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Experiments with trees October 24th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Farmers find their peers exceptionally convincing, and good extensionists know this.

My wife, Ana, and I joined a farmer exchange visit this past 22 September. It was a chance for smallholders to see what their peers are doing on their farms. We went with about 20 farmers from around Tiquipaya, a small town in the valley of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Except for two older men and two children, the group was made up only of women, organized by María Omonte (agronomist) and Mariana Alem (biologist), both of Agrecol Andes.

Half an hour after our chartered, Bluebird bus left the town square of Tiquipaya we were climbing up a gravel road in first gear. The farmers stopped chatting among themselves, and began looking out the window, at the arid hillsides and a panoramic view of the city of Cochabamba, on the far end of the valley. The passengers’ sudden interest in the scenery made it clear that even this close to home, this was their first trip to these steep hillsides above the community of Chocaya.

When the bus stopped, we were met by Serafín Vidal, an agronomist, also with Agrecol Andes. Serafín took the group to see an agroforestry site, an orchard belonging to a farmer who Serafín advises. The farmer wasn’t there, but Serafín explained that in this system, 200 apple trees are planted in lines with 200 forest trees, like chacatea (blue sorrel) and aliso (alder), mostly native species. The idea is to mimic the forest, which builds its own soil, with no plowing, no pesticides (not even organic ones), and no fertilizer, not even manure or compost.

“Don’t bury anything” Serafín said, “not even leaves. They decompose too quickly if you bury them. Just prune the forest trees and line up their branches in between the apples and the other trees.”

The farmers were quiet, too quiet. They seemed unconvinced by this radical idea. Finally, one farmer was bold enough to give a counter-example. He said that far away, in the lowlands of La Paz Department, farmers dig a trench and fill it with logs and branches. They bury it and plant coca, a shrub with marketable leaves. Because of the buried logs, the land stays fertile for so long that even the grandchildren of the original farmer will not need to fertilize their soil.

“Coca,” Serafín murmured, and then he paused. Growing the coca shrub is not like planting apples, but a talented, veteran extensionist like Serafín often prefers a demonstration to an argument. He dug his hand into the soil between the trees, under the leafy mulch. “This used to be poor, red soil. But see how the soil between the trees has become so soft that I can dig it up with my hand, and it’s rich and black, even though it has not been plowed.” Serafín spread out a couple of dozen small bags of seed of different plants: maize, beans, vegetables … all crops that you can plant in between the rows of trees, like the plants that grow on the forest floor.

The audience was respectfully silent, and still unconvinced, but Serafín had another trick up his sleeve. He handed the floor over to a local farmer, Franz Dávalos, who led us uphill to his own agroforestry plot, with alder, and the native qhewiña (Polylepsis spp.), a tree with papery, reddish bark and twisted branches.

The group was mostly bilingual in Spanish and in Quechua, the local language, and had been switching back and forth between both languages.  But now Franz began to speak only in Quechua. The simple act of speaking in the local language can let the audience feel that the speaker is confiding in them, and Franz soon had them laughing as he explained how his neighbors grew flowers, like chrysanthemum, to cut for the urban market. In the dry season they irrigate with sprinklers. The neighbors were baffled that Franz didn’t irrigate during the two driest winter months, June and July. He didn’t want to fool the apple trees into flowering too early. It meant that for a couple of months, his patch looked dry and bare. But now his three-year-old apple trees were blooming and looking healthy, as were his other trees, bushes, aromatic plants, tomatoes and beans.

The visiting farmers were from the floor of the valley, practically in sight of this rocky hillside, but it might as well have been a different country. The flat fields of the valley bottom have flood irrigation and deep soil, but exhausted by centuries of constant cultivation.

One of the visitors explained that she was a vegetable farmer and that “we have already made big changes. I apply chicken manure to my soil and I have to spray something (like a homemade sulfur-lime mix) because the aphids just won’t leave us alone.”

In other words, these people from the valley bottom were commercial, family farmers, far into their transition to agroecology, based on natural pesticides and organic fertilizers to restore the degraded soil. And they had to build up the soil quickly, because they were growing vegetables year-round. They couldn’t just give up applying organic fertilizer and wait for years until trees improved the soil.

Franz understood completely. He said that he also sprayed sulfur-lime but then he said “just try it. Try agroforestry on a small area, even if you just start with one tree.”

It was a cheerful group that boarded the bus to go down the mountain. They liked Franz’s suggestion of experimenting on a small scale, even with such a startling new idea as agroforestry.

Paleontologist Richard Fortey says that scientists are usually so reluctant to accept the ideas of younger colleagues that “science advances, one funeral at a time.” (Fortey was quoting Max Planck). Smallholders are a little more open to new ideas. As farmers continue to contribute to agroecology, they will discuss and experiment. It is not reasonable to expect all of them to accept the same practices, especially when they are working in different places, with different crops and soils.

But a word from an innovative farmer can help to make even radical ideas seem worth testing.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Apple futures (where we’ve met Ing. Serafín Vidal before)

Farming with trees

Training trees

Related videos

SLM03 Grevillea agroforestry

SLM08 Parkland agroforestry

SLM10 Managed regeneration

EXPERIMENTOS CON ÁRBOLES

Por Jeff Bentley, el 24 de octubre del 2021

Lo que más convence a los agricultores, es otro agricultor, y los buenos extensionistas lo saben.

