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Our African ancestors July 5th, 2020 by

Ancient humans migrated out of Africa three times. The first “Out of Africa” as archaeologist Peter Bellwood explains in First Migrants, was about 2 million years ago, long before our own species, Homo sapiens, had emerged. But one of our ancestors, Homo erectus and other, related species entered Southwest Asia from East Africa, and settled in most of tropical and temperate Eurasia. They walked completely upright, made stone tools and hunted and gathered for a living. They had small brains, just 500 to 900 cc, half the size of ours (about 1500 cc). H. erectus also lacked the imagination which inspires humans today. Homo erectus never invented boats to reach the islands and it’s not clear if they could make clothing to keep warm.  

Out of Africa 2 occurred around a million years ago. A second human species migrated from Africa, Homo heidelbergensis, which eventually evolved into the famous Neanderthals of Europe (Homo neanderthalensis). Another branch of Homo heidelbergensis stayed in Africa, where they eventually evolved into Homo sapiens

Out of Africa 3 was sometime between 200,000 and 130,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens, fully modern humans, left Eastern and Southern Africa to conquer the Earth. It was a humble start, with just a few people. Estimates vary, but there may only have been as few as 10,000 breeding adults on the whole planet.

By this time, modern humans almost certainly spoke fully expressive languages: they could no doubt argue, bend the truth, and describe their dreams. We don’t know the words they used to give flight to their thoughts, since their languages are lost in time. Long before people had started to till the earth, from 130,000 to 50,000 years ago, these hunter-gatherers had replaced the Neanderthals, with just a bit of genetic mixing in Eurasia. Humans on most continents derive some two to four percent of their genes from Neanderthals. Modern Africans are largely free of Neanderthal genes.

Homo sapiens settled all of Africa, Eurasia and Australia. Periodic ice ages with lower sea levels created land bridges to Britain, Japan, and many of the islands of Southeast Asia. These modern humans had the imagination to invent boats, and they crossed a stretch of 70 km of open sea to reach New Guinea and Australia.

Before 16,000 years ago people had mastered cold weather survival, almost certainly sewing sophisticated clothing from animal hides, using bone needles that have been found in archaeological sites. By then, some had reached the Eurasian Arctic and crossed the wide Beringia Land Bridge into Alaska. By 11,000 years ago, people were already hunting guanacos in southern South America. People had either walked down the South American coast or taken boats.

Boats were also crucial for reaching the islands of Melanesia, as far east as the Solomon Islands.

So, before humanity ever started to farm, our ancestors had reached almost every inhabitable spot on Earth, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific, which came much later. By 10,000 years ago, modern humans had migrated vast distances from Africa, settling all the continents, from the tropics to the Arctic, except for Antarctica.

By 10,000 years ago our ancestors could paint great art, carve ivory figurines, and invent tailored clothing. Their art included naturalistic representations of animals, but also dots, lines, half-circles and other abstract symbols, suggesting that they also had complex language. When their imagination got the better of their sense of caution, our ancestors would also walk or sail over the horizon.

There were only slight genetic differences between populations. In colder latitudes, where people wore fur suits most of the time, they struggled to synthesize enough vitamin D from the sun. Evolution selected for lighter skin, to help folks get their vitamins. Other than that, white skin doesn’t mean much more than the ability to get a sunburn.

From prehistory we learn that Africa was the cradle of humanity. The early modern humans were creative, thoughtful and widespread yet still relied on hunting and gathering for food and other essentials. Next week I will discuss the second half of First Migrants, which covers early agriculture and the movements of the first farmers.

Further reading

I’ve taken most of this material, especially the outline of prehistoric migrations from:

Bellwood, Peter 2013 First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

I’ve also been inspired by some recent books that document how most of humankind’s genetic differences are literally skin deep, while our common humanity goes all the way to our core.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha 2016 The Gene: An Intimate History. Penguin Books: Haryana, India.

Zimmer, Carl 2018 She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity. New York: Dutton. 656 pp.

