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Stopping malaria in Europe August 15th, 2021 by

Nederlandse versie volgt hieronder

Historical breakthroughs have often been made by applying ideas from elsewhere. This dawned on me once more while reading Fiammetta Rocco‚Äôs inspiring book Quinine ‚Äď Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. Without the stubbornness and perseverance of a Jesuit priest in the 17th century, the population of Europe would have been further decimated by malaria, currently only known to be a tropical disease, on top of the devastating plague or black death, which killed at least 4 million people during that time.

While the kings of Spain, Portugal, France, England and the Netherlands were fighting naval battles to gain or keep control over colonies, marsh fever was common in many parts of Europe with temporary wetlands. In Italy it was called mal’aria, a contracted form of mala aria or bad air, as the disease was thought to be caused by inhaling the unhealthy vapours of marshes.

Medical science had hardly advanced since the times of ancient Greece. Fever was considered a disease, not a symptom, caused by the imbalance of the four humours or basic elements which were believed to make up the human body: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. A patient with fever was said to be suffering from a fermentation of the blood resulting from too much bile. As fermenting blood behaved like boiling milk, producing a thick froth that had to be removed before the patient could recover, the preferred treatment for fever was bleeding or purging with laxatives, or both. The ‚Äúcure‚ÄĚ was often worse than the disease.

For a long time, advances in medical science were greatly influenced by religion. According to the philosophy of their Spanish founder, Ignatius of Loyola, Jesuits were not to become doctors but rather to focus on people’s souls, yet many took a great interest in human health, studied anatomy and played a significant role in establishing pharmacies across the globe during the 17th century. Some of them even changed the course of medicine.

Brother Augustine Salumbrino, like many of the young Jesuits who were posted in Peru, made it a priority to learn Quechua and some took a deep interest in understanding local knowledge to the native Andeans’ way of life. The rich Quechua language showed that the Incas had deep knowledge of anatomy and medicinal plants.

The Jesuits at missions in Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes at about 3400 meters altitude, noticed that after being exposed to dampness and cold the native people drank a powdered bark from the cinchona tree, dissolved in hot water, to stop shivering. Salumbrino, passionate to help the poor in Lima, on the coastal plain, decided to test the bark on a few patients who were suffering from tertian and quartan fever (two types of malaria that cause fever periodically in 48 hour and 72-hour intervals, respectively).

Salumbrino’s reasoning was a typical example of applying a basic principle to a different context: if the bitter bark stops people in the high Andes from shivering from cold, it may also stop people in the lowlands shivering from fever. As modern science now knows, the active component in the tree bark is quinine, which relaxes muscles and calms the nervous impulse that causes shivering. What Salumbrino could not have predicted, is that the bark not only stopped the shivering, but actually also cured the fever. Double luck.

While Salumbrino devoted his life to supplying quinine to Jesuit missions across the globe, he worked with local people to plant more trees, taught them how to remove the bark in vertical strips, so as not to kill the trees, processed the bark and established local and international distribution lines, one could rightly say that he laid the foundation for the quinine pharmaceutical industry. But it took some other events to have the drug recognised in Europe.

Despite the growing interest in natural history, including botany, the medical profession in 17th century Europe was still deeply conservative, with advances being further hindered by religious frictions between Catholics and Protestants. In England, Protestant physicians and pharmacists, all member of the Royal Society, openly criticised the effectiveness of what had become known as the ‚ÄúJesuit powder‚ÄĚ. They used all possible means, including the printing press, to stop its growing reputation. Yet popular demand remained high; it was hard to beat the news that the bark had successfully cured England‚Äôs King Charles II, the King of France, Louis XIV, and other royals who all praised its virtues.

Travelers coming from Rome or Belgium, by then the unofficial northern European centre of the Jesuit order, would still be wary of hand carrying or openly selling the bark to the people who needed it in southern England, because of the drug’s Catholic associations. As is often the case when people are desperate and supply cannot keep up with the demand, unscrupulous merchants soon began to adulterate pure quinine with other bitter-tasting barks.

While mainland Europe had a steady supply of Peruvian bark, larger supplies initially arrived in England mainly through pirates who seized Spanish vessels. It was only by the mid-18th century that commercial quantities of bark were shipped from Latin America to Europe. The drug industry flourished while people remained ignorant for centuries of how the disease was contracted. It was only in 1897 that Ronald Ross discovered that malaria parasites were actually transmitted by mosquitos.

While malaria is still prevalent in all tropical countries, few people now know that Europe got rid of malaria only in 1978 after swamps were drained, health infrastructure was greatly improved, and mosquitos were controlled.

Great breakthroughs often happen after people are exposed to ideas from elsewhere and when new scientific insights are gained. While this is true for humankind, most smallholder farmers in developing countries have limited opportunities to learn from their peers across borders, or from scientists. By merging scientific knowledge with local knowledge and presenting a wide range of practical local solutions, the videos hosted on the Access Agriculture video platform aim to overcome these challenges. The videos create opportunities for farmers to learn about the transmission of plant diseases through insect vectors and other topics on which farmers lack knowledge.

Credits

Photo of botanical drawing of quinine tree: copyright Biodiversity Heritage Library

Further reading

Fiammetta Rocco. 2003. Quinine ‚Äď Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. New York: Harper Perennial, pp. 384

Piperaki, E. T. and Daikos, G. L. 2016. Malaria in Europe: emerging threat or minor nuisance? Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 22:6, pp. 487-493.

Related blogs

Eating bark

Principles matter

Turtles vs snails

Inspiring platforms

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

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

 

Malaria een halt toeroepen in Europa

Paul Van Mele, 15 augustus 2021

Historische doorbraken zijn vaak tot stand gekomen door idee√ęn van elders toe te passen. Dat drong weer eens tot me door toen ik het inspirerende boek Quinine ‚Äď Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world van Fiammetta Rocco las. Zonder de koppigheid en het doorzettingsvermogen van een jezu√Įeten priester in de 17e eeuw zou de bevolking van Europa nog verder gedecimeerd zijn door malaria, waarvan nu alleen bekend is dat het een tropische ziekte is, bovenop de verwoestende pest of zwarte dood, die in die tijd aan minstens 4 miljoen mensen het leven kostte.

Terwijl de koningen van Spanje, Portugal, Frankrijk, Engeland en Nederland zeeslagen uitvochten om de controle over koloni√ęn te krijgen of te behouden, was moeraskoorts aan de orde van de dag in vele delen van Europa met tijdelijke moerasgebieden. In Itali√ę werd de ziekte mal’aria genoemd, een verkorte vorm van mala aria of slechte lucht, omdat men dacht dat de ziekte werd veroorzaakt door het inademen van de ongezonde dampen van moerassen.

