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Chemical attitude adjustment February 26th, 2017 by

Kannappan, C. Sekar, his wife, Bharathidasan, BagyarajAgricultural extension can work deep changes in farmers’ attitudes. Ironically, the extensionists themselves often think that a change in heart is difficult to achieve, so it was good to meet some inspired farmers last week in Tamil Nadu, India, while teaching a course with Paul Van Mele to agricultural researchers and extension agents.

We wrote four fact sheets with advice for farmers and we wanted to show the papers to real farmers, as a kind of peer review. One of the participants, Mrs. P. Tamilselvi, took us to the village of Seethapappi, where she works as an extensionist. The course participants, mostly agricultural researchers, formed small groups and found farmers to talk to.

We approached a farmhouse, where entomologist K. Bharathidasan called out, asking if anyone was home. When a surprised couple emerged, Bharathidasan introduced himself and soon had the farmers reading a fact sheet in Tamil on groundnut stem rot.

After Mr. C. Sekar read the fact sheet he talked about an organic agricultural concoction he used as a fertilizer and insecticide. He called it pancha kaviya, alluding to five ingredients it contained. Bharathidasan wrote down the recipe:

Mix 1) cow dung, 2) cow urine, 3) ghee, milk and curd, 4) coconut water and 5) jiggery (a candy) or sugarcane juice. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Keep for 45 days. Filter the liquid directly into a sprayer and spray the crop.

This was only the first of many natural agro-chemicals farmers in this village described to us. Sekar also makes an organic pesticide with eight types of local plants. He adds them to cow urine and keeps them for 20 days. Then he filters the liquid and sprays it on his crops.

When Mrs. Sekar read the fact sheet she mentioned another organic pesticide. Two more farmers had their own recipe for a home brew to spray on plants.

Bagyaraj and farmer Prakash Kanna CROPPEDFarmer Prakash Kanna showed us a batch of pancha kaviya he’d made, a dull brown mix in a plastic drum. It had a strong, sour smell. He put it in irrigation water to fertilize his plants. He called it a growth regulator. (The pancha kaviya adds nutrients and beneficial flora and fauna to the soil).

The farmers said they also used marigold extract and gypsum powder to control various diseases in groundnuts (peanuts). And they enhance the soil with a beneficial bacterium, Pseudomonas, mixed with aged cow dung which helps the bacteria multiply and suppress fungi that cause disease.

That’s quite a lot of innovation.

Bharathidasan later told me that the farmers really liked the fact sheets, except for the references to chemicals. That wasn’t surprising given the many non-chemical options the villagers were using.

Later that week we visited another village, Panayaburam, slightly larger than Seethapappi, with a small cooperative office where the farmers met.

Here we quickly learned of a different set of attitudes. The farmers did mention neem oil and using a net to keep small insect pests out of vegetables, but many said that “here we only use chemicals.” One went so far as to say that if you used a mix made from cow dung on your plants, the other farmers would say that you were insane.

Anthropologists have long known that each village is unique; conclusions drawn in one village may not apply to neighboring ones. Even so, such a big difference in attitudes to chemicals was surprising. Seethapappi farmers said that they liked everything in the fact sheets, except for the chemicals. In Panayaburam farmers only wanted to know about pesticides to manage pests and diseases.

There is one major difference between these two villages. Organic-leaning Seethapappi has a KVK (farm science center), where farmers receive training and get advice. Extension agents in that KVK have generated a lot of excitement about making inputs from local materials. Panayaburam does not have a KVK, and farmers rely on the biased advice of agro-chemical dealers to keep plants healthy.

A KVK is a permanent structure, with a building and staff, working with farmers over the years. Extensionists may become frustrated with the pace of change because farmers seldom adopt a new technique instantly. Smallholders have to try out innovations on their own. Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.

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Eating bark September 6th, 2015 by

It is difficult to imagine why you would want to taste tree bark. Yet somewhere hundreds of years ago, probably in Peru or Bolivia, someone discovered that consuming the bark of Cinchona helped to prevent and treat malaria. Where there’s a demand for a valuable crop, there are farmers willing to grow and sell it.

