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Let nature guide you March 17th, 2019 by

Farmers need to take decisions every day. Smallholders living in remote areas often have no one to turn to to ask advice. Nobody tells them which crop to grow or when is a good time to plant. In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about the Yapuchiris, experienced organic farmers on the Bolivian altiplano who started recording their observations on weather, natural indicators and their crops on a daily basis. Some have done so for over 10 years.

In this harsh environment predicting the weather correctly can make the difference between harvesting a crop or harvesting nothing at all.

As always, when producing farmer training videos, we are fortunate to interact with farmers who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences. In the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, one of the Yapuchiris, Don Bernabé, explains that if frost hits your quinoa, you can lose your crop from one day to the next, all past efforts being in vain. He guides us in the brush land and shows us a local bush called tara t’ula in the Aymara language. “This plant doesn’t like the cold very much, so if you find many of these plants, it is a good place to build your farm house, your corral to keep your llamas and grow your crop.”

But even if your farm is wel located, frost can strike. So don Bernabé has many other natural indicators to inform him about what actions to take. “If the lizard makes a fresh house it will rain tomorrow, but if it starts to close its burrow, it will freeze that night. I then collect t’ula plants and burn them in my quinoa field from 3 to 5 am so that the frost will not settle on my crop,” he continues.

Apart from observing plants and animals, don Bernabé also reads the clouds and wind. Amazingly, winds in June and July already tell him how the next rainy season that starts in January will be. Arrived at a large sand dune, he points to the pattern of vertical ridges blown into the side of the dune. “If the lines are some 10 centimeters apart, the rains will come close to each other and we will have a good harvest. But if they are further apart, the rains will also be sparser and our crop will suffer.”

Don Bernabé has written a book about these natural weather indicators. As he shows us around the landscape, he proudly carries his book with colour photographs that clearly explain all the natural indicators he knows. Reading nature is a skill that requires spending a lot of time outdoors, observing natural phenomena.

The next few days we met some other extraordinary Yapuchiris, each sharing their knowledge with us in front of the camera. It is exciting to be part of this and at the same time an eye opener as to how much industrial agriculture in the West has become disconnected from nature.

With climate change, the need to build on local knowledge will grow in importance.

I cannot think of a better way to end this blog then by quoting don Bernabé once more: “Well these plants and animals are more intelligent than the human being. They know how to live in this land and they know it perfectly. For that reason, it is necessary not to lose this knowledge and that the young people should keep practicing this ancestral knowledge that is so rich.”

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform, in English, French, Spanish, Quechua and Aymara:

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

Related blogs

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Betting on the weather

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Betting on the weather March 10th, 2019 by

Recently, we have had the chance to interact intensively with farmers and agronomists in the Bolivian Altiplano to develop two videos on weather forecasting. The first video focused more on natural indicators, such as plants, animals, wind and clouds. The second video highlighted a weather app. While we encourage in both videos to merge traditional knowledge with daily observations and modern science, a certain level of risk remains.

At an altitude of 4,250 meters, in the village of Ch’ojñapata (which means “green mountain” in the Aymara language), we meet don Juan Mamani with some of his fellow farmers. On the walk to his house in the Green Mountains, field after field of young potato plants showed black, wilted leaves. Despite their rich, traditional knowledge, receiving weekly forecasts on their phone and being connected with other fellow farmers through WhatsApp, the farmers of Ch’ojñapata village saw their potato crop destroyed by frost.

Weather forecasts can be a blessing for farmers and help them to decide when to prepare the land, when to plant, irrigate and harvest their crop. But while rain is relatively easy to predict, frost is less so, especially in a changing climate, as don Juan explains:

“Sometimes the weather is cloudy with good clouds, but during the night they suddenly disappear. It gets cold and starts to freeze, there is no way to be aware of it. I do not understand the climate, the climate is heating up, it confuses us, so for that I say that one should try to understand the climate and we have to adjust to it.”

But I was still concerned, standing on the edge of this ruined potato field. Don Juan is an expert farmer, with the benefit of modern and ancestral knowledge, who had known that there was likely to be a freeze early in the season, which he could have avoided by planting later.

Edwin Yucra, an agronomist who has studied weather for years on the Altiplano, explained what happened. First farmers forecast which part of the summer will be best for planting potatoes, then they plant potatoes early, middle or late in the season, depending on their prediction. But they always hedge their bets, never putting all of their potatoes in one basket. If farmers predict that the last part of the season will be best (as in the southern summer of 2018-19), they still plant a few potatoes in the early season. The farmers also use the forecast to decide where to plant, planting in wetter areas during predicted dry years, for example, or on the warmer slopes if they anticipate a freeze.

Farming is a gamble in many ways. Every time farmers plant they are betting on the weather. While modern forecasting technologies help smallholder farmers in developing countries to improve the odds, crop insurance (and fair food prices) may be required to make farming attractive to new generations of commercial small-scale farmers.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

Related blogs

High Andean Climate Change

To see the future

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information.

