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Learn by living July 29th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Carrasco National Park is the largest national park in Cochabamba, Bolivia. At over 6,000 square kilometers it is the size of Delaware, or twice the size of Luxembourg. It spans an impressive range of topographies, from the high Andes down to the rain forest. I was in the park recently with my family to see some of the sandstone caves. Our guide was a 15-year-old schoolboy named Samuel. We met him in the office of the accredited guides, next to the park rangers’ station.

Soon after we arrived, the ranger had sent Samuel a WhatsApp message, and he came quickly to lead the tour. Fortunately he was available, since school was on a two-week break. However, we got off to an inauspicious start. Samuel started his introduction talk in a soft, rapid mumble, like a bored student chanting a dull lesson. He seemed not to know or care what he was talking about. But first impressions were misleading, as we soon found out.

Some of my more patient family members were able to draw Samuel out. By the time he had taken us across a mountain stream in a hand-powered cable car, Samuel was explaining that the balsa tree, which gives the light wood for airplanes, is actually quite heavy when it is standing timber. He then told us about palo santo, a tree guarded by ants which clear plants from around the base of the tree and keep the branches free of epiphytes. In an earlier, crueler age, people guilty of theft and even minor crimes could be tied to the tree to be tortured by the ants which inject a white poison from the needles on their abdomen.

Samuel showed a tiny species of native, stingless bee that makes its nest inside a termite nest. The bees make a honey-colored tunnel which serves as a doorway and landing pad. The tunnel is barely visible, peeking out of the large termite nest. You have to be a patient observer, like Samuel, to notice this. I was delighted to learn about the bees that move in with the termites. I have loved these little golden bees for years, but never seen them living in termite nests.

Samuel also took us to the entrance of the cave of the oil birds. Much like bats, the birds live in caverns, fly out at night and eat the fruit of palms and trees. Later, the birds regurgitate the seeds onto the cave floor. Samuel picked up six seeds from the stream flowing from the cave. He recognized all six species by their seed, which he picked out of the muck puked out by the birds.

Samuel may not have been much of a showman, but he knew his stuff. He had grown up in the area, the son of settlers from the Andes, so he had learned much about the forest by his own observations. Samuel wants to study tourism, and keep working in the park. He taught me once again the importance of being patient and willing to learn from others. Appearances can be deceiving and one wouldn’t normally expect a shy 15 year-old to be an expert naturalist. But you can always learn something if you’re willing to listen.

The palm and tree species identified by Samuel are:

Laurel (Spanish elm) Cordia aliodora. Palta laurel (unidentified). Pachubilla or caminante (walking palm) Socratea exorrhiza. Majo (açaí) Euterpe oleracea. Tembe (peach palm) Bactris gasipaes. Ramoncilla (a palm) Trichilia pallida

Other species mentioned

The oil bird is Steatornis caripensis. The stingless bee is Melipona sp.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Ana Gonzales for identifying the palm and tree species.

APRENDER VIVIENDO

Por Jeff Bentley

29 de julio del 2018

El Parque Nacional Carrasco es el parque nacional más grande de Cochabamba, Bolivia. Con más de 6.000 kilómetros cuadrados, tiene dos terceras el área de Puerto Rico. Abarca una impresionante gama de topografías, desde los altos Andes hasta el bosque lluvioso. Estuve en el parque recientemente con mi familia para ver algunas de las cuevas de piedra arenisca. Nuestro guía era un estudiante de 15 años llamado Samuel. Lo encontramos en la oficina de los guías acreditados, al lado de la estación de los guardaparques.

Poco después de llegar, el guardabosques le envió a Samuel un mensaje por WhatsApp, y él vino rápidamente para dirigir la gira. Afortunadamente estaba disponible, ya que el colegio estaba en un receso de dos semanas. Sin embargo, tuvimos un comienzo desfavorable. Samuel comenzó su charla de introducción en un murmullo suave y rápido, como un estudiante aburrido cantando una lección aburrida. Parecía no saber o interesarse de lo que estaba hablando. Pero las primeras impresiones fueron engañosas, como pronto descubrimos.

