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A brief history of soy April 7th, 2019 by

It was only a century ago that one of the oldest and most nutritious of human food crops began evolving into a global commodity, along the way becoming implicated in problems with genetic engineering, deforestation, and water pollution.

In an engaging world history of soy, Christine Du Bois tells how the bean was gathered and eaten in Manchuria, in northeastern China, at least 9000 years ago, and has been domesticated for at least 5000 years. Ancient (or at least medieval) recipes include tofu (from China), the intriguing, heavily fermented temprah (from Indonesia) and soy sauce (from Japan, but sold in Britain by the 1600s).

Henry Ford was one of the first to grasp the industrial potential of the crop and promoted it to make engine oil and plastics. His motor company was making plastic car parts from soy, and today we might have vegetal automobiles, had DuPont not created plastic from petroleum. DuPont’s plastics might have left American soy farmers with extra beans on their hands, if not for people like Gene Sultry, who started the first soy mill in Illinois in 1927, to crush the beans and extract oil (e.g. for margarine), leaving the crushed beans as animal feed. Sultry travelled the midwestern US with a six-car soy information train, complete with a lecture hall and two theater cars, where farmers watched films explaining how and why they should grow the new crop.

In one of the ironies of post-World War II economics, the USA began exporting large quantities of soy back to its Asian center of origin, first as relief food, but soon Japanese farmers learned to factory farm chickens and pigs on the US model, and feed them with imported, American soy.

This important new trade was upset by Richard Nixon, who in 1973, in the face of rising food prices, briefly banned the export of soy. This startled the Japanese into seeking supplies elsewhere. They began to support the research and development of soy in Brazil, a country that previously grew very little soy. The Japanese and Brazilian researchers were soon breeding locally adapted varieties and learning how to add lime to acidic soils, so that the dense forests of Mato Grosso could be felled for soy.

Photo by E. Boa

The crop soon spread to neighboring Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This vast soy-producing area in South America is the size of a large country, and is sometimes sarcastically called ‚Äúthe Republic of Soy‚ÄĚ. Besides habitat destruction, soy displaced native peoples and smallholders as industrial farmers moved onto their land, sowing thousands of hectares. Soy can, of course, be grown by smallholders; Eric Boa and I were fortunate enough to visit some family farmers in 2007 who were happily growing soy on 20 to 30-hectare plots in Bolivia.

It is the large scale of soy that shows its nastier side. The bean has been genetically modified to make it resistant to Monsanto‚Äôs herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Almost all soy now grown in North and South America is genetically modified. Runoff from chemical fertilizer has created a large, dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In the midwestern USA, soy-fed pigs create mass amounts of liquified manure that builds up in ‚Äúhog lagoons‚ÄĚ, frequently spilling over into rivers. The logical solution would be to use the manure as fertilizer, cutting back on chemicals, but this would entail keeping water out of the manure while cleaning barns, and then hauling the organic fertilizer over long distances.

The US government subsidizes the insurance industry to the tune of $30 billion a year, buffering American soy farmers from risk‚ÄĒa type of farm welfare that benefits those with the most soy, and the most land. These subsidies depress the world price for soy, making it harder for farm families in Africa and elsewhere to get the best prices for their soy.

Yet soy is a versatile food crop that can be made into thousands of tasty and nutritious dishes. It fixes nitrogen from the air, allowing less use of chemical urea as fertilizer. It can be grown profitably by smallholders, if they are protected from land-grabbers, and if governments do not subsidize large-scale farmers.

Brazil is now making efforts to limit further deforestation for soy. Other steps could be taken to rationalize soy’s fertilizer cycle and alternatives for weed control. A crop which has been implicated in so much damage could still be farmed and eaten in environmentally sound ways.

Further reading

Du Bois, Christine M. 2018 The Story of Soy. London: Reaktion Books. 304 pp.

Videos on soy

Soya sowing density

Making soya cheese

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Making a condiment from soya beans

Slow recovery March 3rd, 2019 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n.

When a landscape has been stripped and ravished, like the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, recovery can take decades. In a previous story we met Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio and colleagues who were figuring out how to rear the wild native species of plants. But reforestation also takes social innovation.

Milton Villca is an agronomist from Chita, a village 45 kilometers from the town of Uyuni. Now he has returned to Chita to teach his relatives and former neighbors how to grow native plants as windbreaks to keep the fierce winds from carrying off the soil and burying the young quinoa plants.

