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Three decades developing agroecology
Carmen Herrera
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The Campesino to Campesino program encourages an appreciation of local knowledge to reestablish food sovereignty.

In an area carved into small farms known as minifundios, where each lot measures 0.35 to 1.4 Ha (1.8 to 3.7 acres), participants in the project called Farmer to Farmer (Campesino a Campesino) are spearheading agroecology efforts in Nicaragua. Crop diversification is one method for which small-scale farmers are using their skills and creativity to “take advantage of the soil,” said Leonel Calero, an 18-year veteran of agroecology practices and program promoter in El Mojón, about 37 kilometers (22 miles) from Managua, in the municipality of Catarina, Masaya.

They are employing new techniques rather than burning the land, and use crop residue and weeds to their advantage, Calero explained. “It´´s a matter of conscience, to understand the earth needs care, that it can die but it can also live if we treat it well,” he said. “Everything is in nature as long as we use those resources from our farm and from our communities.”

Since the mid-1980s, the promotion of soil management practices and the incorporation of other farming techniques have taken place in Nicaragua, pushed by the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG). Founded in 1981, with more than 60,000 individual producers now of which 20,000 work with their families using agro-ecological practices, the organization is becoming Nicaragua’s agroecology keystone.

“After the Farmer to Farmer Program [PCAP] started in 1986, it has developed a methodology of learning by doing, placing great value on the knowledge of the campesino family, including women and young people,” explained PCAC expert Eugenio Pavón. “The program is focused on a variety of agro-ecological topics, food safety, organic fertilizer, and maximization of local resources, the farm, like using the plants, native seeds, and training space for promoters. There are 1,200 promoters at the national level, 38 percent of which are woman. The virtue of this program is the campesino family is the main protagonist in this methodology, while we technicians are only facilitators,” Pavón told Latinamerica Press.

“The program has done a great job of giving us knowledge, of teaching us to fish and not just giving us fish. They have taught us how to have diversified farms through exchanging information and training. Knowledge is important for the producer and allows one to become independent, to not just ask for a handout. Without knowledge you cannot do anything. This large crop I have, it didn’t come from my pocket, I didn’t go to a nursery to buy it, I only made use of the knowledge I acquired to reproduce plants,” Calero said. “If today I calculate the cost per plant, that would be an expensive investment, then the knowledge is crucial for helping people emerge from poverty.”

Difficulties in meeting technical standards
PCAC promoters considered a success the 2011 approval of the Agro-ecological or Organic Production Development Law. It will enter into force with the Nicaraguan Mandatory Technical Standard (NTON), which creates a blueprint for tools that develop agro-ecological production, allowing the characterization of the production units, such as the development of management plans to guide the transformation of production processes in terms of compliance with the NTON.

Nevertheless, there isn’t consensus on the application of NTON, said Jorge Vásquez, an expert with the PCAC, because “producers are questioning the dissemination of technical standards, especially as pertains to incentives, because that has to do with the assistance, which remains unclear,” he told Latinamerica Press.

Another factor aiding the agro-ecological movement is the Food Sovereignty and Security Strategy within the government’s National Human Development Plan, with the goal to “reduce food and nutrition insecurity in the rural population, rooted in small- and medium-scale food producers.”

The government’s document on Sectorial Policies for Food Security states that “food security and sovereignty reflects to the state of availability and stability in the food supply for everyone, everyday, in a timely manner to ensure nutritional wellbeing and enable [people] to make good biological use of food to achieve development without affecting the ecosystem.”

The Nicaraguan Agro-ecological Movement, comprising organizations that defend ecological practices in production systems, is establishing strategies for campaigns to counter unrestrained propaganda promoting the use of agrochemicals. Instead, it is encouraging agro-biodiversity, which has to do with the conservation of genetic resources related to agriculture, native seed conservation and crop diversification.

Rescuing native seeds
An unavoidable issue for the agro-ecological production sector is the use of native seeds, which in Nicaragua’s case reaches 70 percent to 75 percent in the case of basic grains crops —ensuring food sovereignty and security.

“We aren’t promoting salvaging native seeds out of a sense of folklore, but rather as a strategy for food safety and security because sovereignty has to do with exercising power, with making decisions; as long as people don’t have the power to decide about their genetic resources, we believe that there isn’t sovereignty. In that sense, we’re trying to build capacity at the local level to take advantage of those genetic resources people traditionally have in their communities, trying to make improvements, to multiply those genetic resources,” Vásquez explained.

With European Union funding, the state’s Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), is developing a program to strengthen technical tools for seed production, since this is an unregulated field.

Vásquez said the government can’t meet the strong demand for basic grain seeds. “This production system is not recognized and has an important role in food security; even if it has low yields, it guarantees people´´s food. The performance is a criterion that has to do not only with seed, but with soil nutrition,” he said.

The current ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, is promoting the widespread use of native seeds use through state programs. But in the opinion of some producer-leaders, this task should remain in the hands of trade unions as with previous governments, specifically the Pound for Pound program promoted by the administration of former President Enrique Bolaños (2001-2006). It was supported by the UNAG, which administered the program.

The Pound for Pound program, run by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAGFOR), gave improved seeds to UNAG, which would then distribute them to farming families to improve the yield of basic grain crops (corn, sorghum, and beans) to guarantee food security. At present, UNAG works with government agencies like INTA and MAGFOR, but the actual distributors of the seeds and providers of technical assistance to producers is the government, not the trade unions.

Unresolved issues in the agro-ecological sector are the threats of transgenic crops pushed by multinational companies, the impact of the agricultural frontier on forest clearing, the excessive use of firewood and the resulting stress on flora, fauna and water— especially in the drier parts of the country in the northern municipalities of Estelí, Nueva Segovia and Madriz, and on the Pacific coast in León and Chinandega, among others.
—Latinamerica Press.


Campesinos abandon harmful practices, such as slash-and-burn farming, and push for crop diversification and the use of native seeds and organic fertilizers. (Photo: Carmen Herrera)
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