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Applying Agroecology to Enhance the Productivity of Peasant Farming Systems in Latin America

Abstract

The great majority of farmers in Latin America are peasants who still farm small plots of land, usually in marginal environments utilizing traditional and subsistence methods. The contribution of the 16 million peasant units to regional food security is, however, substantial. Research has shown that peasant systems, which mostly rely on local resources and complex cropping patterns, are reasonably productive despite their land endowments and low use of external inputs. Moreover analysis of NGO-led agroecological initiatives show that traditional crop and animal systems can be adapted to increase productivity by biologically re-structuring peasant farms which in turn leads to optimization of key agroecosystem processes (nutrient cycling, organic matter accumulation, biological pest regulation, etc.) and efficient use of labor and local resources. Examples of such grassroots projects are herein described to show that agroecological approaches can offer opportunities to substantially increase food production while preserving the natural resource base and empowering rural communities.
APPLYING AGROECOLOGY TO ENHANCE THE PRODUCTIVITY
OF PEASANT FARMING SYSTEMS IN LATIN AMERICA
MIGUEL A. ALTIERI
Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA
(e-mail: agroeco3@nature.berkeley.edu)
Abstract. The great majority of farmers in Latin America are peasants who still farm small plots of land,
usually in marginal environments utilizing traditional and subsistence methods. The contribution of the 16
million peasant units to regional food security is, however, substantial. Research has shown that peasant sys-
tems, which mostly rely on local resources and complex cropping patterns, are reasonably productive despite
their land endowments and low use of external inputs. Moreover analysis of NGO-led agroecological initia-
tives show that traditional crop and animal systems can be adapted to increase productivity by biologically
re-structuring peasant farms which in turn leads to optimization of key agroecosystem processes (nutrient
cycling, organic matter accumulation, biological pest regulation, etc.) and efficient use of labor and local
resources. Examples of such grassroots projects are herein described to show that agroecological approaches
can offer opportunities to substantially increase food production while preserving the natural resource base
and empowering rural communities.
Key words: agroecology, Latin America, NGOs, sustainable agriculture.
1. Introduction
Although most traditional agricultural systems and practices encompass mechanisms to
stabilize production in risk-prone environments without external subsidies, most agroecol-
ogists recognize that traditional systems and indigenous knowledge will not yield panaceas
for agricultural problems (Altieri, 1995; Gliessman, 1998). Nevertheless, traditional ways
of farming refined over many generations by intelligent land users, provide insights into
sustainably managing soils, water, crops, animals and pests (Thrupp, 1998). Perhaps the
most rewarding aspect of agroecological research has been that by understanding the fea-
tures of traditional agriculture, such as the ability to bear risk, biological folk taxonomies,
the production efficiency of symbiotic crop mixtures, etc., important information on how
to develop agricultural technologies best suited to the needs and circumstances of spe-
cific peasant groups has been obtained. This information has been a critical input for the
application of agroecology in rural development programs.
Since the early 1980s, more than 200 projects promoted by non-governmental organiza-
tions (NGOs) in Latin America have concentrated on promoting agroecological technolo-
gies which are sensitive to the complexity of peasant farming systems (Altieri and Masera,
1993). This agroecological approach offers an alternate path to agricultural intensification
byrelyingonlocalfarmingknowledgeandtechniquesadjustedtodifferentlocalconditions,
management of diverse on-farm resources and inputs, and incorporation of contemporary
scientific understanding of biological principles and resources in farming systems. Second,
Environment, Development and Sustainability 1: 197–217, 1999.
© 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
198 m.a. altieri
it offers the only practical way to actually restore agricultural lands that have been degraded
by conventional agronomic practices. Third, it offers an environmentally sound and afford-
able way for smallholders to sustainably intensify production in marginal areas. Finally, it
has the potential to reverse the anti-peasant biases inherent in strategies that emphasize pur-
chased inputs and machinery, valuing instead the assets that small farmers already possess,
including local knowledge and the low opportunity costs for labor that prevail in the regions
where they live (Altieri et al., 1998).
This paper contends that there is enough evidence available – despite the fact that
researchers have paid little attention to these systems – to suggest that agroecological tech-
nologies promise to contribute to food security on many levels. Critics of such alternative
production systems point to lower crop yields than in high-input conventional systems. Yet
all too often, it is precisely the emphasis on yield a measure of the performance of a single
crop that blinds analysts to broader measures of sustainability and to the greater per unit
area productivity and environmental services obtained in complex, integrated agroecolog-
ical systems that feature many crop varieties together with animals and trees. Moreover,
there are many cases where even yields of single crops are higher in agroecological systems
that have undergone the full conversion process (Lampkin, 1992).
Assessments of various initiatives in Latin America show that agroecological technolo-
gies can bring significant environmental and economic benefits to farmers and communities
(Altieri, 1995; Pretty, 1995; Thrupp, 1996). If such experiences were to be scaled up, multi-
plied, extrapolated, and supported in alternative policy scenarios, the gains in food security
and environmental conservation would be substantial. This article summarizes some cases
from Latin America that explore the potential of the agroecological approach to sustainably
increase productivity of smallholder farming systems, while preserving the resource base
and at the same time empowering local communities.
2. The productivity of traditional farming systems
Despite the increasing industrialization of agriculture, the great majority of the farmers in
Latin America are peasants, or small producers, who still farm the valleys and slopes of
rural landscapes with traditional and subsistence methods. Peasant production units reached
about 16 million in the late 1980s occupying close to 160 million hectares, involving 75
million people representing almost two thirds of the Latin America’s total rural population
(Ortega, 1986).
The contribution of peasant agriculture to the general food supply in the region is sig-
nificant. In the 1980s it reached approximately 41% of the agricultural output for domestic
consumption, and is responsible for producing at the regional level 51% of the maize, 77%
of the beans, and 61% of the potatoes (Table I).
In Brazil, small peasant producers control about 33% of the area sown to maize, 61% of
that under beans, and 64% of that planted to cassava. In Ecuador the peasant sector occupies
more than 50% of the area devoted to food crops such as maize, beans, barley and okra.
In Mexico, peasants occupy at least 70% of the area assigned to maize and 60% of the area
under beans (Ortega, 1986).
peasant farming systems in latin america 199
TABLE I. Estimated arable land and population on steep slopes of selected latin american countries
and their contribution to total agricultural outputa
Country % land farmed Agricultural Percent Contribution
on slopes population (%) contribution to country’s
to agricultural output total agricultural
(including coffee) production
Corn (%) Potato (%)
Ecuador 25 40 33 50 70
Colombia 25 50 26 50 70
Peru 25 50 21 20 50
Guatemala 75 65 25 50 75
El Salvador 75 50 18 50
Honduras 80 20 19 40 100
Haiti 80 65 30 70 70
Dominican 80 30 31 40 50
Republic
aModified after Posner and McPherson (1982).
