Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sustainable Agriculture: Working with Kichwa Communities in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin

Thomas "Rip" Winkel recently returned from a F2F assignment near Puyo, Ecuador working with smallholder cacao farmers in the Amazon Basin. Below he shares his experience:

Once again I was privileged to work with Partners of the Americas on a Farmer-to-Farmer assignment funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This time the volunteer assignment I completed was in Ecuador, South America – an old stomping ground of mine when I served in the Peace Corps. A unique aspect of this assignment, however, is that it lasted for six weeks compared to the standard two- to four-week assignment in order to have more follow-up on trainings and maximize impact.

The main goal of this assignment was to train Arajuno Road Project (ARP) – a local NGO – extension agents and leaders from several communities in sustainable agricultural practices and cacao best management practices. This included facilitating workshops/training sessions on sustainable cacao production (pruning, grafting, soil fertility, etc.) and developing demonstration plots displaying proper planting practices of slips, roots or seeds, spacing, soil amendment practices, maintenance, etc. of possible tropical crops not being grown currently. Additionally, I conducted soil sampling and analysis of the various communities for its pH levels, and N, P, K availability.

I arrived in Quito late Saturday night along with Alex Matthews, another F2F volunteer assigned to this project. The next morning we traveled to Puyo, a small city over on the east side of the Andes mountain range in the province of Pastaza. The trip lasted about five hours. By the time we arrived, it was mid-afternoon, and not too late to find something to eat down in the center of town.

That very next morning we met with the ARP staff to get aquainted and discuss the assignment goals and objectives. We met with the six different communities that ARP currently assists, although our primary hosts were the communities of Esfuerzo, and Chuya Yaku. Esfuerzo is an easy 20 minute bus ride north of Puyo, while Chuya Yaku is much deeper into the undeveloped Amazonian basin – a two hour bus ride (one way) that snakes through the lush jungle along steep, winding dirt roads that are hardly wide enough for one vehicle. 

F2F volunteer Rip Winkel analyzing soil samples
During the beginning of the assignment, Alex and I went to many of the communities to meet the host farmer groups and conduct a rapid rural appraisal, assessing the agricultural, environmental, social and economic realities on the ground. Part of the agricultural assessment consisted of conducting basic soil analyses in the communities. The results of the soil analyses indicated the region to be a typical ‘tropical soil’, similar to what I came across in Nueva Guinea, Nicaragua on my last Farmer-to-Farmer assignment. The pH was around 4.0 in all the samples taken, and the levels of N, P, and K were all low to very low. One characteristic I found different from the Nicaraguan soil samples, however, is that soil textures here have very low percentages of clay particles. This coupled with the low pH and high amounts of precipitation received make for soils that have little to no available nutrients. This in turn, would almost necessitate a regular addition of fertilizer, chemical or organic, to any cultivar being grown.

After the appraisal was complete, we planned trainings, sourced materials for upcoming workshops, and made contacts with businesses that could serve as useful market linkages for the communities now and in the future. In the following weeks we conducted trainings and consulted with farmers regarding their cropping systems.

Pineapple demonstration plot in Esfuerzo
Highlights from Esfuerzo
One highlight was working with local farmers in Esfuerzo to establish various demonstration plots. One plot was established using three different pineapple (Ananas comosus) cultivars to gauge the potential productivity and profitability of each in their community. While a common planting scheme in Esfuerzo is to plant pineapple slips at distances from to 60 cm to 75 cm apart, we planted 100 pineapple slips using spacing recommended for commercial production – one 15 m bed with two 60 cm spaced rows and 30 cm between each plant.

Additional small demonstration plots were developed for coffee (Coffea arabica) and cacao (Theobroma cacao). Five coffee trees and five cacao trees were planted using recommended planting distances within recommended densities for commercial production (3m x 3m). The demonstration plots were divided into three even sections; where two of these areas received treatments. One area was given an application of locally made compost incorporated into the soil. The second area was given an application of calcium incorporated into the soil, where in 30 days an application of a complete fertilizer will be applied. The third area is a control. These treatments are to demonstrate effects that amending the soil might have on plant growth and more importantly their yields.

ARP extension agents will follow up with the community members to make sure the demonstration plots are properly maintained. As the demonstration plots in Esfuerzo mature, farmers will be able to see a multitude of options available to them to increase their yields and household income.

Highlights from Chuya Yaku
Another highlight from the assignment was working deep in the rainforest with cacao farmers in the community of Chuya Yaku. This community consists of 10 families, each with their own cacao orchard, totaling over 40 hectares combined. The majority of cacao trees were planted between three and seven years ago. Most of the trees had never been pruned or managed to any extent, with many of them on the verge of being engulfed by the aggressive jungle.

Conducting hands-on grafting and pruning workshops in Chuya Yaku
We conducted weekly presentations and sessions on how to manage and prune cacao trees at all stages of development. Our workshops were very hands-on. On a given day, groups of community members met with Alex and me on a different farm to properly prune approximately 40 trees. These plots of 40 trees will be used for two purposes: 1) serve as an example for farmers to prune the rest of their trees; and 2) serve as an experimental plot so farmers can see the impact that pruning has on their yields. In addition to pruning workshops, I also led hands-on grafting workshops. We would select scions from high yielding cacao cultivars to graft on to the farmers' established trees. Using grafted trees that are well pruned will substantially increase the farmers' cacao yields and ultimately their household income and food security.

1 comment:

  1. RIP!!! So glad you are out there doing your thing my friend! Miss you & sending best of love.