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Farming with trees January 19th, 2020 by

On a rocky hillside an hour from the city of Cochabamba, agronomist Germán Vargas points out a molle tree. It’s growing from a crack in a sandstone boulder with little or no soil. Native trees are well adapted to such conditions and don’t need much to survive, Germán observes.

Molle can be cut for good firewood, but it also casts an inviting shade, with a thick carpet of fallen leaves. Trees grown on farms also have multiple uses. Some have deep roots that bring up nutrients from beneath the top soil. Even in places like Cochabamba, with a long dry season, many trees stay green all year round. The trees have found water to keep their leaves moist, despite the bone-dry subsoil. Germán explains that farming with trees, or agroforestry, mimics natural forests, where rich soils are created without irrigation or fertilizer.

Four years ago, Germán and two colleagues bought some land to put their ideas on agroforestry into practice. They now have 1500 apple trees in a 4-hectare orchard, on a former onion farm, where the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had depleted the soil of nutrients.

Germán and his friends bought some apple seedlings from a local nursery. They chose improved Brazilian apple varieties, such as Eva and Princesa, which do well in the highland tropics of South America, where it can get cool, but does not freeze.

Germán and his colleagues plant a few more trees every year. They start each new planting by digging a trench every two to three meters (depending on the slope), to let water infiltrate the soil. They throw the soil just uphill of the trench to create a barrier, slowing down the runoff of water and trapping sediment.

Germán is careful not to scrape the soil surface with hand tools; the top soil is so thin that rough handling could remove it all. They add a little compost to the soil, mimicking a natural forest, where fallen leaves and trees rot and release nutrients back into the soil. However, forests also have an understory, so potatoes, maize, lettuce, amaranth, rye and other plants are sown between the trees. After planting the vegetables, a straw mulch keeps down the weeds.

Other trees are planted among the apples, including natives like molle and exotic species, which are monitored to see if they can make a positive contribution. Germán brought seed of the chachafruto tree from Colombia, for example. The plant is adapting well. When the only date palm in Cochabamba, another non-native species, dropped a cluster of dates in a city park, Germán salvaged the seed and planted some on the farm. The non-fruit trees make useful leaf litter, adding nutrients and helping to keep the soil moist.

The apples were remarkably free of mildew, mites, fruit flies and other common pests, but even if they were to appear, Germán avoids using pesticides. The team managing the orchard makes a spray with cow manure, raw sugar, bone meal, sulfur, ash and lime. Reasoning that all stone has mineral nutrients, they add a little “rock flour,” made by grinding a soft, local, sedimentary stone (shale). A culture of beneficial microorganisms is added to ferment the mix in sealed drums. The agroforesters culture the microorganisms themselves, but they get the starting culture in the local forest, bringing in a few handfuls of fallen leaves that have started to decompose. The sulfur and the lime come from the farm supply store. This sulfur blend is sprayed about 5 times a year on the trees, and it seems to be working, since the apples have almost no pests, except for birds, and the annual plants are thriving.

This innovative agroforestry system needs regular attention and it is obviously a lot of work, especially at first, because it is established by hand, without machinery. Some of the radishes have gone to seed, and in a few beds the weeds are lush and healthy, waiting to be cut down for the next vegetable crop.

Farmers can learn from forests to make better use of water, conserve the soil and manage pest and disease naturally, thanks to the diversity of plants. Farming with trees can yield a good harvest of fruits and vegetables, while building and sustaining soils.

Related blog stories

Apple futures

What counts in agroecology

Gardening against all odds

Enlightened agroecology

Watch some related videos

SLM02 Fanya juu terraces shows how to make infiltration trenches, that form terraces.

SLM03 Grevillea agroforestry

SLM08 Parkland agroforestry

Scientific names

The molle tree is Schinus molle

The chachafruto tree (widespread in South America) is Erythrina edulis

Note

Sulfur deficiency is a problem in apples. The symptoms are similar to nitrogen deficiency, including pale leaves. Sulfur deficiency can be corrected by sprays (Westwood 1993: 200-201).

Westwood, Melvin Neil 1993 Temperate-Zone Pomology: Physiology and Culture. Third edition. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Germán Vargas, Marcelina Alarcón and Freddy Vargas, the agroforesters. Germán is the executive administrator of the NGO Agroecología y Fe.

