Stories of Agriculture

In-depth (based on site visits with extensive interviews)

  1. India – Andhra Pradesh – “Non-Pesticide Management” for Agricultural Pests: Escaping the Pesticide Trap – Controlling pests without chemical pesticides catapults farmers from chronic poisoning and debt to health and hope.
  2. India – Karnataka – A Growing Network of Seed Banks and Organic Farms – A network of seed banks and organic farming projects helps farmers reverse the trend toward extinction of local crop varieties.
  3. USA – California (Berkeley) – Edible Schoolyards: Connecting Kids to the Earth and Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits – Replacing a parking lot with a school garden and kitchen, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle school creates tools for education and social change.
  4. USA – HawaiiRestoring the Life of the Land: Taro Patches in Hawai’i – Ancient irrigation systems are being restored to cultivate Hawai’i’s staple crop.
  5. USA – Hawaii (Oahu) – MA‘O Organic Farm: Growing Food and Empowering Youth – Agriculture and education improves food security and the social situation in a marginalized community.
  6. USA/CanadaThe Organic Farming Movement in North America: Moving towards Sustainable Agriculture – How the current mainstreaming of organics is just one stage in a larger EcoTipping Point towards sustainable agriculture in North America and beyond.

Capsule (shorter pieces which appear below)

  1. Burkina Faso – Zabre – Women’s Agroecological Project – An integrated agricultural project improves the local economy and the status of rural women.
  2. Canada – Northwest Territories – Inuvik Community Greenhouse – An innovative greenhouse increases food security and self-sufficiency in the Arctic.
  3. China – Southern Taklimakan Desert – Tamarix Trees – Drought-resistant trees stop sand dunes encroaching on agricultural land.
  4. Costa Rica – Talamanca – The Talamanca Initiative – A multi-faceted community initiative simultaneously promotes the local economy and ecosystem conservation.
  5. CubaOrganic and Urban Agriculture – Economic crisis leads to rapid development of food self-sufficiency.
  6. Germany – Bavaria – Neumarkter Lammsbrau – A brewery employs a holistic, farmer-to-consumer approach, enabling it to thrive in a climate of small-brewery closures.
  7. India – West Bengal – Makaibari Tea Estate – Makaibari Tea Estate simulates a natural ecosystem to enhance sustainability of production.
  8. Mexico – Veracruz and Tabasco – Chinampa System – An ancient cultivation system is revived to provide sustainable wetland agriculture for landless farmers.
  9. NigerFarmer Managed Natural Regeneration – Farmers use a simple, natural way to regrow trees and stop desertification.
  10. USA – California (San Francisco) – The Garden Project – Organic farming by prison inmates restores their connection to the land and addresses recidivism.
  11. USA – Kansas – Land Institute – Restoring shrinking prairie habitats with sustainable agriculture.
  12. USA – Minnesota – Red Lake Restoration – Native Americans restore wild rice and walleye fish on their reservation.

Burkina Faso – Zabre – Women’s Agroecological Project

In the three states of Burkina Faso where PLY Women’s Association had projects, Zabre was the focus of the project evaluation. The area is a central plateau, mostly flat, tree savannah, with a long dry season (November-May) and rainy season (June-October). The population is mainly herders and farmers. The land had been eroding, especially on hills, and severely affected by drought and overexploitation by deforestation and overgrazing, mainly due to a concentration of farmers on exhausted lands worked without fallow due to population pressures.

PLY, evaluating the needs of the area in order to begin a project, found that despite women’s central role in socioeconomic life, their contributions were overlooked and they drew few benefits. PLY’s purpose was to improve the status of rural women, support their education and active involvement in development. They realized that improving soil fertility would allow for better agricultural production, giving means to achieve other social and economic goals.

In 1987 they began training sessions with manure and compost kits. The fertilizer was used in community peanut and cereal fields, and later spread to vegetable gardens where it was intensively used.

Enthusiasm over the initial success brought in new members and a dramatic increase in demand for training. PLY requested and got technical and financial support to begin a series of training workshops not only on composting, but on farming, controlled water use, and erosion control using bunds (see also Auroville, India case study) and gully dams, and programs for reforestation, including the nitrogen-fixing tree Acacia albeda.

Results of these workshops include:

  1. Improvement of soil fertility.
  2. Yields nearly doubled.
  3. Many lands previously considered unusable were opened up, as both women and men recovered degraded areas, using strip cropping on hilly areas.
  4. Erosion was controlled.
  5. The technique became popularized, with the number of farmers using it going from 25 to 8,000. This shows the potential for replication.

Since then PLY has diversified into other areas, including programs on education for girls, workshops on health and family planning, literacy classes, creation of cereal and vegetable banks, and income generation projects such as production of shea butter, natural insecticide (from neem oil), soap making, and weaving. Through this income, credit cooperatives were created for purchase of farm equipment. Through working with the villages and interviews to evaluate the projects’ success, monitors say that women are more confident, better educated, and gender relations are improved, with some elevated understanding among men of women’s problems and the need to assist them in domestic chores.

