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Municipal compost: Teaching city governments December 27th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Much of farm produce ends up in city landfills, but with a little work and some smart ideas, towns can recycle their organic waste, as I saw recently in Tiquipaya, a small city in metropolitan Cochabamba, Bolivia.

For over ten years, Tiquipaya’s municipal composter has turned some of the city’s trash into the best organic fertilizer. Ing. Denis Sánchez, who runs the city composter, obviously loves his work and is happy to show groups around the tidy (and fly-free) operation.

The first stop is reception, where garbage trucks and cooperating citizens dump off refuse: the garden trimmings from the city’s parks, wilted flowers from the cemetery, waste from the market, and trash from nearly half of the municipality’s households. At reception, Denis’ crew does their most tedious task, separating the plastic from the organic. Cooked food waste is a nuisance because it rots quickly and has “very bad microbes,” as Denis puts it.

Denis is certain that the compost picks up good microbes from its surroundings. Compost’s good microbes smell good and the only slightly bad odor is from the fresh garbage in the reception area. The composter is only four blocks from the town square, so the city government would not tolerate any bad smells. In reception, the fresh, “green” refuse is mixed about half and half with “brown” waste, such as dried tree leaves pruned from city parks. Mixing was easier when the compost plant had a chipping machine that would chop up all the tree branches. The machine broke down a few years ago, so now the crew occasionally gets a caterpillar to come in and roll over the tree branches to break them up. The small bits go into the compost and the big pieces are sold as firewood.

From reception, the blend of brown and green trash goes to the “forced air” section. Compost needs air, which can be provided by turning over the pile, but that’s a lot of work. At the Tiquipaya plant, perforated hoses force air up into each 40-ton pile of compost. The crew waters the compost once a week, for seven weeks, and during that time they do turn it one time, for an even decomposition.

After seven weeks the compost is taken to mature, like a fine wine. It is heaped up and every week it is watered, and also turned with a little front-end loader. The aged compost is then sifted in a rotating drum to remove any big pieces. The resulting fine compost is then sold to the public.  The municipality also fertilizes Tiquipaya’s city parks with the compost, so they do not have to buy any fertilizer. The city also uses the compost as potting soil to grow ornamental plants.

Of course, it’s not all easy. One limitation is education. The municipal market has separate bins for organic and plastic garbage, but most patrons toss all their trash into one can or the other. Three of the city’s eight garbage routes send a truck one day a week to collect organic trash from households. On each ride, Denis sends a member of staff along to remind residents to leave out their plastics and cooked food waste. It’s a constant job to educate the public, so sometimes the municipality rewards cooperating families with plants.

A second limitation is labor. Even with some clever machines, the hard-working staff (three full-time and four part-time, besides Denis) can process about 5.5 tons of trash per day, of the 40 tons that Tiquipaya produces. The city could compost 20 tons of rubbish, with a bit more space, additional workers and investment.

Denis says that it costs 312 Bs. ($44) to make a cubic meter of compost, which he sells for 120 Bs. ($17), a loss he has to accept because “no one would pay its true cost.”

The plant was created with an investment of 1,734,000 Bs. ($246,000) and has an annual labor cost of 185,000 Bs. ($26,000), financed by the municipal government. The compost plant has had financial and technical support from Catalonia and Japan.

The crew seems to be enjoying their morning at the plant. It is light, active work in the glorious Andean sunshine with friendly colleagues.

Tiquipaya’s large neighbor, the city of Cochabamba, has a wretched problem with its landfill, now full and rising like a tower while the surrounding residents often protest by blockading out the garbage trucks, forcing the trash to pile up in city streets.

Cities have to invest to properly dispose of their garbage. People who make trash (including the plastics industry) can be charged for its disposal. The public needs to be taught how to buy food with less plastic wrapping and how to recycle green waste at home. The good news is that cities can recycle much of their rubbish, selling the plastics, and producing compost to improve the soil and replace chemical fertilizer.

Denis thinks of his plant as a school, where others can learn. In fact, several small cities (Sacaba, Vinto, VillazĂłn, and some in the valleys of Santa Cruz) have started similar plants on the Tiquipaya model. Denis is proud to show his work to others.

With some enlightened investment, a city can turn its garbage into useful products and green jobs while avoiding unsustainable landfills, which simply bury the nutrients that farmers have won from the soil.

