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The goldenberry January 17th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

The goldenberry, or Cape gooseberry, is a bright yellow-orange fruit, about the size of a grape, sweet and tangy, rich in vitamins A, B and C. It is enclosed in a sheath, or calyx, which hides the fruit from view and protects it from insect pests. Like a banana, you can open the wrapper and eat the fruit unwashed.

The golden berry was known to the Incas, but little else is known of its prehistory. In the Andes, the plant has many names, including: uchuva (Colombia), aguaymanto (Peru) and chilto (in Bolivia). Not a true berry, but a member of the tomato family (Solanaceae), the fruit was grown in England by 1774, and soon appeared from South Africa to Kenya, Australia, the Philippines and Hawaii, besides the Andes from Chile to Colombia, now the world’s top producer.

A minor crop everywhere it is grown, I had never seen the goldenberry until I moved to Cochabamba, where I learned to love its unique flavor. I never plant the goldenberry, but most years it appears somewhere in my garden, where it can grow to over a meter tall, especially if it can find another plant to lean on. It flowers and bears fruit for months on end.

As aptly described in Lost Crops of the Incas, the goldenberry is wild and weedy. In many places, such as Hawaii, where it is called poha, the plant is an invasive weed, choking out native vegetation. I gather that ancient Andean farmers did not domesticate the berry; they just tolerated the little shrub which popped up, in disturbed soil near houses, paths and in fields.

As with any wild plant, goldenberry seed can plant itself with no help from humans. If left on the plant, the calyx gradually thins away, leaving just a net bag. Then the fruit decomposes, except for the seeds. As the wind moves the bag, it scatters the seeds on the ground.

There have been some recent suggestions to breed larger fruits, and to remove the slight, bitter aftertaste. But some of us savor that lingering flavor, and a bigger fruit might burst through its little paper envelope, spoiling the fruit’s visual appeal and exposing it to bugs, rot and dust.

I’m happy to have the goldenberry just as it is, a weed that makes itself welcome with a gift of fruit.

Scientific name

Physalis peruviana

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Further reading

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington: National Academies Press.

For more on the goldenberry as an invasive weed, see CABI’s Invasive Species Compendium.

EL CHILTO, CULTIVO Y MALEZA

Por Jeff Bentley

17 de enero del 2021

Llamado “uchuva” en Colombia, “aguaymanto” en el Peú, el chilto tiene muchos otros nombres, como “goldenberry”, o “Cape gooseberry” en inglés. Es un fruto amarillo-anaranjado, más o menos el tamaño de una uva, dulce y ácido, rico en vitaminas A, B y C. Está envuelto en una cobertura, o un cáliz, que esconde el fruto y lo protege de plagas insectiles. Igual que un plátano, se lo puede pelar y comer sin lavarlo.

Los Incas conocieron el chilto, pero se sabe poco más de su prehistoria. Miembro de la familia del tomate (Solanaceae), la fruta se cultivaba en Inglaterra para el 1774, y rápidamente apareció de Sudáfrica a Kenia, Australia, Filipinas y Hawai, y en los Andes de Chile hasta Colombia, hoy en día el primer productor a nivel mundial.

Un cultivo menor en todos los lugares donde se cultiva, yo nunca había visto el chilto hasta que vine a Cochabamba, donde aprendí a amar su sabor único. Nunca planto la uchuva, pero casi cada año aparece en algún lugar de mi jardín, donde puede llegar a tener más de un metro de alto, especialmente si se apoya en una planta vecina. Florece y da frutos durante meses.

Como dicen en “Lost Crops of the Incas, el chilto es una planta silvestre, una maleza. En muchos lugares, como Hawai, donde se llama poha, la planta es una invasora, que ahoga la vegetaciĂłn nativa. Deduzco que los antiguos agricultores andinos no domesticaban la baya; sĂłlo toleraban el pequeño arbusto que aparecĂ­a en el suelo removido cerca de las casas, los caminos y en los campos.

