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The right way to distribute trees February 23rd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

There is a right way and a wrong way to distribute tree seedlings, as I realized recently.

The wrong way. Some 30 years ago, I was visiting a family in a Honduran village, Galeras, when a pickup truck from the Ministry of Agriculture pulled up. Two men unloaded little black plastic bags, each holding a strange, broad-leafed tree seedling.

A woman emerged from the car and without pausing to greet us, she made a breathless speech. “We are giving you little trees to plant. They are good for shade, for timber, for firewood, and cattle can eat the leaves. They are called …” and she rattled off a long, cumbersome scientific name.

“What is the common name?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know that, just plant them.”

And then the Ministry people got back in their car and drove off to the next house. In the following weeks, I saw little seedlings piled in front of many homes in Galeras. These trees, which came unannounced and uninvited, were all left to die.

The right way. This week, I visited the communities of Collpa Cala Cala and Collpa Centro, with extensionists from a Bolivian NGO, Fundación Agrecol Andes, which has 20 years of experience in high Andean communities.

This time I was inside the pickup, with the project staff. The team had gone in the day before with a bigger truck, to deliver 5000 pine seedlings to Collpa Cala Cala, and 3600 to Collpa Centro, and more trees to two other villages.  This morning, the little trees were glistening with dew in a cow pasture—the cows were tethered out of reach of the seedlings. The locals soon gathered around us, and in the native language, Quechua, Tito Villarroel (the project coordinator) reminded them that the goal was for “each family to plant the trees that they ordered.” He went on, “Please count out the number of trees you ordered.” Each family had asked for 100 to 500 seedlings.

Tito asked if anyone from the community wanted to speak. Two local men, don Marco and don Juevenal both thanked the project, and said they were sorry it was ending. They said they would like to get trees for two more years.

I asked some of the farmers why they wanted pine trees. “For the timber,” they said. “Either to sell or to use ourselves.”

The project team read the names of each subscribed family, to make sure they were all there, and gave each one a new steel pick, a wooden handle and a hoe, so they would have the right tools to plant the trees. Each family also got a bag of bread rolls and a whole, raw chicken, and a two-liter bottle of soda pop. This food will help to feed the family for the day they take off from their other work to plant the trees.

Each family has agreed to plant the trees in a place of their choosing, where they can protect the trees from roaming livestock. Many of the trees will be planted near people’s homes, or in other places where it is easy to see the animals from the village. The previous year, these same villagers also planted trees, now growing in small stands.

Tito and his colleagues will come back the following week. Each village gets a follow up visit every week. Over the next few visits, the NGO extensionists will make sure that there are no unforeseen problems. But there is little doubt that these folks will plant their trees.

The team hopes that the trees will help to keep the soil on the steep slopes and out of the streams that provide drinking water to the valley below. Almost all of the land around these communities is quite steep, so no matter where the trees are planted, they should help to manage soil erosion. The NGO would have liked to have planted native trees, rather than pines, which are not native to South America. But the local people wanted pine trees, and so that’s what they got.

The moral of the story is, local people will plant and manage forestry trees if:

  • The tree species is of interest to the communities
  • The trees are accompanied by tools, food or other things of value that stimulate folks to invest in planting trees
  • Local people are consulted about the project beforehand and organized

Cynics complain that development work is going in circles, but that’s not true. Like any skill, community development work improves with practice.

Related blog story

Slow Recovery

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Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Parkland agroforestry

Farmer managed forest regeneration

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Jorge Valencia 2003 “Learning about Trees in a Quechua-Speaking Andean Community in Bolivia,” pp. 69-134. In Paul Van Mele (ed.) Way Out of the Woods: Learning How to Manage Trees and Forests. Newbury, UK: CPL Press. 143 pp.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Fundación Agrecol Andes, for inviting me to see their work. Thanks to the project team, including Alexandra Flores, David Torrico, Nelson Daga and Edgar Hinojosa. This project was funded by CRS (Catholic Relief Services) with additional funding by the Coca Cola Foundation. The soft drinks distributed on this visit were from a Bolivian bottler, not Coke.

