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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.

The smart phone generation September 30th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

Colleagues from the Public University of San Andrés in La Paz have been teaching groups of farmers to use a free app called Weather Underground, which allows users to forecast the weather in their location. This week my colleagues wrote a fact sheet for farmers on how to use Weather Underground. I went with one of the agronomists, Alex Borda, to validate his fact sheet in the farm community of Choquenaira, on the Bolivian Altiplano.

Young farmers in Bolivia have smart phones, and like young people in the city, they use Facebook and other applications. So, farmers should be eager to download and use apps from the web to predict the weather, which is so important for agriculture.

First we met with Pascual Choque, 80, who was sitting with his friends in the shade of a large stack of bricks. Don Pascual was born at a time when many rural communities lived in the semi-slavery of the haciendas, large farms managed by powerful landlords. The Revolution of 1952 brought many social changes and new freedoms, including access to education and information. Don Pascual went to school, became a teacher and now, among other things, works in a radio station. He interviews agronomists and PhDs on his morning show, broadcast at five o’clock, when rural people are eating breakfast and listening to the news.

Don Pascual read the fact sheet. As a retired school teacher, he read out loud quite quickly, but he said that the only thing he understood from the fact sheet was that the climate is changing. “That is true,” he said, “the rains used to come at the same time each year. Not anymore.”

Alex read the fact sheet with some other farmers, but they also struggled to make sense of the text. It had unfamiliar terms like “click”, “select an option” and “close the app”. I started to feel frustrated, just like Alex. I have helped to validate many fact sheets and this was the first time that the people said that they understood almost nothing.

We kept walking until we reached a small station of the Agricultural School of the Public University of San Andrés. I was surprised find this outpost in the immensity of the Altiplano, with no houses nearby. The station was small—some llama corrals, tractors and sun burnt buildings and there were few people around. We managed to speak with some professors. As we were about to leave I saw two young women dressed in work clothes. They were agronomy students. “Let them read your fact sheet” I suggested to Alex. He came back pleased a few minutes later. The students liked his fact sheet and said that “there was nothing difficult to understand about it”. The youth understood his fact sheet. They have smart phones, and know how to discuss these magical pocket computers.

Today from the Andes to Africa one hears that the youth are leaving the countryside. To attract the ones who are staying, it will be necessary to try new digital options to help manage agricultural information. The older generation took advantage of the new technology of their times, like schools and radio. This generation is also looking for new information technologies, even some that support agriculture. I have little doubt they will be interested in a free way to predict the weather using their cell phones.

LA GENERACIÓN SMART PHONE

30 de septiembre del 2018, por Jeff Bentley

Compañeros de la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés en La Paz han estado enseñando a grupos de agricultores a usar una aplicación gratis llamada el Weather Underground, que permite a los usuarios pronosticar el tiempo para su ubicación. Esta semana mis colegas han escrito una hoja volante sobre para agricultores sobre cómo usar el Weather Underground. Fui con uno de los ingenieros, Alex Borda, a validad su hoja volante en la comunidad campesina de Choquenaira, en el Altiplano de Bolivia.

Los jóvenes campesinos en Bolivia tienen smart phones, e igual que en la ciudad, usan Facebook y otras aplicaciones. Entonces, a los campesinos les debería gustar bajar y usar aplicaciones del web para pronosticar el tiempo, ya que la agricultura depende del clima.

Primero nos encontramos con Pascual Choque, de 80 años, sentado con sus amigos en la sombra de un gran bulto de ladrillos, para construir una nueva casa. Don Pascual nació cuando muchas comunidades rurales vivían en la semi-esclavitud de las haciendas, fincas grandes manejadas por poderosos terratenientes. La Revolución del 1952 trajo muchos cambios sociales, incluso el acceso a la educación y la información. Don Pascual asistió al colegio y llegó a ser docente y, entre otras cosas, trabajó en una radio.  El se entrevista con ingenieros y doctores en su programa por la mañana, a las 5, cuando la gente rural desayuna y escucha las noticias.

Don Pascual leyó la hoja volante. Como profesor jubilado lee muy bien y muy rápido en voz alta, pero dijo que lo único que entendió de la hoja volante era que el clima está cambiando. “Es cierto,” dijo, “antes las lluvias venían en su debido día. Ya no.”

Alex leyó su hoja volante con otras campesinas, pero tampoco entendían muy bien la hoja volante. Tenía vocabulario desconocido como “hacer clic”, “seleccionar una opción” y “cerrar la aplicación”. Yo empecé a frustrarme, junto con Alex. He acompañado a muchas hojas volantes y esa era la primera vez que la gente decía que no entendía casi nada.

