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The very first thing most farmers in Río Piedras proudly show visitors is a squirming, writhing handful of red wriggler worms. Although most would probably prefer to see a fresh cup of coffee, the importance of the humble earthworm to the people of this region takes precedence over conventional hospitality.
Researchers from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) recently spent time in Río Piedras, a watershed in Colombia’s Cauca department, to take a look at what farmers are doing to adapt their agricultural lifestyles to the challenges of a changing climate.
For those on the front lines of climate change, climate-smart practices such as vermi-composting can boost food security and adaptive capacity, while being mindful of mitigation goals.
COMPOST FOR THE CLIMATE
Putting aside the historical land tenure conflicts and cultural differences between indigenous and non-indigenous campesino farmers that have long characterised this region, everyone in Río Piedras agrees on the benefits their beloved biofábricas, or bio-factories, can bring. Consisting of two to three large wooden crates, a biofábrica houses thousands of industrious Californian worms (Eisenia foetida) that turn manure, crop residues and household waste into high-quality organic compost.
The advent of vermi-composting has been a revolution for subsistence farmers in Río Piedras, most of whom base their livelihoods on vegetable gardens and small plots of beans and potatoes. In fact, the quality of the compost produced by the worms has caused the use of chemical fertilisers to become virtually unnecessary here.
“The best compost comes from the biofábricas,” asserts one farmer, scooping out a deep handful of rich black earth from one of her crates of worms. “I stopped using chemical fertilisers and pesticides because I have an alternative now that is more economical and ecological.”
“Those chemicals are strong contaminants of our health and the health of the soil,” she adds.
The fertilisers obtained from vermi-composting have been proven to improve soil structure, increase the infiltration rate of water, correct the pH of soils and prevent soil erosion. But the benefits don’t stop there.
Farmers can sell whatever compost they don’t use for extra income, and an informal market has sprung up to facilitate the exchange of worms and manure among farmers.
In response to initiatives to establish a weekly organic market in the nearby city of Popayán, producers in Río Piedras are organising themselves to offer organic products, hoping they will bring larger profit margins than conventionally produced goods.
What’s more, biofábricas contribute to climate change mitigation on several fronts. Direct mitigation occurs through composting manure and crop residues before incorporating them in the soil, a process that releases less methane gas than incorporating the raw materials.
And indirectly, biofábricas reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and transportation of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the incineration of household waste, weeds and crop residues.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THE WORMS WILL COME
Although it’s easy to dismiss vermi-composting as another development trend that will soon fizzle out, the changes it has brought in Río Piedras are hard to ignore.
The first biofábricas were installed on selected farms here some years ago with the support of Fundación Río Piedras, a local NGO promoting sustainable agriculture with longstanding involvement in the area. Their success was noted by international organisations such as the U.N. and GIZ, which have since funded the installation of more composting units.
There are some difficulties: stirring the compost mixture is labor-intensive; sometimes it’s hard to find enough worms; it takes a long time to carry cow manure to the crates; and the final product requires some three to four months of processing. But still farmers continue singing the technique’s praises.
The quality organic fertilisers and pesticides produced, together with the economic advantages of eliminating external chemical inputs, mean that in a relatively short time the whole community has transitioned into organic production.
The implementation of climate-smart practices has in the past has been hampered by the high cost of maintenance, causing farmers to abandon them after a couple of years. Maybe in some years the biofábricas will start experiencing the same problem, but for now they seem to be sticking around.
CCAFS and CIAT research has found that the strong institutional support present in Río Piedras, along with the farmers’ proactive attitude towards organic production, help make the initiative work in this region. But would it work in other villages with less outside support, or in other ecological and socio-economic contexts?
More research is needed to be able to say with certainty. However, the Río Piedras model can be seen as a good example of a sustainable climate-smart intervention that has been taken up with enthusiasm by the individuals it is meant to benefit.
“Personally I’m going to continue using the organic compost,” says one of the farmers. “It takes a bit of work but the result is good for our plants and it is healthier for the earth and my family.”
Who would have thought worms could make such a difference?
It is the last in a series on climate-smart agriculture in Colombia by CIAT. For the other posts, please see the links below.