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Gardening against all odds May 26th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

All over the tropics, from Lima to Lagos, from Mumbai to Manila, the big cities are overflowing with migrants. In some regions, like the Andes, parts of the countryside are emptying out, with whole villages boarded up.

The new neighborhoods ringing the cities are often described as crowded eyesores. Ana and I visited one recently, on the edge of Cochabamba, a city that has long been divided into a fashionable north side, hemmed in by mountains, and by a working-class south side. But in the past 10 years or so the south side has mushroomed out of the valley bottom, to grow over the hills south of town. At night the lights on the hills are a reminder of how much the city has changed.

In one of the newest of these poor neighborhoods, we met some of the 80 members of a women’s group, Nueva Semilla (New Seed). Migration has been intense after the mining industry crumbled in the 1980s, but even in the past 10 years people have continued to leave villages in the provinces of Cochabamba and in Northern Potosí, the poorest region of Bolivia, to seek a better life in the city.

Nueva Semilla is in a tough neighborhood where people have to look after themselves. Families live on small plots of land, where they slowly build their brick and cement houses with their own hands, in their limited free time, usually just Sundays and national holidays. The streets are unpaved and dusty, laid out on square grids (or in curves on some of the steeper slopes). The government has built schools and hospitals. There is electricity, but no running water. People buy water from tanker trucks for a dollar a barrel.

The women’s group started in 2014, when some of them were taking a catechism class. They were impressed with the garden in the churchyard and this set them thinking. They had all been farmers in the places they had come from; why not establish their own gardens in their new homes?

But the women were used to growing potatoes, maize and barley, not garden vegetables. Fortunately, an NGO, the Agroecology and Faith Association, helped them with seed and some training, and some fabric to make semi-shade to protect the young plants against the fierce sun.

Doña Betty, one of the leaders, showed us the plot with her house, a small square of rocky hillside with no soil. Doña Betty bought a truckload of loamy soil, which she mixes with leaf-litter she collects from beneath mesquite trees on the surrounding hills. She puts the mixture in old tires, and irrigates with water she buys. She has created a delightful garden, with a dozen different vegetables, including healthy, organic tomatoes and celery which she is growing for seed to share with the members of her group.

A neighbor, doña Ernestina, is also in the group, and she has a lush garden of about 10 by 10 meters. She has a small hydroponic garden of PVC tubes filled with thriving lettuce plants, an investment paid for by the local municipality. Agroecology and Faith has a strong organic ethos and frowns on the hydroponic gardens because they rely on mineral fertilizer. Yet the NGO is also flexible enough to tolerate the hydroponic gardens, which the women seem to genuinely like. The women’s group is also independent and free to make links with more than one institution.

We paid a small fee, along with a small group of other visitors, for lunch which the women made. They were eager to sell their vegetables. Four heads of lettuce went for about 65-dollar cents, cheaper than in the market. The families eat a lot of their own produce and the kids we saw appeared healthy and well-fed. The women’s small vegetable gardens are surprisingly productive, even if they have to make their own soil and buy their water. The families even have surplus produce to sell.

The NGO is planning a seed exchange fair to … Once a month they also have a solidarity fair, where the women sell ‘solidarity’ baskets of vegetables they produce themselves.  

The women and their families have left their farms behind, but they have also brought the best of country values with them: hard-work and creativity. These adaptive people have taken their personal development into their own hands, and have decided that a home garden is one of the tickets out of poverty.

Related blog stories

Agroecology and Faith’s solidarity baskets are modeled on an experience in Ecuador, which (as luck would have it) I have reported on in a previous blog: Donating food with style

For a story on hydroponic gardening: No land, no water, no problem

Related videos

For videos on seed fairs, and farmers’ rights to seed, see:

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

UN MEJOR FUTURO CON JARDINES

Por Jeff Bentley

26 de mayo del 2019

Por todo el trópico, desde Lima hasta Lagos, desde Mumbai hasta Manila, las grandes ciudades están repletas de migrantes. En algunas regiones, como los Andes, partes del campo se están vaciando, con aldeas enteras tapiadas.

Los nuevos barrios que rodean las ciudades se describen a menudo como “cinturones de miseria”. Hace poco, Ana y yo visitamos a una, en las afueras de Cochabamba, una ciudad que ha estado dividida por mucho tiempo en un lado norte de moda, rodeada de montañas, y por un lado sur de la clase trabajadora. Pero en los últimos 10 años, más o menos, el lado sur ha salido del piso del valle, para crecer sobre los cerros al sur de la ciudad. Por la noche, las luces de las colinas son un recordatorio de lo mucho que ha cambiado la ciudad.

