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Silent Spring, better living through biology June 13th, 2021 by

Hey farmer, farmer

Put away that DDT now

Give me spots on my apples

But leave me the birds and the bees

Please!

“Big Yellow Taxi,” by Joni Mitchell

It’s possible that Joni Mitchell’s 1970 lyrics owe a debt to Rachel Carson’s (1962) book Silent Spring. Why not? The book was a major influence on the environmental movement, inspiring Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US ban on DDT, besides. Less often mentioned, the book also touched off integrated pest management (IPM).

For all that, Carson makes few mentions of farmers in her book. Many of the cases she meticulously described are of the US and Canadian governments arrogantly dropping insecticide from airplanes, blanketing forest, field, stream, pasture, and even suburban communities.

DDT and other noxious organophosphate insecticides were applied in each case to kill some specific pest: The Japanese beetle, the spruce budworm, and the fire ant, for example.

In every case, the results were disastrous. Dead livestock, and cancer in humans, but the birds were decimated. The bald eagle, national bird of the USA, was nearly exterminated by DDT. The bald eagle has since made a comeback, but many other bird species are on the decline.

The chemical companies that sold these pesticides to the government had the audacity (or the stupidity) to claim that insects would not be able to evolve resistance to the toxins. The pests would be eradicated!

But they weren’t. The bugs won the war. In every single case, the target pest species was more numerous a few years after the spraying started.

To explain this, Carson coined the analogy of the pesticide treadmill. Before a pesticide is used, an insect’s population is controlled by its natural enemies, such as spiders, wasps, ants, and birds. Insecticide kills the pest, and its natural enemies, too. The pest evolves resistance to the pesticide, much quicker than do its natural enemies (which often reproduce more slowly and absorb more of the poison). Once freed from its natural enemies, the pest population explodes. Now it has to be managed by pesticides.

In 1962, Carson mused that Darwin would have been pleased to see how well his theories were proven, as insect pests had quickly evolved resistance to pesticides. If Carson were here today, she might not be so happy to see how the chemical companies have also evolved. They have engineered maize and soy varieties that can withstand herbicides, so fields can be sprayed with glyphosate that kills all the plants, except for the ones with designer genes. The corporations that sell the seed conveniently sell the herbicide as well. Companies like Monsanto once claimed that the weeds would not be able to evolve resistance to the genetically modified crops.

But they did. At least 38 species of weeds are now resistant to glyphosate.

As Carson said nearly 60 years ago (and it’s still true), farms and forests are biological systems. Their pest problems have to be solved with biology, not with chemistry. In Rachel Carson’s day, only 2% of economic entomologists were working on biological pest control. Most of the other 98% were studying chemicals. Funding for chemicals breeds contempt for biological alternatives.

Biological pest control uses natural enemies to control pests. Carson cites the famous case of the cottony cushion scale, a citrus pest in California. The pest was controlled in 1872, long before DDT was available, by importing a lady bird beetle from Australia that ate the scale insects. The scale insects then became rare in California orchards until the 1940s, when insecticides killed the lady bird beetles and the pests exploded.

A recent book by Biovision and IPES Food suggests that many big donors still fund conventional research in pesticides. Perhaps it’s time to invest in scientists who can pick up Rachel Carson’s challenge, and solve biological problems with biology.

Further reading

Carson, Rachel 1962 (1987 edition). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Heap, Ian, and Stephen O. Duke 2018 “Overview of glyphosate‐resistant weeds worldwide.” Pest Management Science 4(5): 1040-1049.

On chemical companies denying that weeds would develop resistance to their herbicides see chapter 5 in:

Philpott, Tom 2020 Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How we can Prevent It. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 246 pp. (See also a review of this book in Our threatened farmers).

Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & IPES-Food. 2020. Money Flows: What Is Holding Back Investment in Agroecological Research for Africa? Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems

Videos on natural, biological pest control

The wasp that protects our crops

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Weaver ants against fruit flies

The next generation of farmers March 28th, 2021 by

Nederlandse versie hieronder

Whether in Europe or in the global South, young farmers, unless they are born into a farm family, often lack three key things: land, finance and knowledge. But a new breed of farmers has risen, fuelled by passion to produce food in a healthy way, free from agrochemicals. Their journeys are often difficult, but with support from the community and by helping each other, they are heading towards a fairer and brighter future, as I learned this week on a revealing road trip.