LA AGRICULTURA CON ÁRBOLES

En una ladera rocosa a una hora de la ciudad de Cochabamba, el ingeniero agrónomo Germán Vargas señala un molle. Crece en una grieta de una roca arenisca, con poca o ninguna tierra. Los árboles nativos están bien adaptados a estas condiciones y no necesitan mucho para sobrevivir, observa Germán.

El molle hace buena leña, pero también da una rica sombra, con una gruesa alfombra de hojas caídas. Los árboles en el agro también tienen múltiples usos. Algunos tienen raíces profundas que traen los nutrientes de debajo del suelo. Incluso en lugares como Cochabamba, con una larga época seca, muchos árboles se mantienen verdes durante todo el año. Los árboles han encontrado agua para mantener sus hojas húmedas, a pesar del subsuelo seco. Germán explica que la agricultura con árboles, o la agroforestería, imita a los bosques naturales, donde se crean suelos ricos sin irrigación ni fertilizantes.

Hace cuatro años, Germán y dos colegas compraron un terreno para poner en práctica sus ideas sobre agroforestería. Ahora tienen 1500 manzanos en un huerto de 4 hectáreas, en una antigua granja de cebollas, donde el uso intensivo de fertilizantes químicos y pesticidas había agotado los nutrientes del suelo.

Germán y sus compañeros compraron algunos plantines de manzana en un vivero local. Escogieron variedades mejoradas de manzanos brasileños, como Eva y Princesa, que se desarrollan bien en los trópicos de las alturas de América del Sur, donde puede hacer frío, pero no se congela.

Germán y sus colegas plantan unos pocos árboles más cada año. Comienzan cada nueva plantación cavando una zanja cada dos o tres metros (dependiendo de la pendiente), para dejar que el agua se infiltre en el suelo. Lanzan la tierra justo cuesta arriba de la zanja para crear una barrera, frenando el escurrimiento de agua y atrapando el sedimento.

Germán tiene cuidado de no raspar la superficie del suelo con herramientas; el suelo negro de la superficie es tan delgado que sin tener cuidado sería posible quitarlo todo. Añaden un poco de abono al suelo, imitando un bosque natural, donde las hojas y los árboles caídos se pudren y liberan nutrientes de nuevo al suelo. Sin embargo, los bosques también tienen un sotobosque, por lo que las papas, el maíz, la lechuga, el amaranto, el centeno y otras plantas se siembran entre los árboles. Después de plantar las verduras, un mantillo de paja mantiene las malas hierbas.

Entre las manzanas se plantan otros árboles, incluyendo especies nativas como el molle y especies exóticas, que son monitoreadas para ver si pueden hacer una contribución positiva. Germán trajo semillas del árbol de chachafruto de Colombia, por ejemplo. La planta se está adaptando bien. Cuando la única palmera datilera de Cochabamba, otra especie no nativa, dejó caer un racimo de dátiles en un parque de la ciudad, Germán recuperó algunas semillas y las plantó en la finca. Los árboles no frutales botan hojas, añadiendo nutrientes y ayudando a mantener el suelo húmedo.

Las manzanas estaban notablemente libres de mildiu, ácaros, moscas de la fruta y otras plagas comunes, pero incluso si aparecieran, Germán evita el uso de pesticidas. El equipo que maneja el huerto fumiga con un biol hecho de estiércol de vaca, chancaca, huesos molidos, azufre, cenizas y cal. Razonando que toda piedra tiene nutrientes minerales, le agregan un poco de “harina de roca”, hecha al moler una piedra sedimentaria suave, local (lutita). Para fermentar la mezcla, agregan un cultivo de microorganismos buenos a los tambores sellados. Los agroforestales cultivan sus propios microorganismos, pero obtienen la cultura inicial en el bosque local, trayendo unos pocos puñados de hojas caídas que han comenzado a descomponerse. Compran el azufre y la cal en la tienda agropecuaria. Fumigan el biol con azufre unas 5 veces al año en los árboles, y parece que funciona, ya que las manzanas casi no tienen plagas, excepto los pájaros, y las plantas anuales están prosperando.

Este innovador sistema agroforestal necesita atención regular y obviamente es mucho trabajo, especialmente al principio, porque se establece a mano, sin maquinaria. Algunos de los rábanos han empezado a echar semilla, y en algunas camas las hierbas silvestres son exuberantes y saludables, esperando ser cortadas para el siguiente cultivo de hortalizas.