Algunos de mis familiares más pacientes pudieron ganar la confianza de Samuel. En el tiempo que tardó en llevarnos a través de un riachuelo en un teleférico manual, Samuel explicaba que el árbol de balsa, que da la madera liviana para aviones, en realidad es bastante pesada cuando está en pie. Luego nos contó sobre el palo santo, un árbol protegido por hormigas que limpian las plantas de alrededor de la base del árbol y mantienen las ramas libres de epífitas. En una edad anterior y más cruel, las personas culpables de robo e incluso delitos menores podían ser atadas al árbol para ser torturadas por las hormigas que inyectan un veneno blanco de las agujas en su abdomen.

Samuel mostró una pequeña especie de abeja nativa sin aguijón que hace su nido dentro de un nido de termitas. Las abejas forman un túnel de color miel que sirve como entrada y plataforma de aterrizaje. El túnel es apenas visible, asomándose desde el gran nido de termitas. Tienes que ser un observador paciente, como Samuel, para fijarte en esto. Yo estaba encantado de aprender sobre las abejas que viven con las termitas. Hace muchos años que amo a estas pequeñas abejas de oro, pero nunca las he visto viviendo en nidos de termitas.

Samuel también nos llevó a la entrada de la cueva de los guácharos. Son pájaros que, igual que los murciélagos, viven en cavernas, vuelan de noche y comen fruta de palmeras y árboles. Más tarde, las aves regurgitan las semillas en el suelo de la cueva. Samuel recogió seis semillas de la quebrada que fluía de la cueva. Reconoció las seis especies por sus semillas, vomitadas por los pájaros, que recogió del lodo.

Samuel no era muy teatrero, pero sabía lo que hacía. Él había crecido en la zona, hijo de colonos de los Andes, por lo que había aprendido mucho sobre el bosque por sus propias observaciones. Samuel quiere estudiar turismo y seguir trabajando en el parque. Él me enseñó una vez más la importancia de ser paciente y estar dispuesto a aprender de los demás. Las apariencias engañan y uno normalmente no esperaría que un quinceañero tímido fuera un experto naturalista. Pero siempre puedes aprender algo si estás dispuesto a escuchar.

Las palmeras y árboles identificadas por Samuel son:

Laurel Cordia aliodora. Palta laurel (no identificada). Pachubilla o caminante Socratea exorrhiza. Majo Euterpe oleracea. Tembe Bactris gasipaes. Ramoncilla Trichilia pallida.

Otras especies mencionadas 

El guácharo es Steatornis caripensis. La abejita es Melipona sp.

Agradecimiento

Gracias a Ana Gonzales por identificar las especies de palmeras y árboles.

 

A burning hunger June 24th, 2018 by

Towards the end of the dry season many families across the African savannas have exhausted their reserves of stored cereal crops. Vegetables are hard to come by in local markets. Bush meat is one way for rural people to supplement their meagre diet with protein during the well-named lean or hunger season. This is why development organisations have struggled for decades to curb the destructive practice of setting the bush on fire to hunt small wildlife.

One option to ensure some food and income during the lean season is to grow cashew and mango trees. But with increased labour costs and insecure markets, it is difficult for farmers to properly maintain their planted trees. Slashing the weedy and bushy undergrowth is often only done late during the flowering and fruiting season, by which time bush fires set by others may have spread into and destroyed entire plantations in no time.

Increasingly, development organisations are starting to realise that integrated farming systems and local value addition to food are the way forward. In a recently published video on the Access Agriculture video platform, the Beninese NGO DEDRAS neatly shows how growing groundnuts and soya beans in cashew plantations helps farmers produce a nutritious crop during the lean season, and thus discourage damaging bush fires. DEDRAS also made a training video with rural women on how to make cheese from soya, a good example of adding value.

