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Monkeys in the sacred forest May 31st, 2020 by

Of all the possible ways to save a primate species from extinction, the least expected is voodoo. It is known as vodun in Benin, West Africa, where Swiss ecologist Peter Neuenschwander began his conservation efforts.

I have written before how Peter first acquired, in 1995, a little group of red-bellied monkeys, a critically endangered species that lives only in the dwindling coastal forests of Benin. Later, Peter started to buy tracts of forest to keep the monkeys. At first, he kept them in cages. But after the monkeys began to mate, the half-grown babies would slip out of the cages and forage in the forest, where they were also fed on cucumbers and bananas, to make sure they got enough to eat.

Peter told me his story when I visited him at his Sanctuaire des Singes (Monkey Sanctuary) in the village of Drabo Gbo, near Cotonou, 12 years ago. Now he’s published a novel, based on his experience, in which he gives more details about how he slowly acquired his 14-hectare forest, buying small plots of about a hectare at a time.

Although Peter enjoyed his research in entomology, and loved living and working in Africa, he swore he would never buy land there. Or at least until a friend took him to Drabo Gbo, a small area near the research station where Peter worked. A large extended family owned a piece of land that had once been natural forest, but was now mainly planted with teak trees. A small area of sacred forest still remained, dominated by a massive cola tree. It was love at first sight. Peter arranged to buy the land with the cola tree, and an adjacent plot recently cleared for maize.

The sale helped the villagers of Drabo Gabo out of an impasse, for they had split into two groups, one of evangelical Christians and one of believers in vodun. The evangelicals wanted to cut down the forest and sell the wood. They also wanted to stop the vodun worshipers holding their rituals beneath the cola tree on moonless nights.

Peter bought the sacred forest from the evangelical faction, which held the title to the land. They got their money and Peter got his land. He then told the vodun group that they could continue to hold their rituals in the forest, but only if they would protect it.

Peter offered more than moral support to the vodun group. He joined in their sessions and, as he acquired more land, he was eventually initiated into two vodun groups, Zan-Gbeto, and Oro. In return, the Zan-Gbeto assigned a young man to be Peter’s guardian. Peter built a house on the deforested land, and with his guardian began to reforest the maize and fallow fields. Fortunately, the land had only recently been cleared from forest. Some trees grew up from the stumps left in the field. Other saplings sprouted from seeds that were still in the soil. Peter’s guardian would also bring in rare tree seedlings that he had found in neighbor’s fields.

As Peter describes in his book, it hasn’t always been easy. The villagers often ask him for cash to pay for school fees, funerals and medical expenses. He feels that he has to pay or they will turn on the forest, since they think that it would be better used for farming. There has also been violence, including a machete fight fueled by alcohol at a vodun meeting, and even murder.

Yet the villagers essentially held up their end of the bargain. The vodun men kept the hunters and woodcutters out of the forest. Peter could not have protected the forest by himself. There have been other benefits besides providing a home for the monkeys. By 2015 about half of the endangered plants in Benin were to be found in this sacred forest. Some animals, like the royal pythons, have become rare, but the red-bellied monkeys are reproducing. Peter has managed to pass his sanctuary forest on to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), where he still works on a voluntary basis. IITA will use the forest as a place to study insects, which are essential for biological pest control, which is Peter’s specialty.

The sacred forest is now recognized as a reference forest. Botanists can visit and see trees that they may have never seen before, because the forests that still harbor them are too remote.

Many northern scientists who work and live the tropics have done important research. Few have made a home for endangered monkeys in a sacred forest, and by doing so, saved both. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Peter is nothing if not honest about his experiences. “There are times when I hate myself for being here, and detest the entire village.” But he also writes: “After years of travelling throughout Africa in a quest to improve sustainable farming, this attraction culminated in a boy’s dream come true: living in a real forest, tending rare plants, and raising endangered monkeys.”

Further reading

Bentley, Jeff 2008 Red-Bellied Monkeys.

Neuenschwander, Peter 2020 Death in Benin: Science Meets Voodoo. Just Fiction! Editions, Omni Scriptum Publ., Beau Basin, Mauritius.

Neuenschwander, P., & Adomou, A. 2017.  Reconstituting a rainforest patch in southern Benin for the protection of threatened plants. Nature Conservation 21: 57-82.

Neuenschwander, Peter, Brice Sinsin and Georg Goergen (editors) 2011 Nature Conservation in West Africa: Red List for Benin. Cotonou: IITA.