Most peasant systems are productive despite their low use of chemical inputs. Generally,
agricultural labor has a high return per unit of input. The energy return to labor expended in
a typical highland Mayan maize farm is high enough to ensure continuation of the present
system. To work a hectare of land, which normally yields 4 230692 calories requires some
395h; thus, an hour’s labor produces about 10700 calories. A family of three adults and
seven children eat about 4830 000 calories of maize per year, thus current systems provide
foodsecurity for a typical family of 5or7 people (Gladwin and Truman,1989). Also in these
systems, favorable rates of return between inputs and outputs in energy terms are realized.
On Mexican hillsides, maize yields in hand-labor dependent swidden systems are about
1940kg ha1, exhibiting an output/input ratio of 11 : 1. In Guatemala, similar systems yield
about 1066 kgha1of maize, with an energy efficiency ratio of 4.84. Yield per seed planted
varyfrom 130 to 200. When animal traction is utilized, yieldsdonot necessarily increase but
the energy efficiency drops to values ranging from 3.11 to 4.34. When fertilizers and other
agrochemicals are utilized yields can increase to levels of 5–7t ha1, but energy ratios are
highly inefficient (less than 2.5). In addition, most peasants are poor and generally cannot
afford such inputs unless agrochemicals are subsidized (Pimentel and Pimentel, 1979).
In many areas of the region, traditional farmers have developed and/or inherited complex
farming systems, adapted to the local conditions, that have helped them to sustainably
manage harsh environments and to meet their subsistence needs, without depending on
mechanization, chemical fertilizers, pesticides or other technologies of modern agricultural
science (Denevan, 1995).
The persistence of more than three million hectares under traditional agriculture in the
form of raised fields, terraces, polycultures, agroforestry systems, etc., document a success-
ful indigenous agricultural strategy and comprises a tribute to the ‘creativity’ of peasants
throughout Latin America. These microcosms of traditional agriculture offer promising
models for other areas as they promote biodiversity, thrive without agrochemicals, and
200 m.a. altieri
TABLE II. Maize yields from chinampa plots during the
1950s
Location Plot Size (ha) Yield (kg/ha)
Tlahuac 0.32 5500
0.10 3750–4500
0.16 4650–5500
0.10 3750–4500
0.16 4650
0.16 6300
San Gregorio 0.20 3750–4500
0.21 3600–4350
0.10 3750–4500
0.12 4950
Source: Sanders (1957).
sustain year-round yields. An example are the chinampas in Mexico which according to
Sanders (1957) in the mid 1950s exhibited maize yields of 3.5–6.3t ha1(Table II). At the
same time, these were the highest long-term yields achieved anywhere in Mexico. In com-
parison, average maize yields in the United States in 1955 were 2.6t ha1, and did not pass
the 4t ha1mark until 1965 (USDA, 1972). Sanders (1957) estimated that each hectare of
chinampa could produce enough food for 15–20 persons per year at modern subsistence
levels. Recent research has indicated that each chinampero can work about three quarters of
a hectare of chinampa per year (Jimenez-Osornio and del Amo, 1986), meaning that each
farmer can support 12–15 people.
Asalient featureoftraditional farmingsystems is theirdegree of plantdiversityin the form
of polycultures and/or agroforestry patterns (Chang, 1977; Clawson, 1985; Thrupp, 1998).
This peasant strategy of minimizing risk by planting several species and varieties of crops,
stabilizes yields over the long term, promotes diet diversity, and maximizes returns under
low levels of technology and limited resources (Harwood, 1979). Much of the production
of staple crops in the Latin American tropics occurs in polycultures. More than 40% of
the cassava, 60% of the maize, and 80% of the beans in that region are grown in mixtures
with each other or other crops (Francis, 1986; Table III). In most multiple cropping systems
developed by smallholders, productivity in terms of harvestable products per unit area is
higher than under sole cropping with the same level of management. Yield advantages can
range from 20% to 60%. These differences can be explained by a combination of factors
which include the reduction of losses due to weeds, insects and diseases and a more efficient
use of the available resources of water, light and nutrients (Beets, 1982).
In Mexico, 1.73ha of land has to be planted with maize to produce as much food as
one hectare planted with a mixture of maize, squash, and beans. In addition, a maize–
squash–bean polyculture can produce up to 4t ha1of dry matter for plowing into the soil,
compared with 2t in a maize monoculture (Table III). In Brazil, polycultures containing
12,500 maize plants ha1and 150,000 bean plantsha1exhibited a yield advantage of 28%.
In drier environments, maize is replaced by sorghum in the intercropping without affecting
the productive capacity of cowpeas or beans and yielding LER values of 1.25–1.58. This
system exhibits a greater stability of production as sorghum is more tolerant to drought.
peasant farming systems in latin america 201
TABLE III. Yields and total biomass of maize, beans, and squash
(kgha1) in polycultureascompared with several densities (plants ha1)
of each crop in monoculture
Crop Monoculture Polyculture
Maize
Density 33000 40 000 66600 100 000 50000
Yield 990 1150 1230 1170 1720
Biomass 2823 3119 4487 4871 5927
Beans
Density 56800 64 000 100000 133 200 40000
Yield 425 740 610 695 110
Biomass 853 895 843 1390 253
Squash
Density 1200 1875 7500 30 000 3330
Yield 15 215 430 225 80
Biomass 241 841 1254 802 478
Total polyculture yield 1910
Total polyculture biomass 6659
Source: Gliessman (1998).
Tropical agroecosystems composed of agricultural and fallow fields, complex home gar-
dens, and agroforestry plots, commonly contain well over 100 plant species per field, which
are used for construction materials, firewood, tools, medicines, livestock feed, and human
food. Examples include multiple-use agroforestry systems managed by the Huastecs and
Lacondones in Mexico, the Bora and Kayapo Indians in the Amazon basin and many other
ethnic groups who incorporate trees into their production systems (Wilken, 1987). Such
home gardens are a highly efficient form of land use incorporating a variety of crops with
different growth habits. The result is a structure similar to tropical forests, with diverse
species and a layered configuration (Denevan et al., 1984). Because of the nearly year-
round growing conditions, indigenous farmers are able to stagger crop and tree plantings
andharvestingto increase overallyields. For example the Bora plant a wide variety of crops,
including some 22 varieties of sweet and bitter manioc interspersed among pineapples, fruit
trees and minor annual crops.
