Evaluation Agriculture - May 2003

18/05/03, by Hugh Kininmonth
This is a review of the agricultural component of the RAXMU project up to the 29th of March 2003. I visited Cobán for four days from the 26th to the 29th of March and spent the whole of this time visiting communities within the area and discussing the project with the director David Unger and field officer Rudy Cu Cajbón

Is the project plan a good one?

In a word, yes. The two principal objectives being, to encourage farmers to plant fruit trees and to move away from the slash-and-burn method of agriculture.

Upon inspection, it is plainly evident that the farming communities within the defined area are badly in need of greater diversification and in turn, other sources of income from their land. As well as a greater diversity of diet. It is also very evident that a more efficient method of farming practice needs to be found, while at the same time halting the environmental disaster of slash-and-burn farming methods.

The idea of providing a range of types of fruit trees to farmers and at the same time training them in the appropriate husbandry techniques is an excellent one. The additional potential income from the fruit is very significant and the amount of labor input required to plant and tend the trees up to the time of harvest is negligible when compared to other current farm activities.

In the case of the current burning practices, years of experience with farmers who have moved away from this method of farming in other areas has already demonstrated in a spectacularly clear way that a simpler, easier, cheaper and more productive management system is immediately available to any farmer willing to try it.

I visited a community with David and Rudy where they had carried out similar work in previous years. At one of the farms we visited the farmer had a field where he had not burnt for eight years. But he had continued to plant maize in that field every year. He used no fertilizers or compost and he didn't spray for weed or pest control. So all trash was retained and he just planted through it. There was no noticeable weed problem.

He says the yields have not dropped off at all and a significant factor here is most likely the plant spacing. In this area it is traditional to leave one meter between plants and one meter between rows. Two or three seeds are sown in each spot and sometimes beans added to the same spot a couple of weeks later. And planting is no more difficult than before.

The soil health was magnificent. A beautiful rich black self mulching soil with a terrific amount of organic matter through it. It would absorb large amounts of water before eroding which is critical in these steep mountain areas. The only thing this farmer had done in this field was stop burning. So he actually saved himself work each season. There are also considerable savings from no longer using fertilizers and sprays.

It is important to consider the fact that by not having to use wide rotations in the cultivation of maize; much less land is required to grow the same amount of crop. From the farmers perspective, this frees up land for other uses and hence the viability of the total holding can be significantly improved. There is more land available for other crops, animals and agro-forestry. And above all, they can stop clearing forest, which is both a huge amount of work and an environmental tragedy.

For me, this was one of those rare occasions when I saw a wonderful working example of a beautifully simple idea having been implemented with outstanding success. It is common enough to see new ideas being tried in an area with good results, but so often a significant problem arises after some years. This was not the case here. He was saving time, effort, money and the need for more and more land, while at the same time maintaining yields and actually improving his soils. I could not emphasize strongly enough how important a breakthrough I think this farmers example is for the whole region.

This remarkable result begs the question, why hasn't every farmer in the region adopted these new practices. I think the answer is rather simple and typical of farming throughout the world. Existing methods become entrenched and the conservative nature of farming communities is such that many farmers can be very reluctant to change their ways. Even when confronted with lack of viability there is generally a greater inclination to change crop types rather than husbandry techniques.

The significance of the problems associated with burning in this region cannot be overstated. The environmental impact is enormous. Accordingly, so are the potential gains if the farming community can be convinced to change. The alternative is here, it costs nothing for a farmer to implement and the results are extraordinary benefits for all stake holders. The only thing that remains is for farmers to be convinced of the benefits of change. If this project achieved nothing other than this, it would be a most remarkable success.
So the question remains whether those involved in this project can successfully get the message across. An extremely important factor in this is that the director David Unger and field officer Rudi Cu Cajbón, both have a wealth of experience, with successful results, in this work, within this region of Guatemala. I think there is every reason to be optimistic.

Results to date.

The project started in November 2002, so had been going for only four months when I visited.

Ten of the thirty communities within the designated area have been visited and presented with the proposal to become participants in the project. Of these, four are already actively involved and there are positive signs that the other six will follow suit. The remaining twenty communities are yet to be presented with the idea.

A nursery has been established near Cobán for the production of seedling size trees of the appropriate species and provenances and thousands of seedlings are well on the way. This is owned and run by Raxmu. There have also been two nurseries established within the communities. One in Champoc and another in Chirixpec. It is early days still with these two, but I visited both and the results to date would suggest that the community members need to be prepared to devote a little more time to the care and attention of them if they are to produce significant numbers of seedlings.

The project was still quite new when I visited, but seems to be developing well and quite a bit has been achieved in the first four months.