De medische wetenschap had sinds de Griekse oudheid nauwelijks vooruitgang geboekt. Koorts werd beschouwd als een ziekte, niet als een symptoom, veroorzaakt door een verstoring van het evenwicht van de vier humusstoffen of basiselementen waaruit het menselijk lichaam zou bestaan: bloed, gele gal, zwarte gal en slijm. Van een pati√ęnt met koorts werd gezegd dat hij leed aan een gisting van het bloed ten gevolge van een teveel aan gal. Omdat gistend bloed zich gedroeg als kokende melk, waarbij een dik schuim ontstond dat moest worden verwijderd voordat de pati√ęnt kon herstellen, bestond de voorkeursbehandeling voor koorts uit aderlaten of zuiveren met laxeermiddelen, of beide. Het “geneesmiddel” was vaak erger dan de kwaal.

Lange tijd werd de vooruitgang in de medische wetenschap sterk be√Įnvloed door de godsdienst. Volgens de filosofie van hun Spaanse stichter, Ignatius van Loyola, mochten de jezu√Įeten geen artsen worden, maar dienden ze zich te richten op de ziel van de mensen. Toch hadden velen een grote belangstelling voor de menselijke gezondheid, bestudeerden zij de anatomie en speelden zij een belangrijke rol bij het oprichten van apotheken over de hele wereld in de 17e eeuw. Sommigen van hen hebben zelfs de koers van de geneeskunde veranderd.

Broeder Augustinus Salumbrino maakte er, net als veel van de jonge jezu√Įeten die in Peru waren gestationeerd, een prioriteit van om Quechua te leren en sommigen hadden een grote belangstelling in de lokale kennis en de leefwijze van de inheemse bevolking in het Andes gebergte. De rijke Quechua taal toonde aan dat de Inca’s een diepgaande kennis hadden van anatomie en geneeskrachtige planten.

De jezu√Įetenmissie in Cusco, een stad in de Peruaanse Andes op ongeveer 3400 meter hoogte, merkten dat de inheemse bevolking na blootstelling aan vocht en kou een poedervormige bast van de kinaboom dronk, opgelost in heet water, om het rillen te stoppen. Salumbrino, gepassioneerd om de armen in Lima, de hoofdstad gelegen aan de kust, te helpen, besloot de schors te testen op enkele pati√ęnten die leden aan tertiaire en quartaire koorts (twee soorten malaria die periodiek koorts veroorzaken met een interval van respectievelijk 48 uur en 72 uur).

Salumbrino’s redenering was een typisch voorbeeld van het toepassen van een basisprincipe op een andere context: als de bittere schors voorkomt dat mensen in de hoge Andes rillen van de kou, kan het ook voorkomen dat mensen in het laagland rillen van de koorts. Zoals de moderne wetenschap nu weet, is het actieve bestanddeel in de boomschors kinine, dat de spieren ontspant en de zenuwimpuls kalmeert die rillingen veroorzaakt. Wat Salumbrino niet had kunnen voorspellen, is dat de schors niet alleen het rillen tegenhield, maar ook de koorts genas. Dubbel geluk.

Terwijl Salumbrino zijn leven wijdde aan het leveren van kinine aan jezu√Įetenmissies over de hele wereld, werkte hij samen met de plaatselijke bevolking om meer bomen te planten, leerde hij hen hoe ze de schors in verticale stroken konden verwijderen om de bomen niet te doden, verwerkte hij de schors en legde hij lokale en internationale distributielijnen aan. Men zou met recht kunnen zeggen dat hij de basis legde voor de farmaceutische industrie van kinine. Maar er waren nog andere gebeurtenissen nodig om het geneesmiddel in Europa te doen erkennen.

Ondanks de groeiende belangstelling voor natuurlijke historie, met inbegrip van plantkunde, was het medische beroep in het 17e eeuwse Europa nog steeds zeer conservatief, waarbij vooruitgang verder werd belemmerd door religieuze wrijvingen tussen katholieken en protestanten. In Engeland bekritiseerden protestantse artsen en apothekers, allen lid van de Royal Society, openlijk de doeltreffendheid van wat bekend was geworden als het “jezu√Įetenpoeder”. Zij gebruikten alle mogelijke middelen, waaronder de drukpers, om een halt toe te roepen aan de groeiende reputatie ervan. Toch bleef de vraag groot; het nieuws dat de bast met succes de Engelse koning Charles II, de koning van Frankrijk, Lodewijk XIV, en andere vorsten had genezen, was moeilijk te verslaan en prees de deugden ervan.

Reizigers die uit Rome of Belgi√ę kwamen, tegen die tijd het officieuze Noord-Europese centrum van de jezu√Įetenorde, waren nog steeds op hun hoede voor het vervoeren of openlijk verkopen van de bast aan de mensen die het nodig hadden in Zuid-Engeland, vanwege de katholieke associaties van het geneesmiddel. Zoals vaak het geval is wanneer mensen wanhopig zijn en het aanbod de vraag niet kan bijhouden, begonnen handelaars zonder scrupules al snel zuivere kinine te versnijden met andere bittere schorsoorten.

Terwijl het vasteland van Europa over een gestage aanvoer van Peruviaanse bast beschikte, arriveerden in Engeland aanvankelijk grotere voorraden voornamelijk via piraten die Spaanse schepen in beslag namen. Pas tegen het midden van de 18e eeuw werden commerci√ęle hoeveelheden schors van Latijns-Amerika naar Europa verscheept. De geneesmiddelenindustrie floreerde terwijl de mensen eeuwenlang onwetend bleven over de wijze waarop de ziekte werd opgelopen. Pas in 1897 ontdekte Ronald Ross dat malaria-parasieten in feite door muggen werden overgebracht.

Hoewel malaria nog steeds in alle tropische landen voorkomt, weten maar weinig mensen nu dat Europa pas in 1978 van malaria af is gekomen nadat moerassen waren drooggelegd, de gezondheidsinfrastructuur sterk was verbeterd en muggen onder controle waren gebracht.

Grote doorbraken vinden vaak plaats nadat mensen zijn blootgesteld aan idee√ęn van elders en wanneer nieuwe wetenschappelijke inzichten zijn verkregen. Hoewel dit waar is voor de mensheid, hebben de meeste kleine boeren in ontwikkelingslanden beperkte mogelijkheden om te leren van hun collega’s over de grenzen heen, of van wetenschappers. Door wetenschappelijke kennis te combineren met lokale kennis en door een breed scala aan praktische lokale oplossingen te presenteren, proberen de video’s op het Access Agriculture videoplatform deze uitdagingen te overwinnen. De video’s bieden boeren de kans om meer te leren over de overdracht van plantenziekten door insectenvectoren en andere onderwerpen waarover boeren onvoldoende kennis hebben.

