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As the waters recede July 1st, 2018 by

Peasant farmers can be quick to seize an opportunity, and when the benefit is clearly high, farmers may skip the experimental stage and go straight to a new practice on a massive scale.

In the lower Gangetic Delta in southwest Bangladesh, people live just centimeters above sea level. Getting rid of excess water can make all the different between harvest and hunger.

In the 1960s, earthen embankments were built around certain large areas of land.

The newly dry land inside these dykes is called a polder. Successful farming in the polder depends on having large draining canals, snaking through the muddy land, to carry water to the river.

In 2000, the 10 km-long Amodkhali Canal silted up. So during the winter rainy season the water had nowhere to go. A vast area in the middle of Polder 2 became a seasonal lake. Villagers hung on, growing rice in the dry season. Many migrated for wage labour in the winter.

Then in May 2017, Blue Gold (a program implemented by the government of Bangladesh) began to re-excavate the Amodkhali Canal.  By July they had dug out 8.4 km. It was a big job. At 2.5 meters deep and 6 meters wide, thousands of cubic meters of mud had to be moved. Some was done by machinery and some by hand. Groups of women were organised into Labour Contracting Societies (LCS) to earn money doing the work.

Local people near the canal saw the work. Even those living far away heard about it, and when the rains came in July 2017, farmers could see with their own eyes that the rainwater was draining away.

Like a river, a drainage canal has a sort of watershed, called a catchment area. This canal drains a roughly tear-drop shaped area some four by six kilometres: a big place. The thousands of farmers in the area didn’t have to be begged or cajoled into planting rice: they just did it.

My colleagues and I met local farmer Nozrul Islam near the banks of the canal. He said that he was so happy with the canal. He has two hectares of land and when the water drained off, nobody told him to plant rice. He simply went to Khulna, a neighbouring district, and bought rice seed for all of his land. He hadn’t planted winter rice for over 16 years.

Nozrul’s experience was replicated all over the area. In the village of Koikhali, a group of women told us that they also planted winter (amon) rice last year.

There was no experimentation, no hesitation. People simply re-introduced a winter rice crop into their cropping system, which they had not grown for almost a generation. The total catchment area is 4326 ha. That first year they planted 2106 hectares of winter rice, and harvested 12,000 tons or rice. Much of this rice was sold on the national market.

Related blog

Robbing land from the sea

Related video

Floating vegetable gardens

Acknowledgement

The Amodkhali Canal was re-excavated by the Blue Gold Program in Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. I am indebted to Joynal Abedin, Shahadat Hossain, Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones, A. Salahuddin and many others for teaching me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh.

Innovating in the homeland of lupins May 20th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Rhimer Gonzales is an agronomist who has worked in Morochata, in the Bolivian Andes, for three years, introducing new, sweet varieties of lupin: the beans can be eaten directly without soaking them to remove the natural toxins. Rhimer has also been trying, without success, to encourage folks to grow lupins in rows, just like other crops.

Farmers have been growing lupins here for a long time. Wild lupins are common in the canyons of Morochata, an area close to the center of origin for this crop with the gorgeous flowers and edible beans. It seems unlikely that local farmers could learn new ways to grow lupins, yet the use of a farmer learning video has triggered innovations.

I accompanied Rhimer during a recent visit, when we met Serafina CĂłrdoba. She was busy washing dishes under a tree in front of her house, hurrying to finish so she get her kids started on their homework. She explained that the family got a DVD on soil conservation at a meeting of the sindicato (local village organization). Afterwards she watched the videos again with her husband and children. She remembered several of the videos, especially one on lupins and another on earthworms.

When we asked if the family had done anything new after watching the videos, at first she demurred. She wasn’t sure if the changes they had made in selecting lupin seed were important enough. Before, they would just take a handful of seeds and plant them. After seeing the video she picked out the big, healthy seeds, and the family planted those. The crop is flowering in the field now and doña Sefarina said it looks better than in previous years.

