New Internationalist

Farming solutions

Issue 353

Around the world farmers are using their own knowledge and resources to solve age-old problems. Compiled by Rod Harbinson.

South America

BRAZIL: ISLANDS IN THE FOREST

The deforested landscape of Pontal do Paranapanema in São Paulo, Brazil, is being reinvigorated by community tree-planting in an effort to save threatened species in the 35,000 hectares of Morro do Diabo State Park. One of the biggest threats to dwindling populations of animals, birds, trees, plants and insects is their isolation in fragments of forest. Now local farmers from the Landless Workers Movement (MST) are working with university, NGO and Forestry Institute workers to develop a network of agroforestry refuges. Planted with a mixture of cassava, maize, beans and a number of threatened tropical tree species, these agroforest 'islands' provide stepping stones which allow species to mingle and also benefit the farmers. The increased species diversity wards off pests, and the tree-shade improves soil fertility and water retention - all ensuring a more reliable crop.

ARGENTINA: Red worms downtown

The urban poor in Rosario, Argentina's third-largest city, are employing the Californian red worm to munch the city's organic waste. With unemployment up following the economic meltdown and a continuing flood of settlers to the city, more and more people are turning to urban agriculture for food and income. Organic waste is fed to worms in large soil-filled containers which soon turn it into high-quality compost for vegetable gardens. Several thousand people are estimated to earn a living from the informal collection of trash, says Eduardo Spiaggi, who introduced the vermiculture system. Before the worms arrived organic trash was just dumped. Now the concept has caught on and is spreading throughout the community.

Africa

MADAGASCAR: RICE INTENSIFICATION

In Madagascar a system of intensification is dramatically increasing rice yields without introducing new varieties or using chemical fertilizers. The system, developed by academics and NGOs, requires only simple changes to traditional rice cultivation. Seedlings are transplanted after around 10 days instead of the usual one month. Instead of planting clumps of three or four seedlings, care is taken to plant just one - the spacing is increased between plants, allowing the roots to grow better. The height of water in the fields is reduced to a few centimetres and then drained altogether a month before harvest, allowing more oxygen to reach the plant roots. Compost is applied and weeding done using a hand tiller before the weeds emerge. Yields have increased dramatically to between two and seven times the yield of conventional methods in the same area.

TUNISIA: GREENING THE OASIS

Surrounded by the Sahara Desert, the Matmata Mountains and the sea, the Chnini Oasis in Tunisia is being revitalized by locals who formed the Save the Chnini Oasis Organization (ASOC) in 1994. For years the oasis had been degraded by pollution, increased water use and soil impoverishment. The land had become fragmented by urbanization and the farmers were growing old. Now the oasis has gone organic and recycles green waste for compost, a process it also teaches in local schools. The locals are encouraged to get involved with the garden, which maintains agricultural biodiversity, and an animal husbandry project with sheep, goats and bees.

KENYA: PUSH AND PULL THE PESTS

Stemborers are a moth-larvae pest in Kenya that wipes out much of the maize or sorghum crop, as does the dreaded witchweed (striga) root parasite, often leaving little to harvest. In response the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) has developed an ingenious system to deal with the problem. Rows of napier or sudan grass are planted around the edge of the crop, attracting the stemborers with their smell. A gummy substance secreted by the tall grasses then traps the pests. The grass doubles as excellent animal fodder. Molasses grass and silver-leaf desmodium are planted amongst the crop to repel the stemborer. The desmodium also dramatically suppresses the growth of striga weed and protects against erosion. While some plants push the stemborer away from the crop, others on the perimeter attract or pull it, thus ensuring a bigger harvest.

EUROPE

GERMANY: THE DOME FOREST GARDEN

Agroforestry is often associated with the tropics because the increased light and warmth make cultivation of plants beneath the tree canopy a viable option. German agroforester Harald Wedig has spent years developing an agroforestry system suitable for Europe's temperate climate by designing the layout of trees in a circular dome shape that mimics the edge of a natural forest.

The method combines a framework of fruit and nut tree placeholders with perimeter berries and vegetables. 'I don't want to talk about specific lists of plants because the possibilities are almost infinite,' stresses Harald. 'The choice depends more on climate, altitude and soil type.' The integrated and compact system also incorporates social benefits such as shared community participation and knowledge generation. Communities around Europe have been quick to pick up on the idea, with projects already established in Romania, Germany and Holland.

