International Agroecology

International Agroecology Program Overview

The main goal of this program is to promote agroecological initiatives that exert a positive impact on the livelihoods and food sovereignty of small farming communities in various Latin American countries.

The basic tenet of this program is that the success of such initiatives is dependent on the use of a variety of agroecological improvements that in addition to farm diversification favoring a better use of local resources, also emphasize human capital enhancement and community empowerment through training and participatory methods as well as higher access to truly fair markets, credit and equitable income generating activities. Access to land, water, native seeds and other basic resources and services is of course a key prerequisite.

Our experience shows that in most cases, farmers adopting agroecological models achieve significant levels of food security and natural resource conservation. A key focus of the International Agroecology Program is to scale-up these initiatives to enable wider impact, through a significant increase in the knowledge and management of agroecological principles and technologies between farmers of varied socio-economic and biophysical conditions, and between institutional actors involved in peasant agricultural development. International Agroecology program has three projects located in Brazil, Chile and Mexico:

Brazil Program

Article: Enhancing Crop Productivity via Weed Suppression in Organic No-Till Cropping Systems of Santa Catarina, Brazil (pdf)

Organic conservation tillage systems for family farmers in southern Brazil: understanding agroecological mechanisms for scaling up of the technology.

In southern Brasil (Santa Catarina and Parana states) several small farmers in rolling hillsides using inventive self-reliance developed an innovative organic conservation tillage system (OCT). Contrary to conventional no till systems, these novel OCT systems do not depend on herbicides for weed control but rely instead on the use of cover crop mixtures (including various combinations of naked oats, rye, hairy vetch, fodder raddish, and others) which leave a thick residue mulch layer on which traditional grain crops (corn, beans, wheat, etc) and vegetables (onions, tomatoes, etc) are directly planted, suffering very little weed interference during the growing season and reaching agronomically acceptable yield levels. Since very little research has been conducted to understand the ecological underpinnings of these systems, we initiated a research project aimed at assessing the performance of OCT systems, particularly the processes involved in weed suppression and those determining optimal soil fertility, pest regulation and crop productivity. Our hypothesis was that by elucidating the mechanisms at play would provide principles and guidelines to hundreds of other farmers that due to high cost and/or herbicide dependence want to transition towards OCT systems.

Our first year results suggest that weed suppression in OCT systems is due to allelopathic effects of cover crops such as rye and fodder radish. Although it is known that rye can suppress weeds by reducing light and nutrient availability, significant weed suppression under field conditions has been attributed to the allelochemicals it releases including B-phenyllactic acid and B-hydroxybutiric acid and various benzoxazolinone compounds. Residues of fodder radish partially incorporated into the soil reduce weed density via release of glucosinolate compounds. We believe that these cover crops residues reduce weed seed emergence but not that of subsequent crops via three ways:

* some farmers wait a few weeks between rolling the cover crop and seeding the crop

* farmers place crop seeds below the toxic layer ( allelopathic zone) formed by the phytotoxins leached a short distance from the mulch into the soil ( Figure 5 ).

* Transplanting seedlings of small-seeded crops (i.e. onions) thus reducing their susceptibility to allelochemicals.

There is strong evidence that cover crop residues and associated phytotoxins are associated with weed suppression, but the residues also have positive effects on subsequent crops due to increased soil quality parameters, improved crop nutrition and in some cases suppression of soil-borne pathogens. Yields in most cases are 5-10% lower in OCT systems when compared to CT systems but such differences are easily offset by the lower costs of production and the environmental benefits of OCT systems.

Chile Program

A community based in situ conservation, educational and policy advocacy strategy to preserve the genetic wealth and the cultural heritage associated with native potatoes of the Archipelago of Chiloé (see also

