Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed

Black fire ants July 11th, 2021 by

The surest way to tell if you have black fire ants in your garden is to accidentally stand on or near their nest. The ants will crawl through your clothes first and then start stinging you all at once. You may have to go inside and take off your trousers to find all of the ants in your pants. A second diagnostic test of black fire ants is to plant a vegetable seedbed, and wait for it to come up, but it never does. The ants have eaten all your seeds.

These ants love seeds and they will dig up every one you plant in their foraging area.

You can try dousing their nest with boiling water, insecticide or gasoline (and then lighting it). I’m just kidding, but it may not even work; these ants are pretty tough. Or you can take Rachel Carson’s suggestion, and fight pests with biology, not chemistry.

Years ago, while working with my student Eloy González on his entomology thesis at El Zamorano, Honduras, by total serendipity we learned that fire ants can be perfectly controlled with raw grains of rice.

Here’s how it works. Plant your vegetable seedbed any way you like. Then sprinkle a handful of raw rice over the surface. The black fire ants are omnivorous, but they prefer dense food packages like seeds or other insects. The ants also know a bargain when they see one. The ants will haul off your rice grains and ignore your smaller, harder-to reach soil-covered vegetable seeds.

Once your vegetables come up, the black fire ants will lose interest in them. However, the ants will continue to patrol your vegetable patch, looking for insect pests to drag back to their nest, to eat.

If you don’t want to use rice, try bread crumbs, bits of stale tortillas or other food scraps.

In our garden, we have had no insect pests, except for the Mediterranean fruit flies. Our patchwork of many species of trees and vegetables confuses most insect pests. And because we have never applied insecticides, we have many beneficial insects that kill most of the herbivorous ones before they can become pests. We manage our black fire ants with the rice trick, and by not standing on their nests. They repay us by helping to keep our vegetables pest-free.

If you live outside of tropical Central or South America, you may never have to deal with black fire ants. But wherever you live, you can always look for ways to live with insects, with biology, not chemistry.

Further reading

Paul has his own story about Vietnamese farmers who educate weaver ants, to protect their orchards from insect pests.

Ants as friends.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Ants in the kitchen

Sugar sweet ants

The smell of ants

When ants and microbes join hands

Videos about insects that hunt and control insect pests, from Access Agriculture

The wasp that protects our crops

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Scientific names

The black fire ant, also called the tropical fire ant, is Solenopsis genimata. The red fire ant, the so-called “imported” one is Solenopsis invicta. The red fire ant is native to Argentina, and slipped into the USA, possibly as a stowaway on a ship, after 1933. in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson tells the story of how the US Department of Agriculture lost its chemical war against the red fire ant. That red ant is still thriving in North America. Unlike the black fire ant, which builds discrete, ground-level nests, the red one builds, a tall, conspicuous entrance to its burrow.

Zoom to Titicaca June 6th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Covid may be the world’s most spectacular emerging disease, but agriculture has its own new pests and diseases. Fortunately, collaboration between agronomists and farmers can offer solutions, as I saw in a recent meeting on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

This is 2021, so we met on Zoom, but I was struck by how much the meeting resembled others I have attended in person with farmers and agronomists.

Ing. Sonia Laura, a researcher from Prosuco who works closely with farmers, had driven out to the village of Iquichachi, a couple of hours from La Paz. Sonia set up the call on her laptop, and the farmers (Sra. Cristina, Sra. Arminda, Sr. Juan, Sr. Paulino, Sr. Zenobio, and Sr. Fidel) all managed to squeeze onto the screen. Bundled up in coats and hats against the high Andean cold, they explained how several years ago, they noticed a new worm eating the potatoes they store at home.

The moth lays its eggs on stored potatoes, and on potato plants in the field. The eggs hatch into caterpillars that go back and forth: from field to home in the harvest, and from storage to field with the seed.

The farmers showed some graphs of data they had been collecting with Sonia, under advice from Ing. Reinaldo Quispe, an agronomist from Proinpa, who joined the call from his office in La Paz. Reinaldo and the farmers had been using the sex scent (pheromone) of female moths to attract and trap the male moths. Each moth species has its own unique sex pheromone. Reinaldo had identified the pests, two related species of tuber moths, native to the Andes, but usually found in the lower, warmer valleys. Both species belong to a moth family that specializes in infesting stored foods.

