No, 101 Inga alley cropping in Ecuador
By Nicola Peel | Newsletter No. 101 May 2020

Nicola Peel visited Ecuador in early 2020 and sent us this report at the end of March. For more background to the project please see https://www.rainforestsaver.org/ecuador-inga-project

 

RAINFOREST SAVER – INGA ALLEY CROPPING in ECUADOR 2020  

By Nicola Peel

I am pleased to report the exciting news of how the Inga project is going in Ecuador. I must admit seeing with my own eyes really woke me up to the importance of this project. Although it seemed a good idea from the start, I had not actually witnessed the benefits first hand.

Meeting with Jose Ramirez who is the on the ground field worker for Rainforest Saver was a pleasure. He is a humble, kind man who has really understood the project. Although he got off to a bumpy start without the correct information, he has created a great working relationship with the local farmers. 

He has seen with his own eyes the soil becoming regenerated, the increase in crop yield and the positive response by those who have continued to work with the system. He seems excited to move into the next phase where we are much more diligent in collecting crop weights, encouraging more comparison sites and working with the lunar calendar. As we passed acres of abandoned cattle pasture he would say… We need to cover all of this in guaba (that’s the local name for Inga) otherwise (pointing to the forest) the people will continue to cut down more looking for new fertile ground.

Soil in the same farm before and after being fertilised by  Inga

He took me out to visit 10 of the farms who are showing the best results. Each of the famers reported an improvement in their soil. Often bending down and scooping up some loose dark soil they told me how before the land had been cattle pasture, cooked by the sun, hard and compacted infertile and impossible to grow anything. This land had been abandoned. They thought they had little to lose when they started the project and courageously were the first farmers in Ecuador to go ahead with the project without any other success stories to follow. They are now the ones who are leading the way. 

I have made a 13 minute video of their testimonials which has gone down extremely well when I have given talks and shown it to other farmers. They all report the difference in the soil, how it is not hard work and they have seen the benefits. One farmer Irma Chavez states “This project is magnificent. Look at the difference with the cacao I planted on the same day from the same seed. Inside the guaba it is 1 metre 50 cm and outside the alleys it is only 50 cm. Inside the guaba they have already flowered whereas outside they are still too small. I am going to grow a lot more and want to share this with others” 

Weighing the crops to calculate the amount of nitrogen fixed

On a visit to the agricultural College Juan Montalvo in Shushufindi the teacher in charge seems very enthusiastic about the project. He reported excellent results with yuca (Cassava) and peanuts and they are now doing a comparison site with cucumber. We discovered they had been spraying with herbicide but they have agreed to no longer do this, which in itself is vital learning for the students.

I also visited another of the Colleges Luz y Vida in Lumbaqui where they asked if I would speak with a group of students. Unfortunately they lost some of the inga trees as a new road was built but they are keen to find another area to expand the project. They were also interested to find out how they could learn more about permaculture. I then linked them with Lexie and Adolfo from the Clinica Ambiental.

Whilst visiting La Sofia in one of the most spectacular valleys in Ecuador I also took the opportunity to give a talk to the residents. The president announced the talk over the loud speaker and I gave the presentation and then showed the video of the farmers speaking. I can see the forest disappearing as more gets turned into cattle pastures and was pleased to hear a couple of the farmers committing to put in some alleys.

In the same province one of the local councils asked me to give a talk but I ran out of time. I did though connect him to Jose and have asked Jose to go and give a talk there.

I also spoke about the project on Radio Sucumbios and told anyone interested to go to Collegio Juan Jimenez.

Whilst discussing the project Jose and myself wondered why at some sites there has been better results than others with regards to the pollarding. After much discussion the farmers seem to be in agreement we need to work with the lunar calendar. It may be the trees were too young or that pollarding at the wrong phase of the moon may make the trees more susceptible to fungal and bacterial infection which in turn shortens their lives. As we are the first to experiment with inga alley cropping in Ecuador and especially in the humid Amazon we do not know how many pollards the trees will resist. For this reason it is vital we give the trees the best chance but also plan ahead ready to replace those that are dying.

 

Amilcar Pinzon, his plot before pollarding, being pollarded, and after pollarding.

It was also important to have the discussion as to when is the best time to plant after the pollarding as there seems to have been some confusion. Some farmers had pollarded and planted the same day with unsuccessful results. Once it was explained that you must wait between 4-6 weeks until the leaves have decomposed before planting they understood the project at a deeper level.

I am excited to report I returned to the University Estatal Amazonico with whom we signed an agreement a few years ago and spoke again with the head. Unfortunately, Ermel had not had any further correspondence with them since I left and so there had been no more engagement. The head seems very keen to work further with the project and 2 of the professors are interested in doing more testing. I have been spreading the word looking for a student who needs to write a thesis as this would be the perfect thesis to write.