The local farmers are starting to see the need to conserve the soil. It has taken a while. People are scattered thinly over the landscape, so when they first started plowing up the brushland to grow quinoa, in the 1970s, they thought of the land as a freebie, like air, so abundant that it had no value. They didn’t see that in the long run they would lose their fertile soil.

That is changing. Milton explains that two of the local farmers’ associations (APROA, AFNAQUI) are encouraging farmers to grow organic quinoa, and one requirement is to conserve the soil with live barriers of plants.

Just learning to establish live barriers like this can take years. First, people have to see the need. Community member Nilda Paucar explains that until 20 years ago, the wind came reliably after 4 October and for the rest of the year the wind was gentle enough to winnow the harvested quinoa grain, not like now, when the wind can blow up a dust cloud at any time of year, burying crops.

After seeing the need for windbreaks, people have to learn how to grow the native plants that form the live barriers. That is where a little local knowledge and some agronomic help can be a good thing. Paul and Marcella and I went with Milton and the community of Chita as they collected the tiny seed of khiruta, a wild shrub. Local people knock the seed off the plant into tubs. Then they sift and winnow the thousands of tiny seeds from the chafe.

As we watch, the people go right to work. This is a relatively new task for them, but they have mastered it.

The seed still has to be germinated in a nursery, which Milton manages in the nearby village of Chacala, with a local farmer, Teodocia Vásquez. Local farmer and llama herder, Ever Villca (Milton’s brother), explains that planting live barriers is only possible if people have support from an organization, for rearing the native plants in nurseries and delivering them to the community.

The experience with native plants has caught farmers‚Äô imagination. Local resident Crecencio Laime has tried experimenting with wild plant seed, spreading it by hand on the ground and watering it, but germination was poor. ‚ÄúWe have to keep trying,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚ÄúWe won‚Äôt always have the support of Milton or of an institution.‚ÄĚ

Later, Modesta Villca (Milton‚Äôs aunt) told us that her husband has left five-meter wide, unplowed strips of native vegetation every 25 meters or so in his fields. We went to see these natural live barriers and they were beautiful, green hedgerows where wild vicu√Īas could browse and birds could nest. The family‚Äôs quinoa is also doing well, protected from the wind by these natural windbreaks.

As we watch (and film), the community plants seedlings of wild plants to make another live barrier. We see again that they know exactly what they are doing. Two people put the little shrubs in two parallel lines, while two men dig planting holes and two women gently lower the plants into the soil, removing the little black plastic bags from the nursery and thoughtfully collecting them so as not to leave any trash.

In the future it will be important to show the value of leaving natural windbreaks, and to appreciate the native flora. Making live barriers will still need to be made easier, but experiences like this are how farmers and researchers learn together to solve a problem. Their good attitudes and close-knit community will also go a long way. Next, the people of Chita are thinking of banding together to start their own nursery to grow native plants, so save their soil from the wind.

Watch the video

This video on live barriers has just been released. You can watch it or download it from free in English, or Spanish.

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Acknowledgement

Agronomist Milton Villca works for the Proinpa Foundation. His work is funded in part by the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foudation.

Related blog stories

Awakening the seeds

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster

RECUPERACI√ďN LENTA

por Jeff Bentley, 3 de marzo del 2019

Cuando la vegetación natural ha sido despojada y destruida, como el sur del Altiplano boliviano, la regeneración puede tomar décadas. En una historia anterior conocimos al Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio y sus colegas que están descubriendo cómo multiplicar plantas silvestres nativas. Pero la reforestación también requiere innovación social.

Milton Villca es un agr√≥nomo de Chita, un pueblo a 45 kil√≥metros de la ciudad de Uyuni. Ahora ha regresado a Chita para ense√Īar a sus parientes y antiguos vecinos c√≥mo cultivar plantas nativas como rompevientos o barreras vivas para evitar que los fuertes vientos se lleven la tierra y entierren a las j√≥venes quinuas.

Los agricultores locales están empezando a ver la necesidad de conservar el suelo. Ha sido un aprendizaje costoso en tiempo. La gente vive dispersa sobre el paisaje, así que cuando comenzaron a arar la tierra para cultivar quinua, en la década de 1970, pensaron que la tierra era gratis, como el aire, tan abundante que no tenía valor. No vieron venir las consecuencias a largo plazo, especialmente la pérdida de suelo fértil.

