The Ecuador Inga Project

THE ECUADOR INGA PROJECT 

 

The Ecuador Inga project was conceived when Antony spoke to Nicola Peel at the London Permaculture Festival in 2014, where she was selling jewellery made by indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon to support her work there (20 years fighting to remedy oil waste dumped in the area in the 70s and 80s) see http://www.nicolapeel.com/ . 

 

The botanical origin of Inga edulis being the Western Amazon, it seemed a good idea to bring the technique to Ecuador. By mid 2015 we had a funding application in, a potential partner called ISTEC, http://istec.edu.ec/ , in Lago Agrio, the capital of Sucumbíos province in the North of the Ecuadorian Amazon (and centre of the oil industry), and a plan to bring Dr. Guillermo Valle from Honduras to teach the technique in January 2016.  

 

 

 

By October 2016 we had the funding from the excellent Patsy Wood Trust, but ISTEC pulled out when the contract was ready to sign. We were very lucky to find a new partner whose interests coincided better with ours, the Unidad Juan Jimenez. This is the lead college of a network of colleges across the province, established to run part-time courses for young people from local farms aged between 15 and 25.  The link was Ermel Chavez, now the project leader, teacher at the Unidad and leader of the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia (of which he is now President), a farmer’s union formed to sue Texaco for the oil pollution. 

 

The first step was to identify which of the many species of Inga was ours; Inga edulis is known as Guaba de bejuco(“vine” guaba, named for the long thin beans, rather than guaba de machete which has machete shaped pods), and there is a tree on nearly every farm so the children can enjoy the pith from the pods. 

 

Clockwise from top left: Inga edulis flowers; young Inga edulis tree showing characteristic spread; inga seed and open pod showing the pith; and young child holding the large Inga edulis pods.

 

The Unidad committed to creating a nursery growing a minimum of 400 seedlings ahead of the training. They planted 4000 – for a fraction of the budgeted cost, and the seedlings were big enough in time for the January training, to go ahead and plant out a small number on site at the Unidad. 

 

The Inga seedling nursery 2016

 

Guillermo Valle was unable to come at the last minute and his assistant Eduardo delivered the teaching. There were 3 days of teaching, each with talks in the main assembly hall to groups of 100 or so students, teachers, and some students’ parents, followed each time by a practical, planting out seedlings into the prospective alley behind the Unidad buildings. On the last day there was a public event at the Salon de Mujeres, or Women’s Institute, with a lot of farmers and activists from the Frente. 

 

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Learning to farm sustainably from an early age

 

In April 2016 20 farms, mostly connected to the college, a few being members of the Frente, received 200 Inga seedlings each, delivered by students from the college. The trees grew, some people looked after them better than others; 4 dropped out in the first few months.  Ermel and his brother Patricio visited the farms from time to time and reported back including the height of the trees. By mid 2017 it was looking as if there might be some sites ready to prune in early 2018, so we applied for a second round of funding from the Patsy Wood Trust, and started discussing dates with Guillermo Valle to come to Ecuador and teach the pruning and the rest of the technique.

 

Pruning training January 2018

In the second week of January 2018 Dr Valle gave pruning demonstrations and trainings on 4 sites on 4 consecutive days: at the Unidad (in fact the least ready site); then at the Chavez family farm, where the alleys from 2016 are on Ermel’s father’s farm, and where Ermel surprised us having just laid out a whole hectare with Inga seeds sown straight into the ground – the seedlings were at that point 15-20 cm high (in July 2019 the 2500 trees are between 4 and 7 m high, so pruning needs to be organised soon). The third and fourth sites were farms belonging to teachers from the Unidad, both with good soil so the two-year old trees were as much as 7 metres high. Sadly both these sites have now dropped out of the project – Luz Prado’s because the site was unfenced and unoccupied, so the crops were not looked after; Daisy Vaca’s because she fell ill and could not manage the farm. 

 

Pruning. Top photos: Dr. Valle giving instructions. Bottom left: pruning. Bottom right: pruned.

All the pruning demonstrations were well attended by 12-15 people: farmers, college teachers, and invitees – from the university, ISTEC, local media, and the environment ministry. This has given the project great visibility, and opened the door to collaboration with the University of the Amazon (who helped with soil tests). One of Guillermo’s teaching points which impressed all those present was to gather all the leaves and stems from the prunings from the first tree into a bag and weigh the result. This was then repeated for 3 trees randomly picked across the site, to produce a calculation of the Nitrogen per hectare produced by the trees. The figure was coming out at 150Kg/Ha, which compares very favourably with the 80Kg/Ha of artificial fertilisers recommended as standard for maize growing. Organic, non-polluting nitrogen!

 

Students gathering leaves for weighing, and Dr. Valle doing the calculations to see how much nitrogen the Inga leaves are providing for the crops.

 

At the end-of-training meeting with the College director, it was agreed that we would employ a field trainer instead of paying Ermel and Patricio to work on the project on top of their regular jobs. Jose Fernandez started work on April 30th.