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COMPOST MUNICIPAL: UNA ESCUELA PARA LAS ALCALDĂŤAS

Por Jeff Bentley

27 de diciembre del 2020

Mucha de la producción agrícola termina en los rellenos sanitarios urbanos, pero con un poco de esfuerzo y unas ideas claras, los municipios pueden reciclar su basura orgánica, como vi hace poco en Tiquipaya, una pequeña ciudad en el eje metropolitano de Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Hace más de diez años, la compostera municipal de Tiquipaya ha convertido parte de su basura en un excelente fertilizante orgánico. El Ing. Denis Sánchez dirige la compostera, y obviamente le encanta su trabajo y el mostrar su planta bien ordenada (y libre de moscas) a grupos de ciudadanos.

En la primera parada, la recepción, los camiones basureros y algunos vecinos colaboradores, dejan su basura, las podas del ornato público, flores marchitadas del cementerio, basura del mercado y de casi la mitad de las familias del municipio. En recepción, los trabajadores realizan lo más tedioso, separando los plásticos de los orgánicos. Los restos de la comida son una molestia porque se pudren rápidamente y tienen “algunos microbios muy malos,” como Denis explica.

Denis afirma que el compost adquiere buenos microbios de su entorno. Los microbios buenos huelen bien y el único olor un poco desagradable viene de la basura fresca en recepción. La planta está apenas a cuatro cuadras de la plaza principal, y la alcaldía no toleraría ningún mal olor. En recepción, la basura fresca, la “verde”, se llena mitad-mitad con los desechos “marrones” tales como la hojarasca de los parques urbanos. El mezclarlo era más fácil cuando la compostera tenía una máquina que picaba todas las ramas. La máquina se descompuso hace algunos años, y ahora de vez en cuando traen una oruga que pisotea las ramas para quebrarlas. Los pedazos pequeños entran al compost y las piezas grandes se venden como leña.

Después de la recepción, la mezcla de basura verde y marrón pasa a la sección de “aireación forzada”. El compost necesita aire, que se puede proveer con el volteo, pero es mucho trabajo. En la compostera de Tiquipaya, usan tubería perforada para empujar el aire a cada pila de 40 toneladas de compost. Riegan las pilas una vez a la semana, durante siete semanas, y durante ese tiempo las voltean una vez, para lograr una descomposición pareja.

A las siete semanas, llevan el compost a madurarse, como un vino fino. Hacen montones de compost que se riegan y se voltean cada semana con una máquina mini cargadora. El compost madurado es cernido en un dron rotatorio para sacar cualquier objeto grande. El compost fino se vende al público. La alcaldía fertiliza los parques de Tiquipaya con el compost, así que no tienen que comprar fertilizante. Además, usan el compost como sustrato para producir plantas ornamentales.

Claro que cuesta trabajo. Una limitación es la educación. El mercado municipal tiene basureros separados para plásticos y orgánicos, aunque los usuarios a veces mezclan todo. Tres de las ocho rutas del carro basurero recogen solo residuos orgánicos un día de la semana, y cada vez, Denis manda un funcionario de la planta para hacerle recuerdo a la gente que no incluyan sus plásticos ni sus restos de comida. La educación pública es un esfuerzo constante. De vez en cuando regalan plantas para premiar a los buenos vecinos.

Una segunda limitante es la mano de obra. Aun con maquinaria, el esmerado personal (tres a tiempo completo y cuatro a tiempo parcial, además del Ing. Denis) logra procesar unas 5.5 toneladas de basura por día, de las 40 toneladas que Tiquipaya produce. Con un poco más de espacio, personal, e inversión podrían compostar 20 toneladas.

Denis cuenta que cuesta 312 Bs. ($44) hacer un metro cúbico de compost, lo cual vende por 120 Bs. ($17), una pérdida que se acepta porque “nadie pagaría su costo real.”

La planta se creó con una inversión de 1,734,000 Bs. ($246,000) y tiene un costo anual de mano de obra de 185,000 Bs. ($26,000), financiada por la alcaldía. La compostera ha tenido apoyo financiero y técnico de Cataluña y del Japón.

Parece que los trabajadores municipales disfrutan de su trabajo en la planta. Es trabajo fĂ­sico, pero liviano al aire libre mientras que permite la charla entre colegas.

