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An illusion in the Andes April 30th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

When five, roughly rectangular blocks appeared on the mountainside high above Cochabamba, I assumed they were just fields of oats. The pale green shade seemed about right for the feathery grain, and the cool climate was ideal for oats.

oat fieldsHowever, social media soon turned the checkered slope into a mystery.  Cochabambinos began writing into a popular website to ask about the odd shapes. Some rushed in with answers. There was even one far-fetched suggestion that the blocks were fields of ripening coca, even though this narcotic shrub only grows in much lower and wetter country. Some thought the patches were just oats.

Others said they were wild flowers, sprouting where fields had been left fallow. My wife Ana wrote to say that the patches were so light that they could only be the brilliant white flower, known as ilusión in Spanish. Her suggestion was ignored, so one sunny afternoon, Ana and I decided to check out the fields first hand.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónAlthough the fields with the mysterious blocks are as visible as a beacon, the Bolivian bourgeoisie are not avid hikers, and few of the city dwellers know how to get up onto the slope. We drove up one of the steep, narrow roads, peeked over a few ridges, and finally spotted the ivory-colored fields up close. It wasn’t quite like finding Machu Picchu, but it was delightful to see five little plots of ilusión.

Called “baby’s breath” in English, this hardy flower (Gypsophila muralis) is a native of northern Europe and Siberia, but has adapted well to the Andes, where it has become a poor person’s commercial crop. Baby’s breath has few pests and thrives on poor, stony soil. It is a low-input, low profit crop: a cheap flower that is complements and enhances bouquets of roses. A mourner with just a few spare pesos can buy a handful baby’s breath to take to a funeral.

The fields were surprisingly small, each just a few meters wide. They made up no more than a hectare all together. There were no houses near the fields, which were being tended by some absentee, peri-urban farmer, who trusted the isolated spot to keep his or her flowers hidden in plain sight, much to the bewilderment of the townsfolk below.  Every crop whether food, fiber or flower has its own signature color. A person who knows and loves plants can spot the difference between illusion and reality from miles away.


Por Jeff Bentley

30 de abril del 2017

Cuando aparecieron cinco bloques, más o menos rectangulares en el cerro arriba de Cochabamba, me supuse que eran parcelas de avena. El tono verde claro parecía más o menos el del grano plumoso, y el clima fresco era ideal para la avena.

oat fieldsGracias a los medios sociales, los cuadraditos en la ladera pronto se volvieron un misterio. Los cochabambinos empezaron a escribir a una página web popular para preguntar qué eran las formas extrañas. Algunos se apuraron con respuestas. Había hasta una solución equivocadísima que los bloques eran parcelas de coca, a pesar de que el arbusto narcótico solo crece en zonas mucho más bajas y húmedas. Algunos sí pensaron que las pequeñas mantas eran avena.

Otros dijeron que eran flores silvestres, que nacieron donde las chacras se habían dejado en descanso. Mi esposa Ana escribió diciendo que las formas eran tan pálidas que solo podrían ser la brillante flor blanca, conocida como ilusión. Nadie hizo caso a su sugerencia; así que una tarde asoleada, con Ana decidimos descubrir las chacras de cerca.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónA pesar de que los bloques misteriosos son tan visibles como un faro, la burguesía boliviana no es muy fanática de las caminatas en el monte, y pocos de los citadinos sabían llegar a la falda de la serranía. En el auto subimos unos caminos angostos e inclinados, echamos un vistazo sobre algunos filos y al fin vimos de cerca los campos color de marfil. No era exactamente como encontrar Machu Picchu, pero nos encantó ver a las cinco parcelitas de ilusión.

