Mimicking nature to grow more

Posted: 18 September 2000

Author: Charlie Pye-Smith

Author Info: Charlie Pye-Smith is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in environment and development issues.

The poor red baked soils common in the hilly peasant farms of Central Honduras, are becoming dark, rich producing ones through new organic farming methods. Charlie Pye-Smith travelled through the region to research this report.

"I used to farm these fields using traditional methods," explains Francisco Cerratos. "I grew corn mostly, but the soil was so poor I hardly produced anything." Then in 1992 an organisation called COSECHA visited the hilly country to the east of Guaimaca, in Central Honduras, with news that even these hostile tropical soils could be made productive. "They suggested I grow beans as well as corn," recalls Francisco. "People round here said it wouldn't work, but in reality we'd never tried."

Francisco Cerratos on his farm, Central Honduras© Charlie Pye-SmithFour years ago Francisco sowed 5 lbs of beans and harvested 100 lbs. Since then his yields have tripled and the methods introduced by COSECHA - contour planting, mulching, minimum tillage - have transformed him, in his own words, from peasant to producer. "My life has changed," he says simply.

"Now we have enough money to buy the food and clothes we need." With a pistol poking from trouser pocket, and hat tipped cockily to one side, Francisco exudes confidence.

None of this surprises Eduardo Tomas, the Guatemalan Indian who taught Francisco new ways of farming. For the past 20 years - first as an extension worker for the American non-governmental organisation World Neighbours, now as co-ordinator for COSECHA (the Association of Consultants for a Sustainable, Ecological and People-Centred Agriculture) - Eduardo has been weaning farmers off crops and methods of cultivation which destroy soils, and introducing them to techniques which restore fertility.

"Chemically, I can't tell you how this soil has changed," he says, stooping to feel the earth in Francisco's bean field, "but I can see the difference. Before it was red and baked. Now it is black and rich in organic matter."

Francisco used to plant crops in rows across the slope of his fields. Now, using a simple device known as an A-frame, he plants along the contours. He also sows a green manure crop, velvetbean, alongside the food crops, and he practices minimum tillage: the less the soil is disturbed, the less erosion there will be.

In nearby San Jose, Pedro Matute is one of 37 farmers - out of 56 - who have taken Eduardo's advice, and his bean yields have quadrupled in the past four years. "At first," says Pedro, "many farmers round here were suspicious. When they saw me planting along the contours they scoffed. But I carried on. I didn't listen." However, Pedro knew he was onto a good thing, having witnessed World Neighbours' endeavours in the Cantarranas region. Here, and in three other areas in Central America, its farmer-to-farmer extension programmes have had a profound impact on rural communities. Their success lies not so much in what was achieved during the years when the organisation was active, but in what has happened since it left: yields have continued to rise as farmers have adapted and improved the technologies introduced by World Neighbours.

Pedro Matute in his bean fields© Charlie Pye-SmithRoland Bunch, the director of COSECHA, was a key player in World Neighbours' various programmes in Honduras and Guatemala in the 1980s. "Most farmers simply don't believe that soil can be improved while they're farming it," says Bunch from his office in Valle de Angeles. "And most western scientists seem to think the same. They claim you can only build up topsoil at the rate of an inch a century. But here we have indications that we are increasing topsoil by a third of an inch a year."

It took Bunch some time to work out precisely how he and the farmers were doing this. "What we now realise," he says, "is that if you are going to use these soils, you have to do what moist tropical forests do. You have to mimic nature and get nutrients from the mulch, from the litter layer." Planting along the contours counteracts the gravitational movement of water, slows down soil erosion and leads to the natural formation of small terraces. The use of green manure helps to protect the soil from the sun and slow down evaporation. Just as significantly, the manure and the mulches - rather than the soil - provide nutrients for the food crops.

Since Bunch and his Guatemalan colleagues left World Neighbours in 1992 - the latter had decided to dispense with non-Honduran staff - they have continued to promote what is cumbersomely termed participatory technology development. This involves farmers and agronomists working together to find the technologies which help improve soils and raise yields. Bunch stresses that what matters is not that the technologies are sustainable - often they are not - but that farmers become involved in a process of innovation which is sustainable.

Development agencies frequently pronounce their projects to be successful, forgetting that true success can only be measured long after their departure. All too often agricultural projects collapse once the agencies withdraw. Referring to a recent analysis of farm practices in three areas where World Neighbours were active in the 1980s and early 1990s, Bunch says: "We now have scientific proof that farmers have carried on the process of development and further increased their yields since we left."

In 1987, when World Neighbours arrived in Guacamayas, none of the farmers rotated their crops. When they left in 1993, 36 did; now 58 do. In the village of Xesuj in Guatemala, none of the farmers used green manure when World Neighbours arrived in 1972. By the time it left seven years later, 20 farmers were using green manure; now 36 are.