Guy holds red treeFirst, a few facts about Cinchona. There are 23 species native to South America. All produce quinine, nature’s original anti-malarial drug, though in variable amounts. The relative abundance of local names for Cinchona species in Ecuador suggests that native users knew empirically what European scientists would only discover through laboratory testing of different species.

The Jesuits were the first to publicise the properties of Cinchona beyond South America, hence the popular name Jesuit’s bark. But this is no longer used and quinine bark or quinquina in French is more common, linking neatly to the tree’s origins. Quinine comes from kina, the Quechua word for Cinchona trees.

Quinine was the wonder drug that alleviated misery and suffering from one of the world’s most devastating diseases. I say ‘was’ because quinine has largely been superseded by synthetic derivatives such as chloroquine and other anti-malarial compounds manufactured in the laboratory or discovered in other plants – such as Artemisia.

But it’s impossible to overstate the importance of quinine to individuals, families and also global development. The first attempt to build the Panama Canal collapsed because of huge fatalities to the workforce, largely due to malaria and yellow fever. The second attempt succeeded because the cause of malaria and other diseases were better understood and therefore managed. And because of quinine.

Lady2 packs stemFiammetta Rocco in her intriguing book about Cinchona, ‘The Miraculous Fever Tree’, tells this and many other stories, where quinine was the quiet healer, the tree bark that saved lives and gave hope to many families that vulnerable children would survive.

Rocco also maps the various attempts to establish Cinchona plantations in Africa and Asia, despite the opposition of Spanish colonial authorities, with plant collectors and opportunists attempting to obtain seeds from the most productive trees. Eventually they succeeded and initially quinine bark was successfully produced in Java and later India. In 1930 Indonesia produced almost 100% of world production. Today India and Indonesia produce paltry amounts and the world’s major source of quinine comes from an unlikely source.

I saw my first Cinchona plantations in 2004 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Seeds were brought via Indonesia, a gift to Prince Leopold from the Dutch. The initial plantations established from the 1930s onward were around Bukavu in South Kivu. They continued to flourish until regional conflict disrupted business in the late 1990s and losses due to Phytophthora root rot mounted.

Today, the bulk of production comes from North Kivu, DRC, in an area to the south of Butembo. It’s unclear how Cinchona got to Butembo from Bukavu – a journey of several days by road – but it could have been an attempt by the quinine buyers to seek disease-free areas, or simply to expand production in an area less troubled by conflict.

P1090482If this was an attempt to escape Phytophthora root rot, then the move to North Kivu has only been partially successful. The disease still causes major losses and farmers now have to move further afield to find fertile land for new plantings.

Cinchona is best grown on an 8 -12 year cycle, leaving stems to become enriched with quinine. Trees are however often stripped at three to four years-old, meeting short term needs for cash in an area where income opportunities are limited. Despite the disease, an absence of any research or significant technical support and no extension services, the quinquina business continues. There’s a steady demand for quinine bark from India and Indonesia, less so as an anti-malarial these days and more for other medicinal properties.

Quinine may be good for you but it has an unpleasant, bitter taste, much remarked upon by the workers who survived the Panama Canal. Indian tonic water, a carbonated drink containing quinine, was an early attempt to encourage quinine uptake, especially when combined with gin. Less well known is that the bubbles in tonic water speed entry of alcohol to the blood, making this the “most efficient means – short of injection – of quinine uptake” according to one source.

Cinchona has come a long way from its origins on the slopes of the Andes. Compared to other valuable crops it has received paltry support from development projects, yet farmer ingenuity and an effective export market ensures that quinine bark remains a viable business, benefitting some of the poorest communities in Central Africa.

Further Reading

Fiammetta Rocco (2004). The Miraculous Fever Tree: the cure that changed the world. Harper Collins, London

Matthew Parker (2007). Hell’s Gorge: the battle to build the Panama Canal. Arrow Books, London.

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