In addition to tree crops, such as mango and cashew, farmer also manage other local species, such as nĂ©re (Parkia biglobosa) and the karitĂ© or shea nut tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). These wild indigenous trees, distincive features of the savanna, also provide fruits and nuts during the lean season. NerĂ© and the shea nut tree have grown here for thousands of years and are relatively fire-resistant. Traditionally, nĂ©rĂ© seeds are dried, cooked and fermented to make “soumbala”, a local equivalent to bouillon cubes that brings taste to many dishes. But with an increased need for fuel wood, more nĂ©rĂ© are being cut down. While the fuel wood crisis has not received the attention it deserves, nutritionists have taken notice and have come up with a way to use fermented soya beans as a replacement for the local soumbala. This practice has been captured by the NGO AMEDD in Mali in a nice farmer training video, also hosted on the Access Agriculture video platform.

In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about his experience with grasscutters in West Africa. Declining populations in the wild, along with the strong and continuing demand for meat, have inspired rural entrepreneurs to develop alternative sources. Across Africa one can witness how mainly women and youth have set up grasscutter, poultry, rabbit and other small livestock businesses.

The many training videos on small livestock, intercropping with legumes, and rural food processing offer viable alternatives to the hunting for bush meat. These enterprises may eventually prove more effective in reducing bush fires than lecturing rural people about their adverse environmental impacts. Positive solutions are always better at promoting behaviour change.

Related blog

Coming in from the wild

Waiting for rats

Related farmer training videos

Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Preparing cashew apple juice

Making a condiment from soya beans

Making soya cheese

Parkland agroforestry

Harvesting and storing shea nuts

Making better shea butter

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Feeding grasscutters

From Uniformity to Diversity March 18th, 2018 by

Industrial agriculture has so damaged our farmland that the survival of future generations is at risk, reveals Professor Emile Frison in his report “From Uniformity to Diversity”, but there is a way forward.

Frison’s conclusions are staggering. The indiscriminate use of synthetic fertilisers has destroyed the soil biota and its nutrient-recycling potential. The combination of monocultures with highly mechanized farming and fertiliser abuse has caused historical land degradation on over 20% of the Earth’s agricultural land.

High yielding varieties and abundant chemical inputs increased global crop yields in the early decades of the “green revolution”, but by now the sobering figures indicate that productivity in 24% to 39% of the areas growing maize, rice, wheat and soya bean has stagnated or collapsed.

The productivity of industrial agriculture has systematically degraded the environment on which it relies. The use of pesticides in agriculture has caused a global decline in insect pollinators, threatening the very basis of agriculture. Some 35% of global cultivated crops depend on pollination by insects.

Pests, diseases and weeds are adapting to chemical pest management faster than ever. Genetically modified soya bean and maize that are herbicide-tolerant have led to an indiscriminate use of glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup and 2,4D. Some 210 species of weeds have now evolved resistance to herbicides. Clearly, this flawed, industrial model has mainly benefitted corporate interests and the wealthiest farmers.

Of equally great concern to our future generations, industrial agriculture significantly reduces the agrobiodiversity of livestock and crops. Underutilized or minor crops such as indigenous leafy vegetables, small-grained African cereals, legumes, wild fruits and tree crops are disappearing in the face of competition with a limited number of industrially produced varieties of rice, maize and wheat.

Greenhouse gases, water pollution, over-exploited aquifers, soil erosion, loss of agrobiodiversity and epidemics such as the Avian influenza and the foot-and-mouth disease are all signs that we need to urgently re-think the way we produce, source and consume food.

A study covering 55 crops grown on five continents over 40 years found that organic agriculture was significantly more profitable (22–35%) than conventional agriculture.

In developed countries, yields of organic agriculture were 8% lower than conventional agriculture, but they were 80% higher in developing countries where the negative impacts of industrial agriculture on food and nutrition security are felt much stronger.

So, diversified systems have shown the capacity to raise productivity in places where additional food is desperately needed.

Yet corporate lobby groups, some donors and development agencies continue to push governments towards unsustainable production models. In many developing countries, the general switch towards specialized, export-oriented systems has eroded the diverse farming economy, causing a gradual loss of local food distribution systems.

With rapid shifts in global and regional competitiveness this has destabilised national food supply, not only jeopardising the very livelihoods on which rural people depend, but also putting the economic and political stability of developing countries at risk.

