Lessons From Ancient Farmers

Long-Lost Methods Combined With Modern Agriculture Can Boost Production, Achieve Food Security, Conserve Resources

by Fernando Quintero

Miguel Altieri, associate professor and entomologist at the Department of Science, Policy and Management's Center for Biological Control, works to save the environment, help the poor and feed the hungry--all in his spare time.

Altieri is a leading authority on the science of sustainable agriculture some call "agroecology."

In countries throughout Latin America as well as in other parts of the world, Altieri has worked with grassroots oriented non-governmental organizations to help farmers and rural villagers maintain agricultural productivity with minimal environmental impact.

From his office in the smattering of buildings that make up the Division of Biological Control just off San Pablo Avenue in Albany, Altieri offered an explanation for his extra-curricular activities.

"I believe scientists should have a social responsibility. I've chosen to deal with rural poverty and the inequities of development and distribution of wealth in Latin America," said Altieri, a native of Chile.

"What poor people need is food security. I try to help provide them with the tools they need to sustain themselves. One way to deal with rural poverty is to make agriculture more accessible."

For most rural Latin Americans, internationally and state sponsored top-down agricultural development strategies implemented throughout the past decade did little to relieve the poverty, food scarcity, malnutrition, poor health and degradation of the environment that is still common throughout the region, he said.

Altieri's work with grassroots organizations, including a United Nations program and the Latin American Consortium on Agroecology and Development, directly targets the poor and challenges top-down programs by promoting more equitable and sustainable development.

Many of these organizations build on traditional farming knowledge--which in some cases is lost due to colonization--and combine it with elements of modern agricultural science to boost production while achieving food security, biological stability and resource conservation.

"This approach gives unprecedented significance to local farmers' knowledge of their own areas' ecosystems--plants, soils and ecological processes--hence the term agroecology," said Altieri.

One example of an agroecological approach involved rescuing an ingenious system of raised fields that evolved in the Peruvian Andes about 3,000 years ago.

These waru-warus, consisting of platforms of soil surrounded by ditches filled with water, were able to produce bumper crops in the face of floods, droughts and frosts that are common at such high altitudes.

In 1984, several non-governmental organizations and state agencies created a project to assist local farmers in rebuilding the ancient farms.

The combination of raised beds and canals has proven to have remarkably sophisticated environmental effects. During droughts, moisture from the canals slowly ascends to the roots of crops via capillary action, and during floods, the furrows drain away excess runoff. Water in the canals also absorbs the sun's heat by day and radiates it back at night, helping to protect the crops from frost.

The system also maintains soil fertility. In the canals, silt, sediment, algae and plant and animal remains decay into a nutrient-rich muck which can be dug out and added to the raised beds.

Preliminary evaluations of these examples of agroecological projects, he said, show tangible benefits: higher food production, regeneration of natural resources and higher use-efficiency of local resources.

Altieri said another added benefit these programs provide is the opportunity for American students to engage in resource development research in Latin America.

"Students get excited about this," said Altieri. "We get students from the Center for Latin American Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies."

Former graduate students of Altieri are continuing his work, setting up on-site training programs at universities throughout Latin America. In 1993, Altieri expanded his work with rural farmers to Africa and Asia.


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