The village hunter June 28th, 2020 by

I recently ran into our village hunter, Pol Gielen, which is always a good occasion to get to know the village history a little better, and to learn about the changing challenges of hunters and farmers alike. In our village, Erpekom, in north eastern Belgium, with only 300 odd citizens, Pol Gielen is one of the two people allowed to hunt on the village grounds. The license has been passed on from generation to generation. While hunting in Europe is a centuries-old occupation, it has not always had the same social relevance.

The first hunting laws stem from the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman King who reigned England from 1066 until his death in 1087. A decade earlier, William allied himself with Flanders, now part of Belgium, by marrying Matilda, daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. William was a fervent hunter who loved being in the woods, observing animals, yet he despised the common people. A peasant caught hunting could be thrown into prison or, just as likely, publicly executed. For centuries to follow, hunting became a stylized pastime of the aristocracy.

In contemporary Europe, hunting is no longer confined to the rich. While hunting licenses are to ensure that only well-trained persons are allowed to hunt, the right to hunt is also linked to the duty to care for all animals listed in the hunting laws. For various species, such as deer, wild boars, hares and pheasants, hunters and authorities have to develop plans, detailing, how many animals may or must be killed during the hunting season. Some pest species, such as pigeons, can be shot with little restriction.

In an earlier blog, Bullets and birds, I wrote how pigeons can be a real challenge for organic farmers, who do not use seed that the factories coat with chemicals to repel birds, and how local hunters can come to the rescue if need be. My recent encounter with Pol, our village hunter, showed me how changing pesticide regulations in Europe continue to influence the relationships between hunters, farmers and the environment.

In 2018, the European Commission banned three neonicotinoids (synthetic nicotinoids, toxins originally derived from tobacco). The ban covers all field crops, because these pesticides harm domesticated honey bees and wild pollinators. Neonics, as they are commonly called, are often coated onto seeds to protect them from soil pests. These pesticides are systemic, meaning they spread through the plant’s tissue. The toxin eventually reaches pollen and nectar, where it harms pollinators. According to a study by Professor Dave Goulson in the UK, most seeds and flowers marketed as “bee-friendly” at garden centres, supermarkets and DIY centres, like Aldi and Homebase, are contaminated with systemic pesticides. In fact, in his study in 2017 70% of the plants contained neonics commonly including the ones banned for use on flowering crops by the EU. Birds, bees, butterflies, bats and mammals are indiscriminately poisoned when they forage on contaminated plants.

The dramatic decline of bees and other pollinators due to the use of neonics and other pesticides is threatening the sustainability of the global food supply. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of global food, 71 are pollinated by bees.

To further reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment, more restrictions have been imposed because of mounting evidence that pesticide-coated seed are also harmful to birds, including partridges, a favourite game bird for a thousand years that has now become a rarity. Apart from subsidies for installing and maintaining hedgerows around farmers’ fields to serve as food and nesting habitat for birds, the European Commission recently banned methiocarb, a toxic insecticide used as a bird repellent, often used to coat maize seed.

With the new EU regulations limiting seed coatings, conventional dairy farmers got worried that birds would damage their maize crop, and have begun looking for alternatives. That is the reason why one of our farmer neighbours decided to call upon Pol, the village hunter. It was on his way back from that farmer that I ran into Pol when he said: “Well, the farmer asked me to come and shoot pigeons, but I told him: ‘I would be happy to help you, but where do you want me to hide, you have removed all the hedges in your fields!’”

Regulations to curb the indiscriminate and dangerous use of pesticides on seed and in fields must go hand in hand with other measures, such as promoting hedgerows that fulfil important ecological functions for birds and pollinators. Also, environmentally-friendly alternatives could be further investigated and promoted. Green, innovative technologies, such as clay coating, is likely to become increasingly important. Clay is perceived by insects and birds as soil and offers a natural protection of the seeds. The clay can even be enriched with other natural additives to repel birds and insects.

Hunting has come a long way in the past 1,000 years. No longer the pastime of kings, hunting can be part of an enlightened programme to manage bird pests, without the use of chemicals, while saving the bees.