Como con cualquier planta silvestre, la semilla de la uchuva puede plantarse a sí misma sin la ayuda humana. Si permanece en la planta, el cáliz se adelgaza gradualmente, dejando sólo una bolsa de red. Entonces el fruto se descompone, excepto por las semillas. El viento mueve la bolsa, dispersando las semillas en el suelo.

Actualmente algunos sugieren que los fitomejoradores deben crear un chilto bien domesticado, con frutos más grandes, y eliminar el sutil sabor amargo que el fruto deja en el paladar. Pero a algunos nos gusta ese dejo, y si la fruta fuera más grande podría reventar su pequeño sobre de papel, arruinando la belleza de la fruta y exponiéndola a los bichos, la pudrición y el polvo.

Estoy feliz de tener el chilto tal como es, una maleza que se hace bienvenida con un regalo de fruta.

Nombre cientĂ­fico

Physalis peruviana

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Lectura adicional

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. Washington: National Academies Press.

Para más información sobre la uchuva como maleza invasora, vea Invasive Species Compendium por CABI.

A lost Alpine agriculture January 10th, 2021 by

As more youth move to cities, in Africa, but also in South Asia and Latin America, development experts worry about the future of rural communities. So, we can learn a lesson by taking a glimpse at a region where most youth left agriculture some three generations ago.

An American anthropologist, Brien Meilleur, studied farming in Les Allues, a village in the French Alps, in the mid-1980s. Meilleur was especially well-qualified for the topic, as decades earlier, his own father had left Les Allues for the USA.

Meilleur interviewed elderly farmers at length about the days of their youth, roughly back in the 1940s. Now retired, they painted a picture of an agriculture in balance with nature, where farm families worked in synchrony. They had large cereal fields, divided into many individual plots. Each year they agreed upon a time to plow, and each household would plow their own small plot, within the big field. By plowing and planting at the same time they avoided trampling each other’s grain crop.  The big fields were on a three-year rotation, beginning with rye, then barley and finally fallow-plus-pulses.

Folks made wine and hard apple cider from fruit they grew themselves. They wintered cows, sheep and goats in stables, moving them in the spring to montagnettes, cabins above the hamlets where the families made their own cheese. Then every year on 11 June, in a grand procession, the whole village would move their livestock to the high Alpine pastures, with cowbells ringing and dogs barking. The animals would graze communally, on named pastures, moving uphill as summer progressed to ever-higher grazing, until they were brought back down on 14 September. Outside specialists were hired to come turn the milk into cheese, mostly a fine gruyere, which they sold.

Barnyard manure provided all the fertilizer the farms needed. To save on firewood, neighbors baked their bread on the same day in ovens in the hamlet square. About 80 or 90% of what people ate came from Les Allues itself. The roots of this rural economy went back to at least the 1300s, if not earlier. But, as Meilleur explains, this farming system had collapsed about 1950, at least in Les Allues. He mourns the loss of this way of life, and as I read his moving account, I couldn’t help but share in his sadness.

The collapse came about in part because of emigration. Young people were leaving Les Allues for the cities as early as the 19th century. But there were other reasons for abandoning agriculture. After the World War II, the villagers sold much of their farmland to the Méribel Ski Resort, established just above the highest of the village’s hamlets. There were now lots of jobs for local people, on the ski slopes, and in the busy hotels, shops and restaurants. The vacationers even visited the beautiful village in the summer, for golf, tennis and mountain biking, so there was employment year-round. The youth of Les Allues no longer had to leave home to find work; the jobs had come to them.

The old agricultural landscape changed quickly, as the pastures became pistes de ski, and the fields grew wild with brush. The livestock were sold off and the apple trees were strangled by mistletoe, as people abandoned a way of living that (in today’s jargon) was sustainable and carbon neutral, and the bedrock of their community.

It is easy to romanticize a healthy rural lifestyle, but the good old days had some rough times, too. The farmers of Les Allues managed erosion in their cereal fields by hand-carrying the earth from the bottom furrow to the top of the field every year, the most back-breaking soil conservation method I’ve ever heard of. For six weeks in July and August, people cut hay for six days a week from 5 AM to 10 PM, to feed their animals over the winter. To save on fuel, the families would spend winter evenings sitting in the barn, where the cows gave off enough heat to keep everyone warm. People ate meat once a week, maybe twice.

