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

vea la versión en español a continuación

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’t be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chuño 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—or commuted—to 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 Consultative 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 agrónomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me contó por primera vez cómo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 años, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacción que yo enseñaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por mí mismo cómo el afán por un sano grano andino podría comer el paisaje de su país natal.

Recientemente tuve mi oportunidad, cuando Paul, Marcella y yo hacíamos videos para Agro-Insight. Junto con Milton Villca, un agrónomo de Proinpa, conocimos a Genaro en Uyuni, cerca de las famosas salinas de Bolivia. Genaro, que está a punto de cumplir 70 años, pero parece que tiene 55, nos dijo que había trabajado con la quinua durante 41 años, y que había sido testigo del cambio dramático de un alimento básico local y menospreciado a un renombrado alimento mundial. Empezó a explicar lo que había pasado.

Cuando Genaro era un niño en la década de 1950, toda el área alrededor de Uyuni, en el árido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetación natural. La gente cultivaba pequeñas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t’olas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el único cultivo que sobreviviría al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engordándose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el más grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles más bajos, para trocar sal por maíz y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chuño 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 años de la década de 2000, el precio de la quinua aumentó constantemente. Cuando llegó a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que tenían 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 hectáreas de t’ola para plantar el ahora valioso cultivo.

Pero para el 2014 el precio de la quinua comenzĂł a bajar y para el 2015 se colapsĂł 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 difícil ver cómo podría recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. Él cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotación de cultivos. Eso requerirá investigación. No se puede cultivar mucho más que además de la quinua a esta altitud, con sólo 150 mm de lluvia al año.

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 llevó a ver uno de los pocos manchones de vegetación nativa que queda. No por casualidad, esto estaba cerca de una pequeña comunidad de llameros, que queda en Lequepata. El pastoreo de llamas sigue siendo la mejor manera de usar esta tierra sin destruirla.

Milton nos mostró cómo 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 están enseñando 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 erosión del suelo. He conocido a muchos agrónomos a través de los años, pero pocos que en mi opinión hacían un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucción.

Agradecimiento

Genaro Aroni y Milton Villca trabajan para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Consultativo de InvestigaciĂłn de Cultivos de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

Historias de blog relacionadas

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Khiruta es Parastrephia lepidophylla

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care August 19th, 2018 by

It is unfortunate that not more is done to safeguard and value traditional knowledge.

In Pune, Maharastra, the Indian NGO Anthra has devoted a great part of its energy in documenting traditional animal health knowledge and practices across India. Dr. Nitya Ghotge along with a team of women veterinarians founded Anthra in 1992 to address the problems faced by communities who reared animals, particularly peasants, pastoralists, adivasis (indigenous peoples of South Asia), dalits (formerly known as untouchables – people outside the caste system), women and others who remained hidden from the gaze of mainstream development.

In their encyclopaedia Plants Used in Animal Care, Anthra has compiled an impressive list of plants used for veterinary purposes and fodder.

To ensure that local communities across the global south benefit from this indigenous knowledge, Anthra started collaborating with one of Access Agriculture’s trained video partners (Atul Pagar) to gradually develop a series of farmer-to-farmer training videos on herbal medicines (see: the Access Agriculture video category on animal health).

While Indian cities are booming and the agro-industry continues its efforts to conquer lucrative markets, many farmers and farmer organisations across the country treasure India’s rich cultural and agricultural heritage. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere. In many countries, local knowledge is quickly eroding as the older generation of farmers and pastoralists disappear.

 

A few years ago, I was thrilled to work with traditional Fulani herders in Nigeria, only to discover that none of them still made use of herbal medicines. Even to treat something as simple as ticks, the young herders confidently turned to veterinary drugs. Although the elder people could still readily name the various plants they used to treat various common animal diseases, the accessibility and ease of application of modern drugs meant that none of the herders still used herbal medicines. The risks of such drastic changes quickly became apparent. As we were making a series of training videos on quality milk, which should have no antibiotics or drug residues, we visited a hospital to interview a local doctor.

“If people are well they are not supposed to take antibiotics. If such a person is sick in the future and the sickness requires the use of antibiotics, it would be difficult to cure because such drugs will not work. It can even make the illness more severe,” doctor Periola Amidu Akintayo from the local hospital confided in front of the camera.

Later on, we visited a traditional Fulani cattle market. For years, these markets have been bustling places where the semi-nomadic herders meet buyers from towns. People exchange news on latest events and the weather, but above all assess the quality of the animals and negotiate prices. Animals that look unhealthy or have signs of parasites obviously fetch a lower price. Given that the cattle market is where the Fulani herders meet their fellow herders and clients, I quickly realized why the entire market was surrounded by small agro vet shops. Competition was fierce, and demand for animal drugs was high.