LA MANERA CORRECTA DE DISTRIBUIR LOS ÁRBOLES

Por Jeff Bentley

23 de febrero del 2020

Los plantines de árboles se pueden distribuir de forma correcta, o incorrecta, como me di cuenta recientemente.

La manera incorrecta. Hace unos 30 años, yo estaba visitando a una familia en una aldea hondureña, Galeras, cuando llegó una camioneta del Ministerio de Agricultura. Dos hombres descargaron pequeñas bolsas de plástico negro. Cada bolsa tenía el plantín de un árbol desconocido, de hoja ancha.

Una mujer se bajó del carro y sin tomar la molestia de saludarnos, hizo un discurso rápido, memorizado. “Les estamos dejando unos pequeños árboles para que los planten. Sirven para la sombra, para la madera, para la leña, y el ganado puede comer las hojas. Se llaman …” y nos dio un largo y engorroso nombre científico.

“¿Cuál es el nombre común?” Pregunté.

“Oh, no lo sé, sólo plántenlas.”

Y sin más ceremonia, la gente del Ministerio volvió a su carro y se fue a la próxima casa. En las semanas siguientes, vi bultos de plantitas frente a muchas casas en Galeras. Estos árboles, que llegaron sin aviso y sin invitación, lentamente se murieran.

La manera correcta. Esta semana, visité las comunidades de Collpa Cala Cala y Collpa Centro, con extensionistas de una ONG boliviana, Fundación AGRECOL Andes, que tiene 20 años de experiencia en comunidades altoandinas.

Esta vez, estuve dentro de la camioneta, con la gente del proyecto. El equipo había entrado el día anterior con un camión más grande, para entregar 5000 plantines de pino a Collpa Cala Cala, y 3600 arbolitos a la Collpa Centro, y más plantines a otras dos comunidades.  Esa mañana, los arbolitos brillaban con el rocío en el prado de las vacas, las cuales estaban atadas fuera del alcance de los plantines. Los comuneros pronto se reunieron a nuestro alrededor, y hablando en el idioma ancestral, quechua, Tito Villarroel (el coordinador del proyecto) les recordó que el objetivo era que “cada familia plante los árboles que había ordenado”. Continuó: “Por favor, cuenten el número de plantines que pidieron”. Cada familia había pedido de 100 a 500 plantines.

Tito preguntó si alguien de la comunidad quería hablar. Dos hombres locales, don Marco y don Juvenal, agradecieron el proyecto y dijeron que no querían que se acabara. Dijeron que les gustaría tener árboles durante dos años más.

Pregunté a algunos de los agricultores por qué querían pinos. “Por la madera”, dijeron. “Para venderla o para usarla nosotros mismos”.

El equipo pasó lista y dio a cada familia suscrita una nueva picota, un mango de madera y un azadón, para que tuvieran las herramientas adecuadas para plantar los árboles. Cada familia también recibió una bolsa de pan, un pollo crudo entero, y una botella de refresco de dos litros. Esta comida ayudará a alimentar a la familia el día que planten los árboles.

Cada familia ha acordado plantar los árboles en un lugar de su elección, donde puedan proteger los árboles del ganado suelto. Muchos de los árboles se plantan cerca de las casas de la gente, o en otros lugares donde es fácil ver los animales de la comunidad. El año anterior, estos mismos vecinos también plantaron árboles, que ahora crecen en pequeños manchones alrededor de las comunidades.

Tito y sus colegas volverán la semana siguiente. Cada comunidad recibe una visita de seguimiento cada semana. En las próximas visitas, los extensionistas de la ONG se asegurarán de que no haya problemas imprevistos. Pero hay pocas dudas de que la gente plantará sus árboles.

