Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 171 | Octubre 1995



Sustainable Agriculture: The Way Out?

The new natural technologies are economically and ecologically sustainable, and the are the only possibility for Nicaragua. For that reason they must be made politically possible.

Raquel Fernández

The crop systems used by peasants in the community of Las Cañas, Matagalpa, are being transformed. The peasants are using neither neolithic agriculture letting nature take its course nor the "Green Revolution" model, with its aggressive technological package. The goal is rather an agricultural system that can make maximum use of nature's multifold possibilities, but without breaking the delicate balance of life. To set out on this road, the peasants had to change some of their most deeply rooted beliefs. Perhaps the most important discovery they've made is that someone who produces food is important, and must be intelligent and skillful, even though society may not recognize that. Bolstered by this new conviction and supported by technical advisers from the Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), these peasants began to transform their agricultural practices three years ago.

Half a Century of Chemical Use and Abuse

The Center for Tropical Agronomic Research and Teaching (CATIE) has been operating in Nicaragua since the 1970s. An institution of the Central American, Mexican and Dominican governments, CATIE coordinates agricultural activities and the fight against pests and blights. In recent years, sustainable agriculture has been gaining ground as an option within CATIE. Currently, CATIE's IPM program in Nicaragua is studying ways to combat blights in coffee, tomato and banana crops, using chemical inputs as infrequently as possible, but not totally rejecting them either. The problem is that, after 50 years of chemical use and abuse, the soil is so imbalanced that it will be some time before chemicals can be entirely abandoned.
Without knowing, the ancestors of today's peasants in Las Cañas had accumulated a great deal of knowledge regarding agriculture, and passed it on from generation to generation. All members of the community more or less knew the same techniques, planted using the same methods and dealt similarly with blights and pests, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

Then the transnational chemical companies set up shop in the country, offering nearly magical solutions to the problems of pests and blights. They didn't offer advice, they gave orders. As problems arose, they would hand out the verdict: "Use such and such a product, at this or that strength," and soon the problem would disappear. The peasants were dazzled. Furthermore, if they didn't accept these simplistic recipes, they were denied access to credit. It was worth it to go into debt to obtain such costly products because, in the end, the profits outweighed the costs.

In the beginning, that is. Once some time had gone by, the gap between profits and costs had shrunk to the point where it was no longer profitable to keep on planting. But, by that time, the peasants were agriculturally and economically dependent on the chemical inputs. The pests had become so resistant to the pesticides and the soil was so leeched that going back to the old agricultural practices was no longer possible. Instead, those practices would have to be adapted to the new circumstances of a severely deteriorated environment.

Pesticides Breed New Pests

On this planet, nature fears one thing only: empty space. When a space is empty, nature rapidly fills it up. Chemical insecticides are experts at generating vacuum. They clear all insects out of enormous areas, because they don't just kill the harmful ones. Chemicals also wipe out innocuous insects and even beneficial ones, those that serve as natural enemies of some pests. Another calamity is that chemical insecticides weaken, and often virtually wipe out the defense mechanism that all plants have against enemy insects.

Since nature abhors a vacuum, other insects rapidly emerge from the area surrounding the void created by the chemicals and head straight toward the crops. Logically, the first to arrive are precisely those to whom the given crop is particularly appealing. And they come by the millions. Since the chemical insecticide did away with their natural enemies and good food is in abundant supply, they become a plague. Thus pesticides actually end up manufacturing pests.

The natural enemies of these plagues come from far flung areas as well, but by the time they get there, the crop has already been lost. If more spraying is not done at this point, nature's balance will reassert itself within a reasonable period of time several years or so. But since the spraying is constant, there is never time for the soil or crops to recover.

