Practicing Agro-forestry in Combuyo, Bolivia.

It has been a whirlwind of a summer with lots of fieldwork, conferences and consultancy projects. As a result, this blog has been rather quiet! The start of the academic year is approaching fast, so I’m taking advantage of the relative quiet to post a few updates here.

This summer, my post-doctoral research on the role of civil society actors in food system contestation and change brought me to Bolivia, where I tried to gain a better understanding of the role of grass roots organisations in bringing about change. As part of the trip, I spent a few weeks volunteering at an agro-forestry plantation (‘farm’) in the small village of Combuyo, Cochabamba district. In this post, I will discuss agro-forestry at Mollesnejta.

In recent years, the practice of agro-forestry has been increasingly celebrated as a potential solution to climate change (Mbow et al. 2013; Coe et al. 2014) because agro-forestry practices may deliver eco-system services such as carbon sequestration, water conservation, and improved soil fertility while reducing soil erosion (FAO 2017). In theory, agro-forestry – a form of land use in which woody perennials combine with agricultural crops or animals on the same plot – also has the potential to contribute to farmers’ earnings and make farming practice more robust. In practice, however, these potential benefits are not always easy to realise. For those farming on small plots, for example, the opportunity cost of dedicating space to costly trees which may only generate income several years down the line – if at all – may simply be too large.

Mollesnejta is 16ha plot of previously severely eroded agricultural land, taken over by Noemi Stadler-Kaulich in 2001 in order to experiment with agro-forestry practices that could regenerate the area. Over the years, she introduced species such as tagasaste (Chamaecytisus proliferus), a fodder tree from the Canary Islands which at Mollesnejta has also been used to support vines. The main use of the tagasaste trees, however, to nurture other more vulnerable species that are more difficult to bring to maturity. Primary trees are ‘acclimatised’ to their environment by planting them in the near vicinity of other species (secondary species) that grow easily in Mollesnejta. The idea is that the secondary species nitrificates the soil through leguminose/nitrate fixing, which fertilizes the soil for the primary tree, ultimately contributing to the crop (Rosenstock et al. 2014). The purpose of the technique is to create synergies that – literally – bear fruit throughout the life-cycle of the tree.

 

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[Uplifting tagasaste shoots that have self-seeded under the trees]
In this way, the more difficult to establish fruit trees are provided with the best possible conditions to nurture them to maturity. Thus, the practice of mulching serves to add biomass to the soil in the immediate vicinity of the tree and also prevents the evaporation of moisture.

 

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Japanese mispel with dry matter around it to create mulch

Noemi’s plantation is open to visitors and those who are interested in learning about agro-forestry. However, in spite of existing knowledge about agro-forestry’s benefits the uptake of agro-forestry practices by farmers living around Mollesnejta has been very limited. Moreover, after Noemi’s trees survived a drought spell in the area without too many issues, some locals drew the conclusion that agro-forestry as practiced by Noemi diverted the water in the local catchment. They did not believe the trees survived relatively OK, because improved water conservation as a result of the presence of the trees. In practice, such beliefs are very difficult to counter especially in a wider social context in which farmers deal with a wide variety of pressures (drought, low farm gate prices, insecure institutional and legal environment, disagreement or conflict over local water distribution). For this reason, it is important that in situ research into the uptake and barriers to agroforestry practices (see also Coe et al. 2014). Mollesnejta has been facilitating such research in Bolivia since 2001. It is partnered with the Bolivian research network ECO-SAF (Espacio COmpartido en Sistemas AgroForestales). Here, you can learn more about the research taking place at Mollesnejta.

Given the important work done at Mollesnejta and the very fruitful time I spent there this summer, it was a particularly devastating shock to find out that the majority of Mollesnejta’s trees burned down in a near all-consuming fire on 16 August 2017. Incredibly, and thanks to Noemi’s spirit and the contributions of volunteers, the effort to restore Mollesnejta and make the area green again began immediately, the day after the fire. You can read more about the restorative project and the new opportunities it brings with it here. Please consider making a small donation if you can.

This was the first introduction to the topic of agro-forestry on this blog. The potential link between agro-forestry and the improvement of food security (FAO 2013) will be discussed in a future post.

Sources

Budowski, G. and Russo, R., 1997. Nitrogen-fixing trees and nitrogen fixation in sustainable agriculture: research challenges. Soil Biology and Biochemistry29(5-6), pp.767-770.

Coe, R., Sinclair, F. and Barrios, E., 2014. Scaling up agroforestry requires research ‘in’ rather than ‘for’ development. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 6, pp.73-77.

FAO, 2014. Sustainable Forest Management Tool Box, Food and Agricultural Organisation, http://www.fao.org/sustainable-forest-management/toolbox/modules/agroforestry/basic-knowledge/en/

Mbow, C., Van Noordwijk, M., Luedeling, E., Neufeldt, H., Minang, P.A. and Kowero, G., 2014. Agroforestry solutions to address food security and climate change challenges in Africa. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 6, pp.61-67.

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