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The wolf comes calling December 8th, 2019 by

After moving to a Flemish farm village two years ago, we settled three sheep into the small pasture by our house to keep the grass short under our newly planted fruit and nut trees. The sheep weren’t pets, but they would come to meet us when we took them the kitchen waste or gave them a handful of acorns. So imagine my shock when I found one killed by a wolf last week.

In the thin blueish winter light, I saw our sheep in a pool of blood, its belly opened, intestines oozing out and half of its ribs eaten. Around the sheep I could see a circle of around 3 meters diameter where the frozen morning dew had disappeared. A little overwhelmed by emotions I woke up Marcella. We had heard a wolf had been spotted some 10 kilometres away, but there are so many fields with sheep, that I found it hard to believe it had come all the way to our house, just to kill our sheep. Perhaps it was a renegade dog, I wondered. But whatever had killed the sheep must have been really strong, I thought, as it has dragged the poor animal around while finishing it off.

Marcella quickly found out on the internet what to do when one believes one has been the victim of a wolf. This top predator had arrived in Flanders just a few years ago, and as a protected species, government had quickly established various services, including an information platform. In less than two hours, two government officials from the Nature and Forestry Agency arrived. As with crop pests, when one can only see the damage and the causal agent is no longer present, one needs to rely on knowledge and diagnostic tools.

The two men looked at the bite in the neck of the dead sheep, and took DNA samples to confirm that it was killed by a wolf. We have a solid fence 1.30 meters high around the pasture. One of the men went around and quickly found 4 places where the animal had tried to dig an entry under the fence. Obviously with the night frost the soil was hard, but the wolf had managed to dig at least one place to get in. “We need to confirm with a DNA test,” one of the men said, but in all our cases we have never seen a wolf jump over a fence. If it had managed to make a bigger entry, it would have bitten the spine of the sheep in half, and taken the hind part to a quiet place in the forest, to eat it without the risk of being disturbed.”

As the men shared their knowledge of the wolf’s behaviour, my first emotions of unbelief and sadness over the loss of our favourite of the 3 sheep, gradually mixed with a certain level of admiration for this clever top predator. Wild pigs are a main problem for farmers and hunters fail to keep their population down. “Wolves prey on wildlife, but to catch wild pigs wolves need to be in a pack. As there is now just one wolf in Flanders, sheep are an easy prey,” the official continued.

Wolves were exterminated from most of Europe in early modern times, but they have recently been making a comeback. When visiting a wolf exhibition in a nearby nature centre, we learned that in Europe (mainly Eastern Europe, including Poland) there are currently an estimated 12,000 wolves. Some are starting to make their way back to the more populated part of Western Europe.

In tropical countries, farmers who live near wildlife refuges sometimes complain about elephants eating their banana plants, and similar problems. Such conflicts now start to play out in Western Europe as well.

This wolf issue is highly controversial. Conservationists point out that humans have driven wild animals to the edge of extinction, and it is only right to provide habitat for them. On the other hand, farmers say that wild predators are a risk to livestock.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this potential conflict, but since this is Belgium, our government has quickly come up with a range of measures. Farmers and even people like us who have just a few sheep, can get 80% subsidies to make their fences wolf-proof. Also, a financial compensation scheme for sheep killed has been put in place.

At the same time, nature conservation organisations are trying their best to change public opinion in favour of the wolf through exhibitions, radio and TV talks, and so on.

The wolf stirs up such powerful emotions that it was recalled in European popular culture for generations after most people had lost all personal contact with the animal.

In European folklore the bear is a strong, kindly character, like the three bears that frightened Goldilocks, but did not harm her. In contrast, the wolf is not only cruel, but devious, like the one that ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. And even now we guard against metaphorical “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Two heads film better than one September 15th, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

I used to think that committees and group work killed creativity, but teamwork can help individuals produce things – like a cool video – that they couldn’t do by themselves.