And there's more. The first insects that are sprayed die, but within a certain period of time those that ingest the poison and survive eventually develop a resistance to the poison, and it is transmitted down through generations. Since the crops are in open fields, part of the resistant insects' descendants will reproduce with insects that live far from the area being sprayed. This means that the resistant insect strain becomes massive, so higher and higher concentrations of chemicals will have to be applied each time around, thus also increasing the costs necessary to obtain similar results. Over time, the chemicals end up creating a virtually invulnerable super insect of sorts.

The insects are invulnerable to chemicals, but still quite weak when it comes to taking on their natural enemies. But the natural enemies have no way to function, since every time they come to an area infested by pests, a new spraying session does away with them all.

Insect Brothers

By 1967, when the Green Revolution had scarcely marked its 20th anniversary, the negative effects of that revolution huge extensions of land planted with artificial inputs were so evident that the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recommended Integrated Pest Management as a key agricultural practice.

The FAO defines IPM as "a system of manipulating pests that, in the context of the related environment and the dynamic of the harmful species population, uses all appropriate techniques and methods in the most compatible way possible and maintains the pest population at levels below that which could cause economic damage." Integrated Pest Management is an agricultural system based on coexistence of all forms of life, including pests, which are maintained under control with natural and, where necessary, artificial procedures.

It has taken human beings a long time to understand that it is in nobody's interest to wipe out insects. Without insects, there would be no pollination, no fruits, no seeds. Insects are the most numerous animals on the planets, and those with the most homogenous distribution. It is calculated that there are 20 million insects for every human being. When this living mass dies, it fertilizes the soil, thus continuing to produce life. The biodiversity of insects is the broadest of our planet, and on it depend many other forms of biodiversity.

The 1980s: Trial and Error

The possibility of implementing integrated pest management in Nicaragua began to be discussed at the beginning of the 1980s. Prior to that, research had been done in Nicaragua's cotton fields, with very positive laboratory results, but the crop-dusting airplanes continued to bathe the cotton fields and their workers with poisons.

The 1980s was an ambiguous time in terms of agricultural issues. Serious failures occurred alongside important and ambitious projects. Integrated pest management was no exception. Important laboratory research done in the 1980s was disseminated throughout the country in pamphlets written in simple language and illustrated with drawings but most farmers didn't even bother to look at them. The assumption that the 1980 Literacy Crusade had made avid readers out of every student was a bit off the mark. Another error was to assume that peasants are easily convinced with words, and that simply seeing something in writing is enough to understand and assimilate it. Much research in areas very useful to farmers never made it to the people it was intended for. An effective technology transfer never took place.

These errors were slowly being left in the past and efforts were being made to connect with farmers through deeds and not just words, to open channels of communication, etc. But then, with the 1990 change in government, all that work was effectively dismantled.

CATIE IPM has continued its research, with the aim of resolving the problems posed by nature and in hopes of immediate application of a solution. CATIE researchers form part of a huge team, along with hundreds of peasants who are putting the theories into practice on their plots of land and carefully recording the results. This group includes the peasants of Las Cañas who, in addition to planting basic grains and fruits for their own consumption, are developing experimental tomato plots in conjunction with the CATIE IPM researchers.

Agrochemical companies are wary of these activities, which are becoming increasingly popular in a growing number of countries. However, they will also benefit from the massive implementation of integrated pest management techniques, because using pesticides selectively and in very small amounts as a last resort in particularly difficult situa tions makes the generation of chemical resistant varieties more difficult. One single product could thus be used over long periods of time, in which the chemical manufacturers could pay off their investments in machines, equipment and research. They wouldn't have to invest huge amounts of capital to carry out ongoing and extremely costly research, condemned in advance to failure, in order to come up with new and more aggressive products against increasingly resistant varieties. They also wouldn't have to search for waste receptacles, ever harder and more expensive to obtain, for the pesticides that were ineffective in the fight against pests.