Asia/Pacific

LAOS: STICKY RICE RULES

Forty-seven ethnic groups inhabit Laos and between them cultivate up to 4,000 varieties of rice - a diversity rivalled only by India. Individual villages and even families may cultivate up to a dozen varieties, the majority using traditional and organic techniques. Part of the reason for such extraordinary diversity is that until now the Green Revolution has passed Laos by. The locals prefer sticky rice and so did not take up the non-sticky, high-yielding varieties of the Green Revolution. An isolationist communist government further limited the take-up of new seed varieties in the 1970s. Few agri-chemicals are sold and there is little mechanization. One farmer says: 'I prefer to keep ploughing with buffalo because they have other benefits. The manure is good for the crops and we can sell the calves in the market to gain some extra income.'

JAPAN: DO NOTHING

Masanobu Fukuoka returned to his father's mountain farm in southern Japan over 50 years ago, after a serious illness caused him to rethink his training. He sums up his Zen-inspired approach to farming thus: 'Do nothing, but do it intelligently.' With no ploughing, weeding, fertilizers, external compost, pruning or chemicals, his minimalist approach reduces labour time to a fifth of more conventional practices. Yet his success in yields is comparable to more resource-intensive methods. Central to his approach is the seed ball. He says: 'All we do is wrap many kinds of seeds in clay balls and just keep sowing them. Then do nothing, just leave everything to nature.' The method is now being widely adopted to vegetate arid areas. His books, such as The One-Straw Revolution, have been inspirational to cultivators the world over.

PHILIPPINES: Farmers are scientists

The Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development, or MASIPAG, was started in the Philippines in 1985 by farmers concerned about their dependence on the chemicals and seeds needed to grow the rice varieties that were introduced by the Green Revolution. They sought to remove that dependency and empower farmers by using varieties tailored to the local eco-system. By 1999 MASIPAG had grown to 484 farmers' organizations and a membership of 20,864 farmers cultivating 17,165 hectares of land. The movement gives farmers control over their seed and the opportunity to use their knowledge to explore sustainable farm-based technologies. It has become a significant political force for change towards sustainable farming practices.

BANGLADESH: Saving the seed

Over 100,000 farming families are part of the Bangladeshi Nayakrishi Andolan or 'New Agriculture Movement'. They have set up seed banks that they call 'community seed wealth centres' of traditional varieties, and by engaging in seed swapping, bypass commercial seed entirely. This maintains not only their own self-reliance, but the biodiversity of the world's agricultural resources - they have over one thousand varieties of rice and 37 vegetable varieties. The slogan of the women in Nayakrishi Andolan is 'Keep the seed in your hand, sister.' Farida Akhtar of UBINIG, the co-ordinating organization, says: 'Modern agriculture is all about high yields and fashion foods. Our agriculture is about nurturing the seed. The main capital is not cash, but farmers' knowledge.'

CHINA: ANCIENT HARVEST

Just as their ancestors did, the tribal Jiluo people of Xishuangbanna, southern China, still gather food and medicines from the tropical forests. Now the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden is researching which plants and fungi make it to the local markets. Varieties that prove popular are then cultivated in home gardens to increase yield and cut down on gathering-times. Guo Huijun, Director of the botanical gardens, working with the local people to preserve threatened varieties, says: 'People and their knowledge create agricultural plant varieties and so are part of a holistic system that depends on each other.' In just a few seasons, wild seeds gathered in the forest will have been bred domestically and begun to display different characteristics - a process that reflects the first steps at the dawn of agriculture.

Source: Seedling, July 2002, GRAIN Publications.

FURTHER RESOURCES:

www.farmingsolutions.org is a new website set up by Oxfam Great Britain, Greenpeace UK, and ILEIA, using examples from around the world to demonstrate that ‘ecologically and socially sound farming systems are not a luxury but a necessity, providing the most effective means to combat hunger’.

GRAIN’s Growing Diversity project documents grassroots initiatives to preserve agricultural biodiversity from around the world www.grain.org/gd.

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