 

Additional participants 2016-17 

 

In June 2016 Ermel and Patricio went to the sister college in Shushufindi 25 miles away and ran a training there. Trees were planted there soon after. This college has become a promising teaching site for the Inga project, and the first pruning was done there in early 2018. 5 other farmers started with seeds in early 2017; 2 dropped out, and one of the remaining 3 (Jose Aguinzaca) who planted Inga on his father’s sugar farm, found it cut down by mistake. However he re-established a new plot in October 2018 and added another row in Feb 2019; he is a committed farmer and member of the Frente, not a college teacher. As of March 2020 he has climbing beans up his growing trees, while they await their first pruning.

 

With Jose in place, in May 2018 Ermel delivered training seminars at 3 more sister colleges, producing a list of 50 people wanting to plant Inga and join the project. 16 farms remained from the 20 starters in 2016; another 4 have dropped out leaving a core of 12. 

4 sites remained of those added in 2017. By March 2019 19 new starters had planted plots, mostly either students or former students of the colleges; this includes two college plots, which should become a good teaching resource. But the most recent of these additions have been farmers linked to the Frente, and an indigenous (Shuar) farmers’ collective, the “Centro Shuar”.

 

None of these Inga growers are slash and burn farmers, and not many are subsistence farmers; most are selling coffee and cocoa. To meet the objectives of Rainforest Saver I have asked Ermel and Jose to focus efforts on finding the poorest farmers with the most need, to bring the technique there. 

 

 

 

In last January 2020 Nicola returned to Ecuador for the last round of her work building rain water collection systems for some of the poorest farmers in the area affected by the oil waste (she will never take a plane again after this). She found that there were a range of people well qualified to work with the Inga system who were not getting access to the work done so far. This turned out to be rooted in politics; since Ermel became president of the Frente (FDA) he was refusing to work with the rival organisation UDAPT (with a wider range of claimants in the case against Texaco/Chevron). In the face of Ermel’s opposition Nicola organised a very successful gathering held at the Unidad Juan Jimenez, hosted by the newly arrived new Rector Orlando Guarnizo (one of the original recipients of the Inga seedlings in 2016). On 28th Feb 2020 11 of the Inga farmers gathered to compare their experience, with Nataly Grevy from the Amazonian University who shared her soil tests taken in 4 of the sites, and Belia from Clinica Ambiental, a group of excellent permaculture teachers who work right across the Ecuadorian Amazon (and are closely connected to UDAPT), Lexie Gropper, creator and leader of the Guardians of the Soil course, and 8 indigenous leaders from 4 nations  - Siona, Sekopai, Cofan and Kichwa - brought by an NGO called YAKUM https://yakuminecuador.squarespace.com/; altogether 56 people attended this very successful day.

 

The politics problem has sadly led to Ermel leaving the project, and taking the FDA out of it. But Jose is now well established and able to operate on our behalf in collaboration with all these new partners, under the umbrella of the Colegio Juan Jimenez. It is frustrating that before we could start to take advantage of the new network, COVID 19 has closed down all movement. We are paying Jose directly for the moment until a better system is in place with Juan Jimenez, and he is in touch with quite a few farmers by phone. 

 

The indigenous groups participating are traditional practitioners of slash and burn farming, who know it is now unsustainable and are excited by the possibilities offered by Inga. A key observation from Nicola’s visit is the effect of Inga in restoring soil compacted by cattle, with farmers saying they will grow Inga instead of cutting more forest to find new fertile land. One farmer, Marcela Medina, who sowed Inga trees in October 2018 into land compacted by cattle, planted cocoa bushes in her Inga alleys soon after the trees were sown, and since she planted cocoa on the land outside, we have an immediate comparison. Even before her first pruning (trees now 5-6 metres and pruning expected very soon), the cocoa inside the alleys was already fruiting (unheard of so fast), while the plants outside were still small. That is without a mulch cycle.  

 

Comparison plots have been set up on 2 other sites – Nelly Valarezo’s farm, and at the College in Lumbaqui, so the disruption from COVID comes at a very annoying time.

 

We are starting to have valuable data on 

·      Leaf weights at pruning on most of the sites, with interesting results: for instance Mariana Moreno’s plot first pruning June 2018 av weight very low: 3.86 Lbs per tree; second pruning Mar 2020 30 Lbs per tree – so the trees are hugely improving their fertility.

·      Soil organic matter inside and outside plots

·      Microbiology inside and outside plots

 

What we are sadly lacking is consistent data on harvest weights. Jose has now fully understood the importance of collecting that data.

We have money remaining to pay him till the end of 2020, so need to start seeking funds for continuing beyond that. Once the system is embedded in the teaching of the Juan Jimenez network, Clinica Ambiental, and Guardians of the Soil, and being promoted by the University of the Amazon both in Sucumbios, and its site in the far South of the country in Pastaza province, I am confident they will be able to continue without relying on us, but another couple of years working with Jose will do a lot to consolidate the work. Nicola’s input will continue to be crucial and once she is back in GB we will look forward to making plans. 

 

 

 

 

 

Jose with the leather machete sheath given him by Nicola

 

Report written by Antony Melville, chair of Rainforest Saver.