Late last year, I was part of a team making a video in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, along with Paul (the director), Marcella (the cameraperson) and Milton Villca. Milton is an agronomist who grew up in a village on the windswept plains where we were filming. He still lives in the area, helping local farmers to cope with challenges, especially the immense loss of soil caused by wind erosion.

After watching Marcella film for two days, Milton confided that he had tried making his own video, about a wasp that attacks and helps to control some of the caterpillar pests of the quinoa crop. But like the farmers, Milton had also struggled with the wind, losing two cameras because of damage by the fine sand. He’d continued filming the wasps with his cell phone, but he told Marcella he wasn’t sure about the quality of the images. Would she mind taking a look at them?

Marcella was happy to watch Milton’s video clips. All was fine. There were fabulous close ups of a wasp that digs a tunnel in the earth, hides it with grains of sand, finds a big, fat caterpillar, paralyzes it, and drags it back to the burrow, which the wasp is miraculously able to find, with the precision of a GPS. The video clips showed how the wasp uncovers the nest, inserts the unfortunate caterpillar, and lays an egg on it. A wasp grub hatches from the egg, eats the caterpillar and eventually emerges in the summer as an adult wasp.

Paul was immediately taken by the story of the wasp, which locals call nina nina. In our interviews with farmers for a video on windbreaks he decided to also ask them what they knew about the wasp. Unlike many parasitic wasps, which are too small to see clearly with the naked eye, the nina nina is pretty big, and local people know about it and can describe its ecology.

Asking a professional cameraperson to critique your videos can be daunting, but Milton no doubt sensed that Marcella would give him sympathetic and positive criticism. His risk paid off. We collaborated with Milton to write a script for his video. Marcella edited his clips and combined them into a short video, which we are proud to release this week.

Watch the video

The wasp that protects our crops

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Living windbreaks to protect the soil

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Acknowledgements

Milton Villca works for the Proinpa Foundation. Our work was generously supported by the CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program) of the McKnight Foundation.

DOS CABEZAS FILMAN MEJOR QUE UNA

Por Jeff Bentley, 15 de septiembre del 2019

Yo solĂ­a pensar que los comitĂ©s y el trabajo en grupo mataban la creatividad, pero el trabajo en equipo puede ayudar a los individuos a producir cosas – como un video genial – que no podrĂ­an hacerse por sĂ­ mismos.

A finales del año pasado, formé parte de un equipo que hacía un video en el Altiplano sur de Bolivia, junto con Paul (el director), Marcella (la camarógrafa) y Milton Villca. Milton es un técnico agrónomo de un pueblo del altiplánico ventoso donde filmábamos. Él todavía vive en la zona, ayudando a los agricultores locales a manejar sus desafíos, especialmente a la inmensa pérdida de suelo causada por la erosión del viento.

Después de ver a Marcella filmar durante dos días, Milton confió que él había intentado hacer su propio video, sobre una avispa que ataca y ayuda a controlar algunos de los gusanos plagas del cultivo de la quinua. Pero al igual que los agricultores, Milton también había luchado contra el viento, perdiendo dos cámaras debido a los daños causados por la arena fina. Había seguido filmando las avispas con su celular, pero le dijo a Marcella que no estaba seguro de la calidad de las imágenes. ¿Ella estaría dispuesta a verlas?

A Marcella le encantaron los videos de Milton. Hubo excelentes primeros planos de una avispa que excava un tĂşnel en la tierra, lo esconde con granos de arena, encuentra una oruga grande y gorda, la paraliza y la arrastra hasta el tĂşnel del nido, que la avispa milagrosamente logra encontrar, como si tuviera un GPS. Los videos muestran cĂłmo la avispa descubre el nido, inserta al desafortunado gusano y pone un huevo en Ă©l. Luego, la crĂ­a de la avispa sale del huevo, se come al gusano y eventualmente emerge como una avispa adulta en el verano.

A Paul le cautivó inmediatamente la historia de la avispa, a la que la gente local llama nina nina. En nuestras entrevistas con los agricultores para un video sobre las barreras vivas, decidió también preguntarles lo que sabían sobre las avispas. A diferencia de muchas avispas parásitas, que son demasiado pequeñas para ver claramente a simple vista, la nina nina es bastante grande, y la gente local sabe de ella y puede describir su ecología.