Credit

Photo of botanical drawing of quinine tree: copyright Biodiversity Heritage Library

Meer lezen

Fiammetta Rocco. 2003. Quinine ‚Äď Malaria and the quest for a cure that changed the world. New York: Harper Perennial, pp. 384

Piperaki, E. T. and Daikos, G. L. 2016. Malaria in Europe: emerging threat or minor nuisance? Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 22:6, pp. 487-493.

Gerelateerde blogs van Agro-Insight

Eating bark

Principles matter

Turtles vs snails

Inspirerende video platformen

Access Agriculture: bevat meer dan 220 trainingsvideo’s in meer dan 90 talen over een verscheidenheid aan gewassen en vee, duurzaam bodem- en waterbeheer, basisvoedselverwerking, enz. Elke video beschrijft de onderliggende principes en moedigt mensen zo aan om met nieuwe idee√ęn te experimenteren.

EcoAgtube: een nieuw social media platform waar iedereen van over de hele wereld zijn eigen video’s kan uploaden die gerelateerd zijn aan natuurlijke landbouw en circulaire economie.

Choosing to farm August 8th, 2021 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Growing up on a mixed dairy farm in Sacaba, Bolivia, Alicia Garc√≠a was always interested in agriculture. This year, Alicia and her sister built two greenhouses and grew winter tomatoes (in June and July, in Bolivia). But as the temperature dropped near freezing several times, the plants ‚Äúburned‚ÄĚ or died back. Alicia admits that the first winter was a learning experience. In Cochabamba tomatoes are a summer crop, so Alicia was surprised with the cold damage, but she is sure that next winter, she will manage better. To keep learning, she left one row of the damaged tomatoes standing, to see if they could recover, but she has replanted most of the greenhouse with lettuce and other leafy greens. Aphids are a tomato pest, but Alicia manages them with homemade sulfur lime and an ash-and-soap blend. Alicia fertilizes the soil with manure from her family‚Äôs cows and with biol (made from manure fermented in water).

As another innovation, Alicia is growing apples as an agroforestry system. (Earlier I wrote about some of the agroforestry pioneers in Cochabamba, Apple futures, Farming with trees). Alicia planted her apple seedlings a year and a half ago, and while they are still small she grows broad beans, onions, broccoli and cabbage in between the little trees. This makes use of the land, and keeps down the weeds.

She’s also had some help along the way. When she was just 13 she began taking farming classes from the Center for Technical Teaching for Women (CETM). For the past 10 years, Agrecol Andes (an NGO that promotes agroecology) has helped Alicia and other farmers to sell their ecological produce in coordination with the municipal government (see blog An exit strategy). Last year, Alicia and her sister built two greenhouses, with support from a government program, The Rural Alliances Project Rurales (PAR).

This experience shows that a young woman can be interested in agriculture enough to assume long-term commitments like a greenhouse and an apple orchard. Alicia has a lot in her favor: institutional support for training, investment and marketing, a family that provides land and manure, and she lives in an attractive community. The family home is just past the edge of the small city of Sacaba, which has all the basic services (like banks, hospitals, and shopping). And Sacaba itself is a half-hour drive from the big city of Cochabamba. In Bolivia, rural migration is draining the countryside, but small cities like Sacaba are growing rapidly. The city also offers opportunities for farmers. Every Friday, Alicia and other farmers meet at a city park in Sacaba to sell produce to local people.

I asked Alicia why she had gone into farming. I thought she might say to make money. She surprised me a bit when said ‚ÄúWhat I like is the chance to work with nature.‚ÄĚ

In other words, a lifestyle decision. She finds the work enjoyable, and she likes to farm without chemicals. Alicia explained ‚ÄúMy parents never used pesticides on their farm. Even when the neighbors sprayed their maize and potatoes, my parents didn‚Äôt.‚ÄĚ

Alicia is now in university and has one year left to finish her degree in architecture. After graduation she would like to open her own office and go into landscaping, combining architecture with her love of plants and the outdoors.

Alicia doesn’t farm like her parents did. They didn’t grow vegetables or fruit trees, but she builds on their experience and with appropriate help, was able to start a greenhouse and an orchard while still attending university. Agriculture can capture the imagination of the best and brightest young people.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Alicia for receiving us in her orchard and in her greenhouse. Thanks to Ing. Alberto C√°rdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza for organizing this visit, where consumers were able to meet farmers. Alberto and Alexander work for the Agrecol Andes Foundation, in Cochabamba. Alicia and Alberto commented on a previous version of this story.

Previous Agro-Insight blogs

Strawberry fields once again

Friendly germs

OPTANDO POR LA AGRICULTURA

Por Jeff Bentley, 8 de agosto del 2021

Al crecer en la finca lechera de su familia en Sacaba, Bolivia, Alicia Garc√≠a siempre se interes√≥ por la agricultura. Este a√Īo, Alicia y su hermana construyeron dos invernaderos, y lograron producir tomates de invierno (junio y julio, en Bolivia). Pero como la temperatura baj√≥ cerca de cero grados varias veces, las plantas se “quemaron” o sea se muri√≥ parte de su follaje. Alicia reconoce que el primer invierno fue una experiencia de aprendizaje. En Cochabamba los tomates son un cultivo de verano, as√≠ que Alicia se sorprendi√≥ con los da√Īos causados por el fr√≠o, pero est√° segura de que el pr√≥ximo invierno se las arreglar√° mejor. Para seguir aprendiendo, dej√≥ una hilera de tomates da√Īados en pie, para ver si se recuperaban, pero ha replantado la mayor parte del invernadero con lechuga y otras verduras de hoja verde. Los pulgones son una plaga del tomate, pero Alicia los controla con sulfoc√°lcico y un caldo de ceniza y jab√≥n. Alicia abona la tierra con el esti√©rcol de las vacas de su familia y con biol (hecho de esti√©rcol fermentado en agua).

Como otra innovaci√≥n, Alicia ha plantado manzanos como sistema agroforestal. (He escrito sobre algunos de los pioneros de la agroforester√≠a en Cochabamba, Manzanos del futuro, La agricultura con √°rboles). Alicia plant√≥ sus plantines de manzano hace un a√Īo y medio y, mientras son peque√Īos, ella cultiva habas, cebollas, br√≥coli y repollo entre los arbolitos. As√≠ aprovecha la tierra y evita las malezas.