One of the teachers Natalie Grefa is extremely enthusiastic about the project and undertook some tests to see the difference in microorganisms inside and outside of the alleys. She took cooked rice and placed one dish inside the alley and another outside. It was clear to see that the samples showed a definite increase in microorganisms and therefore beneficial bacteria inside the alleys.

She also took soil samples from 4 different sites. One that had never been pollarded , one that had been pollarded once, twice and three times . Again we saw the difference when mixed with water and the sample separated. It was clear to see that the more pollards the more organic matter was present.

Natalie showing the soil tests.

She is linking up with the university in Tena in the province of Pastaza to work together. She has land there where she has already planted some alleys and now wants to work with some indigenous communities down there and teach them about the benefits of alley cropping.

I was also invited to speak with 2 indigenous nationalities, the Secoya and Secopai who also seemed interested in regenerating their communal lands. They tried cattle ranching but have now given it up after discovering the vetinerary expenses so have waste land they can start food growing on.

Some of the other farmers I visited…

Yelitza Ramirez – she is mainly growing pineapple and has now almost covered her farm with inga alleys as she has seen such a notable improvement in her soil fertility, speed of growth and crops. She said lots of neighbours have passed by to ask her why she is not cutting down all the guaba trees, that there is too much shade but she has told them all of her results and interested her neighbours in putting in some of their own alleys. She also makes charcoal and now she has the pollarded wood from the Inga she does not need to go and cut down trees in the forest.

Inga prunings ready to be turned into charcoal.

I spoke to her and many others about biochar and how to activate it with liquid compost and how they can incorporate this in their farms. I encouraged them to do their own tests with some plants with biochar and others without to see if they notice a difference.

I also spoke to everyone about carbon sequestration which they had never heard of and so that added information that they were helping with climate change made them feel like they are also doing something on a much larger scale. 

I hope in the future there will also be opportunities to link people in with carbon offsetting projects where they may financially benefit from the carbon they are sequestering.

Claudio Chavez an elder who has lived from agriculture his entire life reported he had never seen such big beans as those he grew between the alleys. He also showed me the benefits to his coffee and cacao. Him noting such a difference really made my ears prick up. It was clear the coffee close to the inga was much healthier, the leaves a darker green with a lot more fruit whereas the coffee of the same age away from the guaba had very little fruit and the leaves were much yellower.

The cacao is a similar success story. Cacao farmers are having an extremely hard time and many have abandoned their plantations due to fungal infections. They spray with a concoction of chemicals which do not last due to the rain. It appears the cacao which is grown close to the guaba is much healthier with less disease. Is this due possibly to the beneficial bacteria created by the inga? I am hoping the University Estatal will be able to look further into this. If we have found the cure to this chronic problem the project in itself will go down in history !

A few people reported that trees grown directly in the ground from seed are much stronger than those grown in bags and transplanted. However we have decided it is worth growing seedlings at each farm in boxes so they are ready to replace any dead ones after pollarding.

 

The Inga Workshop and Reunion

I instigated the workshop held on Feb 28th at Collegio Juan Jimenez so that the beneficiaries of the project could share their own experiences. Not only did a number of the already established farmers come but also other foundations such as Yakum https://yakuminecuador.squarespace.com/ who came with 8 leaders of different nationalities, and representatives of The Clinica Ambiental and Guardians of the Soil who teach permaculture. In total we had 56 people present and a number of different speakers. It was an extremely successful event and a number of new people are now inspired to start putting in alleys. Natalie shared her scientific studies and encouraged the farmers to do their own and I spoke on behalf of Rainforest Saver, showing the video I had made with some of them present. Jose Ramirez gave a report from the field and Ermel Chavez spoke about the history of the project. Lexie Gropper also gave an introduction to her Guardians of the Soil course and a number of people signed up for future courses. Some networking took place and free range chicken was served for lunch much to their delight. There were many positive comments such as they appreciated the technical details and look forward to continuing to work with the project and share what they know with their neighbours.

I had printed off the original ‘how to’ flyers but Natalie commented these need changing as it speaks about different seasons to what there is here. She said she could possibly make up a new one. I also wanted to get a roll up display stand made but unfortunately the shop could not open my files and I ran out of time. I have also passed this on to Natalie who said she could help with this. I will check in with her about this.

My final parting gift to Jose was a leather machete holder and a new machete. He told me it was the present he had ever received. 

I am excited to continue working with the project as I have seen first hand the benefits. If there becomes a way we can financially link the beneficiaries with a carbon offsetting project that would be fantastic.

SOME ADDITIONAL PHOTOS 

 

 

 

 

Yulitza Ramirez

A feast of seeds from an unpollarded College where they enjoy the shade

Great example of control of grass

All photos are copyright of Nicala Peel