Seguimos caminando hasta llegar a la pequeña estación de la Facultad de Agronomía de la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. Era para mí una enorme sorpresa ver la estación en la inmensidad del Altiplano, pero no había más casas. La estación era pequeña—unos corrales de llama, tractores y edificios tostados por el sol. Había poca gente. Logramos hablar con algunos profesores. Estábamos pot irnos cuando vi a dos jóvenes vestidas en ropa de trabajo. Eran estudiantes de agronomía. “Que ellas lean tu hoja volante” sugería a Alex. El volvió unos minutos después todo contento. A ellas les gustó la hoja volante y dijeron que “no tenía nada difícil de entender”. Las jóvenes entendían su hoja volante. Ellos tienen teléfonos inteligentes, y saben discutir esas computadoras de bolsillo.

Hoy en día desde los Andes hasta Africa se oye que todos los jóvenes quieren abandonar el campo. Para atraer a los que quieren quedarse, será necesario probar nuevas opciones de tecnología digital para manejar información agrícola. Sus abuelos aprovecharon de las nuevas opciones de sus tiempos, como el colegio y la radio. Esta generación también busca nuevas tecnologías de información, incluso para el apoyo del agro. Les debe interesar una forma gratis de pronosticar el clima con su celular.

Potato marmalade April 29th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

The American anthropologist Mary Weismantel notes that for peasant farmers in the Ecuadorian Andes, cooking is the very last step (before eating) in the long process of growing crops.

During my career I’ve met many agricultural scientists working on better ways to grow more food on small farms, to harvest it more efficiently and lose less in storage. Until recently, I had met few who studied better ways of cooking.

At UMSS, a public university in Bolivia, food technologist, Prof. Jenny Espinoza, and her students are designing new products from potato. They hope that these products will increase the demand for potatoes and raise prices that Bolivian smallholders receive. One student has discovered that unique colors of natural dye can be derived from the various native varieties of Andean potatoes. Another has made pasta from potato flour.

Last week I had a chance to see thesis students Marizel Rojas and Dubeiza Flores making potato marmalade in the food laboratory. Strictly speaking, marmalade is made from oranges, but in South America most jams are called “mermelada.” As with all inventions, such as the lightbulb or metal plow, creating a new food product involves trial and error, with the inventor slowly working towards the target concept.

Marizel and Dubeiza got some suggestions for marmalade from the internet. These weren’t much help, but they were a start. The potato is a good source of pectin, the glue that holds the jam together, but the original recipes produced a lumpy, tasteless paste. Eventually the researchers figured out how much sugar to add, and they learned that fruit had to be added to add more flavor than a plain potato could offer. They also realized that the potato had to be puréed in an electronic blender.

The student researchers learned that the total amount of sugar had to equal 80% of the combined volume of potatoes and fruit, after boiling off most of the water. Then these amounts had to be converted into simple measures that cooks could use without doing any arithmetic.

After watching the thesis students make the jam, we sat down with some of the other faculty and students and ate a whole jar of it on crackers (biscuits). It was delicious, especially when warm, with no taste of potato.

Agricultural inventions often go through several stages. The researcher develops a prototype which farmers validate, and modify, which can then be shared with other communities. They then continue to creatively adapt the idea.

The potato marmalade is still at the prototype stage, but it has come a long way. The students have started to make their products with a farm community in Piusilla, Morochata, near Cochabamba. Only time will tell if potato marmalade becomes popular with consumers, but the research has shown a bit more of the potential hidden in the versatile potato. The trials have been a training ground for two young food engineers. If you can make marmalade from potatoes no doubt many more things can be made from the humble tuber.

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Try it at home

If you want to experiment with potato marmalade at home you will need the following:

Ingredients

3 small to medium-sized potatoes (100 grams raw, after peeling and cutting)

1 cup of water

1 small pineapple. Or about 2 cups (or 100 grams)

3 cups of sugar (160 grams)

The juice of 2 small lemons or 2 tablespoons of lemon juice

Makes enough marmalade to fill about 3 jars.

Steps

Peel the potatoes, wash them and cut them into cubes. They should make about 2 cups when cubed, or 100 grams.

Boil the potatoes until they are cooked.

Purée the mashed potatoes in an electric blender with a cup of water, which makes the potatoes easier to blend.

Peel the pineapple, cut it into cubes. Purée it in the blender. It should be about 2 cups or 100 grams of fruit.