Recently, I joined my farmer friends Johan Hons and Vera Kuijpers on their weekly trip to deliver and buy organic produce from wholesalers and fellow farmers to stock up their farm shop that opens from Friday afternoon until Saturday noon. Johan and Vera have been pioneer organic farmers in north-eastern Belgium.

“When we started some 30 years ago, it was just us and one other family who had a basic food packaging machine. Whenever needed, we could use their machine,” Johan said. In the meantime, the number of organic farmers has grown, and an amazing informal network is coming to life.

The back of the van is loaded with freshly harvested potatoes, a few crates of cabbages and leek seedlings that Johan and Vera had reared for the new season. Having left their farm before 6 am, by 8 o’clock we finished our first delivery. Biofresh, a main organic retailer, bought their potatoes. At the same time, we collect the produce they had ordered online a few days earlier. Vera guides me through the warehouse, explaining how the whole system works.

I see crates of organic pineapples from Côte d’Ivoire, bright mangoes from Ghana, ginger from Peru, fava beans, artichokes and oranges from Italy, and various local products, including their potatoes, amongst other things.

“At first, our name was mentioned on the label,” Vera says, “but they have now replaced our name with a number, so people no longer know who has produced them. I think it is to protect themselves from their competitors.” This may well be the case, but as we continue our road trip it dawns on me that the effectiveness of this strategy may only be short-lived.

As we load the van in the parking lot, Floriaan D’Hulster, a young fellow organic farmer whom we had met indoors 10 minutes earlier arrives. He has come to buy Johan and Vera’s crates of cabbages and hands over a little carton box. My curiosity triggered, Johan proudly opens it and shows little seed packages.

“This is from our group of farmers with whom we started to produce vegetable seed. The seed has been cleaned, nicely labelled and packaged at the premises of Akelei, the organic farm where Floriaan works, and will be available in our farm shop as of tomorrow,” Johan smiles. Their non-profit association “Vitale Rassen” was formalised in 2019 and regroups organic farmers across Flanders who produce seed under EU organic standards.

On to the next destination. Like Biofresh, Sinature is a wholesaler, but they also have their own greenhouses behind their warehouse. “We like to buy as much locally produced food as possible,” Vera says, “as that is in line with our philosophy and many clients also ask me about this.”

As we walk through the warehouse, Vera carefully goes over various lists. I learn that they are at the same time buying produce for other fellow farmers. “Many of us have started to sell our produce ourselves directly to consumers, whether at farm markets or farm shops,” Vera says, “and it is good to be able to offer clients a rich diversity of food on top of your own produce. As we have a van and a trailer, we provide this service to our fellow farmers against a small fee to cover our costs.”

At Bernd Vandersmissen’s farm I am excited to see how even in greenhouses, they successfully integrate crops and livestock. Two pigs are happily sleeping under a trailer in an area secured by a temporary electric fence. While the pigs feed on the green manure (a mixture of rye and phacelia), they keep the soil loose and fertile.

Many of the new generation of farmers have managed one way or the other to secure some land. To gain knowledge and become professional growers, the non-profit organisation Landwijzer has been offering both short and two-year long courses on organic and biodynamic farming for the past 20 years.

The remainder of the day we make various stops to buy and deliver fresh produce at some inspiring farms. As Johan and Vera are pioneers, they know everyone involved in the organic food system. Many of the new generation of farmers have also done their internship with them as part of their Landwijzer course, so they have a strong bond. By providing this weekly service, they also get a chance to chat with their colleagues and exchange ideas and recent news.

When I ask Johan how the new generation of farmers is coping with the purchasing power of large buyers that push down prices, he explains that price formation and market diversification are key aspects covered in the courses offered by Landwijzer.

A few days earlier I had an online meeting with one of the coordinators of the Fairtrade Producers’ Organisation from Latin America. To secure a living income, cocoa and coffee growers are also forced to increasingly look at income and market diversification. While the food industry may gradually come to realize that paying a fair price for food is needed to keep farmers in business, it is reassuring to see that farmers continue to innovate by pro-actively strengthening ties between themselves and the community of consumers. Belonging to a network may make a vital difference for new farmers, who often lack land and a family connection to agriculture.