Eso est√° cambiando. Milton explica que dos de las asociaciones de agricultores locales (APROA, AFNAQUI) est√°n alentando a los agricultores a cultivar quinua org√°nica, y un requisito es conservar el suelo con barreras vivas de plantas.

Aprender a establecer barreras vivas puede llevar a√Īos. Primero, la gente tiene que ver la necesidad. Nilda Paucar, miembro de la comunidad, explica que hasta hace 20 a√Īos, el viento ven√≠a siempre despu√©s del 4 de octubre y que durante el resto del a√Īo el viento era suave como para aventar el grano de quinua cosechado, no como ahora, cuando el viento puede soplar con una nube de polvo en cualquier √©poca del a√Īo, enterrando los cultivos.

Despu√©s de ver la necesidad de las barreras vivas, la gente tiene que aprender a cultivar las plantas nativas que las forman. Ah√≠ es donde un poco de conocimiento local y ayuda agron√≥mica sirve mucho. Paul, Marcella y yo fuimos con Milton y la comunidad de Chita mientras recog√≠an la peque√Īa semilla de khiruta, un arbusto nativo, silvestre. Los lugare√Īos ponen la semilla de la planta en ba√Īadores. Avientan y limpian los miles de diminutas semillas.

Mientras observamos, la gente se pone manos a la obra. Esta es una actividad nueva para ellos, pero lo saben hacer muy bien.

La semilla es germinada en un vivero, que Milton maneja en la cercana aldea de Chacala, con una agricultora local, Teodocia Vásquez. Ever Villca (hermano de Milton), agricultor local y pastor de llamas, explica que plantar barreras vivas sólo es posible si la gente tiene el apoyo de una organización, para cultivar las plantas nativas en viveros y entregar las plantas a la comunidad.

La experiencia con plantas nativas ha captado la imaginaci√≥n de los agricultores. Crecencio Laime, un agricultor de la zona, ha intentado experimentar con semillas de plantas silvestres, esparci√©ndolas a mano en el suelo y reg√°ndolas, pero la germinaci√≥n fue pobre. “Tenemos que seguir intent√°ndolo”, dijo, “No siempre tendremos el apoyo de Milton o de una instituci√≥n”.

M√°s tarde, Modesta Villca (t√≠a de Milton) nos dijo que su marido ha dejado franjas de vegetaci√≥n nativa sin ararlas de cinco metros de ancho a m√°s o menos cada 25 metros en sus parcelas. Fuimos a ver estas barreras naturales vivas y eran hermosos arbustos verdes donde las vicu√Īas salvajes pod√≠an comer y los p√°jaros pod√≠an anidar. La quinua est√° protegida del viento por estos rompevientos naturales.

Mientras vemos (y filmamos), la comunidad planta plantines de arbustos nativos para hacer otra barrera viva. Vemos de nuevo que saben exactamente lo que est√°n haciendo. Dos personas colocan los peque√Īos arbustos en dos l√≠neas paralelas, mientras que dos hombres cavan agujeros para plantar y dos mujeres bajan suavemente las plantas en el suelo, sacando las peque√Īas bolsas de pl√°stico negro del vivero y recolect√°ndolas cuidadosamente para no dejar basura.

En el futuro se valorará el dejar barreras vivas naturales. Y a apreciar la flora nativa. Tendrá que ser más fácil plantas barreras vivas, pero gracias a experiencias como ésta, los agricultores y los investigadores aprenden juntos a resolver un problema. Su buena disposición y su comunidad unida también serán de gran ayuda. Después, la gente de Chita está pensando en unirse para comenzar su propio vivero para cultivar plantas nativas, para salvar su suelo del viento.

Ver el video

Para ver m√°s sobre el contexto de este blog, puede ver el video reci√©n publicado en ingl√©s y en espa√Īol

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Agradecimientos

El Ing. Milton Villca trabaja para la Fundación Proinpa. Su trabajo es financiado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos de la Fundación McKnight.