The agronomist Raúl Ccanto joined us from Peru, from the NGO Yanapai. Raúl explained that Peruvian farmers had suffered from these two moths for many years. Over the years of working with the farmers, Yanapai and others had developed some practical solutions.

As Raúl explained, select the seed carefully. When you take seed from the house to plant in the field, make sure that you only plant healthy tubers, not the ones full of worms.

Also rotate your crops. “This is something you farmers have always done, but it’s important to say that it is a good thing.” Growing potatoes one year, followed by other roots and tubers (such as oca and papalisa, which are not of the potato family), and then other legumes and cereals, helps to keep the soil free of potato pests.

Raúl’s PowerPoint included the results of experiments, done in collaboration with Peruvian farmers, where they tried various ways to manage the moths in stored seed potato. One idea that worked well, and was also cheap, was to dust healthy seed potatoes with talc, which keeps the moths from laying their eggs in potatoes. The talc worked almost as well as malathion, the insecticide.

Raúl skipped lightly over the malathion, barely mentioning it, and for good reason. He had included the chemical treatment in the experiment as a comparison, but he was not promoting it. As Reinaldo explained, farmers often prefer insecticides and use them even in stored potatoes, which one should not do.

In fact, medical schools in Bolivia teach their third-year students to diagnose and treat malathion poisoning, because it is common. “This is something you’ll see,” the older doctors tell their students.

With any new pest or disease, it’s important to know where it came from. Raúl explained that the moths may have recently colonized the cold Altiplano, not just because of climate change, but also because people are bringing wormy seed in from fairs in distant parts of the country. And they are growing more potatoes. As more of the land is planted more often and over larger areas, to meet market demand, a more attractive environment is created for potato pests.

Yes, the farmers agreed, potatoes are being grown more often. And that is why it is crucial for scientists and farmers to put their heads together, to confirm useful ideas, from different perspectives.

The farmers wanted to know if there was something they could apply to their potatoes, to kill the moth. Raúl and Reinaldo both explained that there is no one thing that will manage the pest. It will have to be managed by rotating crops, and by selecting healthy seed. Other ideas like dusting the potatoes with talc will also help. The good news is that the moths can be managed.

It may be in human nature to yearn for simple solutions. Many of us have simply wished that Covid would go away, and that things would go back to normal. Like Covid, managing the tuber moth will require several good ideas, well explained, widely shared and applied.

In this case, the new information motivated the farmers to set up their own experiments. Sonia told me that after our call, the farmers met to reflect and take action. They decided that each one of them would select their seed, clean their potato storeroom, and sprinkle talc on the selected seed. They will keep using the pheromone traps, among other things. Later, they will explain these practices to their other community members, to take action as a group.

Scientific names

The tuber moths are Phthorimaea operculella and Symmetrischema tangolias (Lepidoptea: Gelechiidae).

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) and papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) are native Andean crops, not widely grown outside the region. The papalisa is also called “olluco” in Peru.

Talc is a clay mineral, magnesium silicate, a natural stone that is ground to make a powder.


Sonia Laura works with María Quispe at Prosuco (Promoción de la Sustentabilidad y Conocimientos Compartidos) in La Paz.

Raúl Ccanto works at Grupo Yanapai (meaning “to help” in Quechua), in Peru.

Reinaldo Quispe works at Proinpa (Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos), Bolivia.

The work with the Andean tuber moths is supported by the McKnight Foundation’s CCRP (Collaborative Crop Research Program).

Thanks to Sonia Laura and to Paul Van Mele for reading a previous version of this story.


Thanks also to Sonia Laura for her beautiful photographs.


Por Jeff Bentley, 6 de junio del 2021

El Covid-19 podría ser la enfermedad nueva más espectacular del mundo, pero la agricultura tiene sus propias plagas y enfermedades emergentes. Afortunadamente, la colaboración entre agrónomos y agricultores puede ofrecer soluciones, como vi en una reciente reunión a orillas del Lago Titicaca.