In the Amazon, the Kayapo yields are roughly 200% higher than colonist systems and
175 times that of livestock (Hecht, 1984). In Mexico, Huastec Indians manage a number
of agricultural and fallow fields, complex home gardens and forest plots totaling about 300
species. Small areas around the houses commonly average 80–125 useful plant species,
mostly native medicinal plants (Alcorn, 1984).
3. Ecological mechanisms underlying the productivity of
traditional farming systems
The high levels of productivity that characterize the chinampas result from several factors.
First, cropping is nearly continuous; only rarely is the chinampa left without a crop. As a
202 m.a. altieri
result, 3–4 crops are produced each year. One of the primary mechanisms by which this
intensity is maintained are the seedbeds, in which young plants are germinated before the
oldercropsareharvested.Second, the chinampa maintain a high level of soil fertility despite
the continual harvest of crops because they are supplied with high quantities of organic
fertilizers. The lakes themselves serve as giant catch basins for nutrients. The aquatic plants
function as nutrient concentrators, absorbing nutrients that occur in low concentration in the
water and storing them inside their tissue. The use of these plants along with canal mud and
muddy water (for irrigation) insures that an adequate supply of nutrients is always available
to the growing crops. Third, there is plenty of water for the growing crop. The narrowness
of the chinampas is a design feature that ensures that water from the canal infiltrates the
chinampa, giving rise to a zone of moisture within reach of the crop’s roots. Even if during
the dry season the lake levels fall below the rooting zone, the narrowness of the chinampa
allows the chinampero to irrigate from a canoe. Fourth, there is a large amount of individual
care given to each plant in the chinampa. Such careful husbandry facilitates high yields
(Gliesman et al., 1981).
By interplanting, farmers achieve several production and conservation objectives simul-
taneously.Withcrop mixtures, farmers can take advantageof the ability of cropping systems
to reuse their own stored nutrients and the tendency of certain crops to enrich the soil with
organic matter (Francis, 1986). In ‘forest-like’ agricultural systems cycles are tight and
closed. In many tropical agroforestry systems such as the traditional coffee under shade
trees (Inga sp., Erythrina sp., etc.) total nitrogen inputs from shade tree leaves, litter, and
symbiotic fixation can be well over ten times higher than the net nitrogen output by harvest
which usually averages 20kg ha1year1. In other words, the system amply compensates
the nitrogen loss by harvest with a subsidy from the shade trees. In highly co-evolved sys-
tems, researchers have found evidence of synchrony between the peaks of nitrogen transfer
to the soil by decomposing litter and the periods of high nitrogen demand by flowering and
fruiting coffee plants (Nair, 1984).
Crops grown simultaneously enhance the abundance of predators and parasites, which in
turn prevent the build-up of pests, thus minimizing the need to use expensive and dangerous
chemicalinsecticides. Forexample,in the tropicallowlands,corn–bean–squashpolycultures
suffer less attack by caterpillars, leafhoppers, thrips, etc., than corresponding monocultures,
because such systems harbor greater numbers of parasitic wasps. The plant diversity also
provides alternative habitat and food sources such as pollen, nectar, and alternative hosts
to predators and parasites. In Tabasco, Mexico, it was found that eggs and larvae of the
lepidopteranpest Diaphaniahyalinata exhibiteda 69%parasitization ratein thepolycultures
as opposed to only 29% rate in monocultures. Similarly, in the Cauca valley of Colombia,
larvae of Spodoptera frugiperda suffered greater parasitization and predation in the corn–
bean mixtures by a series of Hymenopteran wasps and predacious beetles than in corn
monocultures (Altieri, 1994).
This mixing of crop species can also delay the onset of diseases by reducing the spread
of disease carrying spores, and by modifying environmental conditions so that they are less
favorable to the spread of certain pathogens. In general, the peasant farmers of traditional
agriculture are less vulnerable to catastrophic loss because they grow a wide variety of
peasant farming systems in latin america 203
cultivars. Many of these plants are landraces grown from seed passed down from generation
to generation and selected over the years to produce desired production characteristics.
Landraces are genetically more heterogeneous than modern cultivars and can offer a variety
of defenses against vulnerability (Thurston, 1991).
Integration of animals (cattle, swine, poultry) into farming systems in addition to pro-
viding milk, meat, and draft adds another tropic level to the system, making it even more
complex. Animals are fed crop residues and weeds with little negative impact on crop
productivity. This serves to turn otherwise unusable biomass into animal protein. Animals
recycle the nutrient content of plants, transforming them into manure. The need for ani-
mal fed also broadens the crop base to include plant species useful for conserving soil
and water. Legumes are often planted to provide quality forage but also serve to improve
nitrogen content of soils (Beets, 1990).
4. Building on traditional farming: NGO-led agroecological initiatives
InLatin America,economic change,fueled bycapital andmarket penetration,is leadingto an
ecological breakdown that is starting to destroy the sustainability of traditional agriculture.
After creating resource-conserving systems for centuries, traditional cultures in areas such
asMesoamerica, the Amazon, andthe Andes are nowbeing undermined by externalpolitical
and economic forces. Biodivesity is decreasing on farms, soil degradation is accelerating,
community and social organizations are breaking down, genetic resources are being eroded
andtraditions lost. Under this scenario, and givencommercial pressures and urbandemands,
many developers argue that the performance of subsistence agriculture is unsatisfactory,
and that intensification of production is essential for the transition from subsistence to
commercial production (Blauert and Zadek, 1998). In reality the challenge is to guide
such transition in a way that it yields and income are increased without threatening food
security, raising the debt of peasants, and further exacerbating environmental degradation.
Many agroecologists contend that this can be done by generating and promoting resource
conserving technologies, a source of which are the very traditional systems that modernity
is destroying (Altieri, 1991).
Taking traditional farming knowledge as a strategy point, a quest has begun in the devel-
oping world for affordable, productive, and ecologically sound small scale agricultural
alternatives. In many ways, the emergence of agroecology stimulated a number of NGOs
and other institutions to actively search for new kinds of agricultural development and
resource management strategies that, based on local participation, skills and resources,
have enhanced small farm productivity while conserving resources (Thrupp, 1996). Today
there are hundreds of examples where rural producers in partnership with NGOs and other
organizations, have promoted and implemented alternative, agroecological development
projects which incorporate elements of both traditional knowledge and modern agricultural
science, featuring resource-conserving yet highly productive systems, such as polycultures,
agroforestry, and the integration of crops and livestock etc.
