Why agroforestry has struggled in Barrio Nuevo

The sacrifices of agriculture are obvious to some, yet unperceived by others.

The sacrifices of agriculture are obvious to some, yet unperceived by others.

Good news: after lots of talking, listening, and uphill walking, we’ve completed our work in Barrio Nuevo. Researching the shade coffee project in Barrio Nuevo was extremely insightful. I admit, the success of the project was a bit disappointing, but this itself was a lesson in being more detached form one’s research. From a research standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with a project failing. What good would this evaluation be if we were only confirming that everything was going well?

So what went wrong? Why did it go wrong? How can it be fixed? And is there hope for agroforestry in Barrio Nuevo still? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself for almost a month and here’s what I’ve concluded from the first stage.

The shade coffee initiative’s main shortcomings were in production and design. While coffee technically has the potential to produce enough profit to satisfy the annual financial needs of a typical family here (just about $2,000 amazingly!) on only about 2-3 hectares of land (that’s about 12% of the land needed for cattle grazing), not a single person we surveyed in Barrio Nuevo mentioned coffee as one of their main sources of income. Second, the shade coffee plots were intended not just to support families by producing coffee as a cash crop, but also to provide a successional farming system on which a variety of staple crops and even lumber could be grown, further lowering the amount of land needed by a family. Unfortunately, very few people are harvesting products other than plantain and only one producer has a significant amount of lumber trees growing with his coffee. Shade coffee is also supposed to be designed to support greater biodiversity than conventional agriculture, but only four out of fifteen coffee plots have even a closed tree canopy while the rest are almost exclusively shaded by plantains.

Cattle pasture, the leading cause of deforestation in the area

Cattle pasture, the leading cause of deforestation in the area

Let’s go a level deeper and look at what caused these shortcomings. First, the project leaders made a great mistake by giving out the caturra variety of coffee. This Columbian variety is known for producing the greatest harvests, but it also is highly susceptible to disease and relies somewhat on chemical fertilizers and pesticides in this climate. Since AACRI prohibits the use of chemicals, the coffee was ravaged by disease after its first or second year of production. This weakness greatly lowered production and discouraged farmers. Second, farmers did not seem to understand the workload required to productively grow coffee. Their sole cash crop, caña, deeply embedded in the local culture since the land was colonized, doesn’t require fertilizers and doesn’t get diseases. As a result, only one out of ten coffee producers in Barrio Nuevo regularly makes and applies organic fertilizers even though this step is critical to raising production and lowering disease rate. As for the eco-friendly, diversified design of shade coffee agroforestry, the farmers simply do not seem to have heard of this idea, nor believe it’s possible. Nearly all of them decided to grow coffee because it sounded profitable, not because it represented an alternative lifestyle.

But I believe that the greatest limiting factor to agroforestry or any type of alternative agriculture in Barrio Nuevo is the lack of motivation to change. I mentioned this suspicion in the last post and now I’m confirming it. People in Barrio Nuevo do not see any major problems with their form of agriculture. Unsurprisingly, they don’t think about its ecological effects (deforestation, soil depletion, biodiversity loss), but somewhat surprisingly, they’re somewhat content with the economic status it leaves them in. No one is starving, but everyone here is very poor. They work huge amounts all year just to feed themselves and pay for the low-quality high school they send their kids too, but they are content. Several times we asked about problems or improvements they’d like to see in Barrio Nuevo, and no one mentioned any serious economic problems. Mostly they’d just like a nicer road and less dependence on intermediaries. Maybe for a community that just got electricity, plumbing, and a dirt road for the first time seven years ago it isn’t so surprising that they’re happy with their lot. And it’s also a fascinating example of how people can live with less. It’s great that people are content here, but I worry that their content comes from ignorance of the side effects of their lifestyle.

OK, so we’ve established the dominant factors limiting the success of agroforestry in a rural, South American community. Overall, these limitations are large, embedded, and caused by societal structures. It’s nice that we’ve documented these limitations for the benefit of future sustainable development projects in other places, but the real purpose of this study is to propose ways to overcome these limitations so that an alternative form of agriculture may begin to prosper here in Barrio Nuevo and it’s nearby communities. So…

Actually, I think I’ll leave it here for now. You’re probably tired of reading by now and maybe a bit disheartened by all the problems I wrote. BUT, I do have some ideas for how this system could be fixed and some encouraging stories of how shade coffee is starting to influence farmers’ outlook. I think I’ll save that for a separate post so that you can read it with a refreshed mind. For now, just know that while there have been a lot of mistakes and challenges, this is only the seventh year of shade coffee in Barrio Nuevo. I think we can all agree that it takes more than seven years to change half a century of agricultural practice, no matter how perfectly a project is executed.

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