A mountain of opportunities - Editorial
After living and working for more than 15 years in mountainous regions in Kenya, Peru, Ecuador and Nepal, guest editor Hans Carlier was asked to give his view on sustainable development of mountain agriculture. The author argues that mountain people themselves hold the key to sustainable development, not outsiders. This needs to be recognised before the mountain of opportunities and wisdom is eroded beyond repair.
A mountain of opportunities
Hans CarlierAfter living and working for more than 15 years in mountainous regions in Kenya, Peru, Ecuador and Nepal, guest editor Hans Carlier was asked to give his view on sustainable development of mountain agriculture. The author argues that mountain people themselves hold the key to sustainable development, not outsiders. This needs to be recognised before the mountain of opportunities and wisdom is eroded beyond repair. As a development worker, I am expected to analyse problems and to help farmers understand and clear socalled bottlenecks in their development. However, I feel this takes us astray. We loose sight of what we really wanted to do: to help agriculture develop in a sustainable way. How can we expect a person to grow if we keep emphasising mistakes and failures? By stressing problems, all we ever developed is a feeling of frustration and backwardness, a lack of power. It seems that good solutions always have to come from elsewhere. Existing technology is ignored in many development projects. Instead of developing knowledge, we cover it up. People with a highly developed tradition of knowledge are silenced and even made to feel ashamed. Whats even worse, they no longer feel capable of directing their own development.
Let people feel proudNepal, which is economically seriously underdeveloped, has the highest rate of farmers practising ecologically sound agriculture. When my Nepalese colleagues realised this, it seemed as if they had more strength and confidence than ever. There was no longer a need to dig through huge piles of literature in foreign languages. Their strength and skills were buried deep down inside. They gained their knowledge through experiences in their youth, their upbringing and education in their own village. All of a sudden they realised that they came from different regions and that they all had fascinating experiences in sustainable farming. Their university training too had rather "enveloped" than developed their knowledge. Now that they realised all this, the uncovering, or real developing process could break through.
Mountain wisdomWhen compared to the disastrous mistakes made by "lowlanders", mountain people have done well in managing their environment in an ecologically sound way. They hardly joined the feast of overconsumption using up energy resources, minerals and the worlds rainforests at an alarming speed. The more powerful "lowlanders" forced them to withdraw to the most inaccessible and vulnerable of mountain regions. Mountain people, representing 10% of the worlds population, often have no say in politics. Still they can be proud to say that they hold the key to our common future. What has been called ignorance turns out to be an important key to understanding sustainable development. Mountain farmers use a diverse knowledge system to survive in a complex and sometimes harsh environment. They show us how to live a sober life in balance with nature. The extreme mountain environment requires a thorough knowledge of nature and well-adapted technology. In different mountain regions, I have met people who developed working tools. These tools were all adapted to mountain-specific problems, like erosion, different soil structures and slopes. Moreover, they were adapted to local means of transport and the limited strength of people and animals. Imagine the interesting books that could be written on these tools, especially for mountain farmers! I hope an increasing number of school technicians and development projects will show interest in these mountain tools.
I remember well a project in Peru where farmers and blacksmiths from the southern province of Puno were invited to a contest. With their age-old footplough, the taqlla they had to take up a digging contest against a hoe from Spanish origin. The taqlla beat the hoe by far. The farmers, who were also blacksmiths, helped their colleagues in making the taqlla with local resources. Their taqlla was only one example of the many different forms in which this tool is used in the Andes. For each slope and soil type, adjusted taqllas have been reported.
Mountains, earlier referred to as "islands in the sky" (Rhoades, ILEIA Newsletter 1988), confront the farmer with an enormous array of different climatical environments. Soil and temperature differ with each altitude. Farmers are known to exploit these differences in a clever way.
Daniel Hilario, a farmer from the village of Chongos Alto in the Central Andes region, owns one hectare divided over 30 different plots. His fields are situated in different heights, varying from 2000 to 3800 masl. He knows the different soils of each field. Some fields require early planting, while others are planted only late spring. This suits him well. He would never be able to do all the heavy work in a short period. The sowing as well as the harvesting season are prolonged by the this variety in fields. His fields are also situated in different valleys, so that the risk of failure is limited and his family has always something to eat.