Related blogs

Grocery shops and farm shops

Forgotten vegetables

Marketing something nice

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

 

De volgende generatie boeren

Of ze nu in Europa of in het Zuiden zijn geboren, het ontbreekt jonge boeren, tenzij ze in een boerenfamilie zijn geboren, vaak aan drie belangrijke dingen: land, financiën en kennis. Maar er is een nieuwe generatie boeren opgestaan, gedreven door de passie om op een gezonde manier voedsel te produceren, vrij van landbouwchemicaliën. Hun reis is vaak moeilijk, maar met steun van de gemeenschap en door elkaar te helpen, zijn ze op weg naar een eerlijkere en mooiere toekomst, zoals ik deze week leerde tijdens een onthullende road trip.

Onlangs vergezelde ik mijn boerenvrienden Johan Hons en Vera Kuijpers op hun wekelijkse reis om biologische producten te leveren en te kopen van groothandelaars en collega-boeren om hun boerderijwinkel te bevoorraden die open is van vrijdagmiddag tot zaterdagmiddag. Johan en Vera zijn pioniers op het gebied van biologische landbouw in het noordoosten van België. “Toen we zo’n 30 jaar geleden begonnen, waren we alleen met één andere familie die een basisverpakkingsmachine voor levensmiddelen had. Als het nodig was, konden we hun machine gebruiken,” zei Johan. Intussen is het aantal biologische boeren gegroeid en is er een geweldig informeel netwerk ontstaan.

De achterbak van het busje is volgeladen met vers geoogste aardappelen, een paar kratten kool en prei-zaailingen die Johan en Vera hadden opgekweekt voor het nieuwe seizoen. We zijn al voor 6 uur vertrokken van hun boerderij en tegen 8 uur zijn we klaar met onze eerste levering. Biofresh, een belangrijke biologische detailhandelaar, kocht hun aardappelen. Tegelijkertijd halen we de producten op die ze een paar dagen eerder online hadden besteld. Vera leidt me door het magazijn en legt uit hoe het hele systeem werkt.

Ik zie kratten met biologische ananassen uit Ivoorkust, mango’s uit Ghana, gember uit Peru, tuinbonen, artisjokken en sinaasappels uit Italië, en verschillende lokale producten, waaronder hun aardappelen. “In het begin stond onze naam op het etiket,” zegt Vera, “maar nu hebben ze onze naam vervangen door een nummer, zodat de mensen niet meer weten wie ze heeft geproduceerd. Ik denk dat het is om zichzelf te beschermen tegen hun concurrenten.” Dat kan wel zo zijn, maar terwijl we onze reis voortzetten, dringt het tot me door dat de doeltreffendheid van deze strategie wel eens van korte duur zou kunnen zijn.

Terwijl we het busje inladen op de parkeerplaats, arriveert Floriaan D’Hulster, een jonge bio-boer die we 10 minuten eerder binnen hadden ontmoet. Hij is gekomen om de kratten kolen van Johan en Vera te kopen en overhandigt een kartonnen doosje. Mijn nieuwsgierigheid is gewekt, Johan maakt het trots open en laat kleine zaadverpakkingen zien. “Dit is van onze groep boeren met wie we begonnen zijn groentezaad te produceren. Het zaad is geschoond, mooi geëtiketteerd en verpakt op het terrein van Akelei, de biologische boerderij waar Floriaan werkt, en zal vanaf morgen verkrijgbaar zijn in onze boerderijwinkel”, lacht Johan. Hun vzw “Vitale Rassen” werd in 2019 geformaliseerd en groepeert bioboeren over heel Vlaanderen die zaaigoed produceren volgens de biologische normen van de EU.

Op naar de volgende bestemming. Net als Biofresh is Sinature een groothandel, maar ze hebben ook eigen kassen achter hun magazijn. “We kopen graag zoveel mogelijk lokaal geproduceerd voedsel”, zegt Vera, “want dat ligt in de lijn van onze filosofie en veel klanten vragen me daar ook naar.”