The family also noticed in the video that people planted in rows, in furrows made with oxen. So doña Serafina and her husband Jorge planted a whole field with oxen. She was pleased that this was a fast way to plant—clearly saving time is important for busy families. Rhimer confirmed that planting with oxen was a major innovation. Before, people planted just one row of lupins around the field.

The video emphasized seed selection. But it also showed row planting with oxen, because that is a routine practice in Anzaldo, where most of the video was filmed. Lupins are a more important crop in Anzaldo than in Morochata, even though both municipalities are in Cochabamba.

The value of filming farmers at work is that other farmers watching the video can learn all sorts of unexpected things. Conventional practice in one area can be an interesting innovation for another.

Rhimer explained that he selected the lupin video to show in Morochata because he thought it would be convincing. He was pleased to learn about doña Serafina’s experience, because the video succeeded in convincing her family to not only select seed, but also to plant in rows.

Each farmer responds to a video in his or her own way. Later we met don Darío, who had also seen the videos at the meeting at the sindicato, and had later watched the DVD again with his family. Then he planted a whole field of lupins in rows. Unlike doña Serafina, who said that planting in rows was easier, don Darío said it was more work. But that’s because he planted a whole field by hand with a pick, on a canyon side. Don Darío planted his lupins in straight lines up the hillside, and parallel to the slope as well, forming a grid pattern.

Rhimer explained that this lupin was a new, sweet variety and the plants were smaller than those of the bitter lupin that was previously planted in Morochata, so farmer had planted the new, shorter variety too far apart. Rhimer was also frustrated that the farmers were not watering the lupin enough. “Irrigating it one more time would have done it good.” There is plenty of water here. But folks are still not treating lupins like a major crop, worth irrigating.

Change takes time, even when a community has a good extensionist like Rhimer. I thought he was doing well, successfully encouraging people to plant a new variety, and with a little help from the lupin video, inducing people to select healthy seed and plant in lines. As farmers grow familiar with the new variety they might learn to plant it closer together and water it a bit more, especially if a market develops for it.

Rhimer was modest about his own contribution to changing farmer practices. I suggested that the farmers’ responses to the videos were closely related to his work in the community. But Rhimer said that even though he had shared ideas with people of Morochata for a long time, it was the video that finally convinced the farmers to try row planting and seed selection.

Rhimer’s hard earned standing with farmers meant they were receptive to new ideas. But the videos provided additional, concrete evidence that that the new practices actually worked.

Related blog stories

United women of Morochata

Crop with an attitude

Watch the video on lupins

Growing lupin without disease: Available in English, Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, and French

Acknowledgements

Our work in Bolivia is funded by the McKnight Foundation’s CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program). Rhimer Gonzales works for the Proinpa Foundation.

INNOVANDO EN LA CUNA DEL TARWI

Por Jeff Bentley, 20 de mayo del 2018

Rhimer Gonzales es un agrónomo que ha trabajado en Morochata, en los Andes bolivianos, durante tres años, introduciendo nuevas variedades dulces de tarwi (también conocido como lupino, chocho, y altramuz). Sus granos se pueden comer directamente sin remojarlos para eliminar las toxinas naturales. Rhimer también ha intentado, sin éxito, alentar a las personas a cultivar tarwi en hileras, al igual que otros cultivos.

Los agricultores han estado cultivando tarwi aquí durante mucho tiempo. Los tarwis silvestres son comunes en los cañones de Morochata, un área cercana al centro de origen de este cultivo, con hermosas flores y frijoles comestibles. Parece poco probable que se podría enseñar algo nuevo a agricultores con tanta experiencia con el tarwi, sin embargo, el uso de un video de aprendizaje ha desencadenado algunas innovaciones.

Acompañé a Rhimer durante una visita reciente, cuando conocimos a Serafina Córdoba. Estaba ocupada lavando los platos debajo de un árbol en frente de su casa, apurada a terminar para poder ayudar a sus hijos con sus tareas. Ella explicó que la familia recibió un DVD sobre la conservación del suelo en una reunión del sindicato (organización local del pueblo). Luego ella miró los videos nuevamente con su esposo e hijos. Ella recordó los videos, especialmente uno sobre tarwi y otro sobre lombrices.

