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Learning to teach June 7th, 2020 by

Versión en español a continuación

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 Elías, as everyone called him, taught an effective alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture. Don Elías 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’t 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. “Compost needs two things,” don Elías would say: “water and air.” He taught that rain usually provided enough water, and by making compost above ground, air could circulate, as long as you didn’t 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 Elías Sánchez last week, when I dug up one of our compost pits at home (a perfect quarantine activity). We don’t 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 Elías 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.

Related blog stories

Trying it yourself

Training trees

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

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Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Composting to beat striga

And other videos about Sustainable Land Management

Acknowledgement

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

APRENDER A ENSEÑAR

Por Jeff Bentley, 7 de junio del 2020

Un buen profesor no solo te enseña la materia sino cómo explicarla también. Elías Sánchez fue mentor de miles de centroamericanos en la agricultura orgánica. Empezó su vida adulta como maestro de escuela rural porque quería ayudar a la gente. Pero pronto se dio cuenta de que la gente del campo necesitaba aprender más de la agricultura, así que estudió agronomía y se hizo un extensionista. Cuando se dio cuenta de que la burocracia gubernamental era demasiado limitante, comenzó una granja de aprendizaje llamada Loma Linda, en Santa Lucía, en un cañón cubierto de pinos en las montañas cerca de Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Allí es donde lo conocí, 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 Elías, como todos le llamaban, enseñaba una alternativa eficaz a la agricultura de tala y quema. Don Elías esperaba que la gente hiciera cambios radicales en la forma de cultivar, después de asistir a su curso.  En ese momento, los bosques de las escarpadas laderas estaban desapareciendo rápidamente, ya que la gente cortaba y quemaba árboles, matorrales y rastrojos antes de sembrar milpa. El humo era tan espeso en la primavera que cada año el aeropuerto de Tegucigalpa tenía que cerrar porque los pilotos no podían ver la pista. También se produjo bastante erosión del suelo.

Don Elías enseñó 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 pequeños agricultores de toda Honduras tomaron el curso de don Elías y poco a poco empezaron a quemar menos, y a usar fertilizante orgánico. El fue bastante convincente; he hecho compost desde que tomé su curso.

Don Elías se dio cuenta de que su público no veía el estiércol como fertilizante. Los pequeños propietarios hondureños dejaban el estiércol apilado en el corral y nunca pensaban en esparcirlo en los maizales cercanos. Mantuvo largas discusiones con los agricultores para definir la materia orgánica (como cualquier cosa viviente o que alguna vez estuvo viva, o que salga de una planta o animal). Luego les enseñó que cualquier materia orgánica podía convertirse en fertilizante. Mantenía sus explicaciones simples y evitaba las palabras pedantes.

Durante el curso almorzábamos hortalizas frescas de la finca, luego nos ensuciábamos las manos, haciendo nuevas aboneras y esparciendo el fertilizante de las que estaban listas para usar. “El abono necesita dos cosas”, decía don Elías: “agua y aire”. Enseñó que la lluvia usualmente daba suficiente agua, y al hacer abono en cima la tierra, el aire podía circular, si no se empacara el material.  Pero por si acaso, hacía la abonera alrededor de un grueso poste de madera, que luego sacaba, para dejar un agujero de aire. Don Elías dijo que se podía hacer abono bajo tierra, pero era más trabajo. Nos aconsejó que raspáramos 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 ayudarían a iniciar la descomposición.

Don Elías sabía que los pequeños agricultores ya trabajaban duro, así que sus innovaciones tenían que ser fáciles de usar. Se podían dejar la abonera hasta que se descompusieran en una tierra rica y negra. No era necesario moverla. Enseñó a la gente a hacer compost en el campo, para que no tuvieran que llevar los materiales muy lejos.

Recordé a Elías Sánchez la semana pasada, cuando desenterré 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 aprendí de un agricultor en Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Aunque nuestra abonera enterrada no es como las que don Elías solía hacer sobre el suelo, la nuestra seguía todos sus principios básicos.

1) Estaba hecha de materia orgánica.

