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A local lady plants seeds in a polytunnel. Image by Ana Castaneda, for Practical Action.

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Layer farming; a sustainable solution for farmers and wildlife

February 13th, 2013

by Andrew Heath

In a remote cloud forest in South America subsistence farmers are embracing an alternative to slash and burn.......

According to a report written for the UK and Norwegian Governments, released ahead of the Doha Climate Talks last year, agriculture is responsible for around 80 per cent of the world’s deforestation. 

At a high altitude on the border between Peru and Equador, the stunning cloud forest in the Chinchipe River basin is widely recognised as the mighty Amazon River’s source.  In common with much tropical rainforest throughout the world, it’s home to thousands of subsistence farmers and has been devastated by slash and burn farming practices.

The report found that subsistence farming by families living on the poverty line in South America is responsible for about one third of that region’s rainforest destruction. This makes it the second biggest deforestation driver after commercial agriculture .

But the Chinchipe River Basin could also be the source of a solution that offers fresh hope for the long-term survival of the farmers and the cloud forests; a new sustainable technique known as layer farming.  5,000 Peruvian and Ecuadorian farmers living in the region have been trained in layer farming by UK development charity Practical Action - safeguarding 100,000 hectares of forest. 

However, the forest is home to thousands more farmers who have neither the training nor resources to introduce layer farming. Instead, they continue to use old, damaging slash and burn farming methods, merely because they are unaware there is an alternative.

This can only be changed by training communities to protect their environment whilst simultaneously improving their livelihoods. Unless tropical rainforest communities start to use new practices throughout South America and the rest of the World, the pre-Doha report recognises that global warming will be difficult to halt.

Alfonso Carrasco, the charity's regional director for Peru, said: “There is nothing more tragic than seeing families suffer in swathes of wasted, burnt land.  The farming communities do not have the skills or simple technology required to make a sustainable and productive living. Trees are slashed and burnt to make way for crops like corn and cocoa, robbing the soil of its nutrients and forcing families to abandon the land after each harvest.”

Layer farming enables people to grow their crops under the tree canopy, restoring and enriching the soil by introducing five crops which complement and support each other. It enables farmers who currently live on less than £1 to feed their families from their crops in the first year, in addition to sowing the seeds for sustainable, long-term cash crops.  If knowledge of layer farming can be passed between communities, it has the potential to stop, and even reverse, the deforestation of thousands of hectares of land in the region.

The first layer is a fast-growing crop such as cassava, which provides food and an income for the first few years.  The second layer comprises coffee plants, which take four years to fruit, but then provide good quality coffee beans, which fetch a good price at market.  The third layer, of banana plants or laurel, has huge leaves to protect the coffee plants from the sun and can also provide fruit to sell or eat.  

Above that is a layer of native Inga trees, which give additional shade and also produce edible, mineral-rich seeds.  In addition to providing food, these trees help enrich the soil, keep it fertile, and take only four years to reach a height of ten metres.  Finally, Cedar trees, which grow up to 40 metres tall, are planted for the long-term and provide shade and protection in addition to a supply of timber for future generations.

Carlo Magno Chinchay Cruz is a 30-year-old father of four who lived hand-to-mouth before recieving training. In 2010 he grew only cassava, vituca (a tuber similar to a sweet potato), and a coffee crop so limited that he made no profit. The thought of growing trees was unimaginable.

His farm, at San Francisco de Asis, in Peru’s Cajamarca region looks very different now. Carlo has planted more than a thousand seedlings on his plot, with the help of his wife Juana and three of his friends.  Most of the trees are laurels, a species that produces timber in 12 years and which provides the shade required by coffee crops. Carlo is not just grateful for himself and his family but also recognises layer farming as an important tool for preserving the ecosystem, and subsequently resources for future generations.

Further information about Practical Action’s work in the region and how you can help can be found here.



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