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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.

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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.

Related blog stories

Trying it yourself

Training trees

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

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 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.

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‚Äôs not a job for the faint of heart. Peter is nothing if not honest about his experiences. ‚ÄúThere are times when I hate myself for being here, and detest the entire village.‚ÄĚ But he also writes: ‚ÄúAfter years of travelling throughout Africa in a quest to improve sustainable farming, this attraction culminated in a boy‚Äôs dream come true: living in a real forest, tending rare plants, and raising endangered monkeys.‚ÄĚ

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., H√®d√©gb√®tan, 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‚Äď46.

Scientific names

Cola tree, Cola gigantea

Royal Python, Python regius

Red- bellied monkey, Cercopithecus erythrogaster

Acknowledgements

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

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