Key elements in achieving the stated objectives

The main key to success with this project will be convincing farmers to modify their existing practices. This requires being in touch with the participants, visiting their farms rather than them having to go to town. Being able to communicate in their own language. Showing a keen awareness and understanding of the problems they face. Demonstrating the practical knowledge that enables delivering the message in an accessible way.

RAXMU´s plan to develop good example farms in each community is a sound one with a long history in agriculture around the world. It should be relatively easy to find one or two suitable candidates for this in each community. Starting by working with the fruit trees is a good idea. To just go into a community and start trying to convince farmers not to burn would only disenfranchise them.

Coming up with viable marketing methods for the new produce. Though this will not come up until after the period of the project, firm ideas should be in mind for the future.

Providing the right species of trees in the right numbers at the right time of year will be critical. This means the nurseries will need to be well managed.

Having some well established examples of this work in areas where David and Rudy have worked in the past is a very valuable asset. If required, groups or community representatives could be taken to these other communities and shown the results of eight years work.

Commercial use of primary and secondary growth forest.

I think the question of whether to make commercial use of secondary growth forest is a fairly simple one. In these areas it is common for a small number of species to predominate and they are not the species which dominate the primary growth areas. For this reason I think it is reasonable to cut some of them out, particularly seeing as they tend to be species of no commercial value.

One method I think would be worth trying would be to make small clearings in these areas, just big enough to plant two trees a couple of meters apart and plant high value timber species. Ideally ones native to the area. Once they are four or five meters high the lesser of the two should be cut down so as to leave free space for the other to flourish. They could then be pruned as they grew so as to later provide a straight clean log for timber.

The commercial use of the primary forest is rather more problematic. There is the argument that if it can be shown to have at least some commercial value as it is, then the farmers will be less likely to want to slash and burn it. And as far as it goes I think the argument a valid one. One problem though, is that of balance. Whether sufficient income could be gained without doing significant damage. I tend to be doubtful of this.


Nurseries. As the number of farmers involved in the project grows the Cobán nursery output will most likely need to expand considerably to cover any shortfall in production from the nurseries within the communities. This will require increased labour input within the nursery as it will be vital that the appropriate numbers of trees of the correct species are available at the right times of the year. I think this element of the project will need to be managed very professionally. It would be ideal if the community based nurseries were successful but I think it imperative that the Cobán nursery be well prepared to cover any shortfall.

Should the farmers have to pay for the trees? Will they give them enough TLC if they are free? I am inclined to think a token fee of something like one Quetzal per tree would probably be a good idea.

Trees for timber production. During my visit I became convinced that an extremely valuable addition to this project would be to encourage the farmers involved to also plant trees for timber production. I mean over and above the planned plantings of fruit and nut trees.

Given the average size holdings, a single row of timber trees planted around the perimeter of each farm (far enough in so as to not interfere with a neighbors production) and possibly another single row planted along side the central path most holdings have, would be more than enough space to plant a couple of hundred trees. This would have a negligible effect on crop production, particularly given the long fallow periods individual fields go through.

I think this area is absolutely ideal for timber as well as fruit and nut production and the gains to be had from it are potentially way over and above what a farmer could reasonably expect from other crops. Timber also has a huge advantage over most types of crops in that it can be harvested at any time of the year, to suit labor availability and can be sold at a time which suits the seller rather than the buyer. And if time or market conditions are not suitable to harvest the trees, the whole time they are left standing, they increase in size. Key characteristics in this recommendation are as follows:

The Alta Verapaz region is already identified nationally as being an area suitable for development of timber production as the climate is extremely well suited to achieve rapid growth rates.

The farmers in the region have sufficient land. There is a well established history within the communities of cutting trees for timber. They are generally milled into planks with a chainsaw rigged in a frame and then carried out a few at a time to sell in the nearest town. So the harvesting and marketing knowledge base already exists. And this could easily be raised to a more advanced level. The time and effort required for a farmer to plant say two hundred trees for timber is minimal. And likewise, to do a little weed control for the first couple of years and thereafter prune them for shape or to remove side limbs so as to produce a clean saw log, would be a very manageable exercise. Particularly given that these tasks generally have a fair degree of flexibility in when they can be done.

Ideally one or more indigenous species should be found that are capable of producing a log large enough to start milling within ten years. If it is not possible to find an indigenous species to fit this requirement then and introduced species should be used, though only as a percentage of the planting with the balance being indigenous species. Some slow growing high value timbers should also be included.

In summary, I think the addition to the project of a trees-for-timber element would be quite simple to include. And it would add another string to the bow of the farmers income opportunities.

Hacia arriba