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Let nature guide you March 17th, 2019 by

Farmers need to take decisions every day. Smallholders living in remote areas often have no one to turn to to ask advice. Nobody tells them which crop to grow or when is a good time to plant. In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about the Yapuchiris, experienced organic farmers on the Bolivian altiplano who started recording their observations on weather, natural indicators and their crops on a daily basis. Some have done so for over 10 years.

In this harsh environment predicting the weather correctly can make the difference between harvesting a crop or harvesting nothing at all.

As always, when producing farmer training videos, we are fortunate to interact with farmers who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences. In the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, one of the Yapuchiris, Don Bernabé, explains that if frost hits your quinoa, you can lose your crop from one day to the next, all past efforts being in vain. He guides us in the brush land and shows us a local bush called tara t’ula in the Aymara language. “This plant doesn’t like the cold very much, so if you find many of these plants, it is a good place to build your farm house, your corral to keep your llamas and grow your crop.”

But even if your farm is wel located, frost can strike. So don Bernabé has many other natural indicators to inform him about what actions to take. “If the lizard makes a fresh house it will rain tomorrow, but if it starts to close its burrow, it will freeze that night. I then collect t’ula plants and burn them in my quinoa field from 3 to 5 am so that the frost will not settle on my crop,” he continues.

Apart from observing plants and animals, don Bernabé also reads the clouds and wind. Amazingly, winds in June and July already tell him how the next rainy season that starts in January will be. Arrived at a large sand dune, he points to the pattern of vertical ridges blown into the side of the dune. “If the lines are some 10 centimeters apart, the rains will come close to each other and we will have a good harvest. But if they are further apart, the rains will also be sparser and our crop will suffer.”

Don Bernabé has written a book about these natural weather indicators. As he shows us around the landscape, he proudly carries his book with colour photographs that clearly explain all the natural indicators he knows. Reading nature is a skill that requires spending a lot of time outdoors, observing natural phenomena.

The next few days we met some other extraordinary Yapuchiris, each sharing their knowledge with us in front of the camera. It is exciting to be part of this and at the same time an eye opener as to how much industrial agriculture in the West has become disconnected from nature.

With climate change, the need to build on local knowledge will grow in importance.

I cannot think of a better way to end this blog then by quoting don Bernabé once more: “Well these plants and animals are more intelligent than the human being. They know how to live in this land and they know it perfectly. For that reason, it is necessary not to lose this knowledge and that the young people should keep practicing this ancestral knowledge that is so rich.”

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform, in English, French, Spanish, Quechua and Aymara:

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

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Acknowledgement The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Slow recovery March 3rd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The experience with native plants has caught farmers’ imagination. Local resident Crecencio Laime has tried experimenting with wild plant seed, spreading it by hand on the ground and watering it, but germination was poor. “We have to keep trying,” he said, “We won’t always have the support of Milton or of an institution.”

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

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

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

Watch the video

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

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Acknowledgement

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

Related blog stories

Awakening the seeds

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster

RECUPERACIÓN LENTA

por Jeff Bentley, 3 de marzo del 2019

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

Milton Villca es un agrónomo de Chita, un pueblo a 45 kilómetros de la ciudad de Uyuni. Ahora ha regresado a Chita para enseñar a sus parientes y antiguos vecinos cómo cultivar plantas nativas como rompevientos o barreras vivas para evitar que los fuertes vientos se lleven la tierra y entierren a las jóvenes quinuas.

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

Eso está cambiando. Milton explica que dos de las asociaciones de agricultores locales (APROA, AFNAQUI) están alentando a los agricultores a cultivar quinua orgánica, y un requisito es conservar el suelo con barreras vivas de plantas.

Aprender a establecer barreras vivas puede llevar años. Primero, la gente tiene que ver la necesidad. Nilda Paucar, miembro de la comunidad, explica que hasta hace 20 años, el viento venía siempre después del 4 de octubre y que durante el resto del año el viento era suave como para aventar el grano de quinua cosechado, no como ahora, cuando el viento puede soplar con una nube de polvo en cualquier época del año, enterrando los cultivos.

Después de ver la necesidad de las barreras vivas, la gente tiene que aprender a cultivar las plantas nativas que las forman. Ahí es donde un poco de conocimiento local y ayuda agronómica sirve mucho. Paul, Marcella y yo fuimos con Milton y la comunidad de Chita mientras recogían la pequeña semilla de khiruta, un arbusto nativo, silvestre. Los lugareños ponen la semilla de la planta en bañadores. Avientan y limpian los miles de diminutas semillas.