La ciudad vecina a Tiquipaya, Cochabamba, tiene un problema severo con su relleno sanitario, que ahora está lleno y crece como una torre, mientras los vecinos frecuentemente protestan, bloqueando la entrada a los camiones basureros, hasta que la basura se deja en montículos por toda la ciudad.

Las ciudades tienen que invertir para deshacerse correctamente de su basura. Se puede cobrar impuestos a la gente que genera la basura, incluso a las industrias de los plásticos. Hay que enseñar al público a comprar comida con menos envases plásticos, y cómo reciclar la basura verde en casa. La buena noticia es que las ciudades pueden reciclar gran parte su basura, vendiendo los plásticos y produciendo compost para mejorar el suelo y para reemplazar a los fertilizantes químicos.

Denis piensa en su planta como una escuela, donde otros pueden aprender. De hecho, varias ciudades pequeñas (Sacaba, Vinto, Villazón, y algunas en los valles de Santa Cruz), han construido plantas similares, usando el modelo de Tiquipaya. Denis está dispuesto a compartir sus conocimientos con otra gente interesada, sintiendo mucho orgullo por lo logrado.

Con un poco de inversiĂłn inteligente, una ciudad puede convertir su basura en productos Ăştiles e Ă­tems de trabajo verde, mientras evita los rellenos no sostenibles, que simplemente entierran los nutrientes ganados con tanto esfuerzo por la producciĂłn agrĂ­cola.

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Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

Watch the film

Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

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Book rate November 29th, 2020 by

Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General of the United States, during the second Continental Congress. He had experience, having been Deputy Postmaster General for all the American colonies under the British (1753-1774). But even in 1775, Franklin was one of the most respected of the founding fathers, and older than most of the others; he could have rejected the mail job. But he took it in part because he saw that a postal service would knit the States together. As a printer, writer and publisher, Franklin also understood the strategic advantage of the post for newspapers, and he established a special, low rate for publications. Newspapers could be sent through the mail for just a penny, or a penny and a half, while a letter could cost the fat sum of 25 cents. For its first 50 years, the post office was largely a newspaper delivery system, owned by the federal government, but financed by the sale of postage.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Abraham Lincoln’s postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, added to Franklin’s ideal by guaranteeing mail delivery at a uniform rate of postage, even to the new, distant states out west. Blair was clearly a visionary who also proposed the first international postal conference (held in Paris in 1863) and created the postal money order, to cut down on cash going through the mails, to avoid robberies. In recognition of these achievements, on 12 July 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early burned down Blair’s home in Silver Springs, Maryland.

During the Great Depression, president Franklin Roosevelt introduced a special “book rate,” endowed with a subsidy from Congress in 1933, to allow anyone to mail any publication at a special, low fee. A book could go across the country for a few cents.

I had my first brush with the book rate as a little boy, when my mom sent me to the post office alone with a package. “Be sure and tell them it’s a book, and they will charge you less,” mom said.

I handed the clerk the book, wrapped in brown paper. I hesitated and added, “It’s a book.”

“Alright dear,” she said. “Then that will be …” and she quoted me some ridiculous price, low enough to surprise even a kid.

The book rate lives on in the USA, now called the “Media Mail Service”, in recognition that a nation should promote information and learning.

Now, in 2020, educational materials are increasingly shared online, not through the postal system. Millions of smallholders in Southern countries now have a smart phone, and are online for the first time, getting an unprecedented amount of information, from sports, and science to nonsense.

Fortunately, there is a lot of free educational material online. Wikipedia is well written, by citizen scholars. Respected British newspaper, The Guardian, posts online stories for anyone to read, as does the BBC, the Smithsonian Institution and many others. And Access Agriculture has posted over 200 well-researched training videos for farmers, for free, in over 80 languages. The spirit of the book rate lives on.

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Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1958 The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 434 pp.

For some history of the US postal service, see: https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/

Photo credits

Benjamin Franklin. Colored aquatint by P. M. Alix, 1790, after C. P. A. van Loo. From the Wellcome Library. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Portrait_of_Benjamin_Franklin._Wellcome_L0017902.jpg

Smallholders reading, by Paul Van Mele, Bangladesh, 2013.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Keith Andrews for suggesting the book rate as a topic and for reading an earlier version of this story. Thanks also to Paul Van Mele for his insightful comments.