Add the pineapple purée to the potato.

Add just 1 cup of sugar. (Don’t add all 3 cups now, or the marmalade will turn brown).

Return the mix to the stovetop and boil for about 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Boil until the mixture is thick. As you boil off the water, the mix should lose about half of its volume.

Add the other 2 cups of sugar and cook for about 5 minutes until the mixture is thick.

Stir in the lemon juice.

Remove from the fire and pour the hot marmalade into sterile glass jars.

Put the lid on the jars and turn the jars upside down to cool. Turning the jars upside down sterilizes the inner side of the lid with the boiling hot marmalade.

MERMELADA DE PAPA

Por Jeff Bentley, 29 de abril del 2018

La antropóloga estadounidense Mary Weismantel señala que para los campesinos de los Andes ecuatorianos, cocinar es el último paso (antes de comer) en un largo proceso que empieza con la siembra.

A través de los años, he conocido a muchos científicos agrícolas que tratan de mejorar el cultivo de alimentos en fincas campesinas, cosechar de manera más eficiente y perder menos en pos-cosecha. Pero hasta hace poco, conocía a pocos que estudiaban mejores formas de cocinar.

En la UMSS, una universidad pública en Bolivia, la tecnóloga de alimentos, la Prof. Jenny Espinoza, y sus estudiantes están diseñando nuevos productos de papa. Esperan que estos productos aumenten la demanda de la papa y que suban los precios que reciben los campesinos bolivianos. Una tesista ha descubierto que se pueden derivar colores únicos de las diversas variedades nativas de papas andinas. Otra ha hecho pasta de harina de papa.

La semana pasada tuve la oportunidad de ver a las tesistas Marizel Rojas y Dubeiza Flores mientras hacían mermelada de papa en el laboratorio de alimentos. Como con todos los inventos, como el foco de luz o el arado de metal, la inventora de un nuevo producto alimenticio usa el método de la prueba y error, trabajando lenta pero sistemáticamente hacia el concepto objetivo

Marizel y Dubeiza recibieron algunas sugerencias de mermelada de Internet. Estos no fueron de mucha ayuda, pero fueron un comienzo. La papa es una buena fuente de pectina, el pegamento que aglutina la mermelada, pero las recetas originales produjeron una pasta grumosa e insípida. Finalmente, las investigadoras calcularon que cantidad de azúcar agregar, y aprendieron que había que agregar fruta para dar más sabor del que podría ofrecer una papa común. También se dieron cuenta de que la papa tenía que ser hacerse puré en una licuadora.

Las tesistas aprendieron que la cantidad total de azúcar tenía que ser igual al 80% del volumen combinado de la papa y la fruta, después de perder la mayor parte del agua durante la cocción. Luego estas cantidades tuvieron que convertirse en medidas simples que las cocineras podrían usar sin hacer cálculos matemáticos.

Después de hacer la mermelada, nos sentamos con algunos de los otros profesores y estudiantes y comimos un frasco completo con galletas. Fue deliciosa, especialmente por ser caliente. No tenía ningún sabor a papa.

Los inventos agrícolas a menudo pasan por varias etapas. La investigadora desarrolla un prototipo que las agricultoras validan y modifican, que luego se puede compartir con otras comunidades. Luego continúan adaptando creativamente la idea.

La mermelada de papa todavía está en la etapa de prototipo, pero ha recorrido un largo camino. Las tesistas han comenzado a hacer sus productos con la comunidad agrícola de Piusilla, Morochata, cerca de Cochabamba. Solo el tiempo dirá si la mermelada de papa se vuelve popular entre los consumidores, pero la investigación ha mostrado un poco más del potencial escondido en la versátil papa. Las pruebas han sido un campo de entrenamiento para dos jóvenes ingenieras de alimentos. Si se puede hacer mermelada de la papa, sin duda, se pueden hacer muchas más cosas a partir del humilde tubérculo.

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Pruébalo en casa

Si desea experimentar con mermelada de papa en su hogar, necesitará lo siguiente:

Ingredientes

3 papas pequeñas a medianas (100 gramos crudos, después de pelar y cortar)

1 taza de agua

1 piña pequeña o unas 2 tazas (o 100 gramos)

3 tazas de azúcar (160 gramos)

El jugo de 2 limones pequeños o 2 cucharadas de jugo de limón

Hace suficiente mermelada para llenar alrededor de 3 frascos.

Pasos

Pele las papas, lávelas y córtelas en cubos. Debe ser unas 2 tazas cuando están en cubos, o 100 gramos.

