In some communities, the adoption of conventional agriculture has substituted traditional cultivation systems with high biodiversity for monocrops of genetically similar individuals. In a relatively short period of time, such systems have led to environmental degradation, social disintegration and misery within communities. However, many traditional agricultural systems that have been the basis of food security and community cultures have since been saved through organic agriculture approaches.
The introduction of organic management, based on traditional experiences and new knowledge of natural processes, has allowed the maintenance of the agro-ecological systems and has improved socio-economic conditions of rural communities, especially in environmentally vulnerable areas. These agricultural systems are also based on strong farmer participation in the decision-making process, exchange of information and distribution of benefits.
The examples below illustrate the community-based rehabilitation of abandoned and degraded agro-ecosystems, through organic agriculture, in flood plains of Bangladesh and mountainous areas of Indonesia and Mexico. The polycultures systems established by these communities (like many others around the world) are characterized by highly diversified ecosystems and an improved agricultural biodiversity. The good markets associated with organic products has not only provided food but has also generated further community services.
In the flood plains of Bangladesh, community-based organic agriculture resulted from an increasing awareness to the harmful effects of the Green Revolution. The latter was showing a tremendous decline in crop yields despite an enormous increase in the need for the application of fertilizers and pesticides. Groundwater was less available, livestock and fish populations were diminishing, the health situation was worsening (including gastric, skin and respiratory diseases) and exogenous varieties were gradually replacing traditional varieties. This forced many poor farmers to sell their land and other productive assets, shifting from farming to non-farming occupations.
Following particularly terrible floods in 1988, some farmers, together with UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives), a non-governmental organization, gathered together to seek an alternative - not just an alternative method of farming, but community-based work, which is organic in nature. They named it Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agriculture Movement). The rationale for such a name was to indicate that this method is not "old" in a backward sense; but is a newer method, incorporating traditional knowledge and wisdom and appropriating newer ideas and "scientific" innovations that are suitable for farmers and the environment.
Initially, the peasant women took the lead in stopping the use of pesticides, mainly for health reasons. Then, a group of farmers organized themselves to experiment with green manure and compost. Compost made of water hyacinth, available in plenty, became quite popular and soon Nayakrishi Andolon spread from village to village. As experience and confidence grew, the farmers developed a set of ten simple principles for Nayakrishi farming, all focusing on the use of locally available resources to enhance the efficiency of land, water, biodiversity and energy as well as the control over seed within the farming community.
In addition to chemical-free agricultural practices, the production of biodiversity is built-in within the Nayakrishi method of food production. As a fundamental principle of agricultural practice, Nayakrishi farmers reject monoculture and base their practices on mixed cropping and crop rotation. It has an immediate effect in overcoming the present narrow genetic base, but is also a highly effective method for pest management and the nutritional health of the soil.
In Nayakrishi villages, farmers derive more varieties of fish, together with a wide range of uncultivated crops, which either come as accompanying crops due to multiple cropping in the fields, or grow on the common land as no more herbicides are used. Livestock and poultry also develop more rapidly, thereby enriching the food security of the people. Similarly, the planting of local-variety trees is an integral part of the practice in Nayakrishi villages, which, in turn, attracts birds, butterflies and other pollinators and predators.
The local species, varieties and breeds are always preferred to those that are introduced. The strategy of Nayakrishi Andolon for the maintenance and regeneration of biodiversity and genetic resources is based on some simple rules and obligations between members. The strategic importance is in the conservation and regeneration of species and the genetic variability of the cultivated crops and homestead forestry. However, there are a large number of species and varieties that are not cultivated. The conservation and regeneration of biodiversity for these species and varieties are mainly maintained by the overall organization of Nayakrishi Andolon.
Every village where Nayakrishi is actively adopted has its own gram karmi (extension workers). Apart from networking and campaigning for Nayakrishi, gram karmi maintain audits of the natural resources of the village. This information is pooled collectively and is a vital practice in maintaining and managing the local biodiversity. The Nayakrishi farmers can easily be put on alert if it appears that any "land race" or "wild" species or variety is disappearing or being lost.
Around 65 000 families from all over Bangladesh now follow Nayakrishi principles and the movement is spreading fast. Most important is the general confidence among farmers that Nayakrishi is "economically viable", but the ecological situation is also improving, the land is regaining fertility and biodiversity is being strengthened.
On the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, ruthless exploitation by forestry, fishing and extractive industries in the last decades has decreased the rich biodiversity of the region. Despite this, some areas still survive in a state close to that of pre-European colonisation, mainly because of their mountainous, remote locations. Some of these areas form part of national parks that still support the rare Sumatra tiger, rhinoceros and elephant, as well as some native people following traditional lifestyles in the forest.
Many poor farmers live around these areas and use slash-and-burn techniques for the production of crops for self-sufficiency and for the market. These practices threaten the remaining forest areas and even the national parks on whose boundaries they encroach.
Thomas Fricke, a former advisor to the United Nations, World Wildlife Fund and Indonesian national parks on sustainable agriculture projects, aimed to find a solution to that problem. In 1995, he and his wife Sylvia Blanchet founded ForesTrade, an international company dedicated to preserving biodiversity through responsible trade.
In 1996 ForesTrade, in collaboration with local NGOs and the National Parks of Indonesia began the Indonesian Cassia Cinnamon Project, encouraging local farmers to stop clear-cutting the rainforest. The project focused on land bordering a national forest park, providing a buffer zone for the protection of biodiversity in the rapidly disappearing forested areas.