A lo largo de los a√Īos Alicia ha tenido apoyo de varios tipos. A los 13 a√Īos empez√≥ a pasar clases de agricultura en el Centro de Ense√Īanza T√©cnica para la Mujer (CETM). Desde hace tres a√Īos la Fundaci√≥n Agrecol Andes, una ONG que promueve la agroecolog√≠a, ayuda a Alicia y a otros agricultores a vender sus productos ecol√≥gicos (v√©ase el blog, Estrategia de salida), con un sistema participativo de garant√≠a, a trav√©s de un convenio con el Gobierno Municipal de Sacaba. ¬†El a√Īo pasado, Alicia y su hermana construyeron dos invernaderos, con el apoyo de un programa gubernamental, el Proyecto de Alianzas Rurales (PAR).

Esta experiencia demuestra que una mujer joven puede interesarse por la agricultura lo suficiente como para asumir compromisos a largo plazo, como un invernadero y un huerto de manzanos. Alicia tiene mucho a su favor: apoyo institucional para la capacitaci√≥n, la inversi√≥n y la comercializaci√≥n, una familia que le proporciona la tierra y el abono, y vive en una comunidad atractiva. Vive cerca de la peque√Īa ciudad de Sacaba, que tiene todos los servicios b√°sicos (como bancos, hospitales y tiendas). Y Sacaba est√° a media hora en auto de la gran ciudad de Cochabamba. En Bolivia mucha gente est√° abandonando las comunidades rurales, pero las ciudades peque√Īas como Sacaba est√°n creciendo r√°pidamente. La ciudad tambi√©n ofrece oportunidades para los agricultores. Todos los viernes, Alicia y otros agricultores se re√ļnen en un parque de la ciudad de Sacaba para vender productos a la poblaci√≥n local.

Le pregunt√© a Alicia por qu√© se hab√≠a dedicado a la agricultura. Pensaba que dir√≠a que lo hac√≠a para ganar dinero. Me sorprendi√≥ un poco cuando dijo: “Lo que me llama la atenci√≥n de la agricultura es la naturaleza”.

En otras palabras, una decisi√≥n de estilo de vida. El trabajo le resulta agradable y le gusta cultivar sin productos qu√≠micos. Alicia tambi√©n explic√≥: “Mis padres nunca usaron qu√≠micos. Incluso cuando los vecinos fumigaban su ma√≠z y sus papas, mis padres no lo hac√≠an”.

Actualmente, Alicia est√° en la universidad y le queda un a√Īo para terminar la carrera de arquitectura. Despu√©s de graduarse le gustar√≠a abrir su propia oficina y dedicarse al paisajismo, combinando la arquitectura con su amor por las plantas y el trabajo al aire libre.

Alicia no trabaja la tierra como lo hacían sus papás. Ellos no cultivaban verduras ni árboles frutales, pero ella se basa en la experiencia de ellos y, con la ayuda adecuada, pudo poner en marcha un invernadero y un huerto mientras seguía asistiendo a la universidad. La agricultura puede captar la imaginación de las jóvenes listas y bien preparadas.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Alicia por recibirnos en su huerto y su invernadero. Gracias a los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza por organizar esta visita, entre consumidores y agricultores. Alberto y Alexander trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Alicia y Alberto comentaron sobre una versión previa de este blog.

Artículos relacionados del blog de Agro-Insight

En el frutillar de nuevo

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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!

‚ÄúBig Yellow Taxi,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äźresistant 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

GMOs by hook and by crooks October 4th, 2020 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

In the midst of a deep ecological, economic and political crisis, the Bolivian government is being pushed by multinational companies to open up the country to GMOs, genetically modified crops.

Since 1996, Bolivia has been clearing about 200,000 hectares of tropical forest per year, one of the highest rates per capita in the world. Public forests are converted to private farmland, to plant subsidized soy beans, mostly for the benefit of large-scale export growers, who control vast areas (10,000 to 20,000 hectares each), according to Gonzalo Colque of the Fundación Tierra.

Colque adds that the first and only GMO crop to be approved in Bolivia was Monsanto‚Äôs Roundup Ready¬ģ soy, in 2005 (by presidential decree, during the brief, interim presidency of Eduardo Rodr√≠guez Veltz√©). Roundup Ready soya is resistant to glyphosate (to encourage the use of this herbicide). Soon after being approved, all the soy planted in Bolivia was GMO.

GMO crops that are resistant to herbicide can be sprayed with large doses of glyphosate, allowing farmers to easily control weeds in their crop, at least for a few years. Meanwhile, the farm supply companies make money on the weed-killer and on the seed that tolerates it. But within a few years, weeds evolve resistance to glyphosate, starting an arms race that the farmers will lose.

In 2012, after several years of debate and analysis, Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, signed a law with the remarkable title ‚ÄúFramework Law for the Mother Earth and Integrated Development to Live Well‚ÄĚ (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien). The law outlawed GMOs, although Roundup Ready was still legal.

In April 2019, Morales walked back his earlier, anti-GMO position. According to Opinión (a respected newspaper) Morales authorized the evaluation (a prerequisite for approval) of two GMO soy varieties (HB4 and Intacta Pro, both resistant to glyphosate) at the request of the Bioceres company. HB4 soya had just been released in Argentina on 28 February 2019, in collaboration with Bioceres and the Beijing Da-Bei-Nong Technology Group. Shortly after, Brazil approved a similar GMO soy. Bioceres is headquartered in Argentina; investors include Monsanto and Syngenta AG, a global company that produces agrochemicals and since 2018 has been owned by ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

In mid-2019, when the massive forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon caught the world’s attention, Bolivian citizens’ groups struggled to let the world know that primary, tropical dry forest was also ablaze in the Bolivian Chiquitania. To satisfy exporters’ demands for frozen, deboned beef, parts of the forest had been cleared to make room for cattle. Some forest had been selectively logged, drying it out and making it more fire-prone. According to the Ministry for Rural Development and Land, 2,526 tons of frozen beef were exported in 2019, mostly to China, not bad for a business that had essentially not existed the year before.

President Morales refused to sign a state of emergency, which would have let French firefighters and other allies come help. The fire torched 200,000 hectares of trees and killed an estimated two million wild animals, and it tarnished President Morales’ reputation, contributing to the collapse of his government in November, 2019.

To the surprise of everyone in Bolivia, and following two chaotic days in which the country had no president at all, on 12 November 2019, Jeanine √Ā√Īez (the second vice-president of the Senate), emerged as president, promising to hold elections as soon as possible.

√Ā√Īez, a 52-year old lawyer and a former TV news reporter, came across fairly well in her press conferences. Her rhetoric was conciliatory, and she appointed some indigenous people to cabinet positions. Many people gave her a chance, even after she called out the army to quell some violent protests. Crucially, √Ā√Īez presented herself as a caretaker president, an honest broker overseeing fair elections. But she squandered that asset when, in 24 January 2020, she declared that she too would run for president.