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

3) Tenía agua. Mientras desenterraba el composte encontré un par de cucharaditas que había tirado accidentalmente con el agua lavar los trastos. El agua jabonosa puede matar a los microorganismos buenos, así que no lo intentaré de nuevo. Incluso después de treinta años todavía 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, enseña los principios básicos de las materias que los estudiantes quieren aprender. Mostrar a la gente cómo hacer un prototipo y luego animarlos a seguir experimentando. Los alumnos tienen que adueñarse de las innovaciones, para seguir adaptándolas 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.

Monkeys in the sacred forest May 31st, 2020 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

Bentley, Jeff 2008 Red-Bellied Monkeys.

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

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

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

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

Scientific names

Cola tree, Cola gigantea

Royal Python, Python regius

Red- bellied monkey, Cercopithecus erythrogaster

Acknowledgements

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

Training trees May 10th, 2020 by

Many people are familiar with pruning trees, but on a recent course organised by the association of ecological gardeners (VELT) in Bocholt, Limburg, Belgium, I learned another important trick to shape trees and harvest more fruit. By training trees, you make branches grow in the direction you want. That sounds easy enough, but back home, when trying to apply this to our own fruit trees, I learned once more the importance of understanding the principles, and then adapting them to the local conditions.

Pierre Zanders, the trainer from VELT, explained to us that branches that grow straight upright have tremendous vigour and just continue growing up without giving fruits. The more you can get a branch to grow horizontally, the more fruit it will produce. Young branches that are weighed down by too much fruit can break, so ideally you should aim to train branches to grow at angles between 45 and 60 degrees.

Pierre is such an expert on fruit trees that he is often asked to travel to share his skills. He proudly told us a story about the time he was invited to the USA to train thousands of mature fruit trees. While the job was scheduled to take 6 weeks, Pierre finished the job in just two weeks. In disbelief, the owner of the groves had to accept that Pierre had a much faster way of training branches.

“If you have to train older trees,” Pierre told us, “you don’t need any branch spreaders that cost money. The only thing you need is a very sharp knife. Up in the trees, you find enough wood that can be used as a branch spreader. Prune a stick that is as thick as the twig you want to bend lower. In the stick you have removed from the tree, cut a notch at one end of the stick and then cut the stick to the right length. Fix one end of the stick onto the main tree trunk, and place the end with the notch around the twig you want to bend. Gently push the stick down until the twig reaches the desired angle.” The owner was amazed. This seasoned fruit expert from Belgium had not used any of the commercial branch spreaders the owner had bought to train his trees.

Pierre laughingly provokes us: “why pay money if you can do it much simpler and much faster? Besides, with my technique nobody needs to go back into the orchard a few months later to collect any tree training devices. Over time, the branches will start to grow in the desired direction and the little sticks that I used as branch spreader can stay in the tree or may eventually be blown away by the wind. So, you save money twice.”

During Pierre’s pruning course, we learned that for younger trees it is useful to hang weights to the branches, or to tie strings and use pegs to fix the string down to the soil. After the course I talked to my friend, Johan Hons, an organic farmer, and he kindly gave me a roll of string and taught me a useful knot to loosely tie the string around twigs and branches.

A few days after training my 20 or so fruit trees, I saw in dismay how some of the branches had snapped. “Terrible, how could this happen,” I wondered. “Did I bend them too much?” Taking a closer look at the damage, I noticed some wool on the strings. Apparently, the sheep grazing under my fruit trees had started rubbing themselves against these strings. It was too much for some of the young branches to take.

That was the time I had to come up with my own solution. All my fruit trees have a mesh wire tree shelter guard around their trunk to protect their bark from the sheep. By placing a bamboo stick through the holes at the top of the mesh, I could fix my strings to the bamboo, above reach of the sheep. The two short strings down from the bamboo to the mesh ensure that the bamboo does not snap in half with the pulling forces from the branches.

Farming is about observing what works and what doesn’t work…. If you understand the basic principles of a technology, it is easier to make workable adaptations. Pierre and Johan both gave me good ideas about how to spread branches so they do not grow straight up. But after my sheep undid their good suggestions, I could still invent my own technique, because Pierre had taught me the underlying principle: more horizontal branches produce more flowers and therefore more fruit.

Related videos

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Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Coffee: stumping & pruning

American bees March 1st, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When the Spanish conquered the New World, the colonists who followed them brought honey bees. These European bees carried out their own version of the conquest, displacing a wide variety of stingless, native American bees. The native American people had known about these stingless bees and used their honey for centuries. Some, such as the Maya, kept bees for their honey, and many other peoples gathered honey from the wild.