Con mi esposa, Ana, participamos el pasado 22 de septiembre en una visita de intercambio de agricultores, una oportunidad para que vean lo que hacen sus compañeros en sus terrenos. Fuimos con unos 20 agricultores de los alrededores de Tiquipaya, una pequeña ciudad del valle de Cochabamba, Bolivia. Con la excepción de dos hombres mayores y dos niños, el grupo estaba formado sólo por mujeres, organizado por María Omonte (agrónoma) y Mariana Alem (bióloga), ambas de Agrecol Andes.

Media hora después de que nuestro viejo bus saliera de la plaza del pueblo de Tiquipaya, estábamos subiendo a 10 km la hora por un camino ripiado, pero bien inclinado. Las compañeras dejaron de charlar entre ellas y empezaron a mirar por las ventanas a las áridas laderas y una vista panorámica de la ciudad de Cochabamba, en el otro extremo del valle. El repentino interés de los pasajeros por el paisaje dejaba claro que, incluso tan cerca de casa, era la primera vez que viajaban a estas inclinadas laderas de Chocaya Alta.

Cuando el micro se detuvo, nos recibió Serafín Vidal, ingeniero agrónomo, también de Agrecol Andes. Serafín llevó al grupo a ver un sitio agroforestal, un huerto que pertenece a un agricultor al que asesora. El agricultor no estaba allí, pero Serafín explicó que en este sistema se plantan 200 manzanos en línea con 200 árboles forestales, como la chacatea y el aliso, con énfasis en especies nativas. La idea es imitar al bosque, que construye su propio suelo, sin arar, sin fumigar (ni siquiera con plaguicidas orgánicos) y sin estiércol.

“No entierren nada”, dice Serafín, “ni siquiera las hojas. Se descomponen demasiado rápido si las entierran. Sólo poden los árboles del bosque y alineen sus ramas entre los manzanos y los otros árboles”.

La gente estaba callada, demasiado callada. Parecían no estar convencidos de esta idea radical. Finalmente, un agricultor se atrevió a dar un contraejemplo. Dijo que muy lejos, en Los Yungas de La Paz, los cocaleros cavan una zanja y la llenan con troncos y ramas. Lo entierran y plantan coca, un arbusto comercial. Gracias a los troncos enterrados, la tierra se mantiene fértil durante tanto tiempo que incluso los nietos del agricultor original no necesitarán fertilizar su suelo.

“Coca”, murmuró Serafín, y pausó. Cultivar arbustos de coca no es como plantar manzanos, pero un veterano y talentoso extensionista como Serafín suele preferir una demostración a una discusión. Metió la mano en la tierra entre los árboles, bajo el grueso mulch, el mantillo, el sach’a wanu. “Antes, esto era un suelo pobre y rojo. Pero miren cómo el suelo entre los árboles se ha vuelto tan blando que puedo cavarlo con la mano, y es rico y negro, aunque no haya sido arado”. Serafín extendió unas 20 bolsitas de semillas de diferentes plantas: maíz, frijol, hortalizas … todos los cultivos que se pueden sembrar entre las hileras de los árboles, tal como las plantas que crecen en el piso del bosque.

El público guardaba un respetuoso silencio, y todavía no estaba convencido, pero Serafín tenía otro as en la manga. Cedió la palabra a un agricultor de la zona, Franz Dávalos, que nos condujo cuesta arriba hasta su propio sistema agroforestal, con alisos y la nativa qhewiña (Polylepsis spp.), un árbol de corteza rojiza, como papel, con ramas retorcidas.

La mayoría del grupo era bilingüe en español y en quechua, el idioma local, y había alternado entre ambas lenguas.  Pero ahora Franz empezó a hablar sólo en quechua. El simple hecho de hablar en el idioma local puede dar confianza al público, y rápidamente Franz los hacía reír mientras explicaba cómo sus vecinos cultivaban flores, como el crisantemo, para vender como flor cortada al mercado urbano. En la época seca riegan por aspersión. Los vecinos se preguntaban porque Franz no regaba durante los dos meses más secos del invierno, junio y julio. Es que él no quería que los manzanos florezcan demasiado temprano. Por eso, durante un par de meses, su parcela parecía seca y desnuda. Pero ahora sus manzanos de tres años florecían y estaban obviamente sanos, al igual que sus otros árboles, arbustos, y otras plantas como aromáticas, tomates y frijoles.

Las agricultoras visitantes eran del fondo del valle, prácticamente a la vista de esta ladera rocosa, pero bien podría haber sido otro país. Las chacras planas del fondo del valle tienen riego por inundación y un suelo profundo, pero agotado por siglos de cultivo constante.

Una de las visitantes explicó que ella era agricultora de hortalizas y que “ya hemos hecho muchos cambios. Aplico gallinaza a mi suelo y tengo que fumigar algo (como sulfocálcico) porque los pulgones no nos dejan en paz”.

En otras palabras, estas personas del piso del valle eran agricultores comerciales y familiares, que estaban en plena transición hacia la agroecología, basada en plaguicidas naturales y fertilizantes orgánicos, para restaurar el suelo degradado. Y tenían que recuperar el suelo rápidamente, porque cultivaban verduras todo el año. No podían dejar de aplicar abono orgánico y esperar años hasta que los árboles mejoraran el suelo.