Related blog stories

Despertando las semillas

Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua

Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the ‚Äúshow farmer,‚ÄĚ one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone‚Äôs student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, ‚ÄúIt usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.‚ÄĚ

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaque√Īos continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Tour√©, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and G√©rard Zoundji 2017 ‚ÄúSeeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,‚ÄĚ pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, G√©rard C., Simplice D. Vodouh√™, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 ‚ÄúBeyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers‚Äô Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.‚ÄĚ Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

Related blogs

The truth of local language

Travels around the sun

I thought you said ‚ÄúN‚Äôtogonasso‚ÄĚ

Beating a nasty weed

Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster December 30th, 2018 by

vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Bolivian agronomist Genaro Aroni first told me how quinoa was destroying the southwest Bolivian landscape some 10 years ago, when he came to Cochabamba for a writing class I was teaching. Ever since then I wanted to see for myself how a healthy and fashionable Andean grain was eating up the landscape in its native country.

I recently got my chance, when Paul and Marcella and I were making videos for Agro-Insight. Together with Milton Villca, an agronomist from Proinpa, we met Genaro in Uyuni, near the famous salt flats of Bolivia. Genaro, who is about to turn 70, but looks like he is 55, told us that he had worked with quinoa for 41 years, and had witnessed the dramatic change from mundane local staple to global health food. He began explaining what had happened.

When Genaro was a kid, growing up in the 1950s, the whole area around Uyuni, in the arid southern Altiplano, was covered in natural vegetation. People grew small plots of quinoa on the low hills, among native shrubs and other plants. Quinoa was just about the only crop that would survive the dry climate at some 3,600 meters above sea level. The llamas roamed the flat lands, growing fat on the native brush. In April the owners would pack the llamas with salt blocks cut from the Uyuni Salt Flats (the largest dry salt bed in the world) and take the herds to Cochabamba and other lower valleys, to barter salt for maize and other foods that can‚Äôt be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chu√Īo from other farmers, supplementing their diet of dried llama meat and quinoa grain.

Then in the early 1970s a Belgian project near Uyuni introduced tractors to farmers and began experimenting with quinoa planted in the sandy plains. About this same time, a large-scale farmer further north in Salinas also bought a tractor and began clearing scrub lands to plant quinoa.

More and more people started to grow quinoa. The crop thrived on the sandy plains, but as the native brushy vegetation grew scarce so the numbers of llamas began to decline.

Throughout the early 2000s the price of quinoa increased steadily. When it reached 2500 Bolivianos for 100 pounds ($8 per kilo) in 2013, many people who had land rights in this high rangeland (the children and grandchildren of elderly farmers) migrated back‚ÄĒor commuted‚ÄĒto the Uyuni area to grow quinoa. Genaro told us that each person would plow up to 10 hectares or so of the scrub land to plant the now valuable crop.

But by 2014 the quinoa price slipped and by 2015 it crashed to about 350 Bolivianos per hundredweight ($1 per kilo), as farmers in the USA and elsewhere began to grow quinoa themselves.

Many Bolivians gave up quinoa farming and went back to the cities. By then the land was so degraded it was difficult to see how it could recover. Still, Genaro is optimistic. He believes that quinoa can be grown sustainably if people grow less of it and use cover crops and crop rotation. That will take some research. Not much else besides quinoa can be farmed at this altitude, with only 150 mm (6 inches) of rain per year.

Milton Villca took us out to see some of the devastated farmland around Uyuni. It was worse than I ever imagined. On some abandoned fields, native vegetation was slowly coming back, but many of the plots that had been planted in quinoa looked like a moonscape, or like a white sand beach, minus the ocean.

Farmers would plow and furrow the land with tractors, only to have the fierce winds blow sand over the emerging quinoa plants, smothering them to death.

Milton took us to see one of the few remaining stands of native vegetation. Not coincidentally, this was near the hamlet of Lequepata where some people still herd llamas. Llama herding is still the best way of using this land without destroying it.

Milton showed us how to gather wild seed of the khiruta plant; each bush releases clouds of dust-like seeds, scattered and planted by the wind. Milton and Genaro are teaching villagers to collect these seeds and replant, and to establish windbreaks around their fields, in an effort to stem soil erosion. I’ve met many agronomists in my days, but few who I thought were doing such important work, struggling to save an entire landscape from destruction.

Acknowledgement

Genaro Aroni and Milton Villca work for the Proinpa Foundation. Their work is funded in part by the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

Related blog stories

Organic agriculture and mice

Awakening the seeds

Scientific names

Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

El ingeniero agr√≥nomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me cont√≥ por primera vez c√≥mo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 a√Īos, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacci√≥n que yo ense√Īaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por m√≠ mismo c√≥mo el af√°n por un sano grano andino podr√≠a comer el paisaje de su pa√≠s natal.