Experience has taught Daniel that hail or frost never strike in all valleys at the same time. The products that Daniels family need from higher up the mountain, like wool for clothing or manure for crops, is brought to the village by herders. They trade their product for grains. In the same way, relatives from further down the mountain, where the climate is milder, bring fruits and herbs. A flourishing trade bridging 4000 meters in altitude!
Social safety netThe socalled "extended family" is often the only means to survive in mountainous regions. This social safety net is carefully maintained, even if it takes a lot of time and effort. It strongly influences what is not allowed in the village and what is. Although the younger generations sometimes feel constrained, social rules are necessary to maintain an ecological lifestyle. Grazing of the commons and of cultivated fields after the harvest, but also the repair of land slides and maintenance of irrigation structures and paths need co-operation and a thorough knowledge of social organisation.
Mountain people need each other in times of natural disaster, but also to combat pests and diseases, to share and exchange tools, seeds and hands. In short, mountain agriculture is well-organised. Many agricultural activities are accompanied by colourful celebrations to strengthen a feeling of solidarity. Ceremonies also announce the long-time proven dates for agricultural activities to start or end in order to avoid crop failures.
ChangeI believe that mountain farmers are aware of the fact that some of their practises are not ecologically sound. They often have no choice. More and more mouths need to be fed. The high investment in their childrens education ("so that they do not have to suffer as much as their parents") forces them to farm soils that should be left fallow or are too steep or high for cultivation. Chemical fertilisers allow them to continuously farm these fragile plots until nothing is left.
Many people migrate to other regions, either for longer or short periods. Some of them earn some money in the cities, industries or in mining to be able to continue their mountain life. Others leave the mountains forgood and invest only in their new lives elsewhere. Their lands are left fallow or are farmed by relatives staying behind. Land is never sold, one never knows....
As soon as an opportunity comes along, many men leave. Women who stay behind with their children are left with still more farming work to be done. Investments in sustainability decline. This is more often caused by a heavy workload and disease than by a lack of knowledge. Because the women stay in their village more permanently, and because they are less involved in the market economy, they show more interest in sustainable mountain life.
Often they are the ones who hold the knowledge to survival and pass it on to younger generations. Schools are often unfamiliar with this type of knowledge. They are mainly busy teaching the children knowledge "from the city" and hardly teach them respect for the traditional wisdom of their -often illiterate- mothers.
Apart from migrating to earn cash, many villages develop some form of economic activity. Many crafts are based on old traditions, but some are also a reaction to new market impuls. The success of such activities depends on their complementarity to basic food production and to their effect on natural resources. Labour competition also plays an important role. To a certain extent, these small scale industries relieve the pressure on the soil by diversifying economic activities.
Hopefully, they make life in the villages more attractive to young people and prevent the villages from being deserted. During a workshop in Cuenca, Ecuador, one of the young farmers said: "My parents were satisfied with what little they had and was offered to them by nature. For us the word "enough" doesnt extist. We, who went to school, are never satisfied even if we have a lot."
Reporters wantedIt would be a relief if more development workers would make use of all the facilities they have. Instead of teaching and training, they should be making inventories and communicating. By listening carefully to farmers, like a good reporter, they could build bridges between mountain regions by means of radio, television or newspapers. I think this is what farmers would really appreciate.
Instead of promoting western science, scientists should be invited to support mountain practice with theory. They should fully support farmer-to-farmer communication. Farmers experience with nature needs to be documented as soon as possible. If not, we should not be surprised when within only a few generations, sustainable mountain life is no longer possible because the knowledge is lost. We live in the age of communication. No mountain region will escape the influence of industrialised society.
Once a local healer in Peru said to me in a worried tone: "My daughter, who went to school, is no longer interested in my knowledge. She tells me "Mum, Im not an Inca! If Im sick, Ill see a doctor." To whom can this woman pass on her knowledge about nutrition, clothing and a healthy and ecologically sound way of life? Her modern daughter does not want to carry the torch of tradition and she is forced to take her library of life with her into the grave. The wisdom of life of many, many generations will end as a result of the development brought by dominating outsiders.