Even after she started campaigning, √Ā√Īez enjoyed mild public support. Then in mid-March, she locked Bolivia down. This may have slowed the spread of Covid, but it crippled the economy. Her popularity and legitimacy were further weakened by allegations of corruption and by reports that she had ties to the international cocaine trade, through a drug-dealing ex-husband in Colombia and an incarcerated nephew. 

Then on 7 May 2020, √Ā√Īez, the accidental president, surprised the long-suffering Bolivian people with a presidential decree (number 4232) allowing genetically modified crops to be evaluated (and rapidly approved). According to the newspaper Opini√≥n, this decree was, like Morales‚Äôs decree a year earlier, also made on behalf of Bioceres, the seed and agrochemical company.

The Bolivian public saw through the GMO arguments. An opinion survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in June, selected to include a broad cross-section of society by region, gender and political orientation, disapproved of the √Ā√Īez government and 79% said they were opposed or very opposed to genetically modified crops.

There was little movement on the GMO issue for three months, until on 17 September, √Ā√Īez withdrew from the October elections. She had been slipping in the polls, and her candidacy had split the vote so that there was now a risk that Morales‚Äô party could win the elections.

Once she was out of the electoral race, A√Īez lost little time supporting GMOs. On 22 September, just five days after quitting her campaign, she signed a new presidential decree (4348) allowing for hard yellow maize from ‚Äúany technology‚ÄĚ (i.e. GMO) to be grown in areas with local varieties, as long as the two crops were planted on different dates and separated (the decree does not say by how far) to avoid cross pollinating native and GMO maize. Such regulations will be impossible to enforce in a country where 50,000 to 70,000 hectares are already sown to illegal GMO maize. √Ā√Īez clearly intended to benefit large-scale growers, as hard yellow maize is the type used for export and for animal feed.

Bolivian laws have to be passed by parliament; the Mother Earth law specifically prohibits GMOs, but presidential decrees, like the ones √Ā√Īez has signed, come from the chief executive alone. They can also be revoked by the next president.

The biggest winners in legalizing GMO seed are the multinational companies who use government approval as leverage to enforce patents and oblige farmers to buy seed from the dealer every year.

Complicated technical and scientific issues like GMOs should be thoughtfully discussed by academic, scientific, consumer and farmer representatives, and then laws that govern these technologies should be passed by congress, not forced by a fragile, unelected president, backed by the export agricultural lobby. Multinationals pushing their GMO seed show their true colors when they take advantage of weak governments in moments of crisis.

Photo credits

GMO soy seed and a soy field cleared from forest in Bolivia, photos by Eric Boa.

Further reading

Bioceres 2019. Prospectus. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1769484/000110465919033172/a19-9851_1f1.htm)

eFarmNews 2019 Argentina, the first country in the world authorizing a Chinese soybean transgenic trait. https://efarmnewsar.com/2019-02-28/argentina-the-first-country-in-the-world-authorizing-a-chinese-soybean-transgenic-trait.html

Colque, Gonzalo 2020 Vulneración de los Derechos Humanos y de la Naturaleza por la Introducción de Transgénicos en Bolivia. Paper read at the Foro: Nuevos Retos para la Agroecología en Bolivia. The talk is available on the Facebook page of Fundación Tierra. https://www.facebook.com/101332713279511/videos/2813006752357621. (The talk starts 27 minutes into this version of the recording).

Friedrich Ebert Stiftung 2020 Proyecto de An√°lisis Prospectivo y Di√°logo. Informe No. 2. Cuestionario Delphi (segunda ronda): Escenarios prospectivos 2020. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KA7f3Q0n_DoVnDsY4em0NVB2VsKGjQdr/view

Ministry of Rural Development and Land 2020 Plan Nacional de Respuesta y Rehabilitación para el Sector Agropecuario ante los Efectos del Covid-19. Government of Bolivia, Ministerio de Desarrollo Rural y Tierras (with FAO, IFAD and IICA).

Opini√≥n 2020 ¬ŅQu√© respondieron Evo y √Ā√Īez a los pedidos de evaluar semillas de soya transg√©nica? https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/pais/respondieron-evo-anez-pedidos-evaluar-semillas-soya-transgenica/20200516234355768011.html

Reuters 2019 Brazil approves new soy seed that resists drought, two herbicides. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-soybeans-idUSKCN1SU244

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TRANSG√ČNICOS A LA FUERZA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de octubre del 2020

En medio de una profunda crisis ecológica, económica y política, las empresas multinacionales están manipulando al gobierno boliviano a abrir el país a los cultivos transgénicos.

Desde 1996, Bolivia ha talado unas 200.000 hect√°reas de bosques tropicales por a√Īo, una de las tasas m√°s altas per c√°pita del mundo. Los bosques en tierras fiscales se convierten en tierras particulares, para sembrar soya subvencionada, principalmente en beneficio de los que producen para la exportaci√≥n, que controlan grandes √°reas (10.000 a 20.000 hect√°reas cada una), seg√ļn Gonzalo Colque de la Fundaci√≥n Tierra.

Colque agrega que el primer y √ļnico cultivo transg√©nico que se aprob√≥ en Bolivia fue la soya Roundup Ready¬ģ de Monsanto, en 2005 (por decreto presidencial, durante la breve presidencia interina de Eduardo Rodr√≠guez Veltz√©). La soya Roundup Ready es resistente al glifosato (para fomentar el uso de este herbicida). Poco despu√©s de su aprobaci√≥n, toda la soya sembrada en Bolivia fue transg√©nica.

Los transg√©nicos resistentes a los herbicidas pueden ser fumigados con altas dosis de glifosato, lo que permite a los agricultores controlar f√°cilmente las malezas, al menos durante unos pocos a√Īos. Mientras tanto, las empresas agropecuarias ganan dinero con el herbicida y con la semilla que lo tolera. Pero en pocos a√Īos, las malezas desarrollan resistencia al glifosato, iniciando una carrera de armas que los agricultores perder√°n.

En 2012, despu√©s de varios a√Īos de debate y an√°lisis, Evo Morales, el primer presidente ind√≠gena de Bolivia, firm√≥ una ley con el impresionante t√≠tulo de “Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra y Desarrollo Integral para Vivir Bien”. La ley prohib√≠a los transg√©nicos, aunque Roundup Ready segu√≠a siendo legal.