Terwijl we door het magazijn lopen, neemt Vera zorgvuldig verschillende lijsten door. Ik leer dat ze tegelijkertijd producten inkopen voor andere collega-boeren. “Velen van ons zijn onze producten zelf rechtstreeks aan de consument gaan verkopen, op boerenmarkten of in boerderijwinkels”, vertelt Vera, “en het is goed om klanten naast je eigen producten ook een rijke diversiteit aan voedsel te kunnen bieden. Omdat we een bestelwagen en een aanhangwagen hebben, verlenen we deze service aan onze collega-boeren tegen een kleine vergoeding om onze kosten te dekken.”

Op de boerderij van Bernd Vandersmissen leer ik hoe ze zelfs in kassen met succes gewassen en vee integreren. Twee varkens slapen tevreden onder een trailer in een ruimte die beveiligd is met een tijdelijk elektrisch hek. Terwijl de varkens zich voeden met de groenbemesting (een mengsel van rogge en phacelia), houden ze de grond los en vruchtbaar.

Veel van de nieuwe generatie boeren zijn er op de een of andere manier in geslaagd om wat land in handen te krijgen. Om kennis op te doen en professionele telers te worden, biedt de vzw Landwijzer al 20 jaar zowel korte als tweejarige cursussen aan over biologische en biodynamische landbouw.

De rest van de dag maken we verschillende stops om verse producten te kopen en af te leveren bij enkele inspirerende boerderijen. Omdat Johan en Vera pioniers zijn, kennen ze iedereen die betrokken is bij het biologische voedselsysteem. Veel van de nieuwe generatie boeren hebben ook bij hen stage gelopen in het kader van hun Landwijzer opleiding, dus ze hebben een sterke band. Door deze wekelijkse service krijgen ze ook de kans om met hun collega’s bij te praten en ideeën en recent nieuws uit te wisselen.

Als ik Johan vraag hoe de nieuwe generatie boeren omgaat met de koopkracht van grote afnemers die de prijzen drukken, legt hij uit dat prijsvorming en marktdiversificatie belangrijke aspecten zijn die in de cursussen van Landwijzer aan de orde komen.

Een paar dagen eerder had ik een online-ontmoeting met een van de coördinatoren van de Fairtrade Producers’ Organisation uit Latijns-Amerika. Om in hun levensonderhoud te kunnen voorzien, worden ook cacao- en koffietelers gedwongen steeds meer te kijken naar inkomens- en marktdiversificatie. Terwijl de voedingsindustrie geleidelijk tot het inzicht komt dat het betalen van een eerlijke prijs voor voedsel nodig is om boeren in bedrijf te houden, is het geruststellend om te zien dat boeren blijven innoveren door pro-actief de banden tussen henzelf en de gemeenschap van consumenten aan te halen. Deel uitmaken van een netwerk kan een wezenlijk verschil maken voor nieuwe boeren, die vaak niet over land beschikken en geen familieband met de landbouw hebben.

Repurposing farm machinery September 20th, 2020 by

Many farmers in Europe and North America are burdened with debts due to the heavy investments they have made over the years to buy farm machinery. A new tractor easily costs 100,000 Euro or more. New agricultural policies often force farmers to change as well. When environmental policy outlawed the spread of liquid manure on the surface of the field, manufacturers quickly adapted: manure is now directly injected into the soil. But this may oblige farmers to get rid of machinery that still works. What solutions can research offer to repurpose farm equipment? These thoughts have gradually come to my mind, living in a farming village in north-eastern Belgium and observing the various changes.

Farmers creatively adapt in many ways. Our friend, Johan Hons, uses a leek planter to transplant sweet maize seedlings on his organic farm to reduce the need for weeding. Like many farmers, Johan has his own workshop where he adjusts equipment to suit his needs.

American and European farmers see the soaring prices of equipment as one of their key challenges. Besides, equipment has become so complicated and repair is stymied by proprietary software and a lack of available parts. As a response, many farmers are now buying simpler, and much cheaper second-hand tractors from the 1970s and ’80s.

Also, local service providers have repositioned themselves and taken over many of the farm operations. And the fewer local service providers there are, the more pressure they can put on farmers, often charging fees that further eat into farmers’ meagre profit margins. Many machines, like the ones that inject liquid manure into the soil, have become so big that they are often wider than the country lanes, damaging them and forcing cyclists to jump off the road to save their lives whenever these machines roar by.