Further reading

Goulson, Dave. 2017. Pesticides in “Bee-Friendly” flowers. www.sussex.ac.uk/lifesci/goulsonlab/blog/bee-friendly-flowers. Original research describing in detail the pesticides was published in the journal Environmental Pollution, May 2017 and can be found here: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749117305158  

Malone, Katy. 2018. Beeware! ‘Bee-friendly’ garden plants can contain bee-harming chemicals. https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/beeware-bee-friendly-garden-plants-can-contain-bee-harming-chemicals/

Stokstad, Erik. 2018. European Union expands ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides. Science, April 27.

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en

Related blogs

Bullets and birds

Banana birds in the bean patch

Birds: farmers’ blessing or curse

From Uniformity to Diversity

The bird cliffs

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Soya sowing density (this video talks about hunters providing services to farmers in Benin)

Achojcha: An Inca vegetable June 21st, 2020 by

Ver la versión en español a continuación

The achojcha is a member of the squash family, green and crunchy and just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand. It grows vigorously as a vine and will smother a tree, if you let it.

The achojcha has an edible skin and is hollow inside, like a balloon, with striking black seeds. It needs little care. It can grow back every year from seeds that were accidently dropped the year before, sprouting with the summer rains, and bearing fruit in the autumn. With irrigation it will grow pretty much year-round.

The book Lost Crops of the Incas estimates that the achojcha was domesticated 9000 years ago. Ancient peoples loved it enough that the pre-Colombian ChimĂș people of Peru made effigy pots in honor of the little fruit.

We have grown achojcha in our garden in Cochabamba, Bolivia for years, and it’s a popular vegetable with smallholders. The achojcha is high-yielding and sometimes we have a basketful of fruit left on the vine which we can pick during the Andean winter. Even when we abandon the fruit until the end of the season, it simply wilts, and we have yet to see any diseases or insect pests on it. There is only passing reference to a virus in achojcha. I have seen mites on achojcha in the valley of Comarapa, further down the Andes, where pesticide abuse is common.

The achojcha is still a poor person’s food in Bolivia. It is not sold by that bedrock of middle-class cuisine, the supermarket, but you can buy achojcha from street venders. The achojcha does enjoy a certain following. If you search for it on the Internet you will find several recipes. Home cooks in South America sometimes stuff the achojcha with cheese, or with rice and meat, before battering it with egg and frying it. The versatile fruit can be stewed or eaten raw in salads. 

As Paul argued in last week’s blog, farmers should be encouraged to produce for the local market. While governments and donors have a responsibility to invest in generating new knowledge in support of agroecology, a transition towards more sustainable food systems will also require re-educating consumers on the importance of preparing the fruits and vegetables that fit best into the local agroecology.

Further reading

CĂĄrdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas EconĂłmicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

.Related blog stories

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Scientific and other names

The achojcha is called caigua in the northern Andes. Its scientific name is Cyclanthera pedata.

A couple of unconvincing English names are “stuffing cucumber” and “slipper gourd.”

Acknowledgement

As always, thanks to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for excellent comments on a previous draft. Thanks also to Eric for his stunning picture of the achojcha seeds.

LA ACHOJCHA: HORTALIZA INCA

Por Jeff Bentley, 21 de junio del 2020

La achojcha es un miembro de la familia de las calabazas, verde y crujiente y del tamaño justo para caber en la palma de tu mano. Crece vigorosamente como una parra y ahoga a un årbol, si se lo permites.

La achojcha tiene una cåscara comestible y es hueca por dentro, como un globo, con llamativas semillas negras. Necesita poco cuidado. Puede volver a nacer todos los años a partir de semillas que se cayeron accidentalmente el año anterior, brotando con las lluvias de verano, y dando frutos en el otoño. Con la irrigación crecerå año redondo.

El libro Lost Crops of the Incas estima que la achojcha fue domesticada hace 9000 años. A los antiguos les gustaba tanto que el pueblo chimĂș precolombino de PerĂș hizo ollas efigies en honor a la pequeña fruta.

Hemos cultivado achojcha en nuestro huerto en Cochabamba, Bolivia, durante años, y es una hortaliza cotizada entre los campesinos. La achojcha es rendidora y a veces nos queda una canasta llena de fruta en la parra hasta despuĂ©s de cosecharla por meses. Incluso cuando abandonamos la fruta hasta el final de la temporada, simplemente se marchita, y todavĂ­a no hemos visto ninguna enfermedad o plaga insectil en ella. SĂłlo hay una referencia pasajera a un virus en la achojcha. He visto ĂĄcaros en la achojcha en el valle de Comarapa, mĂĄs abajo en los Andes, donde el abuso de pesticidas es comĂșn.

