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Enlightened Agroecology August 4th, 2019 by

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

Francisco ‚ÄúPacho‚ÄĚ Gangotena grew up in the countryside of Ecuador and decided that the best way to help smallholder farmers was to get an education. So, he went abroad for a Ph.D. in anthropology. He came home feeling like ‚Äúthe divine papaya‚ÄĚ, he says, thinking that he could change the world with his doctorate.

After a year of teaching at the university, Pacho wanted do something more practical, so he and his wife Maritza sold the house and the car and bought four hectares of land for farming not too far from Quito. But making this work was going to be a huge challenge. The land had no trees and the soil was degraded.

From day one, the family decided that they would use no agrochemicals. They gradually improved the soil by recycling the crop residues and manure back into the soil. Pacho estimates that in this way the family has applied the equivalent of 4000 truckloads of compost since he first began farming here over 35 years ago.

I met Pacho recently on his farm in Puembo, in the Ecuadorian Andes, where he happily showed me and a few other visitors his four dairy cows. He puts sawdust in their stall to absorb their manure and urine. Each cow eats 90 kilos of feed daily and produces about 70 kilos of waste every day, equivalent to 25 tons of organic fertilizer each year for every cow. A single cow can fertilize one hectare of crops. All the manure goes onto the farm, along with all of the composted crop residues.

Pacho rotates his vegetable crops on his four-hectare farm. Potatoes are followed by broccoli, lettuce, radishes and green beans. He employs ten people and is proud that his small farm can give jobs to local families by producing healthy vegetables to sell direct to consumers in the local markets.

His grown son and daughter have also found work on the farm. Pacho jokes that he has retired and that now his daughter is his boss‚ÄĒand a pretty demanding one.

Besides recycling organic matter, Pacho also has some more unusual strategies for building up the soil. He enriches it with wood ash from pizzerias and with powdered rock from quarries. As the quarries cut stone, they leave behind a lot of powdered rock, as waste, which Pacho collects. Rocks are rich in minerals (with up to 80 elements) and are one of nature’s main components of soil.

Pacho is up front about his limitations, which adds to his credibility. A new phytoplasma disease (punta morada) is sweeping Ecuador, wiping out potato fields, including his. He also has to import vegetable seed from the USA and Europe.

But Pacho‚Äôs vegetable fields are lush, like gardens, and now surrounded by trees that the family has planted ‚Äúproviding room, board and employment for the birds and for beneficial insects,‚ÄĚ Pacho explains. An ornithologist friend counted 32 bird species on the farm, including 22 insectivores. Pacho is convinced that the birds help him to control pests without the need for insecticides. Predatory insects also provide a natural biological control of pests.

He also thinks that it is important to share what he has learned, welcoming around 32,000 smallholders to visit his farm over the years. It helps that he was the director of Swiss Aid in Ecuador for 20 years and has built a large network of collaborating farmers. Many come in groups, and some stay for several days to learn about organic farming and agroecology.

The farm’s family and staff feed us a big lunch of kale salad, potato soup and a lasagna made with green leaves instead of pasta. All vegetarian and delicious. The farm has a clear emphasis on nutritious food and produces lots of it. By intercropping and rotating crops, they get 92 tons of vegetables and other crops per hectare each year, a more than respectable yield by any standard. Since buying the farm, the organic matter, or carbon held in the soil has increased from 2% to 12% or more. In a hectare that is at least 500 tons of carbon.

Not everyone is in favor of organic, biological agriculture. For example, in an otherwise excellent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that organic agriculture is not sustainable, because it supposedly uses more land that conventional agriculture.

In fact, in developing countries organic agriculture yields 80% more than conventional agriculture, but without the yield stagnation or decline that occurs with the high use of external inputs (see Uniformity in Diversity by IPES Food).

But Pinker, in his characteristic optimism, also writes that even though climate change is the world’s most serious problem, it can be solved if we really work on it.

That brings us back to the Gangotena family farm, which is providing jobs, and lots of healthy food, while removing carbon from the air where it is harmful and putting it underground where it is useful.  Organic agriculture may be one of the world‚Äôs greatest techniques for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, storing in the soil as rich, black earth for productive farming.

Further reading

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

IPES Food 2016 From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Related blog story

Out of space

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Pacho Gangotena and his family for their generosity of spirit and for the example they set, to Ross Borja and Pedro Oyarz√ļn of EkoRural for organizing the visit to the farm. EkoRural is supported in part by the McKnight Foundation. Thanks to Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarz√ļn, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading an earlier draft of this story.

