FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean

Ingenious ways to cope with natural disasters: plant trees and harvest rain

Rainwater harvesting in Jamaica and planting trees to protect Bolivia's cattle or Haitian peas are three of the practices described by a new FAO study.

May 24, 2019, Santiago de Chile - Small changes with great results: a new study by the

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) analyzes good practices to face natural disasters in Bolivia, Colombia, Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, and seven other countries in the world.

Harvest of rain in Jamaica, trees as barriers to the hurricanes of Haiti and the use of improved pens to protect alpacas from the cold of the Bolivian altiplano, are some of the practices included in the book

Disaster risk reduction at farm level: Multiple benefits, no regrets.

The study analyzed more than 900 farms in 10 countries around the world and showed that - on average - improved practices generated 2.2 times more benefits than previously used practices, including increases in production and a reduction in damages and losses due to disasters.These solutions do not require substantial investments, making them available to small-scale farmers. 

“The study not only demonstrates that prevention is profitable, but also highlights the important role that small-scale interventions at the farm level can play to increase the resilience of livelihoods and promote sustainable development,” explained Anna Ricoy , Coordinator of Disaster Risk Management of FAO.

Bolivia: trees for livestock

El Chaco, in southeastern Bolivia, is an area of ​​arid plains where cattle must face freezing winds, sudden floods and prolonged droughts which used to cause the death of many animals. The solution? Trees.

With the support of FAO, farmers from El Chaco planted trees on their lands. These not only provided fodder for the cattle, but they became a natural protection against the elements, fertilizing the land with their leaves and improving the health of the soil with their roots.

These silvopastoral systems produced an increase of 109% in the net benefit of the farms that implemented them, in comparison to those that maintained their previous techniques. They also allowed carbon capture and ensured greater growth of the grasses that the farmer’s livestock live on.

Jamaica: harvesting the rain

The south of St. Elizabeth is a highly productive agricultural municipality of Jamaica that suffers dry seasons, prolonged droughts and high temperatures during the summer.

Most of the farmers in St. Elizabeth buy irrigation water, but its availability is scarce during the drought. The solution studied by FAO was the introduction of a rainwater harvesting system.

The system consisted of catchment basins located in the roofs, a thousand gallon plastic storage tank and a gravity-drip irrigation system.

This practice strengthened the resilience of farmers against drought, allowing them to produce crops during the dry season, prolong the cycle of each harvest and generate additional income. That simple change produced a 131% increase in the net value of tomato production, and a 29% increase in sweet pepper production.

Haiti: peas in a hurricane

Peas are one of the most important subsistence crops in the communes of Bainet and Grand Goave, in Haiti, since they have two growth seasons per year. But these small vegetables and the farmers who grow them must face a significant threat: hurricanes.

One way to mitigate their impact on crops is to plant live barriers: hedges, trees and a variety of very tall grasses (elephant grass), which provide natural protection and stabilize soils.

On some farms, farmers combined these "living barriers" with conservation agriculture and agroforestry techniques to improve soil quality, reduce water loss through evapotranspiration and runoff, and improve water infiltration.

The combination of these techniques allowed farmers to increase the net value of their production by 110% for years without natural disasters, but they also had minor, yet still significant, during hurricane years: on the farms affected by Hurricane Matthew (2016), the net benefits of pea cultivation were 52% higher than those plots that maintained previously used practices.

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