Chiloe island is a secondary center of origin of potatoes. Indigenous populations have conserved potato landraces and locally adapted varieties for centuries, but this genetic legacy has been threatened by economic policies and scientific advances that drive agricultural modernization in Chile . In the 1960s the Chilean government promoted the Green Revolution, providing farmers with credit for high yielding varieties (HYVs), fertilizers and fungicides as well as technical assistance. This process accelerated the process of genetic erosion leading to the disappearance of hundreds of local varieties. After 1973 agricultural research and extension was privatized in Chile and farmers had to now buy the inputs to grow HYVs, but given the fact that more than 80% of the farmers on the island are impoverished and could not afford the new technology. HYVs soon succumbed to pathogens and poor soil fertility. A few Huilliche indians ( mainly women) conserved many varieties thought to be lost, and these varieties provided the genetic base of a revival of a new agroecological strategy. Through the years, CET has organized farmers to start a process of recovering and re-introducing the traditional varieties. A small community seed bank was established for in-situ conservation of the varieties as well as an ex-situ collection of the key landraces. There is an urgent need to expand the on-farm conservation efforts to as many rural communities as possible. It is also important to educate the general public (including farmers, policy makers, agricultural professional and students) to recognize Chiloé as a source of a unique traditional rural culture which co-evolved with a rich agrobiodiversity. The preservation of both are vital to stimulate the sustainable development on the archipelago. Public awareness through education, seminars, workshops etc coupled with field activities involving organized farmers can generate substantial interest in the local; and regional authorities to create a political framework to protect the cultural legacy and the existing biodiversity in the Archipelago. The strategy can also reinforce CET as a research and development center that systematizes and keeps information related to the genetic material, providing key varieties to farmers and technical support on agroecological management as well as alternative markets and fair trade options. Increasing the national and local population’s knowledge about the relevance of Chiloé as a place for biodiversity of world importance can stimulate consumers and the sector related to tourism to support on farm conservation through preference in the market. On the other hand increased consumer demand can increase commitment of local and national authorities to the development of new policies that encourage a legal framework for the development of agrobiodiversity conservation initiatives.

Mexico Program

Scaling up soil and water conservation initiatives with emphasis on watershed restoration and farming system enhancement in the Mixteca Region of Mexico ( see also

The Mixteca region, covering parts of the states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Guerrero, conforms an area of 40,000 square kilometers of irregular, mountainous terrain with low, unevenly distributed precipitation (300 to 700 mm/ year). Today, the region is inhabited by about 450 thousand people mostly indigenous peoples from at least seven different ethnic groups: the Nahuas, Mixtecs, Popolocs, Ixcatecs, Mazatecs, Cuicatecs and Chinantecs living in 155 municipalities. It is one of Mexico’s poorest agricultural regions, exhibits high levels of marginalization, and, therefore, a considerable number of its inhabitants are forced to migrate.

As a result of historical processes of deforestation, overgrazing and agricultural expansion that followed the Spanish conquest, erosion has reached disastrous levels and for this reason the Mixtecan region is considered an Ecological Disaster Area. In the state of Oaxaca there are 1,5 million hectares of land suffer water erosion. It is estimated that 83% of the Mixteca soils are lightly to moderately degraded and 17% exhibit severe erosion signs. The ecological degradation process is shrinking the amount of land available for agriculture. Rainfed areas devoted to grain crops has declined sharply, from 53,000 hectares in 1980 to 36,000 in 1983; and today rainfed lands are expected to be less than 25,000 hectares. Ninety none % of these lands (agricultura de temporal) is managed by small farmers that cultivate 1-2 hectare plots per year conforming a massive mosaic of more than 120,000 impoverished and degraded minifundios .

In addition to land degradation, the Mixteca’s most serious problem is water. Many families survive with only 7 liters a day, that is, one-fourth of the consumption of the poorest of the poor in Mexico. It is estimated that the total water demand for a rural family of seven in periods of little or no rainfall is about 13,350 liters (11 lts per person per day) of which 6,500 are used in cooking and drinking, and the rest in body cleaning, cloth and dish washing. Little or no water is left for animals. Paradoxically there is a long history of water management and use in the Mixteca region, records of the first water management techniques date from 2,800 years ago. Today, small population groups still have hydro-geological ad hydro-agricultural knowledge of inestimable value and it is crucial to capitalize on this knowledge.

In collaboration with CEDICAM in addition to reforestation and ditch building, our efforts center on improving soil fertility, harvesting water at the field level and enhancing crop productivity, all aspects essential for food security and conservation of local genetic resources. The process involves to strategically plan the restoration efforts so that they directly affect farming system performance. This requires a coordinated plan of watershed restoration and also recuperating local varieties as well as re constructing pre-hispanic bordos and terraces that are abandoned but that could be rehabilitated in critical areas. The strategy emphasizes soil and water conservation in a way that potentiates farming system enhancement, encouraging a participatory process that leads to technical capacity building and empowerment of farmers.

Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA)

A fiscally sponsored project of CENSA. SOCLA (Sociedad Cientifica LatinoAmericana de Agroecologia) promotes the development of the science of agroecology as the scientific basis of a sustainable rural development strategy in Latin America.

The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America