Recientemente tuve mi oportunidad, cuando Paul, Marcella y yo hac√≠amos videos para Agro-Insight. Junto con Milton Villca, un agr√≥nomo de Proinpa, conocimos a Genaro en Uyuni, cerca de las famosas salinas de Bolivia. Genaro, que est√° a punto de cumplir 70 a√Īos, pero parece que tiene 55, nos dijo que hab√≠a trabajado con la quinua durante 41 a√Īos, y que hab√≠a sido testigo del cambio dram√°tico de un alimento b√°sico local y menospreciado a un renombrado alimento mundial. Empez√≥ a explicar lo que hab√≠a pasado.

Cuando Genaro era un ni√Īo en la d√©cada de 1950, toda el √°rea alrededor de Uyuni, en el √°rido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetaci√≥n natural. La gente cultivaba peque√Īas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t‚Äôolas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el √ļnico cultivo que sobrevivir√≠a al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engord√°ndose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el m√°s grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles m√°s bajos, para trocar sal por ma√≠z y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chu√Īo de otros agricultores, complementando su dieta con carne de llama seca y granos de quinua.

Luego, a principios de la década de 1970, un proyecto belga cerca de Uyuni introdujo tractores a los agricultores y comenzó a experimentar con quinua sembrada en las pampas arenosas. Por esa misma época, un agricultor a gran escala más al norte, en Salinas, también compró un tractor y comenzó a talar los matorrales para sembrar quinua.

Cada vez más gente empezó a cultivar quinua. El cultivo prosperó en las llanuras arenosas, pero a medida que la vegetación nativa de arbustos se hizo escasa, había cada vez menos llamas.

A lo largo de los primeros a√Īos de la d√©cada de 2000, el precio de la quinua aument√≥ constantemente. Cuando lleg√≥ a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que ten√≠an derechos sobre la tierra en esta pampa alta (los hijos y nietos de los agricultores viejos) retornaron a la zona de Uyuni para cultivar quinua. Genaro nos dijo que cada persona araba hasta 10 hect√°reas de t‚Äôola para plantar el ahora valioso cultivo.

Pero para el 2014 el precio de la quinua comenzó a bajar y para el 2015 se colapsó a cerca de 350 bolivianos por quintal ($1 por kilo), a medida que los agricultores en los Estados Unidos y en otros lugares comenzaron a cultivar quinua ellos mismos.

Muchos bolivianos dejaron de cultivar quinua y regresaron a las ciudades. Para entonces la tierra estaba tan degradada que era dif√≠cil ver c√≥mo podr√≠a recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. √Čl cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotaci√≥n de cultivos. Eso requerir√° investigaci√≥n. No se puede cultivar mucho m√°s que adem√°s de la quinua a esta altitud, con s√≥lo 150 mm de lluvia al a√Īo.

Milton Villca nos llevó a ver algunas de las parcelas devastadas alrededor de Uyuni. Fue peor de lo que jamás imaginé. En algunas parcelas abandonados, la vegetación nativa regresaba lentamente, pero muchas de las chacras que habían sido sembradas en quinua parecían la luna, o una playa de arena blanca, menos el mar.

Los agricultores araban y surcaban la tierra con tractores, sólo para que los fuertes vientos soplaran arena sobre las plantas emergentes de quinua, ahogándolas y matándolas.

Milton nos llev√≥ a ver uno de los pocos manchones de vegetaci√≥n nativa que queda. No por casualidad, esto estaba cerca de una peque√Īa comunidad de llameros, que queda en Lequepata. El pastoreo de llamas sigue siendo la mejor manera de usar esta tierra sin destruirla.

Milton nos mostr√≥ c√≥mo recolectar semillas silvestres de la planta khiruta; cada arbusto libera nubes de semillas parecidas al polvo, dispersas y sembradas por el viento. Los Ings. Milton y Genaro est√°n ense√Īando a los comuneros a recolectar estas semillas y replantar, y a establecer barreras contra el viento alrededor de sus campos, en un esfuerzo por detener la erosi√≥n del suelo. He conocido a muchos agr√≥nomos a trav√©s de los a√Īos, pero pocos que en mi opini√≥n hac√≠an un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucci√≥n.

