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Learning not to burn - transforming land and livelihoods in Central America

On the edge of the rainforests of Central America, smoke rising through the air tells a story of desperation and environmental disaster. The infamous practice of slash-and-burn is renowned for accelerating the erosion of topsoil, reducing agricultural productivity and impacting upon watersheds. But without other options at their disposal, farmers are often unable to break free of the slash-and-burn cycle.

New farming techiniques have enabled smallscale farmers to move away from slash-and-butn (SHI)
New farming techiniques have enabled smallscale farmers to move away from slash-and-butn

Recently, however, some have been restoring the land using a variety of techniques. Cover crops, trees, mulch, compost and crop rotation have improved soil health and helped to keep crops healthy and resistant to pests and diseases. A variety of Integrated Pest Management techniques, including strategic planting and the production of natural pesticides have enabled farmers to save money and avoid the use of potentially dangerous chemical pesticides. Tree planting and erosion control barriers made from rocks, trees or other materials have also helped to prevent their improved topsoil from washing away.

The soil's second chance

One strategy to replenish and maintain soil fertility involves the creation of bocashi. This highly effective and inexpensive natural fertiliser can be made from readily-available materials, including manure, coffee pulp, or rice hulls, together with yeast and molasses. These are then mixed with healthy soil. The yeast feeds on the molasses during a 15-day fermentation and decomposition process, aided by mixing manually twice-a-day. The bocashi mix is then added to crops, and yields either match or improve upon those obtained with chemical fertilisers - at a fraction of the cost.

Some farmers are also learning a variety of natural, inexpensive pest-control techniques. Many abundant ingredients - such as hot peppers, cow urine, garlic, mashed papaya or cacao leaves - are applied to different crops to combat fungi or insects. Alley-cropping is another simple technique to restore soil fertility. Nitrogen-fixing trees such as Leucaena and Acacia from farmer-run nurseries are planted between rows of staple crops such as corn and cassava. They carry nitrogen from their taproots deep in the earth up to the topsoil.

The trees serve a variety of other uses. Multi-storey cropping, which mimics the benefits of a natural tropical rainforest , protects hillsides and water sources from erosion and run-off. Hardwoods in the overstorey shade fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing trees, which in turn shade an understorey of shade-loving cash crops such as coffee and cacao. Other cash crops such as peppers, vanilla and ginger thrive on the ground. In Belize, for example, some families growing cacao in this manner are make around US$750-a-year from selling the beans. Cover cropping, mulching and crop rotation all inhibit insect attack and slow the spread of disease, while border cropping - the use of less-valuable crops to draw pests away from valuable cash crops - can also offer effective protection. Tree branches providing too much shade can be pruned for firewood, while twigs and leaves serve as natural mulch.

A Helping hand

A young farmer inspects his maize crop, which has benefited from the application of bocashi (SHI)
A young farmer inspects his maize crop, which has benefited from the application of bocashi

These techniques have been shared with farmers by Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), which works with more than 90 communities in Honduras, Panamá, Belize and Nicaragua. When starting a program in a new area, SHI field trainers meet with community leaders and potential participants to assess the social, environmental and economic conditions. "Participants learn first and foremost how to sustainably feed their families using one piece of land," says Christina Venessa Becherer, SHI development coordinator. "Organic gardening practices are a focal point, and participants are benefiting from the nutrition of garden vegetables, often for the first time in their lives. Income-generating endeavours and broader environmental projects follow."

Although transforming agriculture from slash-and-burn to sustainable farming takes time, SHI's long-term approach ensures that the techniques take root in the community and will continue to flourish after the years of training are complete. To date, SHI has identified almost 200 'graduate families' who no longer need regular technical assistance. Don Cheyo, a graduate of SHI's Honduras Program, says "We eat better and I live with the land - planting good food, building up the soil and planting trees. I have learned not to burn."

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: March 2008


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