High Andean Climate Change February 10th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Recently Paul wrote about how people in Ch’ojñapata, a small village in the mountains high above Lake Titicaca, blend old and new ways of predicting the weather. While we were filming in the village, we also learned more about how climate change is affecting crops.

At this high altitude, 4250 meters above sea level, farmers grow bitter potato, or luk’i. This is related to the common potato, but a separate species, Solanum juzepcuzukii. Luk’i was domesticated in the Andes thousands of years ago and is well adapted to high altitudes and conditions which favor few other crops. Little else will grow in Ch’ojñapata besides luk’i potatoes and some pasture grasses where the villagers herd their alpacas on the steep slopes.

Veteran farmer Juan Mamani explained that in Ch’ojñapata it is now getting too warm to plant luk’i potatoes. And even when people can grow luk’i potatoes, it is no longer cold enough to properly process them. To make bitter potatoes edible, villagers have to freeze them outdoors for four nights. “Now, in mid-winter (June) when we would normally get a long freeze, it may only last one night, and when it then rains the luk’i rot.”

Don Juan’s friend and neighbor, Celestino Laime, adds that the rains once came at predictable times. Now it can rain at any time, often with heavy downpours, making it difficult to farm.

There are other signs that the normal patterns of weather are changing. The farmers told us that the glaciers around them are disappearing. The mountains, once covered in solid white ice, are starting to turn grey. Now people can see the rocks appear as the ice melts and retreats.

The farmers are adapting, as they always do. With the warmer climate, folks in Ch’ojñapata are growing more of the common potatoes. It is not a perfect solution. They show us a potato field killed by summer frost. The bitter potatoes would have survived that cold snap.

Some people in northern, industrial countries are still denying climate change; villagers in the high Andes don’t have that luxury. They live with the changing climate and worry about it every day.

Related blogs

Three generations of knowledge

Death of the third flowers

Harsh and healthy

Acknowledgements

We were accompanied on this trip by Ing. Edwin Yucra, a professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. We thank Edwin for being generous with his time and his knowledge. His work is funded in part by the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

CAMBIO CLIMÁTICO ALTOANDINO

Por Jeff Bentley, 10 de febrero del 2019

Recientemente Paul escribió acerca de cómo la gente en Ch’ojñapata, un pequeño pueblo en las montañas en lo alto del Lago Titicaca, mezcla viejas y nuevas formas de predecir el tiempo. Mientras filmábamos en la comunidad, también aprendimos más sobre cómo el cambio climático está afectando a los cultivos.

A esta altitud, 4.250 metros sobre el nivel del mar, los agricultores cultivan papa amarga, o luk’i, que es pariente de la papa común, pero es una especie separada, Solanum juzepcuzukii. La papa luk’i fue domesticada en los Andes hace miles de años y está bien adaptada a las alturas y a las condiciones donde pocos cultivos crecen. En Ch’ojñapata nada más crece además de papas y algunos pastos donde la gente pasta sus alpacas en las laderas.

El veterano agricultor Juan Mamani nos contó que ahora en Ch’ojñapata hace mucho calor para sembrar papas luk’i. Y aun cuando la gente puede cultivar luk’i, ya no hace suficiente frío para procesarlo bien. Para que el luk’i sea comestible, hay que congelarlos al aire libre durante cuatro noches. “Ahora, en el invierno (junio), cuando sabíamos tener una buena helada, puede helar sólo una noche, y cuando llueve el luk’i se pudre.”

El amigo y vecino de don Juan, Celestino Laime, agrega que antes, las lluvias llegaban en su debido momento. Ahora puede llover en cualquier momento, a menudo con fuertes lluvias, y es difícil sembrar.

Hay otras señales de que los patrones normales del clima están cambiando. Los agricultores nos dijeron que los glaciares que los rodean están desapareciendo. Los cerros, antes tapados de hielo blanco sólido, empiezan a ponerse color plomo. Ahora la gente ve que las piedras aparecen a medida que el hielo se derrite y se retira.

Los agricultores se están adaptando, como siempre lo hacen. Con el clima más cálido, la gente de Ch’ojñapata está cultivando más papas comunes. No es una solución perfecta. Nos muestran un campo de papas muertas por heladas que antes no abían en el verano. Las papas luk’is hubieran sobrevivido a esa ola de frío.

Algunas personas en los países del norte siguen negando el cambio climático; la gente rural andina no tiene ese lujo. Ellos viven con el cambio climático y se preocupan por ello todos los días.

Blogs relacionados

Three generations of knowledge

De t’olas y papas

Harsh and healthy

Agradecimientos

En este viaje nos acompañó el Ing. Edwin Yucra, catedrático de la Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. Agradecemos a Edwin por ser generoso con su tiempo y su conocimiento. Su trabajo es financiado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos de la Fundación McKnight.

Three generations of knowledge January 20th, 2019 by

“As a youth I planted a little and my grandparents told me nothing about these bioindicators. My potatoes had a lot of worms. I was discouraged and decided to seek another life,” said don Miguel Ortega when we visited his farm a while ago in Voloco village. Now in his mid 40s don Miguel runs a prosperous organic farm in the Northern Altiplano of Bolivia (see also our previous blog: Harsh and healthy).