The European honey bee is more aggressive and bigger than the American bees. The African honey bee and the European honey bee are sub-species of the same species, Apis mellifera. The European bee lives in large colonies of some 80,000 individuals, while the native bees live in smaller hives, of 3,000 or so. The American bees have suffered from the loss of forest habitat, and from competition with the European bees, which gather nectar from the same sources that the native bees need.

But the native American bees are making a comeback, as I learned recently on a course taught by two biologists who are experts in native American bees: Marcia Adler Yáñez from the Gabriel René Moreno Museum of Natural History in Bolivia and Oscar “Rupa” Amaya, who is Colombian, but a long-time resident of Brazil.

The American honey bees are a diverse lot, of at least 400 species. Some of the larger ones are as big as European honey bees, while some of the smaller ones are the size of a grain of rice.

The native American bees are gentle (some more than others) and although they do not have stingers, some species will bite to defend their nests. Unlike European bees, which put their honey in combs, native American bees keep their honey and pollen in little wax pots. The American bees have a complex nest structure. The queen lays her eggs in cells in a horizontal comb (unlike the vertical ones the European bees make). The combs of native bees can be disk shaped, or spiral or amorphous. The brood chambers, full of eggs in cells, are surrounded by a wax labyrinth, the involucrum, made to discourage ants and other predators. The pots of honey and pollen are placed around the involucrum.

One species of bee, called señorita, is known from Mexico to Argentina for its fine honey, widely regarded to be an eye ointment. A drop in each eye relieves pain and irritation.

Rupa and Marcia teach their students various techniques to care for native American bees. While keepers of European honey bees have made wooden boxes, or hives, for bee colonies, this was not a common practice for native American bees. In the past 30 years, bee experts in Brazil have adapted bee boxes for native American bees. These bee hives are smaller than those for European bees, but the boxes have thicker walls to keep the bees warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Rupa and Marcia also teach the use of a simple trap for capturing wild colonies. A plastic soda pop bottle, two-liters or larger, is covered in newspaper (to keep the nest warm) and black plastic (to keep it dark). A tube is placed in a small opening in the side of the bottle, making an inviting door to entice a young queen to set up her nest in the bottle. The bottle is hung on a tree in a forest with bees. In good bee habitat, bees may colonize the bottle within weeks. A skilled beekeeper can later transfer the colony to a proper, wooden hive.

Struggling colonies can be encouraged with an extra food supply. On the bee course, we learned how to make wax pots and fill them with honey or pollen gathered by European honey bees, which you can buy in the store. The native bees will eat the honey and convert the pollen to “bee bread” by using special enzymes. They will also use the wax from the pots to make their own brood cells and food pots.

Bees make wax with an organ in their abdomen, but wax is expensive. The bees need six or eight grams of honey to make a gram of wax. So, putting wax in the nests gives the bees a head-start and lets them start a colony faster.

Brazilian universities have been studying native American bees since the 1950s, and the techniques for keeping these bees are slowly spreading to other Latin American countries. There are also native bees in Australia, where some quite keen beekeepers use bee boxes similar to the Brazilian ones.

Native honey is thin, but sweet and it has a fine flavor. The larger species of native bees can make up to eight liters of honey a year, but the small species can only make about one liter, so this honey is expensive, but it is starting to appear in specialty shops.

We also met a Bolivian forester, Juan Carlos Aruquipa, who works on a project to teach women in the rainforest (the Yungas) to manage native bees, and to sell the honey. This is important, because many of the small flowers of tropical American trees must be pollinated by bees to set seed. And the bees feed on the nectar from the trees. So, without bees there are no trees, and without trees there are no bees.

This is a case where agriculture is moving forward in an imaginative direction, learning to care for wild bees, and to produce valuable honey. Bees need a lot of care, so they are difficult to handle on a massive, corporate scale. But they are perfect for smallholders, especially for women, who find the smaller hives and the gentle bees easier to handle. The little hives are ideal to keep at home. Native American bees are a new, creative direction for agroecological farming.