Services or benefits include: Erosion control, food security, income generation, poverty alleviation, improved confidence/status of rural women and gender relations, social relations, waste management, education (formal and traditional).

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Canada – Northwest Territories – Inuvik Community Greenhouse

This is a good example of increasing food security and self-sufficiency in a cold climate, as well as other important benefits the project has brought with it.

Inuvik is a town of 3,500 which lies 2 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, between treeless tundra and northern boreal forest. Permafrost and a short and unpredictable growing season limit agricultural possibilities, but between June and August there is 24 hours of sunlight, and so potential to make use of it under the right conditions.

In 1998, the Inuvik Community Garden Association decided to rescue a disused arena and adjacent school which were slated for demolition, with funds it had raised for this purpose. It replaced the walls with glazing and added a second floor, to create what is now the world’s most northerly greenhouse. On the first floor are raised beds for community plots which are reserved and paid for with a nominal annual fee (some of which are provided to elders and other community groups by local businesses), while on the second floor is a commercial nursery which grows bedding plants (starter flowers and vegetables, which are being bought and planted in gardens around town and has improved the aesthetic) and later filled with hydroponic cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables. The building also has space for workshops and gardening classes. The community garden has received funding from businesses and government. Starting in 2000, the project is still young but has begun a composting and town beautification scheme with hanging baskets for the main streets, and window flower boxes for the subsidized housing.

The greenhouse has become a focal point for community development and has attracted a variety of residents from various backgrounds (including indigenous Gwiichin and Inuvialuit) and age groups. There has been an enthusiastic response, with waiting lists growing for plot allotments. While the growing season is short, it is also very intense, with 24-hour sunlight creating an environment for vegetables to grow where they would not normally in the soil. This local availability of fresh food is important here where variety and quantity of fresh, produce is limited. This could reduce the dependence on food grown in distant places, treated by one chemical preservation process or another and imported over long-distance fossil fueled transport.

Benefits/services: social relations, waste treatment, recycling of disused building, food security/options, reduced dependence (during the growing season anyway) on distant food sources.

For more information visit Urban Agriculture Notes.

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China – Southern Taklimakan Desert – Tamarix Trees

Villages in the Taklimakan are threatened by mobile dunes caused by overgrazing, salinized soil from irrigated farming (the area is flat and had poor drainage) and overexploitation of fuelwood. Natives of the targeted region – -four counties in Hotan Prefecture – -were chiefly farmers and herders.

Scientists at a nearby institute, noticing the worsening conditions and encroachment of sand dunes, speculated that propagation of the tamarix, a small tree or bush known as the “salt cedar” could reverse the deterioration of salinized areas by acting as a “biopump,” keeping the groundwater well below the surface (as opposed to on or near the surface, where water would evaporate quickly and, combined with poor drainage, is the reason for salinization of soil).

Trees were planted in rows so that crops could be grown between them. Volunteer guards (who would be given a stipend from the profits gained from increased incomes) protected the nurseries. A rotational system was introduced for harvesting fuel. Results:

  1. Increases in wood and fodder for livestock from the tamarix bush.
  2. Increase in agricultural productivity, especially grain and cotton, and crops are now grown on rehabilitated land (60,000 hectares).
  3. Increased household incomes from agricultural improvement and from industries based on tamarix such as baskets, trolleys and earth carriers.
  4. Sand dunes are better controlled.
  5. The technology is being replicated elsewhere in China.

Services/benefits: Increased household income, food/fodder, fuel, erosion control

For more information visit the HORIZON Solutions Site.

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Costa Rica – Talamanca – The Talamanca Initiative

With a population of some 35,000 people, the 3,000-square-kilometer region of Talamanca lies along the southeast Carribbean coast of Costa Rica on the border of Panama. While economically and socially poor, the area is rich in biodiversity and tropical forests, with many species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the world. It is also here where the UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Amistad International Park, straddles the Costa Rica – Panama border.

Costa Rica’s rates of deforestation are among the highest in the world. In the Talamanca region, cacao was the main source of income, but the method of growing it in monocultures left it vulnerable to pests. In 1979 a fungal disease spread like wildfire through the crop and practically wiped out the cacao farming overnight. Former farmers instead began clearing land for timber production, cattle raising, and intensive, short-cycle cash crops to replace the income lost from cacao production, which accelerated the deterioration of the local environment.