El equipo espera que los árboles ayuden a conservar el suelo en las laderas empinadas, para proteger a las quebradas que dan agua potable al valle de abajo. Casi toda la tierra alrededor de estas comunidades es bastante escarpada, por lo que no importa dónde se planten los árboles, ayudará a manejar la erosión del suelo. A la ONG le hubiera gustado plantar árboles nativos, en lugar de pinos, que no son nativos de Sudamérica. Pero la gente local quería pinos, y eso es lo que obtuvieron.

La moraleja es que la gente local plantará y manejará los árboles forestales si:

– Las especies de árboles son de interés para las comunidades

– Los árboles van acompañados de herramientas, alimentos u otras cosas de valor que estimulan a la gente a invertir en la plantación de árboles

– Se consulta a la población local sobre el proyecto de antemano y se organiza

Los cínicos se quejan de que el trabajo de desarrollo sólo da vueltas, pero eso no es cierto. Como cualquier habilidad, el trabajo de desarrollo de la comunidad mejora con la práctica.

Un blog previo que le podría interesar

Recuperación lenta

Videos sobre la reforestación

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Agroforestería del bosque ralo

Regeneración del bosque manejada por agricultores

Lectura

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Jorge Valencia 2003 “Aprendiendo sobre Árboles en una Comunidad Andina de Habla Quechua en Bolivia,” pp. 69-134. In Paul Van Mele (ed.) Way Out of the Woods: Learning How to Manage Trees and Forests. Newbury, UK: CPL Press. 143 pp.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a la Fundación AGRECOL Andes, por invitarme a ver este trabajo. Gracias al equipo de trabajo, incluyendo a Alexandra Flores, Nelson Daga, David Torrico y Edgar Hinojosa. Este proyecto fue financiado por CRS (Catholic Relief Services) con fondos adicionales de la Fundación Coca Cola. Los refrescos distribuidos en esta visita fueron de una embotelladora boliviana, no de la Coca Cola.

Encouraging microorganisms that improve the soil February 16th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

We have written earlier in this blog about “Effective Microorganisms®” or EM, a branded, commercial preparation. In both of those previous stories, people were using EMs in pig pens, to reduce the odor and to quickly turn the manure to a rich, black compost. 

This week I learned how you can culture your own microorganisms, using some simple equipment and a few inexpensive ingredients. Ing. Abrahán Mujica showed me and a small group at his agroecology course that you can start by collecting some leaf litter. We gathered the leaves and top soil from the base of two or three molle trees in the city of Cochabamba.

We put some 5 kilos of leaf litter and black soil on a plastic table. We added a kilo of raw sugar and a kilo of bran (rich in proteins), to feed the microorganisms, and just enough water to turn the mix to a paste. It should be just moist enough that it will release a couple of drops when you press it in your hand

As we mixed up the ingredients, a smell like bread yeast soon filled the room.

“Smell the yeast!” Abrahán said. “The yeast are the first microorganisms to respond to the sugar.”

“Not just yeast,” I said. “There must be 10,000 species of microbes in there.” Abrahán happily agreed.

We filled a third of a 20-liter bucket with this paste, and covered it with plastic bags, tied on with a rubber tie, to keep out the air. The mix will rot if it is exposed to the air, Abrahán stressed. Fermentation is without oxygen.

After a month, Abrahán will mix the fermented paste with water in a 200-liter barrel, seal it again for another month, and then drain off the water, which by then will be full of microorganisms.

He filters this solution through an ordinary cloth and bottles the liquid for sale. The label reads “The Life of the Soil”. It can be sprayed on the soil to make it healthier, or added to compost to speed up decomposition, or used as fertilizer on plant leaves. He said it is intended mainly for soil that has been killed by pesticides, to bring the soil back to life.

Abrahán’s home also doubles as a small shop, where he sells ácido piroleñoso (liquid smoke distilled during charcoal making—which is mixed with water and sprayed onto crops as natural insect and fungus control). He also makes potassium soap (which he makes by mixing potassium sulfate with cooking oil), sulfur-lime blend, Bordeaux mix, and other products for protecting plants without toxic chemicals.

