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Save the trees June 26th, 2016 by

I was home Thursday evening, when my daughter, Clara, called us outside to see the forest fire. It was dusk and there was a bright, orange patch of flame dancing around the crest of the Andes, above Cochabamba. The jets of flame were so large we could see them leaping high above the tree tops, even from the city, far below on the valley floor. There had been no rain lately, so we imagined that within a few days the whole forest would be burning.

Now here, the word “forest” needs some explanation. This forest is a large swathe of pine and eucalyptus planted on the upper slopes of the Andes in Tunari National Park. Until the twentieth century, the mountain had been covered in native trees: short, gnarled, slow-growing hardwood trees with papery bark, called qhewiña in Quechua (Polylepis spp.). Throughout the mid twentieth century, wagon loads of the qhewiña wood were sold as firewood in the city of Cochabamba.

By the 1980s, these native trees were mostly gone. Then the Swiss government financed a project to reforest the mountain. Over the next few years, they planted pines and eucalyptus in the national park on the mountain above the city of Cochabamba, and in and around farm communities in the central departments of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca.

ruined building up closeBy Friday the fire we had seen from our home was largely out. On Sunday our curiosity got the better of us and with some of the extended family we drove 10 km above the city on a winding, dirt road, and parked at an abandoned pic-nic ground. Looking around, I realized that the Swiss planned Tunari National Park to be a peri-urban, family-friendly recreational park, where people would come for hikes and meetings in the pines. Among the trees above the city, the project left behind some children’s playgrounds and brick cabins where people could hold meetings or training courses. The buildings were abandoned years ago. The roofs have started to cave in and someone has stolen all of the rope from the children’s swings.

We hiked towards the site of the fire. There were isolated patches of smoldering fire, but no flames. A police fire-truck passed us on the way down, heading for the city. The fire fighters had also decided that the flames were out.

burned forest 2Once in the forest, we could see that the dried grass was thick on the ground, and that seems to have been the main source of fuel for the fire. We thought that some of the trees might survive. This forest has a fire almost every year, during the dry season, and many of the big pines and eucalyptuses have survived earlier burns.

We stopped at a ranger station to get more information. The staff explained that Tunari National Park has seven employees, and they respond as soon as they see a fire. When the fire is too much for the park staff to handle, they call on the departmental branch of the national police (the fire truck we had seen). The park service also relies on an energetic group of volunteers, a membership-based community organization called SAR (Search and Rescue) that looks for lost hikers and operates an ambulance, besides helping to put out forest fires. SAR was founded in 1988 and has no ties to the Swiss project that planted the forest.

By 1999, the original Swiss reforestation project morphed into another project, and no more trees were planted. Yet the original planted forests were not abandoned. The patchwork of organizations (the national park, the police and SAR) that come to the rescue are doing a competent job of saving the trees. The planted trees are now thick and healthy in most places.

The Bolivians put out the forest fires, but don’t care much for the cabins and other buildings left in the forest. I think that is a pattern; when donors invest in tangible, capital goods, local people tend to maintain certain kinds of investments (especially forests), even if the local people are not always willing to maintain buildings and some other investments.

Good-bye bison January 10th, 2016 by

The story of the American bison (the “buffalo” as it is called in the USA) has been rehearsed many times, how the settlers shot them for their hides, or sometimes for their tongues. They shot them just for fun from the platforms of trains, and killed them for malice to starve the Native Americans. It gets worse. The last man to seal the bison’s coffin was a researcher from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

bison up closeThere were once 30 million bison in North America, in two great “herds”, a northern one ranging into Canada and a southern one that wintered in Texas. They ranged from Utah to Pennsylvania. By 1886 bison had almost disappeared, so the Smithsonian Institution sent William Temple Hornaday out west to investigate.

The resourceful Hornaday gathered a team of hunters and guides, provisioned himself with wagons of food and ammunition and set off for the wilds of Montana, where a remnant herd of about 35 bison still ran wild. Hornaday already knew that there were only about 400 bison left alive, 200 in the newly created Yellowstone National Park, and 200 scattered around on private ranches.