Franz lo entendía perfectamente. Dijo que él también fumigaba sulfocálcico, pero luego dijo “pruébenlo. Prueben la agroforestería en una pequeña superficie, aun si empiezan con un solo árbol”.

Fue un grupo alegre el que subió al micro para bajar del cerro. Les gustó la sugerencia de Franz de experimentar a pequeña escala, incluso con una idea tan nueva y sorprendente como la agroforestería.

El paleontólogo Richard Fortey dice que los científicos suelen ser tan reacios a aceptar las ideas de los colegas más jóvenes que “la ciencia avanza, un funeral a la vez”. (Fortey citaba a Max Planck). En cambio, los agricultores familiares están un poco más abiertos a las nuevas ideas. A medida que los agricultores sigan contribuyendo a la agroecología y la agroforestería, discutirán y experimentarán. No es razonable esperar que todos ellos acepten las mismas prácticas, sobre todo cuando trabajan en lugares diferentes, con cultivos y suelos distintos.

Pero una palabra de un agricultor innovador puede ayudar a que incluso las ideas radicales parezcan dignas de ser probadas.

Blogs previos de Agro-Insight blogs

Manzanos del futuro (donde ya conocimos al Ing. Serafín Vidal)

La agricultura con árboles

Training trees

Videos sobre la agroforestería

SLM 03 Agroforestería con grevillea

SLM08 Agroforestería del bosque ralo

SLM10 Regeneración manejada

Organic Sri Lanka October 17th, 2021 by

Nederlandse versie hieronder

We are all familiar with organic milk, organic fruit and vegetables, or organic chocolate, but when one reads “Organic Sri Lanka”, one may have difficulty grasping what this really is about. For sure, it cannot mean that the entire country is organic. Or does it?

Indeed. As of April 2021, triggered by a wave of kidney diseases among its rice farmers, the Sri Lankan government took a brave decision to ban all imports of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, and to to transition to organic and ecological farming.

Sri Lanka is an island country in South Asia. Political unrest and ethnic divides between Tamil and Sinhalese ethnicities led to a 30-year civil war, which ended only in 2009. Blessed with gorgeous scenery and plenty of arable and fertile land, Sri Lanka has been able to develop a stable economy, mainly based on tourism, textiles, rice and tea, of which it is the second-largest exporter in the world.

However, for decades, Sri Lankan agricultural policies had supported high-input agriculture, providing free irrigation and subsidised chemical fertilizer, thereby slowly undermining the country’s rich natural resource base: the people, land and water on which farming depends. The damage had been largely unnoticed until more recently.

In 1995, when I was teaching tropical agriculture at the University of Ghent, I was fortunate to have a chance to live and work for a couple of months in this beautiful country, to backstop a project funded by the European Union. The project focused on weed management, and I was asked to use numerical vegetation ecology as a research method to assess weed populations in farmers’ fields in relation to environmental factors and farmers’ practices.

Each week I travelled to a different part of the country and spent days in the rural areas, interviewing farmers and visiting their fields. It was an intense period, often with little sleep as accommodation was basic or even missing, but at the same time it re-enforced my passion to be in the field, working with smallholder farmers.

After returning back home in Belgium and analysing the data, I came to a staggering conclusion, which I wrote down in one of my first papers, presented at an international conference. The grassy weed Echinochloa crus-galli was highly prevalent in the Mahaweli Development Programme, the largest irrigation scheme in the country where rice was grown with a high input of herbicides and fertilizer. As with the other grass E. colonum, it seemed resistant towards the herbicides used. The many years of spraying propanil had led to resistance for two of the world’s most troublesome weeds. Propanil is a contact herbicide, it kills weeds upon contact with little damage to the crop. It is sold under many different brand names, and has been widely used across the globe over the past 60 years.

While in the early days Monsanto tried to file a patent for propanil, the herbicide continues to be widely used across the world, produced and marketed by Bayer (which bought Monsanto in 2016). Propanil is also made by Dow AgroSciences, various Chinese agrochemical companies, as well as the Indian Bharat Group and United Phosphorus. Environmental and human health hazards caused by agrochemicals take time to manifest themselves, and the cocktails of chemicals applied to farmers’ fields further complicate measuring the poison’s effects. On top of that, once applied, pesticides (including herbicides) are broken down into smaller units, called metabolites, which are often unknown to science and therefore easily escape the tests. Yet, metabolites are often more toxic and more persistent than the parent compound. These complications partly explain why multinational companies can continue their devastating business.

According to a report by the NGO Pesticide Action Network, propanil, along with various other pesticides, can be measured in various amounts in the rain in Asia, North America, Europe, and Latin America. “Pesticides travel thousands of kilometres through the air; they are carried through rivers and seas to distant locations; they are having a devastating effect on biodiversity including beneficial insects; they are undermining the sustainability of food production systems; they kill an unknown number of farmers, workers, children and animals every year; they alter gene pools; and they are costing society billions of dollars in adverse impacts (Pesticide Action Network 2015).”

Chemical fertilizers and pesticides contain heavy metals, such as cadmium, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel, which are known to be toxic and endocrine disruptors. These heavy metals are not listed on the labels as they are considered minor contaminants. Yet, heavy metals accumulate in the soil with repeated applications of agrochemicals.

For years civil society and journalists in Sri Lanka have signalled the devastating effects of agrochemicals; a revealing article in the Colombo Telegraph shows that already in 1998, the Sri Lanka Farmer Forum comprising of over 320 delegates, warned that the current trends in agricultural research were creating a “complete dependence of high-input crops that robbed us of crop independence”.