Agradecimiento

Genaro Aroni y Milton Villca trabajan para la Fundación Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos de la Fundación McKnight.

Historias de blog relacionadas

Organic agriculture and mice

Despertando las semillas

Nombres científicos

Khiruta es Parastrephia lepidophylla

Awakening the seeds December 16th, 2018 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n.

In much of the Bolivian Altiplano, the native vegetation has been largely stripped away. A few people are doing something to replant the vegetation, but it is surprisingly difficult to germinate the seeds of native plants.

These Andean high plains were once covered by scrub land, comprising low-lying bushes, needle grasses and other hardy plants well adapted to the harsh conditions. Llamas foraged on this waist-high forest without damaging it. But as more land was plowed up for quinoa, and more of the bushes were cut for firewood, the native vegetation started to vanish.

Rural families in this part of Bolivia used to make long, narrow stacks of dried brush. But the bushes are now mostly gone, and so are the stacks of firewood.

Fortunately, explains plant researcher, Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, people are now cooking with bottled natural gas, so they don’t need to uproot brush for firewood, but this respite has come too late. In many places, the deforestation has been so complete that there are no seed-bearing plants left to provide for natural regeneration. So, Dr. Bonifacio and his team travel around the Altiplano, collecting seed of different shrubs, planting the seed in nurseries and then taking the seedlings to sympathetic farmers who are interested in restoring the dry plains.

Seeds of wild plants will seldom germinate if simply scattered on the ground. The plants are adapted to harsh environments, and the seed enters dormancy, only to be awakened by the kiss of some specific environmental signal.

Bonifacio and his students study each plant to determine what will break its dormancy.¬† For example, the k‚Äôawchi, a small woody plant, is so adapted to this land of high winds and rocky soil that its tiny seed must be tumbled over the rough ground and ‚Äúscarified‚ÄĚ before it will germinate. Bonifacio and his team have also learned that it can be scarified by rubbing it in sand or by putting it in a weak solution of sodium hypoclorite for 20 minutes.

On the arid Altiplano, much of the native vegetation is cactus, some of it bearing delicious fruit. In a boutique restaurant in the big city of La Paz, Bonifacio was shocked to that the chef was asking for a supply of one native cactus, called achakana. Yes, achakana is edible, but it takes many years to grow to the size of a tennis ball. The Aymara people used to eat the cactus as famine food when the crops failed, but achakana could be driven to extinction if it starts to be served up in the fashionable eateries of La Paz. So, Bonifacio taught himself how to propagate it.

It was tricky. At first, the seed failed to germinate. Bonifacio learnt that as the fruit matures the seed goes into a deep dormancy. Then one day by serendipity Bonifacio discovered a little bag of fruit had had been harvested green and then forgotten. When he opened the rotting fruit, he found that all of the seeds were germinating. He proudly showed me a small, three-year old plant that he had grown from seed.

The pasak’ana is another endangered cactus that grows so tall that the Andean people once used its ribs to roof their houses. The fruit is also delicious, yet getting the seed to germinate was impossible. Then Bonifacio found that the pasak’ana seed would germinate if it was taken from immature fruit. With the help of a student he now has 1200 little pasak’ana plants, all in demand from a municipal government in Oruro which wants to plant them out.

More people than ever want to grow native plants for fruit, fodder and soil conservation, but each species has its own unique requirements for coming to life. Fortunately, there are patient researchers working to unlock these mysteries and come up with practical recommendations that can help restore degraded lands.

Scientific names

The k‚Äôawchi is Suaeda foliosa, belonging to the unfortunately named ‚Äúseepweed‚ÄĚ genus.

The achakana is Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

The pasak’ana is Trichocereus pasacana (Echinopsis atacamensis subs. pasacana)

DESPERTANDO LAS SEMILLAS

Por Jeff Bentley, 16 de diciembre del 2018

En gran parte del Altiplano Boliviano, la vegetación nativa ha sido arrancada. Hay personas que se dedican a replantar la vegetación, pero es sorprendentemente difícil germinar las semillas de plantas nativas.

Estos altiplanos andinos estaban cubiertos de t‚Äôolares (matorrales), que inclu√≠an arbustos bajos, paja brava y otras plantas fuertes y bien adaptadas a las duras condiciones. Las llamas se forrajeaban en este bosque enano sin da√Īarlo. Pero a medida que m√°s tierra fue arada para la quinua, y m√°s arbustos fueron cortados para le√Īa, la vegetaci√≥n nativa comenz√≥ a desaparecer.