But there are also positive changes in the development of new machinery, which are not about making them bigger and heavier. Until last year, our local machine provider needed three tractors to collect grass for silage. One tractor raked up the grass and filled a wagon pulled by a second tractor. Meanwhile, a third tractor hauled the grass to the farmstead, to fill the silo, before running back to the field so the second tractor could empty its load. No time was wasted. This year, I noticed a single machine picking up the cut grass. This meant that the tractor then needed to drive to the farm where the silage was made, but to finish this entire field with just one tractor only took an hour longer than with three tractors and drivers, a big savings in labour, machinery and fuel.

Due to tillage and use of agrochemicals, many soils have become depleted of organic matter and soil life. As agricultural policies for decades have supported industrial agriculture, all farmers own their own pesticide spraying equipment. So, will these become obsolete when farming transitions to more sustainable models? Or could pesticide spraying machines be used to spray the soils and crops with Effective Microorganisms or other natural biofertilizers, to bring life back into our soils and boost crop health in a natural way?

To enable the transition to more sustainable farming, appropriate machines will be required. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has been studying intercropping for several years, involving conventional and organic farmers. By growing a variety of crops in narrow strips they were able to attract beneficial insects and slow the spread of crop disease. The researchers also found that yields are similar to those found in monocultures and labour requirements are comparable too. Reading their study, I immediately thought how intercropping would work in a highly mechanised setting. Adjusting machinery will likely be part of the solution.

With the action plan laid out in the European Green Deal, the EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050. Different sectors of society each have a responsibility to make this happen. For agriculture, the ‘Farm to fork strategy’ stipulates that by 2030 pesticide use has to be reduced by 50% and chemical fertilizers by 20% in order to make food systems more sustainable.

Clearly, equipment manufacturers will continue to adjust the design of machinery, but this also comes at a cost. To keep as many farmers in business as possible, some creative thinking will be required on how to strike a balance between supporting industry to innovate and finding ways to repurpose the already available machinery park that farmers have already invested in. European family farmers are ready to adapt, but they are also being run out of business. Policy and research should lend them a hand, by inventing and promoting appropriate small machinery that can be used to serve multiple purposes. 

Related blogs

Fighting farmers

Stuck in the middle

Making a lighter dryer

Inventing a better maize chopper

From Uniformity to Diversity

Reaper madness

Tools of the imagination

Some videos on appropriate machinery

Direct seeded rice in dry conditions

Strip tillage

Rotary weeder

Silage from maize

The clod breaker: a rolling harrow

Read more

More nature in fields through strip cropping. https://weblog.wur.eu/spotlight/more-nature-in-fields-through-strip-cropping/  

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en  

Credit: The photo on harvesting an intercrop is from Wageningen University & Research. The bottom photo of intercropped field with flowers is by Fogelina Cuperus.

The village hunter June 28th, 2020 by

I recently ran into our village hunter, Pol Gielen, which is always a good occasion to get to know the village history a little better, and to learn about the changing challenges of hunters and farmers alike. In our village, Erpekom, in north eastern Belgium, with only 300 odd citizens, Pol Gielen is one of the two people allowed to hunt on the village grounds. The license has been passed on from generation to generation. While hunting in Europe is a centuries-old occupation, it has not always had the same social relevance.

The first hunting laws stem from the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman King who reigned England from 1066 until his death in 1087. A decade earlier, William allied himself with Flanders, now part of Belgium, by marrying Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. William was a fervent hunter who loved being in the woods, observing animals, yet he despised the common people. A peasant caught hunting could be thrown into prison or, just as likely, publicly executed. For centuries to follow, hunting became a stylized pastime of the aristocracy.

In contemporary Europe, hunting is no longer confined to the rich. While hunting licenses are to ensure that only well-trained persons are allowed to hunt, the right to hunt is also linked to the duty to care for all animals listed in the hunting laws. For various species, such as deer, wild boars, hares and pheasants, hunters and authorities have to develop plans, detailing, how many animals may or must be killed during the hunting season. Some pest species, such as pigeons, can be shot with little restriction.

In an earlier blog, Bullets and birds, I wrote how pigeons can be a real challenge for organic farmers, who do not use seed that the factories coat with chemicals to repel birds, and how local hunters can come to the rescue if need be. My recent encounter with Pol, our village hunter, showed me how changing pesticide regulations in Europe continue to influence the relationships between hunters, farmers and the environment.