No one really listened. At least not until the hard evidence of human health hazards and the damage caused to soil and water could no longer be denied.

Organic and ecological farming is knowledge intensive. It is sobering to see how the traditional knowledge farmers in Sri Lanka have developed over thousands of years has been eroded by several decades of chemical agriculture.

Yet the agrochemical industry is not planning to let go of it easily. In less than 6 months after the President declared the country to go 100% organic, lobby groups of the industry have led a media campaign to create the impression that Sri Lanka’s food crisis is the result of the nation’s shift towards organic farming. Fortunately, the President has so far stood firm against the panic being created in the name of growing food insecurity.

To retrain farmers on the management of lands without toxins and heavy energy and to rebuild soil fertility, farmers in Sri Lanka can learn from their fellow farmers in other countries. At the same time, also the agricultural extension and education systems need to drastically change. That is why our non-profit organisation, Access Agriculture, decided to support the government of Sri Lanka by partnering with the Lankan Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM) and translating many of its farmer-to-farmer training videos into the local languages. Such learning tools will prove to be a great support to the current and future generations of farmers, extension staff and scientists who will need to do research in a more collaborative way with farmers.

More info

Devinder Sharma. 2021. Sri Lanka goes organic. The Tribune. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/sri-lanka-goes-organic-318938

Ranil Senanayake. 2015. Restoring sustainability to Sri Lankan agriculture. Colombo Telegraph. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/restoring-sustainability-to-sri-lankan-agriculture/

Vineet Kumar. 2021. Sri Lanka’s inorganic transition to organic farming. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/agriculture/sri-lanka-s-inorganic-transition-to-organic-farming-79532

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Principles matter

Silent Spring, better living through biology

Roundup: ready to move on?

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

 

Biologisch Sri Lanka

We zijn allemaal vertrouwd met biologische melk, biologische groenten en fruit, of biologische chocolade, maar wanneer men “Biologisch Sri Lanka” leest, kan het moeilijk te vatten zijn wat dit nu eigenlijk inhoudt. Het kan toch niet betekenen dat het hele land biologisch is. Of toch?

Inderdaad. Vanaf april 2021 heeft de Sri Lankaanse regering, naar aanleiding van een golf van nierziekten onder haar rijstboeren, een moedig besluit genomen om alle invoer van kunstmest, pesticiden en herbiciden te verbieden, en over te schakelen op biologische landbouw.

Sri Lanka is een eilandstaat in Zuid-Azië. Politieke onrust en etnische verdeeldheid tussen de Tamil en Singalese bevolking leidden tot een 30 jaar durende burgeroorlog, die pas in 2009 eindigde. Gezegend met prachtige landschappen en veel vruchtbare landbouwgrond, is Sri Lanka erin geslaagd een stabiele economie te ontwikkelen, voornamelijk gebaseerd op toerisme, textiel, rijst en thee, waarvan het de op een na grootste exporteur ter wereld is.

Decennialang heeft het Sri Lankaanse landbouwbeleid echter een industrieel landbouwmodel ondersteund, met gratis irrigatie en gesubsidieerde kunstmest, waardoor de cruciale hulpbronnen van het land – de boeren, het land en het water waarvan de landbouw afhankelijk is – langzaam werden ondermijnd. De schade is lang grotendeels onopgemerkt gebleven.

In 1995, toen ik tropische landbouw doceerde aan de Universiteit van Gent, had ik het geluk een paar maanden in dit prachtige land te mogen wonen en werken, ter ondersteuning van een door de Europese Unie gefinancierd project. Het project was gericht op onkruidbeheer, en ik werd gevraagd om numerieke vegetatie-ecologie te gebruiken als onderzoeksmethode om onkruidpopulaties in de velden van boeren te beoordelen in relatie tot milieufactoren en de praktijken van boeren.

Elke week reisde ik naar een ander deel van het land en bracht dagen door op het platteland, waar ik boeren interviewde en hun akkers bezocht. Het was een intense periode, vaak met weinig slaap omdat goede accommodatie er dikwijls ontbrak, maar tegelijkertijd versterkte het mijn passie om in het veld te werken met kleine boeren.

Na mijn terugkeer in België en de analyse van de gegevens, kwam ik tot een verbijsterende conclusie, die ik opschreef in een van mijn eerste papers, gepresenteerd op een internationale conferentie. De vele jaren van sproeien met propanil hadden geleid tot resistentie voor twee van ‘s werelds meest lastige onkruiden. Propanil is een contactherbicide, verkocht onder diverse merknamen, en is de afgelopen 60 jaar over de hele wereld op grote schaal gebruikt.

De gevaren van agrochemische stoffen voor het milieu en de volksgezondheid manifesteren zich pas na enige tijd, en de cocktails van chemische stoffen die op de akkers van de boeren worden aangebracht, maken het nog moeilijker om de effecten van het gif te meten. Daar komt nog bij dat bestrijdingsmiddelen (met inbegrip van herbiciden) na toepassing worden afgebroken tot kleinere eenheden, metabolieten genaamd, die vaak onbekend zijn voor de wetenschap en daarom gemakkelijk aan de tests ontsnappen. Toch zijn metabolieten vaak giftiger en persistenter dan de oorspronkelijke stof. Deze complicaties verklaren ten dele waarom multinationale ondernemingen hun verwoestende handel kunnen voortzetten.