Los agricultores pueden aprender de los bosques a hacer un mejor uso del agua, conservar el suelo y manejar las plagas y enfermedades de forma natural, gracias a la diversidad de plantas. La agricultura con árboles puede producir una buena cosecha de frutas y verduras, a la vez que construye y mantiene los suelos.

Otros blogs sobre el tema

Manzanos del futuro

Lo que cuenta en la agroecología

Un mejor futuro con jardines

La luz de la agroecología

Videos relacionados

SLM02 Terrazas fanya juu muestra cómo hacer zanjas de infiltración, que forman terrazas.

SLM03 Agroforestería con grevillea

SLM08 Agroforestería del bosque ralo

Nombres científicos

El molle es Schinus molle

El chachafruto (árbol bien distribuido en Sudamérica) es Erythrina edulis

Nota

La deficiencia de azufre es un problema común en los manzanos. Los síntomas son parecidos a los de la deficiencia de nitrógeno, incluso las hojas pálidas. La deficiencia de azufre puede ser corregida con fumigaciones (Westwood 1993: 200-201).

Westwood, Melvin Neil 1993 Temperate-Zone Pomology: Physiology and Culture. Third edition. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Germán Vargas, Marcelina Alarcón y Freddy Vargas, por su ejemplo con la agroforestería. Germán es el administrador ejecutivo de la ONG Agroecología y Fe.

Trash to treasure December 29th, 2019 by

Food waste could be made into useful compost, instead of mixing it with plastic and other inorganic trash, as Ana recently explained on a panel discussion on Radio Cepra in Cochabamba. She was invited by a local NGO, Alerta Verde (Green Alert), along with two agronomists who encourage schools and families to make compost, and a student who is writing his thesis on urban families who compost. The first two panelists responded to the concerns of city dwellers: how to make compost while avoiding flies, rodents and bad smells. Old ideas from gardening manuals were recycled, such as adding a layer of barnyard manure to the compost, an impractical idea for city people who don’t have livestock.

The moderator, Arnold Brouwer, asked Ana to talk about her 20 years of experience making urban compost.  We are one of the few households that has been composting regularly in Cochabamba. There was a certain urgency to the question. During the recent unrest surrounding the Bolivian elections of 20 October 2019 (and the president’s exile), the people who live near Cochabamba’s municipal landfill blocked the entrance to the dump. It’s a long story, but the landfill’s neighbors are tired of the large, stinky dump and they took advantage of the turmoil to voice their anger. Their blockade was simply the latest in many protests.

Not for the first time, trash piled up in the streets. On 23 November, a convoy of 12 garbage trucks, with police and military escort, broke through the roadblock, but on the way out, local people attacked them and took eight soldiers hostage, besides smashing windshields and pelting the cars with stones. A settlement was negotiated the next day, but there have been constant demands since then for the city to take its waste elsewhere. Many people in the city have been left thinking that there must be a better way to manage our waste, and to make less of it.

The panelists on the radio talk show all agreed that the urban garbage is about 70% organic, including paper, garden trimmings and food waste that rots, becoming a smelly sludge that draws flies to the landfill. If the organic refuse could be composted, there would be less nuisance, and less garbage to collect and dispose of.

Arnold asked Ana how she makes compost. She explained to the radio-listeners how we dig a pit and fill it with organic waste from our kitchen. We also add old paper and some garden waste. When the pit is full, we usually cover it lightly with soil and leave it for up to year. Turning the waste definitely speeds up decomposition, and makes compost faster. But shoveling compost a lot of extra work. At our house we are not in a rush. We can wait a year for our compost to mature.

“So, this is relaxed composting,” Arnold quipped.

Ana agreed, but went on to paint a bigger picture. The city has a debt to the countryside. We bring in valuable organic matter, as food, and we let much of it rot, untreated and unrecycled, but mixed with inorganic trash, mainly plastic. While rubbish can be composted at home, it could be tackled by the local government.

Ana reminded the listeners that the recently abandoned train tracks from Cochabamba to Aiquile (a provincial town) are still usable. The municipal government could use the tracks to haul organic refuse out of the city and compost it on large, adjacent tracts of degraded land. The compost could be covered with some soil, and when ready, trees could be planted in the reclaimed land. This would still deprive the farms of organic matter, but it would make productive use of the organic fertilizer.

It was a creative solution, well suited to the conditions of semi-arid Cochabamba. Every town and city will have its own locally appropriate ways of recycling refuse. But we must stop wasting food. Whether it’s an orange peel or an aged salad, kitchen and garden refuse are a valuable resource that should be recycled as organic fertilizer.