The poor get richer and healthier, finally October 25th, 2020 by

Recent papers on the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study for 2019 show that before 2000, the economy of wealthy countries grew at a faster rate than poor ones. But things are changing. Since the turn of the millennium, poorer countries have become healthier and wealthier at a faster rate. Wealth was long been linked with lower birth rates. “The rich get richer and the poor get children,” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, a novel first published in 1925. Yet birth rates are declining in poor countries and people are living longer, healthier lives.

From 2000 to 2019, the poorest fifth of countries added an average of nine healthy years to the life of each person, while the wealthiest 20% of countries added just two years. Articles in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, attribute the change to increased investments by governments in women and children, in health, development and education, as part of efforts to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Goals.

Measuring health improvements in populations used to be an inexact science. Since the introduction of disability-adjusted life-years (DALY), or years lost to death or disability, it’s become easier to monitor changes. According to the study, DALYs declined worldwide from 1990-2010 by 2.3% per year. In other words, people got healthier. The annual decline increased to 4.0% from 2010 to 2019, thanks largely to reductions in incidence of major diseases that kill children, such as lower respiratory infections, diarrhea and meningitis by more than 60% between 1990 and 2019. New treatments also meant that the health impact of other infectious diseases declined. The number of people with HIV/AIDS peaked in 2004 and has fallen ever since.

Despite on-going news reports about health crises, global health has steadily improved over the past 30 years. When the DALY is statistically adjusted for age (as people live longer), some of the poorest countries see an average yearly decline of 2% in the rate of death and disability. Good news for the people of Ethiopia, Angola, Burundi, Malawi, Sudan, Myanmar, Laos and Bangladesh, for example, and a powerful reminder that lives are improving.

Population growth is slowing. The world’s population is estimated to peak in 2064 at 9.73 billion, and to decline to 8.79 billion by 2100. Girls and women are spending more years in school and contraception is easier to get.

As middle-income countries develop and urbanize, improving their well-being will depend less on combatting infectious disease, and more on adopting healthier diets, getting exercise, and reducing tobacco use. For countries that are still poor, continued improvements in health will demand “doubling down on policies and strategies that stimulate economic growth, expand access to primary and secondary schooling and improve the status of women (Lancet 2020; 396: 1135).”

It is fashionable in some circles to mock the efforts of formal development. But government and international investments in health and education are improving the lives of poor people in measurable ways.

Further reading

Abubakar, Ibrahim 2020 The future of migration, human populations, and global health in the Anthropocene. The Lancet 396: 1133-1134.

Murray, Christopher J. L. and collaborators 2020 Five insights from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. The Lancet 396: 1135-1159.

Murray, Christopher J. L. and collaborators 2020 Global burden of 369 diseases and injuries in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. The Lancet 396: 1204.1222.

Learning to teach June 7th, 2020 by

Versión en español a continuación

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

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

In the short course, don ElĂ­as, as everyone called him, taught an effective alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture. Don ElĂ­as expected people to make radical changes in how they farmed, after attending his course.  At the time, the forests on the steep hillsides were rapidly disappearing as people cut and burned trees, brush and crop residues before planting maize fields. The smoke was so thick in the springtime that every year the Tegucigalpa airport had to close because pilots couldn’t see the runway. There was also widespread soil erosion.

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

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

During the course we would eat fresh vegetables from the teaching farm for lunch, then get our hands dirty, making new compost heaps and spreading fertilizer from ones that were ready to use. “Compost needs two things,” don ElĂ­as would say: “water and air.” He taught that rain usually provided enough water, and by making compost above ground, air could circulate, as long as you didn’t pack the material.  But for good measure he would heap the organic matter around a thick wooden pole, which he would then pull out, to leave an air hole. Don Elias said that you could make compost in a pit, but it was more work. He did advise us to scrape the leaves and other debris off of the soil surface, so the compost was in contact with the dirt, where the soil-dwelling bacteria would help to start the decomposition.

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

I recalled ElĂ­as Sánchez last week, when I dug up one of our compost pits at home (a perfect quarantine activity). We don’t make compost piles, because we live in the city and our compost includes some ugly garbage. Sometimes we cover the pits with soil and grow something on top (a trick I learned from a farmer in Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Although our compost pit is unlike the compost piles that don ElĂ­as 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 ElĂ­as would have been pleased. He would also be pleased that many farmers, teaching farms and organizations in Latin America have adopted his ideas about organic agriculture.