Although Abrahán makes the products he sells, he is happy to teach others. On his agroecology course, he teaches others his trade secrets about how to make each product. There will always be lots of people who don’t want to mix these brews. And those who do make their own will also help to make the world a better place, by reducing the use of toxic pesticides, which Abrahán explains are a danger to farmers and consumers.

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FOMENTANDO MICROORGANISMOS QUE MEJORAN EL SUELO

Por Jeff Bentley

16 de febrero del 2020

Hemos escrito antes en este blog sobre “Microorganismos Efectivos®” o EM, una marca comercial. Los dos blogs anteriores explican el uso de EMs en camas de cerdos para reducir el olor y ayudar a la descomposición del estiércol. 

Esta semana aprendí cómo uno puede multiplicar sus propios microorganismos, usando un equipo simple y unos pocos ingredientes baratos. El Ing. Abrahán Mujica me mostró a mí y a un pequeño grupo en su curso de agroecología. Recogimos tierra vegetal o sach’a wanu, como decimos en Bolivia, del pie de un molle, en plena ciudad.

En una mesa de plástico, pusimos como 5 kilos de sach’a wanu. Añadimos un kilo de chancaca (azúcar moreno) y un kilo de salvado (cascarilla de cereal rica en proteínas), para alimentar a los microorganismos, y sólo el agua suficiente para convertir la mezcla en una pasta, que al apretarla, debe soltar un par de gotas.

Mientras mezclábamos los ingredientes, un olor a levadura de pan llenó el ambiente.

“¡Sientan la levadura!” Abrahán dijo. “La levadura es el primer microorganismo que responde al azúcar y nutrientes”.

“No sólo la levadura”, dije. “Debe haber 10.000 especies de microbios ahí”. Abrahán estuvo plenamente de acuerdo.

Llenamos un tercio de un tacho de plástico de 20 litros con esta pasta y lo tapamos con hojas de plástico, atadas con una liga de goma, para evitar que entre el aire. La mezcla se pudrirá si se expone al aire. Abrahán recalcó que la fermentación es sin oxígeno.

Después de un mes, Abrahán la mezclará con agua en un turril de 200 litros; lo sellará de nuevo por otro mes, y luego drenará el agua, que para entonces estará llena de microorganismos.

Él filtra esta solución a través de un paño ordinario y embotella el líquido para su venta. La etiqueta dice “La vida del suelo”. Puede ser fumigado en el suelo para devolverle vitalidad, o puesto en la abonera para acelerar la descomposición, o aplicado a las plantas como abono filiar. Dijo que está destinado principalmente a los suelos que se han muerto por los plaguicidas, para devolverles la vida.

La casa de Abrahán también funciona como una pequeña tienda, donde vende ácido piroleñoso (humo líquido destilado durante la fabricación de carbón vegetal, que se mezcla con agua y se fumiga sobre los cultivos para controlar los insectos y los hongos de forma natural). También hace jabón potásico (que elabora mezclando sulfato de potasio con aceite de cocina), caldo sulfocálcico, caldo bordelés y otros productos para proteger las plantas sin productos químicos tóxicos.

Aunque Abrahán fabrica los productos que vende, le gusta enseñar a los demás. En su curso de agroecología, enseña a otros sus secretos sobre cómo hacer cada producto. Siempre tendrá mercado, porque habrá mucha gente que no quiere hacer estas mezclas. Y aquellos que hacen la suya también ayudarán a hacer del mundo un lugar mejor, reduciendo el uso de agroquímicos mucho más tóxicos, que Abrahán está convencido son un peligro para los agricultores y consumidores.  

Previamente en nuestro blog

La agricultura con árboles

Effective micro-organisms

Smelling is believing

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Buenos microbios para plantas y suelo

Better seed for green gram

A history worth its salt February 9th, 2020 by

Mark Kurlansky’s well-written and inspiring book Salt: A World History, shows how crucial salt has been throughout our history.