Ethical labels, such as Fairtrade, ensure that farmers in developing countries get more money for their produce, while at the same time ensuring social and environmental services are ploughed back into the rural communities, as explained by Nicolas Lambert, CEO of Fairtrade Belgium.

Emile Frison, and other outstanding scientists like Professor Olivier De Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, have joined forces in the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. There is indeed an urgent need to alert policy makers to the high risks related to short-term thinking and concentration of power in the hands of fewer, large-scale retailers and corporate agri-businesses.

It is re-assuring that eminent people have joined forces to protect global biodiversity and farmers’ rights to seed as key requirements for food systems that respect the farmers and their environment. The opponents are powerful, and motivated by greed, so the struggle is bound to be a long one.

Further reading

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems. www.ipes-food.org

Related videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

Succeed with seeds

Around 100 farmer training videos on organic agriculture can be found on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform:  Organic agriculture

Photo Credit: Soya beans are harvested in Brazil. Paulo Fridman/Corbis

To fence or not to fence February 25th, 2018 by

Fences reveal a lot about rural communities. They show  how farmers make good use of available materials, but they can also uncover social tensions. Reading fences and understanding what they do and represent tells you a lot about how people work and live.

In the country-side of Kenya, farmers have a long tradition of fencing their farm with wooden poles. While this practice stems from a time where trees were abundant, competition with fuel wood is gradually changing this practice towards more inclusion of living plants.

In some parts of East Africa, fences contain the so-called pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), grown in Europe as an ornamental. The aim is to discourage potential intruders, particularly those trying to steal livestock.  The fragile branches of pencil plants break easily, releasing a white sap that can blind people when the juice gets into their eyes.

In Egypt, farmers protect their maize from grazing animals by surrounding the field with a row of nightshade (from the same plant genus as potato and tomato). As with Euphorbia, the nightshade’s leaves contain a toxic juice. Farmers can restrain their own animals from grazing afar, but can’t be sure their neighbours do the same. And once cattle get into your maize field, the damage can be huge. A small investment in fences prevents disputes with your neighbours about who pays for the losses.

But fences often do more than keep animals out. Stone walls in Guatemala often contain sisal plants. Without reducing the land available for grazing animals, the space taken up by the fence is used to grow this valuable plant that provides farmers with fibre to make ropes. By diversifying crop, livestock and plant species on farm, farmers ensure a steady supply of what they need to live from their land.

At the highlands of southwest Uganda, a local farmer, James Kabareebe, showed us how he plants Calliandra around his fields, an agroforestry practice widely promoted by projects in the 1990s. Prunings of this leguminous tree are used as mulch to enrich his soil with nitrogen. And above all, it provides the necessary organic matter to soils on sloping land that are highly vulnerable to erosion caused by tropical downpours.

At times, living fences also point to a level of social injustice. Customary land rights benefit male community members, while women are often left to struggle to grow food on smaller plots or on less fertile soils.

In parts of Mali, women have negotiated with their men to grow a high value crop along the border of the field. The juicy, red flower heads of the roselle or bissap plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), which is native to West Africa, provide a good source of additional revenue for rural women.

Fences across the world give us insights into how people manage their land. They are like a signature, revealing a little about how people relate to the land, and to each other.

 

Further reading

Tripp, A.M. 2004. Women’s Movements, Customary Law, and Land Rights in Africa: the case of Uganda. African Studies Quarterly. http://www.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v7/v7i4a1.htm

Related blogs

Mending fences, making friends

Seed fairs February 18th, 2018 by

Seed fairs are gaining in popularity around the world, and are a great way to encourage farmers and gardeners to conserve global biodiversity. But the fairs can do more than just provide an opportunity for people to exchange and sell seed, as I recently learned during a visit to Guatemala to make a farmer training video on farmers’ rights to seed, with a particular focus    on women in biodiversity management. In Guatemala, donor agencies and organisations have supported community biodiversity conservation initiatives for over a decade.

Our local partner, ASOCOCH, is an umbrella organisation of 20 cooperatives and farmer associations, representing some 9,000 farm families in the western highlands of Huehuetenango. On Sunday, one day before the actual seed fair starts, we visit the venue. The seed fair has become a large annual event, unlike in Malawi, where seed fairs are less regular. The fair attracts hundreds of people from across the highlands, some travelling long distances. One elderly woman told me she rode a bus for five hours to get there.