En abril de 2019, Morales cambi√≥ a su anterior posici√≥n anti transg√©nicos. Seg√ļn Opini√≥n (un respetado peri√≥dico) Morales autoriz√≥ la evaluaci√≥n (un prerrequisito para la aprobaci√≥n) de dos variedades de soya transg√©nica (HB4 e Intacta Pro, ambas resistentes al glifosato) a petici√≥n de la empresa Bioceres. La soya HB4 acababa de ser lanzada en la Argentina el 28 de febrero de 2019, en colaboraci√≥n con Bioceres y el Beijing Da-Bei-Nong Technology Group. Poco despu√©s, el Brasil aprob√≥ una soya transg√©nica similar. Bioceres tiene su sede en Argentina; sus inversionistas incluyen Monsanto y Syngenta AG, una empresa mundial que produce agroqu√≠micos y que desde el 2018 es propiedad de ChemChina, una empresa estatal china.

A mediados de 2019, cuando los enormes incendios forestales en la Amazonia brasile√Īa llamaron la atenci√≥n del mundo, grupos de ciudadanos bolivianos lucharon por hacer saber al mundo que el bosque seco tropical primario tambi√©n ard√≠a en la Chiquitania boliviana. Para satisfacer la demanda de los exportadores de carne de res congelada y deshuesada, se hab√≠an talado partes del bosque para dar lugar a m√°s ganado. Algunos bosques hab√≠an sido talados selectivamente, hasta que se volvieron m√°s secos y m√°s propensos al fuego. Seg√ļn el Ministerio de Desarrollo Rural y Tierras, en 2019 se exportaron 2.526 toneladas de carne de res, casi todo a China, nada mal para un negocio que esencialmente no exist√≠a el a√Īo anterior.

El presidente Morales se neg√≥ a firmar el estado de emergencia, lo que habr√≠a permitido a los bomberos franceses y otros aliados venir a ayudar. El incendio destruy√≥ 200.000 hect√°reas de √°rboles y mat√≥ a dos millones de animales salvajes, y empa√Ī√≥ la reputaci√≥n del Presidente Morales, contribuyendo al colapso de su gobierno en noviembre de 2019.

Para sorpresa de todos en Bolivia, y despu√©s de dos d√≠as ca√≥ticos en los que el pa√≠s no tuvo ning√ļn presidente, el 12 de noviembre de 2019, Jeanine √Ā√Īez (la segunda vicepresidente del Senado), sali√≥ como presidenta, prometiendo celebrar elecciones lo antes posible.

√Ā√Īez, abogada de 52 a√Īos y ex presentadora de noticias de televisi√≥n, sali√≥ bien en sus conferencias de prensa. Su ret√≥rica fue conciliadora, y nombr√≥ a algunos ind√≠genas en puestos del gabinete. Mucha gente le dio una oportunidad, incluso despu√©s de que llamara al ej√©rcito para reprimir algunas protestas violentas. Crucialmente, √Ā√Īez se present√≥ como una presidenta provisional, una intermediaria honesta que supervisar√≠a unas elecciones justas. Pero desperdici√≥ ese activo cuando, el 24 de enero de 2020, declar√≥ que ella tambi√©n se presentar√≠a como candidata a la presidencia.

Incluso despu√©s de empezar la campa√Īa, √Ā√Īez disfrut√≥ de un leve apoyo p√ļblico. Luego, a mediados de marzo, cerr√≥ Bolivia. Esto puede haber frenado la propagaci√≥n de Covid, pero paraliz√≥ la econom√≠a. Su popularidad y legitimidad se debilitaron a√ļn m√°s por las denuncias de corrupci√≥n y las revelaciones de que ten√≠a v√≠nculos con el traficante internacional de coca√≠na, a trav√©s de un ex marido narcotraficante en Colombia y un sobrino encarcelado. 

Luego, el 7 de mayo de 2020, √Ā√Īez, el presidente accidental, sorprendi√≥ al pueblo boliviano con un decreto presidencial (n√ļmero 4232) que permit√≠a evaluar (y aprobar r√°pidamente) los cultivos gen√©ticamente modificados. Seg√ļn el peri√≥dico Opini√≥n, este decreto, tal como el de Morales el a√Īo anterior, se hizo a petici√≥n de la empresa multinacional Bioceres.

El p√ļblico boliviano no se dej√≥ enga√Īar. Una encuesta de opini√≥n realizada por la Fundaci√≥n Friedrich Ebert en junio, con una muestra representativa de la sociedad por regi√≥n, g√©nero y orientaci√≥n pol√≠tica, desaprob√≥ al gobierno de √Ā√Īez y el 79% se opon√≠a a los cultivos gen√©ticamente modificados.

Ah√≠ se quedaron los transg√©nicos durante tres meses, hasta que el 17 de septiembre, cuando √Ā√Īez se retir√≥ de las elecciones de octubre. Hab√≠a ido perdiendo en las encuestas y su candidatura hab√≠a dividido el voto, por lo que ahora hab√≠a la posibilidad de que el partido de Morales ganara las elecciones.

Una vez fuera de la carrera electoral, √Ā√Īez perdi√≥ poco tiempo apoyando a los transg√©nicos. El 22 de septiembre, s√≥lo cinco d√≠as despu√©s de abandonar su campa√Īa, firm√≥ un nuevo decreto presidencial (4348) que permit√≠a el cultivo de ma√≠z amarillo duro de “cualquier tecnolog√≠a” (es decir, transg√©nico) en zonas con variedades locales, siempre y cuando los dos cultivos se sembraran en fechas diferentes y con distancias entre un campo y el otro (no dice a cu√°nta distancia) para evitar la polinizaci√≥n cruzada de ma√≠z nativo y el transg√©nico. Ser√° imposible hacer cumplir esas normas en un pa√≠s en el que ya se han sembrado entre 50.000 y 70.000 hect√°reas de ma√≠z transg√©nico ilegal. √Ā√Īez ten√≠a claramente la intenci√≥n de beneficiar a los grandes empresarios, ya que el ma√≠z amarillo duro es el que se usa para la exportaci√≥n y para la alimentaci√≥n animal.

Las leyes bolivianas tienen que ser aprobadas por el parlamento; la ley de la Madre Tierra proh√≠be espec√≠ficamente los transg√©nicos, pero los decretos presidenciales, como los que ha firmado √Ā√Īez, provienen √ļnicamente del ejecutivo. Tambi√©n pueden ser revocados por el pr√≥ximo presidente.

Los mayores ganadores en la legalizaci√≥n de los transg√©nicos son las empresas multinacionales que usan la aprobaci√≥n del gobierno como palanca para hacer cumplir las patentes y obligar a los agricultores a comprar semillas al comerciante cada a√Īo.