Modern drugs come with an enclosed instruction sheet, but as with pesticides nobody in developing countries reads this advice. To keep costs down, many herders and farmers administer drugs to their own animals, to avoid spending money on a veterinary doctor. Perhaps even more worrying: few people are aware of the risks that modern drugs pose to human health, whether it be from developing resistance to antibiotics or drug residues in food. In organisations like Anthra, socially engaged veterinary doctors merge local knowledge with scientific information, thus playing an undervalued role that deserve more attention. The training videos made with these veterinarians and their farmer allies will hopefully show more people that it is important to bring the best of both worlds together.

Related training videos

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Managing cattle ticks

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Related blogs

Trust that works

Big chicken, little chicken

Nourishing a fertile imagination

Watching videos to become a dairy expert January 7th, 2018 by

Last week I wrote about Isaac Enoch, who is using drip irrigation to grow vegetables in South Sudan. This week we meet Tom Juma, who is also one of the registered users of the Access Agriculture video platform.

Tom Nyongesa Juma grew up in a small village in Bungoma, in Western Kenya, about an hour from the city of Kisumu. As a young man he earned a B.Sc. in forestry, and studied soil science for an M.Sc. He nearly finished that degree, but was frustrated by a lack of money to pay his school fees. After university, in 2008, Tom started to work for various NGOs, especially ones that gave him an opportunity to help farmers improve their yields of cereals and other crops.

Then in 2017, Tom decided to put his passion for agriculture into building his own model farm. He now has turkeys, chickens, sheep and three cows. Tom is building a barn to hold 30 milk cows. He is motivated by the desire to teach others, “the extension bit,” as he puts it. But Tom also sees the urgency of producing food for Kenya: “We have so many mouths to feed.” Tom wants his teaching farm to focus on young people. He is building the barn so it can accommodate learning visits by primary schools and others, to teach kids about agriculture. “I want to show that you can make a living by agriculture, and do it smartly”, Tom explains.

As a forester and a soil scientist, Tom feels that he is not really an expert on livestock, so he has educated himself, mostly through videos. He surfed the web for any videos on livestock and horticulture and estimates that he watched over 300 videos. Tom speaks three languages, but he still found some videos in languages he didn’t understand. He watched them anyway, learning by observing the images. From videos, Tom has learned about artificial insemination and placing ear tags on cattle.

Tom says that by this time next year, he will be educating young people, and will be using videos as a key element to do that, on his model farm. Tom says that the Access Agriculture videos are of good quality, “short and to the point.” He has watched Swahili versions of several Access Agriculture videos, including the one on yoghurt making and on making a rabbit house. “They were nicely translated and educational,” Tom says.

 

Related blogs

Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan

Why people drink milk

Related videos

Pure milk is good milk

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Hand milking of dairy cows

Videos in Swahili

Access Agriculture has 51 videos in the Kiswahili (or Swahili) language, here.

Acknowledgements

The photos are courtesy of Tom Juma.

Nourishing a fertile imagination March 5th, 2017 by

New ideas spark the imagination of smallholders, whether they have experience with the topic or not. We saw this last week in Nanegaon, a village just outside of the booming city of Pune, India, where farmers reviewed four fact sheets written by our 12 adult students.

Hunamat Pawale reads fact sheetA fact sheet is only one page, so it has to narrow in on a specific topic. The first fact sheet suggested cleaning maggots from wounds on cattle with turpentine, a common disinfectant distilled from pine resin. One man, Hanumant Pawale, read the fact sheet quickly, pronouncing the text clearly in a booming voice. When he finished, several farmers began to speak, adding ideas they wanted to include in the fact sheet. The first woman said that here they treat the cows’ wounds with kerosene, which is cheaper than turpentine, and is available at shops in the village. Her neighbors mentioned other products to treat cattle.

tweezersWe had wondered how farmers removed maggots. One of the farmers went to get a pair of tweezers to show us the tool that he used for plucking maggots from a wounded cow. Tweezers may be too sharp for such a delicate operation, but every household has a pair of tweezers, and they work if you are careful not to poke the cow’s flesh.

The farmers shared another important insight with us: it is best to avoid letting maggots grow in wounds in the first place. The villagers keep their cattle healthy by looking for wounds. Cows lick their wounds, the villagers explain, and if people see a cow licking her wound, they know that she needs some care.

The authors of the fact sheets got excited about improving their fact sheet by taking the farmers’ ideas on board.

It was a great meeting, but there was one little problem. After the first woman spoke, only men took the floor. Later I mentioned this to Pooja, one of our participants.