A local non-governmental organization, concerned about the destruction of the region’s assets, began to revive traditional agricultural techniques and developed ecotourism as a way out of the unsustainable cycle of increasing degradation. The organization, Asociacion ANAI (later joined by two other organizations, APPTA, the Association of Small Producers of Talamanca, and the Talamanca Caribbean Biological Corridor, CBTC) developed a program called the “Talamanca Initiative” which simultaneously promoted the local economy and conservation. The initiative was based on some core principles:

  • negating the perceived conservation/economic conflict
  • the value of locals in environmental stewardship
  • the need for immediate action to save the tropical areas
  • the high value of the natural assets
  • the need to integrate environmental, social, economic and organizational needs

These core principles became the driving forces behind the practical work that followed. Among some of the steps taken:

  1. Finding alternatives to cacao. While farmers knew diversity was better for them in the long term, they needed support and training to make the switch. From 1980, ANAI helped to build up agroforestry systems which would mimic the natural forest, and helped farmers to set up tree nurseries in the villages. They managed to plant over 150 species of fruits, nuts, spices and medicinal plants. These nurseries brought communities together to cooperate and share information. Between 1985 and 1990, over two million cash/food crops, and trees for timber were planted on family farms in the region, which dramatically increased the diversity of the resource base. By mimicking the natural forests, this has helped to sustain insect life and preserve the health of the nearby forests.
  2. Creation of markets. In order for the increase in biodiversity to be economically viable, APPTA helped to create some local processing facilities (to add value to products) and secure markets. This was done by applying for and receiving certification for fair trade, organic, and sustainably logged wood products. The success of this approach has led to over 1,000 farmers establishing organic “agro-ecosystems” which combine cash crops with subsistence needs. APPTA is now the largest volume producer and exporter of organic products in Central America, with an annual income of US$500,000, much of which is injected into the local economy through a large number of family farmers. Demand for organic cacao has surpassed supply, and the program has been expanded to neighboring countries.
  3. Creation and expansion of grassroots networks. Other grassroots organizations began to form as a result of ANAI’s work meeting weekly with farmers and representatives from each community. Some of the grassroots groups include APPTA (see above), a regional trade center, village microcredit and savings programs. Now there are some 20 organizations involved, as well as 1,500 families and the national Ministry of Environment and Energy. Participation includes both sexes and various ethnic groups (Afro-Caribbean, indigenous and “mestizo” peoples). The regional training center was set up by people in the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, and its board of directors and executive are local. The center provides some 2,000 people per year with training, workshops and education on health, agriculture, conservation, environmental education for children, and appropriate technology. This has created a high level of environmental awareness among the Talamancan people.
  4. Ecotourism. Since its growth in 1985, tourism has been, as one report says, a “double-edged sword.” Still, the emphasis has been on local control of tourism, and the creation of ecotourist facilities (lodges) was able to set some standards for other businesses. In 1998, nearly 20 associations and businesses joined in a network to coordinate the growth of tourist facilities and related businesses. At the moment there are five ecotourism lodges, all of which are owned by community organizations. The earnings from these go directly to families in the community who have set up small family businesses. Recently, a conservation fund was established by the Talamanca Network, where members will contribute a percentage of ecotourist income. When the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge was set up in 1985, local people were opposed, because it would prevent them from clearing their part of the forest which was their sole source of income. Today, almost all the inhabitants are committed defenders of the refuge because their improved livelihoods revolve around nature tourism in the area.

The project’s success earned it a UN Equator Inititiative Award, and there are continuing plans to strengthen the gains made and to expand the program, for example to build the Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor, as well as sharing their experiences and lessons with other areas.

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Cuba – Organic and Urban Agriculture

Cuba was once dependent on imports from the Soviet Union for a large percentage of staple goods as well as fertilizers, pesticides, animal feed and petroleum. The farms were large, high-input industrial farms, many of which grew cash crops in monocultures for export.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba was plunged into a severe economic crisis, where imports of food and other basic necessities, including pesticides and chemical fertilizers, fell overnight. Within a year the country lost over 80% of its foreign trade, which, compounded by ongoing US embargos, triggered widespread hunger and malnutrition in what was known as Cuba’s “special period.” Without infrastructure or fuel to transport goods from rural to urban areas, the cities had no way of feeding themselves.

This crisis spurred the government into action, mobilizing resources and putting urban wastelands into use as farms and orchards. It distributed vacant lots for free to anyone who wanted to cultivate them, and switched from the export of cash crops to growing food crops for domestic consumption. The government offered incentives to encourage people to move back to rural areas to work on the land. In 1993, it changed state farms to “UBPC” (or basic units of co-operative production), a form of worker-owned enterprise or cooperative, where 80% of farmland once held by the state, including sugarcane plantations, was turned over to workers.