Cuando le preguntamos si la familia había hecho algo nuevo después de ver los videos, al principio ella se negó. No estaba segura que los cambios que habían hecho en la selección de semillas de lupino eran lo suficientemente importantes. Antes, simplemente tomaban un puñado de semillas y las sembraban. Después de ver el video, ella seleccionó las semillas grandes y saludables, y la familia las sembró. Ahora el cultivo está en flor y doña Sefarina dice que se ve mejor que en años anteriores.

La familia también notó en el video que la gente sembraba en hileras, en surcos hechos con bueyes. Entonces doña Serafina y su esposo Jorge plantaron una parcela entera con bueyes. Estaba contenta de que era rápido sembrar así; para una familia ocupada es imprescindible ahorrar tiempo. Rhimer confirmó que sembrar con bueyes fue una gran innovación. Antes, la gente sembraba solo una fila de tarwis alrededor de la parcela.

El video enfatizó la selección de semilla. Pero también mostró la siembra en surcos con bueyes, porque esa es una práctica convencional en Anzaldo, donde se filmó la mayor parte del video. El tarwi es más importante en Anzaldo que en Morochata, aunque ambos municipios están en Cochabamba.

El valor de filmar a los agricultores mientras trabajan es que otros agricultores que miran el video pueden aprender todo tipo de cosas inesperadas. La práctica convencional en una zona puede ser una innovación interesante para otra.

Rhimer explicó que seleccionó el video de tarwi para mostrar en Morochata porque pensó que sería convincente. Le agradó conocer la experiencia de doña Serafina, porque el video logró convencer a su familia no solo de seleccionar semillas, sino también de plantar en filas.

Cada agricultor responde a un video a su manera. Más tarde nos encontramos con don Darío, quien también había visto los videos en la reunión en el sindicato, y luego había visto el DVD otra vez con su familia. Luego plantó una parcela entera de tarwi en fila. A diferencia de Doña Serafina, quien dijo que plantar en hileras era más fácil, don Darío dijo que era más trabajo. Pero eso es porque sembró un campo entero a mano con una picota, en ladera del cañón. Don Darío sembró su tarwi en línea recta hacia arriba, y de lado a lado, como cuadrícula.

Rhimer explicĂł que este tarwi era una variedad nueva y dulce y que las plantas eran más pequeñas que las del tarwi amargo que ya se conocĂ­a en Morochata, por lo que los agricultores habĂ­an sembrado la variedad nueva muy distanciada. Rhimer tambiĂ©n estaba frustrado porque los campesinos no estaban regando lo suficiente al lupino. “Regarlo una vez más lo hubiera hecho bien”. AquĂ­ hay mucha agua. Pero la gente todavĂ­a no está tratando al tarwi como un cultivo importante, que vale la pena regar.

El cambio lleva tiempo, incluso cuando una comunidad tiene un buen extensionista como Rhimer. Yo admiraba su trabajo, animando la gente a sembrar una nueva variedad y con un poco de ayuda del video de tarwi, induciendo a los agricultores a seleccionar semilla y sembrar en línea. A medida que los agricultores se familiarizan con la nueva variedad, podrían aprender a sembrarla más cerca y regarla un poco más, especialmente si se desarrolla un mercado para el tarwi.

Rhimer modestamente atribuía mucho del cambio en prácticas a los videos. Sugerí que el cambio estaba estrechamente relacionado con su trabajo en la comunidad. Pero Rhimer dijo que aunque había compartido ideas con la gente de Morochata durante mucho tiempo, fue el video que finalmente convenció a los agricultores a probar la siembra en líneas y la selección de semilla.

Por su trabajo constante, Rhimer ha ganado la confianza de los agricultores para que reciban a las nuevas ideas. Pero los videos dieron evidencia adicional y concreta de que las nuevas prácticas realmente funcionaran.