“The women won’t speak if the men are there,” she says matter-of-factly.

After meeting with the dairy farmers I went with two young men, Ajinkya and Pradeepta, who were writing a fact sheet on mulch: a simple layer of straw or leaves put on the soil surface to keep in moisture. We met a farmer, Mukta Naranyan Sathe, who was just setting down a pile of small, delicate legumes onto a tarp, for threshing.

Mukta Narayan Sathe reads fact sheetMukta-ji had never heard of mulch, but she was interested. After reading the fact sheet, she understood that mulch helps to conserve water. But, she told us that she did not really need to conserve water, because Nanegaon has abundant irrigation, provided by seven or eight bore-hole wells.

Even so, the fact sheet still inspired her to think creatively. She imagined that a large plant could be mulched with whole straw, but for a fragile herb, like fenugreek, the straw would have to be cut into small pieces.

We were soon joined by Mukta’s great nephew, Ganesh Dhide and a friend, Shubhan Pawale. They read the fact sheet and then all of them began to imagine ways of making mulch. They said that instead of burning the leaves off of sugarcane (a common practice which makes the cane easier to harvest), they could use them as a mulch.

They added that they now have a clear idea of mulching and that if one person tries it, and it works, the others in the village will surely adopt the new ideas as well.

The villagers could tell us practical ways to cure wounded cows but didn’t know about mulching until the fact sheet caught their imagination. Even so, they thought of two new ways to make mulch not mentioned in the fact sheet: cutting straw for fenugreek, and using sugarcane leaves. Farmers are inherently creative, and relish new ideas. We do not know if the farmers will adopt any of the ideas in the fact sheets, but before trying a technology one must first imagine doing something new. Our readers had already taken that step.

Other blog stories on writing fact sheets

Chemical attitude adjustment

The rules and the players

Learning from students

On the road to yoghurt

A hard write

Guardians of the mango

A spoonful of molasses

Turtle hunters

Acknowledgements

The first photo is by Mohan Dhuldhar. The second one is by Ajinkya Upasani.

Puppy love February 5th, 2017 by

In the The Field Guide to Fields, Bill Laws colourfully depicts how fencing is a global and age-old practice. Fences mark field boundaries and they stop farm animals from straying.  Fences make it easier to look after animals but enclosed areas can make them more vulnerable to wily predators. During our recent trip in Bolivia we learned how farmers have come up with a clever way to protect their sheep from foxes.

puppy love 1After an amazing drive along winding mountainous roads of Chuquisaca, crossing a narrow improvised bridge just about the width of the car, and wading through riverbeds, we arrive at the farmhouse of doña Basilia Camargo early in the morning. Her husband is about to leave to mend some fences around their fields further up in the mountains. Doña Basilia and her husband keep their 15 sheep near the house in a corral fenced with brushwood and barbed wire.

puppy love 2I ask about the miniature house that has been built into the corral. The little mud house has a slanted roof to let the rainwater glide off, a small window and a door leading to the coral. It looks like a house for chickens, or a toy made by the children, but doña Basilia explains that it has a more serious purpose. She is raising a dog to protect the sheep from foxes.

Doña Basilia gets into the corral, and shows us an even smaller shelter in one of the corners. She calls it a “nest,” and she wriggles her hand through the small opening and brings out a little puppy that is only two weeks old, barely big enough to stand on its own legs. Most people only bring home puppies that have been weaned, but this puppy has a ewe as a substitute mother.

puppy love 3“I make the ewe lie down and then let the puppy suckle”, she explains. The dog will continue to suckle as it grows older, and will bond with the flock, following them to pasture and back to the corral.

It all has been properly planned. The small mud house that we saw along the fence is to become the house for the dog, once it has become bigger. When the puppy is old enough to follow the sheep, doña Basilia will take him with her, and spend two weeks herding the sheep. That should be enough for the dog to learn to tend the flock on his own.

Doña Basilia used to have a sheep dog but it died three years ago, and she has been trying since then to raise another one. Some dogs have died and others refuse to be trained.

She points to three dogs napping in the sun. “I tried training that dog there, but he is lazy and doesn’t like to walk. He goes out with the sheep, but comes back and just lies down near the house. I hope I will have better luck with this one,” she confides in us smilingly.

So while brushwood and barbed wire fences may be enough to keep the sheep in, a specially trained dog could defend them from foxes, both in the field and in the corral, where the dog will be sheltered from the cold in his own little house. Once more we were reminded of the marvelous ingenuity of local farmers to use their available resources to protect their valuable flock.

Further reading

Bill Laws, 2010. The Field Guide to Fields. Hidden Treasures of Meadows, Prairies and Pastures. Washington: National Geographic.

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