Insect Attacking Fungi

Cora María Jiménez is a professional expert in using fungi to make harmful insects sick. She and her team have researched and put into use two species of fungi: Beauveria bassiana and metharizium anisopliae. Both act on contact with the insect, penetrating it and then eating away at it from inside, until they kill it, turning it into a kind of "leper" insect. None of these fungi kills the insects immediately, as a chemical pesticide would. They take longer, but are extremely effective.

In the dry environment of the Nicaraguan summer, it's hard to cultivate and reproduce fungi in the field, so it must be done in the laboratory. "The first thing we had to do," recalls Cora María, "was to seek out sick insects in order to begin producing the fungus. Based on that, we started our research." The research took into account the most appropriate environment for fungi, including temperature, degree of humidity and optimal luminosity for each stage of development. It was meticulous and slow work that took a number of years, ending up with little plastic bags in which the fungus, transformed into a fine white powder, was ready to be mixed with water and applied like any conventional chemical insecticide.

But new and unexpected problems had to be dealt with. The peasants were used to seeing fungi as adversaries; it wasn't easy to convince them that friends, as well as enemies, can be found out in the field. Jiménez smiles when she remembers those early days. "When I proposed to a group of peasants that they sprinkle their crops with fungus, they refused. They told me, 'They'll ruin the crops, they're harmful and will wreck our harvest'. Prolonged persuasive work was needed and it was also necessary for the most convinced of the group to first test the fungi on a small part of their own plot so everyone else could see that these were a different kind of fungus."
When the actual moment of application rolled around, more problems emerged. The peasants had heard the technical experts say that when the fungus acted on the insects, the insects ended up like "lepers." So they looked for these lepers, but couldn't find any. To get to that extreme, optimum temperature and humidity conditions are needed that are not always found in nature. Doubts were thus generated about the effectiveness of the new product. Nonetheless, the insects died, if in a less spectacular manner. "So it's impor tant to continue research and laboratory cultures," explains Jiménez. "In the natural world, although it's easy for a fungus to kill an insect, the conditions are not always there for that to take place on a massive scale. So, we have to help out from the laboratory."
These two fungi are very specific: they attack coleoptera and hemiptera. Although they can feed off dead leaves on the ground, they rarely attack a live plant or beneficial insects. Nor do they affect domestic animals, fish that are raised in ponds or human beings.

Now the team of scientists coordinated by Cora María Jiménez is exploring the possibility of industrially producing verticilium lecanii, capable of destroying the plant rust plague that does so much damage to Nicaragua's coffee crop.

Of Tomatoes and White Flies

Three crops were chosen for research within CATIE IPM Nicaragua. One was coffee, since it is an agroexport product with 70% of total cultivation done by small and medium producers. Tomatoes were chosen because they are a domestic consumption product, and are also in the hands of small and medium producers. Finally, plantains were also chosen because those sold for national consumption are grown by small producers.

Each of these three crops has its own collection of pests, today all upset by longstanding chemical abuse. Both the peasants and the national experts at CATIE IPM have had to develop new procedures to deal with these enemies.

The tomato is attacked during its first 45 days by the white fly. More than the fly itself, the problem is the virus the fly carries, which produces stunted tomatoes. The white fly is an broad spectrum insect that eats everything in its path. To prevent this, rows of sorghum and beans which the fly prefers to tomatoes need to be planted around the tomato plant. These rows serve as a protective barrier, keeping the white fly from bothering the tomato plants. In addition, the tomato seedlings are surrounded with stakes painted yellow and dipped in motor oil. The yellow attracts the flies and the oil traps them. If, in spite of all these measures, the fly penetrates to the actual tomato plants, chemical spraying is necessary. But if that extreme is reached, the plants are already fairly big and the needed quantities of insecticide fairly small. The white fly doesn't affect the tomato plant after 45 days, but that's when another threat kicks in: the lepidoptera. When that happens, a daily count and sometimes several a day must be made of the caterpillars found on the plants. Based on that count, further decisions will be made.