Historias previas del blog

Mujeres unidas de Morochata

Cultivo con carácter fuerte

Vea el video sobre tarwi

Producir tarwi sin enfermedad: Disponible en español, inglés, quechua, aymara, y francés

Agradecimiento

Nuestro trabajo en Bolivia es auspiciado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo para la InvestigaciĂłn de los Cultivos) de la FundaciĂłn McKnight. Rhimer Gonzales trabaja para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa.

Robbing land from the sea March 25th, 2018 by

The low-lying Netherlands is famous for its polders, the land behind the dikes, reclaimed from the sea. Beginning about 1000 AD, people made dikes, or earthen dams, to protect communities from flooding. At first the water was simply drained through canals, but with time the land in the polders subsided, and by the 1400s water was being pumped out with windmills. Thanks to hard work, investment and some clever engineering, people still live in and farm the polders.

Much of Bangladesh is also right at sea level and densely populated. So why doesn’t Bangladesh have polders too? I wondered out-loud during a recent visit last October.

“But we do! Bangladesh has many polders,” my colleague Salahuddin retorted. He explained that there was a string of some 123 polders over much of southern Bangladesh, an area where several large rivers cut the delta into finger-like strips of lowland.

The polders were built between the 1960s and the 1980s, first by the provincial government of East Pakistan, and later by the Government of Bangladesh, after independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Each polder is ringed by a low earthen embankment (basically a dike), sometimes just two meters high and made by hand. The roughly oval-shaped polders are dozens of kilometers in circumference.

The Bangladeshi polders are drained by an ingenious network of canals, radiating like veins from the center of the polder to the edge, where the flow of water is controlled by a sluice gate in the embankment.The sluice gate is a concrete structure with metal doors that can be raised by a hand-crank to let the water out during the rainy season, and lowered during the dry season to keep out the saltwater.

Originally the wetlands of the delta region had been sparsely populated by fisher-farmers who grew low yielding rice varieties that tolerated brackish water. The polders soon became attractive places to live and settlers trickled in. The people who were born in the polders tended to stay there and so populations increased.

Some of the polders have benefited from some sort of project, and have been reasonably well managed. By 2018 the better polders are like gardens, with comfortable farm houses surrounded by shimmering green rice fields.

The polders have had their share of troubles. Sometimes one of the rivers changes course, depositing a bank of silt next to the sluice gate, so the water inside the polder cannot drain out.  Other problems are man-made. Loggers float timber down the canals, and when the logs reach the sluice gates, the workers take the easy route to the river. Instead of hoisting the logs around the sluice gate, the loggers force the timber through the delicate metal gates, twisting and denting them so they no longer open and close. Wealthy, powerful people sometimes block the drainage canals to raise fish in them. Or they string nets over the canal to catch fish. But this slows down the flow of water, allowing silt to settle and eventually block the canal. The canals are as wide as a highway, and can be just as difficult to maintain. So once the drainage canal stops working, villagers are unable to open them up again without help from outsiders.

The polders are essentially a government mega-project, which sounds at first like a recipe for disaster. But as one drives along the top of a polder embankment, the muddy river on one side and the tidy green fields and villages on the other, it is hard to ignore the fact that the government got something right.

Ironically, country that is flooded during the rainy season may be completely dry a few months later. Various initiatives are now promoting dry-season irrigation for high value crops besides rice, and the farmers in the polders are avidly buying motorized pumps. In many places the rich, black earth inside the polders is now producing two or three crops a year of rice, mung beans, mustard, watermelon and vegetables.

Such changes in the farming system are creating more wealth for the farmers in those polders that are well run. But it will take collaboration, for local government to protect the canals and embankments, for the private sector to provide farm supplies and buy the produce and especially for innovative farmers, to continue re-inventing the agriculture of this marvelous, human-made environment.

Further reading

In characteristic modesty it was some time before my friend Salahuddin told me that he had written his masters’ thesis on the polders of Bangladesh.

Salahuddin, Ahmad 1995 Operation and Maintenance of Small Scale Flood Control Projects: Case of Bangladesh Water Development Board. Master’s Thesis: Institute ofSocial Studies, The Hague.