Scientific names

All bees, American, European, and others, belong to the family Apidae. The European, African and Asian bees with stingers belong to the genus Apis. The stingless, American, Australian and African bees belong to the tribe Meliponini. The large native bees are in the genus Melipona and the small ones are grouped into several genera, including Trigona, Scaptotrigona, Nannotrigona, and Tetratrigonisca. The señorita is Tetragonisca angustula. All of these bees are social. In the Americas and elsewhere there are many other bee species that are solitary, such as bumble bees.

Further reading

I have been interested in Native American bees for a long time, and give a short account of them in:

Bentley, Jeffery, W. and Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology,42(2):285-300.

LAS ABEJAS AMERICANAS

Por Jeff Bentley, el primero de marzo del 2020

Cuando los españoles conquistaron el Nuevo Mundo, los colonos que los siguieron trajeron abejas. Estas abejas europeas hicieron su propia versión de la conquista, desplazando a una gran variedad de abejas nativas americanas sin aguijón. Los indígenas conocían a estas abejas nativas y usaron su miel durante siglos. Algunos, como los mayas, guardaban abejas para su miel, y muchos otros pueblos recolectaban miel de la naturaleza.

La abeja europea es más agresiva y más grande que las abejas americanas. La abeja africana y la abeja europea son subespecies de la misma especie, Apis mellifera. La abeja europea vive en grandes colonias de unos 80.000 individuos, mientras que las abejas nativas viven en colmenas más pequeñas, de unos 3.000. Las abejas americanas han sufrido la pérdida de su hábitat forestal, y la competencia con las abejas europeas, que recogen el néctar de las mismas flores que las abejas nativas.

Pero hay nueva esperanza para las abejas nativas americanas, como aprendí recientemente en un curso impartido por dos biólogos expertos en abejas nativas americanas: Marcia Adler Yáñez del Museo de Historia Natural Gabriel René Moreno de Bolivia y Oscar “Rupa” Amaya, que es colombiano pero residente en Brasil desde hace mucho tiempo.

La abeja americana es un grupo muy diverso, de al menos 400 especies. Algunas de las más grandes son del tamaño de las abejas europeas, mientras que algunas de las más chicas son tan pequeñas como un grano de arroz.

Las abejas nativas americanas son relativamente mansos y a pesar de que no tienen aguijones, algunas especies muerden para defender sus nidos. A diferencia de las abejas europeas, que ponen su miel en panales, las abejas nativas americanas guardan su miel y polen en pequeños potes de cera. Las abejas americanas tienen un nido con estructura complicada. La reina pone sus huevos en celdas en un panal horizontal (a diferencia de los verticales que hacen las abejas europeas). Los panales de las abejas nativas pueden tener forma de disco, o de espiral o amorfo. Las celdas de las crías (huevos y larvas), están rodeadas por un laberinto de cera, llamado el involucre, hecho para confundir a las hormigas y otros depredadores. Los potes de miel y polen están fuera y alrededor del involucre.

Una especie de abeja, llamada la señorita, es conocida desde México hasta Argentina por su fina miel, ampliamente considerada como un ungüento para los ojos. Una gota en cada ojo alivia el dolor y la irritación.

Rupa y Marcia enseñan a sus estudiantes varias técnicas para cuidar a las abejas nativas americanas. Mientras que los guardianes de las abejas europeas han hecho cajas de madera, o colmenas, para las colonias de abejas, esta no era una práctica común para las abejas nativas americanas. En los últimos 30 años, los expertos en abejas de Brasil han adaptado colmenas para las abejas nativas. Estas colmenas son más pequeñas que las de las abejas europeas, pero las cajas tienen paredes más gruesas para mantener a las abejas calientes en el invierno y frescas en el verano.

Rupa y Marcia también enseñan el uso de una simple trampa para capturar colonias salvajes. Una botella de refresco de plástico, de dos litros o más grande, se cubre con papel de periódico (para mantener el nido tibio) y plástico negro (para mantenerlo oscuro). Se coloca un tubo en una pequeña apertura en el costado de la botella, haciendo una puerta atractiva para atraer a una joven reina a establecer su nido en la botella. La botella se cuelga de un árbol en un bosque con abejas; en un buen hábitat para las abejas, la botella puede albergar abejas en unas semanas. Un hábil apicultor puede más tarde transferir la colonia a una colmena de madera adecuada.