Pedirle a un camarĂłgrafo profesional que critique sus videos puede ser desalentador, pero Milton sin duda sintiĂł que Marcella le darĂ­a una crĂ­tica positiva, con empatĂ­a. Su riesgo valiĂł la pena. Colaboramos con Milton para escribir un guion para su vĂ­deo. Marcella editĂł sus clips y los combinĂł en un video corto, que estamos orgullosos de lanzar esta semana.

Ver el video

La avispa que protege nuestros cultivos

VĂ­deo relacionado

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

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Agradecimientos

Milton Villca trabaja para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa. Nuestro trabajo fue generosamente apoyado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo de InvestigaciĂłn sobre Cultivos) de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

Biological pest control in the Galapagos forest July 14th, 2019 by

Agronomy is a kind of applied biology, but conservation biologists are now starting to apply some of the tricks from agriculture, as I saw on a recent visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. The campus is tucked discretely into one of the world’s strangest forests, where some of the plants that were able to reach these remote islands have evolved into trees. Prickly pear cactus is usually a low-lying plant with paddle-like pads, but in the Galapagos, it has evolved a tall, straight trunk. The Scalesia trees evolved from a daisy-like flower.

Then in 1982, these rare trees were threatened when the cottony scale insect, originally from Australia, invaded the islands and began to feed on its odd collection of forest species, causing the dieback and death of trees. By 1996 the scale insect was attacking 80 plant species in the Galapagos, including 19 threatened ones.

Displays at the Darwin Station proudly explained their efforts to control the Australian scale insect by bringing in one of its natural enemies, a ladybird beetle, also from down under, that preys on the scale. In 1999, the British Embassy funded an insect containment center, where the ladybird was intensively studied before being released on 11 islands in 2003 and 2004. By 2009 the ladybird had hunted the cottony cushion scale down to a much lower population level. The forest was safe. 

The sign at the Darwin Station said that this was an example of biological pest control, but the display failed to mention that this was the second time that the Australian ladybird beetle had come to the rescue of trees. The first time was in California in 1888, when the ladybird was imported to successfully control scale insects in citrus.

So, conservation biology has learned a lesson from agriculture, specifically from biological pest control. It’s only fair: ecology has provided many key insights to agriculture. For example, Darwinian natural selection explains how pests evolve resistance to pesticides. Gene mapping has helped plant breeders to develop new crop varieties faster.

The Darwin Station is now working on other projects to control pests. For example, an introduced fly is attacking the emblematic finches in their nests, and the Darwin Station is taking eggs from the nests of the mangrove finch (the most endangered of the Galapagos finch species) and rearing the chicks by hand, safe from the flies. The Darwin Station is also rearing several tortoise species, protecting them from introduced rats that eat the tortoise eggs. When the tortoises are two-years old they are released, each species to its own home island.

Agriculture has much experience reproducing plants and animals, and controlling pests in ecologically-sound ways. In the future, plant and animal species can be brought back from the brink of extinction, but it will take more than just conserving their habitat. Individual animals will have to be nurtured, helped to breed in higher numbers, and protected from pests. Conservation biology is becoming more hands on, more like farming and ranching. In the future, other lessons from agriculture may also of use to wildlife conservationists.

Scientific names

The finch-killing fly, Philornis downsi

The ladybird beetle, Rodolia cardinalis

The cushiony cotton scale insect: Icerya purchase

Prickly pear, Opuntia echios

MMangrove finch, Camarhychus heliobatis

Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster December 30th, 2018 by

vea la versión en español a continuación

Bolivian agronomist Genaro Aroni first told me how quinoa was destroying the southwest Bolivian landscape some 10 years ago, when he came to Cochabamba for a writing class I was teaching. Ever since then I wanted to see for myself how a healthy and fashionable Andean grain was eating up the landscape in its native country.