Some of the local people joined forces with ForesTrade, creating grower groups for the production of organic spices for the European and the United States markets. Good prices, generally a little better than could be expected from the conventional market, are paid to the farmers, together with a bonus to the local community. The community bonus is used to run training centres, nurseries and other community services.
These farmers agree to follow organic agriculture practices, avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They rely instead on composting, crop rotation and biological pest and disease control. Organic growers are not permitted to use fire for clearing their plots. All slashing and weed control is done by hand, using simple tools such as axes, hatchets, machetes or knives. Slashed matter is then reduced to mulch. Farmers also agree not to poach rainforest resources, where some farmers previously clear-cut slopes to plant crops, spoiling the environment and causing widespread erosion.
Crops are produced in a modified, traditional "home garden" or "shifting cultivation" situation. Each grower operates one or more traditional garden (or Ladang) in which a variety of annual plants (such as potato, aubergine and onion), short-lived plants (such as cassava, banana and yam) and longer-lived plants (such as cloves and cinnamon) are produced. As the Ladang matures, the longer-lived trees dominate shading under-storey crops. These trees can be either selectively felled (e.g. cinnamon) or left to produce during their mature phase (e.g. cloves and coconuts) before the cycle is started again.
Certified-organic growers in Sumatra produce a variety of spices and essential oil crops, such as chilli, turmeric, ginger, vanilla, cloves, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg (and mace), black and white pepper, patchouli and cassia (cinnamon). They are inspected and certified by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (Australia), by the Dutch certification body SKAL or by Oregon Tilth.
In a short time approximately, 3 000 Sumatran farmers have begun producing organic spices for the world markets. This has led to improved socio-economic conditions for communities while at the same time preserving biodiversity both in the national parks and in the local agroforestry systems (garden/forest plots).
At the end of 1980s, small coffee producers (most of them Tzotzil and Tzeltal indigenous people) in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the highlands of Chiapas, southern Mexico, faced a deep economical crisis due to the fall in coffee prices on the world market. Together with the disappearance of direct support for coffee growers in terms of technical assistance, marketing and financial support, this resulted in the abandonment of practices for maintaining the crop and processing the beans, leading to lower yields and product quality.
Many of these farmers have organized themselves in 1983 into the Beneficio "Majomut" Coffee Growers' Union of Ejidos and Communities, a grassroots social organization with 1 450 members in 25 communities. The organization was created as a means to bring together farmers in the processing and direct marketing of their coffee. Members work an average of two hectares and cultivate corn, beans and coffee. As coffee is sold, it forms the main source of family income. Gradually, work has expanded to include the entire productive process and it has become a means for organizing, managing and carrying out integral development projects for the communities.
To fight the declining price crisis, farmers were compelled to find alternatives to conventional coffee production and marketing, so they decided on organic coffee production. The conversion to organic agriculture began in 1992, and by 1995 the first organic certificate was granted. The introduction of organic techniques has been carried out through the training of community promoters who create experimental organic lots in each community as a base for the learning process and research.
Activities are based on the exchange of experiences through a farmer-to-farmer approach including: development and evaluation of agro-ecological practices, participatory research through farmer experimentation, and training of community promoters and community participation. The agents participating in the process include: communities associated with farmers organizations, the network of promoters, the coordinating network of small coffee growers' organizations and international cooperation agencies. The Majomut Union is also promoting work with women to strengthen participation in the organization's internal democracy.
Farmers' extension covers the following themes: soil conservation; production of organic fertilizers; coffee pruning; management of the diversity of animal and plant species; natural control of pests and diseases; organic production of crops for self-sufficiency in maize, beans and other food species; and internal control for supervision of the organic certification of the coffee and quality control of the product.
The management of biodiversity within the coffee production systems and other cultivations constitutes an example of a rich local germplasm and of knowledge applied in the design of the stratification of the vegetation. This is knowledge transmitted from generation to generation resulting from a continuous process of adaptation.
In 1995, a census was carried out on the species found in the organic coffee production systems of La Unión. The study demonstrated that besides coffee, there were more than thirty associated plant species of agronomic interest: fruit trees (loquat, mango, lime, guava, peach and orange), shade trees (eucalyptus, ash and pine), horticultural crops (tomato, chilli and beans), as well as medicinal plants and others used for the prevention of erosion. The benefits generated by the higher organic coffee prices were therefore accompanied by an improvement in the biodiversity of the coffee production system.
4 Sources: UNDP, 2000. The Nayakrishi Andolon: A Community-Based System of Organic Farming - Innovative Experiences;
Farhad Mazhar et al, 2001. Nayakrishi Andolon: Recreating Community Based Organic Farming. Low-External Input Sustainable Agriculture;
Mark Lynas, 2001. A Message from Bangladesh: Recipes Against Hunger. Greenpeace International.
5 Sources: Tim Marshall, 2000. The Spice of Organic. The Organic Gardener;
Tim Marshall, 2000. Responsible Approach to Spice Production. Acres Australia, The National Newspaper of Sustainable Agriculture.
6 Source: Walter Anzueto Anzueto and Alberto Ortiz Gutiérrez, 2001. Organic coffee production and its contribution to natural resource management and conservation. Growing Diversity.