By Neil Palmer
When Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras in 1998, torrential downpours triggered landslides that wiped out huge areas of crops. This compounded a shockwave of malnutrition spreading across the country caused by an intense El Niño-driven drought the year before. But some farmers suffered only minor losses or none at all: they were practicing Quesungual (“Ke-sun-gwal”).
If Quesungual sounds like some kind of agricultural martial art, that’s because in some ways it is: it’s a robust, time-honoured self-defence system that has enabled smallholder farmer Davids to withstand attacks from climatic Goliaths. It’s perfectly suited to many parts of Central America, which - at the best of times - suffers from a kind of climatic bipolar disorder, swinging between periods of extreme drought and intense rain.
Easily-established but biologically complex, Quesungual offers a sustainable and resilient alternative to the widespread practice of slash-and-burn. As well as helping safeguard long-term soil fertility and food production, the system can help smallholders adapt to the kinds of extreme weather expected to become more frequent as a result of climate change.
It was in the early 1990s that the UN Food and agriculture Organisation (FAO), together with farmers and local organisations in the Lempira department of Honduras began promoting Quesungual, an agroforestry system for hillsides that combines traditional knowledge with new insights into sustainable land management. The double-whammy of El Niño and Mitch was a formidable trial-by-fire, and provided the proof of resilience of the system that many farmers needed in order to adopt it.
In a well-managed Quesungual system, different kinds of trees are scattered at a density of up to 1,000 per hectare of cropland. The tree roots act as deep anchors, stabilising hillsides, minimising soil erosion by wind and rain, and improving nutrient recycling from deeper soil layers.
Most of the trees are heavily pruned at regular intervals, with the green cuttings laid around the base of the crops as nutritious mulch; chemical fertilisers are used in place of the nutrients that slash-and-burn farmers would normally obtain from the ash.
The mulch helps retain soil moisture giving crops some protection against failed rains, and can help reduce the leaching of nutrients. It also encourages earthworms that break down the organic matter, move nutrients around, aerate the soil, and improve soil structure. Farmers don’t plough or till the land, instead planting trees and crops straight into the ground, again to preserve soil structure and stability.
Some of the trees are kept so small it’s hard to spot them for the maize or sorghum that tower above – just waist-high stumps, sprouting with new shoots that are next season’s mulch. Others are left to grow big enough to provide timber and fruits.
As well as capturing carbon dioxide, many of the trees promoted in the system fix nitrogen, helping to improve soil fertility; others draw essential crop nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium from deep in the soil. The overall result is a more productive, more reliable farming system - come rain or shine.
ALTERNATIVE TO SLASH AND BURN
While there are some tradeoffs as the larger trees compete with crops for nutrients and light, crop productivity is maintained for many years, compared to slash-and-burn where plots have to be abandoned every one-to-three years. Soil scientist Steven Fonte, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), has worked extensively in Lempira to validate the science behind the system.
“Very soon after establishing Quesungual, you see significant improvements in soil quality and stability compared to traditional methods like slash-and-burn,” he said. “In these tropical areas, trees grow and soil conditions change rapidly, so farmers quickly see the benefits. The result is a resilient food production system ideally suited to hillsides.”
“Not long ago, if you looked out across these hills you’d have seen a continuous haze of smoke, as farmers burned their land in preparation for planting. Now the air remains pure and the hillsides green – almost everyone is practicing Quesungual; they’re convinced it works.”
CIAT research suggests that the principles of Quesungual can be applied in other tropical, sub-humid parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Interestingly, with trees of different types and heights scattered around a hillside of maize, for example, a Quesungual system can, at first glance, seem somewhat disorderly. But that’s really just a mind-trick. While it’s tempting to equate an efficient, productive agricultural system with one that exhibits symmetry, or orderly patterns of crops that are pleasing to the eye, systems like those are sometimes indicative of long-term environmental decline.
Quesungual mimics the diversity of natural landscapes, while combining the benefits of sustainable land management. Its beauty is therefore systemic rather than aesthetic, and that’s where the real attraction of the system lies.
Neil Palmer is a communications officer at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in Colombia. CIAT is part of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres, a co-sponsor of Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods Day being held on 3rd December in parallel with the climate negotiations in Doha.