La ilusión (Gypsophila muralis) parece delicada, pero en realidad, es un robusto nativo del norte de Europa y de Siberia, que se ha adaptado bien a los Andes, donde se ha convertido en un cultivo comercial de los pobres. La ilusión tiene pocas plagas y prospera en el suelo pobre y rocoso. Es un cultivo de baja inversión y baja rentabilidad: una flor barata que complementa y enriquece hasta a un ramo de rosas. Una persona que solo tiene dos o tres pesos en el bolsillo puede mostrar su respeto al muerto, llevando un ramito de ilusión al entierro.

Nos sorprendió que las chacras fueran tan pequeñas, unos pocos metros de ancho cada una. Las cinco no sumaron a más de una hectárea. No había ninguna casa cerca de las parcelas, que eran cultivadas por algún agricultor peri-urbano pero ausente, que confiaba en el lugar aislado para proteger a sus flores, escondidas en plena vista, desconcertando a los vecinos de la ciudad en el piso del valle. Cada cultivo, bien sea alimento, fibra o flor tiene su propio color único. Una persona que conoce y ama las plantas puede ver la diferencia entre ilusión y realidad a kilómetros de distancia.

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Simple is beautiful March 12th, 2017 by

Grove seen down the slope copyA lot of time and effort goes into development projects, from writing proposals and getting funds through to building partnerships, doing the work and finally evaluating it to show that you’ve made a difference. Sometimes a simpler, direct approach is more effective, as my experiences with bamboo in Ethiopia have suggested.

I first learnt about the vast swathes of bamboo in Ethiopia twenty years ago. I was engaged in a pilot project to assess a largely untapped resource comprising huge natural stands and a patchwork of smaller plots dotted around peoples’ homes. Existing uses of bamboo included conversion into charcoal, building fences and making small household items, such as baskets. The resource assessment was the first step in suggesting profitable enterprises on a much larger scale.

Mats used for construction big building copyEach year the million hectares of Ethiopian bamboo produce new culms, as the woody, fast-maturing stems are known. There has been no shortage of ideas on what to do with this rapidly regenerating biomass. The most ambitious suggestion has been to burn bamboo and generate electricity. More modest proposals, though still requiring major investment, have included fashioning the bamboo into high quality flooring and decking for export to the North.

When I returned to Ethiopia ten years ago for a new bamboo project, I found little evidence of new enterprises or large scale industrial uses. The most striking discovery, though one that at first seemed commonplace, was the continuing operation of a workshop where people were trained to make handicrafts from bamboo. Some of the oldest ideas had been the most enduring.

Fuel bundles2 copyDuring the second visit I went to talk with a small group of shopkeepers who sold bamboo furniture to the better-off denizens of Addis Ababa. These were, as far as I could see, the same shops that had been present when I made my first visit in 1997. The shops were well-stocked with chairs, beds, tables and all the other furniture that middle class families were keen to have in their homes.

The furniture sellers and the handicraft makers were all beneficiaries of a much earlier initiative, some time back in the 1980s, when Ethiopia was run by the Derg, a revolutionary committee drawn from the army and police. The Derg admired the socialist ideals of China and one of the outcomes was a visit by Chinese technicians, who introduced Ethiopian artisans to new designs for bamboo arts and crafts. The Chinese supported the establishment of a workshop in a government-supported, small enterprises institute, where people were still being trained thirty or so years later.

In 1997, the bamboo furniture makers and the craftsmen seemed unremarkable to me because at the time I thought that chairs and baskets would never generate huge amounts of income. But as roads improve, cities expand, and the Ethiopian middle class comes of age, there is now solid demand for sensible furniture. Bamboo industries benefit farm communities with small plots, who send regular truck loads to the bustling workshops of Addis Ababa.

Save Generation Assoc staff and goods2 copyWhat of the other more ambitious schemes for bamboo? A quick search of the web for current bamboo activity in Ethiopia shows USAID giving a grant of $1.75 million in 2014 to ‘develop processes to make industrial and quality bamboo’. This grant will have a detailed proposal, plan of action and agreed outcomes, all requiring regular monitoring, reporting and so on. In other words, a hefty administrative overhead will eat into the available finds.