The Enemies of Coffee and Bananas

The "borer" (hypothenemus hampei), a coffee pest, has been studied at length. It has been discovered that in a certain stage of its life, the borer only affects ripe, or "red," coffee beans. Thus, the best way to prevent destruction of coffee by this plague is to harvest all the coffee, not leaving even one coffee bean on a tree, if possible. If it has nothing to eat, the borer will not reproduce in sufficient quantities to become a full blown plague. When international coffee prices are very low and it's not profitable for big coffee growers to pay workers to pick all the coffee, a large number of beans simply stay and rot on the trees. This essentially guarantees a borer plague in the following year's crop. To prevent this situation at moments of low international coffee prices, coffee growers are letting anyone who wishes to pick coffee on their plantations without wages and on the condition that they hand over half of what they pick to the owner. Thus, with no coffee beans left on the trees, the borer can't get out of hand.

One of the plagues affecting plantains is the black weevil (comsopoliter sordidus). Its larvae and eggs hide in the rhizomes that serve as the plantain's seeds. The most effective way to combat this plague has been extreme care in selecting the shoots for planting, which should come from a healthy, young and strong plantain. To be free of any doubt, it is wise to peel the rhizome as one would a potato, as the eggs that could damage a future crop are found in the upper layer.

These are three examples of some of the different discoveries made by the CATIE IPM team. Each plague has at least two or three natural enemies and simple and adaptable methods can be used to combat them. Understanding those natural enemies is the basis of CATIE's ongoing research.

Sustainable and Politically Feasible

Peasants involved in the project keep a notebook to record their own observations and experiences. With notebook and pencil in hand, they observe their crops, where small cardboard signs indicate what treatment was applied on each area. The treatments used include irrigating with boiling water to prevent harmful fungi to seed collection mechanisms. With these systematic notes, the peasant can compare and observe what is most feasible in terms of both costs and results.

The conclusions drawn from these notes are discussed with the technical experts so that joint decisions can be made. The notes are registered in a data base, making it possible now to observe the evolution of plagues in different parts of Nicaragua over the last three years, and the effectiveness of different treatments on each plague. "The peasants take this very seriously," says entomologist Julio Monterrey. "Some of them have two notebooks, one for rough draft observations and one for a clean copy of all the results." Some of them get a son or daughter who has more formal education to make the final copy notes.

Things were very hard at first. Peasants, used to years of blind obedience to the orders of technical experts who seemed to know everything, had lost a great deal of self respect. Monterrey recalls the somewhat concerned and confused faces of the peasants the first time they brought a problem to him and he responded with, "What do you think is the solution?"
"The peasants' capacity to think and make decisions had been amputated," he declares. "They were convinced they knew nothing about anything." And he recounts what happened the first time he came to Las Cañas, hard hit by a certain plague. The peasants didn't know what to do because chemical inputs were out of their financial reach and they said they "knew nothing" about the plague. Nonetheless, in a meeting called to deal with the emergency, they were surprised to discover that they had more than 45 basic bits of knowledge about the plague: its habitat, its behavior, and natural methods to combat or diminish it. What had happened is that the peasants no longer realized that this was "knowledge." The pesticide traffickers had convinced them that they were ignorant. Despite the many years that had passed since the last time they put the natural methods into practice, they still retained much of the fundamental knowledge and, armed with that, were able to take on both the plague and their own insecurity. This one example could easily be multiplied a thousand times over.

"With this 'new' system of production, the peasants have reclaimed their independence and capacity to make decisions about their land," explains Monterrey. "And they make more money because their products are uncontaminated, or scarcely contaminated, and thus sell better; and they prepare their own agricultural inputs, which are thus much cheaper. The first thing is to sweep out all that garbage that the green revolution put in the heads of peasants. Only by doing that can we decontaminate agriculture and make it sustainable."
But, is sustainable agriculture really sustainable? Monterrey does not hesitate in responding with a resounding yes. "It's both economically and ecologically sustainable. And, even more than that, for us it's the only option. But we must make it politically possible." He underscores what he's trying to say by recounting what happened not too long ago to the tomato growing peasants. They had an excellent crop, at the point of being sold, when, due to imperatives of the government's neoliberal economic policy, it was decided to massively import tomatoes from another country. Those tomatoes virtually flooded the market and the national peasants lost their crop, and thus their great opportunity. "As long as things like that happen, neither sustainable nor unsustainable agriculture is possible."

