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Gardening against all odds May 26th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

All over the tropics, from Lima to Lagos, from Mumbai to Manila, the big cities are overflowing with migrants. In some regions, like the Andes, parts of the countryside are emptying out, with whole villages boarded up.

The new neighborhoods ringing the cities are often described as crowded eyesores. Ana and I visited one recently, on the edge of Cochabamba, a city that has long been divided into a fashionable north side, hemmed in by mountains, and by a working-class south side. But in the past 10 years or so the south side has mushroomed out of the valley bottom, to grow over the hills south of town. At night the lights on the hills are a reminder of how much the city has changed.

In one of the newest of these poor neighborhoods, we met some of the 80 members of a women’s group, Nueva Semilla (New Seed). Migration has been intense after the mining industry crumbled in the 1980s, but even in the past 10 years people have continued to leave villages in the provinces of Cochabamba and in Northern Potosí, the poorest region of Bolivia, to seek a better life in the city.

Nueva Semilla is in a tough neighborhood where people have to look after themselves. Families live on small plots of land, where they slowly build their brick and cement houses with their own hands, in their limited free time, usually just Sundays and national holidays. The streets are unpaved and dusty, laid out on square grids (or in curves on some of the steeper slopes). The government has built schools and hospitals. There is electricity, but no running water. People buy water from tanker trucks for a dollar a barrel.

The women’s group started in 2014, when some of them were taking a catechism class. They were impressed with the garden in the churchyard and this set them thinking. They had all been farmers in the places they had come from; why not establish their own gardens in their new homes?

But the women were used to growing potatoes, maize and barley, not garden vegetables. Fortunately, an NGO, the Agroecology and Faith Association, helped them with seed and some training, and some fabric to make semi-shade to protect the young plants against the fierce sun.

Doña Betty, one of the leaders, showed us the plot with her house, a small square of rocky hillside with no soil. Doña Betty bought a truckload of loamy soil, which she mixes with leaf-litter she collects from beneath mesquite trees on the surrounding hills. She puts the mixture in old tires, and irrigates with water she buys. She has created a delightful garden, with a dozen different vegetables, including healthy, organic tomatoes and celery which she is growing for seed to share with the members of her group.

A neighbor, doña Ernestina, is also in the group, and she has a lush garden of about 10 by 10 meters. She has a small hydroponic garden of PVC tubes filled with thriving lettuce plants, an investment paid for by the local municipality. Agroecology and Faith has a strong organic ethos and frowns on the hydroponic gardens because they rely on mineral fertilizer. Yet the NGO is also flexible enough to tolerate the hydroponic gardens, which the women seem to genuinely like. The women’s group is also independent and free to make links with more than one institution.

We paid a small fee, along with a small group of other visitors, for lunch which the women made. They were eager to sell their vegetables. Four heads of lettuce went for about 65-dollar cents, cheaper than in the market. The families eat a lot of their own produce and the kids we saw appeared healthy and well-fed. The women’s small vegetable gardens are surprisingly productive, even if they have to make their own soil and buy their water. The families even have surplus produce to sell.

The NGO is planning a seed exchange fair to … Once a month they also have a solidarity fair, where the women sell ‘solidarity’ baskets of vegetables they produce themselves.  

The women and their families have left their farms behind, but they have also brought the best of country values with them: hard-work and creativity. These adaptive people have taken their personal development into their own hands, and have decided that a home garden is one of the tickets out of poverty.

Related blog stories

Agroecology and Faith’s solidarity baskets are modeled on an experience in Ecuador, which (as luck would have it) I have reported on in a previous blog: Donating food with style

For a story on hydroponic gardening: No land, no water, no problem

Related videos

For videos on seed fairs, and farmers’ rights to seed, see:

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

UN MEJOR FUTURO CON JARDINES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de mayo del 2019

Por todo el trópico, desde Lima hasta Lagos, desde Mumbai hasta Manila, las grandes ciudades están repletas de migrantes. En algunas regiones, como los Andes, partes del campo se están vaciando, con aldeas enteras tapiadas.

Los nuevos barrios que rodean las ciudades se describen a menudo como “cinturones de miseria”. Hace poco, Ana y yo visitamos a una, en las afueras de Cochabamba, una ciudad que ha estado dividida por mucho tiempo en un lado norte de moda, rodeada de montañas, y por un lado sur de la clase trabajadora. Pero en los últimos 10 años, más o menos, el lado sur ha salido del piso del valle, para crecer sobre los cerros al sur de la ciudad. Por la noche, las luces de las colinas son un recordatorio de lo mucho que ha cambiado la ciudad.