See also Paul’s blog from last week on coastal Bangladesh: Floating vegetable gardens.

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones and many others for enlightening me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Thanks to Harun-ar-Rashid, Ahmad Salauddin, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading and remarking on previous versions.

Private screenings February 4th, 2018 by

A recent study by Gérard Zoundji and colleagues in Benin, West Africa, has shed light on a promising way to get training videos to farmers through local shops. Zoundji worked in four vegetable-producing regions of southern Benin, where farmers were so worried about pests that they sprayed pesticides even before the bugs appeared.  Convincing such apprehensive farmers to hold the pesticides would take some serious persuasion.

Zoundji took nine videos on vegetable production from the Access Agriculture video platform (www.accessagriculture.org), including how to reduce pesticide use, and put five language versions (English, French, Fon, Yoruba and Bambara) on one DVD. Zoundji had the brilliant idea of reaching the farmers through local shops, in an attempt to overcome the limited distribution available through the extension service. In 2015 he convinced 13 owners of small shops (mostly farm supply stores and movie DVD vendors) to stock copies of his DVD, titled Improving Vegetable Production. From August to December, the shopkeepers sold the DVDs to customers for up to $4. Starting in June, 2016, Zoundji tracked down 120 vegetable farmers who had bought the DVD, received it as a gift from friends or family, or watched it with their neighbors. He visited the farmers’ fields to learn more about what had happened after watching the videos.

Most of the video-watching farmers were young, with an average age of 28. Youth are drawn to vegetable production, which can be profitable on a small piece of land, and to videos, complete with music and a compelling narration. A third of the farmers were women. Almost half had no formal schooling, but the videos require no reading.

Zoundji found that only a third of his farmers regularly received extension visits, while twice as many got information from agro-dealers. All the farmers shared information through their own informal networks.

Zoundji’s collaborating shopkeepers sold 669 DVDs. I was surprised that only 58% of the DVDs went to farmers. Government officials, students, their parents and extension workers bought the rest. Such folks often grow their own gardens, or they have links to vegetable-growers.

After watching the videos, farmers realized that they had been over-using pesticides. Aristide, a vegetable farmer, from Abomey-Calavi said:

Before the video training, I used to manage nematodes, pests and other diseases by using any agrochemicals I could get hold of. I just needed to see insects and pests in the field to unleash a treatment. But after watching the video, I realized how wasteful and harmful I have been.

Farmers had been applying pesticides up to seven times during each season, but after watching the videos, 86% said that they had reduced pesticide use. Mr. David, a farmer at Sèmé-Podji, said:

To grow tomatoes on a 400 square meter plot, I often used for example 1 kg or 1.5 kg of fungicide, one to two litres of insecticide, 2 kg of nematicide and about 30 kg of NPK (fertilizer), but since September 2015 I started applying the knowledge from the videos. I’m progressively reducing the chemicals … and the tomato yield is still the same as before videos, but now they keep longer than before (I watched the) videos. This is the third time I’ve harvested.

Some farmers reported that although they had heard about alternatives to pesticides from extension agents they remained unconvinced until they saw the videos. The videos show farmers from Benin and other countries using the recommended alternatives, making a novel idea seem much more practical. A farmer on a video can be more convincing than a conversation in real life. “Videos stimulate learning and facilitate more experimentation for change than face-to-face extension carried out by an extension worker,” Zoundji writes.

It wasn’t only crop protection practices that were improved. Crop rotation, compost, and nets to keep insects out of vegetables were widely adopted as alternatives to agrochemicals.

There were further changes that took place in the shop owners selling the DVDs. One third of the agrodealers began to stock the equipment for setting up drip irrigation. This was astounding, an unexpected consequence of Zoundji’s original idea. Changing business practices matters because in previous experiences with drip irrigation, farmers have been dependent on projects to buy the necessary equipment. (See Paul’s earlier story, To drip or not to drip). Now, after watching the videos, farmers were investing in drip irrigation equipment and asking agrodealers to stock items they needed, such as hoses, nozzles and tanks. Other farmers were making their own kits.

