Nicaraguan Mega-Gardens: Community-Led Conservation for Plant Diversity and Soil Health

Why do some agricultural training programmes amount to little more than a free lunch for participants, while others inspire farmers to make real changes in their fields, while others? This report on a project in Nicaragua shows how a participatory and holistic approach – with constant tweaking in the light of experience – can produce gains in productivity and improved nutrition with ecological and social benefits as well.

Authors: Sara Delaney and Audrey White. Source: Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Blog

Over the past few years I’ve often wondered—why do some agricultural training programs inspire farmers to make real changes in their fields, while others amount to little more than a free lunch for participants?

Recently, an approach developed by the staff of one of Episcopal Relief & Development’s program partners, The Council of Protestant Churches in Nicaragua (CEPAD), caught my attention and helped me begin to answer this question.

Nicaraguan Mega-Gardens 1In the wake of the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua, CEPAD realized they needed to develop a strategy that enabled the families they were working with to take full advantage of the land they had available. Between 1974 and 2004, they gradually adjusted their program based on community feedback and narrowed the number of topics being addressed in workshops.

They chose four themes to focus on: conservation of soil and water, diversification and merging of cultivation, use of organic insecticides and compost and principles of commercialization.

Through this collaborative work with farmers, they established a core set of techniques within these themes, such as landscape management and erosion control (see the figure below for a complete list of techniques included in the program). Their approach is comprehensive, including everything from compost and green manures to infiltration trenches and terracing.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

The organization also developed a process that enabled it to exchange knowledge with a wider range of farmers using their available staff and resources. Each participating community nominated ‘Community Agricultural Promoters’ who represented their group at three training sessions each year and were responsible for sharing what they learned with five other farmers, or disciples, in their community.

The program also supplied farmers with seeds or cuttings of new crop varieties in several ‘investment packages’ over the course of the three-year training cycle. Participating farmers grew up to eight types of vegetables, along with up to nine grain, fruit or other tree varieties—all on their small parcels. Typical farms produced a combination of banana, plantain, citrus, passion fruit, pineapple, maize, cassava, potatoes, beans and coffee.

This process allowed the organization to focus on communicating a core set of principles, while at the same time using an existing, organized community network to share knowledge and offer support over time as farmers adopted new practices. As they fine-tuned their approach to agricultural learning, the organization was also developing their model for effective community development—identifying community organization, long-term engagement and continuous adaptation as essential to success.

The use of this participatory and holistic approach has resulted in dramatic changes on farmers’ lands. Areas that were once sitting unused, or had only one or two poorly performing crops, have been transformed into diverse, tree-filled household mega-gardens. Participants feel that they are better equipped to use their land productively and are confident in its future performance and ability to provide for their families.

Also, adoption rates were high. As presented in the chart below, significantly more farmers were actively using each of the 11 techniques at the end of the three-year period.

For example, at the outset only 77 out of 471 participating farmers used a form of living erosion control such as planting grasses or other plants along contour lines to slow runoff, but by 2012 this number rose to 425.

The farmers are really adopting what they are learning. Uptake of soil fertility techniques such as the use of bio-fertilizers, green manures and compost were equally impressive, with 340, 382 and 471 (100% of farmers!) using each practice respectively by the end of the period.

CEPAD also used these results to narrow in on which practices showed a lower rate of uptake, such as the use of dikes and terraces, to consider adaptation for future training programs.

In addition to increased food production and improved nutrition, the ecological and social impacts of the whole-community approach to landscape management were also visible. As Program Director Evenor Jerez said, “Our model focuses on accompanying communities to help them plan and implement projects. When a community isn’t organized, it makes it harder to move forward. When producers, families, men and women are more organized and integrated, success is much easier to achieve.”

I spoke with farmers who eagerly shared their views on the importance of soil conservation and were happy to explain their techniques to neighbour or visitor alike, no matter how ‘strange’ the practice seemed at first. Here, the training program has produced not just star students, but advocates and teachers—a result I would say is not only worth taking note of, but trying to learn from and emulate.

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