famers in Cutusuma were celebrating the launch of a new book about themselves, published by Prosuco, with Swiss support.

Swiss diplomats, local people and government officials took turns at the microphone to express their pride in the changes over the years. A national TV station, Channel 7, was recording the event while a professional broadcaster from Radio San Gabriel in El Alto moderated the event in Aymara, a native language of the High Andes.

Food was served as an aphtapi, an old buffet style that is making a comeback in Bolivia. Boiled native potatoes, chuño, broad beans and oca are wrapped in wool blankets, then spread out on the earth or on a table. Diners serve themselves. Most put the food in little plastic bags saved from their last trip to the shop. It’s an Andean lunch with attitude, and it saves on plastic plates.

There was also dancing to Andean flute music; the local High School marching band belted out the national anthem with confidence and enthusiasm.

The striking feature of the book launch was that no one seemed ashamed to be a farmer anymore. It had been a long trip. The book, printed on high quality paper and illustrated with professional photography, explained that in 2004, Prosuco had set out to train innovative farmers as extension agents. One of the first steps was to give these innovative farmers a name. They settled on “yapuchiri,” an Aymara word for “farmer.” Calling the new expert farmers “yapuchiris” was a way of saying that farming was an important job. During the next 14 years, yapuchiris were trained all over the Altiplano as well as the valleys of Chuquisaca. Seventy of them were certified as “Yapuchiri Community Facilitators” by the Vice-Ministry of Alternative Education (such an original and creative name for a branch of government).

The book explains how the yapuchiris and Prosuco tried new ideas on farms, adapting several organic fertilizers, such as bokashi and biol, to local conditions, along with mineral mixes and natural repellents. Non-chemical controls of Andean potato weevil were also adapted to local conditions.

The book has numerical data to show that the yapuchiris’ yields are higher than those of other farmers and higher than those achieved by farmers who received conventional agricultural training. This is important, as organic agriculture is often dismissed (famously by The Economist in 2016) as low yielding and incapable of feeding the World’s growing population.

Over the years, the yapuchiris developed the Pachagrama, a large chart for listing the yapuchiris’ weather forecast, while planning and documenting the year’s weather as it unfolds, day by day. We have discussed the Pachagrama in earlier blogs To see the future, and  Predicting the weather. The yapuchiris started the Pachagrama as a table with some drawings, then refined it over the years.

At first, some of the yapuchiris’ neighbors scoffed at the idea of farmers as extensionists, saying that they wanted a real agronomist to train them. But eventually the yapuchiris convinced the others and were able to work with up to 50% of the farmers in their own villages. As Mark Twain put it, “an expert is someone with a brief case who is 50 miles from home.”

In fact, it can be an advantage to offer advisory services “50 miles (70 km) from home”. Projects began hiring yapuchiris to teach other communities. The yapuchiris crisscrossed the Altiplano, promoting productive, organic agriculture to appreciative audiences.

It is foolish of anyone to denigrate the people who feed us and care for the land. Building pride in a profession takes time and creating a more productive, sustainable agriculture is only part of it. Twelve years of support and training were important to develop a cadre of self-confident yapuchiris. Events with music, speeches and a splendid lunch also help to display that confidence while books in an attractive format also help to show how the work evolved over the years.

The book

Quispe, María, Eleodoro Baldiviezo and Sonia Laura 2018 Yapuchiris: Un Legado para Afrontar los Impactos del Cambio Climático. La Paz: Prosuco, Cosude & Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.

Blog stories about yapuchiris

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement  

Thanks to María Quispe, Eleodoro Baldiviezo, Sonia Laura, Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele for their comments on an earlier version.

CULTIVANDO ORGULLO EN LOS ANDES

por Jeff Bentley, 4 de noviembre del 2018

“Cuando empezamos a trabajar con estos agricultores innovadores, les daba vergüenza poner ‘agricultor’ como su oficio en su carnet.” María Quispe, directora de una ONG boliviana llamada Prosuco, recordó a una gran multitud de campesinos y visitantes en la comunidad de Cutusuma, La Paz.

La semana pasada, Yapuchiris de diferentes comunidades junto con los agricultores de Cutusuma celebraron el lanzamiento de un nuevo libro sobre sí mismos, publicado por Prosuco, con el apoyo suizo. Los diplomáticos suizos, la población local y los funcionarios del gobierno se turnaron al micrófono para expresar su orgullo por los cambios a lo largo de los años. Una televisión nacional, Canal 7, grababa el evento mientras que una locutora profesional de Radio San Gabriel de El Alto moderaba el evento en aymara, un idioma nativo de los Andes Altos.