Estamos en el 2021, así que nos reunimos por Zoom, pero me sorprendió lo mucho que se parecía la reunión a otras a las que he asistido en persona con agricultores y agrónomos.

La Ing. Sonia Laura, una investigadora de Prosuco, que trabaja estrechamente con los agricultores, había ido en camioneta hasta la comunidad rural de Iquicachi, a un par de horas de La Paz. Sonia organizó la llamada en su laptop, y los agricultores (las y los señores Cristina, Arminda y Juan, Paulino, Zenobio, Fidel,) se hicieron entrar todos en la pantalla. Abrigados con chompas y gorros contra el frío altoandino, explicaron que hace pocos años se dieron cuenta de que un nuevo gusano se comía las papas que almacenaban en sus casas.

La polilla de papa pone sus huevos en las papas almacenadas y en las plantas de papas en el campo. De los huevos nacen gusanos del campo, que van a casa en la cosecha, y del almacén regresan a la chacra con la semilla.

Los agricultores mostraron algunos gráficos de datos que habían estado recopilando con Sonia, bajo la orientación del Ing. Reinaldo Quispe, de Proinpa, quien se unió a la llamada desde su oficina en La Paz. Sonia y los agricultores habían estado usando el olor sexual (feromona) de las polillas hembras para atraer y atrapar a las polillas macho. Cada especie de polilla tiene su propia feromona sexual. Reinaldo había identificado las plagas, dos especies relacionadas de polillas del tubérculo, nativas de los Andes, pero que suelen encontrarse en los valles más bajos y cálidos. Ambas especies pertenecen a una familia de polillas especializada en infestar alimentos almacenados.

Desde Perú nos acompañó el agrónomo Raúl Ccanto, de la ONG Yanapai. Raúl explicó que los agricultores peruanos habían sufrido estas dos polillas durante muchos años. A lo largo de sus años de trabajo con los agricultores, Yanapai y otros han desarrollado algunas soluciones prácticas.

Como explicó Raúl, hay que seleccionar la semilla con cuidado. Cuando saques la semilla de la casa para sembrarla, asegúrate de plantar sólo los tubérculos sanos, no los que están llenos de gusanos.

También hay que rotar los cultivos. “Esto es algo que ustedes los agricultores siempre han hecho, pero es importante decir que es bueno que lo hagan”. Lo que ayuda a mantener el suelo libre de plagas de la papa es cultivarlas solo un año, seguido de otras raíces y tubérculos (como la oca y la papalisa, que no son de la familia de la papa), y luego sembrar leguminosas y cereales.

La presentación de Raúl incluyó los resultados de los experimentos, realizados en colaboración con agricultores peruanos, en los que se probaron varias formas de controlar las polillas en los almacenes de semillas de papa. Una idea que funcionó bien, y que además era barata, fue rociar la papa seleccionada con talco, que impide que las polillas pongan sus huevos en las papas. El talco funcionaba casi tan bien como el malatión, el insecticida.

Raúl pasó por alto el malatión; apenas lo mencionó, y con razón. Había incluido el tratamiento químico en el experimento como comparación, pero no lo promovía. Como explicó Reinaldo, los agricultores suelen preferir los insecticidas y los usan incluso en las papas almacenadas, lo cual no se debe hacer.

De hecho, las facultades de medicina de Bolivia enseñan a sus estudiantes de tercer año a diagnosticar y tratar la intoxicación por malatión, porque es algo común. “Esto es algo que van a ver”, dicen los doctores a sus alumnos.

Con cualquier plaga o enfermedad nueva, es importante saber de dónde viene. Raúl explicó que las polillas pueden haber colonizado recientemente el frío Altiplano, no sólo por el cambio climático, sino también porque la gente está trayendo semillas agusanadas de ferias en otras partes del país. Y están cultivando más papas sobre mayor superficie. A medida que se siembra más seguido y en más área, para satisfacer la demanda del mercado, se crea un ambiente más atractivo para las plagas de la papa.

Sí, los agricultores reconocieron que hoy en día las papas se cultivan más seguido. Y por eso es crucial que científicos y agricultores compartan sus ideas, para confirmar las que son útiles.