But this recent public/private enterprise may also mean that bamboo enterprises are finally going to succeed on a big scale – though there’s no guarantee that this will happen. Meanwhile the impact of a small gesture by China forty or more years ago to show solidarity with Ethiopia continues to reap benefits, an unexpected outcome of the otherwise tragic and violent period of Derg rule. Sometimes the most effective interventions are also the simplest.

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A common light December 4th, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

palm-with-lightsSocial media can be used to help manage a natural resource, as we saw recently in Bolivia. Every year, in Cochabamba, the municipal government puts up Christmas decorations, including strings of lights wrapped around trees. But no one bothers to take the lights down. A few still flicker from time to time, almost a year after being hammered onto the tree. The iron in the nails is toxic for the trees, and the nail holes are wounds that allow disease to enter. The workers climbing up and down the trees also damage some of them.

Cochabamba has a group opposed to cutting trees (No a la Tala de Árboles en Cochabamba). The group plants trees, holds meetings and raises public awareness through information. Members of the group began to notice these trash ornaments, and they knew that the wires and nails were bad for tree health. The city had already lost too many trees to construction, drought and disease (especially a phytoplasma on the China berry tree—Melia azedarach). Some members of “No a la Tala” posted photos of the dangling lights and brief notes on the group’s Facebook page.

tree-memeLocal groups can be quite large. This one has 13,025 “friends”, and they responded immediately. They coined a slogan, “put more lights in your brains, and fewer in our trees.” The newspaper and local bloggers began to run stories suggesting that old ornaments be cleaned up, and that new ones be more carefully done, and not placed in living trees. The city is slowly beginning to take action, removing some of the old strings of lights, and there is growing public concern that the ornaments can harm trees.
City trees are shared by many people, like any common property resource, such as the sea, or irrigation water, or grazing land. As the ecologist Garret Hardin noticed years ago in his paper “The Tragedy of the Commons,” (1968) a common resource is hard to manage when so many people use it. However, today social media can help communities to notice problems, and to organize themselves to create solutions.

Luces comunes

4 de diciembre del 2016, por Jeff Bentley

estrellas-en-palmeraLos medios sociales se pueden usar para ayudar a manejar un recurso natural, como vimos recientemente en Bolivia. Cada año, en Cochabamba, el gobierno municipal instala adornos navideños, incluso cables de lucecitas amarrados a los árboles. Pero nadie toma la molestia de bajar las luces. Algunas todavía chispean de vez en cuando, casi un año después de haber sido clavados al árbol. El hierro en los clavos es tóxico para los árboles, y los agujeros son heridas que dejan entrar enfermedades. Los trabajadores también hacen daño a medida que trepan y se bajan de los árboles.

La ciudad tiene un grupo, No a la Tala de Árboles en Cochabamba, que planta árboles, tiene reuniones y concientiza al público a través de la información. Miembros del grupo empezaron a fijarse en los adornos basurales, y sabían que los alambres y clavos dañaban la salud de los árboles. La ciudad ya ha perdido demasiados árboles a la construcción, la sequía y las enfermedades (sobre todo un fitoplasma en el paraíso—Melia azedarach). Algunos miembros de “No a la Tala” subieron fotos de la chatarra aérea y breves notas en la página Facebook del grupo.

luces-en-cerebroLos grupos locales pueden ser grandes. Este tiene 13,025 miembros y respondieron de inmediato. Crearon un lema, “pongan más luces en sus cerebros, y menos en nuestros árboles.” El periódico y bloguistas locales empezaron a publicar, sugiriendo que los adornos viejos tenían que ser limpiados, y que los nuevos tenían que colocarse con más cuidado, y no puestos en los árboles vivos. La ciudad lentamente empieza a tomar acción, bajando algunos de los viejos cables de luces, y hay cada vez más conciencia que los adornos hacen daño a los árboles.