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

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

La experiencia con plantas nativas ha captado la imaginación de los agricultores. Crecencio Laime, un agricultor de la zona, ha intentado experimentar con semillas de plantas silvestres, esparciéndolas a mano en el suelo y regándolas, pero la germinación fue pobre. “Tenemos que seguir intentándolo”, dijo, “No siempre tendremos el apoyo de Milton o de una institución”.

Más tarde, Modesta Villca (tía de Milton) nos dijo que su marido ha dejado franjas de vegetación nativa sin ararlas de cinco metros de ancho a más o menos cada 25 metros en sus parcelas. Fuimos a ver estas barreras naturales vivas y eran hermosos arbustos verdes donde las vicuñas salvajes podían comer y los pájaros podían anidar. La quinua está protegida del viento por estos rompevientos naturales.

Mientras vemos (y filmamos), la comunidad planta plantines de arbustos nativos para hacer otra barrera viva. Vemos de nuevo que saben exactamente lo que están haciendo. Dos personas colocan los pequeños arbustos en dos líneas paralelas, mientras que dos hombres cavan agujeros para plantar y dos mujeres bajan suavemente las plantas en el suelo, sacando las pequeñas bolsas de plástico negro del vivero y recolectándolas cuidadosamente para no dejar basura.

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

Ver el video

Para ver más sobre el contexto de este blog, puede ver el video recién publicado en inglés y en español

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Agradecimientos

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

Related blog stories

Despertando las semillas

Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua

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 Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

Related blog stories

Organic agriculture and mice

Awakening the seeds

Scientific names

Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

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

Muchos bolivianos dejaron de cultivar quinua y regresaron a las ciudades. Para entonces la tierra estaba tan degradada que era 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 Fundación Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos de la Fundación McKnight.

Historias de blog relacionadas

Organic agriculture and mice

Despertando las semillas

Nombres científicos

Khiruta es Parastrephia lepidophylla

Awakening the seeds December 16th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific names

The k’awchi is Suaeda foliosa, belonging to the unfortunately named “seepweed” genus.

The achakana is Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

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

DESPERTANDO LAS SEMILLAS

Por Jeff Bentley, 16 de diciembre del 2018

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

Estos altiplanos andinos estaban cubiertos de t’olares (matorrales), que incluían arbustos bajos, paja brava y otras plantas fuertes y bien adaptadas a las duras condiciones. Las llamas se forrajeaban en este bosque enano sin dañarlo. Pero a medida que más tierra fue arada para la quinua, y más arbustos fueron cortados para leña, la vegetación nativa comenzó a desaparecer.

Las familias rurales de esta parte de Bolivia solían amontonar las t’olas, o arbustos, en forma de cercos largos y delgados, para leña.  Pero la mayoría de los arbustos han desaparecido, así como los montones de leña.

Afortunadamente, explica el investigador de plantas, el Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, la gente ahora cocina con gas natural en garrafa, así que no necesitan arrancar las t’olas para leña, pero este respiro ha llegado muy tarde. En muchos lugares, la deforestación ha sido tan completa que ya no quedan plantas madres para la regeneración natural. Así, el Dr. Bonifacio y su equipo viajan por el Altiplano, recolectando semillas de diferentes arbustos, sembrando las semillas en viveros y luego llevando los plantines a agricultores que simpatizan con la revegetación de las pampas secas.

Las semillas de las plantas silvestres rara vez germinan si simplemente se echan al suelo. Las plantas se adaptan a ambientes hostiles, y la semilla entra en dormancia, sólo para ser despertada por el beso de alguna señal ambiental específica.

Bonifacio y sus alumnos estudian cada planta para determinar qué romperá su dormancia.  Por ejemplo, el k’awchi, una pequeña planta leñosa, está tan adaptado a esta tierra de vientos fuertes y suelo pedregosa que su pequeña semilla tiene que caer sobre el suelo áspero y “escarificarse” para poder germinar. Bonifacio y su equipo también han aprendido que una alternativa frotarlo en arena o dejar la semilla por 20 minutos en una solución débil de hipoclorito de sodio.

