Carlos Henríquez can talk about fertilizer for hours. He knows what mix of ingredients will help certain crops grow better, the right “recipe” for creating well-balanced compost and fertilizers, the best ways to keep moisture in the soil even in dry spells.
And when Carlos explained the elements of creating fertilizer during a learning exchange in Chiapas, Mexico earlier this month, farmers from around the world were taking notes, asking questions and sharing their own recipes.
This exchange of knowledge is not just about increasing crop production in farms around the world, though it certainly is that. Even more, though, this kind of farmer-to-farmer education adds the key ingredient to successful agroecology: the knowledge of the farmer.
Carlos had to be convinced that the agro-toxins that he and other farmers in his community in Santa Gertrudis had used were not only harmful but also not as productive as natural fertilizers. When members of UNOSJO (the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca) first reached out to him, he was unconvinced.
“UNOSJO told us … we did not have to rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I was hesitant, thinking that buying fertilizers were a faster way to get results. I was hesitant for two years, until 2004 when I was motivated to make the organic fertilizer. In 2005, for the first time, I used the fertilizer [in a small plot of land].”
Slowly, and after careful experimentation with natural fertilizers, Carlos saw results. And also he began to also use organic pesticides, experimenting with chile and garlic to create effective sprays. Once his bean fields strengthened and he reaped a big harvest with these methods, other farmers started to pay attention, too. “I learned experimenting and now I have confidence in the effectiveness of organic fertilizers,” Carlos said. “That’s how I started to abandon the chemicals. [Now] I see the results in my harvest.”
Carlos, like other agroecological farmers, works with a whole-systems approach. “Thank God we work in the countryside and have animals to provide us with dung to prepare organic fertilizer. We save money and we are convinced that we don’t have to spend money on something that we can make ourselves.”
Once convinced, Carlos expanded the use of his new-found agroecological knowledge into new fields, and began to reach out to others in his community. Five other farmers joined him, trading in their chemicals for more sustainable – and productive – methods of agroecology.
While industrial agriculture applies a one-seed-fits-all mentality (along with accompanying chemical pesticides and fertilizers), agroecology relies on detailed information combined with sustainable practices. To reach its potential, the various practices of saving and planting seeds, creating nutrient-rich soil and natural pesticides and fertilizers must be farmer-tested.
Farmers from Honduras, Guatemala, and Brazil joined Carlos at the agroecology learning exchange. Each shared their insights, and explored practical nuances from including micro-organisms in the soil to building cisterns to saving biodiverse seeds appropriate for different weather patterns. They were proud of their own knowledge and eager to share it, as well as to learn from others what works.
The exchange included two parts, the first of which was organized by Grassroots International’s partner, UNOSJO. The second part was led by another Mexican community-based organization, Desmi (Desarrollo Económico y Social de los Mexicanos Indígenas), with farmers from El Salvador and Panama joining the first group. Funding for the exchange was provided jointly by Grassroots and our ally foundation, IDEX (International Development Exchange) and included grantees from both organizations.
As another participant, Jessica Da Silva Britto of Brazil’s Popular Peasant Movement (MCP), explains, “Agroecology is a tool of social change that integrates women and men as a part of a whole, and returns to us the dignity of being a peasant.”
Learning exchanges like this one help expand knowledge among small farmers help provide practical – and powerful – connections for creating a more just and sustainable world, one productive field at a time.