La comida fue servida como un aphtapi, un antiguo estilo de buffet que de nuevo se está poniendo de moda en Bolivia. Las papas nativas cocidas, el chuño, las habas y la oca son colocadas en aguayos de lana y se extienden sobre la tierra o sobre una mesa. Los comensales se sirven solos. La mayoría pone la comida en pequeñas bolsas de plástico guardadas de su última visita a la tienda. Es un almuerzo andino con actitud, y ahorra en platos de plástico.

También hubo baile con música de flauta andina; la banda del colegio local entonó el himno nacional con confianza y entusiasmo.

Al presentar el libro ya era claro que a nadie le apenaba ser agricultor. Había sido un largo viaje. El libro, impreso en papel de alta calidad e ilustrado con fotografías profesionales, explica que en 2004, Prosuco se había propuesto formar a agricultores innovadores como agentes de extensión agrícola. Uno de los primeros pasos fue poner un nombre a estos agricultores innovadores Ellos mismos eligieron “yapuchiri”, que es simplemente una palabra aymara que significa “agricultor”. Llamar a los nuevos expertos agricultores “yapuchiris” era una forma de decir que la agricultura era un oficio importante. Durante los siguientes 14 años, se formaron nuevos yapuchiris desde todo el Altiplano y hasta los valles de Chuquisaca. Setenta de ellos recibieron un certificado como “Yapuchiris Facilitadores Comunitarios” del Viceministerio de Educación Alternativa (un nombre tan original y creativo por una instancia gubernamental).

El libro explica cómo los yapuchiris y Prosuco probaron nuevas ideas en finca, adaptando los fertilizantes orgánicos, como el bokashi, los bioles, a las condiciones locales, junto con caldos minerales, y repelentes naturales. Los controles no químicos del gorgojo andino de la papa también se adaptaron a las condiciones locales.

El libro tiene datos numéricos para mostrar que los rendimientos de los yapuchiris son más altos que los de otros agricultores y más altos que los logrados por los agricultores que recibieron capacitación agrícola convencional. Esto es importante, ya que la agricultura orgánica es a menudo descartada (por ejemplo en un caso famoso por The Economist en 2016) como de bajo rendimiento e incapaz de alimentar a la creciente población mundial.

A lo largo de los años, los yapuchiris desarrollaron el Pachagrama, una ficha para sistematizar el pronóstico del tiempo de los yapuchiris, mientras planifican y documentan el tiempo del año a medida que se desarrolla, día a día. Hemos discutido el Pachagrama en blogs anteriores Conocer el futuro, y Prediciendo el clima. Los yapuchiris iniciaron el Pachagrama como un cuadro con algunos dibujos, luego lo refinaron con el paso de los años.

Al principio, algunos de los vecinos de los yapuchiris se burlaron de la idea de los agricultores como extensionistas, diciendo que querían que un ingeniero agrónomo los capacitara. Pero finalmente los yapuchiris convencieron a los demás y pudieron trabajar con hasta el 50% de los agricultores de sus propias comunidades. Como dijo Mark Twain, “un experto es alguien con un maletín que está a 50 millas de casa”.

De hecho, puede ser una ventaja ofrecer servicios de asesoramiento a “50 millas (70 km) de casa”. Los proyectos comenzaron a contratar yapuchiris para enseñar a otras comunidades. Los yapuchiris cruzaron el Altiplano, promoviendo la agricultura orgánica y productiva a audiencias apreciativas.

Es una tontería denigrar a la gente que nos alimenta y cuida de la tierra. Crear orgullo en una profesión lleva tiempo y crear una agricultura más productiva y sostenible es sólo una parte de la tarea. Doce años de apoyo y capacitación fueron importantes para desarrollar un grupo de yapuchiris seguros de sí mismos. Los eventos con música, discursos y un espléndido almuerzo también ayudan a mostrar esa confianza, mientras que los libros en un formato atractivo también ayudan a mostrar cómo ha evolucionado el trabajo a lo largo de los años.

El libro

Quispe, María, Eleodoro Baldiviezo y Sonia Laura 2018 Yapuchiris: Un Legado para Afrontar los Impactos del Cambio Climático. La Paz: Prosuco, Cosude & Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.

Historias del blog sobre los yapuchiris

Inspiración Bangladesh a Bolivia

Agricultores producen contenido electrónico

Forty farmer innovations

Agradecimiento

Gracias a María Quispe, Eleodoro Baldiviezo, Sonia Laura, Eric Boa y Paul Van Mele por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior.

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