Volgens een rapport van de NGO Pesticide Action Network kan propanil, samen met diverse andere pesticiden, in verschillende hoeveelheden worden gemeten in de regen in Azië, Noord-Amerika, Europa en Latijns-Amerika. “Pesticiden leggen duizenden kilometers af door de lucht; ze worden via rivieren en zeeën naar verre locaties vervoerd; ze hebben een verwoestend effect op de biodiversiteit, waaronder nuttige insecten; ze ondermijnen de duurzaamheid van voedselproductiesystemen; ze doden elk jaar een onbekend aantal boeren, arbeiders, kinderen en dieren; ze veranderen genenpools; en ze kosten de samenleving miljarden dollars aan nadelige gevolgen (Pesticide Action Network 2015).”

Chemische meststoffen en pesticiden bevatten zware metalen, zoals cadmium, arseen, chroom, kobalt, lood en nikkel, waarvan bekend is dat ze giftig zijn en de hormoonhuishouding verstoren. Deze zware metalen worden niet op de etiketten vermeld omdat ze als minder belangrijke verontreinigende stoffen worden beschouwd. Toch hopen de zware metalen zich op in de bodem bij herhaalde toepassing van landbouwchemicaliën.

Jarenlang hebben maatschappelijke organisaties en journalisten in Sri Lanka gewezen op de verwoestende effecten van landbouwchemicaliën. Niemand luisterde echt. Tenminste niet totdat het harde bewijs van de gevaren voor de menselijke gezondheid en de schade aan bodem en water niet langer kon worden ontkend.

Biologische en ecologische landbouw is kennisintensief. Het is ontnuchterend om te zien hoe de traditionele kennis die de boeren in Sri Lanka in de loop van duizenden jaren hebben ontwikkeld, is uitgehold door een paar decennia van chemische landbouw.

Toch is de agrochemische industrie niet van plan dit gemakkelijk los te laten. In minder dan 6 maanden nadat de president verklaarde dat het land voor 100% biologisch zou gaan, hebben lobbygroepen van de industrie een mediacampagne gevoerd om de indruk te wekken dat de voedselcrisis in Sri Lanka het gevolg is van de transitie van het land naar biologische landbouw. Gelukkig heeft de president tot dusverre voet bij stuk gehouden tegen de paniek die wordt gezaaid in naam van de groeiende voedselonzekerheid.

Om boeren om te scholen in het beheer van land zonder gifstoffen en zware energie en om de bodemvruchtbaarheid te herstellen, kunnen de boeren in Sri Lanka leren van hun collega-boeren in andere landen. Tegelijkertijd moeten ook de systemen voor landbouwvoorlichting en -onderwijs drastisch veranderen. Daarom heeft onze vzw, Access Agriculture, besloten de regering van Sri Lanka te steunen door een partnerschap aan te gaan met de Sri Lankan Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM) en veel van haar boeren trainingsvideo’s in de plaatselijke talen te vertalen. Dergelijke leermiddelen zullen een grote steun blijken te zijn voor de huidige en toekomstige generaties boeren, voorlichtingsmedewerkers en wetenschappers die op een meer coöperatieve manier met boeren onderzoek moeten doen.

An exit strategy April 4th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Development projects often die when the money runs out. Many of these efforts often have no exit strategy in mind, but that’s changing, as I saw on a recent visit to Villa Taquiña, on the mountain slopes above Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Once an independent peasant community, Villa Taquiña has now largely been swallowed by the city of Cochabamba, but until recently, many farmers still managed to grow small plots of cut flowers.

When I lived in Villa Taquiña, years ago, if I caught the bus before dawn I would share the ride with older women taking huge bundles of carnations, gladiolas, and chrysanthemums to sell in the central market. But on my recent visit a local farmer, doña Nelly, explained that when Covid put a stop to big weddings and funerals, it wiped out the demand for cut flowers. Adaptable as ever, the smallholders turned to fresh vegetables, but there was a catch. The flowers had been grown with lots of pesticides. Now the farmers hoped to produce in a more environmentally friendly way, “so we can leave something for our children and grandchildren,” doña Nelly explained.

Two agronomists, Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza, from Fundación Agrecol Andes, are helping a dozen farm families transition to agroecology. The farmers plant broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables with seeds they buy at the shop. The seeds come dusted in pink fungicide, but the farmers harvest seeds from some of the plants they grow, and are now producing 80% of their own seed. If they need a fungicide, they can make sulfur-lime or Bordeaux mix, which are accepted by most organic agricultural programs. The farmers also plant basil, quilquiña and other aromatic plants among their vegetables to discourage insect pests. Many different plants are grown together; this is called intercropping and it also keeps the pests away. The farmers are also bringing their soils back to life by incorporating compost.

Although the plots are tiny (some farmers have as little as 700 square meters) with hard work even a small piece of land can produce a lot of vegetables. Then the problem becomes where to sell it. Folks could take their produce to the big market in the city, but they would have to compete with conventionally-grown vegetables brought in by the truck load. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers to work together. They often meet at doña Nelly’s house to package the produce with attractive labels. Besides saving on the costs of agrochemicals, these organic farmers have a close link with consumers, so they listen to what their clients want, and try to offer them a rich diversity of vegetables.