Los agricultores querían saber si había algo que pudieran aplicar a sus papas para matar la polilla. Raúl y Reinaldo explicaron que no hay una sola cosa que la pueda manejar. Habrá que controlar la plaga mediante la rotación de cultivos y la buena selección de semillas. Otras ideas, como aplicar talco a las papas, también ayudarán. La buena noticia es que las polillas sí tienen solución.

Tal vez algo en la naturaleza humana anhela las soluciones sencillas. Muchos hemos deseado que el Covid desaparezca de una sola vez, y que las cosas vuelvan a la normalidad. Al igual que el Covid, el manejo de la polilla de la papa requerirá varias buenas ideas, bien explicadas, ampliamente compartidas y competentemente aplicadas.

En este caso, la nueva información motivó la gente a armar sus propios experimentos. Sonia me informa que se reunieron para reflexionar y tomar acuerdos. Decidieron que cada persona del grupo haría la selección de semilla. Limpiaría su almacén de papas, y pondría talco en las papas seleccionadas. Seguirán con las trampas con feromonas, entre otras cosas. Luego comunicarán estas prácticas en una reunión con toda la comunidad para tener un trabajo comunal en el control de esta plaga.

Nombres científicos

Las polillas de la papa son Phthorimaea operculella y Symmetrischema tangolias (Lepidoptea: Gelechiidae).

La oca (Oxalis tuberosa) y la papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) son cultivos nativos andinos, poco cultivados fuera de la región. La papalisa también se llama “olluco” en el Perú.

El talco es silicato de magnesio. Es una piedra natural que se muele para obtener el polvo. Como explica Raúl Ccanto, es un “mineral no metálico”.


Sonia Laura trabaja con María Quispe en Prosuco (Promoción de la Sustentabilidad y Conocimientos Compartidos) en La Paz.

Raúl Ccanto trabaja en el Grupo Yanapai (que significa “ayudar” en quechua), en el Perú.

Reinaldo Quispe trabaja en Proinpa (Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos), en Bolivia.

El trabajo con las polillas de la papa está apoyado por el CCRP (Programa Colaborativo de Investigación de Cultivos) de la Fundación McKnight.

Gracias a Sonia Laura y a Paul Van Mele por leer una versión previa de este relato.


Gracias también a Sonia Laura por sus hermosas fotos.

Commercial family farming Bolivian style May 30th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In earlier blogs (Our threatened farmers, Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism) Paul and I have written that farmers are Stuck in the middle between just a few large produce buyers and handful of seed and agrochemical companies. Farmers are forced to take any prices offered by their buyers, and by their suppliers as well. It’s a bind that forces many family farmers out of business.

It doesn’t have to be that way, as I was reminded recently on a stretch of the old highway from Santa Cruz, Bolivia to Cochabamba, at some 3000 meters above sea level. Ana and I noticed all the farmers gathering potatoes into large, blue sacks. They were getting ready for the weekly fair at “El Puente”, the bridge over the Lope Mendoza River.

Seeing the potato growers, I suddenly felt the urge to participate in this robust farmers’ market which has been self-sustaining for decades.

In a flat space in the canyon, every Monday hundreds of smallholder farmers bring fresh produce, mostly potatoes. El Puente is like a small town that leaps into existence with the Monday fair, only to be abandoned for the rest of the week.

This was Sunday. The shop fronts were closed, locks on heavy steel doors. By Monday morning they would be doing a brisk business in farm supplies. One temporary restaurant was open, with chicken roasting on a large charcoal grill, ready to feed the farmers who had arrived early, on Sunday afternoon.

We past an empty space that would soon be full of vendors who travel from fair to fair, selling the things that rural families like and need, soap and salt, cooking oil, tinned sardines, matches and clothing. Today it was still empty, but the potato pavilion was filling up. It’s just a concrete slab with a sheet metal roof and no walls. Farmers bring in their produce, in 100 kilo bags (called a carga), and wait for customers.

Some people come from the city on the bus on Monday to buy a carga to eat at home, or half a dozen of them, to sell. They rent space on a truck to deliver the potatoes to Cochabamba. The largest buyers may load a small truck with six or twelve tons to sell to retailers in the cities. In this lightly regulated market, potatoes may go through as few as four links, from farmer to small-time wholesaler, to retailer, to customer. Each one is a small, family business. It’s Adam Smith’s ideal of capitalism, with many willing buyers and many others eager to sell.