I recently got my chance, when Paul and Marcella and I were making videos for Agro-Insight. Together with Milton Villca, an agronomist from Proinpa, we met Genaro in Uyuni, near the famous salt flats of Bolivia. Genaro, who is about to turn 70, but looks like he is 55, told us that he had worked with quinoa for 41 years, and had witnessed the dramatic change from mundane local staple to global health food. He began explaining what had happened.

When Genaro was a kid, growing up in the 1950s, the whole area around Uyuni, in the arid southern Altiplano, was covered in natural vegetation. People grew small plots of quinoa on the low hills, among native shrubs and other plants. Quinoa was just about the only crop that would survive the dry climate at some 3,600 meters above sea level. The llamas roamed the flat lands, growing fat on the native brush. In April the owners would pack the llamas with salt blocks cut from the Uyuni Salt Flats (the largest dry salt bed in the world) and take the herds to Cochabamba and other lower valleys, to barter salt for maize and other foods that can’t be grown on the high plains. The llama herders would trade for potatoes and chuño from other farmers, supplementing their diet of dried llama meat and quinoa grain.

Then in the early 1970s a Belgian project near Uyuni introduced tractors to farmers and began experimenting with quinoa planted in the sandy plains. About this same time, a large-scale farmer further north in Salinas also bought a tractor and began clearing scrub lands to plant quinoa.

More and more people started to grow quinoa. The crop thrived on the sandy plains, but as the native brushy vegetation grew scarce so the numbers of llamas began to decline.

Throughout the early 2000s the price of quinoa increased steadily. When it reached 2500 Bolivianos for 100 pounds ($8 per kilo) in 2013, many people who had land rights in this high rangeland (the children and grandchildren of elderly farmers) migrated back—or commuted—to the Uyuni area to grow quinoa. Genaro told us that each person would plow up to 10 hectares or so of the scrub land to plant the now valuable crop.

But by 2014 the quinoa price slipped and by 2015 it crashed to about 350 Bolivianos per hundredweight ($1 per kilo), as farmers in the USA and elsewhere began to grow quinoa themselves.

Many Bolivians gave up quinoa farming and went back to the cities. By then the land was so degraded it was difficult to see how it could recover. Still, Genaro is optimistic. He believes that quinoa can be grown sustainably if people grow less of it and use cover crops and crop rotation. That will take some research. Not much else besides quinoa can be farmed at this altitude, with only 150 mm (6 inches) of rain per year.

Milton Villca took us out to see some of the devastated farmland around Uyuni. It was worse than I ever imagined. On some abandoned fields, native vegetation was slowly coming back, but many of the plots that had been planted in quinoa looked like a moonscape, or like a white sand beach, minus the ocean.

Farmers would plow and furrow the land with tractors, only to have the fierce winds blow sand over the emerging quinoa plants, smothering them to death.

Milton took us to see one of the few remaining stands of native vegetation. Not coincidentally, this was near the hamlet of Lequepata where some people still herd llamas. Llama herding is still the best way of using this land without destroying it.

Milton showed us how to gather wild seed of the khiruta plant; each bush releases clouds of dust-like seeds, scattered and planted by the wind. Milton and Genaro are teaching villagers to collect these seeds and replant, and to establish windbreaks around their fields, in an effort to stem soil erosion. I’ve met many agronomists in my days, but few who I thought were doing such important work, struggling to save an entire landscape from destruction.

Acknowledgement

Genaro Aroni and Milton Villca work for the Proinpa Foundation. Their work is funded in part by the Collaborative Crop Research Program of the McKnight Foundation.

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Scientific names

Khiruta is Parastrephia lepidophylla

DESTRUYENDO EL ALTIPLANO SUR CON QUINUA

Jeff Bentley, 30 de diciembre del 2018

El ingeniero agrónomo boliviano Genaro Aroni me contó por primera vez cómo la quinua estaba destruyendo los suelos del suroeste boliviano hace unos 10 años, cuando vino a Cochabamba para una clase de redacción que yo enseñaba. Desde aquel entonces quise ver por mí mismo cómo el afán por un sano grano andino podría comer el paisaje de su país natal.

