No.2 Antony's trip part 2
By Antony Melville | Newsletter No. 2 June 2008

Part 2. Some thoughts on expanding the use of Inga alley cropping 

Considerations on promotion to farmers

Training several experienced promoters to establish many small demo plots could be  a good way of promoting the alley cropping technique further.  Ideally these would themselves be farmers who are spread widely. As salaries are small the cost would not be very great. This approach could be used from any major demo facility as a base, not necessarily in Honduras, but wherever a demo facility and seed farm was established.

The Ecologic tree nursery

The Ecologic tree nursery with many tree species. Photo by Antony Melville 2007. 

In planning such an approach a number of questions would need to be considered, such as for example: How many sites are reachable by vehicles? How many need to be reached on foot or by mule? How many farmers have experience of fencing? How many cattle are in the area? One also must consider the quality of the land and the local climatic conditions, particularly in which months it rains in the given location.  In some places 3 years would be required to first pruning. The plot at El Carbon had started very badly because it had been planted out in January and therefore in heavy sun with little cloud cover. Plots planted in May/June will have less exposure. In Honduras there is less seed loss to birds in April than in October/November when fewer alternative foods are around for birds.

Poor growth of Inga seedling planted in January

Poor growth of Inga seedling planted in January. Photo by Antony Melville 2007. 

Slash and Burn

In the area I visited some of the farmers were already doing some form of agroforestry before going on to use Inga.  I do not know how many were still doing slash and burn of forest, something they were not keen to admit to.  But to give you some idea of what is involved, Victor went through the comparatives for one man's plot in some detail. His yield was about 4 times higher after he converted to using Inga than what it had been before.  This suggests that for each hectare of land that is cultivated using the Inga alley cropping technique not one but 4 hectares of forest would be saved in the first year. And of course the Inga plot can be used year after year, whereas after one has exhausted one slash and burn plot one has to go on to another.

Of course these figures are approximate and would vary quite a bit from place to place.  But it does show how very effective the alley cropping technique can be.

How big a plot?

Putting a whole hectare down to Inga is quite a large undertaking, but a quite valid level for a farmer to make an effective start is with a 1000m2 plot, or 1/10th hectare. This can take the form of 10 x 4m alleys x 25 metres length, so 11 rows of Inga trees x 26 plants, or 286 Inga seedlings - not too hard to clear, plant, weed and maintain, or indeed to transport the seedlings; and with only 130m of fencing required. A farmer who likes the results could without great difficulty then double or triple the size of the plot later.

Sr. Malvano' Inga tree snursery

Sr Malvano's nursery.  Behind it is a plot where the weeds have been slashed down but have been left to rot, not burned. Photo by Antony Melville 2007. 

   Sr Malvano with his baby

Sr Malvano with his baby. Photo by Antony Melville 2007. 

Carbon credits

A rudimentary calculation suggests that with prunings being used for firewood and the small stuff rotting with the leaves to release methane, the Inga itself is probably only marginally, if at all, more of a carbon sink than the rough grassland it replaces, except in as far as it replaces other fuel and thereby is likely to save some CO2.  Its main value for carbon sequestration therefore lies with the displacement of forest destruction by slash and burn. On the basis of Victor Coronado's figure above a five-year programme of Inga alley cropping would be displacing 20 ha of slash and burn per hectare of Inga. A figure for the carbon emissions from burning a typical hectare of secondary forest such as is cut by slash and burn farmers is needed. The value of standing tropical forest for carbon retention and absorption is a hot topic of discussion for the follow-up to the Kyoto protocol, but I have heard $15 per hectare quoted in a Brazilian context.

 Carrying home the Inga pods

Carrying home the Inga pods, with stack of firewood in the background, though we're not sure if the Firewood is Inga. Photo by Antony Melville 2007. 

For carbon credits to apply to the Inga system there would have to be an affidavit that the farmer was practising slash and burn and stopping it because of developing Inga. At $15 per hectare a good part of the $300 for five years would probably be absorbed by the verification process, if the fees taken by the providers of the credits had left much to absorb. It is likely that plenty of farmers would come forward to claim they were doing slash and burn even of they were not. Or they might even revert to burning so as to qualify for grants. With these considerations I am not convinced that seeking official accreditation for carbon sequestration is the most effective way forward for financing Inga alley cropping.  However many people would value highly the beneficial effect of reducing this pressure on the forests even without formal accreditation and would be happy to support it on that basis.  Indeed, there are many doubts about many of the carbon balancing schemes.  Ethical consumer (May/June 2007, currently downloadable from their website) has done an excellent report on the various carbon sequestration schemes and has found most of them seriously lacking.  They then go on to discuss alternatives to offset providers, such as supporting various organisations that are providing schemes that use less carbon, or educate or campaign on the issue.  Inga alley cropping would most certainly qualify as a very good scheme on such a basis.

So how about micro-credit?

To my mind micro-credit may be more promising as a source of finance. A possible obstacle is the Grameen bank principle that loans are for one year only, because that payback time has been found to work well, while Inga alley cropping has a 3-year payback cycle. A way needs to be found to finance fencing, seeds, seedling bags, and the rock phosphate generally needed to start off the system. A repayment scheme starting after the first harvest, of say $1 per week for the next 52 weeks; or possibly a scheme with a grant for the first 1000m2 plot, followed by loans on that basis for extending beyond 1000m2 might work.

 Inga seeds in a bucket of water

Inga seeds in a bucket of water. Photo by Antony Melville 2007.