I ask myself that every so often. My name is Evan Barrientos, I was raised in suburban Wisconsin and I go to school at Cornell University in upstate New York. So why am I on a farm in Ecuador right now? The short answer is that I’m about to begin a study on sustainable agriculture and I thought the readers of Raxa Collective might like to hear about it.
I’m interested in large-scale conservation solutions that make big impacts. There’s nothing wrong with small changes, I’ve just always been a big-picture kind of person. One of the human activities causing the most widespread damage to the planet is agriculture. Yet one could also argue that agriculture is the foundation of life. It is where our food comes from. It is one of the oldest professions in the world. It is what sustains our population. Agriculture is everywhere. Over thousands of years, it has evolved to maximize productivity, making great strides in plant selection, cropping systems, machinery, chemicals, and recently, genetic modification. Unfortunately, these improvements have come at the cost of essentially all nonhuman life.
There is no denying that modern conventional agriculture wipes out at least as much life as it supports. It simply wasn’t designed to benefit both people and nature. Furthermore, it is often practiced in a way that is self destructive, causing nutrients to become depleted from the soil or the soil itself to wash away. This flaw, combined with population growth, causes agricultural frontiers to expand endlessly. In the tropics, agricultural expansion is one of the biggest causes of deforestation and loss of biodiversity. In a finite world, we just can’t afford for agriculture to go on this way. Improvements need to be made.
Making agriculture compatible with nature would have profound impacts on nature. Folks from farm-dominated landscapes (I’m talking to you, Wisconsin), imagine what the world would be like if all those corn fields were converted into something more diverse and natural. In a sense, agriculture’s global dominance is a good opportunity; it means there’s potential to make a huge change. But changing something as vast and engrained (no pun intended) as agriculture is no easy task. Farmers are understandably reluctant to deviate from such a long-standing system. I think the key is to make the alternative practices more profitable, and the challenge is to do so in a way that is compatible with nature.
To change agriculture we need to provide alternatives. We need to figure out systems that nature can coexist with, we need to integrate human needs into them, and we need to prove to the world that they can do more good than the current systems we have. The world deserves a landscape that sustains people without sacrificing nature.
I came to Ecuador because an opportunity emerged to study one such alternative: agroforestry. Agroforestry is the practice of incorporating woody plants, such as trees, into agricultural systems. It’s a fairly basic concept; instead of clear cutting trees for agriculture, why not keep some and see what benefits they have? In theory it’s quite a beautiful system. Trees provide economic benefits such as fruits, firewood, lumber; and environmental benefits such as climate moderation, soil erosion prevention, carbon sequestration; all while providing a suitable site to grow crops and habitat for wildlife. Pretty stellar idea, huh? The specific type of agroforestry I came here to study is shade coffee. Shade coffee is a popular way of growing coffee under a light canopy of trees as opposed to under full sun. In certain environments it has been shown to improve the quality and value of coffee and provide habitat for wildlife.
The Ecuadorian Andes at elevations between about 1100m and 1800m is an apt site for shade coffee production. In the mountainous Intag region north of Quito, some 160+ families are currently growing coffee for the Asociación Agricultores de Café de Intag (AACRI). They may not realize it, but these families are the leading edge of an attempt to change the way people make their living in Intag.
While the Intag valley is located between two global biodiversity hotspots, Tropical Andes and Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena, it faces a very difficult conservation situation. People’s livelihoods here depend on exploiting nature. The two main ways to make a living here are small-scale agriculture and cattle ranching, both of which cause deforestation, degrade the land, and require immense effort from the farmer. Yet despite these sacrifices, the people are still poor. Abnormally poor. The Intag region’s poverty level is above even the Ecuadorian average. Economic alternatives don’t go much beyond logging, construction, mining, and damming. It is a region completely developed around exploitation and extraction.
AACRI was initiated by the local nonprofit Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag (DECOIN) as a way to provide an alternative to this lifestyle. AACRI provides coffee seedlings, shade trees, fruit trees, and technical assistance to Intag families interested in starting coffee production, and then buys the coffee they produce for about $180/100kg, providing a direct and profitable market. In contrast to traditional agriculture, shade coffee does not exhaust the soil, create monocultures, or include an intermediary. The model AACRI is creating is truly fascinating.
But the system is not without its challenges. For example, farmers are sometimes unwilling to adopt shade coffee. When they do, they are not always trained adequately and fail to achieve good results. And even when they do develop good coffee plots (cafetales), there are many other factors that can prevent them from having a profitable and ecologically-compatible cafetal.
I’m here to study these cafetales, how they were designed and implemented, and what effects they’ve had on individual farmers, communities, wildlife, and the landscape. I’ll be focusing on four communities where shade coffee could play an important role in supporting a larger conservation scheme in the near future. Hopefully, with a lot of interviews, surveys, measurements, and a bit of adventure, I’ll be providing important insights to local conservation organizations and AACRI on how shade coffee and other forms of sustainable development can better improve livelihoods and conservation in the Intag region.
If you found this post interesting, you can follow my personal blog on Ecuadorian conservation and development here.