Ana soon met a farmer in early middle age, wearing a long skirt, with a scarf tied over her head.

We asked her for an arroba (25 pounds, or 11.4 kilos) of potatoes. “Take half a carga (50 kilos)” she said, so we did. After all, this was a wholesale market. The farmer led us to her wares, maybe a dozen bags. Each farmer was there with a cluster of potatoes in 100 kilo bags. Each cluster was carefully separated from the other by a space just big enough to squeeze through. The farmer wanted 90 Bolivianos ($13) for her fine, native potatoes, and she wouldn’t take less. She was a price giver, not a taker. We were soon on our way with our 50 kilos, from the epicenter of the Bolivian potato market.

After the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, the large farms (haciendas) were divided and given to the people who worked them. According to fake history, repeated sometimes even in schools, the Agrarian Reform of the Revolution failed because the land was split up into such small parcels that they were uneconomical to produce anything. It’s a racist lie. The Agrarian Reform succeeded, as we saw a few kilometers down the road.

An indigenous Andean farm family was standing next to 20 cargas of potatoes. Two tons of food going to market, neatly dressed in blue. The proud farmer reacted in the most contemporary fashion to his household’s accomplishment. Smart phone in hand, he walked across the highway and snapped a picture of his family and their harvest.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Peasants, not princes: The potato finds a home in Europe

Native potatoes, tasty and vulnerable


Por Jeff Bentley 30 de mayo del 2021

Antes, en este blog, Paul y yo hemos escrito que los países del norte, los agricultores están atrapados entre unos pocos grandes compradores de productos y un puñado de empresas de semillas y agroquímicos. Los agricultores se ven obligados a aceptar cualquier precio ofrecido por sus compradores, y también por sus proveedores. Es un aprieto que obliga a muchos agricultores familiares a abandonar su terreno.

No tiene por qué ser así, como volví a acordarme hace poco, manejando sobre la antigua carretera de Santa Cruz, Bolivia a Cochabamba, a unos 3.000 metros sobre el nivel del mar. Ana y yo nos fijamos en todos los agricultores que llenaban costales azules con papas. Se estaban alistando para la feria semanal en El Puente de Lope Mendoza.

Al ver a los productores de papas, sentí el impulso de participar en este robusto mercado agrícola, que se auto sostiene desde hace décadas.

En una parte plana en el cañón, cada lunes cientos de pequeños agricultores traen productos frescos, sobre todo papas. El Puente es como un pequeño pueblo que nace con la feria de los lunes, para quedar abandonado el resto de la semana.

Este día fue el domingo. Las fachadas de las tiendas estaban cerradas, con candados en las pesadas puertas de acero. El lunes por la mañana, los comercios de insumos agrícolas se llenarían de clientes. Un restaurante temporal atendía, con pollo asado en una gran parrilla de carbón, listo para alimentar a los agricultores que habían llegado temprano, el domingo por la tarde.

Pasamos por un espacio vacío que la mañana siguiente estaría lleno de vendedores que viajan de feria en feria, vendiendo antojos y artículos de primera necesidad, como jabón y sal, aceite de cocina, sardinas en lata, fósforos y ropa. Hoy todavía no había nadie, pero el pabellón de papas sí se estaba llenando. Es sólo una losa de hormigón con un techo de chapa y sin paredes. Los agricultores traen sus productos, en bolsas de 100 kilos (llamadas “cargas”), y esperan a sus clientes.

Algunas personas vienen desde la ciudad en el bus (el “micro”) el lunes para comprar una carga para comer en casa, o media docena de ellas, para vender. Alquilan espacio en un camión para llevar las papas a Cochabamba. Los que más compran pueden llegar un pequeño camión con seis o doce toneladas para venderlas a los minoristas de las ciudades. En este mercado poco regulado, las papas pueden pasar por apenas cuatro eslabones, desde el agricultor hasta el pequeño mayorista, la minorista y clientes. Cada uno de ellos es una pequeña empresa familiar. Es el ideal de capitalismo de Adam Smith, con mucha gente con ganas de comprar y vender.