204 m.a. altieri
5. Stabilizing the hillside of Central America
Perhaps the major agricultural challenge in Latin America is to design cropping systems
for hillside areas, that are both productive and reduce erosion. Several organizations have
taken on this challenge with initiatives that emphasize the stewardship of soil resources,
utilization of local resources, and inputs produced on farm.
Since the mid 1980s, the private voluntary organization World Neighbors has sponsored
anagricultural development and trainingprogramin Honduras to control erosion and restore
thefertility of degraded soils. Soil conservationpractices were introduced suchasdrainage
and contour ditches, grass barriers, and rock walls – and organic fertilization methods were
emphasized,such as chickenmanure and intercroppingwith legumes.Program yields tripled
or quadrupled from 400 kg ha1to 1,200–1,600 kg, depending on the farmer. This tripling in
per-hectaregrain production has ensured that the 1,200 families participating in the program
haveample grain supplies for the ensuing year.Subsequently,COSECHA, a local NGO pro-
moting farmer-to-farmer methodologies on soil conservation and agroecology, helped some
300 farmers experiment with terracing, cover crops, and other new techniques. Half of these
farmers have already tripled their corn and bean yields; 35 have gone beyond staple produc-
tion and are growing carrots, lettuce, and other vegetables to sell in the local markets. Sixty
local villagers are now agricultural extensionists and 50 villages have requested training
as a result of hearing of these impacts. The landless and near-landless have benefited with
the increase in labor wages from US $2 to $3 per day in the project area. Outmigration
has been replaced by inmigration, with many people moving back from the urban slums of
Tegucigalpa to occupy farms and houses they had previously abandoned, so increasing the
population of Guinope. The main difficulties have been in marketing of new cash crops,
as structures do not exist for vegetable storage and transportation to urban areas (Bunch,
1987).
In Cantarranas, the adoption of velvetbean (Mucuna pruriens), which can fix up to
150kg N ha1as well as produce 35 t of organic matter per year, has tripled maize yields
to 2500kg ha1. Labor requirements for weeding have been cut by 75% and, herbicides
eliminated entirely. The focus on village extensionists was not only more efficient and less
costlythan using professionalextensionists,it also helpedto build localcapacity and provide
crucial leadership experience (Bunch, 1990).
Throughout Central America, CIDDICO and other NGOs have promoted the use of grain
legumes to be used as green manure, an inexpensive source of organic fertilizer to build
up organic matter. Hundreds of farmers in the northern coast of Honduras are using velvet
bean (M. pruriens) with excellent results, including corn yields of about 3,000kg ha1,
morethan double than national average, erosion control, weed suppression andreducedland
preparationcosts. Thevelvetbeans produce nearly30 t ha1ofbiomassper year,orabout 90–
100kg N ha1year1(Flores, 1989). Taking advantage of well established farmer to farmer
networks such as the campesino a campesino movement in Nicaragua and elsewhere, the
spread of this simple technology has occurred rapidly. In just one year, more than 1000
peasants recovered degraded land in the Nicaraguan San Juan watershed (Holtz-Gimenez,
1996). Economic analyses of these projects indicate that farmers adopting cover cropping
have lowered their utilization of chemical fertilizers (from 1.900kgha1to 400 kg ha1)
peasant farming systems in latin america 205
while increasing yields from 700kg to 2000 kg ha1, with production costs about 22%
lower than farmers using chemical fertilizers and monocultures (Buckles et al., 1998).
Scientists and NGOs promoting slash/mulch systems based on the traditional ‘tapado’
system, used on the Central American hillsides, have also reported increased bean and
maize yields (about 3000 kgha1) and considerable reduction in labor inputs as cover crops
smother aggressive weeds, thus minimizing the need for weeding. Another advantage is
that the use of drought resistant mulch legumes such as Dolichos lablab provide good
forage for livestock (Thurston et al., 1994). These kinds of agroecological approaches are
currently being used on a relatively small percentage of land, but as their benefits are being
recognized by farmers, they are spreading quickly. Such methods have strong potential and
offer important advantages for other areas of Central America and beyond.
6. Soil conservation in the Dominican Republic
Several years ago, Plan Sierra, an ecodevelopment project took on the challenge of breaking
thelink between rural poverty and environmentaldegradation. In thecentralcordillera of the
Dominican Republic, the strategy consisted in developing alternative production systems
for the highly erosive conucos used by local farmers. Controlling erosion in the Sierra is not
onlyimportant for thebetterment of the lifeof these farmersbut also representshydroelectric
potential as well as an additional 50 000 ha of irrigated land in the downstream Cibao valley
(Altieri, 1990).
Themain goal of Plan Sierraisagroecological strategy wasthedevelopment anddiffusion
of production systems that provided sustainable yields without degrading the soil thus
ensuringthe farmers’productivityand foodself-sufficiency.Morespecifically,theobjectives
were to allow farmers to more efficiently use local resources such as soil moisture and
nutrients, crop and animal residue, natural vegetation, genetic diversity, and family labor. In
this way it would be possible to satisfy basic family needs for food, firewood, construction
materials, medicinals, income, and so on.
From a management point of view the strategy consisted of a series of farming methods
integrated in several ways:
1. Soil conservation practices such as terracing, minimum tillage, alley cropping, living
barriers, and mulching;
2. Use of leguminous trees and shrubs such as Gliricidia, Calliandra, Canavalia, Cajanus,
and Acacia planted in alleys, for nitrogen fixation, biomass production, green manure,
forage production, and sediment capture;
3. Use of organic fertilizers based on the optimal use of plant and animal residues;
4. Adequate combination and management of polycultures and/or rotations planted in con-
tour and optimal crop densities and planting dates;
5. Conservation and storage of water through mulching and water harvesting techniques.
Invarious farms animals, crops, trees,and/or shrubs, are all integrated to result inmultiple
benefitssuch as soilprotection, diversifiedfood production, firewood,improvedsoil fertility,
and so on. Since more than 2000 farmers have adopted some of the improved practices an
206 m.a. altieri
importanttask ofPlan Sierrawasto determinethe erosionreduction potential ofthe proposed
systems. This proved difficult because most of the available methods to estimate erosion are
notapplicable for measuring soil loss in farmingsystems managed by resource-poor farmers
under marginal conditions. Given the lack of financial resources and research infrastructure
atPlan Sierra it wasnecessary to developa simple method usingmeasuring sticks to estimate
soil loss in a range of concuos including those traditionally managed by farmers and the
‘improved ones’ developed and promoted by Plan Sierra.