Havana became a priority for the National Food Program, and in 1991, the government began establishing research gardens and public gardens using cooperative labor and serving markets around Cuba. Customers and farmers came from the same community, and ugly, useless areas created a supply of employment, source of food, and greener neighborhoods. The Ministry of Agriculture set up an urban agriculture department to support the new farmers. Seed shops in every municipality supplied seeds, tools, natural fertilizers and advice and consulting for farmers. Organic farming was specifically emphasized, and all over Cuba, production was converted from high-input agriculture to low-input, self-reliant farming using a mix of old techniques and new organic farming practices, for example:

  • composting and vermicomposting
  • intercropping
  • replacing synthetic with natural fertilizers
  • integrating grazing animals
  • rotating crops
  • cover cropping to suppress weeds
  • increasing diversity of crops grown
  • encouraging natural predators of pests
  • soil and water conservation

The national ox herd was built up to provide animal labor in place of tractors (for lack of fuel, tires, and spare parts). Research institutes were set up to develop more sophisticated techniques such as worm composting, soil innoculates and bioformulations. As well, over 200 bio-pesticide and bio-control production centers were set up, run by university graduates, and by 1996, by-laws in Havana allowed only organic methods of food production.

Each collective had to produce a certain quota in key crops to ensure adequate supply for the whole country (including local schools, hospitals, nursing homes). Collectives could sell surplus on the open market, and in 1994 there was a reform involving price incentives to discourage selling on the black market.

By 1995, the food shortage had been overcome, and in 1996-7, Cuba recorded the highest-ever production levels for 10 of 13 basic food items in the Cuban diet. Gardens now occupy approximately 3-4% of urban land (8% in Havana) tended by 18,000 people, which means more than 35,000 hectares of urban land is dedicated to intensive production of fresh fruit, vegetables, and spices.

In 2002, Cuba produced 3.2 million tons of food in urban farms and gardens, providing fresh organic produce to the population and improving the diet of Cubans. Gardens attached to schools are more common as local food production, and ecological issues are a required part of the curriculum. Most rural homes produce their own staple foods, including beans and traditional root/tuber crops. Interest in sustainable energy and appropriate technology has led to demonstration and experimentation centers, traveling libraries, and extension schools opening around the island.

However, future challenges are predictably arising from market forces, which stand to undermine this system: urban farm space will compete for land for development of tourism (which brings in more foreign currency) and trade concessions may force Cuba open to trade with the US and other countries, which could make Cuba once again dependent on food imports.

This case shares some elements with the New York City gardens, except that it is an industrializing country at a critical stage of having the opportunity to choose to leapfrog some stages of the Western model of “development.” It simultaneously addresses unemployment, food security, environment, urban migration, community, recycling, and a cleaner environment and quality of life so absent from many developing world urban centers. It also shows how Cuba managed to turn a crisis into an asset.

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Germany – Bavaria – Neumarkter Lammsbrau

This is a good example of a brewery’s success in surviving hard economic times and its pioneering efforts to protect the environment, which has influenced the practices of its suppliers. Neumarkter Lammsbrau (NL) is a medium-sized brewery in Bavaria, historically a state with strong beer brewing (and drinking) traditions. It has been a family business for the Ehrnsperger family since 1800, and today has 80 employees under the management of president Franz Ehrnsperger.

At the end of the last century, two things were happening in this region. First, agriculture began intensifying, the environmental impacts of which were especially noticeable on the quality of water, the most essential raw material for beer. Meanwhile, the beer industry was ever becoming concentrated among a few large breweries, which was forcing small – and medium-sized brewers out of business. Larger-scale brewers were intent on quantity and growth at the expense of quality in order to stay “competitive.” Beginning in the 1970s, as Ehrnsperger saw this trend towards consolidation, he made a long-term strategy to ensure the brewery’s survival. This vision included two things: to survive the stiff competition, and to protect the company’s long tradition of quality. The management strategy holistically integrated all stages of the process from cultivation and preservation of raw materials, through all stages of brewing, to the marketing, sale, packaging, and distribution of the end product. The model was created to be dynamic, constantly developing and being improved.

Consideration was given not only to the consumer, but to the suppliers (farmers) and to the brewers (the staff). As the plan was long-term, there was a strategy for step-by-step implementation and room for trial and error. Some elements of the plan include:

  1. Influencing the cultivation methods of suppliers.
  2. Supporting organic farming.
  3. The wise use of resources.
  4. Developing a clean and self-sufficient energy supply.
  5. Influencing other sectors in the region to be more environmentally and socially responsible.