Bison had once been naïve and easy to shoot. Sometimes the beasts simply stood still while the hunters shot them down. At other times when the bullets started to fly, the terrified animals bolted off in a wild dash into the wind (where they could smell their way). In his book, The Extermination of the American Bison, Hornaday describes in loving detail how this last wild herd in Montana was now more cautious of people.

Hornaday simply assumed that nothing could be done for the bison, that they were doomed to extinction. He (and his backers) imagined that when all the bison were gone, it would be nice to have a few stuffed bison in naturalistic poses, inside a glass case for the museum-going public to see.

By 1886, the remaining, wiser bison had finally learned to run in different directions at the first shot, and to hide in the ravines. And bison run pretty darned fast. Even so, Hornaby and his crew managed to kill 20 of the creatures, and crate their hides and bones back to Washington, where the remarkable Hornaday, who was an expert taxidermist, preserved six dead bison, from calves to old cows and bulls, for a diorama of the Great Plains. Wildlife conservation has come a long way since then.

As a species though, the bison got lucky. As an afterthought, Hornaday brought back two calves. It was the least he could do, since he had killed their mothers and they had wandered into his camp and taken to following the men around. These calves became the nucleus of the bison herd in the National Zoo, in Washington.

S.L. Bedson, of Stony Mountain, Manitoba and C.J. Jones of Garden City, Kansas and other ranchers managed to buy up scattered bison from other cowmen who had only one or two animals, until they gathered small, reproducing herds.

In 1986 the management of Yellowstone National Park passed from the Interior Department to the U.S. Army. Hunters slipped into the park to slaughter the last remaining wild bison (to sell their hides). The poachers were heavily armed and light on scruples, but Captain Moses Harris and his men chased them out of the park.. Thanks to the efforts of a few ranchers and soldiers the bison survivedin parks, ranches and zoos. Yet their ecosystem is gone: the wild grasslands have been plowed up, and replaced with maize, soybeans, and pick-up trucks. The bison or buffalo no longer thunder their way north and south in great, reddish brown rivers in search of fresh pasture.

Some people are even raising bison commercially, and its lean, tasty meat is back on the menu. In Washington DC, you can have a bison burger at the restaurant in the Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the same outfit which once backed Hornaday’s taxidermy expedition. Hornaday might be pleasantly surprised to see that the bison was not exterminated after all.

Further reading

Hornaday, William Temple 2002 (1889) The Extermination of the American Bison. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Out of the shade June 15th, 2015 by

Bird migration North to south America and backCocoa’s natural range spreads from Central America to western Amazonia. For centuries, smallholder farmers had grown cocoa in the shade of other trees, so the story went. But there’s no reason why cocoa can’t be grown in full sun once the delicate young plants are established. Large-scale farmers shade their young cocoa with banana plants or fast-growing legume trees such as Inga, which are then removed after a few years.

Ecuador was my first experience with cocoa. I learned that shaded cocoa was “good for biodiversity”. The shade trees sheltered the birds on their flights between North and South America, but ornithologists were concerned about full-sun cocoa. There’s a lot of cocoa planted along the migration route. The debate between shaded and sunny cocoa sounded like a morality play, with traditional, small farms and their bird-friendly shade trees pitted against profiteering plantation agriculture.

The grant proposal said that not enough was known about shade tree health. Better knowledge of their pests and diseases would protect the trees, the birds and biodiversity. Win-win-win. The real story was not so simple.

ECF13 JS, JB and farmerDriving around the western lowlands of Ecuador, with Jeff Bentley and John Stonehouse, we soon realized that shade trees were astoundingly healthy. I had this uneasy feeling that we were studying a non-problem. We ploughed on, visiting 21 farms, interviewing the farmers at length about their shade trees. We wrote up our notes separately and the tree health specialist (me), agricultural anthropologist (Jeff) and entomologist (John) compared what we’d seen. Slowly some light emerged.

We asked farmers why they grew shade trees though this wasn’t what we had set out to do. But I relaxed a little as I realised that we’d done what my colleague Harry Evans had called ‘wrong experiment, right results’. We were looking at shade trees in a naïve, but fresh way. Early in our farm visits we noticed that many of the trees growing amidst the cocoa could not possibly be for shade. Orange trees, a common ‘shade’ tree, were barely taller than the cocoa. Coconut palms had small canopies that cast little shade.