Las colonias débiles pueden ser fortalecidas con comida extra. En el curso de las abejas nativas, aprendimos a hacer potes de cera y llenarlas con miel o polen recolectado por las abejas europeas, que se puede comprar en la tienda. Las abejas nativas comerán la miel y convertirán el polen en “pan de abeja” usando enzimas especiales. También usarán la cera de los potes para hacer sus propias celdas de cría y ollas de comida.

Las abejas hacen cera con un órgano en su abdomen, pero la cera es cara de hacer. Las abejas necesitan seis u ocho gramos de miel para hacer un gramo de cera. Por lo tanto, poner cera en los nidos ayuda a las abejas a establecer una colonia más fuerte, más rápido.

Las universidades brasileñas han estudiado las abejas nativas americanas desde la década de los 1950, y las técnicas para mantener estas abejas se están extendiendo lentamente a otros países de América Latina. También hay abejas nativas de Australia, donde unos ávidos apicultores hacen cajas parecidas a las brasileñas, para criar abejas.

La miel nativa es menos espesa, pero dulce y tiene un sabor fino. Las especies más grandes de abejas nativas pueden hacer hasta ocho litros de miel al año, pero las especies pequeñas sólo pueden hacer un litro, por lo que esta miel es cara, pero está empezando a aparecer en tiendas especializadas.

También conocimos a un ingeniero forestal boliviano, Juan Carlos Aruquipa, que trabaja en un proyecto para enseñar a las mujeres del bosque lluvioso (los Yungas) a manejar las abejas nativas y vender la miel. Esto es importante, porque muchas de las pequeñas flores de los árboles tropicales americanos deben ser polinizados por las abejas para que formen semilla. Y las abejas se alimentan del néctar de los árboles. Así que sin abejas no hay árboles, y sin árboles no hay abejas.

Este es un caso en el que la agricultura avanza en una dirección imaginativa, aprendiendo a cuidar a las abejas silvestres, y a producir una valiosa miel. Las abejas necesitan cierto cuidado, por lo que son perfectas para los pequeños agricultores, especialmente para las mujeres. Las colmenas más pequeñas y las abejas más mansas son más fáciles de manejar. Sería difícil que las empresas grandes las manejan, pero las colmenas pequeñas son ideales para tener en casa. Las abejas nativas americanas son una nueva y creativa dirección para la agricultura agroecológica.

Nombres científicos

Todas las abejas, americanas y europeas, pertenecen a la familia Apidae. Las abejas europeas, africanas y asiáticas con aguijón pertenecen al género Apis. Las abejas americanas, australianas, y africanas sin aguijón pertenecen a la tribu Meliponini. Las abejas nativas grandes pertenecen al género Melipona y las pequeñas se agrupan en varios géneros, entre ellos Trigona, Scaptotrigona, Nannotrigona y Tetratrigonisca. La señorita es Tetragonisca angustula. Además de estas abejas sociales, en las Américas y en otros continentes hay muchas otras especies que son solitarias, como los abejorros.

Más información

Me han interesado las abejas nativas americanas por mucho tiempo, y doy una breve reseña de ellas en: Bentley, Jeffery, W. and Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology,42(2):285-300.

The right way to distribute trees February 23rd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

There is a right way and a wrong way to distribute tree seedlings, as I realized recently.

The wrong way. Some 30 years ago, I was visiting a family in a Honduran village, Galeras, when a pickup truck from the Ministry of Agriculture pulled up. Two men unloaded little black plastic bags, each holding a strange, broad-leafed tree seedling.

A woman emerged from the car and without pausing to greet us, she made a breathless speech. “We are giving you little trees to plant. They are good for shade, for timber, for firewood, and cattle can eat the leaves. They are called …” and she rattled off a long, cumbersome scientific name.

“What is the common name?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know that, just plant them.”

And then the Ministry people got back in their car and drove off to the next house. In the following weeks, I saw little seedlings piled in front of many homes in Galeras. These trees, which came unannounced and uninvited, were all left to die.

The right way. This week, I visited the communities of Collpa Cala Cala and Collpa Centro, with extensionists from a Bolivian NGO, Fundación Agrecol Andes, which has 20 years of experience in high Andean communities.