In the beginning, it was very tough, as the whole system was geared away from these goals. In the 1970s, the Neumarkter district had not a single organic farmer. It was generally assumed that chemicals were a necessary evil in agriculture, especially with hops, which are particularly vulnerable to parasites. Meanwhile, the intensive production that breweries were supporting was degrading water sources, whose purity was essential to the brewing process. The brewer hired a consultant, who began to introduce organic farming techniques to suppliers. The company created direct supply contracts with these farmers, which guaranteed them a market for their organic produce. In this way the farmers became partners in the initiative. After a few years the company was able to use all organic materials in its beer. Its achievements:

  1. NL began using natural gas in the brewery, and set a goal by 2000 to switch its fleet of delivery trucks from diesel to vegetable oil (couldn’t verify if achieved or not).
  2. It conducts annual environmental audits.
  3. It established criteria for the brewing of its beer in order to document some standards for an eco-brewing business.
  4. It established an environmental committee which is constantly improving upon its practices.
  5. It is certified under ISO 9001.
  6. The management style is such that employees are also actively involved with the company. Especially in the early days, employees were heavily relied on for their commitment and support to see the company through the necessary changes and trial-and-error process. Staff are informed about developments and participate regularly in training, and are encouraged to offer feedback and suggestions. An eco-library was set up on the premises. Employees take a great deal of pride working for this company and staff turnover is low.

The brewery has distinguished itself from other brewers and created its own ecological niche. Its pioneering practices have won it many awards, it has helped influence other small enterprises in Germany, and its efforts to improve are part of an ongoing process. It is also actively supporting the growth of organic farming in the region. It estimates that each crate of beer produced protects seven square meters of land. This is a model for replication and encouragement to other small enterprises (especially those in the rapidly consolidating food and beer sector) and organic farmers, local pride, and an example of adaptive management within the corporate sector.

For more information visit the UN Division for Sustainable Development.

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India – West Bengal – Makaibari Tea Estate

The Makaibari Tea Estate is a 140-year-old family-run estate. Located near Kurseong town in Darjeeling, it is different from neighboring estates in various ways. First, of its 673 hectares, only 274 are under cultivation and the rest is forested.

In the past decade, tea production has suffered due to a decline in soil fertility, overuse of chemicals, and landslides. As well, the forest cover in other estates has dramatically been reduced. But the Makaibari Estate has survived the difficulties suffered by other estates because of the approach and methods used, which are based on the philosophy that forest conservation and tea growing are dependent on each other. While tea in the region is generally grown in monocultures, a series of changes came about in the Makaibari approach from 1945. Mulching began to be used on crops, followed in 1971 by permaculture by owner Raja Banerjee, who then in 1991 began applying principles of biodynamic farming as developed and theorized by Austrian Rudolph Steiner (best known for his theories on education). Taking permaculture a step further, biodynamics stresses “living soil,” and the farm as a living organism. As such, a balance of people, plants and animals is important, as are both visible and invisible cosmic forces (such as lunar and celestial phases, with which harvesting, weeding, planting and fertilizing must coincide).

On the estate, tea bushes are part of a larger subtropical rainforest ecosystem, which includes six tiers of plants, local forests, leguminous permanent shade trees, temporary leguminous shade trees, and finally weeds, creepers and ground vegetation. The forest cover helps to protect the tea leaves (much in the way “shade-grown coffee” is grown). Some grasses and herbs also have medicinal properties and act as natural insect repellents. The leguminous plants increase nitrogen content in the soil, and plant cover checks soil erosion and improves soil fertility through organic “green manure” (dead leaves, twigs and other forest litter). Biogas units provide some energy, and every household makes compost with cow dung and kitchen waste, which is sold to the estate, and preparations of which are made and sprayed on bushes.

The tea estate is home to wildlife such as hornbills and many other species of birds, as well as the leopard and barking deer. On the grounds, some 1,500 people live and work, and are taken care of from birth to death. While the local people are divided into clans and have had a long history of violence, they have managed to work together peacefully without friction.

The estate has won various awards such as the Organic Food Award. Its brands of tea are registered with TransFair International as fair trade products, and the estate is a member of the Joint Forest Management Campaign.

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Mexico – Veracruz and Tabasco – Chinampa System

Archeological evidence shows pre-Cambrian use of this wetland cultivation system in what is now Mexico, Bolivia and Suriname. However, it was the Aztecs who developed and practiced the system most intensively. Derived from the Nauhatl words “chinamitl” which means “reed” and “basket,” and “pan” which means “upon,” it was said to be a system which grew out of conditions of alternating floods, out of which arose the need for agriculture which did not depend on rain. Basically, they are raised farm beds where corn, beans, squash, chillies and flowers are grown in the middle of the lakes found all over the Basin of Mexico. They are rectangular fields about 2-4 meters wide and 20-40 meters long. They were built with layers of mud harvested from the bottom of the lakes, and vegetation, creating a porous base for water to flow through. Lake mud was applied before the planting. Willow trees are planted around the edges to provide shade and windbreaks, prevent erosion, attract beneficial birds and insects, and provide firewood and construction materials.

The intricate maze of canals between the farm beds could be navigated by canoe, and provided fish, crustaceans, and salamanders as protein food sources. To save space, seed beds were used, which used the land efficiently, as almost half the chillies growth period took place here, a place where less than 2% of the land was needed to harvest. Harvest times and transplanting of seedlings were timed to ensure a constant supply of farm produce, and there were 2-3 harvests per year. The system was an efficient way to use land (which explains why the Aztecs could maintain such a dense population), and the remaining ones today have yields which rival even today’s standards.