En uno de los más nuevos de estos barrios pobres, conocimos a algunas de los 80 miembros de un grupo de mujeres, llamado Nueva Semilla. Ellas han migrado de las provincias de Cochabamba y del norte de Potosí, la región más pobre de Bolivia. La minería colapsó en los años 1980, pero la gente sigue llegando para buscar una vida mejor en la ciudad.

Nueva Semilla está en un barrio duro de gente habilosa. Las familias viven en pequeñas parcelas de tierra, donde lentamente construyen sus casas de ladrillo y cemento con sus propias manos, los domingos y feriados. Las calles están sin pavimentar y polvorientas, pero dispuestas en cuadrículas (o en curvas en algunas de las pendientes más empinadas). El gobierno ha construido escuelas y hospitales. Hay electricidad, pero no hay agua corriente. La gente compra agua de camiones cisternas por 8 Bs. el turril de 200 litros.

El grupo de mujeres comenzó en 2014, cuando algunas de ellas estaban tomando una clase de catecismo. Quedaron impresionados con el jardín de la iglesia y se pusieron a pensar. Ellas habían sido agricultoras en sus lugares de origen ¿por qué no establecer huertos familiares en su nuevo lugar?

Pero ellas estaban acostumbradas a cultivar papas, maíz y cebada, no hortalizas. Afortunadamente, una ONG, la Asociación de Agroecología y Fe, les ayudó con semillas y algo de capacitación, y algunas telas para hacer semisombra para proteger las plantitas contra el feroz sol.

Doña Betty, una de las líderes, nos mostró su casa, en un pequeño lote de ladera rocosa sin suelo. Doña Betty compró una camionada de lama, que mezcla con las hojarascas que recoge debajo de los árboles de algarrobo (thaqo) en las colinas circundantes. Ella pone esta mezcla en llantas viejas, y riega con agua que ella compra. Ella ha creado un jardín encantador, con una docena de diferentes verduras, incluyendo tomates orgánicos y apio que está cultivando para compartir las semillas con los miembros de su grupo.

Una vecina, doña Ernestina, también está en el grupo, y tiene un exuberante jardín de unos 10 por 10 metros. Tiene un pequeño jardín hidropónico de tubos de PVC llenos de plantas de lechuga, una inversión pagada por la municipalidad local. La Agroecología y la Fe prefiere lo orgánico, y no está muy de acuerdo con los jardines hidropónicos, porque usan fertilizantes minerales. Pero la ONG es suficientemente flexible para tolerar los huertos hidropónicos, que a las mujeres les gustan. El grupo de mujeres es independiente y libre de establecer vínculos con más de una institución.

Junto con un pequeño grupo de otros visitantes, pagamos un poquito para un almuerzo que las mujeres nos prepararon. Estaban ansiosas por vender sus verduras. Cuatro cabezas de lechuga costaron 5 Bs., más barato que en el mercado. Las familias comen mucho de sus propios productos y sus hijos parecen limpios, sanos y bien alimentado). Los pequeños huertos de las mujeres son sorprendentemente productivos, a pesar de que tienen que hacer su propio suelo y comprar su agua. Las familias también tienen excedentes de hortalizas para vender.

Agroecología y Fe está planeando una feria de intercambio de semillas, y una vez al mes tienen una feria solidaria, donde las mujeres venden canastas solidarias de verduras que ellas mismas producen. 

Las mujeres y sus familias han dejado atrás sus granjas, pero trajeron consigo lo mejor de los valores rurales: el trabajo duro y la creatividad. Esta gente versátil ha tomado su desarrollo personal en sus propias manos, y han decidido que un huerto familiar es uno de los boletos para salir de la pobreza.

Otras historias del blog

Las canastas de solidaridad de Agroecología y Fe se inspiraron de una experiencia en el Ecuador, que (por pura casualidad) he descrito en un blog previo: Donaciones de comida, con estilo

Para una historia sobre la producción hidropónica de hortalizas: Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos que le podrían interesar

Para videos sobre las semillas de semillas, y de los derechos populares a las semillas, vea:

Derechos de los agricultores a las semillas — Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

Learn by eating April 14th, 2019 by

The prickly pear is delicious, if you can figure out how to eat it. The cactus fruit is covered by minute thorns, as hard to see as a strand of blonde human hair. Some Bolivians avoid the irritating thorns by holding the fruit with a fork and then peeling it with a knife. The little thorns on the fruit are so aggravating that they have their own name in the Quechua language: qhepu, as opposed to the larger thorns, called khishka, found on the pads of the cactus or on other spiny plants.

On a recent Sunday afternoon Ana and I admired the fruit growing in the gardens of Villa, a village near Punata, and we wondered if anyone would sell us some. Ana thought they would not. Prickly pear is usually harvested in the morning, when the qhepus tend to be firmly attached to the fruit. If people harvest in the mid-day they can get covered in brittle qhepus.

