Isabel and I arrived safe and sound to Barrio Nuevo, Pichincha, Ecuador (0.224063°, -78.559691°) on May 21 to begin our study on a shade coffee agroforestry initiated seven years ago (see my blog for background info). We moved into the home of Juan Guevara, the local coffee promoter, and his family. It’s a simple concrete house with a kitchen and three bedrooms.After settling in, we spent a day with Juan going to the homes of various farmers growing coffee to introduce ourselves.
We spent the next three days conducting surveys with the coffee producers as well as visiting, evaluating, and mapping their coffee plots. As I expected, we quickly learned a lot about the problems with the shade coffee project that was implemented about seven years ago. The most obvious problem was that the type of coffee planted was highly susceptible to disease, Second, the plants stopped producing well after 3-5 years partly because of the diseases but also because coffee requires a high time investment in preparation of organic fertilizers and pesticides, but farmers were unwilling to make this commitment because of dedication to existing crops, predominantly sugarcane, and also because farmers did not have an existing custom of such practices when coffee was implemented. Although not mentioned yet by any farmers, I have noted that the coffee plots failed in the sense of an agroforestry design; I believe only two coffee plots in BN significantly incorporate trees, the rest only use dense plantain for shade, and most do not incorporate the fruit trees given to them by the project. Why this happened, I’m not exactly sure yet, but it probably has to do with a lack of education and a preference for plantains over trees.
What I’ve learned about livelihoods in Barrio Nuevo is fascinating though. Most strikingly, people use very little money here. From our surveys so far, people have only mentioned using money for their children’s schooling (about $10 per month per child), clothing (on occasion), and a few food items (mostly rice, cooking oil, and sugar). Amazingly, at least to someone who grew up in suburban America, they produce the food used for the rest of their diet. However, their diet as well as their sources of income are very limited. Although they grow nearly all of their own food, they pretty much just grow/eat yuca (a potato-like plant), plantain, beans, eggs, chicken, and a few other fruits and vegetables. Income sources are even less varied. People earn money either from producing trago (an alcohol produced from sugarcane), working as hired labor, and/or selling cattle.
The other interesting observation I’ve made is that people here are extremely busy. I never realized how much work it takes to produce your own food, but here that’s what people are so busy doing, at least the men. The women are busy taking care of children and preparing food. Rest and recreation seems to be a fairly rare activity. The first priority here is to grow food, and the second is to grow something to sell in order to pay for schooling and a few other food items.
It should be noted that these observations are coming from a small subset of the population here in a short amout of time. The purpose of this post isn’t to make any concrete claims, but rather to share my thoughts as they develop.
What does this all mean for conservation in Barrio Nuevo? My first impression is that the most direct way to lower deforestation here is by improving agriculture so that people can meet their food needs on less land. Promoting new crops that require less land is more challenging though, because as we’re seeing with coffee, people are very reluctant to change crops when they already have a history of producing certain ones. As demonstrated with coffee, they have good reason to be wary of new crops. It takes a lot of time to work out the problems with a new crop, and this is time that the farmers here can’t afford.
This week Isabel and I will continue surveying the rest of the coffee producers and also start interviewing the people who planted coffee but have since abandoned it. We will also be meeting a second time with the coffee producers for a less formal conversation about potential remedies for coffee and other prospective activities.