Neuenschwander, P., Bown, D., Hèdégbètan, G. C., & Adomou, A. 2015 Long-term conservation and rehabilitation of threatened rain forest patches under different human population pressures in West Africa. Nature Conservation 13: 21–46.

Scientific names

Cola tree, Cola gigantea

Royal Python, Python regius

Red- bellied monkey, Cercopithecus erythrogaster

Acknowledgements

A warm thanks to Peter Neuenschwander for comments on a previous draft, and for kindly allowing me to use his excellent photographs. And to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa, your help on these stories is always appreciated, even if I don’t always say so.

Offbeat urban fertilizer May 17th, 2020 by

Some urbanites in Covid lockdown are rediscovering their neglected gardens. Living in or near the city also gives you access to some products that are hard to find in farm country. For example, cabinet makers in the city may be able to give you wood shavings that you can use to make beds for pigs or chickens.

I’ve written before about the Taquiña brewery that releases waste water—sometimes with a fine head of beer on it—while at other times it has detergent, or barley hulls, or it is clear. An irrigators’ association channels the water to grow carnations and other high value crops.

Taquiña has its factory in the foothills above Cochabamba, Bolivia, where spent, fermented barley mash, the grain solids left over from beer brewing, is heaped into large piles. We occasionally notice the mash when we park at the brewery to hike in the mountains. Ana always said it would make a good organic fertilizer, but it wasn’t until February last year that she decided to do something about her idea. The brewery was happy for her to take the mash, on one condition: she had to take it all.

Ana rented a vintage truck and hired a driver, then returned to the brewery with a shovel and a hired helper. The mash was golden brown, with a light, yeasty smell, and all appeared fine until they dug into it. Inside the pile was rotten and flies had laid their eggs in it, the result of staying out too long in the rain. Peri-urban farmers use the mash to feed their pigs, but they hadn’t been to collect it for some time.

Ana and her helpers made three trips home with around ten tons of mash. The mash smelled like sewage and it had the thick, sticky consistency of children’s modelling clay. I called it the stinky playdough.

Our neighbors had some choice words about the stench. Eventually we managed to get all of the stinky playdough spread over our small garden and the stench gradually disappeared. The flies went away, the plants grew and we forgot about the rotten mash. Until we were quarantined.

By March of this year our garden was overgrown with weeds. But then I found time in the evenings and the weekends to pull up the weeds and plant some vegetable beds. Years ago, the dirt in our garden was dull red, and lifeless, but after taking on the stinky playdough, the soil was rich and black, full of earthworms and just right for growing organic vegetables.

If I had to do it again, I would look for smaller, fresher batches of barley mash. Even so, the obnoxious, stinky playdough turned out to be a great fertilizer. Ana also collects a few other sources of organic matter, including lawn clippings from the neighbors. A lady who sells fresh-squeezed juice in the park gives us orange rinds, which compost quickly in Cochabamba.  

Cities have abundant organic matter, partly from urban gardens, but mainly pulled in from the countryside. With a little creativity, you can grow your own healthy food in the city at low cost, without the need for chemical fertilizer.

Related blog stories

Smelling is believing

Trash to treasure

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Making a vermicompost bed

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

On using wood shavings to raise chickens near the city:

Working together for healthy chicks and

Making a business from home raised chicks

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Travelling farmers May 3rd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

We once had a talented carpenter named Rodrigo, who would come to our house to fix cabinets and build closets. He liked to start in the afternoon and stay for dinner. He was slow and methodical, but his work was always perfect. Every year, this bohemian handyman would take his mother and go back to their home village on the Bolivian Altiplano, several times a year to plant, tend and harvest quinoa. They would bring the harvest back to Cochabamba and wait for the price to peak, when they would sell. In previous stories we have described the soil erosion caused by the quinoa boom (Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster and Slow recovery), but Rodrigo and his mother were acting like short-term, economic rationalists.

In a provocative new article, researcher Enrique Ormachea explains that people like Rodrigo and his mother are “residents” (country people living permanently in the cities, while maintaining ties in the village, especially returning for harvest).

Other farmers have moved much shorter distances. The Andean valleys are dotted with the ruined, adobe houses where the grandparents of today’s farmers once lived. Many farmers have left the most remote countryside to live in the bigger villages and small towns where there are shops, schools, electricity and running water. In the past 15 or 20 years, many of these Bolivian farmers have bought motorcycles so they can live in town and commute to the farm. It is now a common sight in the countryside to see farmers’ motorbikes parked along the side of the dirt roads, while the farmer is working a nearby field.

These farmers sell their potatoes and grains in weekly fairs in the small towns, to small-scale wholesalers (who work with just one truck). Thousands of people may throng into a fair, in a town that is nearly empty the other six days of the week.