Irma Guttierrez's plot of steep land in Guacamayas, an hour's drive from COSECHA's office, looks like a model farm, yet the transformation from arid pasture to productive cropland has largely taken place since World Neighbours left. Above the house where her brother lives - he looks after the land while Irma works for COSECHA - are coffee and fruit trees; below there is a mix of soft fruit and vegetables. Scarcely an inch of soil is visible. Green manures and a mulch of crop residues form a dense mat around taller crops like maize, and the terraces are rimmed with 'live barriers'. The barriers help to slow down the movement of soil and water, and by trapping soil they actually encourage terrace formation. In Guacamayas, and in the Guinope region in South Honduras, the changing nature of the live barriers provides a compelling illustration of farmers improving an introduced technology.

When World Neighbours moved into Guinope in 1981, farmers were encouraged to plant king grass and napier grass along the contours. According to John Hellin, a researcher from the British Natural Resources Institute now based in Honduras, these two grasses proved far from ideal. "They are very good at retaining the soil," he explains as he tramps along a luxuriant barrier, "but they are very invasive. They suffocate other plants and leach nutrients away from the food crops. They may be good fodder crops, but in Guinope farmers have little livestock."

As a result many farmers have pulled out the grasses, but they have not abandoned the technology. Lucio Nunez, for example, has replaced the grasses with coffee, plantains, sugar cane, peaches and other perennial food crops. "What Lucio and many other farmers want," says Hellin, "is a barrier which helps retain the soil and at the same time provides them with food."

As an outsider, Hellin is well placed to judge the achievements of World Neighbours, and he highlights two factors which have contributed to its success in Guinope. First, World Neighbours recognised that farmers wanted to see tangible benefits as quickly as possible, so it encouraged them to use chicken manure as a fertilizer. Yields rocketed; the farmers were impressed. Second, World Neighbours understood that the new technologies were a means to an end, not an end in themselves. It encouraged farmers to be innovative, and the transformation of the live barriers is testimony that they have been. In one village alone, 16 innovations have been adopted since the programme finished in 1989.

Nowadays farmers in Guinope seldom refer to World Neighbours. Rather, they talk of los Guatemaltecos, referring to the Guatemalan extension officers who passed their knowledge on to the local farmers, some of whom were trained as village extension workers themselves. The latter received a three-year training and most were unpaid. "They did the job for the honour and self-esteem it brought," reflects Hellin approvingly, "not for material gain."

Bunch has come up with four key factors which contributed to the success of the World Neighbours programmes, and which should guide organisations working with farmers. The 'farmer first' approach, using village extension workers and participatory technology development, is of fundamental importance. There should be rapid, identifiable gains for the farmers. The process should be initiated using a small number of technologies. Finally, farmers should be encouraged to avoid all forms of dependency and be capable of taking over programmes when development agencies leave.


Learning from a lifetime of experience For the past 30 years Roland Bunch has been tramping through the bean fields of Central America. His down-to-earth experiences with peasant farmers and his championing of 'people-centred development' were lucidly expressed in his celebrated work, Two Ears of Corn, which since its publication in 1982 has been translated into Gujarati, Vietnamese, Indonesian and many other languages. Bunch is disturbed by the fads in agricultural development. "We are forever hearing that such and such a crop or technology is the answer," he says wearily. "And for a while there will be a boom, soon to be followed by a bust."

A while ago people saw the winged bean as the salvation of poor farmer; then it was the miracle tree, Leucaena. At present it is vetiver grass, much-loved as a live barrier by the World Bank; at other times it was strawberries or mushrooms. Occasionally there is a boom which lasts. "The participation boom has worked out," says Bunch, but he swiftly adds that many organisations have been too starry-eyed about the ability of village farmers to provide all the solutions to their problems. "The dominant theory now is that we should ask villagers what their problems are and how to solve them - then help them do it," says Bunch. "My feeling is that if villagers already know the solutions to their problems, why are they so dumb they haven't applied them?"

Bunch points out that poor people, left to their own devices, will often mimic the rich. In Honduras, for example, the poor often want to get hold of tractors, rear cattle and use chemicals. "It would be a tragedy if we went back to the we'll-tell-you-what-to-do mode of development," says Bunch, "but I do think there needs to be a partnership between agronomists and villagers." In many instances villagers are not aware of technologies which can help them. Experience in Honduras bears this out. It was the Brazilians who first discovered the benefits of zero tillage; the Costa Ricans who realised mulches could be used as fertilizer.

Organisations like World Neighbours and COSECHA have put farmers in touch with technologies they knew nothing about. Bunch believes that work in Honduras and Guatemala proves that farmers can get very high yields using almost organic or low input systems. "I suspect organic agriculture could be more profitable than high input chemical agriculture," he says, "but nearly all the agricultural research goes on chemical farming." And what if there was a switch to research into organic farming? "Then in 15 to 20 years," replies Bunch, "organic farming would blow high input agriculture out of the ocean."