Increasingly in developed and developing countries alike, composting organic waste is becoming a viable business. Some municipal governments in Europe make compost from green waste (such as lawn cuttings), and burn food waste to generate electricity. With a little will and imagination, tropical municipalities could find their own, locally-appropriate ways to recycle the trash.

Related videos

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Bringing back the native trees December 1st, 2019 by

As cities grow and more people leave the countryside, parks and gardens will be some of the few remaining places where people will come into contact with trees. City parks are highly managed, cultivated spaces and the choice of species says a lot about the people who create and manage the parks.

The little park in my neighborhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Parque Virrey Toledo, is a case in point. It’s an unpretentious area with a children’s playground, a running path, courts for basketball and football (soccer), and a statue of a colonial bully, streaked with pigeon feces. There are always people in the park, playing, chatting and strolling. Virrey Toledo may be unexceptional, but it is full of trees, enough to make the park seem like a small forest.

Ana recently gave me a little tour of the park and its trees. I was surprised to learn that almost all of them are exotic. There are stately Italian cypresses, flame trees from Madagascar with fleshy, red flowers. North America contributed the big poplar trees (alamos) with rugged bark and large, flat leaves. A rubber fig from India is named for its thick leaves. A set of Australian “pine” trees tower over the football field. Chinaberries, originally from the foothills of the Himalayas, are losing their leaves and bark as they slowly die from a phytoplasma disease.

Ana explained that 50 to 60 years ago, when these trees were being planted, the fashion was to model city parks after Victorian botanical gardens, which were also full of exotic trees, gleaned from around the world by British plant hunters, eager to show off the showy species from around the new empire.

“Aren’t there any native trees at all in the park?” I wondered. Ana pointed out two trees of jarka, with their delicate, golden flowers, which were once one of the dominant trees in the valley. “But these jarkas probably weren’t planted,” Ana explained. One of them was too close to one of the concrete paths that cross the park. “It probably seeded itself,” Ana said.

None of the trees in our little park are labelled. For most people, these are just shade trees. Most of the neighbors have little idea that the park is full of exotic trees, with hardly any from Bolivia or neighboring countries.

But things are changing. Ana has been working with a volunteer group and the municipality to plant native trees in the park. In 2017 she selected some 20 tree seedlings from the municipal nursery, and hired a helper to dig the holes. Volunteers came to plant the trees and to make a little fence around each tree, to protect them from dogs, careless lawnmowers and playful youngsters.

At two-years-old, these native trees are doing quite well. They include locals like the tajibo with its canopy of flowers, the tall Cochabamba ceibo, and the tipa, from watershed of the Río de la Plata.

Culture is reflected not just in art and architecture, but in urban parks and green spaces. Early to mid-twentieth century Bolivia had little appreciation for native languages, native crops and foods, and ignored native trees for planting in towns and in the countryside. In all fairness, less was then known about how to plant native trees. But as interest in native trees have grown, Bolivian foresters have been learning how to plant them. People in the Andes are starting to appreciate their own heritage a bit more, and native trees are back in favor. When the children now playing on the swings are adults, native trees will welcome them to this park.

Scientific names

Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens

Flame tree, Delonix regia

Poplar, Populus sp.

Rubber fig, Ficus elastica

Australian pine tree, Casuarina equisetifolia

Chinaberry, Melia azedarach

Jarka, Acacia visco

Tajibo, Handroanthus impetiginosus

Cochabamba ceibo, Erythrina falcata

Tipa, Tipuana tipa

The dialect devil November 10th, 2019 by

Formal education has stifled local languages and dialects for years, but there are signs of change.

A Belgian friend, Dirk, recently told me how in the 1970s, one of his primary school teachers used a little doll or “Devil´s Puppet” (Dutch: Duivels Pop) to discourage children from speaking their local dialect of Dutch, in favor of what the school system called “civilized” Dutch. If the teacher caught an 11-year old speaking the local dialect, even at play, the kid would be loaned the Devil’s Puppet. The plan backfired, however, and the boys were soon competing to get the puppet as often as possible. The teacher lost that battle, but the schools won the war, and within a generation most dialects had seriously eroded.

The Devil’s Puppet reminded me of an experience I had about the same time in Samoa. At Mapusaga High School some teachers made a chart with a line for each student’s name. If a kid was caught speaking the Samoan language, the teacher would shame him or her by putting a pair of “black lips”, cut from stiff paper, next to the student’s name. Different tool but same aim:  designed to shame children for speaking the language of their parents and grandparents.