Still other migrants make long trips every year. Farmers without irrigation cannot work their own land during the long dry season. So, in the offseason they travel to the lowlands of Bolivia, where forests have been cleared for industrial agriculture: not necessarily sustainable, but productive (at least for now). This commercial agriculture relies on the labor of rural people who travel hundreds of kilometers to work.

68% of the agricultural production in Bolivia comes from large, capitalist farms, according to census data that Ormachea cites in his article. 23% is on peasant farms that are large enough to hire some labor and sell some produce. Only 8% is on small, subsistence farms. One could argue with this data; smallholders often underestimate their income when talking to census takers, who are suspected of being the tax man in disguise. Even if we accept the figures at face value, a third of food output comes from small farms. But large and small farms produce different things; smallholders produce fruits, vegetables, potatoes and pigs, unlike the soy, sugar, rice and beef that comes from the big farms. 

Three kinds of people (the city residents, the farmers who commute from town, and the dry season migrants) all travel to produce and move food. The government of Bolivia acts as though it does not understand this. In order to stop Covid-19, the government has forbidden all buses, taxis and travel by car, closed the highways and banned the fairs. According to the official logic, farmers live on farms, and grow potatoes for their soup pot, so they don’t need to travel.

Some Bolivian citizens are given special permission, a paper to tape to the windshield of their truck, allowing them to drive to rural areas to buy food wholesale, to resell in cities. But these buyers are not reaching all of the farms, and such schemes are easily corrupted. At least 1,000 vehicles are circulating with counterfeit permission slips, in Cochabamba alone. Ormachea cites farmers like Martín Blanco, a peach farmer, who explained that because of recent travel restrictions, he was only able to get half of his peach harvest to market. The rest of the peaches were lost. As one farmer explained “If I don’t sell it all, I won’t have my little money.”

In the past couple of decades, food systems in tropical countries have changed rapidly, to rely much more on travel than previously. These food systems are resilient, up to a point, but they are also easier to break apart than they are to fix. As Ormachea suggests, policy makers need to meet with business people, farmer representatives and indigenous leaders to find a way to allow the safe movement of food and farmers in these times of virus lockdown.

Further reading

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 ProducciĂłn AgrĂ­cola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. BoletĂ­n de Seguimiento a PolĂ­ticas PĂşblicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Related blog stories

A long walk home

Strawberry fields once again

VIAJES PRODUCTIVOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de mayo del 2020

Antes teníamos un carpintero habiloso llamado Rodrigo, que venía a nuestra casa para arreglar gabinetes y construir roperos. Le gustaba empezar por la tarde y quedarse a cenar. Era lento y metódico, pero su trabajo siempre era perfecto. Este artista bohemio solía llevar a su mamá a su comunidad de origen en el altiplano boliviano, varias veces al año, para plantar, cuidar y cosechar la quinoa. Traían la cosecha a Cochabamba y esperaban a que el precio llegara a su punto máximo, cuando vendían. En historias anteriores hemos descrito la erosión del suelo causada por el boom de la quinua (Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua y Recuperación lenta), pero por lo menos Rodrigo y su mamá se comportaban de manera económicamente racional, a corto plazo.

En un artĂ­culo nuevo y original, el investigador Enrique Ormachea explica que personas como Rodrigo y su mamá son “residentes” (gente del campo que vive permanentemente en las ciudades, y que mantienen sus vĂ­nculos con su comunidad, especialmente regresando para la cosecha).

Otros campesinos viajan, pero a distancias mucho más cortas. Aquí y allí por los valles andinos encuentras “las casas de los abuelos,” ruinas de adobe donde vivía gente hasta hace algunas pocas décadas. Muchos agricultores han dejado el campo más remoto para vivir en las comunidades más grandes y en las pequeñas ciudades donde hay tiendas de barrio, colegios, luz y agua potable. En los últimos 15 o 20 años, muchos de estos agricultores bolivianos han comprado motocicletas para poder vivir en el pueblo e ir cada día a su terreno. Ahora en el campo es común ver las motos de los agricultores estacionadas al lado de los caminos de tierra, mientras el motociclista trabaja en un campo cercano.

Estos agricultores venden sus papas y granos en ferias semanales en las cabeceras municipales, a los mayoristas de pequeña escala (que trabajan con un solo camión). Miles de personas acuden en masa a las ferias, en pueblos que están casi vacías los otros seis días de la semana.

