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Thoughts on upscaling sustainable agriculture based on experiences in rural Peru

For the last three years, I have been living in the rural valley of Oxapampa in central Peru, working on, among other things, sustainable agricultural production systems. I have a small plot of land where I am  humbly trying to develop a small agro-ecological production system. Based on these experiences, I thought it might be interesting to share some ideas on how to guarantee upscaling of sustainable agriculture and the essential role young people play in that challenge.

As I write this, a diffuse blanket of smoke covers the entire valley with a fog-like haze dense enough to make the cloudless sky look more white than blue. The sunlight that reaches the ground bathes everything in an orange tone. 

Map from the global Forests Watch

The smoke is the result of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of farmers applying slash and burn in the surrounding areas, as well as a large forest fire caused by uncontrolled burning. This is common practice this time of year where farmers aim to clear land for cultivation, to enhance soil fertility (in the short term) and a futile attempt to improve the chances of rain (as it's the forest that almost literally breathes rain clouds). The amount of smoke, covering thousands of square kilometers, and the fact that this has been going on for several days, gives an idea of the sheer size of the area that's being burned.

Unsustainable agricultural practices like these have resulted to increasingly devastating impacts in the whole of the Yungas cloud forest the dominant ecosystem here. The cloud forest lies on the transition between the Andes and the Amazon jungle, a fringe that stretches from northern Colombia to southern Bolivia. The effects of deforestation and contamination are increasingly felt, with a diminishing and more irregular water supply, health effects and biodiversity loss. A wicked problem indeed, as agriculture is still the main source of income for the majority of the people living here. And of course, climate change only worsens all of this.

Overlooking my garden and in conversation with my plumber and neighbor, they both advise I apply poison (literal translation from the Spanish veneno) to my potato plants. Granted, they are not looking too well, with insects eating around twenty percent of the leaves and what seems to be a nasty fungus attacking the roots their advice makes a whole lot of sense. I try not to delve deep into the discussion as it's pointless. Almost everyone here in the valley, even the more or less environmentally conscious ones, enthusiastically support conventional practices. People adopting or promoting organic farming are more often than not regarded as naive, irrational and even arrogant. Fertilizer and pesticide sales contribute substantially to the local economy and to the profits of the foreign manufacturers  ministry of agriculture  father to son and from peer to peer. And perhaps most importantly, the effects of the nicely packaged chemicals are very tangible in the short term. The not-so-politically-correct product names like 'Bazooka' and 'Bin - kills all - Laden' illustrate how they are seen as weapons and allies in a war against an enemy - the pests. My neighbor's potato plants are bigger and don' have any holes in their leaves, and that makes for a compelling argument.

There are various reasons mine are in the state they are. I have been improving my soil for only a year now. When I started it was quite poor, with almost zero organic matter content and quite possibly full of toxins as a result of decades of conventional practices. I am a beginning farmer, and while I am familiar with the theoretical concepts of agroecology, it takes years of practice -at least on my case it does- to become any good at it. My ecosystem is slowly developing, but pests still have the upper hand. I don't spend as much time farming as I should given that i have a full time job on the side. And the pests that flee from my neighbors plot happily thrive on my pristine, defenseless plants.

But it's not only about the difficulties of production and reaching satisfactory productivity levels - which now i can relate to at least a little bit.

Agroecology is a holistic concept, and to successfully implement agroecological production systems, the right conditions have to be in place in all of its components. Many projects, programmes or other initiatives focus only on farming practices, to a certain extent ignoring the social (family, neighbors) and economical (market demand) aspects. I have heard testimonies of farmers who abandoned successful organic production, simply because they had nowhere to sell the newly introduced and diversified crops.

In between reaching high productivity levels, strengthening value chains and changing communities’ attitudes, it takes considerable time and effort to successfully go from a conventional production system to an agroecological one. And by successful, I mean 'to have the same or higher net income', which for the majority of the farmers whose farming is their means of income by necessity, is the most important factor. In an emerging economy, where neighbors are able to provide their children with better opportunities - but applying unsustainable practices - farmers, like anyone else, don't want to lag behind compared to the rest. Transition means temporary losses, and as such, staying behind. 

Focusing on young farmers, and young people in general be it professionals in agriculture and consumers in rural areas, is key in all of this. They are more open to adopting more sustainable, or just different practices and comprise a large share of the local population.And it’s them that will be hit hardest by the consequences of unsustainable practices.

There are many pilot programs, researches and initiatives that show that it can be done but they are still too few to convince my neighbor, my plumber and most of the people living in the smoke-covered valley of their potential. To ensure adoption in large numbers, implementing an agro-ecological production system needs to be an attractive opportunity, that is relatively profitable and guarantees sources of income in the short term as well as in the long term. And this is for every farmer, not just to those committed to sustainability.

As such, in order to make upscaling of this transition happen from my experiences I am convinced that an all-encompassing strategy of state support needs to be implemented. These include but are not limited to capacity building programmes, financial incentives, guaranteeing demand and consolidating value chains, providing a legal framework in which measures that can be taken effectively and efficiently by national governments on a large scale. This top-down strategy would meet the many successful but dispersed bottom up initiatives halfway. And in return, it would guarantee that young farmers betting on sustainability don't end up disappointed returning to conventional practices like burning convinced by a mistake pointed out by the rest.

Testimonial by  Pieter Van de Sype a YPARD Member from Peru.