Ana pronto conoció a una agricultora de mediana edad, con una falda larga y un pañuelo atado a la cabeza.

Le pedimos una arroba (25 libras, o 11,4 kilos) de papas. “Llévense media carga (50 kilos)”, nos dijo, y así lo hicimos. Al fin y al cabo, se trataba de un mercado mayorista. La agricultora nos condujo hasta sus mercancías, más o menos una docena de costales. Cada agricultor estaba allí con sus papas en sacos de 100 kilos. El producto de cada persona estaba cuidadosamente separado del otro por un espacio angosto donde uno apenas podía pasaba. La agricultora quería 90 bolivianos (13 dólares) por sus hermosas papas nativas, y no aceptaba menos. Ella estaba para dar un precio, no para recibirlo. Pronto nos pusimos en camino con nuestros 50 kilos, desde el epicentro del mercado boliviano de la patata.

Tras la Revolución Boliviana de 1952, las haciendas se dividieron y se repartían entre la gente que las trabajaba. Según la falsa historia, repetida a veces incluso en las escuelas, la Reforma Agraria fracasó porque la tierra se dividió en parcelas tan pequeñas (“surcofundias”) que no era rentable producir nada. Es una mentira racista. La Reforma Agraria tuvo éxito, como vimos unos kilómetros más adelante.

Una familia campesina estaba terminando de arreglar sus 20 cargas de papas. Dos toneladas de alimentos que iban al mercado, cuidadosamente vestidos de azul. El orgulloso agricultor reaccionó de la manera más contemporánea al logro. Teléfono inteligente en mano, cruzó la carretera y sacó una foto de su familia y su cosecha.

Historias relacionadas en el blog de Agro-Insight

Our threatened farmers,

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Stuck in the middle

Peasants, not princes: The potato finds a home in Europe

Papas nativas, deliciosas y vulnerables


Teaching the farmers of tomorrow with videos May 23rd, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Youth around the world are leaving agriculture, but many would stay on the farm if they had appropriate technologies and better social services, as Professor Alejandro Bonifacio explained to me recently.

Dr. Bonifacio is from the rural Altiplano, the high plains of Bolivia. At 4,000 meters above sea level, it is some of the highest farmland in the world. Bonifacio has a PhD in plant breeding, and besides directing an agricultural research station in Viacha on the Altiplano, he teaches plant breeding part-time at the public university in La Paz (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés).

The university attracts many rural youths. Every year Bonifacio asks his new class of students to introduce themselves one-by-one and to tell where they come from, and to talk about their parents and their grandparents.

This year about 20% of the students in Bonifacio’s class are still living on the farm, and taking their classes online. Another 50% are the children or grandchildren of farmers, but are now living in the city. Many of these agronomy students would be more interested in taking over their parents’ farm, if not for a couple of problems.

One limitation is the lack of services in the rural areas: poor schools, bad roads, the lack of clinics, and no electricity or running water. While this is slowly improving, Covid has added a new twist, locking young people out of many of the places they liked to go to, and not just bars and restaurants. One advantage of city life is having access to medical attention, but this past year the students said it was as though the cities had no hospitals, because they were full of Covid patients. Classes were all on-line, and so the countryside began to look like a nicer place to live than the city. Many students went home to their rural communities, where there was much more freedom of movement than in the city.

Dr. Bonifacio told me that even when the youth do go home, they don’t want to farm exactly like their parents did. The youngsters don’t go in for all the backbreaking work with picks and shovels, but there is a lack of appropriate technology oriented towards young, family farmers, such as small, affordable machinery. Young farmers are also interested in exploiting emerging markets for differentiated produce, such as food that is free of pesticides. Organic agriculture also helps to save on production costs, as long as farmers have practical alternatives to agrochemicals.

