How ecological agriculture
changed my life
I was born and grew up in a Guatemalan Indian village and became a small farmer there. The biggest problem in my life was always a shortage of food and money. But 21 years ago I began a process that changed my life. I planted barriers of vegetation along the contours of my land to combat erosion and started using cow manure to fertilize a test plot. My harvest of maize nearly doubled from 0.8 to 1.3 tonnes per hectare.
This convinced me to follow some of my fellow Indian smallholders and attend the classes of a sustainable agricultural programme in nearby San Martin Jilotepeque. I stopped burning my fields after harvest, ploughed in my crop residues instead and began rotating crops. My harvests reached 3.4 tonnes per hectare, more than four times their original level.
Soon friends began asking me for advice. I began sharing information with other farmers, and so learned to speak in front of groups. In 1979 I was offered work as an extension worker. I was afraid to accept, but my friends convinced me I could do it. I eventually became a programme director, and have now spent five years as an international consultant, working from Mexico to Ecuador and even India.
The San Martin programme that I attended ended in 1979, but my people have continued to better their lives. More than 5,000 farmers have improved their farms. In four villages studied, those involved in the programme are harvesting an average of 4.3 tonnes per hectare. People are better educated, seasonal emigration has nearly ceased and less chemical fertilizer is used than 15 years ago. People have adopted new crops, developed whole new cropping systems - such as growing coffee under a dozen different fruit trees - and manage their forest plots as sustainable businesses.
We have learned that the sustainability of agricultural development does not depend on any specific technologies, because a profitable agriculture is always changing. What provides sustainability is a self-managed social process of constant innovation through which the people continue to develop their own agriculture.
This is achieved by teaching the villagers to experiment and disseminate what they learn by becoming village extension workers, as I did. It helps if what is taught at the beginning of a programme is limited to only one or two technologies that raise yields significantly, rather than starting with a whole package of practices. In this way, people are motivated to become involved, and the programme is simple enough for even the poorest people to participate effectively.
Some of the technologies we use are already widely known, such as avoiding burning, planting multiple-species contour vegetative barriers, and natural pest control. Others include:
- Strip tillage. Rows are tilled, leaving the area between alone. This lets the organic matter concentrate in the root zone of the crops, making better use of its residual effect and holding rainwater.
- Green manure. We use some 25 species of green manure or cover crops, intercropped with others, to fertilize the soil, control weeds, and feed both animals and people. This can help to end 'slash-and-burn' agriculture, as has already happened in areas of Guatemala, Paraguay, Ghana and other countries.
- The five golden rules of the humid tropics: (1) keep the soil covered; (2) maximize biomass production; (3) use zero tillage; (4) feed the crops through the mulch; and (5) maximize biodiversity. In this way we achieve high levels of productivity sustainably by imitating the natural system of tropical rainforests.
We have shown that ecological agriculture is highly productive over the long term. For most villager farmers the world over, it is an alternative that competes very well with Green Revolution agriculture.
Learning about ecological agriculture has been very important for me, and I am happy to contribute to spreading knowledge about it, because in this way we are assuring the economic and ecological future.
Gabino López is International Consultant with the Asociación de Consejeros para una Agricultura Sostenible, Ecológica y Humana (COSECHA), Tegucigalpa, Honduras.