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Ancient lesson in agroforestry - slash but don't burn

Ready for planting, this QSMAS plot will improve soil quality and help to regenerate secondary forest (CPWF-CIAT)
Ready for planting, this QSMAS plot will improve soil quality and help to regenerate secondary forest

Derived from words meaning soil, vegetation and a convergence of streams, Quezungual is the name of an ancient village in southwest Honduras. For an area lush with trees and crops, which cover the steep slopes surrounding the village, the name is quite apt. But less than twenty years ago, the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture had led to degraded soils, water scarcity and declining crop yields. Now, the soil, the trees and the water resources have been restored by introducing a new system which draws on an early practice of tree management discovered in the area.

Known as the Quesungual Slash and Mulch Agroforestry System (QSMAS), in honour of the village where it was first identified, this eco-efficient system is founded on four key principles: no slash-and-burn, permanent soil cover, no tillage, and efficient use of fertiliser. The most significant change is the elimination of burning and the introduction of a slash-and-mulch system. The result has been the natural regeneration of around 60,000 hectares of secondary forest, restoration of the soil quality, and consequently better crop yields and incomes for at least 6,000 smallholder farmers who have adopted the system.

Pruning and planting

In comparison to areas under slash-and-burn which are only productive for a few years and then abandoned, QSMAS allows production for up to 10 or 12 years, as soil quality is sustained and even improved over time. The process starts with the selective pruning of an area of natural vegetation, including a diversity of trees and shrubs. Trunks and large branches are used for firewood and timber, whilst the remaining vegetation is used as mulch.

In the first year pioneer crops, such as sorghum and beans, are sown by broadcast to grow through the mulch, whilst in subsequent years maize is grown as the main crop. Management of the plot involves continuous (2-3 times at year) slashing and pruning of the trees and shrubs to avoid excessive shading of the crop. Leaf litter and crop residues provide further mulch and nutrients, although additional spot fertiliser is used.

Protecting soil, water and harvests

By forming groups, QSMAS farmers have established better links with local markets (CPWF-CIAT)
By forming groups, QSMAS farmers have established better links with local markets

Aracely Castro, a QSMAS researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), emphasises that the benefits of the system are wide ranging. "If you ask farmers how they have benefited," she says, "they will mention a wide variety of things: more water, improved food security, they are healthier, the children can be educated and they are even more committed to managing their natural resources, among others." As well as earning more income, the QSMAS farmers have formed groups to buy fertilisers and other inputs, have established better links with local markets and have improved their diets by setting up home gardens.

Proof of the improved resilience of the system was evident when the region suffered successive extreme weather events as a result of the El Nino drought in 1997 and Hurricane Mitch a year later. Far less soil, water and crop losses were reported by farmers during these events and much greater adoption of QSMAS was observed in subsequent years. For QSMAS farmers, severe seasonal water scarcity is now less of a constraint, with domestic water availability and quality also improving.

Nicaragua and beyond

The success of QSMAS in Honduras is evident. However, to validate the results and to test the system's potential in similar regions, the Challenge Program on Water and Food, through CIAT and its partners, introduced the system in 2005 to communities in northwest Nicaragua. The system was welcomed and proved successful, spreading beyond the validation sites. As a result, slash-and-burn has been significantly reduced. However, researchers are also keen to emphasise the importance of social organisation in the QSMAS success, in creating long-term commitment to collective goals. Further scaling up, they argue, should include the development of government policy and support, and strategic partnerships with organisations dealing with sustainable development.

With success in Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia, QSMAS could also be applied in the uplands of Southeast Asia (CPWF-CIAT)
With success in Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia, QSMAS could also be applied in the uplands of Southeast Asia

With the validation of the system in Nicaragua and also in Colombia, it is evident that QSMAS could be appropriate for other drought-prone areas in the sub-humid tropics. There are of course many factors that need to be taken into account emphasises Castro, including choosing the right trees and learning to manage them in the right way. There are also cultural issues that have to be overcome. For instance, leaving mulch on the ground makes a plot untidy and may be culturally difficult for some farmers to accept.

However, Castro is optimistic that this is a system that works under sub-humid conditions and that it could well be applied in the uplands of Southeast Asia, for example in Lao PDR and Vietnam. She would also like to test it in Ethiopia and the tropical region of the Andes. "What we need," she says, "is to deliver a system to allow farmers to cope with climate variability and at the same time to be more eco-efficient." She concludes, "If we don't do it now, when we know the pressures farmers face with climate change and water shortages, under which circumstances will we achieve it?"

Date published: November 2009


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Here are a few useful links: http://bit.ly/SYuJYH; http://bi... (posted by: New Agriculturist)

is there publications about The Quesungual Slash and Mulch A... (posted by: viguier)

Thank you for your paper. Interesting. You said : "ancient ... (posted by: viguier)


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