In 2018, the European Commission banned three neonicotinoids (synthetic nicotinoids, toxins originally derived from tobacco). The ban covers all field crops, because these pesticides harm domesticated honey bees and wild pollinators. Neonics, as they are commonly called, are often coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests. These pesticides are systemic, meaning they spread through the plant’s tissue. The toxin eventually reaches pollen and nectar, where it harms pollinators. According to a study by Professor Dave Goulson in the UK, most seeds and flowers marketed as “bee-friendly” at garden centres, supermarkets and DIY centres, like Aldi and Homebase, are contaminated with systemic pesticides. In fact, in his study in 2017 70% of the plants contained neonics commonly including the ones banned for use on flowering crops by the EU. Birds, bees, butterflies, bats and mammals are indiscriminately poisoned when they forage on contaminated plants.

The dramatic decline of bees and other pollinators due to the use of neonics and other pesticides is threatening the sustainability of the global food supply. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of global food, 71 are pollinated by bees.

To further reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment, more restrictions have been imposed because of mounting evidence that pesticide-coated seed are also harmful to birds, including partridges, a favourite game bird for a thousand years that has now become a rarity. Apart from subsidies for installing and maintaining hedgerows around farmers’ fields to serve as food and nesting habitat for birds, the European Commission recently banned methiocarb, a toxic insecticide used as a bird repellent, often used to coat maize seed.

With the new EU regulations limiting seed coatings, conventional dairy farmers got worried that birds would damage their maize crop, and have begun looking for alternatives. That is the reason why one of our farmer neighbours decided to call upon Pol, the village hunter. It was on his way back from that farmer that I ran into Pol when he said: “Well, the farmer asked me to come and shoot pigeons, but I told him: ‘I would be happy to help you, but where do you want me to hide, you have removed all the hedges in your fields!’”

Regulations to curb the indiscriminate and dangerous use of pesticides on seed and in fields must go hand in hand with other measures, such as promoting hedgerows that fulfil important ecological functions for birds and pollinators. Also, environmentally-friendly alternatives could be further investigated and promoted. Green, innovative technologies, such as clay coating, is likely to become increasingly important. Clay is perceived by insects and birds as soil and offers a natural protection of the seeds. The clay can even be enriched with other natural additives to repel birds and insects.

Hunting has come a long way in the past 1,000 years. No longer the pastime of kings, hunting can be part of an enlightened programme to manage bird pests, without the use of chemicals, while saving the bees.

Further reading

Goulson, Dave. 2017. Pesticides in “Bee-Friendly” flowers. www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/blog/bee-friendly-flowers. Original research describing in detail the pesticides was published in the journal Environmental Pollution, May 2017 and can be found here: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749117305158  

Malone, Katy. 2018. Beeware! ‘Bee-friendly’ garden plants can contain bee-harming chemicals. https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/beeware-bee-friendly-garden-plants-can-contain-bee-harming-chemicals/

Stokstad, Erik. 2018. European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides. Science, April 27.

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en

Related blogs

Bullets and birds

Banana birds in the bean patch

Birds: farmers’ blessing or curse

From Uniformity to Diversity

The bird cliffs

Related videos

Managing birds in climbing beans

Soya sowing density (this video talks about hunters providing services to farmers in Benin)

Monkeys in the sacred forest May 31st, 2020 by

Of all the possible ways to save a primate species from extinction, the least expected is voodoo. It is known as vodun in Benin, West Africa, where Swiss ecologist Peter Neuenschwander began his conservation efforts.

I have written before how Peter first acquired, in 1995, a little group of red-bellied monkeys, a critically endangered species that lives only in the dwindling coastal forests of Benin. Later, Peter started to buy tracts of forest to keep the monkeys. At first, he kept them in cages. But after the monkeys began to mate, the half-grown babies would slip out of the cages and forage in the forest, where they were also fed on cucumbers and bananas, to make sure they got enough to eat.

Peter told me his story when I visited him at his Sanctuaire des Singes (Monkey Sanctuary) in the village of Drabo Gbo, near Cotonou, 12 years ago. Now he’s published a novel, based on his experience, in which he gives more details about how he slowly acquired his 14-hectare forest, buying small plots of about a hectare at a time.