Recientemente tuve mi oportunidad, cuando Paul, Marcella y yo hacíamos videos para Agro-Insight. Junto con Milton Villca, un agrónomo de Proinpa, conocimos a Genaro en Uyuni, cerca de las famosas salinas de Bolivia. Genaro, que está a punto de cumplir 70 años, pero parece que tiene 55, nos dijo que había trabajado con la quinua durante 41 años, y que había sido testigo del cambio dramático de un alimento básico local y menospreciado a un renombrado alimento mundial. Empezó a explicar lo que había pasado.

Cuando Genaro era un niño en la década de 1950, toda el área alrededor de Uyuni, en el árido sur del Altiplano, estaba cubierta de vegetación natural. La gente cultivaba pequeñas parcelas de quinua en los cerros bajos, entre arbustos nativos (t’olas) y la paja brava. La quinua era casi el único cultivo que sobreviviría al clima seco a unos 3.600 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Las llamas deambulaban por las llanuras, engordándose en el matorral nativo. En abril los llameros empacaban los animales con bloques de sal cortados del Salar de Uyuni (el más grande del mundo) y los llevaban en tropas a Cochabamba y otros valles más bajos, para trocar sal por maíz y otros alimentos que no se pueden cultivar en las altas llanuras. Los llameros intercambiaban papas y chuño de otros agricultores, complementando su dieta con carne de llama seca y granos de quinua.

Luego, a principios de la década de 1970, un proyecto belga cerca de Uyuni introdujo tractores a los agricultores y comenzó a experimentar con quinua sembrada en las pampas arenosas. Por esa misma época, un agricultor a gran escala más al norte, en Salinas, también compró un tractor y comenzó a talar los matorrales para sembrar quinua.

Cada vez más gente empezó a cultivar quinua. El cultivo prosperó en las llanuras arenosas, pero a medida que la vegetación nativa de arbustos se hizo escasa, había cada vez menos llamas.

A lo largo de los primeros años de la década de 2000, el precio de la quinua aumentó constantemente. Cuando llegó a 2500 bolivianos por 100 libras ($8 por kilo) en 2013, muchas personas que tenían derechos sobre la tierra en esta pampa alta (los hijos y nietos de los agricultores viejos) retornaron a la zona de Uyuni para cultivar quinua. Genaro nos dijo que cada persona araba hasta 10 hectáreas de t’ola para plantar el ahora valioso cultivo.

Pero para el 2014 el precio de la quinua comenzĂł a bajar y para el 2015 se colapsĂł a cerca de 350 bolivianos por quintal ($1 por kilo), a medida que los agricultores en los Estados Unidos y en otros lugares comenzaron a cultivar quinua ellos mismos.

Muchos bolivianos dejaron de cultivar quinua y regresaron a las ciudades. Para entonces la tierra estaba tan degradada que era difícil ver cómo podría recuperarse. Sin embargo, Genaro es optimista. Él cree que la quinua puede ser cultivada de manera sostenible si la gente la cultiva menos y usa cultivos de cobertura y rotación de cultivos. Eso requerirá investigación. No se puede cultivar mucho más que además de la quinua a esta altitud, con sólo 150 mm de lluvia al año.

Milton Villca nos llevó a ver algunas de las parcelas devastadas alrededor de Uyuni. Fue peor de lo que jamás imaginé. En algunas parcelas abandonados, la vegetación nativa regresaba lentamente, pero muchas de las chacras que habían sido sembradas en quinua parecían la luna, o una playa de arena blanca, menos el mar.

Los agricultores araban y surcaban la tierra con tractores, sólo para que los fuertes vientos soplaran arena sobre las plantas emergentes de quinua, ahogándolas y matándolas.

Milton nos llevó a ver uno de los pocos manchones de vegetación nativa que queda. No por casualidad, esto estaba cerca de una pequeña comunidad de llameros, que queda en Lequepata. El pastoreo de llamas sigue siendo la mejor manera de usar esta tierra sin destruirla.