Based on field data collected in 1988–1989 on the accumulated erosion rates of three
traditional and one improved farming system, the alternative systems recommended by
Plan Sierra exhibited substantially less soil loss than the traditional shifting cultivation,
cassava and guandul monocultures. The positive performance of the agroecologically
improved conuco seemed related to the continuous soil cover provision through intercrop-
ping, mulching, and rotations, as well as the shortening of the slope and sediment capture
provided by alley cropping and living barriers (Altieri, 1985).
7. Recreating incan agriculture
Researchershaveuncoveredremnantsofmore than 170000ha of ‘ridged-fields’inSurinam,
Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (Denevan, 1995). Many of these systems
apparentlyconsisted of raised fields on seasonally-flooded lands in savannasand in highland
basins.In Peru, NGO’s havestudied such pre-Columbian technologies in search of solutions
to contemporary problems of high altitude farming. A fascinating example is the revival of
an ingenious system of raised fields that evolved on the high plans of the Peruvian Andes
about 3000 years ago. According to archeological evidence these Waru-Warus platforms
of soil surrounded by ditches filled with water, were able to produce bumper crops despite
floods, droughts, and the killing frost common at altitudes of nearly 4,000 m (Erickson and
Chandler, 1989).
In 1984 several NGO’s and state agencies created the Proyecto Interinstitucional de
Rehabilitacion de Waru-Warus (PIWA) to assist local farmers in reconstructing ancient sys-
tems. The combination of raised beds and canals has proven to have important temperature
moderation effects extending the growing season and leading to higher productivity on the
Waru-Warus compared to chemically fertilized normal pampa soils. In the Huatta district,
reconstructed raised fields produced impressive harvest, exhibiting a sustained potato yield
of 8–14t ha1year1. These figures contrast favorably with the average Puno potato yields
of 1–4 tha1year1. In Camjata the potato fields reached 13 tha1year1and quinoa yields
reached 2t ha1year1in Waru-Warus. It is estimated that the initial construction, rebuild-
ing every ten years, and annual planting, weeding, harvest and maintenance of raised fields
planted in potatoes requires 270 person-days ha1year1. Clearly, raised beds require strong
social cohesion for the cooperative work needed on beds and canals. For the construction
of the fields, NGOs organized labor at the individual, family, multi-family, and communal
levels.
Elsewhere in Peru, several NGOs in partnership with local government agencies have
engaged in programs to restore abandoned ancient terraces. For example, in Cajamarca, in
peasant farming systems in latin america 207
1983, EDAC-CIED together with peasant communities initiated an all-encompassing soil
conservation project. Over 10 years they planted more than 550,000 trees and reconstructed
about 850ha of terraces and 173 ha of drainage and infiltration canals. The end result is
about 1124ha of land under construction measures (roughly 32% of the total arable land),
benefiting 1247 families (about 52% of the total in the area). Crop yields have improved
significantly. For example, potato yields went from 5 to 8 t ha1and oca yields jumped from
3to8tha
1
. Enhanced crop production, fattening of cattle and raising of alpaca for wool,
have increased the income of families from an average of $108 year1in 1983 to more than
$500 today (Sanchez, 1994).
In the Colca valley of southern Peru, PRAVTIR (Programa de Acondicionamiento Ter-
ritorial y Vivienda Rural) sponsors terrace reconstruction by offering peasant communities
low-interest loans and seeds or other inputs to restore large areas (up to 30ha) of abandoned
terraces. The advantages of the terraces is that they minimize risks in terms of frost and/or
drought, reducing soil loss, broadening cropping options because of the microclimatic and
hydraulic advantages of terraces, thus improving productivity. First year yields from new
bench terraces showed a 43–65% increase of potatoes, maize, and barley, compared to the
crops grown on sloping fields (Table IV). The native legume Lupinus mutabilis is used
as a rotational or associated crop on the terraces; it fixes nitrogen, which is available to
companion crops, minimizing fertilizer needs and increasing production. One of the main
constraints of this technology is that it is highly labor intensive. It is estimated that it would
require 2000 worker-days to complete the reconstruction of 1ha, although in other areas
reconstruction has proven less labor intensive, requiring only 300–500 worker day1ha1
(Treacey, 1989).
NGOs have also evaluated traditional farming systems above 4000msnm, where maca
(Lepidium meyenii) is the only crop capable of offering farmers secure yields. Research
shows that maca grown in virgin soils or fallowed between 5–8 years, exhibited signifi-
cantly higher yields (11.8 and 14.6 t ha1respectively) than maca grown after bitter potatoes
(11.3t ha1). NGOs now are advising farmers to grow maca in virgin or fallow soils in a
rotative pattern, to use areas not suitable for other crops and taking advantage of the local
labor and low costs of the maca-based system (UNDP, 1995; Altieri, 1996).
TABLE IV. First year per hectare yields of crops on new bench
terraces, compared to yields on sloping fields (kg ha1)
CropaTerracedbNon-terracedcPercent increase Nd
Potatoes 17206 12206 43 71
Maize 2982 1807 65 18
Barley 1910 1333 43 56
Barley 23000 25865 45 159
(forage)
aAll crops treated with chemical fertilizers.
bWater absorption terraces with earthen walls and inward platform slope.
cFields sloping between 20% and 50% located next to terraced fields for
control.
dN=number of terrace/field sites.
Source: Treacey (1984).
208 m.a. altieri
8. Organic farming in the Andes
Inthe Bolivian highlands, averagepotato production is falling despite a15%annual increase
inthe use ofchemical fertilizers. Due toincreases in thecost of fertilizer,potato farmersmust
produce more than double the amount of potatoes compared with previous years to buy the
same quality of imported fertilizer (Augustburger, 1983). Members of the former Proyecto
de Agrobiologia de Cochabamba, now called AGRUCO, are attempting to reverse this trend
byhelpingpeasantsrecovertheir production autonomy.In experiments conducted in neutral
soils, higher yields were obtained with manure than with chemical fertilizers. In Bolivia,
organicmanures aredeficient in phosphorous.Therefore, AGRUCOrecommendsphosphate
rock and bone meal, both of which can be obtained locally and inexpensively, to increase the
phosphorous content of organic manures. To further replace the use of fertilizers and meet
thenitrogenrequirementsofpotatoes and cereals, intercropping and rotational systems have
been designed that use the native species Lupinus mutabilis. Experiments have revealed that
L.mutabilis can fix200 kg N ha1year1,whichbecomes partly availabletothe associated or
subsequentpotato crop, thus significantly minimizing the need for fertilizers (Augustburger,
1983).Intercroppedpotato/lupineoveryieldedcorresponding potato monocultures, and also
substantially reduced the incidence of virus diseases.
