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Opinion: Eco-efficient Crop and Livestock Production for Nicaraguan Farmers

Kwesi Atta-Krah is the Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics (Humidtropics). Reynaldo Bismarck Mendoza is a soil scientist at the Universidad Nacional Agraria.

A field day conducted to share information with farmers. Credit: Lucía Gaitán

MANAGUA, Mar 5 2015 (IPS) - For Roberto Pineda, a smallholder farmer in the Somotillo municipality of Nicaragua, his traditional practice after each harvest was to cut down and burn all crop residues on his land, a practice known as “slash-and-burn” agriculture.

A widespread practice on these sub-humid hillsides of Central America, it was nonetheless causing many negative environmental implications, including poor soil quality, erosion, nutrient leaching, and the loss of ecosystem diversity. Slash-and-burn allows farmers to use land for only one to three years before the plots become too degraded and must be abandoned.

The programme offers farmers like Pineda an easily established yet biologically complex option, combining traditional knowledge with new insights into sustainable land management to maintain crop productivity for many years.

“We used to work in our traditional way, pruning everything down to the ground, and if there was anything left we would burn it,” he said. “The land would be destroyed and things weren’t getting better.”

But about three years ago, Pineda and a group of farmers became involved in an agroforestry programme overseen by a group of partners including the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) as well as Nicaraguan, American, Austrian and Colombian institutions.

The programme works with farmers to enhance the eco-efficiency of their rural landscapes, helping them to introduce stress-adapted crop and forage options and improve crop and livestock productivity and profitability. This helps smallholders not only to improve local ecosystems but also to adapt to extreme climate conditions and safeguard soil fertility and food production over the long term.

“Now we have seen a change,” Pineda said. “We used to yield 10 quintals per manzana, and now we produce between 30 and 40 quintals per manzana. We have improved our natural resources, and trees have grown. Before, we had no trees and there was no rain.”

How it works

The programme offers farmers like Pineda an easily established yet biologically complex option, combining traditional knowledge with new insights into sustainable land management to maintain crop productivity for many years.

Farmers are encouraged to plant a scattering of trees in their croplands, thereby stabilising the hillsides and minimising soil erosion. The trees also capture carbon dioxide, help fix nitrogen in the soil and draw up essential crop nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium from deeper soil layers.

The trees are pruned regularly, and the cuttings are laid around the crops as nutritious mulch, providing them nutrients and retaining moisture to protect them against periods of drought while reducing nutrient leaching. The remaining required nutrients are supplied by eco-efficient use of chemical fertilizers.

The overall result is a more productive, resilient farming system that can withstand the increasingly variable climate conditions of Central America, ranging from extended periods of drought to intense rain, and thus improve income and food security for the rural families.

This is especially important as climate conditions are becoming more unpredictable as a result of climate change. For instance, over a three-year period, the yields of key staple crops such as maize, beans and sorghum increased; farmers obtained secondary incomes from selling surplus wood; and in most plots soil loss was converted into net soil accumulation of 40 tonnes per hectare, as a result of the new methods introduced.

What next?

The project started implementing its activities with a sample size of 16 farm households in north Nicaragua. As these trials proved successful, the system was disseminated to around 300 farmers in the area through Farmer Field Schools and guided visits.

Programs like this are good examples of a new holistic approach to agricultural research put forth by Humidtropics, which looks at the system as a whole – from farm, landscape, province, agro-ecological zone, region – in order to understand how these components interact with each other, and better manage the synergies, trade-offs and overall integrity of the ecosystem within which the farming takes place.

The farmer and her community are central in this research approach, including exploring the specific roles and opportunities for women, men and youth and focusing improving their resilience.

Ultimately, this programme has the potential to reach 10,000 smallholder farmers to help them boost their productivity through the sustainable intensification of their limited resources. Furthermore, its methods can be disseminated through community radio stations and local television networks to reach over 200,000 farm households in Nicaragua and Honduras.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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