Fortunately, there are videos on appropriate technologies, and Professor Bonifacio shows them in class. Today’s youth have grown up with videos, and find them convincing. Every year, Bonifacio organizes a forum for about 50 students on plant breeding and crop disease. He assigns the students three videos to watch, to discuss later in the forum. One of his favorites is Growing lupin without disease, which shows some organic methods for keeping the crop healthy. Bonifacio encourages the students to watch the video in Spanish, and Quechua or Aymara. Many of the students speak Quechua or Aymara, or both, besides Spanish. Some feel that they are forgetting their native language. “The videos help the students to learn technical terms, like the names of plant diseases, in their native languages,” Bonifacio says.

During the Covid lockdown, Prof. Bonifacio moved his forum online and sent the students links to the videos. In the forum, some of the students said that while they were home they could identify the symptoms of lupine disease, thanks to the video.

Bonifacio logs onto Access Agriculture from time to time to see which new videos have been posted in Spanish, to select some to show to his students, so they can get some of the information they need to become the farmers of tomorrow.

Kids who grow up on small farms often go to university as a bridge to getting a decent job in the city. But others study agriculture, and would return to farming, if they had appropriate technology for family farming, and services like electricity and high-speed internet.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Awakening the seeds

Quinoa, lost and found

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

No land, no water, no problem

Videos from Access Agriculture

Check out these youth-friendly videos with appropriate technology. Besides videos in English, www.accessagriculture.org has:

104 videos in Spanish

Eight videos in Aymara

And eight in Quechua


Por Jeff Bentley, 23 de mayo del 2021

Por todas partes del mundo, los jóvenes abandonan la agricultura, pero muchos seguirían cultivando si tuvieran tecnologías apropiadas y mejores servicios sociales, como me explicó recientemente el docente Alejandro Bonifacio.

El Dr. Bonifacio es originario del Altiplano de Bolivia. A 4.000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, es una de las tierras agrícolas más altas del mundo. Bonifacio tiene un doctorado en fitomejoramiento y, además de ser jefe de una estación de investigación agrícola en Viacha, en el Altiplano, enseña fitomeoramiento a tiempo parcial en la universidad pública de La Paz (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés).

La universidad atrae a muchos jóvenes rurales. Cada año, Bonifacio pide a su nueva clase de estudiantes que se presenten uno por uno y digan de dónde vienen, y que hablen de sus padres y sus abuelos.

Este año, alrededor del 20% de los estudiantes de la clase de Bonifacio siguen viviendo en el área rural, desde donde se conectan a las clases virtuales. Otro 50% son hijos o nietos de agricultores, pero ahora viven en la ciudad. Muchos de estos estudiantes de agronomía estarían más interesados en trabajar el terreno sus padres, si no fuera por un par de problemas.

Una limitación es la falta de servicios en las zonas rurales: colegios deficientes, carreteras en mal estado, la falta de clínicas, luz y agua potable. Aunque esto está mejorando poco a poco, Covid ha introducido cambios, porque los jóvenes ya no pueden ir a muchos de los lugares que les gustaban, y no sólo las discotecas y los restaurantes. Una de las ventajas de la vida urbana es tener acceso a la atención médica, pero este último año los estudiantes dijeron que era como si las ciudades no tuvieran hospitales, porque estaban llenos de pacientes de Covid. Las clases eran todas en línea, por lo que el campo empezó a parecer un lugar más agradable para vivir que la ciudad. Muchos estudiantes se fueron a sus comunidades rurales, donde había más libertad de movimiento que en la ciudad.

El Dr. Bonifacio me dijo que, incluso cuando los jóvenes vuelven a casa, no quieren trabajar la tierra tal como lo hacían sus padres. Los jóvenes no se dedican al trabajo agotador con palas y picotas, pero hace falta la tecnología adecuada orientada a los jóvenes agricultores familiares, por ejemplo, la maquinaria pequeña y asequible. Los jóvenes agricultores también quieren explotar los mercados emergentes de productos diferenciados, como los alimentos libres de plaguicidas. La agricultura orgánica también ayuda a ahorrar costes de producción, siempre que los agricultores tengan alternativas prácticas a los productos agroquímicos.