During his interview in front of the camera, don Miguel explained why he returned to his home village and picked up farming again: “Because when you work in a company, coming on time, leaving on time it is a form of slavery. So now that I work for myself I am a free man.”

In the meantime, don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, expert farmers who shares his knowledge with his peers and anyone who is interested in learning from nature and learning about healthy farming. But to become an expert farmer who can predict the weather based on observing plants, animals and insects has not been easy. The elders in the village were not forthcoming with sharing their knowledge about natural indicators, as don Miguel explained:

“When I asked the elders, they said “in this way.” But you do not ask them just like that with the mouth empty. You have to give them a little soft drink. I managed it this way. I did not pick up a piece of paper at that moment. I held it in my mind. I held it in my mind and when I arrived home, I wrote it on paper. That is how I worked. By questioning. If we would pick up a sheet of paper and write they would not want to tell us everything.”

Five days after meeting with don Miguel, we drive to the village of Ch’ojñapata, at an altitude of 4,250 meters. We interview Mery Mamani, who is in her early 20s. She runs a little shop where she sells soft drinks, beer and home-made cheese. Although we planned to interview her about an app that forecasts the weather, it soon became clear that this young woman had much more to tell us.

Full of energy she guides us down the steep slopes to a valley behind her house. A pretty cactus with red flowers, called sank’ayu in the local Aymara language, is what she wants to show us. “The app is great to tell us which day it will freeze or rain in the coming days, but this cactus tells us when is the best time to plant potatoes,” she said.

While Marcella films Mery in her little shop, she opens WhatsApp on her smart phone and shows photo after photo of various plants, mainly cactuses. All are bioindicators (see previous blog stories below that define “bioindicator”). Mery is clearly interested in making the right decisions on when to plant and do the other activities on her farm and she cleverly combines knowledge from the past with modern forecasting. Youth like Meri who remain in the countryside, and who are interested in ancestral knowledge can share those ideas and their observations with peers in other communities and other parts of the country. New communication devices can keep old knowledge alive.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform in the coming month

Recording the weather

Weather forecasting

Related blogs

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information, and to Edwin Yucra from UMSA for introducing us to farmers in Ch’ojñapata.

Organic agriculture and mice December 9th, 2018 by

Some practices are harder to introduce to farmers than others. In Europe, environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture has given rise to new forms of subsidies for farmers to provide specific environmental services, such as planting hedgerows or keeping wild flower strips around their fields. In developing countries, however, environmental subsidies are non-existent and hence curbing environmental degradation can be extra challenging.

Recent developments in the global quinoa trade have devastated the fragile ecosystem of the Bolivian Altiplano. As quinoa production intensified, farmers ploughed up large sections of native vegetation, which left the soil prone to wind erosion. With the thin fertile top soil being blown away and young quinoa plants being covered with sand, many farmers abandonned their land and moved to the cities. The loss of native vegetation also limited the forage available for the llamas and vicuñas.

To address this problem, the research organisation Proinpa is trying hard to re-introduce native plants. If native plants could be grown as live barriers around quinoa fields, they would provide fodder and at the same time reduce wind erosion. But some farmers are reluctant to adopt this technology. Planting live barriers costs money, labour and takes up part of their land.

Many of the farmers who plant barriers belong to associations that market organic quinoa. Organic certification ensures that farmers get higher prices, as long as they follow certain practices (such as planting hedges) that contribute to a better social and natural environment. Subsidies for organic farming are rare in developing countries, premiums from certification schemes can partly make up for missing government subsidies, unless pests also like organic crops.

Farmers who grow live barriers told Proinpa that the hedges attract mice who can destroy young quinoa seedlings. Mice are also attracted to the harvested grain as it dries in the field, before threshing. If the quinoa is not stored properly, mice often get into the warehouses. When droppings foul the grain, the crop is rejected for organic trade.

Organic agriculture can be a blessing to boost the income of smallholder farmers and to protect the environment. But as this example shows, organic farmers are prone to additional challenges. Farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano set traps by burying cans partly filled with water to drown the mice. Frustrated quinoa growers also stomp on mice burrows in thie fields or leave quinoa chaffe at the entrance of mice holes, so they eat this and leave the young quinoa untouched.

Every new technology has unintended consequences. Perhaps no one anticipated that live barriers would protect mice, and the soil. Yet farmers who have planted the barriers see their benefit and are willing to find new ways to take on the mice.

Watch and download videos

The video from Bolivia on live barriers against wind erosion will be published early next year on the Access Agriculture video platform .

The video on Grass strips against soil erosion made in Thailand and Vietnam is available in 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ayamara and Quechua

The many farmer training videos on organic agriculture

Related blogs

Waiting for rats

Quinoa, lost and found

Acknowledgement

The video on live barriers in Bolivia is developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Milton Villca, Eliseo Mamani and colleagues at Proinpa for background on this story.

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