Salt was at the very core of Chinese, Mayan and Roman civilization, as it was a key source of revenue for the State. Some ancient civilizations were conquered by destroying the opponent’s access to salt. An army without salt was almost as easily conquered as one without weapons.  A soldier’s daily ration often contained dried and salted meat. Horses would come to a standstill if they lacked a regular intake of salt.

Marco Polo’s economic intelligence was important in part because of his ideas about salt. The son of an established trader in Venice, Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th century A.D. to establish trade relations. When he returned to Venice after a second, 20-year long visit to China, Marco Polo brought back knowledge of how a salt administration can fill the treasury and that a state can make more profit from trading salt than from producing it. Venice was able to dominate Mediterranean commerce after 1380, thanks to their salt trade, along with their smaller vessels that were more easily converted into war ships than the larger, less versatile Genoese ships. Venetian power lasted for about a century, until the Genoese Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese Vasco da Gama opened the Atlantic Ocean as the main body of water for trade, by-passing the Mediterranean. While Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India to avoid the Mediterranean, Columbus tried to beat him by going straight west, where the Americas blocked his route to India, but eventually led to new salt works in the Caribbean.

Having understood the political importance of salt, the British colonial power also adopted a salt administration. In 1600, Queen Elisabeth I granted the East India Company powers almost equal to those of a state: The East India Company was allowed to mint its own money, govern its employees, raise an army and navy, and declare war against rivals. To keep India under control, one of the first things the East India Company aimed for was to neutralise local structures of salt production and marketing.

Centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi broke the British monopoly on salt by encouraging the Indian people to take up local salt production again, usually by evaporating seawater near the coast, eventually leading to Indian independence in 1947.

But salt making soon slipped away from craft producers. Nowadays, salt in India, as in most other countries, is in the hands of a few powerful companies. As an irony of history, British Salt, a company established in 1969 in the U.K. has since 2011 been taken over by Tata Chemicals Europe, which is part of the Tata Group, an Indian multinational holding company.

The six leading salt producers in the world, Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Pakistan and the United States, account for more than half of the worldwide production. In all six countries, apart from China, salt is in the hands of large corporations.

Currently, China Salt is a state-owned enterprise that has a national monopoly over the management and production of edible salt, employing some 50,000 people and controlling assets worth about 7 billion Euro. According the law, salt cannot be sold across different regions, and private citizens are banned from selling their own manufactured salt. 

Just as large corporations have taken over much of the global production of food, agro-chemicals and seed, oligarchies have also dominated the salt supply. It is unlikely that revenues generated from the sales of salt and minerals still benefit states and the well-being of its citizens. Large corporations after all are known for finding clever ways to evade taxes.

Today much of our commercial salt comes from deep, mechanized mines. Salt has become so cheap that we routinely add it to animal feeds, and leave salt blocks for the livestock to lick at their leisure. Salt is now so abundant that we have to be cautioned that eating too much of it is bad for our heart. But it was not always so. Kurlansky invites us to imagine a world, not long ago, when salt was one of the most expensive foods that people bought. While the price of salt has dropped tremendously, the sheer volume of global consumption still makes it a powerful commodity.

Suggested reading

Mark Kurlansky (2002) Salt:A World History. Penguin Books, pp. 484

Related blogs

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Spineless cactus February 2nd, 2020 by

I wrote in last week’s blog, Her mother’s laugh, that famed plant breeder (and showman), Luther Burbank, bred the spineless cactus. But there is more to the story.

The prickly pear cactus is native to Mexico and spread to the Caribbean and possibly to the Andes in pre-Colombian times. Columbus took the plant, with its delicious fruit, back to Europe on his first voyage. The hardy cactus was soon grown around the Mediterranean, and quickly found its way to arid lands from South Africa to India.