In North America, native children were removed far from their parents and held in “ Indian boarding schools” created with the express purpose of stamping out native languages. “Killing the Indian, but saving the man (sic)” as it was put by Richard Henry Pratt, the US Army officer who founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first off-reservation boarding school, in 1879. But the tide is starting to turn as many lament the loss of native languages and cultural identity. In Peru, enlightened educators are trying new ways to teach children to be proud of their communities, their native Quechua language, farming skills and food culture. Faculty members of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, and staff from the Instituto de Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente and other NGOs work with selected schools to set up a “seed house”. Known by its Quechua name of muru wasi, the seed house is a classroom with books, posters, videos and other educational materials about local farming and culture. The kids plant a garden together on the school grounds, under the guidance of experienced community members, who also work with local teachers and parents to hold events where they can share traditional meals, made with Andean crops. Quechua is spoken at every opportunity. It’s an excellent innovation: using plants to sow the seeds of self-esteem in the minds of the children

It is too soon to say if such an approach will help to save local languages or to slow the flow of youth to the cities, but the educators are optimistic.

The global languages taught at school and the local languages and dialects acquired at home can and do co-exist. It is normal for people to speak several languages. When schools discourage local languages they also – often inadvertently – teach kids to be ashamed of their parents. When this happens, the real devils are intolerance, ignorance and indifference towards rural people, their culture and their ways of life. There are no excuses for letting this happen and it’s good to see people reclaiming and reviving local dialects and languages.

Watch videos in local languages

Access Agriculture has a large collection of agricultural videos in local languages of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which you can download for free.

Acknowledgements

Information about the Seed Houses in Peru is courtesy of Ana Dorrego Carlón, and Aldo Justino Cruz Soriano of UNALM and Wilmar Fred León Plasencia of IDMA.

Blocking out the food November 3rd, 2019 by

As alternative food systems develop, they may also be the most vulnerable, as I saw after the disastrous elections in Bolivia of this past 20 October. Many people suspected that the election had been rigged, and that the president had not actually won a fourth term.

In protest, the major cities began erecting barricades on all major streets, and many smaller ones. This is protest by self-inflicted economic wound. Many people cannot get to work. Many close their shops and hardly anyone will take their kids to school. The macro-economy takes a nose-dive.

On Friday, six days into the protests, the protest leaders announced on social media that the roadblocks would be lifted in the morning so people could buy food. So I went shopping.

One NGO I know runs a “solidarity basket”, like a subscription service. They pick up fresh vegetables from peri-urban farmers and sell them on certain Saturdays. This weekend the roadblocks had kept the NGO from collecting the produce from the farmers. I met the NGO in a city park, where they had two pickups, offering just onions, yoghurt and mogochinchi (dried peaches) produced by small-scale entrepreneurs, but not the vegetables. My friends understood the importance of the protest, but they were visibly upset that they couldn’t collect the vegetables, which is a way of helping poorer farmers, mostly women, to sell to sympathetic members of the middle class.

Every Saturday, an alternative shop I patronize brings vegetables from farms in the valley. They also bake bread. The owner, Paula, joked that her assistant had not been able to come in, so Paula had baked the bread herself. It fell when rising. She also quipped not to mind if the asparagus was a bit smashed. “I had to go get it on my bike”, she explained (to ride around the roadblocks).

That same Saturday the regular markets and the supermarkets were overwhelmed with people shopping for what was going to be a difficult week for everyone. Every shopping cart was in use, and the lines stretched from the cash register half way through the store.

While a few items sold out, like tuna fish in water, most foods were still in stock. Supermarkets can last for a few days without being resupplied.  

Government supporters added to the tension by announcing that they would counter the protests in the city by blockading the national highways, with the stated purpose of keeping food out.

Food suppliers and shoppers all have a vested interest in trading with each other. As the week wore on, the supermarkets closed their doors. The food dealers that stayed open were the oldest ones: family-owned shops, and open-air markets.

Unfortunately, this past week I was really looking forward to attending a seed exchange, where people would meet and trade their own local varieties of tree and crop seed. No money would exchange hands, just gifts and trade in seed. This was an innovative, even experimental addition to the alternative food system. Unfortunately, that was cancelled entirely. The newest parts of the food system can also be the weakest. Cities are vulnerable to a break in food supplies, and experiences like this one may be a wake-up call to strengthen local food systems.

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