Afortunadamente, existen videos sobre tecnologías adecuadas, y el Dr. Bonifacio los muestra en clase. Los jóvenes de hoy conocen los videos desde su infancia, y los encuentran convincentes. Cada año, Bonifacio organiza un foro para unos 50 estudiantes sobre el fitomejoramiento y las enfermedades. Asigna a los alumnos tres videos para que los vean y los discutan después en el foro. Uno de sus favoritos es Producir tarwi sin enfermedad, que muestra algunos métodos orgánicos para mantener el lupino sano. Bonifacio anima a los estudiantes a ver el video en español y en quechua o aymara. Muchos de los estudiantes hablan quechua o aymara, o ambos, además del castellano. Algunos sienten que están olvidando su lengua materna. “Los videos ayudan a los alumnos a aprender términos técnicos, como los nombres de las enfermedades de las plantas, en sus idiomas nativos”, dice Bonifacio.

Durante la cuarentena de Covid, el Dr. Bonifacio trasladó su foro a Internet y envió a los estudiantes enlaces a los videos. En el foro, algunos de los estudiantes dijeron que mientras estaban en casa podían identificar los síntomas de la enfermedad del tarwi (lupino), gracias al video.

Bonifacio entra en la página web de Access Agriculture de vez en cuando para ver qué nuevos videos se han publicado en español, para seleccionar algunos y enseñárselos a sus alumnos, para que aprendan algo de la información que necesitan para ser los agricultores del futuro.

Los hijos de agricultores suelen usar a la universidad como puente para conseguir un buen trabajo en la ciudad. Pero otros estudian agronomía, y volverían al agro, si tuvieran tecnología apropiada para la agricultura familiar, y servicios como electricidad e Internet de alta velocidad.

Historias relacionadas en el blog de Agro-Insight

Despertando las semillas

Quinoa, lost and found

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos de Access Agriculture

Vea algunos de estos videos apropiados para agricultores jóvenes en https://www.accessagriculture.org/es. Incluso, Access Agriculture tiene:

104 videos en castellano

Ocho videos en aymara

Y ocho en quechua


Fourteen ninety-one April 25th, 2021 by

Several friends have asked me, as an anthropologist, what I thought of Charles Mann’s book, 1491, so after finding a copy during Covid, I have to say that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

I might have read it years ago if not for its subtitle: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. I was expecting something New Age, about visits from outer space. But it’s not that at all.

Mann visited some of the major pre-Hispanic sites, and read widely, but as a journalist he also interviewed a lot of archaeologists, which makes for lively reading, and an excellent one-volume history of the New World.

Long isolated from the Old World, the Native Americans independently developed agriculture, the foundation for complex societies. But because the hemisphere had been isolated, her people had no previous exposure to European ills like smallpox, measles and hepatitis. This made the Native Americans immunologically naïve, and susceptible to Old World diseases, which wiped out perhaps 90% of the New World population after Columbus. Every few years a new epidemic would carry off half the people.

In 1491 there were a lot of people living in the Americas. The Amazon Basin was not an unbroken wilderness. Cassava and other crops supported dense populations of Amazonian farmers.

High in the Andes, early farmers domesticated the potato, sweetpotato, and other roots and tubers. These crops fed the Wari, Tiwanaku and Inca Empires with their fine masonry of giant stones, and the khipu: a unique system of recording information on knotted strings.

Ancient Mexicans domesticated maize, beans, squash, and chili. These were the basis for various civilizations, like the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mixtecs and the Maya (who had life-like sculpture and a full-blown writing system).

Mann reminds us that American Indians have rarely been given the appreciation they deserve for their achievements, many of which were made possible by agriculture.  1491 is not so much a new revelation as a superb compilation and a compelling narrative. Mann is amazed that this part of American history is not taught in high schools. It’s not, but it should be, and his book still deserves to be widely read.

Further reading

Mann, Charles C. 2005 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books. 541 pp.

Mann acknowledges William Denevan for his insight that before Columbus, the Amazon Basin had been densely inhabited by farmers growing permanent crops.

Denevan, William M. 2001 Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 396 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Khipu: A story tied in knots

Stored crops of the Inka

Feeding the ancient Andean state

Feeding the Inca empire

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld


Temple of the Moon, Teotihuacán, Mexico. Machu Picchu, Peru. Stela B, Copán, Honduras. Photos by J. Bentley

Design by Olean webdesign