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Biological pest control in the Galapagos forest July 14th, 2019 by

Agronomy is a kind of applied biology, but conservation biologists are now starting to apply some of the tricks from agriculture, as I saw on a recent visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. The campus is tucked discretely into one of the world’s strangest forests, where some of the plants that were able to reach these remote islands have evolved into trees. Prickly pear cactus is usually a low-lying plant with paddle-like pads, but in the Galapagos, it has evolved a tall, straight trunk. The Scalesia trees evolved from a daisy-like flower.

Then in 1982, these rare trees were threatened when the cottony scale insect, originally from Australia, invaded the islands and began to feed on its odd collection of forest species, causing the dieback and death of trees. By 1996 the scale insect was attacking 80 plant species in the Galapagos, including 19 threatened ones.

Displays at the Darwin Station proudly explained their efforts to control the Australian scale insect by bringing in one of its natural enemies, a ladybird beetle, also from down under, that preys on the scale. In 1999, the British Embassy funded an insect containment center, where the ladybird was intensively studied before being released on 11 islands in 2003 and 2004. By 2009 the ladybird had hunted the cottony cushion scale down to a much lower population level. The forest was safe. 

The sign at the Darwin Station said that this was an example of biological pest control, but the display failed to mention that this was the second time that the Australian ladybird beetle had come to the rescue of trees. The first time was in California in 1888, when the ladybird was imported to successfully control scale insects in citrus.

So, conservation biology has learned a lesson from agriculture, specifically from biological pest control. It’s only fair: ecology has provided many key insights to agriculture. For example, Darwinian natural selection explains how pests evolve resistance to pesticides. Gene mapping has helped plant breeders to develop new crop varieties faster.

The Darwin Station is now working on other projects to control pests. For example, an introduced fly is attacking the emblematic finches in their nests, and the Darwin Station is taking eggs from the nests of the mangrove finch (the most endangered of the Galapagos finch species) and rearing the chicks by hand, safe from the flies. The Darwin Station is also rearing several tortoise species, protecting them from introduced rats that eat the tortoise eggs. When the tortoises are two-years old they are released, each species to its own home island.

Agriculture has much experience reproducing plants and animals, and controlling pests in ecologically-sound ways. In the future, plant and animal species can be brought back from the brink of extinction, but it will take more than just conserving their habitat. Individual animals will have to be nurtured, helped to breed in higher numbers, and protected from pests. Conservation biology is becoming more hands on, more like farming and ranching. In the future, other lessons from agriculture may also of use to wildlife conservationists.

Scientific names

The finch-killing fly, Philornis downsi

The ladybird beetle, Rodolia cardinalis

The cushiony cotton scale insect: Icerya purchase

Prickly pear, Opuntia echios

MMangrove finch, Camarhychus heliobatis

Planting a wrong image July 7th, 2019 by

A picture says more than a thousand words. And pictures stick better in the mind. On a recent visit to the organic farm shop Eikelenhof, run by our friends Johan and Vera, I was reminded how easy it is for wrong images to become received knowledge.

Vera was talking to Peter, a plastic artist from the neighbourhood and one of the regular customers at the farm shop. The past few days we had had quite some severe storms and Peter was telling how the gusty winds had taken their toll with broken branches and uprooted trees as a result. Uprooted trees and heavy soil erosion are some of the few occasions when people get to see a glimpse of how the roots of mature trees look like. When they continued discussing about tree roots, both said that the roots are a mirror of the tree canopy. At that stage I intervened and started explaining how this image survived for centuries, but that this was absolutely wrong. Vera and Peter are both clever successful people, but like many of us, it is hard for them to shake off an image that has been impressed in their minds.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin was making history with his research on how species had evolved over millions of years. The scientific revolution and the age of exploration ignited a growing interest in exotic plants and the economic potential they might have, leading to the boom of botanical gardens across Europe. These events also triggered a general interest in nature overall, and especially in England this passion for gardens has lived on until today.

When a 19th century graphic artist diverted from the botanical drawing style, which was based on accurate observations, he drew from imagination a stylistic tree with the roots being as a mirror of the canopy. He had no idea how it would impact on future generations. Helped by the technical breakthrough of offset printing and emerging media houses, this image made its way across Europe and firmy established in the minds of ordinary folks. Until today, hundreds of variations continue to be developed and spread, further feeding this misperception.

But my friends at the farm shop in Belgium are not the only people who accept the received wisdom that a tree’s roots mirror its branches. Even Thai farmers have taken the idea on board. When visiting a mango project in Thailand some 20 years ago, I recall visiting orchards where farmers had dug a trench just below the edge of the tree canopy to irrigate and put some organic fertilizer. It was explained to me that this was the zone where all the feeder roots of the trees could be found. Until today, tree roots are poorly studied, partly because they are hard to observe.

Fortunately, many of the 19th century illustrators painted accurate pictures of the natural world, which led to a greater understanding of natural history. Whether we illustrate with water colors or with video, it is important to get the picture right.