Given the amount of hard work, and the low pay, it is understandable that the young people of Les Allues left farming. It happened all over Europe. In England during the Industrial Revolution, many farm workers took factory jobs. While some moved to the cities, others commuted on the train, and stayed in their village (The Common Stream). Northern Portuguese farm laborers, who described their lives as “misery,” did not have the options of working in industry or in tourism. So, after 1964 they left Portugal to take construction jobs in France. The farmers who remained bought tractors to replace their vanished workers.

Just as previous generations of rural Europeans sought paid work off farm, the youth in places like West Africa and South America are now moving to the cities, and quite quickly. Many development experts bemoan this mass migration, even though it is a pro-active way for young people to take their destiny into their own hands, especially if they attend university in the city, before looking for work.

If past experience is any guide, some of the young Africans and South Americans who are now moving to town would stay in their villages, if they could make a decent living, and if they had electricity and other amenities. Life in the countryside will have to provide people with opportunities, or many will simply pack up and leave.

Further reading

Meilleur, Brien A. 1986 Alluetain Ethnoecology and Traditional Economy: The Procurement and Production of Plant Resources in the Northern French Alps. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Washington.

My own mentor, Bob Netting, wrote a classic ethnography of the Swiss Alps. Like Meilleur, Netting was also impressed with the ecological balance of traditional farming.

Netting, Robert McC. 1981 Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For the changes in Portuguese agriculture, see:

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

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Photo credits

Photos courtesy of Eric Boa.

Can Andean farmers predict the weather accurately? January 3rd, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In the Peruvian Andes, in the southern hemisphere’s summer of 1990-91, a researcher named Ricardo Claverías wondered if local people really could predict the weather. In 1990, before the crops were planted, Claverías interviewed a random sample of 32 farmers living near the shores of Lake Titicaca. As they do every year, these farmers observed the stars, the birds, animals, cactus and other plants to predict the agricultural season.

Each individual farmer looked at several “indicators” or signs of nature, and some people were better observers than others, but 59% of Claverías’ sample predicted a normal or a dry year. However, 16% had still not formed an opinion, so 70% of those who had made their forecast at the time of the study told Claverías it would be a normal year, although perhaps a little dry.

Even though 70% of the sampled farmers is a clear majority, the prediction was not unanimous. In effect, it did turn out to be a slightly dry year, but it was complicated. The rains were below average, but there was little frost, so the main crops and animals thrived (potatoes, quinoa, llamas and sheep). In general, the study reconfirmed farmers’ predictions.

A few years later, ClaverĂ­as had an excellent opportunity to compare scientific and peasant forecasts for an agricultural season.

In July of 1997, weather experts met in Lima, to discuss the upcoming El Niño event, which they could foresee by the rise in ocean temperatures off the Peruvian coast. The experts predicted massive flooding in the Amazon Basin, and along the Pacific Coast, but in Peru’s section of the Altiplano, the high plains in the south, there would be a devastating drought, an opinion seconded by a meeting of international meteorologists in Lima in October of that year.

In 1997, Claverías didn’t have time to do as complete a study as he had done seven years earlier, but he did ask some farmers on the Altiplano how the upcoming summer season of 1997-98 would unfold. He also asked agronomists who were in close contact with farmers. These folk forecasts were mainly for a good year. Farmers especially noticed the various species of birds that nested in the totora, a plant in the shallow waters of Titicaca.

Every year the lake waters rise and fall with changes in the rainfall. The birds build their nests in the totora above the water, in the dry season. If the birds sense a wet year, they make their nests high on the totora plants. If the birds feel a dry year coming on, they build their nests low, close to the water. In 1997, the bird nests were fairly high, and the farmers did not believe there would be a drought.

It turns out that the scientific predictions were right, on the coast, which was drenched in floods. But on the Altiplano the drought never came. The rains were a bit below normal during the September-to-May growing season, but certainly within the normal range. The harvests were good, and with the devastation brought on other regions, prices were high and the farmers were able to make money by selling any surplus they had.