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

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Acknowledgement

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

APRENDER A ENSEĂ‘AR

Por Jeff Bentley, 7 de junio del 2020

Un buen profesor no solo te enseña la materia sino cómo explicarla también. Elías Sánchez fue mentor de miles de centroamericanos en la agricultura orgánica. Empezó su vida adulta como maestro de escuela rural porque quería ayudar a la gente. Pero pronto se dio cuenta de que la gente del campo necesitaba aprender más de la agricultura, así que estudió agronomía y se hizo un extensionista. Cuando se dio cuenta de que la burocracia gubernamental era demasiado limitante, comenzó una granja de aprendizaje llamada Loma Linda, en Santa Lucía, en un cañón cubierto de pinos en las montañas cerca de Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Allí es donde lo conocí, a finales de los 80.

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

En el curso corto, don ElĂ­as, como todos le llamaban, enseñaba una alternativa eficaz a la agricultura de tala y quema. Don ElĂ­as esperaba que la gente hiciera cambios radicales en la forma de cultivar, despuĂ©s de asistir a su curso.  En ese momento, los bosques de las escarpadas laderas estaban desapareciendo rápidamente, ya que la gente cortaba y quemaba árboles, matorrales y rastrojos antes de sembrar milpa. El humo era tan espeso en la primavera que cada año el aeropuerto de Tegucigalpa tenĂ­a que cerrar porque los pilotos no podĂ­an ver la pista. TambiĂ©n se produjo bastante erosiĂłn del suelo.

Don Elías enseñó a sus alumnos adultos a construir terrazas, a sembrar verduras, frutas y granos, a hacer abono y remedios naturales para las plagas y enfermedades. Miles de pequeños agricultores de toda Honduras tomaron el curso de don Elías y poco a poco empezaron a quemar menos, y a usar fertilizante orgánico. El fue bastante convincente; he hecho compost desde que tomé su curso.

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

Durante el curso almorzábamos hortalizas frescas de la finca, luego nos ensuciábamos las manos, haciendo nuevas aboneras y esparciendo el fertilizante de las que estaban listas para usar. “El abono necesita dos cosas”, decĂ­a don ElĂ­as: “agua y aire”. Enseñó que la lluvia usualmente daba suficiente agua, y al hacer abono en cima la tierra, el aire podĂ­a circular, si no se empacara el material.  Pero por si acaso, hacĂ­a la abonera alrededor de un grueso poste de madera, que luego sacaba, para dejar un agujero de aire. Don ElĂ­as dijo que se podĂ­a hacer abono bajo tierra, pero era más trabajo. Nos aconsejĂł que raspáramos las hojas y otros desechos de la superficie del suelo, para que el abono estuviera en contacto con la tierra, donde las bacterias que viven en el suelo ayudarĂ­an a iniciar la descomposiciĂłn.

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

RecordĂ© a ElĂ­as Sánchez la semana pasada, cuando desenterrĂ© 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 aprendĂ­ de un agricultor en Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Aunque nuestra abonera enterrada no es como las que don ElĂ­as solĂ­a hacer sobre el suelo, la nuestra seguĂ­a todos sus principios básicos.

1) Estaba hecha de materia orgánica.

2) TenĂ­a bolsones de aire, de cajas de cartĂłn que metĂ­, que con el tiempo se descompusieron.

3) Tenía agua. Mientras desenterraba el composte encontré un par de cucharaditas que había tirado accidentalmente con el agua lavar los trastos. El agua jabonosa puede matar a los microorganismos buenos, así que no lo intentaré de nuevo. Incluso después de treinta años todavía estoy aprendiendo.

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

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

Para ser un buen mentor, enseña los principios básicos de las materias que los estudiantes quieren aprender. Mostrar a la gente cómo hacer un prototipo y luego animarlos a seguir experimentando. Los alumnos tienen que adueñarse de las innovaciones, para seguir adaptándolas toda la vida.

Historias sobre temas parecidos  

Trying it yourself

Training trees

Microbios amigables

Lombrices de tierra de la i India a Bolivia

Una revoluciĂłn 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 versiĂłn previa de esta historia.

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