Milton nos mostró cómo recolectar semillas silvestres de la planta khiruta; cada arbusto libera nubes de semillas parecidas al polvo, dispersas y sembradas por el viento. Los Ings. Milton y Genaro están enseñando a los comuneros a recolectar estas semillas y replantar, y a establecer barreras contra el viento alrededor de sus campos, en un esfuerzo por detener la erosión del suelo. He conocido a muchos agrónomos a través de los años, pero pocos que en mi opinión hacían un trabajo tan importante en comunidades remotas, luchando para salvar un paisaje entero de la destrucción.

Agradecimiento

Genaro Aroni y Milton Villca trabajan para la FundaciĂłn Proinpa. Su trabajo es auspiciado en parte por el Programa Colaborativo de InvestigaciĂłn de Cultivos de la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

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Nombres cientĂ­ficos

Khiruta es Parastrephia lepidophylla

Save the trees June 26th, 2016 by

I was home Thursday evening, when my daughter, Clara, called us outside to see the forest fire. It was dusk and there was a bright, orange patch of flame dancing around the crest of the Andes, above Cochabamba. The jets of flame were so large we could see them leaping high above the tree tops, even from the city, far below on the valley floor. There had been no rain lately, so we imagined that within a few days the whole forest would be burning.

Now here, the word “forest” needs some explanation. This forest is a large swathe of pine and eucalyptus planted on the upper slopes of the Andes in Tunari National Park. Until the twentieth century, the mountain had been covered in native trees: short, gnarled, slow-growing hardwood trees with papery bark, called qhewiña in Quechua (Polylepis spp.). Throughout the mid twentieth century, wagon loads of the qhewiña wood were sold as firewood in the city of Cochabamba.

By the 1980s, these native trees were mostly gone. Then the Swiss government financed a project to reforest the mountain. Over the next few years, they planted pines and eucalyptus in the national park on the mountain above the city of Cochabamba, and in and around farm communities in the central departments of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca.

ruined building up closeBy Friday the fire we had seen from our home was largely out. On Sunday our curiosity got the better of us and with some of the extended family we drove 10 km above the city on a winding, dirt road, and parked at an abandoned pic-nic ground. Looking around, I realized that the Swiss planned Tunari National Park to be a peri-urban, family-friendly recreational park, where people would come for hikes and meetings in the pines. Among the trees above the city, the project left behind some children’s playgrounds and brick cabins where people could hold meetings or training courses. The buildings were abandoned years ago. The roofs have started to cave in and someone has stolen all of the rope from the children’s swings.

We hiked towards the site of the fire. There were isolated patches of smoldering fire, but no flames. A police fire-truck passed us on the way down, heading for the city. The fire fighters had also decided that the flames were out.

burned forest 2Once in the forest, we could see that the dried grass was thick on the ground, and that seems to have been the main source of fuel for the fire. We thought that some of the trees might survive. This forest has a fire almost every year, during the dry season, and many of the big pines and eucalyptuses have survived earlier burns.

We stopped at a ranger station to get more information. The staff explained that Tunari National Park has seven employees, and they respond as soon as they see a fire. When the fire is too much for the park staff to handle, they call on the departmental branch of the national police (the fire truck we had seen). The park service also relies on an energetic group of volunteers, a membership-based community organization called SAR (Search and Rescue) that looks for lost hikers and operates an ambulance, besides helping to put out forest fires. SAR was founded in 1988 and has no ties to the Swiss project that planted the forest.

By 1999, the original Swiss reforestation project morphed into another project, and no more trees were planted. Yet the original planted forests were not abandoned. The patchwork of organizations (the national park, the police and SAR) that come to the rescue are doing a competent job of saving the trees. The planted trees are now thick and healthy in most places.

The Bolivians put out the forest fires, but don’t care much for the cabins and other buildings left in the forest. I think that is a pattern; when donors invest in tangible, capital goods, local people tend to maintain certain kinds of investments (especially forests), even if the local people are not always willing to maintain buildings and some other investments.

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