Claverías argued for more and better studies to verify local weather prediction. I’m not sure that there have been many follow-up studies in the 20 years since he wrote his unpublished paper. Such research would take a bit of time and effort, but it could be done in a year or two, ideal for a thesis project, and the method is straightforward. Besides, such a study could be done in other parts of the world, not just in the Andes.

Method to verify local weather prediction knowledge

1. Compile the indicators that farmers in your study area use to predict the weather.

2. Ask a few dozen farmers for their forecasts before the agricultural season begins.

3. Compile weather data and farm production figures as the year unfolds.

A few such studies would reject or confirm the hypothesis that folk meteorology can predict the weather for a whole season at a time—a task that normal science still cannot do, El Niño years aside. The practical results would be of value for the whole agricultural sector.

Claverías’ paper has been cited 35 times (well, now 36), which is respectable for a publication, but outstanding for a manuscript that was never published. Any future weather paper would no doubt appeal to a large audience.

Further reading

Claverías, Ricardo 2000 Conocimientos de los Campesinos Andinos sobre los Predictores Climáticos: Elementos para su Verificación. Paper read at the Seminary-Workshop organized by the NOAA Project (Missouri). Chucuito, Puno, Perú.

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ÂżLA GENTE ANDINA RURAL PUEDE PRONOSTICAR EL TIEMPO DE VERDAD?

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de enero del 2021

En los Andes peruanos, en el verano de 1990-91, un investigador llamado Ricardo Claverías se preguntó si la gente local realmente podía pronosticar el clima. En 1990, antes de que se sembraran sus chacras, Claverías se entrevistó con una muestra al azar de 32 agricultores que vivían cerca del lago Titicaca. Como lo hacen todos los años, estos agricultores observaron las estrellas, los pájaros, los animales, los cactus y otras plantas para predecir el tiempo duranta la campaña agrícola.

Cada agricultor individual observĂł varios “indicadores” o signos de la naturaleza, y algunas personas fueron mejores observadores que otras, pero el 59% de la muestra de ClaverĂ­as predijo un año normal o seco. Sin embargo, el 16% aĂşn no se habĂ­a formado una opiniĂłn, por lo que el 70% de los que habĂ­an hecho su pronĂłstico en el momento del estudio le dijeron a ClaverĂ­as que serĂ­a un año normal, aunque tal vez un poco seco.

Aunque el 70% de los agricultores de la muestra es una clara mayoría, la predicción no fue unánime. En efecto, resultó ser un año ligeramente seco, pero era complicado. Las lluvias eran un poco inferiores al promedio, pero hubo pocas heladas, por lo que hubo una buena producción de los principales cultivos y animales (papas, quinua, llamas y ovejas). En general, el estudio reconfirmó las predicciones de los agricultores.

Unos años más tarde, Claverías tuvo una excelente oportunidad de comparar los pronósticos científicos y campesinos para una temporada agrícola.

En julio del 1997, los meteorólogos se reunieron en Lima, para discutir el próximo evento de El Niño, que podían prever por el aumento de las temperaturas del mar en la costa peruana. Los expertos predijeron inundaciones masivas en la cuenca amazónica y a lo largo de la costa del Pacífico, pero en Altiplano del Perú, las altas llanuras del sur, habría una sequía devastadora, opinión que fue secundada por una reunión de meteorólogos internacionales en Lima en octubre de ese año.

En 1997, Claverías no tuvo tiempo de hacer un estudio tan completo como el que había hecho siete años antes, pero sí preguntó a algunos agricultores del Altiplano cómo se desarrollaría la próxima temporada del verano de 1997-98. También preguntó a los agrónomos que estaban en estrecho contacto con los agricultores. Estas predicciones populares eran principalmente para un buen año. Los agricultores se fijaron especialmente en las diversas especies de aves que anidaban en la totora, una planta de las aguas poco profundas del Titicaca.

Cada año las aguas del lago suben y bajan con los cambios en la lluvia. Los pájaros construyen sus nidos en las totoras, sobre el agua, durante la época seca. Si las aves perciben un año lluvioso, hacen sus nidos en lo alto de las totoras. Si sienten que viene un año seco, construyen sus nidos bajo, cerca del nivel del agua. En 1997, los nidos de las aves estaban bastante altos, y la gente rural no creían que habría una sequía.