The system began to collapse with the arrival of the Spanish, whose background of farming was quite different, and who did not appreciate the water management required for the chinampas. The lakes were eventually drained, and urbanization in the last century has reduced the area of chinampas to about 2,300 hectares, only half of which has been farmed. In 1988, UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site, which has helped push the Mexican government towards rescuing them, and they continue to attract interest as a “living textbook” on how to adapt these successful high-yield/low-impact systems to other areas. It’s estimated that if the existing chinampas were used to potential, they could satisfy a quarter of Mexico’s demand for fresh vegetables.

Botanist Arturo Gomez Pompa became involved 20 years ago through a Mexican research institute, and thought that while the system had been adapted to the climate and soils of Mexico’s temparate highlands, he wanted to modify and transfer the system to marginal areas in the tropical lowlands (where archeological evidence showed similar systems existed).

In an experiment, chinampas farmers were brought to two areas, Veracruz and the marshlands of Tabasco, to help build test plots in coastal swamps and lagoons. The purpose was not only to increase self-sufficiency in food, but to provide the landless with jobs, and develop alternatives to increase productivity of swampland. In the case of Tabasco state, many of the trial-and-error tests failed and plots were abandoned because techniques failed to replicate the chinampas properly, and the management organization and crops grown were not familiar to the indigenous Chontales. Nevertheless, some in Tabasco did manage to take hold, and are attracting outside interest. The most successful project is a modification of the chinampas technique to the Mayan forest garden system known as “pet kot,” a small mixed-use plot of fruit trees and other food crops, with aquatic plants used as fertilizer. This shows that while the techniques which adapted to quite different conditions can’t be expected to be blindly replicated anywhere, they are a model for reclaiming and using marginal sites.

Services/benefits: poverty alleviation, efficient use of land, high-yield/low-impact food production, food security

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Niger – Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration

Rapid population growth and the southward creep of the Sahara Desert make for a desperate situation in the Sahel—the region that stretches across Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Farmers often are able to grow only half the food they need and are too poor to purchase the rest. But a promising new form of agroforestry—farmer managed natural regeneration—is counteracting desertification and increasing food production.

Farming in the Sahel has always been difficult due to frequent droughts, hard soils, and harsh winds. Deforestation made these problems worse. Between 1950 and 1980, the trees and shrubs in Niger’s agricultural zone were almost totally destroyed due to drought and human population pressure. Deforestation worsened droughts, strong winds, high temperatures and evaporation, and poor soil fertility—i.e., desertification. Crops were buried under sand during wind storms and had to be replanted up to eight times per season. Natural pest predators such as birds disappeared along with the trees, and insect attacks on crops became extreme. Poor crop yields and high population growth led to chronic hunger and periodic acute famine.

Public awareness of desertification increased during the severe drought in the Sahel between 1968 and 1973. In the mid-1970s, stopping desertification became a top priority for governments and aid agencies. Niger’s national government took over tree ownership and care from the people; fines were levied on anyone caught cutting down a tree. Reforestation projects were undertaken with the help of international organizations. But for the most part these reforestation programs were complicated, expensive, and not particularly successful.

Then in 1983, Tony Rinaudo, a missionary from Australia, made an important discovery: What appeared to be desert shrubs that were cut in preparation for the growing season were actually sprouts from tree stumps. There was an “underground forest” or “virtual nursery” of stumps, roots, and seeds that did not require any planting at all. Thus the idea of “farmer managed natural regeneration” (FMNR) was born. The principle is quite simple: instead of chopping off all the tree sprouts, a farmer selects one to five stems per stump to protect and trims off the rest. Excess shoots and side branches are regularly pruned; the cut branches provide leaves for mulch or fodder, and the twigs provide firewood. With regular pruning, the central stems grow rapidly and soon become trees. The farmers choose how many trees they want per hectare, and of which species.

“All that was needed was to convince farmers to change the way they prepared their fields,” says Rinaudo. Acceptance was slow at first. The few people who tried it were ridiculed and had their trees stolen. A breakthrough came in 1984, when an international conference on deforestation increased awareness of the link between deforestation and climate. A severe drought and famine shortly thereafter reinforced this link in people’s minds, and a “Food for Work” program encouraged farmers in 95 villages to try FMNR. About 500,000 trees were protected in 1984-1985, and farmers were surprised to see that their crops actually grew better among the trees. Crops benefit directly from tree leaves providing more organic matter and moisture retention in the soil (and in the case of nitrogen-fixing trees, more nitrogen as well). Changes in the microclimate—e.g., reduced wind speed and evaporation, lower temperatures and higher humidity—are also beneficial. Farmers typically plant only once as windblown sand is no longer a problem. Where tree leaves serve as fodder for livestock, their manure improves the soil even more. The leaves of the baobab tree, used in cooking, can be sold for cash. The trees also provide firewood, fruit, and medicinal products.