LA LUZ DE LA AGROECOLOG√ćA

Por Jeff Bentley, 4 de agosto del 2019

Francisco “Pacho” Gangotena creci√≥ en el campo en Ecuador y decidi√≥ que la mejor manera de ayudar a los campesinos era obtener una educaci√≥n. As√≠ que, se fue al exterior para hacer un doctorado en antropolog√≠a. Lleg√≥ a casa sinti√©ndose como “la divina papaya “, dice, pensando que podr√≠a cambiar el mundo con su doctorado.

Despu√©s de un a√Īo de ense√Īar en la universidad, Pacho quer√≠a hacer algo m√°s pr√°ctico, as√≠ que √©l y su esposa Maritza vendieron la casa y el auto y compraron cuatro hect√°reas de tierra cerca de Quito. Pero la agricultura iba a ser un gran desaf√≠o. La tierra no ten√≠a √°rboles y el suelo estaba degradado.

Desde el primer d√≠a, la familia decidi√≥ que no usar√≠a agroqu√≠micos. Poco a poco mejoraron el suelo volviendo a incorporar los rastrojos y el esti√©rcol. Pacho estima que de esta manera la familia ha aplicado el equivalente a 4000 camiones de compost desde que empezaron a trabajar la tierra hace 35 a√Īos.

Conoc√≠ a Pacho hace poco en su finca en Puembo, en los Andes ecuatorianos, donde con toda felicidad √©l mostr√≥ a m√≠ y a algunos otros visitantes sus cuatro vacas lecheras. Pone aserr√≠n en su establo para absorber el esti√©rcol y la orina. Cada vaca come 90 kilos de alimento al d√≠a y produce unos 70 kilos de esti√©rcol al dia, unas 25 toneladas de abono org√°nico por vaca, al a√Īo. Cada vaca fertiliza una hect√°rea. Todo el esti√©rcol fertiliza el suelo junto con los rastrojos del campo convertidos en compost.

Pacho rota sus cultivos en sus cuatro hect√°reas de cultivo que constituyen su finca. Despu√©s de las papas pone br√≥coli, lechuga, r√°banos y arvejas. Emplea a diez personas y est√° orgulloso de que su peque√Īa finca d√© empleo a las familias locales, produciendo verduras sanas para venderlas directamente a los consumidores en los mercados locales.

Su hijo y su hija también traban en la finca. Pacho bromea que se ha jubilado y que ahora su hija es su jefa, y que es muy dura.

Adem√°s de reciclar la materia org√°nica, Pacho tambi√©n tiene algunas estrategias m√°s originales para crear suelo. La enriquece con ceniza de le√Īa de pizzer√≠as y con el polvo de roca de las canteras. Como las canteras cortan piedra, dejan mucha roca en polvo, como desecho, que Pacho recoge. La rocas son ricas en minerales (hasta 80 elementos) y constituyen uno de los principales componentes naturales del suelo.

Pacho admite francamente sus limitaciones, lo cual le da m√°s credibilidad. Un nuevo fitoplasma (una enfermedad‚ÄĒpunta morada) est√° arrasando con las papas del Ecuador, incluido las suyas. Tambi√©n tiene que importar varias de sus semillas de hortalizas de los Estados Unidos y Europa.

Pero las hortalizas de Pacho son exuberantes, como jardines, y ahora est√°n rodeados de √°rboles que la familia ha plantado “para dar ‚Äėroom and board‚Äô y trabajo a los p√°jaros e insectos ben√©ficos”, explica Pacho. Un amigo ornit√≥logo cont√≥ 32 especies de aves en la granja, incluyendo 22 insect√≠voros. Pacho est√° convencido de que las aves le ayudan a controlar las plagas sin necesidad de usar insecticidas. Los insectos depredadores tambi√©n hacen un control biol√≥gico natural de las plagas.

Tambi√©n cree que es importante compartir lo que ha aprendido y 32.000 campesinos han visitado su granja a lo largo de los a√Īos. Es una ventaja haber sido director de Swiss Aid en Ecuador durante 20 a√Īos y ha creado una amplia red de agricultores colaboradores. Muchos vienen en grupos, y algunos se quedan varios d√≠as para aprender sobre la agricultura org√°nica y la agroecolog√≠a.

La familia y el personal de la granja nos alimentan con un gran almuerzo de ensalada de col rizada, sopa de papas y una lasa√Īa de hojas verdes sin pasta. Todo vegetariano y delicioso. La finca tiene un claro √©nfasis en la comida nutritiva, la cual produce en abundancia. A trav√©s del policultivo y la rotaci√≥n de cultivos, obtienen 92 toneladas de hortalizas y productos agr√≠colas por a√Īo en las cuatro hect√°reas, por a√Īo, m√°s que respetables bajo cualquier sistema. Desde que compr√≥  la finca, la materia org√°nica o carbono retenido en el suelo ha subido del 2% al 12% o m√°s. En una hect√°rea de al menos 500 toneladas de carbono.

