In Ecuador, rural communities work to adjust their farming strategies as they watch glaciers melt each year and rainfall patterns change. In Haiti, rural communities have been barraged by a series of shocks in recent years: multiple hurricanes, droughts, the earthquake of January 2010, and spikes in food prices in 2008. In West Africa, farmers are facing a collapse in soil fertility that is threatening their ability to survive.
In these cases and others, Groundswell and our partners are working with communities to farm more sustainably and productively and to become more resilient:
Ecuador: The katalysis program of our partner EkoRural guides farmers through discovery based learning processes to understand how much rainfall is washing off of their rooftops and fields, and what it could be used for. They then experiment with low cost methods to better harvest and use that water – like cisterns, tanks made of old tires, and drip irrigation. They discover that one of the best ways to capture water where it is needed is through improved soil conservation and organic matter. For example, Alfonso is a farmer in the northern Andean highlands who could barely sustain his wife and three children on what his farm was producing. Through an EkoRural workshop, he learned to capture water in tire tanks. Using the water when the rains stopped, his production rose. He shared his experience and organized some neighboring farmers to invest $200 each to tap a mountain spring with tubes and bring the water to storage ponds near their farms. With this irrigation source he planted a new plot of alfalfa, used part of the harvest to begin producing guinea pigs (a local food source), and used the manure from the guinea pigs to produce compost to improve the soil in order to plant a grove of mango trees. In 18 months he raised his income from $700 to $1,700, and the mangos will produce new income for his family in 5 years, helping to pay for school and healthcare for his children. Alfonso is now teaching others to harvest water and improve their lives.
West Africa: Farmers traditionally managed soil by fallowing land for 12-15 years to restore fertility, and clearing new land to cultivate. But now growing population pressures means increased pressure on the land, and the dangerous reduction of fallowing periods to 2 years or less. This is creating a vicious cycle, as declining soil fertility leads farmers to cultivate increased areas in order to achieve the same or even reduced levels of food production. Pressure on available land has reduced grazing areas, and so farmers have reduced the size of their livestock herds. This results in less manure to maintain soil fertility. Finally, the price of nitrogen-based chemical fertilizer (due to the end of cheap oil) has more than doubled in most of Africa in the recent years and therefore has become, and will continue to be, too expensive to produce an economic benefit for the vast majority of Africa’s subsistence farmers. A dangerous tipping point in declining soil fertility and desertification is being reached. Farming communities must find alternative solutions. Groundswell is supporting farmers to learn about and expand the adoption soil conservation and improvement techniques. This includes farmer managed natural regeneration of trees (FMNR), and the promotion of nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops. FMNR is a form of “simultaneous fallowing” – fallowing and farming on the same plot at the same time. Through FMNR farmers select shoots from the “underground forest of stumps” that survive on their land, and allow these to regenerate. Regenerating trees and agroforestry systems improve soil organic matter, fertility and production levels, while providing firewood and animal fodder. This approach has promise to help re-green the Sahel.
Haiti: With the support of Groundswell’s partner organization Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL), local peasant organizations are spreading agroecological farming practices, managing community seeds and grain banks, and increasing their food security. When food prices spiked globally and in Haiti in 2008, causing hunger and political unrest leading to the downfall of the prime minister, these rural communities were able to use the food reserves they had developed. Their level of organization and their sustainable production methods have allowed local peasant organizations to become more resilient – and to recover more quickly from the hurricanes and droughts that are becoming more frequent with changing climate patterns. After the devastating earthquake of January 2012, the peasant organizations we support took in 10,000 displaced people fleeing destruction in the urban areas, and were able to house and feed them and help get them back on their feet. PDL is supporting many of these peasant organizations to set up Disaster Response Committees to plan ahead, prevent negative impacts, and improve their responses.