Related blogs

Travels around the sun

Apple futures June 2nd, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Lap’iya means “dahlia” in Quechua. It’s an apt name for a village of commercial flower growers, tucked into a steep canyon in the Andes, high above the city of Cochabamba. Ana and I visited Lap’iya recently to learn about a farmer who is seeking alternative crops, ones that don’t require spraying with pesticides. Concerns are growing about the use of pesticides in flowers.

We met Benjamín Vargas, a farmer, and his friend Serafín Vidal, an extension agent who are developing an agroforestry system based on apples. They are perhaps the first ones in the area to mix apples with forestry trees. They hope this combination will hold the soil on the steep slope while also providing a reliable income. Apples do well in this part of Bolivia, with a wide range of varieties that are smaller than the imported ones, but tasty. They also sell for less.

Benjamín and Serafín have grafted the varieties onto dwarf rootstock, so they can plant the trees closer together. Benjamín and Serafín wait until the apples are a few years old before planting other trees in between them, such as khishwara and pine. They prune these trees so they grow straight and tall, with fewer lower branches to cast shade on the apples.

In another small orchard, Benjamín has placed nets over the apples to keep out the birds. “Be careful not to step on my other plants,” he tells us. It’s only then that I spot the peas and cabbages, and the seedlings of forest trees, all growing between the apples.

Benjamín and Serafín go on to explain that they make and spray four different natural products on the apples. One they call a biofertilizer, another is biol (a fermented cow dung slurry), a third is a product that is rich in micro-organisms, and finally they use a sulfur-lime brew. The men say that all of these are fertilizers, although I think of the sulfur-lime spray as more of a homemade pesticide). Benjamín said that his kids run in and out of the trees, picking vegetables to eat, and he doesn’t want to spray anything unhealthy on the trees.

These innovators say that their idea was to control pests by keeping the trees well fertilized. The men say that they are not out to fight insect pests: “This is not combat agriculture, but one where we try to get along.”

Benjamín and Serafín said that they learn from each other; they did seem more like partners than like teacher-student. They are intercropping apples with vegetables and with forest trees to sell produce and to help conserve the soil. It will take years to see if their innovations work. Trees take a long time to grow, but I’d like to come back in a few years to see if the apples found a market, if the pests stayed at bay, and if the soil stayed firm on the mountainside.

(more…)

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

vea la versión en español a continuación

Bolivian agronomist Genaro Aroni first told me how quinoa was destroying the southwest Bolivian landscape some 10 years ago, when he came to Cochabamba for a writing class I was teaching. Ever since then I wanted to see for myself how a healthy and fashionable Andean grain was eating up the landscape in its native country.

I recently got my chance, when Paul and Marcella and I were making videos for Agro-Insight. Together with Milton Villca, an agronomist from Proinpa, we met Genaro in Uyuni, near the famous salt flats of Bolivia. Genaro, who is about to turn 70, but looks like he is 55, told us that he had worked with quinoa for 41 years, and had witnessed the dramatic change from mundane local staple to global health food. He began explaining what had happened.

When Genaro was a kid, growing up in the 1950s, the whole area around Uyuni, in the arid southern Altiplano, was covered in natural vegetation. People grew small plots of quinoa on the low hills, among native shrubs and other plants. Quinoa was just about the only crop that would survive the dry climate at some 3,600 meters above sea level. The llamas roamed the flat lands, growing fat on the native brush. In April the owners would pack the llamas with salt blocks cut from the Uyuni Salt Flats (the largest dry salt bed in the world) and take the herds to Cochabamba and other lower valleys, to barter salt for maize and other foods that can’t be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chuño from other farmers, supplementing their diet of dried llama meat and quinoa grain.

Then in the early 1970s a Belgian project near Uyuni introduced tractors to farmers and began experimenting with quinoa planted in the sandy plains. About this same time, a large-scale farmer further north in Salinas also bought a tractor and began clearing scrub lands to plant quinoa.

More and more people started to grow quinoa. The crop thrived on the sandy plains, but as the native brushy vegetation grew scarce so the numbers of llamas began to decline.

Throughout the early 2000s the price of quinoa increased steadily. When it reached 2500 Bolivianos for 100 pounds ($8 per kilo) in 2013, many people who had land rights in this high rangeland (the children and grandchildren of elderly farmers) migrated back—or commuted—to the Uyuni area to grow quinoa. Genaro told us that each person would plow up to 10 hectares or so of the scrub land to plant the now valuable crop.

But by 2014 the quinoa price slipped and by 2015 it crashed to about 350 Bolivianos per hundredweight ($1 per kilo), as farmers in the USA and elsewhere began to grow quinoa themselves.

Many Bolivians gave up quinoa farming and went back to the cities. By then the land was so degraded it was difficult to see how it could recover. Still, Genaro is optimistic. He believes that quinoa can be grown sustainably if people grow less of it and use cover crops and crop rotation. That will take some research. Not much else besides quinoa can be farmed at this altitude, with only 150 mm (6 inches) of rain per year.