En el árido Altiplano, gran parte de la vegetación nativa es de cactus, algunos de los cuales producen ricos frutos. En un restaurante boutique en la gran ciudad de La Paz, Bonifacio se sorprendió al ver un cactus nativo, llamado achakana, solicitado para el menú. La achakana sí es comestible, pero tarda muchos años para alcanzar el tamaño de una pelota de tenis. Los aymaras solían comer el cactus como alimento en tiempos de hambre cuando las cosechas fallaban, pero la achakana podría llegar a la extinción si empiezan a ser servirla en los restaurantes de moda de La Paz. Así que Bonifacio se enseñó a sí mismo a propagarlo.

Fue difícil. Al principio, la semilla no pudo germinar. Bonifacio aprendió que a medida que el fruto madura, la semilla entra en una profunda dormancia. Un día, por casualidad, Bonifacio descubrió que una bolsita de fruta había sido cosechada verde y luego olvidada. Cuando abrió el fruto podrido, descubrió que todas las semillas estaban germinándose. Con orgullo me mostró una pequeña planta de tres años que él había cultivado a partir de una semilla.

El pasak’ana es otro cactus en peligro de extinción que crece tan alto que los andinos usaban sus palos para techar sus casas. La fruta también es deliciosa, sin embargo, hacer que la semilla germine era imposible. Entonces Bonifacio descubrió que la semilla de pasak’ana germinaría si se tomaba de un fruto inmaduro. Con la ayuda de un estudiante, ahora tiene 1200 pequeñas plantas de pasak’ana, todas solicitadas por un gobierno municipal de Oruro que quiere plantarlas.

Hoy en día mucha gente quiere cultivar plantas nativas para la conservación de la fruta, el forraje y el suelo, pero cada especie tiene sus propias necesidades únicas para volver a la vida. Afortunadamente, hay pacientes investigadores que trabajan para desvelar estos misterios y presentar recomendaciones prácticas que pueden ayudar a restaurar las tierras degradadas.

Nombres científicos

El k’awchi is Suaeda foliosa.

La achakana es Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

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

Organic agriculture and mice December 9th, 2018 by

Some practices are harder to introduce to farmers than others. In Europe, environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture has given rise to new forms of subsidies for farmers to provide specific environmental services, such as planting hedgerows or keeping wild flower strips around their fields. In developing countries, however, environmental subsidies are non-existent and hence curbing environmental degradation can be extra challenging.

Recent developments in the global quinoa trade have devastated the fragile ecosystem of the Bolivian Altiplano. As quinoa production intensified, farmers ploughed up large sections of native vegetation, which left the soil prone to wind erosion. With the thin fertile top soil being blown away and young quinoa plants being covered with sand, many farmers abandonned their land and moved to the cities. The loss of native vegetation also limited the forage available for the llamas and vicuñas.

To address this problem, the research organisation Proinpa is trying hard to re-introduce native plants. If native plants could be grown as live barriers around quinoa fields, they would provide fodder and at the same time reduce wind erosion. But some farmers are reluctant to adopt this technology. Planting live barriers costs money, labour and takes up part of their land.

Many of the farmers who plant barriers belong to associations that market organic quinoa. Organic certification ensures that farmers get higher prices, as long as they follow certain practices (such as planting hedges) that contribute to a better social and natural environment. Subsidies for organic farming are rare in developing countries, premiums from certification schemes can partly make up for missing government subsidies, unless pests also like organic crops.

Farmers who grow live barriers told Proinpa that the hedges attract mice who can destroy young quinoa seedlings. Mice are also attracted to the harvested grain as it dries in the field, before threshing. If the quinoa is not stored properly, mice often get into the warehouses. When droppings foul the grain, the crop is rejected for organic trade.

Organic agriculture can be a blessing to boost the income of smallholder farmers and to protect the environment. But as this example shows, organic farmers are prone to additional challenges. Farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano set traps by burying cans partly filled with water to drown the mice. Frustrated quinoa growers also stomp on mice burrows in thie fields or leave quinoa chaffe at the entrance of mice holes, so they eat this and leave the young quinoa untouched.

Every new technology has unintended consequences. Perhaps no one anticipated that live barriers would protect mice, and the soil. Yet farmers who have planted the barriers see their benefit and are willing to find new ways to take on the mice.

Watch and download videos

The video from Bolivia on live barriers against wind erosion will be published early next year on the Access Agriculture video platform .

The video on Grass strips against soil erosion made in Thailand and Vietnam is available in 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ayamara and Quechua

The many farmer training videos on organic agriculture

Related blogs

Waiting for rats

Quinoa, lost and found

Acknowledgement

The video on live barriers in Bolivia is developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Milton Villca, Eliseo Mamani and colleagues at Proinpa for background on this story.

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