The seed fair is a lively, social event, with a Ferris wheel, stalls with amusement games and one with wooden, artistically carved horses with leather saddles on which people can sit and have their photo taken against a painted background of lush vegetation, complete with mountains and waterfalls. Visitors can buy sweets and nuts. A young boy gently pushes his wheelbarrow full of mandarins for sale through the crowds, while indigenous women sell traditional delicacies. Families with grandparents and kids relish the event as the region does not have such a large fair very often.

But there is more to the fair than having fun and eating. The seed fair is held on school grounds and I soon see farmers in intricately woven, traditional clothes lining up to register for classes. There are four large rooms where farmers can learn about potato, agrobiodiversity, climate change and women’s rights. My wife Marcella and I first attend the talks in the agrobiodiversity room, where Juanita Chaves from GFAR explains about farmers’ rights to seed. To my surprise this is followed by two presentations on aflatoxins in maize by staff from a local NGO. The presenters graphically explain the relation between mouldy maize cobs and the disfigurement of children and internal organs. As most farmers conserve their own maize seed they need to be aware of the risks of fungal infections. I am still a little puzzled as to how this relates to the seed fair and agrobiodiversity conservation, but after lunch all becomes clear.

We accompany the farmers who attended the aflatoxin sessions to the Clementoro Community Seed Bank, less than 10 kilometers away. The farmers see seeds stored in plastic jars, clearly labelled and neatly stacked on the shelves. In the middle of the room, a young agricultural graduate working at the seed bank shows farmers how they can detect if their seed is contaminated with aflatoxins by using a simple methanol test. “When you store your maize crop and seed, you need to be sure it has less than 13% moisture so that moulds will not develop,” the enthusiastic young woman explains. “Here at the seed bank, you can have your seed tested and conserved in optimal conditions,” she continues.

Seed is one of farmers’ most precious resources, and storing it at a community seed bank requires lots of trust. They need to know that their seed will be safely stored until they need it, either for the next growing season or even a few years later whenever the need arises. By organising seed fairs, seminars and visits to community seed banks, ASOCUCH is building trust through sharing knowledge and explaining clearly what they do.

The next day, we film the actual seed fair itself. There is an overwhelming abundance of crop varieties, fruits, medicinal and even some ornamental plants. Farmers and their families are clearly excited as seed and plant material changes hands. There is brisk trading between farmers. While some exchange materials, most sell and buy seed. People tell each other about the seeds they have on offer. ASOCUCH, with the support of GFAR, had also prepared a booklet with traditional recipes. Copies are spread on tables at the entrance and they run out like hot cakes.

There is a judging competition to find the best seeds.  Judges visit each stand, measuring maize cobs, counting seeds, weighing potato seed tubers and taking notes. Agrobiodiversity is a serious matter. At the same time, outside the schoolhouse, sheep are being rated by another set of judges. In the late afternoon, the results are shared with the audience. People had brought dozens of varieties and over a thousand accessions of various crops. The audience is excited, and so are we. This has been a fascinating two-day event, and the drive of the farmers and their organisations has made us hopeful for the future.  Local initiatives are where conservation begins, but they need the support of local authorities, governments and international organisations to increase their impact.

Everyone has had a good time. More importantly, farmers have made new contacts, acquired seeds of traditional varieties that may have been lost in some areas and helped others to preserve them in new areas. They have learned about saving seed, but most of all, the farmers have learned that they have certain rights to seeds—they can plant their own native varieties as they wish, for example—and that these rights mattter hugely in sustaining local agriculture.

Related blogs

Quinoa, lost and found

Homegrown seed can be good

Bolivian peanuts

We share

Further viewing

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Guatemela

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Malawi

Managing aflatoxins in groundnuts during drying and storage

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) and the European Union for funding the production of the video discussed here. Support in Guatemala was kindly provided by the AsociaciĂłn de Organizaciones de los Cuchumatanes (ASOCUCH).

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