Los árboles de la ciudad se comparten entre mucha gente, como cualquier recurso común, como el mar, el agua de riego o el terreno de pastoreo. Como el ecólogo Garret Hardin observó hace años en su artículo “La Tragedia de los Bienes Comunes,” (1968) un recurso común es difícil de manejar cuando tanta gente lo usa. Sin embargo, hoy en día los medios sociales pueden ayudar a la gente a fijarse en problemas, y organizarse para crear soluciones.

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The desert recedes July 24th, 2016 by

In the 1980s desertification was a cause for alarm. The basic idea was that smallholders in the Sahel were grazing too many animals and cutting down too many trees. As a result, the Sahara was creeping into the Sahel, turning fields and pastures into desert. The reality turned out to be more complex than that.

By the 1990s, academics had debunked the idea that peasants caused desertification. In Gourma, Mali for example, there was no relationship between deforestation and domestic firewood consumption, because smallholders gathered deadwood as fuel, and did not down cut live trees (Benjaminsen 1993). In fact, the boundary line between the desert and the Sahel had not changed in the 16 years between 1986 and 1998. Rather, the boundary ebbed and flowed with changes in annual rainfall (Nicholson et al. 1998). The number of individual trees in West Africa did decline in the second half of the twentieth century, but this was largely because of the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s.

Remarkably, smallholder farmers in the Sahel were actually encouraging the natural regeneration of trees. In a hiking survey of 135 villages in Senegal, Patrick Gonzalez noted that when a tree sprouted, people would protect it, and when it was large enough prune it (Gonzalez 2001). This may strike some readers as wishful thinking, but William Critchley and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam have also documented farmers in the Sahel protecting small trees. Critchley et al. have made several videos on how farmers in the Sahel use various simple techniques to encourage trees. Farmers dig small pits that collect rain runoff. By applying manure in these pits the soil is improved and when a tree seedling germinates, farmers keep livestock from nibbling it away.

1975 copiaAs an added bonus, many of the trees that seemed to have died in the 1970s and 1980s still had life left in the roots. As the branches began to grow back from these “underground forests” farmers protected them as well.

In his video Managed regeneration, Critchley uses aerial photos of the village of Galma, Niger to show that dramatic recovery of vegetation between 1975 and 2002.

2002 copia It is worth noticing that the Sahel is recovering from the droughts of the twentieth century, and that smallholders do value trees, and take some steps to encourage reforestation.

neem treeDuring the drought decades, international projects funded nurseries of eucalyptus and other exotic trees in the Sahel, but most of these died (Gonzalez 2001). One might be forgiven for assuming that foreign trees are simply inferior to native species, but it’s not quite that simple. Eric Boa points out that in the Sahel the single most important tree across the transition zone from arid to semi-arid is not actually a native species, but the leafy neem, a native of South Asia which was introduced to Africa about 100 years ago.

Neem now grows from Mali to Sudan. Neem trees are fairly drought-tolerant, but even they declined in the early 1990s, probably because of the long dry spell. Some activists prefer indigenous species, such as Balanites aegyptiaca, but neem grows much faster, which is why people like it (E. Boa, email). In the past few years I have been impressed by the sight of great neem trees around farmsteads in Mali.

Rural people know as well as anyone that trees provide fuel, timber, shade for livestock, fruit and other services. No doubt future generations in the Sahel will encourage native trees, and continue to plant naturalized foreigners like neem, adapting to the slow rhythms of moister and dryer decades.


Further viewing

You can watch the videos here. Managed regeneration, and Parkland agroforestry.

Further reading

Benjaminsen, Tor A. 1993 Fuelwood and Desertification: Sahel Orthodoxies’ Discussed on the Basis of Field Data from the Gourma Region in Mali. Geoforum 24(4): 397-409.

Gonzalez, Patrick 2001 Desertification and a Shift of Forest Species in the West African Sahel. Climate Research 17:217–228.

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