Belonging to a group also helps the farmers to reach customers who appreciate organic produce. In Bolivia the niches for organic food are still in their infancy, so producers and consumers need a little help finding each other. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers with their consumers. Every week a group of consumers (including my family) gets a WhatsApp message with this week’s menu of what is on offer. We order what we want, everything from crisp vegetables to a perfect whole wheat flour to the best cactus fruit I’ve ever had. Two days later Alberto and Alex cheerfully arrive at our door with the produce.

Unfortunately, this is not sustainable marketing. Vegetable growers can’t always depend on the good graces of a project to sell their produce for them, but Alberto and Alex have an exit strategy.  They are organizing volunteer farmers and consumers to meet occasionally and inspect the farms, to guarantee that they are agroecologically sound. It is called the “participatory guarantee system,” (SPG) a kind of people’s organic certification. With time, Alberto hopes to make the marketing profitable enough that someone, perhaps the farmers themselves, will take it over as a private enterprise.  To that end, the farmers are organizing themselves into a legally-recognized association. Letting the farmers and the consumers get to know each other is also an innovation to make sure that we keep buying and selling.

I visit Villa Taquiña with two-dozen mask-wearing consumers, who were delighted to meet some of the farmers who grow the food we eat. One of those farmers, Elsa Bustamante, has an exit strategy of her own. She is feeding guinea pigs on the vegetable waste from her small plot, and she plans to start a restaurant featuring organic vegetables and homegrown guinea pigs. “You will all be my customers,” Elsa tells us. And then she serves up golden brown quarters of fried guinea pig on a bed of rice, potatoes and salad. The consumers love it.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

The next generation of farmers

Strawberry fields once again

Further reading

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

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, and her brother Pastor for letting us into their homes and their fields. Doña Nelly is the representative of the SPG Cercado. (Cercado is a province in the Department of Cochabamba. Cercado has only one municipality, which is also called Cochabamba, and it is the Department’s capital). The SPG Cercado is backed up by Law 3525, “Regulation and promotion of ecological production of agriculture, livestock and non-timber forest products” and by the National Technical Norm (NTN) which supports the participatory guarantee systems (SPG) which is used to accredit urban, peri-urban and rural groups of ecological farmers. The SPG Cercado works via an MOU with the municipal government of Cochabamba and the Fundación Agrecol Andes, with funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza work for the Fundación Agrecol Andes, in Cochabamba. A big thanks to them for organizing this visit, and thanks as well to Alberto for his comments on an earlier version of this story.

Scientific name

Quilquiña (Porophyllum ruderale) is a pungent herb used for making salsas.

Videos on the agroecological way to produce vegetables

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Managing black rot in cabbage

Managing vegetable nematodes

Insect nets in seedbeds

ESTRATEGIA DE SALIDA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de abril del 2021

Los proyectos de desarrollo suelen morir cuando se acaba el dinero. A muchos de estos esfuerzos les falta una estrategia de salida, pero eso está cambiando, como vi hace poco en una visita a Villa Taquiña, al pie de la cordillera andina, en Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Villa Taquiña, que era una comunidad agrícola independiente, hoy en día ha sido prácticamente tragada por la ciudad de Cochabamba, pero hasta hace poco, muchos agricultores cultivaban pequeñas parcelas de flores cortadas para vender.

Cuando yo vivía en Villa Taquiña, hace algunos años, si salía antes del amanecer compartía el micro (bus) con mujeres mayores de edad que llevaban enormes bultos de claveles, gladiolos y crisantemos para vender en el mercado central. Pero en mi última visita, una agricultora local, doña Nelly Camacho, me explicó que cuando el Covid acabó con las bodas y los funerales bien asistidos, dio fin a la demanda de flores cortadas. Tan bien adaptables como siempre, los pequeños agricultores empezaron a producir verduras frescas, pero había un problemita. Las flores se cultivaban con muchos plaguicidas. Ahora los agricultores esperan producir de forma más ecológica, “porque queremos dejar algo para nuestros hijos, y nietos”, explica doña Nelly.

Los ingenieros agrónomos Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza, de la Fundación Agrecol Andes, les están ayudando a una decena de familias en la transición a la agroecología. Los agricultores siembran brócoli, repollo lechugas, vainas y otras hortalizas con semillas que compran en la agropecuaria. Las semillas vienen recubiertas con un fungicida rosado, pero los agricultores guardan algunas de las semillas de las plantas que cultivan, y ahora están produciendo el 80% de sus propias semillas. Si necesitan un fungicida, pueden hacer sulfocálcico o caldo bordelés, que son aceptados por la mayoría de los programas de agricultura orgánica. Los agricultores también siembran albahaca, quilquiña y otras plantas aromáticas entre sus hortalizas para ahuyentar a las plagas insectiles. Cultivan una mezcla de muchas plantas diferentes; esto se llama policultivo y también evita tener plagas. Además, los agricultores están recuperando sus suelos, incorporando compost.

A pesar de que las parcelas que quedan son pequeñas (alguna gente cultiva sólo 700 metros cuadrados), con trabajo se puede producir muchas verduras. Luego viene el problema de dónde venderlas. Los agricultores podrían llevar sus productos al gran mercado, la Cancha de Cochabamba, pero tendrían que competir con las camionadas de hortalizas convencionales. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores para que trabajen juntos. A menudo se reúnen en la casa de doña Nelly para embolsar los productos con etiquetas atractivas. Además de ahorrarse los costos de los agroquímicos, estos agricultores orgánicos tienen un estrecho vínculo con los consumidores, y saben lo que sus clientes quieren y tratan de ofrecerles una rica diversidad de verduras.