This time I was inside the pickup, with the project staff. The team had gone in the day before with a bigger truck, to deliver 5000 pine seedlings to Collpa Cala Cala, and 3600 to Collpa Centro, and more trees to two other villages.  This morning, the little trees were glistening with dew in a cow pasture—the cows were tethered out of reach of the seedlings. The locals soon gathered around us, and in the native language, Quechua, Tito Villarroel (the project coordinator) reminded them that the goal was for “each family to plant the trees that they ordered.” He went on, “Please count out the number of trees you ordered.” Each family had asked for 100 to 500 seedlings.

Tito asked if anyone from the community wanted to speak. Two local men, don Marco and don Juevenal both thanked the project, and said they were sorry it was ending. They said they would like to get trees for two more years.

I asked some of the farmers why they wanted pine trees. “For the timber,” they said. “Either to sell or to use ourselves.”

The project team read the names of each subscribed family, to make sure they were all there, and gave each one a new steel pick, a wooden handle and a hoe, so they would have the right tools to plant the trees. Each family also got a bag of bread rolls and a whole, raw chicken, and a two-liter bottle of soda pop. This food will help to feed the family for the day they take off from their other work to plant the trees.

Each family has agreed to plant the trees in a place of their choosing, where they can protect the trees from roaming livestock. Many of the trees will be planted near people’s homes, or in other places where it is easy to see the animals from the village. The previous year, these same villagers also planted trees, now growing in small stands.

Tito and his colleagues will come back the following week. Each village gets a follow up visit every week. Over the next few visits, the NGO extensionists will make sure that there are no unforeseen problems. But there is little doubt that these folks will plant their trees.

The team hopes that the trees will help to keep the soil on the steep slopes and out of the streams that provide drinking water to the valley below. Almost all of the land around these communities is quite steep, so no matter where the trees are planted, they should help to manage soil erosion. The NGO would have liked to have planted native trees, rather than pines, which are not native to South America. But the local people wanted pine trees, and so that’s what they got.

The moral of the story is, local people will plant and manage forestry trees if:

  • The tree species is of interest to the communities
  • The trees are accompanied by tools, food or other things of value that stimulate folks to invest in planting trees
  • Local people are consulted about the project beforehand and organized

Cynics complain that development work is going in circles, but that’s not true. Like any skill, community development work improves with practice.

Related blog story

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Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Jorge Valencia 2003 “Learning about Trees in a Quechua-Speaking Andean Community in Bolivia,” pp. 69-134. In Paul Van Mele (ed.) Way Out of the Woods: Learning How to Manage Trees and Forests. Newbury, UK: CPL Press. 143 pp.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Fundación Agrecol Andes, for inviting me to see their work. Thanks to the project team, including Alexandra Flores, David Torrico, Nelson Daga and Edgar Hinojosa. This project was funded by CRS (Catholic Relief Services) with additional funding by the Coca Cola Foundation. The soft drinks distributed on this visit were from a Bolivian bottler, not Coke.

LA MANERA CORRECTA DE DISTRIBUIR LOS ÁRBOLES

Por Jeff Bentley

23 de febrero del 2020

Los plantines de árboles se pueden distribuir de forma correcta, o incorrecta, como me di cuenta recientemente.

La manera incorrecta. Hace unos 30 años, yo estaba visitando a una familia en una aldea hondureña, Galeras, cuando llegó una camioneta del Ministerio de Agricultura. Dos hombres descargaron pequeñas bolsas de plástico negro. Cada bolsa tenía el plantín de un árbol desconocido, de hoja ancha.

Una mujer se bajó del carro y sin tomar la molestia de saludarnos, hizo un discurso rápido, memorizado. “Les estamos dejando unos pequeños árboles para que los planten. Sirven para la sombra, para la madera, para la leña, y el ganado puede comer las hojas. Se llaman …” y nos dio un largo y engorroso nombre científico.

“¿Cuál es el nombre común?” Pregunté.

“Oh, no lo sé, sólo plántenlas.”

Y sin más ceremonia, la gente del Ministerio volvió a su carro y se fue a la próxima casa. En las semanas siguientes, vi bultos de plantitas frente a muchas casas en Galeras. Estos árboles, que llegaron sin aviso y sin invitación, lentamente se murieran.

