Sunday, 30 January 2011

Why Inga Alley Cropping Deserves Funding

Why Inga Alley Cropping Deserves Funding

This is the story of a new agricultural technique that has the potential to lift many poor farmers out of poverty, and to help save millions of acres of tropical rainforest. Although the technique has been proved to work, sadly for a variety of reasons, it has struggled as yet to realize much of its potential. The technique was first developed and trialled by the tropical ecologist Mike Hands in Costa Rica the late 80s and early 90s. Funding from the EEC allowed him to experiment with species of Inga, that would be used as hedges and pruned when large enough to provide a mulch in which bean and corn seeds could be planted. This had the remarkable results of not only improving yields but also retaining the fertility on the plot that was being farmed. Mike Hands had previously seen the devastating consequences that could be caused by continuous slash and burn agriculture while working in Honduras, and this new technique seemed to offer the solution to the environmental and economic problems faced by so many slash and burn farmers.

         Honduran slopes made bare and infertile
by slash and burn agriculture.
Copyright : FUPNAPIB (a Honduran NGO)

 Tropical rainforest soils are usually thin and comparatively low in nutrients and so, particularly if you are farming on hillsides as many poor farmers are forced to do, once you have burnt an area of forest to plant your crops, the nutrients necessary to produce a healthy crop are quickly leached out of the soil. This means that the farmer has to burn more rainforest and move his plot every 3 years or so, in order to find land that would support him and his family. In areas where farmers returned too quickly to previously farmed plots, the nutrients would be leached out to such an extent that land that a few years previously may have been luxuriant rainforest, would now be turned into a type of poor man-made desert.

What the poor slash and burn farmer needed was a method of agriculture that would provide him with better, more reliable yields on the same piece of land, year after year. The Inga alley cropping technique has been shown to do this. Mike Hands had proved that not only could the Inga trees, as nitrogen fixing plants help retain nitrogen in the soil, they could also in conjunction with certain fungi conserve the vital nutrient of phosphorus. At the same time both the trees themselves, planted along the contour lines of the slope, and the valuable mulch they produced, reduced erosion and helped retain the thin vital top soil within the plot.  The larger branches that were pruned could also be used as a valuable source of firewood.

Pablo, a Honduran farmer with his tall crop
of maize, grown with Inga
Copyright Antony Melville (Rainforest Saver)

Unfortunately after Mike Hands’s successful trials in Costa Rica, the EEC, for reasons best known to themselves refused to fund the extension programme that could have helped fund a proper demonstration farm, seed orchard and full-time extension worker to give advice and support to the farmers.This was urgently needed to provide the impetus for this new method of farming to really take off.

In spite of this, with the help of a wealthy patron and an enthusiastic farmer, a demonstration farm was developed in Honduras and many farmers came to see the new system.  Many were enthusiastic to try it and some other local farmers were able to do so but the lack of Inga seed meant that many others were not able to take it up. Sadly due to shortages of funding and changes within the local NGO that was supporting the scheme, the spread of Inga alley cropping was not as rapid as many had hoped it would be. 
Now, though with the assistance of a charity called Rainforest Saver, working with a different Honduran NGO called Funavid and the agricultural experts at a nearby university in La Ceiba, named CURLA, there are plans to create another demonstration farm, together with an Inga seed nursery and to fund an extension worker that will assist the farmers to take up the new system.  The close liason with the university will also mean that further research can be carried out, and that many of the students will be trained in this form of agriculture.

Inga mulch between Inga trees, ready for CURLA students to sow crops on the Funavid land at Lucinda, Honduras - Photo Copyright : Tiiu Imbi-Miller (Rainforest Saver)

At the same time small demonstration Inga plots will be set up at a number of Agriculture High schools throughout the region and the teachers will receive training about the Inga system. In short, there is much to be enthusiastic and optimistic about.  However, the success of the scheme depends on acquiring sufficient funding to build efficiently on what has already been achieved. The land for the demonstration farm has been bought and some of the local farmers are keen to start Inga alley cropping but funds for a nursery, a proper road and an extension worker are urgently needed.
The opportunity to implement and demonstrate a new form of agriculture in tropical rainforest areas is one that is both exciting and challenging. Inga alley cropping can provide farmers with better yields year after year and also has numerous benefits for the environment. Thousands of acres of rainforest can be protected and erosion, which causes the silting up of rivers and damages coastal areas, particularly coral reefs, can be seriously reduced. If you have somehow managed to stumble across this blog and think you might be interested in getting involved in this exciting challenge, please email me or check out the Rainforest Saver web site.

Rainforest Saver  -