Family farmers are used to shopping at family-owned businesses. It may not be necessary to have a project just to share information with farmers. Small shops may be just the place to sell videos with useful ideas that farmers can use.

Further reading

Zoundji, Gérard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. Vodouhê & Jeffery W. Bentley 2018 “Towards Sustainable Vegetable Growing with Farmer Learning Videos in Benin.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. Read it here.

Watch all nine of the vegetable videos (in English, French and other languages)

Managing nematodes in vegetables

Making a chilli seedbed

Insect nets in seedbeds

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

Making chilli powder

Drip irrigation for tomato

Reviving soils with mucuna

Managing soil fertility

Videos in the languages of Benin

Access Agriculture hosts videos in several of the languages spoken in Benin, including:

French, Adja, Bariba, Berba, Dendi, Ditammari, Fon, Gourmantche, Hausa, Ife, Idaatcha, Mina, Nago, Peulh (Fulfuldé), Yoruba and Zarma

Photo credit

Photos are by G. Zoundji.

Families, land and videos in northern Uganda January 14th, 2018 by

Enyang Bua Philips grew up in the remote Lira District of northern Uganda, an area which is only now emerging from the poverty and violence brought about by the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Philips studied agriculture in High School. Then he went on to earn a diploma in marketing. In 2016 he was one of the co-founders of the Lango Family Farmers’ Association, which he organized to help farmers with land, marketing and technical issues. The association has four staff and 569 members, including 333 women.

I asked Philips recently how he was able to encourage so many women to join the association. It wasn’t hard, he explained. The women were already organized in village-based, self-help groups, and when he told them about the advantages of belonging to a larger association, all of these groups and their members signed up.

Land grabbers are a serious threat to family farms in Uganda, where rural people are easily swayed by the promise of money. The land grabbing companies take land, strip it of its fertility by growing export crops, and then abandon the community. Philips and his colleagues teach the groups that they have the right to reject the land grabbers, who come to the villages promising money. “The land grabbers come in disguise,” Philips explains to the groups, telling them “There are no benefits, no money. (Not only do they make false promises), but when they go the land will be degraded and useless.”

Another way to protect the land is by ensuring that family farmers can benefit from it.

In March 2017, Philips read an article in the Farming Matters online magazine about the videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org. He downloaded over 20 videos and has shown 10 of them to the members of the association. He takes his laptop to the villages. There is seldom electricity, so he uses his battery to show the video to groups of about 30 people. He starts by introducing the video; afterwards he explains and discusses it with the members.

Philips recently shared the video on managed regeneration of forests with several villages. Many of the local people were amazed to see crops growing among the trees. “Here people cut down all of the trees before planting a garden,” Philips told me over the phone.

While some of the Ugandan farmers still doubt the wisdom of growing trees and crops together, other local people have started experimenting with the idea. In each community, the Association helps people set up a demonstration plot, where they can try out innovations shown on the videos.

The farmer groups loved the videos on maize, on striga biology, and the one on mucuna, or velvet bean, a hardy legume that can be planted as a cover crop to regenerate degraded soils (such as the ones stripped by the land grabbers).

Mucuna seed can be hard to find in Northern Uganda, but these observant farmers quickly spotted wild mucuna growing on the edges of their fields. They are now gathering seed so they can plant it in damaged fields during the next rainy season, to see if they can bring some of their land back to life.

The internet is quickly spreading, but it will be a while before most farmers in Lira District are online. Meanwhile, a grassroots community organizer finds useful videos online, and shares them with groups of village farmers. That is one way that videos from the internet are reaching the most remote places.  This farmers’ association is not only helping farmers learn from videos, but also to understand the potential of the Internet as a source of knowledge.

Other blog stories about mucuna

The big mucuna

The big, bad beans

Other blog stories about northern Uganda

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Late night learning

The sesame cleaner

Watch videos in Luo

Luo is the language spoken in Lira and surrounding areas of Uganda and Kenya. Access Agriculture hosts 38 videos in the Luo language.

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