No todos están a favor de la agricultura orgánica y biológica. Por ejemplo, en un libro por lo demás excelente, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argumenta que la agricultura orgánica no es sostenible, porque supuestamente usa más tierra que la agricultura convencional.

De hecho, en los países en desarrollo la agricultura orgánica rinde un 80% más que la agricultura convencional, pero sin los rendimientos estancados o en disminución que sucede con el alto uso de insumos externos (véase Uniformity in Diversity por IPES Food).

Pero Pinker, con su caracter√≠stico optimismo, a√Īade que aunque el cambio clim√°tico es el problema m√°s grave del mundo, puede resolverse si realmente trabajamos en eso.

Esto nos lleva de nuevo a la granja de la familia Gangotena, que crea puestos de trabajo y produce abundantes alimentos saludables, a la vez que extrae el carbono del aire donde hace da√Īo y lo pone bajo tierra donde hace bien.  

Leer m√°s

Pinker, Steven 2018 Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. London: Penguin Books.

IPES Food 2016 From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Historia de blog relacionada

Out of space

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Pacho Gangotena y su familia por su esp√≠ritu generoso y por el ejemplo que nos dan, a Ross Borja y Pedro Oyarz√ļn de EkoRural por organizar la visita a la granja. EkoRural recibe apoyo de la Fundaci√≥n McKnight. Gracias a Ross Borja, Pedro Oyarz√ļn, Claire Nicklin, Pacho Gangotena, Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por leer una versi√≥n anterior de esta relaci√≥n.

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.

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Apple futures June 2nd, 2019 by

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

Lap‚Äôiya means ‚Äúdahlia‚ÄĚ in Quechua. It‚Äôs 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‚Äôiya recently to learn about a farmer who is seeking alternative crops, ones that don‚Äôt 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, Benjam√≠n has placed nets over the apples to keep out the birds. ‚ÄúBe careful not to step on my other plants,‚ÄĚ he tells us. It‚Äôs 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: ‚ÄúThis is not combat agriculture, but one where we try to get along.‚ÄĚ

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 versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

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‚Äôt be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chu√Īo 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‚ÄĒor commuted‚ÄĒto 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.

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Scientific names

Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

El ingeniero agr√≥nomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me cont√≥ por primera vez c√≥mo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 a√Īos, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacci√≥n que yo ense√Īaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por m√≠ mismo c√≥mo el af√°n por un sano grano andino podr√≠a comer el paisaje de su pa√≠s natal.

Recientemente tuve mi oportunidad, cuando Paul, Marcella y yo hac√≠amos videos para Agro-Insight. Junto con Milton Villca, un agr√≥nomo de Proinpa, conocimos a Genaro en Uyuni, cerca de las famosas salinas de Bolivia. Genaro, que est√° a punto de cumplir 70 a√Īos, pero parece que tiene 55, nos dijo que hab√≠a trabajado con la quinua durante 41 a√Īos, y que hab√≠a sido testigo del cambio dram√°tico de un alimento b√°sico local y menospreciado a un renombrado alimento mundial. Empez√≥ a explicar lo que hab√≠a pasado.

Cuando Genaro era un ni√Īo en la d√©cada de 1950, toda el √°rea alrededor de Uyuni, en el √°rido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetaci√≥n natural. La gente cultivaba peque√Īas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t‚Äôolas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el √ļnico cultivo que sobrevivir√≠a al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engord√°ndose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el m√°s grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles m√°s bajos, para trocar sal por ma√≠z y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chu√Īo 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 a√Īos de la d√©cada de 2000, el precio de la quinua aument√≥ constantemente. Cuando lleg√≥ a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que ten√≠an 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 hect√°reas de t‚Äôola 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 dif√≠cil ver c√≥mo podr√≠a recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. √Čl cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotaci√≥n de cultivos. Eso requerir√° investigaci√≥n. No se puede cultivar mucho m√°s que adem√°s de la quinua a esta altitud, con s√≥lo 150 mm de lluvia al a√Īo.

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 llev√≥ a ver uno de los pocos manchones de vegetaci√≥n nativa que queda. No por casualidad, esto estaba cerca de una peque√Īa comunidad de llameros, que queda en Lequepata. El pastoreo de llamas sigue siendo la mejor manera de usar esta tierra sin destruirla.

Milton nos mostr√≥ c√≥mo 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 est√°n ense√Īando 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 erosi√≥n del suelo. He conocido a muchos agr√≥nomos a trav√©s de los a√Īos, pero pocos que en mi opini√≥n hac√≠an un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucci√≥n.

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.

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