But two teenaged girls who were selling soft drinks in front of their house thought that their mom might sell us some fruit. It was late enough in the day to harvest prickly pear.

Their mom, doña Norma, put on a thick leather glove and began twisting the prickly pears off of the cactus plant. Then she told her daughter to pick some branches of sunch’u, a weedy, flowering plant. Doña Norma took the prickly pears to a patch of thick grass where her daughter brushed off the qhepus with the sunch’u branches.

A lot of information came to life that afternoon: how to harvest fruit with infuriating thorns, how to disarm the prickly pears with a handful of leaves, and the best time of day to do it. Local knowledge is like that: passed on not in the abstract, or in the classroom, but during everyday events such as working and eating.

See how cactus fruit is harvested and cleaned of thorns in these short video clips from Agtube

Harvesting prickly pear

Removing thorns from cactus fruit

Scientific names

The prickly pear is Opuntia ficus-indica

Sunch’u is Viguiera lanceolate

Related blog story

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

The red bucket March 31st, 2019 by

I recently had a chance to visit some dairy farmers near Cochabamba. They live in a small community and are members of a dairy cooperative which was able to buy a refrigerated milk storage tank with support from the Bolivian government. Twice a day the farmers bring their metal milk cans to the collection center, a small brick building which houses a 1,000 liter storage tank.

The stainless-steel tank has an electric cooler to chill the milk and a paddle that gently stirs it. This keeps the milk fresh until a tank truck from the dairy collects the milk later in the day. After each milking, the farmer simply takes her milk to the center, avoiding the work of selling it door-to-door, or of making it into cheese.

The farmers are organized in groups of a dozen or so households, and they take turns running the collection center. This involves measuring the density of each delivery of milk with a little gadget that looks like a pistol (a density meter) to make sure that no water has been added, and jotting down how many liters each person brings in.

Every two weeks the co-op pays each farmer for their milk produced. It sounds simple but the reality is different, particularly in calculating the volume of milk each farmer delivers.

The farmers bring in one or two milk cans each time they come. The factory that makes the milk can labels each one “40 liters” but they only physically hold 39 liters. The staff at the co-op are not sure why this is. The farmers at the collection center have been known to naively give a neighbor credit for 40 liters, because the can looked full. Besides, the cans are not always full, so the milk from each family has to be measured accurately, in a special pail. Pouring the milk into the pail (while trying not to spill any) is a tedious task, and another transaction cost. But it has to be done well. The dairy and the cooperative will fine the farmers if they report more milk than they deliver.

Another problem is that farmers report whole liters to the dairy, often rounding down actual volumes.

At the meeting I attended, one young farmer complained bitterly about this. “Sometimes I bring in almost five liters, and they write down four!”

She went on to say that sometimes the person in charge is nice, and gives her credit for five liters, but most of her fellow farmers won’t do that. She singled out one other farmer, doña Irma, as being especially strict.

But doña Irma had a solution for that. “That’s why we have the red bucket,” she politely reminded the group. If someone has a little extra milk, they pour it into the red bucket. If someone needs milk to make up a liter, then can take it from the red bucket.”

Transaction costs can be higher for smaller producers. It may take as much time and effort to deliver 40 liters as to bring in 400. The collection center makes it easier to deliver milk, but it introduces a few new costs, such as the time it takes to run the center, and the risks of mis-measuring the milk.

The young farmer was still angry. No doubt some producers are more motivated to take milk from the red bucket than to add milk. Still, the red bucket was a local if imperfect solution to a nagging transaction cost.

Smallholders will make marketing and institutional innovations, like the red bucket, to stay profitable in a world where food systems are getting every more complex. At a time when many people are leaving the countryside, and multinational corporations are monopolizing the food supply, it’s good to know that at least some cooperatives are trying to work with smallholders so they can earn a decent living in their home communities.

Related blogs

Trust that works

It takes a family to raise a cow

Related videos

Pure milk is good milk

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Taking milk to the collection centreKeeping milk clean and fresh

Kicking the antibiotic habit March 24th, 2019 by

Humanity may be on the verge of a scary new world where antibiotics no longer work. An infected wound, for example from a scratch on a rusty nail, could be potentially fatal. Surgery would become much riskier. Common diseases such as tuberculosis would once more threaten the lives of millions.

The problem is that some disease-causing bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. The more antibiotics are used, the sooner these resistant bacteria are selected and the quicker they multiply. Over-prescription and the indiscriminate use of antibiotics are the main causes of the current crisis, both in people and in animals.

Research to develop new antibiotics is an expensive business and drug companies no longer find it profitable. However, there are immediate recommendations to follow:

1. Don’t use or prescribe antibiotics for people or livestock unless they are really needed.

2. Don’t give antibiotics to livestock unless they have a bacterial disease. And never put antibiotics in animal feed on a routine basis (a common practice to promote rapid growth of the young animals).

