Center for Rural Studies
207 Morrill Hall, UVM
Burlington, VT 05405
FAX: (802) 656-0776
On Mon, 9 Dec 1996, P. Ellis wrote:
> Reply to message sent by Tom Ford requesting translation and
> irrigation assistance in Nicaragua:
> Greetings! You and your colleagues sound like well-meaning folks;
> however, I would like to offer some cautionary advice. Please
> understand that I support first-world to third-world interaction
> as a positive and potentially beneficial experience for all involved.
> However, Wendell Berry has written about the agricultural practices
> of native peoples in both the U.S. and South America. Two of the
> groups he wrote about, which seem relevant to this situation, were the
> Hopis and native Peruvian farmers. The Peruvians have successfully
> farmed steep hillsides for several thousand years and the Hopis used to
> use a cachment system to retain and divert water at the bottoms of gullys
> during flash floods in the desert southwest. (I think Berry wrote about
> the Hopis, I may be wrong, but it was a tribe in the desert southwest).
> Anyhow, it seems ethnocentric to approach a rural population in another
> country with the intention of giving them what we call "sustainable
> agriculture." I hope that your friends would consider their first
> priority to be simply observing the daily agricultural practices
> employed in the area (perhaps for thousands of years!) and then consider
> offering suggestions which may improve the local food system. Any
> sustainable agriculture practices which work in North America might not
> be entirely suitable for use by a rural/native/third-world population
> in South America. It would depend on their system as it presently
> exists and on available resources. (eg: Tractors would be useless if
> no diesel fuel is readily available or if the farmers are too poor to
> buy it). Also, if your friends will only be there for three weeks it
> may be useful for them to remember change is difficult, especially
> any change offered by outsiders. These people have some sort of system
> in place and, quite understandably, they may resent interference in and
> criticism of that system.
> Admittedly, I am a skeptic because the historical record is not very
> favorable when it comes to Westerners bringing their "great ideas" to
> third-world populations and, in some cases, this assistance has caused
> populations to suffer more after having been helped than before. What
> will be the indirect consequences of your friend's assistance?
> Since Nicaragua is in Cental America (?), why recommend irrigation?
> Is there a problem with sufficient rainfall in this particular area?
> What are the rates of topsoil formation in Nicaragua in this area?
> Is the area steeply sloped or flat bottom-land in a valley? What is
> the saline/mineral content/distribution in the local water supplies?
> I think that these are important questions and I hope your friends take
> the time to find out some of the answers. Irrigation is an easy solution
> to a complex problem. The indirect consequences of irrigation could be
> worse than not having irrigation.
> In the western U.S., irrigation is widely practiced. However, in the
> west, irrigation is also problematic in that, in many cases--not all,
> irrigation is not the most efficient means of using water resources.
> It is my understanding that the depletion of large aquifer reserves
> in the U.S. will be/is a (future) problem that has gone unrecognized
> by most. (eg: Ogala aquifer levels have dropped in the last 20-30
> years--check current research on this topic for additional information).
> In the west, irrigation has also resulted in local power struggles over
> water--who has it, who needs it, who controls it, and how much it will
> cost, etc.
> My greatest concern with regard to irrigaiton is that is can result
> in topsoil depletion. Even in places with healthy topsoil, irrigation
> can negatively impact topsoil due to the runoff which occurs. In "The
> Environmental Sourcebook," 1992, Edith Stein stated that topsoil
> erosion is "seven times the rate of natural soil formation." She
> gave the following estimate as the amount of soil eroded by wind
> and water -- "2.7 and 3.1 billion tons of soil from U.S. cropland
> every year." Additionally, in an article entitled, "Achieving Soil
> Sustainability," from The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation,
> 1992, pp. 156-7, Joe Friend made a strong claim that soil is not
> renewable within our lifetime. He views soil formation as a
> geologic process which occurs on a geologic time scale. He also
> gave a figure which I found astonishing -- that the process of
> natural soil formation can take 150 years to develop one inch of soil.
> Masanobu Fukuoka has written two books, "One-Straw Revolution," and
> "The Road Back to Nature." It is my understanding that his view
> incorporates the use of interplanting, mulching, and legumes (to
> promote natural nitrogen formation in the soil). He calls his system
> "do nothing" farming, although he has been criticized for the labor
> his system requires. But, this system (or aspects of it) may be
> useful for the farmers in Nicaragua.
> Also, Bill Mollisen and David Holmgren developed a sytem called
> "permaculture," a system which is "people intensive . . . with long
> term aims of improved productivity and lower energy consumption,"
> which I have quoted from an article by Gillman and Grimaux, entitled,
> "Utopia as Judgement," Ceres, Vol. 24, 1992, pp. 15-23. Mollisen
> and Holmgren wrote a book together entitled, "Permaculture One," and
> Mollisen went on to write a second book entitled, "Permaculture Two."
> Also, I think that there is a representative of this view which is
> a subscriber and who could provide you with additional information.
> Additionally, dryland farming techniques, which include some of
> Fukuoka's practices -- mulching and intercropping/interplanting --
> have been successfully used for thousands of years. In the
> Mediterranean, in ancient Rome, intercropping was practiced by Roman
> farmers (Prof. Bliquez, Lectures for CLA 320, Fall 1995, UW). There
> has been a resurgence in interest in the use of dryland farming
> techniques, and I believe that there are some very informed specialists
> in this area which subscribe to this list as well. Dryland techniques
> attempt to use natural rainfall in combination with other approaches
> in order to grow crops without irrigation or, it irrigation is
> necessary, with the application of responsible and limited irrigation
> Finally, I viewed a documentary on PBS this last year, and I do not
> recall the title of the program, but it showed Chinese farmers that
> cover their fields with rocks. Yes, rocks. Water resources are
> scarce in this particular area of China, so farmers prepare planting
> beds and cover the soil surrounding plants with rocks in order to
> preserve and to maintain moisture in the soil. The rocks are carefully
> raked into place for the planting of seedlings and are raked away in
> order to amend the soil as needed. I do hope that the Nicaraguan
> farmers do not face such severe water shortages, but I cite this story
> in order to demonstrate that with care and ingenuity farming is possible
> in even the most difficult environments.
> Peace, P. F. Ellis, Senior, Philosophy, Univ. Of Washington
> (future small-scale organic farmer, too)