We have to find new ways of passing on tradition real soon. When will we have schools where indigenous mountain knowledge is continued? How will conventional education deal with this type of knowledge? A new future for many training and demonstration farms might be to run a knowledge and technology centre. A kind of active open air museum where all kinds of mountain farmers can share their wisdom, not only in farming, but also in architecture, medicine and health. Elders will be proud to help preserve their knowledge for future generations! We already have gene-banks. Why shouldn\'t we have knowledge-banks? Mountain conservation projects should include these knowledgeable people rather than kick them out as if they were destructive animals.
\'Finally, I would like to quote a farmer from Chongos Alto: "The source of life lies in the east, where the sun rises and the highest mountains are. The course of life is to the west, down the mountain into the sea, where the sun sets. It follows the course of water and soil. Although it seems easy to run down, it is a true art to make the downhill run take as long as possible. Just like plants produce seed before they die, man will return to follow the course of life again."Hans Carlier. Project Earth, Stokebrand 233, 7206 EE Zutphen, Netherlands. The author is a landscape architect and consultant on Sustainable Agricultural Development.
Farmers experiment to find appropriate solutions
Working with Quechuan and Aymaran farmers in the Andean area, World Neighbors learned many valuable lessons. Firstly, trainers will only be effective if they provide follow-up, so that the technology can be adapted as needed over time. Second, participatory technology is site specific. No matter how simple the technology, it cannot be transferred from one place to another, even when it has been developed by the peasants themselves and would appear appropriate.
For example, the tillage practices for corn and beans in Central America were decidedly different from those used for potatoes, horse beans and barley in South America. In Honduras, deep tillage furrows 40cm wide developed on the contour were perfect for planting corn and beans. By protecting them from year to year, farmers could replant their corn or beans by simply driving a stake into the middle of the furrow and dropping the new seed into the hole. This soft bed speeded up root growth, improving productivity. Furthermore, the narrow uncultivated space between each furrow insured that all moisture and nutrients were kept in the root zone where it was most needed.
World Neighbors decided to take trainers of trainers from Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador to see the large extensions of land small farmers in Honduras had protected with soil and water conservation measures. Upon his return home, a trainer from Ecuador began by pointing out to the small Quechua farmers that the idea of constructing deep tillage furrows on the contour was just one of many ideas to be tested. He had realised that the most important thing to teach was a problem solving methodology, not a technology. He therefore suggested they initiate small experiments to test ideas they believed would be appropriate for their own area.
We were all surprised to learn in the dialogue which followed that these farmers had all attended seminars on water and soil conservation. They took us to see the terraces they had helped build which the owner had never used. Then showed us the beautiful aluminum A-frames another large NGO had given them after attending their seminar. We noted that they had never used these either.
It soon became apparent that small scale experimentation was called for. The farmers eventually chose to test two ideas. The first was deep tillage rows on the contour. Annual precipitation was so low in this area that farmers had been unable to plant corn. Perhaps this appropriate technology would enable them to conserve enough water in the root zone, that they could finally raise the crop in their sandy soils. Another methodology tested by the farmers were bench terraces two meters wide, half the width of the terraces being promoted by the professional agronomists working for the other large NGOs promoting these activities. Grass was also planted on the edge of these terraces to provide food for their livestock and help protect the edges of the terraces.
Everyone was deeply distressed when a serious drought occurred during the next growing season. Half way through it appeared all crops would be lost How fortunate we had encouraged the farmers to begin with small experiments. To our amazement, when harvest time arrived, the only people to harvest any crops were those who had implemented these practices. This taught everyone another important lesson. Seen from the environmentalist´s perspective, the motivation for initiating these programs is normally soil and water conservation. In contrast, the water saved in drought prone areas may be the most attractive motivation to small farmers.
Edward Ruddell and Robert Ainslie, World Neighbors, Casilla 20005, Santiago 20, Chile.