Hervir las papas hasta que estén cocidas.

Haga el puré de papas en una licuadora eléctrica con una taza de agua, para que las papas sean más fáciles de mezclar.

Pele la piña, córtela en cubos, haciendo un puré en la licuadora. Es aproximadamente 2 tazas o 100 gramos de fruta.

Agregue el puré de piña a la papa.

Agregue solo 1 taza de azúcar. (No agregue las 3 tazas ahora, o la mermelada se pondrá marrón).

Regrese la mezcla a la estufa y hierva durante más o menos 15 minutos, revolviendo constantemente. Hierva hasta que la mezcla esté espesa. Al hervirse, la mezcla debería perder aproximadamente la mitad de su volumen.

Agregue las otras 2 tazas de azúcar y cocine por unos 5 minutos hasta que la mezcla esté espesa.

Agregue el jugo de limón.

Retire del fuego y vierta la mermelada caliente en frascos de vidrio estériles.

Pon la tapa sobre los frascos y ponga los frascos boca abajo mientras se enfríen. Así se esteriliza la parte interior de la tapa con la mermelada hirviendo.

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 Asociación de Organizaciones de los Cuchumatanes (ASOCUCH).

Spontaneous generation January 28th, 2018 by

A few days ago, I sat at my desk in Cochabamba, Bolivia, giving a talk over the Internet to graduate students who were taking a class in IPM (integrated pest management) at the University of Kentucky and the University of Arkansas. One professor, Rob Wiedenmann, was listening in from New Zealand, where he was on sabbatical, but still in touch.

I reviewed some ideas for the students about studying local knowledge of insects and plant diseases, and recent efforts to share ideas on pest control with smallholders via videos. I said that anthropologists have great respect for local knowledge, but those anthropologists had been looking at local knowledge of relatively large plants and animals, not pest control, insect ecology or plant disease. When I was in Central America in the late 1980s and early 1990s I was surprised to realize that Honduran smallholders didn’t understand how insects reproduced. The farmers didn’t know that male and female insects mated to produce fertile eggs which hatched into larvae. This gap in knowledge led to the farmers’ misperception that caterpillars that were eating the maize field had come out of nowhere, the result of spontaneous generation.

That caught Prof. Wiedenmann’s attention. “What can you say about US farmers?” he asked. He wondered what entomologists could do to help North American farmers monitor their insect pests. US farmers often don’t realize that pests are causing damage until it is too late to do anything about them. North American farmers don’t believe in spontaneous generation, but they might as well.

I thought I knew what Prof. Wiedenmann was talking about. I’d been reading Ted Genoways’ book This Blessed Earth, an intimate account of a year in the life of a Nebraska farm family, the Hammonds. These thoughtful, professional farmers were using state of the art technology, including harvesters that gathered in a dozen rows of soybeans at once while measuring the moisture content of the beans and following the furrows by using a GPS. But at harvest time the farmers were shocked to find out that stem borers had caused losses worth thousands of dollars.

I could see that sitting high up in the combine harvester could leave farmers with fewer opportunities to observe their plants. I wasn’t sure what to suggest as a remedy, but I said it is always good to spend more time with the farmers, whether in Arkansas or in Kenya, before jumping to conclusions about what they knew and understood, particularly when it came to pests and diseases..

“Yes, agricultural researchers are often leapfrogging over the lack of information,” Wiedemann quipped. Researchers rush to make recommendations for farmers, but without really understanding their perception or their production constraints.

Different styles of farming influence the ways one sees the world. US farmers have taken biology classes at school and understand that insects don’t come out of nowhere, but lack day-to-day contact with their crops. Tropical smallholders are often out in their fields, and are more likely to spot a pest before the crop is ready to harvest. Even so, most farmers the world over are busy and don’t have enough time to observe their crop regularly and systematically. This can lead to devastating crop losses. Whether farming on a large or a small scale, helping farmers to observe their crops better requires solid interaction with growers to develop and test possible solutions that work in the local context.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Prof. John Obrycki for inviting me to give this virtual seminar.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology 42(2):285-301. http://www.jefferybentley.com/Honduran%20Folk%20Entomology.pdf

Wyckhuys, Kris, Jeffery Bentley, Rico Lie, Marjon Fredrix and Le Phuong Nghiem 2017 “Maximizing Farm-Level Uptake and Diffusion of Biological Control Innovations in Today’s Digital Era.” BioControl.

Related videos

Access Agriculture has over 30 videos on IPM, which you can watch here.

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