When the Food for Work program ended, over two thirds of the trees were chopped down, but those who chopped down the trees came to regret it as the benefits disappeared; FMNR soon began to spread again. According to Rinaudo, “district-wide exposure to the benefits of FMNR over a 12-month period was sufficient to introduce the concept and put to rest some fears about growing trees with crops. Gradually more and more farmers started protecting trees, and word spread from farmer to farmer until it became a standard practice.” Progress accelerated in 2004, when (after some encouragement from USAID) forestry laws were changed to allow tree ownership. In addition, village and district chiefs established locally agreed upon codes and rules governing trees.

After 20 years, over 3 million hectares across Niger’s agricultural zone feature trees, ranging from a few dozen to over 200 trees per hectare. Satellite images can even discern the border between Niger and Nigeria by the difference in vegetation. FMNR is credited with increasing Niger’s farmers’ cereal yields by 500,000 tonnes per year, and increasing per-household income by US$200 per year. Despite continued population growth, Niger’s per capita production of millet and sorghum has remained constant.

Apart from the actual presence of living tree stumps, roots, and/or seeds, Rinaudo notes some crucial conditions for success:

  • Simplicity
  • Early returns
  • Low cost
  • Support from project staff
  • Appropriate national and local rules

Others say Tony Rinaudo himself is a key ingredient, as the “charismatic leader” of FMNR.

World Vision and other non-governmental organizations have been promoting FMNR across Niger and in other African countries as well. The technique is now practiced in Chad, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Mali.

Tony Rinaudo is a Natural Resource Management Specialist with World Vision Australia (


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USA – California (San Francisco) – The Garden Project

In the past three decades, the population in US prisons has been growing exponentially, as a direct result in shifts in policy towards mandatory minimum sentencing. While the majority of these prisoners were incarcerated for nonviolent crime, two-thirds of these return to prison after release. The US state and federal prison population recently exceeded two million. This has led to overcrowding in prisons, and an increased burden on the states (which have outsourced many services and aspects of the system onto private industry).

The San Francisco County Jail was built in 1934. Originally it had grown its own food, but prison counselor Cathrine Sneed began to revive the practice in 1982. Trained as a lawyer, Sneed chose to be a counselor in order to find a way to get people out of prison instead of putting them in. While in the hospital with a serious illness, she had a revelation reading Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which showed what happened when people were disconnected from their land, and realized that this was what was missing from the prisoners’ daily lives. Using abandoned buildings and fields, organic farms were set up where prisoners would work for two hours a day. The produce from these fields were donated to local soup kitchens and family shelters. The program was successful, prisoners looked forward to spending time outside and there was a waiting list for the program. But Sneed noticed that when prisoners were released, they had no skills, no money and no services to facilitate their reentry into society, and so recidivism (reincarceration) rates remained high.

In 1992, the Garden Project was started. This was a post-release program aimed at giving parolees confidence and skills. Participants of the program are paid a living wage of $11.00 per hour, with medical and dental benefits. They work eight-hour days five days a week, growing broccoli, lettuce, chard, collards, squash, leeks and pumpkins. These are sent to voluntary organizations helping poor seniors and families, and some 800 families per week receive food. Some of the food has been sold to local restaurants. The project has also grown to include the Garden Project Tree Corps, which works with the San Franscisco’s Department of Public Works, planting and maintaining newly planted trees throughout the city. It employs twenty people who have planted 3,000 trees in the city. There are also nutrition, literacy, and computer training programs. The Garden Project is made up of partnerships between the private and public sectors: for example, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, the San Francisco Department of Public Works, the California Department of Forestry, as well as private donations and customers.

Ex-prisoners, once leaving the program, have gone on to start their own landscaping businesses, some have entered the construction industry, and another started a licensed day-care center. Called by the US Department of Agriculture “one of the most successful post-release programs and community development programs in the country,” the initiative’s record has shown results. So far, some 4,300 participants have completed the program. Normally the nation’s recidivism rate of prisoners after a year is 55%, but after two years, only 24% of participants of the Garden Project return to prison within two years. This shows one successful way that former prisoners can return to society and out of the costly cycle of crime and incarceration.

For more information visit the San Francisco Gate and The Garden Project.

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USA – Kansas – Land Institute

The Land Institute is researching and developing alternative agriculture in the heartland of agribusiness on the US prairies. Because of massive soil erosion, herbicides in waterways, and the overdrawing of the Ogallala aquifer, Land Institute co-founder Wes Jackson says, this region is headed for a collapse on a scale far surpassing that of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But this imminent but ultimately avoidable catastrophe is not being addressed. The reason is that it is temporarily masked by the subsidized “cheap food policy” which lulls consumers into illusions of food security, and that soil is now eroding not visibly by wind but by water, where it flows into rivers and ends up eventually in the sea, and creates areas like “the dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. As with other groups bucking the industrial model, Jackson and his colleagues are making farms mimic natural systems in this case, suited to the prairie ecosystem made up of polycultures of perennial grasses.