While ancient Mexicans domesticated this cactus, farmers in India selected varieties without thorns.

By 1907, Luther Burbank was promoting his spineless cactus, a hybrid of Mexican and Indian varieties. In his catalogues he wrote that the cactus which would grow with no irrigation, little care, and it would make ideal cattle fodder for the arid western USA.

In the USA, Burbank’s spineless cactus never quite lived up to its hype. While it lacked the large, needle-like thorns, it still grew small, hair-like thorns, which are brittle and can be painful when they lodge into a person’s hands or an animal’s mouth. Burbank’s spineless cactus required some irrigation and more management than other varieties, and under stress, the cactus tended to grow its spines. The thorn-free cactus also had to be fenced to protect it from hungry livestock and wildlife.

Burbank’s American cactus bubble burst by the 1920s, when ranchers grew disappointed with prickly pear. But there was already a long tradition of growing spineless cactus in India, where smallholder farmers had perfected the art of growing the prickly pear for fruit, and to feed the leaves to their livestock. Now you can learn from them, in a new video that tells how to plant, and grow the cactus, and use it as animal fodder.

Watch the video

Spineless cactus for fodder

Related blog stories

Her mother’s laugh

Kiss of death in the cactus garden

Learn by eating

Read more

Ewbank, Anne 2019 The Thorny Tale of America’s Favorite Botanist and His Spineless Cacti https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/spineless-cactus

Griffith, M. P. 2004 The origins of an important cactus crop, Opuntia ficus‐indica (Cactaceae): new molecular evidence. American Journal of Botany91(11), 1915-1921.

Her mother’s laugh January 26th, 2020 by

In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Carl Zimmer, professor of science writing at Yale University, takes us on an enlightening and ambitious tour de force of genes and the history of their science. Zimmer loves a story, and he treats his readers to many along the way: for example, how the American plant breeder Luther Burbank, who had only a faint idea of genetics, but a keen eye for plants, bred everything from the Burbank potato to spineless cactus.

Zimmer’s stories weave in many ideas, but I want to focus on just two. First, many genetic traits are not governed by simple Mendelian genetics. Mendel, the ‘father’ of genetics, got lucky in his breeding experiments with peas, where easily observable traits like flower color and wrinkled seed coat are conveniently governed by single genes.

But there is no single gene for much of what we admire most. Tall people do have tall children, but there is no one gene for height. There are several thousand genes, each of which may add a hair’s breadth to your stature. Likewise, there is no smart gene, yet 84% of our 20,000 genes have some influence on our brain.

In agriculture we are seeing the same thing. For example, crop yield is shaped by a wide range of genes and there may not be any one gene that helps plants resist a specific disease.

A second of Zimmer’s lessons: nearly all genes are influenced by their environment. Healthy kids who eat nutritious food grow up to be taller than sick, hungry children.

In Europe, 30,000 years ago, hunter gatherer men were around 6 feet tall (183 cm). But early agriculture was not able to provide the protein and dietary diversity made possible by hunting and gathering. The first farmers were shorter than their ancestors, and from the dawn of agriculture until the 1700s the average European man stood at 5 feet 5 inches (165 cm). The move from agriculture into the industrial era was even more disastrous. At the end of the 18th century in England, 16-year-old boys from wealthy families were 9 inches (23 cm) taller than lads from poor homes. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that sewage systems had improved public sanitation (and people’s health) and the railroads began bringing fresh food long distances to cities. As urban people began to eat better, they got taller. Today many human populations are once again as tall as their ancestors were, 30,000 years ago.

So, there is no tall gene, yet good health and nutrition can help kids grow up to be as tall as their genes will allow. What is true for people is also true for plants and agriculture. Healthy soils, rich in organic matter, and well-managed water and a rich biodiversity of crops and wild plants and animals will help farmers to make the most of the genetic heritage of their plants and livestock.

Further reading

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

Related blog story

Read more about Luther Burbank and spineless cactus: Spineless cactus

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