Although Peter enjoyed his research in entomology, and loved living and working in Africa, he swore he would never buy land there. Or at least until a friend took him to Drabo Gbo, a small area near the research station where Peter worked. A large extended family owned a piece of land that had once been natural forest, but was now mainly planted with teak trees. A small area of sacred forest still remained, dominated by a massive cola tree. It was love at first sight. Peter arranged to buy the land with the cola tree, and an adjacent plot recently cleared for maize.

The sale helped the villagers of Drabo Gabo out of an impasse, for they had split into two groups, one of evangelical Christians and one of believers in vodun. The evangelicals wanted to cut down the forest and sell the wood. They also wanted to stop the vodun worshipers holding their rituals beneath the cola tree on moonless nights.

Peter bought the sacred forest from the evangelical faction, which held the title to the land. They got their money and Peter got his land. He then told the vodun group that they could continue to hold their rituals in the forest, but only if they would protect it.

Peter offered more than moral support to the vodun group. He joined in their sessions and, as he acquired more land, he was eventually initiated into two vodun groups, Zan-Gbeto, and Oro. In return, the Zan-Gbeto assigned a young man to be Peter’s guardian. Peter built a house on the deforested land, and with his guardian began to reforest the maize and fallow fields. Fortunately, the land had only recently been cleared from forest. Some trees grew up from the stumps left in the field. Other saplings sprouted from seeds that were still in the soil. Peter’s guardian would also bring in rare tree seedlings that he had found in neighbor’s fields.

As Peter describes in his book, it hasn’t always been easy. The villagers often ask him for cash to pay for school fees, funerals and medical expenses. He feels that he has to pay or they will turn on the forest, since they think that it would be better used for farming. There has also been violence, including a machete fight fueled by alcohol at a vodun meeting, and even murder.

Yet the villagers essentially held up their end of the bargain. The vodun men kept the hunters and woodcutters out of the forest. Peter could not have protected the forest by himself. There have been other benefits besides providing a home for the monkeys. By 2015 about half of the endangered plants in Benin were to be found in this sacred forest. Some animals, like the royal pythons, have become rare, but the red-bellied monkeys are reproducing. Peter has managed to pass his sanctuary forest on to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), where he still works on a voluntary basis. IITA will use the forest as a place to study insects, which are essential for biological pest control, which is Peter’s specialty.

The sacred forest is now recognized as a reference forest. Botanists can visit and see trees that they may have never seen before, because the forests that still harbor them are too remote.

Many northern scientists who work and live the tropics have done important research. Few have made a home for endangered monkeys in a sacred forest, and by doing so, saved both. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. Peter is nothing if not honest about his experiences. “There are times when I hate myself for being here, and detest the entire village.” But he also writes: “After years of travelling throughout Africa in a quest to improve sustainable farming, this attraction culminated in a boy’s dream come true: living in a real forest, tending rare plants, and raising endangered monkeys.”

Further reading

Bentley, Jeff 2008 Red-Bellied Monkeys.

Neuenschwander, Peter 2020 Death in Benin: Science Meets Voodoo. Just Fiction! Editions, Omni Scriptum Publ., Beau Basin, Mauritius.

Neuenschwander, P., & Adomou, A. 2017.  Reconstituting a rainforest patch in southern Benin for the protection of threatened plants. Nature Conservation 21: 57-82.

Neuenschwander, Peter, Brice Sinsin and Georg Goergen (editors) 2011 Nature Conservation in West Africa: Red List for Benin. Cotonou: IITA.

Neuenschwander, P., Bown, D., Hèdégbètan, G. C., & Adomou, A. 2015 Long-term conservation and rehabilitation of threatened rain forest patches under different human population pressures in West Africa. Nature Conservation 13: 21–46.

Scientific names

Cola tree, Cola gigantea

Royal Python, Python regius

Red- bellied monkey, Cercopithecus erythrogaster

Acknowledgements

A warm thanks to Peter Neuenschwander for comments on a previous draft, and for kindly allowing me to use his excellent photographs. And to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa, your help on these stories is always appreciated, even if I don’t always say so.

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