Monoculture is failing Nicaragua’s farmers

NGOs must acknowledge the risks to livelihoods and food security and teach smallholders to diversify for higher profits

 Farmers in Nicaragua need to diversify away from maize and beans to try fruit production and forestry. Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP
Farmers in Nicaragua need to diversify away from maize and beans to try fruit production and forestry. Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

NICARAGUA JOURNAL – The traditional diet of maize and beans in Central America has seen extensive amounts of land dedicated to these two crops. This monoculture is threatening smallholders’ livelihoods and food security.

For the farmers on western Nicaragua’s volcanic range, who tend to favour beans over almost all other crops making a living from just beans is far from stable, despite the fertile soils.

As farmers fell trees to make space for land, deforestation has a negative effect on crop yields as increased erosion and surface run-off wash the nutrients from the once-rich volcanic soils. Similarly, environmental pressures such as meteorological variation leads to a high fall in yields.

Marginalised communities with limited access to water for even basic needs have no capacity to irrigate in a dry year. They also rely on the rains relenting between July and August. If there is no dry spell, they cannot dry their beans which then spoil quicker. In some areas, should the winds change and the volcanoes’ acidic smoke billow over farmland, acid rain can destroy an entire harvest.

Enrique Bolaños, an agricultural engineer with Nuevas Esperanzas UK, an international NGO, surveyed a random selection of farmers in the hillside community of El Ojochal to better understand how these pressures affect them. Some years have been hard for everyone. But one of those surveyed, Marlon Alaniz, explained how yields fluctuate between farms even within a given year, making life even more unpredictable. From three plots of exactly the same area he recently harvested 1,600 lbs, 1,200 lbs and a very modest 300 lbs respectively.

Beyond the environmental pressures there is a series of economic ones too. When planting, farmers are forced to take out expensive loans in order to buy fertilizers to replace the earth’s natural nutrients that have been washed away.

When harvesting, they must invest in labour to get the job done when the beans are ripe and before the pods dry out. When selling, price fluctuations at market can turn even a successful harvest into a tiny profit. In the last decade, average market prices have shot up and down. This year alone they have oscillated between $20-97 per 100 lbs. But with creditors breathing down farmers’ necks, they rarely have the luxury of waiting for the market to pick up again.

Another farmer in El Ojochal, Mercedes Tercero, planted two hectares of beans in 2012, spending roughly $360 on pesticides and fertilizers. This is a significant outlay given the community’s average per capita income of less than $1 per day. Mercedes sold only a third of her harvest, making a net loss of at least $250. To be able to repay her loan and keep some beans to feed her family she had to sell an ox.

Keeping animals as insurance is one way farmers cope with heavy losses. Others migrate in search of work to subsidise this ever more unstable existence. Increasing a smallholder’s available land does not necessarily reduce their vulnerability. Often the more land they use, the more labourers and fertilizers they need, the greater the investment, and the bigger the fall when it all goes wrong.

It is clear that smallholders need viable alternatives. NGOs such as Nuevas Esperanzas are encouraging smallholder farmers to mitigate the risks with a diversified crop and income portfolio. This means growing a wider range of crops, including cash crops that respond differently to changing weather conditions. When your bean harvest fails, you can fall back on your pigeon pea or dragon fruit. Diversification also allows farmers to ride out market peaks and troughs. When bean prices tumble, pineapples might be in demand.

NGOs should also encourage farmers to incorporate forestry, as protecting and replanting trees has a positive effect on crop yields by reducing erosion. In communities like El Ojochal where people have traditionally seen the forest as unproductive, this should also show the more tangible benefits of reforestation.

Likewise, activities like beekeeping and fruit production both provide a profitable incentive for farmers to make a long-term investment in the forest around them.

Diversification does not necessarily require smallholder farmers to fundamentally change the way they live by abandoning subsistence crops like beans altogether. By improving their soil quality with biointensive techniques, composting and green manure, farmers can grow beans more efficiently and remove the need for expensive fertilizers that swallow up tiny profits.

Even in a subsistence context, looking beyond staples to cash crops and other produce can be hugely beneficial. With climatic variations increasingly volatile, and economic pressures uncertain, NGOs should promote these solutions to offer more predictable yields and reliable prices in the long-term.

Source: The Guardian