Las cuestiones técnicas y científicas complicadas, como los transgénicos, deben ser discutidas cuidadosamente por los representantes académicos, científicos, consumidores y agricultores, y luego las leyes que rigen estas tecnologías deben ser aprobadas por el congreso, no forzadas por una frágil presidenta no elegida, beneficiando a un grupo de presión de la agricultura de exportación. Las multinacionales que trafican sus semillas transgénicas muestran sus verdaderas intenciones cuando se aprovechan de los gobiernos débiles en momentos de crisis.

Créditos de las fotos

Semilla transgénica de soya y un campo soyero en lo que era bosque en Bolivia, fotos por Eric Boa.

Lectura adicional

Bioceres 2019. Prospectus. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1769484/000110465919033172/a19-9851_1f1.htm)

eFarmNews 2019 Argentina, the first country in the world authorizing a Chinese soybean transgenic trait. https://efarmnewsar.com/2019-02-28/argentina-the-first-country-in-the-world-authorizing-a-chinese-soybean-transgenic-trait.html

Colque, Gonzalo 2020 Vulneración de los Derechos Humanos y de la Naturaleza por la Introducción de Transgénicos en Bolivia. Trabajo presentado en el Foro: Nuevos Retos para la Agroecología en Bolivia. La ponencia está disponible en la página Facebook de la Fundación Tierra. https://www.facebook.com/101332713279511/videos/2813006752357621. (La charla empieza 27 minutos después del inicio de la grabación).

Friedrich Ebert Stiftung 2020 Proyecto de An√°lisis Prospectivo y Di√°logo. Informe No. 2. Cuestionario Delphi (segunda ronda): Escenarios prospectivos 2020. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1KA7f3Q0n_DoVnDsY4em0NVB2VsKGjQdr/view

Ministerio de Desarrollo Rural y Tierras 2020 Plan Nacional de Respuesta y Rehabilitación para el Sector Agropecuario ante los Efectos del Covid-19. Gobierno de Bolivia (con la FAO, IFAD e IICA).

Opini√≥n 2020 ¬ŅQu√© respondieron Evo y √Ā√Īez a los pedidos de evaluar semillas de soya transg√©nica? https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/pais/respondieron-evo-anez-pedidos-evaluar-semillas-soya-transgenica/20200516234355768011.html

Reuters 2019 Brazil approves new soy seed that resists drought, two herbicides. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-soybeans-idUSKCN1SU244

Antes en este blog

Viajes productivos

A long walk home

A brief history of soy

Videos sobre la soya

La soya es un alimento nutritivo que se puede producir org√°nicamente, sin transg√©nicos. Le podr√≠an interesar estos videos para la agricultura familiar.  

Making soya cheese

Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Making a condiment from soya beans

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Soya sowing density

Enriching porridge

Learning to teach June 7th, 2020 by

Versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

A really good teacher will teach you both subject matter and how to explain it to others. Elías Sánchez mentored thousands of Central Americans in organic agriculture. He started his adult life as a rural schoolteacher because he wanted to help people. But he soon realized that rural people needed agricultural training as much as the usual school subjects, so he studied agronomy and became an extension agent. When he found government bureaucracy too limiting, he started a teaching farm called Loma Linda, in Santa Lucía, in a pine-covered canyon in the mountains above Tegucigalpa, Honduras. That’s where I met him, in the late 1980s.

Loma Linda had dormitories, a classroom and a dining hall, where 30 farmers could come in to take a five-day course, usually paid for by NGOs or development projects. These were the days when donors were generous with NGOs in Honduras.

In the short course, don El√≠as, as everyone called him, taught an effective alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture. Don El√≠as expected people to make radical changes in how they farmed, after attending his course.  At the time, the forests on the steep hillsides were rapidly disappearing as people cut and burned trees, brush and crop residues before planting maize fields. The smoke was so thick in the springtime that every year the Tegucigalpa airport had to close because pilots couldn‚Äôt see the runway. There was also widespread soil erosion.

Don Elías taught his adult students how to build terraces, plant vegetables, fruits and grains, to make compost and natural remedies for pests and diseases. Thousands of smallholders from all over Honduras took don Elías’ course and slowly began to burn less, and to use organic fertilizer. He was pretty convincing; I’ve made compost ever since taking his course.

Don Elías realized that his audience didn’t see manure as fertilizer. Honduran smallholders would let manure pile up in the corral, and never think of spreading it on nearby maize fields. He held long discussions with the farmers to define organic matter (as anything living or that had once been alive, or came from a plant or animal). Then he taught them that any organic matter could be made into fertilizer. He kept his explanations simple and avoided pedantic words.

During the course we would eat fresh vegetables from the teaching farm for lunch, then get our hands dirty, making new compost heaps and spreading fertilizer from ones that were ready to use. ‚ÄúCompost needs two things,‚ÄĚ don El√≠as would say: ‚Äúwater and air.‚ÄĚ He taught that rain usually provided enough water, and by making compost above ground, air could circulate, as long as you didn‚Äôt pack the material.  But for good measure he would heap the organic matter around a thick wooden pole, which he would then pull out, to leave an air hole. Don Elias said that you could make compost in a pit, but it was more work. He did advise us to scrape the leaves and other debris off of the soil surface, so the compost was in contact with the dirt, where the soil-dwelling bacteria would help to start the decomposition.

Don Elías knew that the smallholders already worked hard, so his innovations had to be easy to use. Compost heaps could be left until they decomposed into rich, black earth. Turning wasn’t necessary. He taught people to make compost in the field, so they wouldn’t have to carry the materials very far.

I recalled El√≠as S√°nchez last week, when I dug up one of our compost pits at home (a perfect quarantine activity). We don‚Äôt make compost piles, because we live in the city and our compost includes some ugly garbage. Sometimes we cover the pits with soil and grow something on top (a trick I learned from a farmer in Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Although our compost pit is unlike the compost piles that don El√≠as used to make, ours followed all his basic principles.

1) It was made from organic matter.

2) It had air pockets, from cardboard boxes I left in it, which in due time decomposed.

3) It had water. While digging it out I found a couple of teaspoons I had accidentally tossed out with the dishwater. Soapy water may kill beneficial microorganisms, so I won’t try it again. Even after thirty years I’m still learning.

4) I didn’t work too hard on this compost pit. I never did turn it.

The compost was worth it, rich and black, full of earthworms, retaining moisture for several days once we spread it on the soil. Don Elías would have been pleased. He would also be pleased that many farmers, teaching farms and organizations in Latin America have adopted his ideas about organic agriculture.

To be a good mentor, teach the basic principles of subjects that students want to learn about. Show people how to make a prototype and then encourage them to keep on experimenting. Innovations need to be adapted if they’re going to be used for a lifetime.