Few of the shade trees were survivors from the remnant forest, contrary to a popular stereotype. Most were planted by the farmers, whose main concern was making the most of the land. They grew trees in between the cocoa because it was possible to do so, not because they provided shade. The other trees increased their income through sale of fruit and timber.

Cocoa garden near KyavikereWe quietly forgot about tree health. Our sponsors appeared happy with the results. At the end of the study we decided that “shade tree” was the wrong label for the other plants that mingled with cacao. Shade was not their main function. Jeff suggested “neighbour trees” instead and that’s what we called them in our report.

Seeing something from the farmer’s point of view helped to suggest new ways to reconcile the concerns of small and large scale cocoa-growers, researchers –  and the birds. As the Ecuadorean farmers patiently answered our questions and showed us round their farms, we learned that the old cacao varieties grown among bird-friendly neighbour trees lived longer than full-sun cocoa and produced much tastier chocolate. Monocrops of modern, high-yielding cocoa hybrids need regular replacing – and lack neighbour trees.

At the time of the study there was no premium for the bird-friendly, shaded cocoa. Buyers offered as much for insipid, full-sun cocoa beans as for the good chocolate. If the family farmers are paid what their quality cocoa is really worth, it is better for them, and for the birds.

Further reading

Bentley JW, Boa E, Stonehouse J, 2004. Neighbor trees: Shade, intercropping, and cacao in Ecuador. Human Ecology 32(2), 241-270. Read article ›

Boa E, Bentley J, Stonehouse J, 2000. Cacao and Neighbour Trees in Ecuador: How and Why Farmers Manage Trees for Shade and Other Purposes. Final Technical Report. Egham, UK: CABI Bioscience. Read the report.

The world we have eaten May 17th, 2015 by

The people of London of the 1600s could never be more than a couple of miles from the green fields and pastures that surrounded the little city. There was no noise from machines or motors of any kind, writes Peter Laslett in his social history of Britain’s capital, longingly titled The World We Have Lost (1984, New York: Scribner).

London is now a grand city, probably a lot cleaner than it has ever been before, and blessed with a gracious string of wooded parks, but still a world of farms and villages has vanished beneath it. Paving over the farmland is now happening with astonishing speed in many tropical cities.

I was weeding the garden with my father-in-law a few weeks ago, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when he noticed our few stalks of corn and he said “This is a good country for maize, because years ago, all of this land was in corn.” He went on to say that as a kid in the 1940s he would come to this very same area, and study with his friends. They would bring their books and read out-loud to each other, or they would stop in the shade of a molle tree and read. Sometimes they got to goofing off and didn’t study very much. They might even go for a swim in the Rocha River.

There is now a busy avenue following the river, but back then, there was a broad forest of eucalyptus, with paths between the trees, and people would come out from town to stroll. There were always people walking, studying and just generally enjoying the peace and shade.

To put this little story in perspective, the places my father-in-law was describing as open countryside are now in the center of the city. For over 400 years, Cochabamba was a city just a few streets wide, in the bend of the Rocha River. In 1548, the Spanish conquistador G. de Camargo (and 450 native people) worked a farm in what would later be the city center. The city was founded there in 1572, and for centuries was just a small town, about two kilometers across, surrounded by farms and villages. The valley was part of a globalizing economy that sent food grains to the mines of Potosí, which sent gold and silver to Spain, which were spent on manufactures from England and the Netherlands, where the precious coins were used to finance industrialization.

From the 1940s to the 1990s Cochabamba spread to an area about 10 km by 10, all over the eastern end of this large, fertile valley. Since the 1990s the city has spread up into the foothills of the cordillera and into the neighboring valley of Sacaba. Buildings stretch for miles where the maize fields once waved.  The skyline is changing from mountains to concrete as houses are knocked down to make apartment buildings.

All is not gone. In a few places you can still get a glimpse of the river and imagine how it would have tempted teenagers to drop their homework and jump in, but the water is now so filthy it stinks, and no one but the homeless and the mentally ill get in it.