La achojcha sigue siendo el alimento de los pobres en Bolivia. No es vendido por ese cimiento de la cocina burguesa, el supermercado, pero puedes comprar achojcha de los puestos en la calle. La achojcha tiene su pĂșblico. Si lo buscas en Internet encontrarĂĄs varias recetas. Los cocineros caseros de SudamĂ©rica a veces rellenan la achojcha con queso, o con arroz y carne, antes de rebozarlo con huevo y freĂ­rlo. Esta fruta tan versĂĄtil puede entrar a la sopa, o cruda en ensaladas. 

Como Paul argumentó en el blog de la semana pasada, se debe alentar a los agricultores a producir para el mercado local. Si bien los gobiernos y los donantes tienen la responsabilidad de invertir en generar nuevos conocimientos en apoyo de la agroecología, la transición hacia un agro mås sostenible también requiere reeducar a los consumidores sobre la importancia de preparar las frutas y verduras que se adapten a la agroecología local.

Para leer mĂĄs

CĂĄrdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas EconĂłmicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

Otros relatos de este blog

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Agradecimiento

SinĂłnimo y nombres cientĂ­ficos

La achojcha se llama caigua en el norte de los Andes. Su nombre cientĂ­fico es Cyclanthera pedata.

Como siempre, gracias a Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por sus excelentes comentarios sobre un borrador anterior. Gracias también a Eric por su impresionante imagen de las semillas de achojcha.

Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

Related blogs

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Forgotten vegetables

Stuck in the middle

Keep your cows in the family

Related videos

Making chilli powder

Pure milk is good milk

Learning to teach June 7th, 2020 by

Versión en español a continuación

A really good teacher will teach you both subject matter and how to explain it to others. Elías Sánchez mentored thousands of Central Americans in organic agriculture. He started his adult life as a rural schoolteacher because he wanted to help people. But he soon realized that rural people needed agricultural training as much as the usual school subjects, so he studied agronomy and became an extension agent. When he found government bureaucracy too limiting, he started a teaching farm called Loma Linda, in Santa Lucía, in a pine-covered canyon in the mountains above Tegucigalpa, Honduras. That’s where I met him, in the late 1980s.

Loma Linda had dormitories, a classroom and a dining hall, where 30 farmers could come in to take a five-day course, usually paid for by NGOs or development projects. These were the days when donors were generous with NGOs in Honduras.

In the short course, don ElĂ­as, as everyone called him, taught an effective alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture. Don ElĂ­as expected people to make radical changes in how they farmed, after attending his course.  At the time, the forests on the steep hillsides were rapidly disappearing as people cut and burned trees, brush and crop residues before planting maize fields. The smoke was so thick in the springtime that every year the Tegucigalpa airport had to close because pilots couldn’t see the runway. There was also widespread soil erosion.

Don Elías taught his adult students how to build terraces, plant vegetables, fruits and grains, to make compost and natural remedies for pests and diseases. Thousands of smallholders from all over Honduras took don Elías’ course and slowly began to burn less, and to use organic fertilizer. He was pretty convincing; I’ve made compost ever since taking his course.

Don Elías realized that his audience didn’t see manure as fertilizer. Honduran smallholders would let manure pile up in the corral, and never think of spreading it on nearby maize fields. He held long discussions with the farmers to define organic matter (as anything living or that had once been alive, or came from a plant or animal). Then he taught them that any organic matter could be made into fertilizer. He kept his explanations simple and avoided pedantic words.

During the course we would eat fresh vegetables from the teaching farm for lunch, then get our hands dirty, making new compost heaps and spreading fertilizer from ones that were ready to use. “Compost needs two things,” don ElĂ­as would say: “water and air.” He taught that rain usually provided enough water, and by making compost above ground, air could circulate, as long as you didn’t pack the material.  But for good measure he would heap the organic matter around a thick wooden pole, which he would then pull out, to leave an air hole. Don Elias said that you could make compost in a pit, but it was more work. He did advise us to scrape the leaves and other debris off of the soil surface, so the compost was in contact with the dirt, where the soil-dwelling bacteria would help to start the decomposition.