After graduating with a PhD in genetics, Jackson began teaching environmental studies in California State University, but soon became dissatisfied with academia. So he quit his job and went back to his native Kansas with his then-wife, Dana, where they acquired a cow and some chickens and began farming. They decided to form the Land Institute, which would give students an opportunity to learn from direct experience.

The institute continues to evolve, but has kept its commitment to studying the prairie ecosystem and developing methods which reduce the impact on the soil, the need for chemicals, and for fossil-fuel driven machinery like tractors and ploughs. To do this, it developed the concept of “Natural Systems Agriculture.” The ecosystem, as the result of centuries of evolutionary selection for ecosystem function, has the ability to:

  1. maintain or build ecological capital
  2. fix or hold nutrients
  3. is resilient to periodic stress ie. drought or fire, and
  4. can manage its weed/pest/pathogen populations.

Since prairies naturally show a dominance for perennial grasses instead of the annuals like the corn, wheat, barley etc. grown on prairie farms (which together make up 70% of the human diet), the priorities of the Land Institute are to research whether perennials can produce a high yield seed, and if perennial polycultures can match or outyield perennial monocultures. So far, these results seem to be confirmed. A perennial polyculture in the prairies would change farming techniques in several important ways:

  1. permanent root systems would hold and build the soil,
  2. gowing perennials would eliminate the need for annually tilling and planting and reduce the need for fossil fuel-consuming machinery,
  3. diversity would increase resilience and thwart spread of pests, reducing or eliminating the dependence on chemicals.

To further recreate the prairie ecosystem, Jackson has begun keeping bison as they are well-adapted to the prairie landscape.

The Land Institute gives research opportunities to postgraduate students, and its work extends beyond natural to social systems, and links the consolidation and corporatization of farming to the overnight disintegration of community, public health and economies across rural North America.

The concept of “home coming” or reclaiming this rural way of life is part of Natural Systems Agriculture, and events and education in schools are other programs the Land Institute is involved in. The institute is gaining recognition from other researchers who are examining the potential of perennials and testing the approach, and the underlying principles resonate beyond the prairie ecosystem and have attracted interest from other parts of the world. Jackson has written a number of books and has won several awards, including the Right Livelihood Award. His former wife Dana Jackson is now head of the Land Stewardship Project and his daughter, Laura, is a researcher at the University of Iowa.

For more information visit the Land Institute and Audubon Society.

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USA – Minnesota – Red Lake Restoration

The Red Lake Band of the Chippewa Tribe lives on an 837,000-acre reservation in northern Minnesota, an area about the size of Rhode Island. The band takes its name from the reservation’s Red Lake, one of the biggest freshwater lakes in the U.S.

The traditional staple food of the Chippewa is wild rice, which once grew in abundance in the marshes around Red Lake. It is a 5-foot-tall aquatic plant native only to North America. In late August – the Wild Rice Moon – the Chippewa paddled canoes into the marshes to harvest the rice. The harvesting method included knocking some grains back into the lake to sustain future harvests, and leaving some grains on the plants as food for birds.

In the 1930s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began impounding two nearby rivers, the tribe’s major rice-producing areas were destroyed or heavily damaged. Most people on the reservation no longer go “ricing” at all. But the band is trying to restore some of the old rice stands, and has purchased 2,500 acres next to the reservation for a commercial wild rice farm.

Besides making money for the band, the wild rice farm provides critical habitat for a large number of species. Eighteen species of ducks and geese eat wild rice and other plants that grow in the rice paddies. The dense vegetation provides ample nesting sites for bitterns and teals, and when the paddies are drained in late summer, the mudflats serve as stopover areas for godwits, yellowlegs, phalaropes and other shorebirds.

Red Lake also once teemed with fish, in particular walleyes. In 1917 tribal members launched a commercial fishery with gillnets on their portion of the lake, in addition to subsistence fishing. In the portion governed by the state of Minnesota, sport fishing by the general public flourished. Eventually people were taking more fish than the lake could provide, and harvests plummeted.

The Red Lake Band realized the walleye needed time to recover. In 1997 the tribe halted commercial fishing, and in 1998 stopped subsistence and sport fishing as well. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources banned walleye fishing in its portion of the lake in 1999. To augment the natural regeneration process a fish hatchery was established, and between 1999 and 2003 more than 100 million walleye fry were released into the lake.

The fish thrived, and the effort is now known as one of the nation’s most successful freshwater fish recoveries. The lake was reopened to walleye fishing, but in a cautious way to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

For more information see Restoring a Lost Legacy in the National Wildlife Federation’s journal.

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