Other studies in Bolivia, where Lupine has been used as a rotational crop, show that,
although yields are greater in chemically fertilized and machinery-prepared potato fields,
energy costs are higher and net economic benefits lower than with the agroecological sys-
tem (Table V). Surveys indicate that farmers prefer this alternative system because it opti-
mizes the use of scarce resources, labor and available capital, and is available to even poor
producers.
In the Interandean valleys of Cajamarca, near San Marcos traditional farming systems
have been drastically modified through elements of conventional farming and urban influ-
ences, creating a market-oriented monoculture agriculture which favors cash crops rather
than Andean crops. Centro IDEAS, an agricultural NGO, has implemented an organic agri-
culture proposal in order to revert the above process, supporting a more appropriate rural
TABLE V. Performance of traditional, modern, and agroecological potato-based production
systems in Bolivia
Traditional low-input Modern high-input Agroecological system
Potato yields 9.2 17.6 11.4
(metric tons/ha)
Chemical fertilizer 0.0 80 +120 0.0
(N +P2O5,kgha
1)
Lupine biomass 0.0 0.0 1.5
(metric t ha1)
Energy efficiency-fossil 15.7 4.8 30.5
and renewable
(output/input)
Net income per 6.2 9.4 9.9
invested Boliviano
Source: Rist (1992).
peasant farming systems in latin america 209
development strategy that rescues elements of the local traditional agriculture and ensuring
food self-sufficiency as well as the preservation of natural resources (Chavez et al., 1989).
The basic aspects of the proposal are:
Rational use of local resources, conservation of natural resources, and intensive use of
human and animal labor.
High diversity of native (Andean) and exotic crops, herbs, shrubs, trees, and animals
grown in polycultural and rotational patterns.
Creation of favorable microclimates through the use of shelterbelts, and living fences and
reforestation with native and exotic fruit and trees.
Recycling of organic residues and optimal management of small animals.
This proposal was implemented in a 1.9ha model farm inserted in an area with similar
conditions facing the average campesino of the region. The farm was divided into 9 plots,
each following a particular rotational design (Table VI). After 3 years of operation, field
results showed the following trends:
Organic matter content increased from low to medium and high levels, and N levels
increased slightly. Addition of natural fertilizers were necessary to maintain optimum
levels of organic matter and nitrogen.
Phosphorous and potassium increased in all plots.
Crop yields varied among plots, however in plots with good soils, (plot 1) high yields of
corn and wheat were obtained.
Polycultures overyielded monocultures in all instances.
To farm 1 ha of the model farm it was necessary to use 100 man-hours, 15 oxen-hours,
and about 100kg of seeds.
These preliminary results indicate that the proposed farm design enhances the diversity
of food crops available to the family, increases income through higher productivity, and
maintains the ecological integrity of the natural resource base.
Sincethen, this model experience extended to 12farmerswho have undergoneconversion
to agroecological management in the Peruvian Sierra and Coast. A recent evaluation of the
TABLE VI. Model farm rotational design
Plot Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
1 Maize, beans, quinoa, Wheat Barley
kiwicha, squash,
and chiclayo
2 Barley Lupinus and lentils Linaza
3 Wheat Favas and oats Maize, beans,
quinoa, kiwicha
4 Rye Wheat Lentils
5 Lupinus Maize, beans, quinoa, Wheat
kiwicha, squash,
and chiclayo
6 Fallow Linaza Barley and Lentils
Source: Chavez et al., 1989.
210 m.a. altieri
experiencesshowedthat after a2–5 year conversionprocess,income increased progressively
due to a 20% increase in productivity (Alvarado de la Fuente and Wiener Fresco, 1998).
Of the 33 different organic technologies offered by the IDEAS, the 12 case study farmers
favored: organic fertilization (11 cases), intercropping (10 cases), animal integration (10
cases), and agroforestry systems (8 cases).
9. Agroecological approaches in Brazil
The state government extension and research service, EPAGRI (Empresa de Pesquisa
Agropecuaria e Difusao de Technologia de Santa Catarina), works with farmers in the
southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. The technological focus is on soil and water
conservation at the micro-watershed level using contour grass barriers, contour ploughing
and green manures. Some 60 cover crop species have been tested with farmers, including
both leguminous plants such as velvetbean, jackbean, lablab, cowpeas, many vetches and
crotalarias, and non-legumes such as oats and turnips. For farmers these involved no cash
costs, except for the purchase of seed. These are intercropped or planted during fallow peri-
ods, and are used in cropping systems with maize, onions, cassava, wheat, grapes, tomatoes,
soybeans, tobacco, and orchards (Monegat, 199l).
The major on-farm impacts of the project have been on crop yields, soil quality and
moisture retention, and labor demand. Maize yields have risen since 1987 from 3 to 5t ha1
and soybeans from 2.8 to 4.7t ha1. Soils are darker in color, moist and biologically active.
The reduced need for most weeding and ploughing has meant significant labor savings
for small farmers. From this work, it has become clear that maintaining soil cover is more
importantinpreventingerosion than terraces or conservation barriers. It is also considerably
cheaper for farmers to sustain. EPAGRI has reached some 38000 farmers in 60 micro-
watersheds since 1991 (Guijt, 1998). They have helped more than 11000 farmers develop
farm plans and supplied 4300t of green manure seed.
In the savannahs of the Brazilian Cerrados where soybean monoculture dominates many
problems associated with inappropriate land development have become evident. A key to
production stability in the Cerrados is soil conservation and soil fertility replenishment as
maintenanceand increase of soil organiccontent is of paramountimportance. For this reason
NGOs and government researchers have concentrated efforts on the design of appropriate
crop rotation and minimum tillage systems. The adoption of maize–soybean rotations have
increased yields, slowed soil erosion and decreased pest and disease problems that affected
soybean monocrops. Better weed control as well as soil organic maintenance has also been
observed in such rotational systems (Spehar and Souza, 1996).
Another promoted alternative technique has been the use of green manures such as Cro-
talaria juncea and Stizolobium atterrimum. Researchers have shown grain crops following
green manure yielded up to 46% more than monocultures during normal rainy seasons .