Resulta que las predicciones científicas eran correctas, en la costa, que estaba devastada por las inundaciones. Pero en el Altiplano, la sequía nunca llegó. Las lluvias estuvieron un poco por debajo de lo normal durante la campaña agrícola de septiembre a mayo, pero siempre dentro del rango normal. Las cosechas fueron buenas, y con la destrucción causada en otras regiones, los precios de los alimentos fueron altos y los agricultores ganaban dinero vendiendo cualquier excedente que tuvieran.

Claverías abogó por más y mejores estudios para verificar el pronóstico meteorológico local. Dudo que haya habido muchos estudios de seguimiento en los 20 años desde que escribió su trabajo. Tal investigación tomaría un poco de tiempo y esfuerzo, pero podría hacerse en un año o dos, ideal para un proyecto de tesis, y el método es claro. Además, se podría hacer el estudio en otras partes del mundo, no sólo en los Andes.

MĂ©todo para verificar el conocimiento meteorolĂłgico local

1. Compile los indicadores que los agricultores de su zona usan para pronosticar el tiempo.

2. Pida diagnósticos a unas docenas de personas rurales antes de que empiece la campaña agrícola.

3. Compile los datos meteorológicos y de producción agrícola a medida que pase el año.

Unos pocos estudios de este tipo rechazarían o confirmarían la hipótesis de que la meteorología popular puede pronosticar el tiempo para todo un año en un momento dado, una tarea que la ciencia normal todavía no puede hacer, excepto tal vez en años de El Niño. Los resultados prácticos serían valiosos para todo el sector agrícola.

El trabajo de Claverías ha sido citado 35 veces (bueno, ahora 36), lo que es respetable para una publicación, pero es mucho para un manuscrito inédito. Cualquier futura publicación científica sobre la meteorología popular sin duda atraería a un buen público.

Further reading

Claverías, Ricardo 2000 Conocimientos de los Campesinos Andinos sobre los Predictores Climáticos: Elementos para su Verificación. Trabajo presentado en el Seminario-Taller organizado por el Proyecto NOAA (Missouri). Chucuito, Puno, Perú.

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Municipal compost: Teaching city governments December 27th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Much of farm produce ends up in city landfills, but with a little work and some smart ideas, towns can recycle their organic waste, as I saw recently in Tiquipaya, a small city in metropolitan Cochabamba, Bolivia.

For over ten years, Tiquipaya’s municipal composter has turned some of the city’s trash into the best organic fertilizer. Ing. Denis Sánchez, who runs the city composter, obviously loves his work and is happy to show groups around the tidy (and fly-free) operation.

The first stop is reception, where garbage trucks and cooperating citizens dump off refuse: the garden trimmings from the city’s parks, wilted flowers from the cemetery, waste from the market, and trash from nearly half of the municipality’s households. At reception, Denis’ crew does their most tedious task, separating the plastic from the organic. Cooked food waste is a nuisance because it rots quickly and has “very bad microbes,” as Denis puts it.

Denis is certain that the compost picks up good microbes from its surroundings. Compost’s good microbes smell good and the only slightly bad odor is from the fresh garbage in the reception area. The composter is only four blocks from the town square, so the city government would not tolerate any bad smells. In reception, the fresh, “green” refuse is mixed about half and half with “brown” waste, such as dried tree leaves pruned from city parks. Mixing was easier when the compost plant had a chipping machine that would chop up all the tree branches. The machine broke down a few years ago, so now the crew occasionally gets a caterpillar to come in and roll over the tree branches to break them up. The small bits go into the compost and the big pieces are sold as firewood.

From reception, the blend of brown and green trash goes to the “forced air” section. Compost needs air, which can be provided by turning over the pile, but that’s a lot of work. At the Tiquipaya plant, perforated hoses force air up into each 40-ton pile of compost. The crew waters the compost once a week, for seven weeks, and during that time they do turn it one time, for an even decomposition.