Don Elías knew that the smallholders already worked hard, so his innovations had to be easy to use. Compost heaps could be left until they decomposed into rich, black earth. Turning wasn’t necessary. He taught people to make compost in the field, so they wouldn’t have to carry the materials very far.

I recalled ElĂ­as SĂĄnchez last week, when I dug up one of our compost pits at home (a perfect quarantine activity). We don’t make compost piles, because we live in the city and our compost includes some ugly garbage. Sometimes we cover the pits with soil and grow something on top (a trick I learned from a farmer in Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Although our compost pit is unlike the compost piles that don ElĂ­as used to make, ours followed all his basic principles.

1) It was made from organic matter.

2) It had air pockets, from cardboard boxes I left in it, which in due time decomposed.

3) It had water. While digging it out I found a couple of teaspoons I had accidentally tossed out with the dishwater. Soapy water may kill beneficial microorganisms, so I won’t try it again. Even after thirty years I’m still learning.

4) I didn’t work too hard on this compost pit. I never did turn it.

The compost was worth it, rich and black, full of earthworms, retaining moisture for several days once we spread it on the soil. Don ElĂ­as would have been pleased. He would also be pleased that many farmers, teaching farms and organizations in Latin America have adopted his ideas about organic agriculture.

To be a good mentor, teach the basic principles of subjects that students want to learn about. Show people how to make a prototype and then encourage them to keep on experimenting. Innovations need to be adapted if they’re going to be used for a lifetime.

Related blog stories

Trying it yourself

Training trees

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

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Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Composting to beat striga

And other videos about Sustainable Land Management

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Keith Andrews, Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele for excellent comments on a previous version of this story.

APRENDER A ENSEÑAR

Por Jeff Bentley, 7 de junio del 2020

Un buen profesor no solo te enseña la materia sino cómo explicarla también. Elías Sånchez fue mentor de miles de centroamericanos en la agricultura orgånica. Empezó su vida adulta como maestro de escuela rural porque quería ayudar a la gente. Pero pronto se dio cuenta de que la gente del campo necesitaba aprender mås de la agricultura, así que estudió agronomía y se hizo un extensionista. Cuando se dio cuenta de que la burocracia gubernamental era demasiado limitante, comenzó una granja de aprendizaje llamada Loma Linda, en Santa Lucía, en un cañón cubierto de pinos en las montañas cerca de Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Allí es donde lo conocí, a finales de los 80.

Loma Linda tenĂ­a dormitorios, un aula y un comedor, donde 30 agricultores podĂ­an entrar para tomar un curso de cinco dĂ­as, normalmente pagado por una ONG o por proyectos de desarrollo. Eran los dĂ­as en que los donantes eran generosos con las ONGs en Honduras.

En el curso corto, don ElĂ­as, como todos le llamaban, enseñaba una alternativa eficaz a la agricultura de tala y quema. Don ElĂ­as esperaba que la gente hiciera cambios radicales en la forma de cultivar, despuĂ©s de asistir a su curso.  En ese momento, los bosques de las escarpadas laderas estaban desapareciendo rĂĄpidamente, ya que la gente cortaba y quemaba ĂĄrboles, matorrales y rastrojos antes de sembrar milpa. El humo era tan espeso en la primavera que cada año el aeropuerto de Tegucigalpa tenĂ­a que cerrar porque los pilotos no podĂ­an ver la pista. TambiĂ©n se produjo bastante erosiĂłn del suelo.

Don Elías enseñó a sus alumnos adultos a construir terrazas, a sembrar verduras, frutas y granos, a hacer abono y remedios naturales para las plagas y enfermedades. Miles de pequeños agricultores de toda Honduras tomaron el curso de don Elías y poco a poco empezaron a quemar menos, y a usar fertilizante orgånico. El fue bastante convincente; he hecho compost desde que tomé su curso.