Although the most common way of using green manures is to plant a legume after the main
crop has been harvested, green manures can be intercropped with long cycle crops. In the
case of maize – green manure intercrop, best performance is observed when S. atterrimum
is sown 30 days after the maize. Maize can also be intercropped with perennial pasture
peasant farming systems in latin america 211
legumes such as Zornia sp. and Stylosanthes spp., a system of double purpose: produces
food and fodder (Spehar and Souza, 1996).
In the hot and dry climate of Ceara, farmers combine production of sheep, goats, maize
andbeans,but productivity is lowandenvironmental degradation is increasing. In the period
between 1986 and 1991, ESPLAR, a local NGO engaged in a broad development program,
involving the whole state of Ceara, through a massive training program in agroecology for
village leaders. The training spearheaded a series of village-level activities reaching about
600 farmers which resulted in (VonderWeid, 1994):
1. The return of arboreal cotton cultivation in mixed cropping with leucaena, algarrobo
(Prosopis juliflora) and sabia (Mimosa caesalpiniaefdia). A shorter cycle variety was
introduced, which together with integrated control of the boll weevil, made it possible
to restore cotton fields.
2. The use of small dams for irrigated vegetable production.
3. Enriching the capoeiras (areas with secondary vegetation regrowth) with selected plant
species made it possible to support 50% more goats per land unit.
4. Introduction of herbaceous legumes for fodder (especially cunha [Bradburya sagittata]),
in crop mixtures or rotated with maize and beans.
5. Planting along contour lines to reduce runoff.
Ina similar semi-arid environment,as part ofits research for alternativesto slash andburn,
the Center for Alternative Technologies of Ouricouri developed a three year experiment to
demonstrate the viability of land clearing without burning. The strategy had four compo-
nents: the rationalized use of labor; the use of crops that compete with natural vegetation
regrowth; efficient soil protection; and the harvesting and retention of rainwater. The work
reaches at least 500 farmers in 30 communities (Guijt, 1998). The no-burning alternative
involved cutting and clearing bush and tree vegetation, sowing crops more densely, and
using cattle and horse manure. The first-year results indicated that reasonable production
was possible and that tree and bush regrowth can be controlled. One negative aspect, how-
ever was the need to use over one-sixth of the available area for the storage of trunks and
branches. In the second year bean output increased by over 100% relative to the histori-
cal average, though the low productivity of maize raised doubts as to its suitability under
semi-arid agroecological conditions. Sorghum exhibited a better performance.
The accumulation of plant material by the third year was enough to use as mulch. Unfor-
tunately, the initial rains were followed by prolonged drought, and bean output fell sharply
becauseof fungaldisease. Nevertheless,themaize yield (552kg ha1) wasabovethe regional
average of 500kg ha1(Vonder Weid, 1994).
10. Integrated production systems
A number of NGOs promote the integrated use of a variety of management technologies
and practices. The emphasis is on diversified farms in which each component of the farming
system biologically reinforces the other components; for instance, where wastes from one
component become inputs to another. Since 1980, CET, a Chilean NGO has engaged in a
212 m.a. altieri
ruraldevelopmentprogram aimed at helping peasants reach year-roundfoodselfsufficiency
while rebuilding the productive capacity of their small land holdings (Altieri, 1995). The
approach has been to set up several 0.5ha model farms, which consist of a spatial and
temporal rotational sequence of forage and row crops, vegetables, forest and fruit trees, and
animals. Components are chosen according to crop or animal nutritional contributions to
subsequent rotational steps, their adaptation to local agroclimatic conditions, local peasant
consumptionpatternsandfinally,marketopportunities. Mostvegetablesare grownin heavily
composted raised beds located in the garden section, each of which can yield up to 83kg
of fresh vegetables per month, a considerable improvement to the 20–30kg produced in
spontaneous gardens tended around households. The rest of the 200-square meter area
surrounding the house is used as an orchard, and for animals (cows, hens, rabbits, and
langstroth behives).
Vegetables,cereals,legumes andforage plants areproduced ina six-year rotationalsystem
within a small area adjacent to the garden. Relatively constant production is achieved (about
6t year1of useful biomass from 13 different crop species) bydividingthe land into as many
small fields of fairly equal productive capacity as there are years in the rotation. The rotation
is designed to produce the maximum variety of basic crops in 6 plots, taking advantage of
the soil-restoring properties and biological control features of the rotation.
Over the years, soil fertility in the original demonstration farm has improved, and no
serious pest or disease problems have appeared. Fruit trees in the orchard and fencerows,
as well as forage crops are highly productive. Milk and egg production far exceeds that
on conventional farms. A nutritional analysis of the system based on its key components
showsthat for a typical family it produces a 250% surplus of protein, 80% and 550% surplus
of vitamin A and C, respectively, and a 330% surplus of calcium. A household economic
analysis indicates that, the balance between selling surpluses and buying preferred items
provides a net income beyond consumption of US $790. If all of the farm output were sold
at whole sale prices, the family could generate a monthly net income 1.5 times greater than
the monthly legal minimum wage in Chile, while dedicating only a relatively few hours per
week to the farm. The time freed up is used by farmers for other on-farm or off-farm income
generating activities.
In Cuba, the Asociacion Cubana de Agricultura Organica (ACAO), a NGO formed by
scientists,farmers,and extension personnel, has played a pioneering role in promoting alter-
native production modules (Rosset, 1997). In 1995, ACAO helped establish three integrated
farming systems called ‘agroecological lighthouses’ in cooperatives (CPAs) in the province
of Havana. After the first 6 months, all 3 CPAs had incorporated agroecological innovations
(i.e. tree integration, planned crop rotation, polycultures, green manures, etc.) to varying
degrees, which, with time, have led to enhancement of production and biodiversity, and
improvement in soil quality, especially organic matter content. Several polycultures such
as cassava–beans–maize, cassava–tomato–maize, and sweet potato–maize were tested in
the CPAs. Productivity evaluation of these polycultures indicates 2.82, 2.17 and 1.45 times
greater productivity than monocultures, respectively (Table VII).