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Acknowledgement

Thanks to Keith Andrews, Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele for excellent comments on a previous version of this story.

APRENDER A ENSE√ĎAR

Por Jeff Bentley, 7 de junio del 2020

Un buen profesor no solo te ense√Īa la materia sino c√≥mo explicarla tambi√©n. El√≠as S√°nchez fue mentor de miles de centroamericanos en la agricultura org√°nica. Empez√≥ su vida adulta como maestro de escuela rural porque quer√≠a ayudar a la gente. Pero pronto se dio cuenta de que la gente del campo necesitaba aprender m√°s de la agricultura, as√≠ que estudi√≥ agronom√≠a y se hizo un extensionista. Cuando se dio cuenta de que la burocracia gubernamental era demasiado limitante, comenz√≥ una granja de aprendizaje llamada Loma Linda, en Santa Luc√≠a, en un ca√Ī√≥n cubierto de pinos en las monta√Īas cerca de Tegucigalpa, Honduras. All√≠ es donde lo conoc√≠, a finales de los 80.

Loma Linda tenía dormitorios, un aula y un comedor, donde 30 agricultores podían entrar para tomar un curso de cinco días, normalmente pagado por una ONG o por proyectos de desarrollo. Eran los días en que los donantes eran generosos con las ONGs en Honduras.

En el curso corto, don El√≠as, como todos le llamaban, ense√Īaba una alternativa eficaz a la agricultura de tala y quema. Don El√≠as esperaba que la gente hiciera cambios radicales en la forma de cultivar, despu√©s de asistir a su curso.  En ese momento, los bosques de las escarpadas laderas estaban desapareciendo r√°pidamente, ya que la gente cortaba y quemaba √°rboles, matorrales y rastrojos antes de sembrar milpa. El humo era tan espeso en la primavera que cada a√Īo el aeropuerto de Tegucigalpa ten√≠a que cerrar porque los pilotos no pod√≠an ver la pista. Tambi√©n se produjo bastante erosi√≥n del suelo.

Don El√≠as ense√Ī√≥ a sus alumnos adultos a construir terrazas, a sembrar verduras, frutas y granos, a hacer abono y remedios naturales para las plagas y enfermedades. Miles de peque√Īos agricultores de toda Honduras tomaron el curso de don El√≠as y poco a poco empezaron a quemar menos, y a usar fertilizante org√°nico. El fue bastante convincente; he hecho compost desde que tom√© su curso.

Don El√≠as se dio cuenta de que su p√ļblico no ve√≠a el esti√©rcol como fertilizante. Los peque√Īos propietarios hondure√Īos dejaban el esti√©rcol apilado en el corral y nunca pensaban en esparcirlo en los maizales cercanos. Mantuvo largas discusiones con los agricultores para definir la materia org√°nica (como cualquier cosa viviente o que alguna vez estuvo viva, o que salga de una planta o animal). Luego les ense√Ī√≥ que cualquier materia org√°nica pod√≠a convertirse en fertilizante. Manten√≠a sus explicaciones simples y evitaba las palabras pedantes.

Durante el curso almorz√°bamos hortalizas frescas de la finca, luego nos ensuci√°bamos las manos, haciendo nuevas aboneras y esparciendo el fertilizante de las que estaban listas para usar. “El abono necesita dos cosas”, dec√≠a don El√≠as: “agua y aire”. Ense√Ī√≥ que la lluvia usualmente daba suficiente agua, y al hacer abono en cima la tierra, el aire pod√≠a circular, si no se empacara el material.  Pero por si acaso, hac√≠a la abonera alrededor de un grueso poste de madera, que luego sacaba, para dejar un agujero de aire. Don El√≠as dijo que se pod√≠a hacer abono bajo tierra, pero era m√°s trabajo. Nos aconsej√≥ que rasp√°ramos las hojas y otros desechos de la superficie del suelo, para que el abono estuviera en contacto con la tierra, donde las bacterias que viven en el suelo ayudar√≠an a iniciar la descomposici√≥n.

Don El√≠as sab√≠a que los peque√Īos agricultores ya trabajaban duro, as√≠ que sus innovaciones ten√≠an que ser f√°ciles de usar. Se pod√≠an dejar la abonera hasta que se descompusieran en una tierra rica y negra. No era necesario moverla. Ense√Ī√≥ a la gente a hacer compost en el campo, para que no tuvieran que llevar los materiales muy lejos.

Record√© a El√≠as S√°nchez la semana pasada, cuando desenterr√© una de nuestras aboneras en casa (una perfecta actividad de cuarentena). No hacemos abonera sobre el suelo, porque vivimos en la ciudad y nuestro abono incluye alguna basura fea. Hacemos el abono en una fosa que a veces tapamos con tierra y cultivamos algo encima (un truco que aprend√≠ de un agricultor en Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Aunque nuestra abonera enterrada no es como las que don El√≠as sol√≠a hacer sobre el suelo, la nuestra segu√≠a todos sus principios b√°sicos.

1) Estaba hecha de materia org√°nica.

2) Tenía bolsones de aire, de cajas de cartón que metí, que con el tiempo se descompusieron.

3) Ten√≠a agua. Mientras desenterraba el composte encontr√© un par de cucharaditas que hab√≠a tirado accidentalmente con el agua lavar los trastos. El agua jabonosa puede matar a los microorganismos buenos, as√≠ que no lo intentar√© de nuevo. Incluso despu√©s de treinta a√Īos todav√≠a estoy aprendiendo.

4) No trabajé muy duro en esta abonera. Nunca la movía.

El abono valió la pena, rico y negro, lleno de lombrices, reteniendo la humedad durante varios días una vez que lo esparcimos en el suelo. Don Elías habría estado encantado. También estaría contento de que muchos agricultores, fincas educativas y organizaciones en América Latina hayan adoptado sus ideas sobre la agricultura orgánica.

Para ser un buen mentor, ense√Īa los principios b√°sicos de las materias que los estudiantes quieren aprender. Mostrar a la gente c√≥mo hacer un prototipo y luego animarlos a seguir experimentando. Los alumnos tienen que adue√Īarse de las innovaciones, para seguir adapt√°ndolas toda la vida.

Historias sobre temas parecidos  

Trying it yourself

Training trees

Microbios amigables

Lombrices de tierra de la i India a Bolivia

Una revolución para nuestro suelo

Videos relacionados

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

El mulch mejora el suelo y la cosecha

Composting to beat striga

Manejo sostenible de la tierra

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Keith Andrews, Eric Boa y Paul Van Mele por sus excelentes comentarios sobre una versión previa de esta historia.

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