Pertenecer a un grupo también ayuda a los agricultores a encontrar los clientes que aprecian los productos orgánicos. En Bolivia, los nichos de los alimentos orgánicos todavía están en pañales, entonces los productores y consumidores necesitan un poco de ayuda para encontrarse. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores con sus consumidores. Cada semana, un grupo de consumidores (incluyendo a mi familia) recibe un mensaje de WhatsApp con la oferta semanal. Pedimos lo que queremos, desde verduras súper frescas, una perfecta harina integral, y la mejor tuna que jamás he probado. Dos días después, Alberto y Alex puntualmente nos dejan una “bolsa saludable” (Bolsaludabe) de productos en la puerta.

Lastimosamente, este tipo de comercialización no es sostenible. Los horticultores no siempre pueden depender de la buena voluntad de un proyecto para vender sus productos, pero Alberto y Alex tienen una estrategia de salida. Están organizando a agricultores y consumidores voluntarios para que se reúnan de vez en cuando e inspeccionen las parcelas, a fin de garantizar que son agroecológicas de verdad. Se llama “sistema participativo de garantías” (SPG), y es una especie de certificación orgánica popular. Con el tiempo, Alberto espera que la comercialización sea lo suficientemente rentable como para que alguien, tal vez los mismos productores, se haga cargo de vender la producción de manera particular. Para hacer eso, los productores se están organizando en una asociación con personería jurídica. El hacer que los agricultores y los consumidores nos conozcamos es también una innovación para asegurar que sigamos comprando y vendiendo.

En mi visita a Villa Taquiña éramos dos docenas de consumidores con barbijos, que estábamos encantados de conocer a algunos de los agricultores que producen los alimentos que comemos. Una de esas agricultoras, Elsa Bustamante, tiene su propia estrategia de salida. Ella está alimentando a cuys con los residuos vegetales de su pequeña parcela, y planifica abrir un restaurante con verduras ecológicas y cuys producidos en casa. “Todos ustedes serán mis clientes”, nos dice Elsa. Y luego sirve cuartos de cuy fritos y dorados y aún calientes sobre un lecho de arroz, papas y ensalada. A los consumidores les encanta.

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The next generation of farmers

En el frutillar de nuevo

Lectura adicional

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

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, y su hermano Pastor por recibirnos en sus hogares y sus parcelas. Doña Nelly es la representante del SPG Cercado. (Cercado es una provincia del Departamento de Cochabamba. Cercado tiene un solo municipio, que también se llama Cochabamba, el cual es la capital del Departamento). El SPG Cercado es respaldado por la Ley 3525, “Regulación y promoción de la producción agropecuaria y forestal no maderable ecológica” y por la Norma Técnica Nacional (NTN) que apoya a los sistemas participativos de garantía (SPG) a través de la cual se acredita grupos de productores ecológicos a nivel urbano, periurbano y rural. El SPG Cercado trabaja a través de un convenio entre el gobierno municipal de Cochabamba y la Fundación Agrecol Andes, con financiamiento de la Cooperación Italiana. Los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Gracias a ellos por organizar el viaje, y gracias a Alberto por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior de este blog.

Vocabulario

El cuy es el conejillo de las Indias.

La quilquiña es una hierba con un fuerte olor usada para hacer salsas, Porophyllum ruderale.

Videos sobre la forma agroecológica de producir hortalizas

Producir hortalizas en maceta de saco

Managing black rot in cabbage

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas

Insect nets in seedbeds

Redes contra insectos en almácigo

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana March 21st, 2021 by

It’s a simple matter to play a soundtrack about farming on the radio. The tricky part is making sure that the program connects with the audience, as I learned recently from Gideon Kwame Sarkodie Osei at ADARS FM, a commercial station in Kintampo, a town in central Ghana.

Since 2010 Gideon has been pleased to be part of an effort by Farm Radio International (FRI) that supported radio stations in Ghana, including ADARS FM, to reach out to farmers. With encouragement from FRI, Gideon started a weekly magazine show for farmers, where he plays Access Agriculture audio tracks. The magazine, Akuafo Mo, means “Thank You Farmers” in the Twi language. Before he started the show, Gideon (together with FRI) did a baseline study of the farmers in his audience. He found that they had more time on Monday evenings. Farm women do more work and have less time than most people, but they told Gideon that they were usually done with their chores by 8 PM, so that’s when he airs Akuafo Mo, every Monday for an hour.

The show starts with recorded interviews, where farmers explain their own knowledge of a certain topic, like aflatoxin, which is so important that Gideon had several episodes on this hidden toxin that can contaminate stored foodstuffs. After the interviews, Gideon plays an audio track, to share fresh ideas with his audience. Gideon has played Access Agriculture audios so often he can’t remember how many he has played. “It’s a lot more than 50,” he explains.

Gideon plays a portion of the audio in English, and then he stops to translate that part into Twi, the language of the Ashanti people. Every week there is a guest on the show, an extension agent who can discuss the topic and take questions from listeners who call in.

