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Enhancing natural resources in Ecuador's highlands

Thirteen production systems were selected for on-farm research (© Victor Barrera)
Thirteen production systems were selected for on-farm research
© Victor Barrera

Dominated by the Andes, Ecuador's highlands are characterised by environmental degradation. Lagging agricultural productivity has led to incursions into highland areas and farming on steep slopes. Farmers in the region are also concerned that, due to climate change, rainfall is becoming increasingly irregular and water sources are not being recharged quickly enough.

To enhance natural resources in Ecuador's highlands, a research partnership was formed between Ecuador's national agricultural research institute, several US universities and local farmers. To help identify and introduce environmentally friendly farming practices to the area, the research programme used an adaptive watershed management process, which involves consultation with stakeholders, formation of a watershed plan and ongoing research and monitoring to adapt the plan over time.

Mapping the scene

To begin with, farmers, local government officials, and community leaders from the communities of Illanagma and Alumbre in Bolivar Province came together to identify income-generating activities, local assets and stakeholder perceptions about environmental conditions. This information was used to create a Geographic Information System (GIS) thematic map to help community members visualise current agro-ecological conditions and the ways their farming practices affect the natural environment. The farmers, together with the research team, then designed on-farm research to identify land use practices to increase productivity while also reducing environmental damage.

Substantial adoption of new varieties has occurred (© Victor Barrera)
Substantial adoption of new varieties has occurred
© Victor Barrera

Thirteen production systems were selected for on-farm research, including improved crop rotations, structures such as deviation ditches and use of native species to create live barriers, reduced tillage, improved ground cover, contour planting, and improved pastures. Trials were established on pilot farms to evaluate impacts on income, labour use and environmental degradation. A vulnerability mapping exercise also uncovered evidence that some of the most eroded land was being farmed intensively. Research, therefore, also focused on the physical and economic consequences of less intensive land use.

Conservation agriculture

Research results demonstrated the benefits of using improved varieties of potato, faba beans, barley, quinoa and chocho. "Conservation agriculture practices also increased productivity, enhanced soil retention and improved soil health," explains Carlos Monar, Dean of Natural Resources at the State University of Bolivar. More intensive management was also concentrated in less vulnerable and more productive areas, which helped improve incomes. Meanwhile, integrated pest management practices reduced input costs and increased agro-diversity, and lower profit risks increased food security.

Using the results, recommendations for best management practices were then prepared, but varied according to farm location, farm size and farmer preferences. In Illangama, improvements in farmers' income between 2006 and 2010 resulted from incremental increases in yields of potatoes, faba beans, chocho, barley, quinoa and pasture. Late blight-resistant potato varieties, improved soil fertility and use of better-quality seeds helped lower costs. Ground cover throughout the year became more widespread, the net profits of potato rose due to reduced pesticide use, and milk production increased following the adoption of improved forages and better sanitation and feeding practices. Food security also improved due to the introduction of diversified grain sources, such as quinoa, which increase energy and protein intake.

Conservation agriculture practices increased productivity, enhanced soil retention and improved soil health (© Victor Barrera)
Conservation agriculture practices increased productivity, enhanced soil retention and improved soil health
© Victor Barrera

Substantial adoption of new varieties has therefore occurred and land use patterns are changing. "Improved land use planning has reduced cultivation on the most vulnerable land and improved ecosystem services," states Luis Escudero, one of the project leaders. "And the ability to observe farming practices on local farms has built confidence in the new practices which have spread naturally. Prior to 2006, conservation agriculture was not practised but various techniques are now widely found." An indigenous innovation resulting from the project intervention, for example, led to the protection of deviation ditches with various local species. Contour cultivation is also widely practsced now in both watersheds, irrigation management has improved and actions have been taken to protect areas of water recharge.

Team work

A lack of finance to help households survive during the transition from intensive to extensive production is one challenge that constrains adoption of conservation agriculture. The communities are, however, seeking means of easing the transition to more sustainable practices and a local bank is being established. "Farmers high in the watershed do not benefit from reduced flooding lower in the watershed or from carbon that is sequestered in their own soil. We have identified ways of compensating them for their actions: negotiations with governments in areas lower in the watershed, where benefits are felt, and the possibility of receiving carbon credits from international organisations," says Escudero.

"Key to the programme's success was the participatory research. Results of the research and adoption of the technologies enabled farmers to address long-term problems of resource degradation," states Rosa Arévalo, a local university student participating in the project. The most important lesson, however, was the necessity of building consensus within communities and engaging all of the stakeholders. "The effort required to reach this point was substantial and involved tireless exercises in outreach, networking and engagement. This process is long, but results clearly demonstrate that the programme was well worth the effort," adds Monar.

The school curriculum in the area now includes components related to water quality and biodiversity (© Victor Barrera)
The school curriculum in the area now includes components related to water quality and biodiversity
© Victor Barrera

The project worked closely with local governments in Illangama and Alumbre, and the regional governments of Guaranda canton and Bolivar province. To monitor water quality, for example, key macro-invertebrates were identified in exercises with local schools, and the school curriculum in the area now includes components related to water quality and biodiversity. The University of Bolivar has also used the experience to engage advanced undergraduate students in agriculture-based community development. And at a national level, the Ecuadorean secretariat for scientific research (SENESCYT) has provided resources to expand the project to other areas.

Written by: Victor Hugo Barrera and Jeffrey Alwang

Date published: May 2012


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