Don ElĂ­as se dio cuenta de que su pĂșblico no veĂ­a el estiĂ©rcol como fertilizante. Los pequeños propietarios hondureños dejaban el estiĂ©rcol apilado en el corral y nunca pensaban en esparcirlo en los maizales cercanos. Mantuvo largas discusiones con los agricultores para definir la materia orgĂĄnica (como cualquier cosa viviente o que alguna vez estuvo viva, o que salga de una planta o animal). Luego les enseñó que cualquier materia orgĂĄnica podĂ­a convertirse en fertilizante. MantenĂ­a sus explicaciones simples y evitaba las palabras pedantes.

Durante el curso almorzĂĄbamos hortalizas frescas de la finca, luego nos ensuciĂĄbamos las manos, haciendo nuevas aboneras y esparciendo el fertilizante de las que estaban listas para usar. “El abono necesita dos cosas”, decĂ­a don ElĂ­as: “agua y aire”. Enseñó que la lluvia usualmente daba suficiente agua, y al hacer abono en cima la tierra, el aire podĂ­a circular, si no se empacara el material.  Pero por si acaso, hacĂ­a la abonera alrededor de un grueso poste de madera, que luego sacaba, para dejar un agujero de aire. Don ElĂ­as dijo que se podĂ­a hacer abono bajo tierra, pero era mĂĄs trabajo. Nos aconsejĂł que raspĂĄramos las hojas y otros desechos de la superficie del suelo, para que el abono estuviera en contacto con la tierra, donde las bacterias que viven en el suelo ayudarĂ­an a iniciar la descomposiciĂłn.

Don Elías sabía que los pequeños agricultores ya trabajaban duro, así que sus innovaciones tenían que ser fåciles de usar. Se podían dejar la abonera hasta que se descompusieran en una tierra rica y negra. No era necesario moverla. Enseñó a la gente a hacer compost en el campo, para que no tuvieran que llevar los materiales muy lejos.

RecordĂ© a ElĂ­as SĂĄnchez la semana pasada, cuando desenterrĂ© una de nuestras aboneras en casa (una perfecta actividad de cuarentena). No hacemos abonera sobre el suelo, porque vivimos en la ciudad y nuestro abono incluye alguna basura fea. Hacemos el abono en una fosa que a veces tapamos con tierra y cultivamos algo encima (un truco que aprendĂ­ de un agricultor en Mali: Playing with rabbits).  Aunque nuestra abonera enterrada no es como las que don ElĂ­as solĂ­a hacer sobre el suelo, la nuestra seguĂ­a todos sus principios bĂĄsicos.

1) Estaba hecha de materia orgĂĄnica.

2) TenĂ­a bolsones de aire, de cajas de cartĂłn que metĂ­, que con el tiempo se descompusieron.

3) Tenía agua. Mientras desenterraba el composte encontré un par de cucharaditas que había tirado accidentalmente con el agua lavar los trastos. El agua jabonosa puede matar a los microorganismos buenos, así que no lo intentaré de nuevo. Incluso después de treinta años todavía estoy aprendiendo.

4) No trabajé muy duro en esta abonera. Nunca la movía.

El abono valió la pena, rico y negro, lleno de lombrices, reteniendo la humedad durante varios días una vez que lo esparcimos en el suelo. Don Elías habría estado encantado. También estaría contento de que muchos agricultores, fincas educativas y organizaciones en América Latina hayan adoptado sus ideas sobre la agricultura orgånica.

Para ser un buen mentor, enseña los principios båsicos de las materias que los estudiantes quieren aprender. Mostrar a la gente cómo hacer un prototipo y luego animarlos a seguir experimentando. Los alumnos tienen que adueñarse de las innovaciones, para seguir adaptåndolas toda la vida.

Historias sobre temas parecidos  

Trying it yourself

Training trees

Microbios amigables

Lombrices de tierra de la i India a Bolivia

Una revoluciĂłn para nuestro suelo

Videos relacionados

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

El mulch mejora el suelo y la cosecha

Composting to beat striga

Manejo sostenible de la tierra

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Keith Andrews, Eric Boa y Paul Van Mele por sus excelentes comentarios sobre una versiĂłn previa de esta historia.

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