3. Wait five to seven days after giving antibiotics to dairy cows before using her milk, to ensure there are no more drugs in the milk.

So, recently when I was invited to visit a dairy cooperative near Cochabamba, I happily went to show them a video about how to keep milk free of antibiotics. A friendly extensionist, who worked for the co-op, showed me to their meeting hall.

The video was filmed in Nigeria, which the farmers didn’t mind, but when I said it was in English there was an audible groan of dismay from the audience. I solved that by translating the video out loud into Spanish.

The questions from an audience tell you a lot about how they perceived a talk or a video. And in this case, they were fully on topic. One young man, who works with his parents’ dairy herd, asked if mastitis (an udder infection caused by bacteria) could be cured with herbal remedies. He had understood the message about avoiding antibiotics, but the video had not explicitly mentioned mastitis, the most common disease of dairy cows and routinely treated with antibiotics.

The friendly extensionist said that the video was important, because the farmers were reluctant to discard any milk. When the dairy rejected their milk, farmers often made it into fresh cheese and sell it locally.

The Bolivian farmers liked this Nigerian dairy video. The circumstances are a bit different in Bolivia, for example farmers bring their own milk to the dairy, while the Fulani herders in the video send the milk with young men on motorbikes. But the basic recommendations to limit the development of antibiotic resistance are similar all over the world. Videos can be an important way to educate the public about the dangers of misusing antibiotics.

Related blog stories

Big chicken, little chicken

Trust that works

Further reading

The antibiotic resistance crisis

Watch the video

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Coming soon A video on mastitis on www.accessagriculture.org

Mobile slaughterhouses February 3rd, 2019 by

A recent article on the BBC News reminded me of how policy-makers can look at narrow technical solutions (how to kill an animal) while ignoring broader, yet largely undebated issues about how we organise our food system. I will illustrate this by giving an example of my former neighbour, René, a farmer who lives in the east of Belgium.

René inherited the farm from his father. EU subsidies in the 1980s encouraged farmers to increase the number of livestock, so by the time his father handed over the farm there were around 1000 pigs. But René of course had to pay his brothers for their share of the inheritance. By the time he was in his early 50s he was still paying off loans to the bank. With the low price he got from selling to supermarkets, René realised he had to find a way to earn more money. He decided to take a butchery course and soon after he started selling meat products directly to the public on his farm.

By 2010, René had reduced his herd to some 200 pigs. He still sells some pigs to supermarkets, but his main income is now derived from selling meat from his own animals to people who visit his farm butchery. Every Monday morning René takes 2 pigs to the slaughterhouse, spends the week processing the meat into more than 20 products ranging from salamis to smoked hams and pâtés, and then he and his wife Marij open the shop from Friday to Sunday.

With a great sense of pride, René told me a few years back that he had finally paid off all his debts. But just a year later, the farm family had to take another main decision. The nearest slaughterhouse in Genk, some 20 kilometres from his farm, had closed down, so René was forced to drive over 50 kilometres to have his animals slaughtered.

Regulations required that for longer distances live and slaughtered animals had to be transported in special vehicles. René told me this would cost the family around 10,000 Euro, not counting the extra distance to be traveled each week. One has to sell a lot of sausages to pay for this extra cost. Closing the farm and going to work in a factory was not an option, so they kept their heads high, invested in a trailer and the family continued with their farm and food business.

It seemed that the slaughterhouse in Genk that René relied on had closed down under pressure of certain lobby groups in favour of more industrial agriculture. When supermarkets rule the food system, policies change to reflect the concerns of consumerss. Little thought is given to how changes work to the detriment of smallholder farmers and local food initiatives.

At least for the red meat sector, mobile abbatoirs could offer a great alternative to centralised slaughterhouses. Under the supervision of the farmer and the professional slaughterer who drives the mobile abattoir, animals can be spared the stress of long transport and be slaughtered humanely at home. We can learn from countries where such initiatives are in use, such as those in Scandinavia, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Food is power, and a democratic food system is one that is owned and controlled by as many people as possible instead of by a few giant companies. While community-supported agriculture can give people a sense of ownership over their food, more is required to fundamentally change our food system with due respect given to the people who produce the bulk of our food: professional and passionate smallholder farmers. Mobile abattoirs deserve more attention to enhance the welfare of animals and to keep farmers crafting food in a business they are proud to run.

Further reading

BBC News. Research into benefits of mobile abattoirs. 23 January 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-46958906

Related blog

In an earlier blog I wrote about the challenges of regulating the slaughtering of animals, with public debates in Belgium mainly focusing on how to deal with religious rituals (see: Forgotten food rites).

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