More and More Acreage

Approximately 1,700 acres of coffee, banana and tomato crops throughout the country are officially involved in these new production systems. Although the area doesn't seem large, the fact is that the experiments began in 1993 with only 3.4 acres. In addition, although the peasants only register their experimental tomato acreage, they apply integrated pest management techniques to all their crops, tomatoes or not. And when a member of a family registers an acre in the CATIE IPM project, the knowledge he gains is spread out to all the other members of his extended family and kinship network. It is thus impossible to calculate the precise number of acres given over to this new and sustainable agricultural option.

The official expansion of the project is made more difficult today by the shortage of technical experts. There are simply not enough people to attend to all the requests that peasants have made to find out more about this topic. The work requires time, care and patience.

A Meeting in Las Cañas

The members of the "Oscar Arnulfo Romero" tomato cooperative in Las Cañas have a meeting with the CATIE IPM representative, Julio Monterrey and technicians from state institutions. They are preparing the second planting and must come to an agreement about who is going to use what method in this planting, who will validate the discoveries made during the last crop by repeating those experiences, and a thousand other details. Notebooks in hand, the peasants recount their discoveries. They are 37 men, ranging from young to quite old, but still vigorous.

A number of problems must be resolved. How to obtain seeds. How to undertake horticultural production together with cattle raising, which is a difficult matter. The need to reforest the surrounding hills is discussed in order to improve soil quality, attract rain and assure an ample supply of water in area wells. There are many concerns, but it's possible to deal with them because, with sustainable agriculture procedures, these peasants have been able to resolve the most serious problem of all survival.

During the meeting, knowledge regarding a number of individual discoveries was socialized out to the group and the technical expert also reported on the discoveries made by peasants in very distant rural communities. In a cooperative, there's no room for secrets, since the progress of all depends on each and every member. Moreover, in this cooperative, everyone has the surname Aguirre as either their first or last (and sometimes both!) surnames. They're all related.

After their bitter experience with the imported tomatoes, the cooperative members decided to seek marketing alternatives with a small tomato sauce factory. Doing this, they were also able to involve women in the economy. Machismo rears its head when José Victor Aguirre Aguirre sums up the majority opinion. "No, women should stay at home doing housework, there's a lot to do there. Because if women have to work at home and then in the factory, they'll get too tired and won't be good to us for anything." The "response" came from Dolores Aguirre Torres. "The little factory is for the single girls to work at, so they'll keep busy and won't be out doing other things." It's clear that, for now, feminism is not advancing at the same speed as sustainable agriculture.

And what do the women think? They're thrilled with the factory project. "It's something new, we can learn a lot of new things. It will be a break from the house and kids," says an enthusiastic, already partially grey haired Marta Lorena Aguirre. The women are aware that they will have more work, because they aren't expecting any help from the men. Even so, they're willing to coordinate among themselves, and get the ball rolling that way. "Some can watch the kids of the others, and in the afternoon, there's sort of a dead spell at home that we could take advantage of to work in the factory. Besides, since the project will be ours, we can organize a schedule that suits us," says María Casilda Aguirre.

Little by little, peasant minds are ridding themselves of prejudice, cleansing and renewing their own ideas at the same time as they clean and renew nature. Constant research and field work, the application of a variety of solutions and daily learning, all together thus is an authentically scientific and sustainable agriculture gaining ground in Nicaragua, firmly in the hands of small and medium producers.


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