Milton Villca took us out to see some of the devastated farmland around Uyuni. It was worse than I ever imagined. On some abandoned fields, native vegetation was slowly coming back, but many of the plots that had been planted in quinoa looked like a moonscape, or like a white sand beach, minus the ocean.

Farmers would plow and furrow the land with tractors, only to have the fierce winds blow sand over the emerging quinoa plants, smothering them to death.

Milton took us to see one of the few remaining stands of native vegetation. Not coincidentally, this was near the hamlet of Lequepata where some people still herd llamas. Llama herding is still the best way of using this land without destroying it.

Milton showed us how to gather wild seed of the khiruta plant; each bush releases clouds of dust-like seeds, scattered and planted by the wind. Milton and Genaro are teaching villagers to collect these seeds and replant, and to establish windbreaks around their fields, in an effort to stem soil erosion. I’ve met many agronomists in my days, but few who I thought were doing such important work, struggling to save an entire landscape from destruction.

Acknowledgement

Genaro Aroni and Milton Villca work for the Proinpa Foundation. Their work is funded in part by the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

Related blog stories

Organic agriculture and mice

Awakening the seeds

Scientific names

Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

El ingeniero agrónomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me contó por primera vez cómo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 años, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacción que yo enseñaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por mí mismo cómo el afán por un sano grano andino podría comer el paisaje de su país natal.

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

Cuando Genaro era un niño en la década de 1950, toda el área alrededor de Uyuni, en el árido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetación natural. La gente cultivaba pequeñas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t’olas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el único cultivo que sobreviviría al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engordándose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el más grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles más bajos, para trocar sal por maíz y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chuño de otros agricultores, complementando su dieta con carne de llama seca y granos de quinua.

Luego, a principios de la década de 1970, un proyecto belga cerca de Uyuni introdujo tractores a los agricultores y comenzó a experimentar con quinua sembrada en las pampas arenosas. Por esa misma época, un agricultor a gran escala más al norte, en Salinas, también compró un tractor y comenzó a talar los matorrales para sembrar quinua.

Cada vez más gente empezó a cultivar quinua. El cultivo prosperó en las llanuras arenosas, pero a medida que la vegetación nativa de arbustos se hizo escasa, había cada vez menos llamas.

A lo largo de los primeros años de la década de 2000, el precio de la quinua aumentó constantemente. Cuando llegó a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que tenían derechos sobre la tierra en esta pampa alta (los hijos y nietos de los agricultores viejos) retornaron a la zona de Uyuni para cultivar quinua. Genaro nos dijo que cada persona araba hasta 10 hectáreas de t’ola para plantar el ahora valioso cultivo.

Pero para el 2014 el precio de la quinua comenzó a bajar y para el 2015 se colapsó a cerca de 350 bolivianos por quintal ($1 por kilo), a medida que los agricultores en los Estados Unidos y en otros lugares comenzaron a cultivar quinua ellos mismos.

Muchos bolivianos dejaron de cultivar quinua y regresaron a las ciudades. Para entonces la tierra estaba tan degradada que era difícil ver cómo podría recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. Él cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotación de cultivos. Eso requerirá investigación. No se puede cultivar mucho más que además de la quinua a esta altitud, con sólo 150 mm de lluvia al año.

Milton Villca nos llevó a ver algunas de las parcelas devastadas alrededor de Uyuni. Fue peor de lo que jamás imaginé. En algunas parcelas abandonados, la vegetación nativa regresaba lentamente, pero muchas de las chacras que habían sido sembradas en quinua parecían la luna, o una playa de arena blanca, menos el mar.

Los agricultores araban y surcaban la tierra con tractores, sólo para que los fuertes vientos soplaran arena sobre las plantas emergentes de quinua, ahogándolas y matándolas.

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

Milton nos mostró cómo recolectar semillas silvestres de la planta khiruta; cada arbusto libera nubes de semillas parecidas al polvo, dispersas y sembradas por el viento. Los Ings. Milton y Genaro están enseñando a los comuneros a recolectar estas semillas y replantar, y a establecer barreras contra el viento alrededor de sus campos, en un esfuerzo por detener la erosión del suelo. He conocido a muchos agrónomos a través de los años, pero pocos que en mi opinión hacían un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucción.

Agradecimiento

Genaro Aroni y Milton Villca trabajan para la Fundación Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos de la Fundación McKnight.

Historias de blog relacionadas

Organic agriculture and mice

Despertando las semillas

Nombres científicos

Khiruta es Parastrephia lepidophylla

Awakening the seeds December 16th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific names

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

The achakana is Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

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

DESPERTANDO LAS SEMILLAS

Por Jeff Bentley, 16 de diciembre del 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nombres científicos

El k’awchi is Suaeda foliosa.

La achakana es Neowerdemannia vorwerckii.

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

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