Cochabamba is just a provincial capital in a small country on the remote continent of South America, but cities are eating up the countryside from Tegucigalpa to Lagos to Cairo and Dhaka. Ironically, many of them were sited where they are because the soil was rich and the settlers could grow food.

Farmland is often well managed, especially by family farmers like Johan and Vera who you will read about week. But in an open land market, farming cannot compete with city dwellers. Urbanites can usually pay more for land and water than farm families can, unless public opinion and policy realize that farmland is a scare natural resource, just like forests and streams. If the cities eat the farmland, what will we eat?

Further reading

Baptista Gumucio, Mariano (Ed.) 2012 Cochabamba: Vista a través de Viajeros y Autores Nacionales Siglos XVI al XXI. Cochabamba, Editorial Kipus.

The bird cliffs November 2nd, 2014 by

The red-fronted macaw is found nowhere but in the sandstone canyons of central Bolivia. There may be less than 1000 individuals alive.

The bird fills a niche, literally, nesting in small holes high in the cliff side. While this may have been an evolutionary breakthrough, freeing the bird from the predations of pumas and foxes, the stone alcoves eventually became death traps as we will see below.

Fortunately for this endangered species, a group of conservationists bought its largest nesting site, in San Carlos, Omereque, and built a visitors’ lodge near the food of the cliff, and taught local people to run the guest house, to keep the money and split it once a year between the three nearest communities.

It was a shrewd move because the macaw’s worst natural enemy is the human being. Once a year, just before the young birds are old enough to leave the nest, young men lower themselves over the top of the cliff-face on ropes and capture fledgling chicks to sell for $20 or more to people who cage them and teach them to imitate human speech, especially the sillier versions of it, such as football slogans and strings of cuss words.

Kidnapping macaw chicks is an easy traffic to stop, if a community wants to, because the nesting cliffs are in full view of the village, and the hunting season is just once a year: easy to anticipate and police. At least two other bird species, the Bolivian blackbird and the cliff parakeet also live in the cliffs, and while not quite as appealing as a brilliant, emerald and vermillion macaw, the other birds are also protected.

Not every endangered species can be protected by buying 50 hectares of land and putting up a comfortable lodge. Some animals range over vast forests and can be hunted in secret. But for some species, this is a model. The nifty part is that the donors who buy the land don’t need to make a profit. They are investing money to keep a species alive. The project generates small amounts of money that can be given to nearby communities, to spend on schools and potable water, and encourage people to protect the wildlife.

Since 2006, people from the Bolivian NGO Armonía have spent a lot of time teaching the local people about the value of the macaw. Farmers noticed the birds scrounging for peanuts in the soil or eating the occasional ear of corn, and assumed that the macaws were pests. Guido Saldaña of Armonía explained to the people that this damage was minimal, more unsightly than economically important.

Still, relatively few visitors come, because Omereque is so remote, a six to eight hour drive from the nearest airport (about equidistant from either Santa Cruz or Cochabamba).

A Bolivian newspaper article reports that the three neighboring villages received about $7000 last year. And the villagers earned money from agricultural projects with Armonía, such as growing papaya.

Local people say that the youth who once robbed the nests still do so, they just go further into the canyons, in places where the birds are unprotected. I don’t say this as a criticism of the youth, the communities or any of the organizations that are involved. Villagers often protect a common resource and set up rules about how to use it, to conserve it. In Omereque, with the help of sympathetic outsiders, the villagers have turned the cliff-face into a formal, organized common, with rules that prohibit the extraction of birds. The village youth are still happy to risk their necks dangling over other cliffs to filch baby birds, but now the boys go outside the regulated common. The youth are free-riders, not apparently convinced of the conservation ethic, but benefitting from the increased supply of breeding pairs of macaws, thanks to the protected site. No solution is perfect.

At least we know that their nesting sites can be protected, one haven at a time.

Scientific names:

Red-fronted macaw, Ara rubrogenys (Spanish: paraba frente roja)

Cliff parakeet, Myiopsitta luchsi, (Spanish: cotorra boliviana)

Bolivian blackbird, Oreopsar bolivianus (Spanish: tordo boliviano)

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