After seven weeks the compost is taken to mature, like a fine wine. It is heaped up and every week it is watered, and also turned with a little front-end loader. The aged compost is then sifted in a rotating drum to remove any big pieces. The resulting fine compost is then sold to the public.  The municipality also fertilizes Tiquipaya’s city parks with the compost, so they do not have to buy any fertilizer. The city also uses the compost as potting soil to grow ornamental plants.

Of course, it’s not all easy. One limitation is education. The municipal market has separate bins for organic and plastic garbage, but most patrons toss all their trash into one can or the other. Three of the city’s eight garbage routes send a truck one day a week to collect organic trash from households. On each ride, Denis sends a member of staff along to remind residents to leave out their plastics and cooked food waste. It’s a constant job to educate the public, so sometimes the municipality rewards cooperating families with plants.

A second limitation is labor. Even with some clever machines, the hard-working staff (three full-time and four part-time, besides Denis) can process about 5.5 tons of trash per day, of the 40 tons that Tiquipaya produces. The city could compost 20 tons of rubbish, with a bit more space, additional workers and investment.

Denis says that it costs 312 Bs. ($44) to make a cubic meter of compost, which he sells for 120 Bs. ($17), a loss he has to accept because “no one would pay its true cost.”

The plant was created with an investment of 1,734,000 Bs. ($246,000) and has an annual labor cost of 185,000 Bs. ($26,000), financed by the municipal government. The compost plant has had financial and technical support from Catalonia and Japan.

The crew seems to be enjoying their morning at the plant. It is light, active work in the glorious Andean sunshine with friendly colleagues.

Tiquipaya’s large neighbor, the city of Cochabamba, has a wretched problem with its landfill, now full and rising like a tower while the surrounding residents often protest by blockading out the garbage trucks, forcing the trash to pile up in city streets.

Cities have to invest to properly dispose of their garbage. People who make trash (including the plastics industry) can be charged for its disposal. The public needs to be taught how to buy food with less plastic wrapping and how to recycle green waste at home. The good news is that cities can recycle much of their rubbish, selling the plastics, and producing compost to improve the soil and replace chemical fertilizer.

Denis thinks of his plant as a school, where others can learn. In fact, several small cities (Sacaba, Vinto, VillazĂłn, and some in the valleys of Santa Cruz) have started similar plants on the Tiquipaya model. Denis is proud to show his work to others.

With some enlightened investment, a city can turn its garbage into useful products and green jobs while avoiding unsustainable landfills, which simply bury the nutrients that farmers have won from the soil.

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COMPOST MUNICIPAL: UNA ESCUELA PARA LAS ALCALDĂŤAS

Por Jeff Bentley

27 de diciembre del 2020

Mucha de la producción agrícola termina en los rellenos sanitarios urbanos, pero con un poco de esfuerzo y unas ideas claras, los municipios pueden reciclar su basura orgánica, como vi hace poco en Tiquipaya, una pequeña ciudad en el eje metropolitano de Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Hace más de diez años, la compostera municipal de Tiquipaya ha convertido parte de su basura en un excelente fertilizante orgánico. El Ing. Denis Sánchez dirige la compostera, y obviamente le encanta su trabajo y el mostrar su planta bien ordenada (y libre de moscas) a grupos de ciudadanos.

En la primera parada, la recepción, los camiones basureros y algunos vecinos colaboradores, dejan su basura, las podas del ornato público, flores marchitadas del cementerio, basura del mercado y de casi la mitad de las familias del municipio. En recepción, los trabajadores realizan lo más tedioso, separando los plásticos de los orgánicos. Los restos de la comida son una molestia porque se pudren rápidamente y tienen “algunos microbios muy malos,” como Denis explica.

Denis afirma que el compost adquiere buenos microbios de su entorno. Los microbios buenos huelen bien y el único olor un poco desagradable viene de la basura fresca en recepción. La planta está apenas a cuatro cuadras de la plaza principal, y la alcaldía no toleraría ningún mal olor. En recepción, la basura fresca, la “verde”, se llena mitad-mitad con los desechos “marrones” tales como la hojarasca de los parques urbanos. El mezclarlo era más fácil cuando la compostera tenía una máquina que picaba todas las ramas. La máquina se descompuso hace algunos años, y ahora de vez en cuando traen una oruga que pisotea las ramas para quebrarlas. Los pedazos pequeños entran al compost y las piezas grandes se venden como leña.