Las familias rurales de esta parte de Bolivia sol√≠an amontonar las t‚Äôolas, o arbustos, en forma de cercos largos y delgados, para le√Īa.¬† Pero la mayor√≠a de los arbustos han desaparecido, as√≠ como los montones de le√Īa.

Afortunadamente, explica el investigador de plantas, el Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, la gente ahora cocina con gas natural en garrafa, as√≠ que no necesitan arrancar las t‚Äôolas para le√Īa, pero este respiro ha llegado muy tarde. En muchos lugares, la deforestaci√≥n ha sido tan completa que ya no quedan plantas madres para la regeneraci√≥n natural. As√≠, el Dr. Bonifacio y su equipo viajan por el Altiplano, recolectando semillas de diferentes arbustos, sembrando las semillas en viveros y luego llevando los plantines a agricultores que simpatizan con la revegetaci√≥n de las pampas secas.

Las semillas de las plantas silvestres rara vez germinan si simplemente se echan al suelo. Las plantas se adaptan a ambientes hostiles, y la semilla entra en dormancia, s√≥lo para ser despertada por el beso de alguna se√Īal ambiental espec√≠fica.

Bonifacio y sus alumnos estudian cada planta para determinar qu√© romper√° su dormancia.¬† Por ejemplo, el k’awchi, una peque√Īa planta le√Īosa, est√° tan adaptado a esta tierra de vientos fuertes y suelo pedregosa que su peque√Īa semilla tiene que caer sobre el suelo √°spero y “escarificarse” para poder germinar. Bonifacio y su equipo tambi√©n han aprendido que una alternativa frotarlo en arena o dejar la semilla por 20 minutos en una soluci√≥n d√©bil de hipoclorito de sodio.

En el √°rido Altiplano, gran parte de la vegetaci√≥n nativa es de cactus, algunos de los cuales producen ricos frutos. En un restaurante boutique en la gran ciudad de La Paz, Bonifacio se sorprendi√≥ al ver un cactus nativo, llamado achakana, solicitado para el men√ļ. La achakana s√≠ es comestible, pero tarda muchos a√Īos para alcanzar el tama√Īo de una pelota de tenis. Los aymaras sol√≠an comer el cactus como alimento en tiempos de hambre cuando las cosechas fallaban, pero la achakana podr√≠a llegar a la extinci√≥n si empiezan a ser servirla en los restaurantes de moda de La Paz. As√≠ que Bonifacio se ense√Ī√≥ a s√≠ mismo a propagarlo.

Fue dif√≠cil. Al principio, la semilla no pudo germinar. Bonifacio aprendi√≥ que a medida que el fruto madura, la semilla entra en una profunda dormancia. Un d√≠a, por casualidad, Bonifacio descubri√≥ que una bolsita de fruta hab√≠a sido cosechada verde y luego olvidada. Cuando abri√≥ el fruto podrido, descubri√≥ que todas las semillas estaban germin√°ndose. Con orgullo me mostr√≥ una peque√Īa planta de tres a√Īos que √©l hab√≠a cultivado a partir de una semilla.

El pasak’ana es otro cactus en peligro de extinci√≥n que crece tan alto que los andinos usaban sus palos para techar sus casas. La fruta tambi√©n es deliciosa, sin embargo, hacer que la semilla germine era imposible. Entonces Bonifacio descubri√≥ que la semilla de pasak’ana germinar√≠a si se tomaba de un fruto inmaduro. Con la ayuda de un estudiante, ahora tiene 1200 peque√Īas plantas de pasak’ana, todas solicitadas por un gobierno municipal de Oruro que quiere plantarlas.

Hoy en d√≠a mucha gente quiere cultivar plantas nativas para la conservaci√≥n de la fruta, el forraje y el suelo, pero cada especie tiene sus propias necesidades √ļnicas para volver a la vida. Afortunadamente, hay pacientes investigadores que trabajan para desvelar estos misterios y presentar recomendaciones pr√°cticas que pueden ayudar a restaurar las tierras degradadas.

Nombres científicos

El k’awchi is Suaeda foliosa.

La achakana es Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

La pasak’ana es Trichocereus pasacana (Echinopsis atacamensis subs. pasacana)

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