En cambio, otros migrantes hacen largos viajes cada año. Los agricultores sin riego no pueden trabajar su propia tierra durante la larga época seca. Así que, en la temporada baja viajan al oriente de Bolivia, donde se han talado los bosques para la agricultura industrial; no es necesariamente sostenible, pero sí es productiva (por lo menos todavía). Esta agricultura comercial depende de la mano de obra de la gente del campo que viaja cientos de kilómetros para trabajar.

El 68% de la producciĂłn agrĂ­cola de Bolivia proviene de grandes fincas capitalistas, segĂşn los datos del censo agropecuario que Ormachea cita en su artĂ­culo. El 23% es producido por campesinas que tienen suficiente escala para contratar ayudantes y vender algunos productos. SĂłlo el 8% de la producciĂłn agrĂ­cola viene de explotaciones de subsistencia. Estos datos son discutibles; los campesinos a menudo subestiman su producciĂłn cuando hablan con los censistas, quienes sospechan de ser cobradores disfrazados de impuestos. Pero aun si aceptamos las cifras asĂ­ no más, un tercio de los alimentos vienen de los campesinos que producen frutas, verduras, papas y chanchos, a diferencia de la soya, el azĂşcar, el arroz y la carne de res que vienen de las fincas grandes. 

Tres tipos de personas (los residentes, los agricultores que se trasladan a sus parcelas, y los migrantes de la época seca) todos viajan para producir y trasladar alimentos. El gobierno de Bolivia actúa como si no entendiera esto. Para detener a Covid-19, el gobierno ha prohibido todo el transporte público, ha cerrado las carreteras y las ferias. De acuerdo con la lógica oficial, los campesinos viven en granjas, y cultivan papas para hacer su papa wayk’u, por lo que no necesitan viajar.

A algunos ciudadanos bolivianos se les da un permiso especial, un papel para pegar al parabrisas de su camiĂłn, lo que les permite ir a las zonas rurales para comprar alimentos al por mayor, para revenderlos en las ciudades. Pero estos compradores no llegan a todos los productores, y tales sistemas se corrompen fácilmente. Al menos mil vehĂ­culos circulan con permisos falsificados, sĂłlo en Cochabamba. Ormachea cita a agricultores como MartĂ­n Blanco, un agricultor de duraznos, quien explicĂł que debido a las recientes restricciones de viaje, sĂłlo pudo llevar al mercado la mitad de su cosecha de duraznos. El resto de los duraznos se perdieron. Como explicĂł otro agricultor: “Si no lo vendo todo, no tendrĂ© mi platita.”

En las últimas dos décadas, la producción y distribución de alimentos en los países tropicales han cambiado rápidamente, hasta depender mucho más de los viajes. Estos sistemas alimentarios son resistentes, hasta cierto punto, pero también son más fáciles de desbaratar que componer. Como sugiere Ormachea, el gobierno debe reunirse con los empresarios, con las organizaciones campesinas y pueblos indígenas para ver cómo permitir el movimiento seguro de los alimentos y los agricultores en estos tiempos de cuarentena del virus.

Más lectura

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 ProducciĂłn AgrĂ­cola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. BoletĂ­n de Seguimiento a PolĂ­ticas PĂşblicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Historias relacionadas de este blog

A long walk home

En el frutillar de nuevo

The pleasure of bread April 26th, 2020 by

No matter what you do for a living, money is not the only reason to enjoy your work.

Years ago, I was enlisted into a team of economists in Portugal, who looked at the profitability of every crop in every “system” (such as maize for grain, versus maize for silage). In their view, if a crop was not profitable, farmers would not grow it. Fair enough, but one day the we got onto the topic of rye, then grown in small amounts in northwest Portugal.

“It’s not profitable,” the economists sneered, checking their numbers.

“But the farmers do grow it,” I said.

“Well, they won’t for long,” the economists shrugged. Obviously if the crops were at odds with the numbers, the farmers were wrong, and the models were right.

I tried to explain that rye was an important ingredient in sourdough bread. The economists dismissed this idea out of hand. No doubt they thought that farmers should grow more profitable crops, and buy their bread at the store.

But not all bread does come from the store. In Pedralva, Portugal, I rented a room from three elderly farmers, sisters who had never married. Like every other farm family in Pedralva, they made bread once a week in a wood-fired, stone oven. To start, they would get out their sourdough starter, a fermented loaf of dough. The raw loaf of dough houses a colony of wild yeast and bacteria, kept from one week to the next in the kitchen. The farmer-bakers would mix the starter with an enormous amount of maize flour, this being one of the few parts of Europe where people eat much maize bread. But maize flour needs gluten to hold the loaf together. So, the farmers would add a generous helping of rye flour and a little paper bag of white flour, the only store-bought ingredient in their bread.