Después de la recepción, la mezcla de basura verde y marrón pasa a la sección de “aireación forzada”. El compost necesita aire, que se puede proveer con el volteo, pero es mucho trabajo. En la compostera de Tiquipaya, usan tubería perforada para empujar el aire a cada pila de 40 toneladas de compost. Riegan las pilas una vez a la semana, durante siete semanas, y durante ese tiempo las voltean una vez, para lograr una descomposición pareja.

A las siete semanas, llevan el compost a madurarse, como un vino fino. Hacen montones de compost que se riegan y se voltean cada semana con una máquina mini cargadora. El compost madurado es cernido en un dron rotatorio para sacar cualquier objeto grande. El compost fino se vende al público. La alcaldía fertiliza los parques de Tiquipaya con el compost, así que no tienen que comprar fertilizante. Además, usan el compost como sustrato para producir plantas ornamentales.

Claro que cuesta trabajo. Una limitación es la educación. El mercado municipal tiene basureros separados para plásticos y orgánicos, aunque los usuarios a veces mezclan todo. Tres de las ocho rutas del carro basurero recogen solo residuos orgánicos un día de la semana, y cada vez, Denis manda un funcionario de la planta para hacerle recuerdo a la gente que no incluyan sus plásticos ni sus restos de comida. La educación pública es un esfuerzo constante. De vez en cuando regalan plantas para premiar a los buenos vecinos.

Una segunda limitante es la mano de obra. Aun con maquinaria, el esmerado personal (tres a tiempo completo y cuatro a tiempo parcial, además del Ing. Denis) logra procesar unas 5.5 toneladas de basura por día, de las 40 toneladas que Tiquipaya produce. Con un poco más de espacio, personal, e inversión podrían compostar 20 toneladas.

Denis cuenta que cuesta 312 Bs. ($44) hacer un metro cúbico de compost, lo cual vende por 120 Bs. ($17), una pérdida que se acepta porque “nadie pagaría su costo real.”

La planta se creó con una inversión de 1,734,000 Bs. ($246,000) y tiene un costo anual de mano de obra de 185,000 Bs. ($26,000), financiada por la alcaldía. La compostera ha tenido apoyo financiero y técnico de Cataluña y del Japón.

Parece que los trabajadores municipales disfrutan de su trabajo en la planta. Es trabajo fĂ­sico, pero liviano al aire libre mientras que permite la charla entre colegas.

La ciudad vecina a Tiquipaya, Cochabamba, tiene un problema severo con su relleno sanitario, que ahora está lleno y crece como una torre, mientras los vecinos frecuentemente protestan, bloqueando la entrada a los camiones basureros, hasta que la basura se deja en montículos por toda la ciudad.

Las ciudades tienen que invertir para deshacerse correctamente de su basura. Se puede cobrar impuestos a la gente que genera la basura, incluso a las industrias de los plásticos. Hay que enseñar al público a comprar comida con menos envases plásticos, y cómo reciclar la basura verde en casa. La buena noticia es que las ciudades pueden reciclar gran parte su basura, vendiendo los plásticos y produciendo compost para mejorar el suelo y para reemplazar a los fertilizantes químicos.

Denis piensa en su planta como una escuela, donde otros pueden aprender. De hecho, varias ciudades pequeñas (Sacaba, Vinto, Villazón, y algunas en los valles de Santa Cruz), han construido plantas similares, usando el modelo de Tiquipaya. Denis está dispuesto a compartir sus conocimientos con otra gente interesada, sintiendo mucho orgullo por lo logrado.

Con un poco de inversiĂłn inteligente, una ciudad puede convertir su basura en productos Ăştiles e Ă­tems de trabajo verde, mientras evita los rellenos no sostenibles, que simplemente entierran los nutrientes ganados con tanto esfuerzo por la producciĂłn agrĂ­cola.

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Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

Watch the film

Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

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