En uno de los más nuevos de estos barrios pobres, conocimos a algunas de los 80 miembros de un grupo de mujeres, llamado Nueva Semilla. Ellas han migrado de las provincias de Cochabamba y del norte de Potosí, la región más pobre de Bolivia. La minería colapsó en los años 1980, pero la gente sigue llegando para buscar una vida mejor en la ciudad.

Nueva Semilla está en un barrio duro de gente habilosa. Las familias viven en pequeñas parcelas de tierra, donde lentamente construyen sus casas de ladrillo y cemento con sus propias manos, los domingos y feriados. Las calles están sin pavimentar y polvorientas, pero dispuestas en cuadrículas (o en curvas en algunas de las pendientes más empinadas). El gobierno ha construido escuelas y hospitales. Hay electricidad, pero no hay agua corriente. La gente compra agua de camiones cisternas por 8 Bs. el turril de 200 litros.

El grupo de mujeres comenzó en 2014, cuando algunas de ellas estaban tomando una clase de catecismo. Quedaron impresionados con el jardín de la iglesia y se pusieron a pensar. Ellas habían sido agricultoras en sus lugares de origen ¿por qué no establecer huertos familiares en su nuevo lugar?

Pero ellas estaban acostumbradas a cultivar papas, maíz y cebada, no hortalizas. Afortunadamente, una ONG, la Asociación de Agroecología y Fe, les ayudó con semillas y algo de capacitación, y algunas telas para hacer semisombra para proteger las plantitas contra el feroz sol.

Doña Betty, una de las líderes, nos mostró su casa, en un pequeño lote de ladera rocosa sin suelo. Doña Betty compró una camionada de lama, que mezcla con las hojarascas que recoge debajo de los árboles de algarrobo (thaqo) en las colinas circundantes. Ella pone esta mezcla en llantas viejas, y riega con agua que ella compra. Ella ha creado un jardín encantador, con una docena de diferentes verduras, incluyendo tomates orgánicos y apio que está cultivando para compartir las semillas con los miembros de su grupo.

Una vecina, doña Ernestina, también está en el grupo, y tiene un exuberante jardín de unos 10 por 10 metros. Tiene un pequeño jardín hidropónico de tubos de PVC llenos de plantas de lechuga, una inversión pagada por la municipalidad local. La Agroecología y la Fe prefiere lo orgánico, y no está muy de acuerdo con los jardines hidropónicos, porque usan fertilizantes minerales. Pero la ONG es suficientemente flexible para tolerar los huertos hidropónicos, que a las mujeres les gustan. El grupo de mujeres es independiente y libre de establecer vínculos con más de una institución.

Junto con un pequeño grupo de otros visitantes, pagamos un poquito para un almuerzo que las mujeres nos prepararon. Estaban ansiosas por vender sus verduras. Cuatro cabezas de lechuga costaron 5 Bs., más barato que en el mercado. Las familias comen mucho de sus propios productos y sus hijos parecen limpios, sanos y bien alimentado). Los pequeños huertos de las mujeres son sorprendentemente productivos, a pesar de que tienen que hacer su propio suelo y comprar su agua. Las familias también tienen excedentes de hortalizas para vender.

Agroecología y Fe está planeando una feria de intercambio de semillas, y una vez al mes tienen una feria solidaria, donde las mujeres venden canastas solidarias de verduras que ellas mismas producen. 

Las mujeres y sus familias han dejado atrás sus granjas, pero trajeron consigo lo mejor de los valores rurales: el trabajo duro y la creatividad. Esta gente versátil ha tomado su desarrollo personal en sus propias manos, y han decidido que un huerto familiar es uno de los boletos para salir de la pobreza.

Otras historias del blog

Las canastas de solidaridad de Agroecología y Fe se inspiraron de una experiencia en el Ecuador, que (por pura casualidad) he descrito en un blog previo: Donaciones de comida, con estilo

Para una historia sobre la producción hidropónica de hortalizas: Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos que le podrían interesar

Para videos sobre las semillas de semillas, y de los derechos populares a las semillas, vea:

Derechos de los agricultores a las semillas — Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

Learn by eating April 14th, 2019 by

The prickly pear is delicious, if you can figure out how to eat it. The cactus fruit is covered by minute thorns, as hard to see as a strand of blonde human hair. Some Bolivians avoid the irritating thorns by holding the fruit with a fork and then peeling it with a knife. The little thorns on the fruit are so aggravating that they have their own name in the Quechua language: qhepu, as opposed to the larger thorns, called khishka, found on the pads of the cactus or on other spiny plants.

On a recent Sunday afternoon Ana and I admired the fruit growing in the gardens of Villa, a village near Punata, and we wondered if anyone would sell us some. Ana thought they would not. Prickly pear is usually harvested in the morning, when the qhepus tend to be firmly attached to the fruit. If people harvest in the mid-day they can get covered in brittle qhepus.