They shaped the dough into some eight large loaves, each one bigger than a dinner plate. Seven of these would fill the oven, but one loaf of dough would be put into the flour box, to ferment for a week, to start the next week’s bread.

One day I was watching one of the three sisters make bread. She slipped the last loaf into the oven, and closed it with a hand-carved stone door. To seal the door, she took some dung (still warm from the cow) and, with a practiced finger, packed it into the space around the oven door, to keep in the heat.

Then she looked at me and, with a comic-dramatical air, explained that an oven was unlike a person, because it had “bread up its ass and shit in its mouth” (pão no cu e merda na boca). The dung was an option, by the way; some of the neighbors sealed their oven with a bit of raw bread dough. The bread was a bit sour, dense, slightly smokey, crusty on the outside and moist on the inside, and full of flavor.

These farmers obviously enjoyed making bread and eating it. At every meal they crumbled into soup, and held in the hand to scoop up the food and to soak up the sauce.

For such a satisfying bread, folks were willing to grow and mill their own rye flour.

Few pleasures compare with eating a perfect, homemade bread. While more people are enjoying baking bread at home, during this coronavirus crisis, other changes may also be taking place in society. Industrial farming has dominated our food systems over the past few decades, but there is a growing appreciation of the art of farming, gardening and bread-baking, suggesting that the value of food cannot be reduced to a mere money value.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1989 “Bread Forests and New Fields: The Ecology of Reforestation and Forest Clearing Among Small-Woodland Owners in Portugal.” Journal of Forest History 33(4):188-195.

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Watch documentary: “Cereal – Renaissance in the field” (Duration: 25 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=FE23SDj19uU&feature

Make luffa, not plastic April 19th, 2020 by

During the Second World War, cut off from many supplies, the USA looked to the laboratory for help. Large teams of chemists were specifically engaged in the war effort, explains historian Daniel Immerwahr in his 2019 book How to Hide an Empire. Agricultural products like rubber were replaced by a synthetic made from petroleum. Nylon and rayon substituted for silk. Fiberglass was born, along with plywood, and many plastic synthetics.

Plastic sponges invaded our homes, replacing their natural originals, which came from the sea. But, as we will see below, there is also a vegetable sponge.

My family has always washed the dishes with plastic sponges. Then last year we grew weary of having to frequently replace the plastic sponges, because they retained food bits which rotted and gave off a bacterial stench. Then we started to feel bad about throwing away so many sponges. Once discarded, they never decay, and we were fueling demand for plastic from polluting factories.

You can’t stop using something unless you have an alternative. Older people in Cochabamba remember how their parents would keep a luffa plant, whose fruits can be used as kitchen sponges. The luffa is a member of the squash family; it grows on a vine and looks a bit like a big cucumber when it is green.

When Ana decided that we had to grow luffa to replace the plastic sponges, our first problem was getting the seed. The plant is no longer popular, but fortunately a neighbor was one of the last people in the city still growing luffas. They grow vigorously and when their vine grew over the garden wall and into the street, we waited for the fruit to dry and when no one was looking, we plucked it off. We were on our way to growing luffa.

The luffa has a strange way of spreading its seed. The tip of the hanging fruit is covered with a little cap, which pops off when the shell dries and the seed is ready. Then as the luffa sways in the breeze, still swinging on the vine, it spills its seed on the ground.

The luffa plant needs little care, just a structure to climb on. We have yet to find any pests or diseases on this beautiful plant. Its big, yellow flowers attract bumblebees, and the plant climbs the walls like ivy, taking up little space on the ground.

After the fruit dries, Ana simply breaks off the crunchy, papery skin revealing a clean, dry vegetable sponge. Knock out any remaining seeds and the luffa is ready to use. It is the perfect size and shape to wash out a drinking glass. You can also scrub up in the shower with a luffa. You can use the luffa whole or cut it into pieces. The sponge is full of holes, so it stays clean and odor-free for weeks. When you replace your luffa sponge with a new one, you can toss the old one into the compost pit.

The luffa loves warm weather. If you can’t grow luffa yourself you can always buy it. Say farewell to those synthetic plastic sponges and welcome back their natural alternatives, straight from the garden.

Further reading

Immerwahr, Daniel 2019 How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States. London: Bodley Head. 516 pp.

Scientific names

The luffa (or loofah) belongs to the cucurbit family, along with watermelon and pumpkin. There are two species, Luffa cylindrica, also called Luffa aegyptica, and Luffa acutangula.

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