Gideon’s experience with the magazine inspired him to start listener groups, in coordination with FRI. Visiting listener communities, Gideon found that some did not have a radio set. So, with project support, he bought them one. “We give them radio sets so they can come together weekly and listen to the magazine,” Gideon told me. He has 20 groups, each with 12 to 30 people. Five groups are only for women, especially in areas where males and females don’t casually mingle. The other listener groups have men and women.

Gideon visits at least some of the groups every week. Because of these visits, Gideon is now downloading videos as well as audio from Access Agriculture. “Sometimes I see if they have electricity, and I rent a projector, to show them the video they have heard on the air.” Gideon says. “This is my initiative, going the extra mile.”

Some of the farmers are learning to sell their groundnuts, maize and other cereals as a group, netting them extra money and helping them to be self-sustaining.

Gideon is also a trainer for FRI. Before Covid, he would travel to other towns and cities in Ghana, meet other broadcasters, and go to the field with them to show them how to improve their interview skills and to craft their own magazine shows. Now he continues to train broadcasters, but online.

Working with the farmer listening groups gives Gideon insights into farmers’ needs and knowledge, making his magazine so authentic that 60,000 people tune in. That experience gives Gideon the confidence to train other broadcasters all over Ghana.

When I was in Ghana a few years ago, I met excellent extension agents who told me how frustrated they were to be responsible for reaching 3,000 farmers. It was impossible to have a quality interaction with all those farmers.

However, there are ways to communicate a thoughtful message with a large audience, for example with a good radio magazine.

Gideon has creatively blended his own expertise with resources from two communication-oriented non-profit organisations: Farm Radio International and Access Agriculture. Hopefully, his experience will inspire other broadcasters.

Videos in the languages of Ghana

Find videos and soundtracks in these languages of Ghana: Buli, Dagaari, Dagbani, Ewe, Frafra, Gonja, Hausa, Kabyé, Kusaal, Moba, Sisaala, Twi, Zarma and English.

Top-down extension on the rise? February 28th, 2021 by

Despite more than three decades of investments in participatory approaches, top-down extension with blue print recommendations seems to be gaining ground again. Why is it so hard to stamp out such denigrating, disempowering practices that consider farmers as passive takers of advice and obedient producers of food?

While working in Vietnam in 1997, roughly a decade after the government established a more liberal market economy with its Doi moi reform policy, my Canadian friend Vincent often shared his frustrations.  As he deployed the tools of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) to assess the priority development needs of rural communities, vegetables often emerged as number one. But as he concluded the full day’s exercise by asking the villagers what they wanted to work on, they always said “rice”. It drove Vincent nuts, as there was no way he could justify that to his NGO back home. As rice was still set as a priority by the local authorities, people had put their personal aspirations aside and abided by government policies.

All states throughout history have relied on making people follow rules … and pay taxes. In my blog two weeks ago, I referred to James Scott’s book Against the Grain, where he writes about the early development of agriculture, starting some 10,000 years ago. During the first several millennia of plant and animal domestication, early farmers and pastoralists continued to hunt, and gather wild plants, leaving them with plenty of leisure time and an incredible diverse and healthy diet, as they practiced sustainable agriculture for four or five thousand years.

When the first states emerged some 6,000 years ago, all this began to change. State elites collected tax as a share of the harvest or as forced labour (or both). As wheat, maize and rice need to be harvested at one particular time and can be easily stored, the early states forced farmers to grow more of these cereal crops. The first writings were not poems or epic stories, but accounts with names of people and taxes paid or other transactions. Rigid instructions on how to manage the crops allowed the tax collector to estimate yields and to calculate how much tax they could collect. Top-down extension is as old as the very first states. Crop diversity declined as people worked harder and ate less.

So despite the more recent, huge public investments and overwhelming evidence of the benefits of participatory approaches, whether farmer field schools, community seed banks or participatory technology generation, development practitioners are up against a difficult enemy (a pushy state that wants to tell farmers what to do). But now some new actors have entered the scene.

Over the past decade, non-traditional extension service providers like telecommunications companies and digital service providers have taken the stage, with many donor agencies and philanthropists believing that digital extension will shape the future of farming. These new service providers can provide pretty accurate information on market prices and weather forecasts, but their tools are too weak to provide an extension service. In the golden age of tweets, farmer advice is often summarised in short, simple text messages and by doing so, digital service providers play back into the hands of those governments and companies who believe they have a right to control rural folks.

Some of my recent research on apps and digital platforms revealed once more how fertilizer and seed companies (and some donors) are using digital services to push national fertilizer and seed recommendations.

Short, blunt messages are better for promoting agrochemicals than for discussing a complex agroecology. It is a rare digital service that understands farmers and responds to their needs in a non-directive way.

Anthropologist Paul Richards described small-scale farming as a type of performance whereby farmers learn by experimentation and adapt their behaviour to reach certain goals. To support diverse and healthy food systems, digital extension approaches will need to encourage experimentation and farmer-to-farmer learning across borders. While simple sms messages can be offered in local languages, video will become an increasingly important format to engage farmers in active learning, with images and verbal discussion from fellow farmers. In video, the audience can read the images, and listen to explanations by fellow farmers, plus viewers can go back and watch the video again and discuss with their friends and family. This gives video a depth and a subtlety that can’t be tweeted.

Modern states that see farmers as citizens, not as subjects, will need to explore many forms of participatory extension, and not simply try to digitize top-down approaches, which will never appeal to farmers.

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

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