The use of Crotalaria juncea and Vigna unguiculata as green manure have ensured a
production of squash equivalent to that obtainable applying 175kg ha1of urea. In addi-
tion, such legumes improved the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil and
peasant farming systems in latin america 213
TABLE VII. Performance of designed polycultures in two Cuban cooperatives
Polyculture Yield (tha1) LER Lighthouse
Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Cassava–beans–maize 15.6 1.34 2.5 2.82 ‘28 de Septiembre’
Cassava–tomato–maize 11.9 21.2 3.7 2.17 ‘Gilberto Leon’
Cassava–maize 13.3 3.39 1.79 ‘Gilberto Leon’
Beans–maize–cabbage 0.77 3.6 2.0 1.77 ‘28 de Septiembre’
Sweet potato–maize 12.6 2.0 1.45 ‘Gilberto Leon’
Sorghum–squash 0.7 5.3 1.01 ‘28 de Spetiembre’
Source: SANE (1998) (LER= land equivalent ratio).
TABLE VIII. Productive and efficiency performance of the 75%
animal/25% crop integrated module in Cuba
Productive parameters 1st year 3rd year
Area (ha) 1 1
Total production (tha1) 4.4 5.1
Energy produced (Mcalha1) 3797 4885
Protein produced (Kg ha1) 168 171
Number of people fed by one ha. 4 4.8
Inputs (energy expenditures, Mcal)
Human labor 569 359
Animal work 16.8 18.8
Tractor energy 277.3 138.6
Source: SANE (1998).
effectively broke the life cycles of insect pests such as the sweet potato weevil (SANE,
1998).
At the Cuban Instituto de Investigacion de Pastos, several agroecological modules with
various proportions of the farm area devoted to agriculture and animal production were
established. Monitoring of production and efficiencies of a 75% pasture/25% crop module,
revealsthat total productionincreases over time, andthatenergy and labor inputs decreaseas
thebiological structuring of the system begins to sponsor the productivityof the agroecosys-
tem. Total biomass production increased from 4.4 to 5.1 tha1after 3 years of integrated
management. Energy inputs decreased, which resulted in enhanced energy efficiency from
(4.4–9.5) (Table VIII). Human labor demands for management also decreased over time
from 13h of human labor/day to 4–5 h. Such models have been promoted, extensively in
other areas through field days and farmers cross visits (SANE, 1998).
11. Conclusions
Most research conducted on traditional and peasant agriculture in Latin America suggests
that small holder systems are sustainably productive, biologically regenerative, and energy-
efficient, and also tend to be equity enhancing, participative, and socially just. In general,
traditionalagriculturalistshave met the environmentalrequirements of their food-producing
214 m.a. altieri
systems by relying on local resources plus human and animal energy, thereby using low
levels of input technology.
While it may be argued that peasant agriculture generally lacks the potential of produc-
ing meaningful marketable surplus, it does ensure food security. Many scientists wrongly
believe that traditional systems do not produce more because hand tools and draft animals
put a ceiling on productivity. Productivity may be low but the causes appear to be more
social, not technical. When the subsistence farmer succeeds in providing food, there is no
pressure to innovate or to enhance yields. Nevertheless, agroecological field projects show
that traditional crop and animal combinations can often be adapted to increase productiv-
ity when the biological structuring of the farm is improved and labor and local resources
are efficiently used (see Table IX; Altieri, 1995). In fact, most agroecological technologies
TABLE IX. Extent and impacts of agroecological technologies and practices implemented by NGOs in
peasant farming throughout Latin America
Country Organization Agroecological No. of farmers No. of Dominant Yield inc
involved intervention or farming hectares crops
units affected affected
Brazil EPAGRI Green manures 38 000 families 1 330000 Maize, 198–246%
AS-PTA cover crops wheat
Guatemala Altertec Soil conservation, 17000 units 17 000 Maize 250%
and others green manures,
organic farming
Honduras CIDDICO Soil conservation, 27000 units 42 000 Maize 250%
COSECHA green manures
EL Salvador COAGRES Rotations, >200 farmers nd Cereals 40–60%
green manures,
compost, botanical
pesticides
Mexico Oaxacan Compost, terracing, 3000 families 23 500 Coffee 140%
Cooperatives contour planting
Peru PRAVTIR Rehabilitation of >1250 families >1000 Andean 141–165%
CIED ancient terraces Crops
PIWA-CIED Raised fields nd 250 Andean 333%
crops
CIED Watershed >100 families N/A Andean 30–50%
agricultural Crops
rehabilitation
IDEAS Intercropping, 12 families 25 Several 20%
agroforestry, Crops
composting
Dominican Plan Sierra Soil conservation, >2500 families >1000 Several 50–70%
Republic Swedforest- dry forest management Crops
Fudeco silvopastoral systems
Chile CET Integrated farms, >1000 families >2250 Several >50%
organic farming Crops
Cuba ACAO Integrated farms 4 cooperatives 250 Several 50–70%
Crops
nd =no data.
Source: Browder (1989), Altieri (1995), Pretty (1997).
peasant farming systems in latin america 215
TABLE X. Coefficient of variability of yields registered in different cropping
systems during 3 years in Costa Rica
Cropping system Monoculture (mean of sole crops) Polyculture
Cassava/bean 33.04 27.54
Cassava/maize 28.76 18.09
Cassava/sweet potato 23.87 13.42
Cassava/maize/sweet potato 31.05 21.44
Cassava/maize/bean 25.04 14.95
Source: Francis (1986).
promoted by NGOs can improve traditional agricultural yields increasing output per area of
marginal land from 400–600 to 2000–2500kg ha1enhancing also the general agrodiver-
sity and its associated positive effects on food security and environmental integrity. Some
projectsemphasizing green manures and other organicmanagementtechniques can increase
maize yields from 1–1.5 tha1(a typical highland peasant yield) to 3–4 tha1. Polycultures
produce more combined yield in a given area than could be obtained from monocultures of
the component species. Most traditional or NGO promoted polycultures exhibit LER values
greater than 1.5. Moreover, yield variability of cereal/legume polycultures are much lower
than for monocultures of the components (Table X).
In general, data shows that over time agroecological systems exhibit more stable levels of
totalproduction per unit area than high-input systems; produce economically favorablerates
of return; provide a return to labor and other inputs sufficient for a livelihood acceptable
to small farmers and their families; and ensure soil protection and conservation as well as
enhance biodiversity.
For a region like Latin America which is considered to be 52.2% self-reliant on major
food crops as it produces enough food to satisfy the needs of its population, agroecological
approachesthatcan double yields of the existing 16 million peasant units can safely increase
the output of peasant agriculture for domestic consumption to acceptable levels well into
the future. To address hunger and malnutrition, however, it is not only necessary to produce
more food, but this must be available for those who need it most. Land redistribution is also
a key prerequisite in order for peasants to have access to acceptable land and thus perform
their role in regional self-reliance.
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