But two teenaged girls who were selling soft drinks in front of their house thought that their mom might sell us some fruit. It was late enough in the day to harvest prickly pear.

Their mom, doña Norma, put on a thick leather glove and began twisting the prickly pears off of the cactus plant. Then she told her daughter to pick some branches of sunch’u, a weedy, flowering plant. Doña Norma took the prickly pears to a patch of thick grass where her daughter brushed off the qhepus with the sunch’u branches.

A lot of information came to life that afternoon: how to harvest fruit with infuriating thorns, how to disarm the prickly pears with a handful of leaves, and the best time of day to do it. Local knowledge is like that: passed on not in the abstract, or in the classroom, but during everyday events such as working and eating.

See how cactus fruit is harvested and cleaned of thorns in these short video clips from Agtube

Harvesting prickly pear

Removing thorns from cactus fruit

Scientific names

The prickly pear is Opuntia ficus-indica

Sunch’u is Viguiera lanceolate

Related blog story

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the “show farmer,” one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone’s student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, “It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.”

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaqueños continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Touré, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and Gérard Zoundji 2017 “Seeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,” pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, Gérard C., Simplice D. Vodouhê, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 “Beyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers’ Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.” Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

Related blogs

The truth of local language

Travels around the sun

I thought you said “N’togonasso”

Beating a nasty weed

Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

Feeding the cities December 2nd, 2018 by

Last week, Jeff, Marcella and I explored the Teleférico in La Paz, an innovative public transport system that works like a metro with stops for people to get in and out. Using Swiss and Austrian technology developed to transport alpine skiers, the cable cars are the perfect solution to move people around in the Bolivian capital that has sprawled along the steep slopes of the canyon where the city is built, and onto the Altiplano at altitudes ranging from about 3400 meters to above 4000.

La Paz sits in a deep canyon, while its twin city, called El Alto, sprawls over the plains above La Paz. The two cities, side by side, make up the highest major metropolis in the world. One of the Teleférico lines takes us from La Paz to El Alto. I was amazed at the sheer number of people that have been attracted to the cities, perhaps two million, while El Alto was just farm land until the 1940s and may now be home to half of the population of the Altiplano.

Looking down from our cable car onto the rooftops and small courtyards, it seems that nobody is actually growing anything in El Alto. Only once we hear a cock crow. Supplying these fast growing cities with healthy food that is localy produced will be a challenge for the years to come.

Urban gardening is gaining popularity across the globe and smart innovations like the use of sack mounds to grow vegetables in people’s courtyards offer a great opportunity to make the most of limited space and limited fertile soil and organic material.

The recently released farmer training video produced in Kampala, Uganda, on growing vegetables in sack mounds is a practical example of how farmers and urban gardeners can grow tomatoes and greens in a sack, in a very small space. As countries like Bolivia and Uganda urbanize rapidly, they can learn from each other’s experience.

Through its specialised video platform and translation services, Access Agriculture strives to make this happen. As the Teleférrico moves people across places, so does Access Agriculture move farmer training videos across the globe.

Alligators in your vegetables October 28th, 2018 by

Something caught my eye recently when I was reading a video script. Crawling insects that look like little alligators are actually the offspring of ladybird beetles. I thought nothing of this the first time I read the script by some colleagues in Bangladesh. But the second time I read it, it occurred to me how strange this was, comparing a common, garden insect with an alligator, an animal not found in Bangladesh and which few people have seen.

Years ago, colleagues in Honduras used the same alligator analogy to familiarize farmers with the red and black ladybird larvae, which eat aphids in vegetable gardens. The Honduran farmers knew what alligators looked like, even if they had never seen the reptiles in real life, and the analogy worked. There are no alligators in Bangladesh, but I’m sure that the analogy will work, for a couple of reasons.

First, humans are inherently interested in large vertebrates. Even children that grow up in big cities know the names of African wildlife before they can name the electrical appliances in their own home. Second, the increasing reach of mass media has made animals familiar to people who don’t see them in the wild. I remember years ago, sitting with an elderly Portuguese farmer engrossed in a TV show about walruses. She had never been to the Arctic, but was fascinated by the strange creatures. Today Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel and others have regular programming in Bengali, Portuguese, Spanish and other major languages, bringing large (and often threatened) species into our homes.

So smallholders in the tropics watch TV, engage with images of large, strange animals, which then become common knowledge, while the creatures running around in one’s own garden need some explaining. So you can indeed tell a rural audience that ladybird larvae look like alligators. Oddly enough, the analogy works.

And analogies really do help to make the strange seem familiar. Ladybird larvae lack the powerful tail and the long head of alligators. But like the alligator, ladybird larvae do have a long body and small legs. When all is said and done, ladybird larvae do look a bit more like alligators that like their parents, the shiny, round ladybird beetles.

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