La manera correcta. Esta semana, visité las comunidades de Collpa Cala Cala y Collpa Centro, con extensionistas de una ONG boliviana, Fundación AGRECOL Andes, que tiene 20 años de experiencia en comunidades altoandinas.

Esta vez, estuve dentro de la camioneta, con la gente del proyecto. El equipo había entrado el día anterior con un camión más grande, para entregar 5000 plantines de pino a Collpa Cala Cala, y 3600 arbolitos a la Collpa Centro, y más plantines a otras dos comunidades.  Esa mañana, los arbolitos brillaban con el rocío en el prado de las vacas, las cuales estaban atadas fuera del alcance de los plantines. Los comuneros pronto se reunieron a nuestro alrededor, y hablando en el idioma ancestral, quechua, Tito Villarroel (el coordinador del proyecto) les recordó que el objetivo era que “cada familia plante los árboles que había ordenado”. Continuó: “Por favor, cuenten el número de plantines que pidieron”. Cada familia había pedido de 100 a 500 plantines.

Tito preguntó si alguien de la comunidad quería hablar. Dos hombres locales, don Marco y don Juvenal, agradecieron el proyecto y dijeron que no querían que se acabara. Dijeron que les gustaría tener árboles durante dos años más.

Pregunté a algunos de los agricultores por qué querían pinos. “Por la madera”, dijeron. “Para venderla o para usarla nosotros mismos”.

El equipo pasó lista y dio a cada familia suscrita una nueva picota, un mango de madera y un azadón, para que tuvieran las herramientas adecuadas para plantar los árboles. Cada familia también recibió una bolsa de pan, un pollo crudo entero, y una botella de refresco de dos litros. Esta comida ayudará a alimentar a la familia el día que planten los árboles.

Cada familia ha acordado plantar los árboles en un lugar de su elección, donde puedan proteger los árboles del ganado suelto. Muchos de los árboles se plantan cerca de las casas de la gente, o en otros lugares donde es fácil ver los animales de la comunidad. El año anterior, estos mismos vecinos también plantaron árboles, que ahora crecen en pequeños manchones alrededor de las comunidades.

Tito y sus colegas volverán la semana siguiente. Cada comunidad recibe una visita de seguimiento cada semana. En las próximas visitas, los extensionistas de la ONG se asegurarán de que no haya problemas imprevistos. Pero hay pocas dudas de que la gente plantará sus árboles.

El equipo espera que los árboles ayuden a conservar el suelo en las laderas empinadas, para proteger a las quebradas que dan agua potable al valle de abajo. Casi toda la tierra alrededor de estas comunidades es bastante escarpada, por lo que no importa dónde se planten los árboles, ayudará a manejar la erosión del suelo. A la ONG le hubiera gustado plantar árboles nativos, en lugar de pinos, que no son nativos de Sudamérica. Pero la gente local quería pinos, y eso es lo que obtuvieron.

La moraleja es que la gente local plantará y manejará los árboles forestales si:

– Las especies de árboles son de interés para las comunidades

– Los árboles van acompañados de herramientas, alimentos u otras cosas de valor que estimulan a la gente a invertir en la plantación de árboles

– Se consulta a la población local sobre el proyecto de antemano y se organiza

Los cínicos se quejan de que el trabajo de desarrollo sólo da vueltas, pero eso no es cierto. Como cualquier habilidad, el trabajo de desarrollo de la comunidad mejora con la práctica.

Un blog previo que le podría interesar

Recuperación lenta

Videos sobre la reforestación

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Agroforestería del bosque ralo

Regeneración del bosque manejada por agricultores

Lectura

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Jorge Valencia 2003 “Aprendiendo sobre Árboles en una Comunidad Andina de Habla Quechua en Bolivia,” pp. 69-134. In Paul Van Mele (ed.) Way Out of the Woods: Learning How to Manage Trees and Forests. Newbury, UK: CPL Press. 143 pp.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a la Fundación AGRECOL Andes, por invitarme a ver este trabajo. Gracias al equipo de trabajo, incluyendo a Alexandra Flores, Nelson Daga, David Torrico y Edgar Hinojosa. Este proyecto fue financiado por CRS (Catholic Relief Services) con fondos adicionales de la Fundación Coca Cola. Los refrescos distribuidos en esta visita fueron de una embotelladora boliviana, no de la Coca Cola.

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