By Melanie Mason and Mirjam Pulleman | Apr 20, 2017

Farmers in the Dry Corridor of Central America are using the Quesungual agroforestry system to maintain or increase their maize and bean yields, while improving ecosystem services and resilience. This system focuses on the restoration of plots on hillsides, based on farmer-managed regeneration of native trees. Farmer-to-farmer information sharing is a key factor for out-scaling the system within communities and across countries. A new study in Nicaragua has provided important insights in factors affecting adoption of the system by smallholders at the community level.

In Central America, in particular in the semi-humid Dry Corridor, land degradation and climate risks are threatening food security and farm incomes. Quesungual Agroforestry represents an opportunity for land restoration and reduced vulnerability that will benefit struggling farmers in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, as previous research led by CIAT has shown.

The Quesungual slash and mulch agroforestry system (QSMAS) is a simple and inexpensive management system that

Figure 2. The description and the production cycles that characterize the Quesungual slash and mulch agroforestry system (QSMAS), in comparison to the traditional Slash and Burn (SB) system. Source: Castro et al. (2009).
reduces deforestation while maintaining or improving crop yields and sustainably adapting to the effects of climate change (Figure 2). Quesungual has been promoted, adapted and investigated by CIAT and partners in conjunction with farmers in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua since the 1990s. As this system spreads across the Dry Corridor of Central America, studies are needed to identify macro and micro adoption trends. Melanie Mason, a former MSc student at the University of Copenhagen, is the author of a recent study that assessed adoption rates, as well as the variables that affect small-scale agriculturists’ decision to adopt QSMAS.
From left to right: Evelyn Pineda, Melisa Pineda, Melanie Mason, and Teodomita Pineda. La Danta, Nicaragua
Her analysis was based on a case study, conducted in the agricultural community of La Danta, home to 158 households in northwestern Nicaragua, and one of the communities where CIAT has provided technical support to Quesungual farmers. In 2005, six farmers from La Danta travelled to Honduras, where they learned about the agroforestry system from fellow farmers. In 2008, CIAT and interested farmers established research- and demonstration plots in the community to measure impacts on crop productivity and ecosystem services.

While CIAT-supported field implementation was restricted to eight farms in La Danta, Quesungual systems started to appear across the landscape.

 

Adoption factors and patterns of Quesungual in La Danta; a case study

Mason found that neighbors and family members provided a good knowledge source for others in the community who wanted to get information about QSMAS. Although there were some gaps along the information dissemination pathway, adoption rates in La Danta are increasing.

Although farmers perceived the system to be climate friendly and result in improved soil quality, some families did not adopt it and this was due to a lack of land holdings or weak local land tenure systems (Figure 3).

The significance of gender in affecting access to information and the ability to get and use knowledge was also investigated. Interestingly, gender did not affect access to knowledge about QSMAS, but it affected its adoption because of cultural factors and lack of male labor in the household.

“Once a household adopts Quesungual, they are very unlikely to discontinue its use and the data shows a strong upward trend for the adoption rate of the Quesungual agroforestry system during the past 10 years”, says Mason

“In 2016, a total of 61 adopters (39% of households in the community) were using QSMAS. However, stronger external support through capacity building is needed to strengthen information dispersal, as a lack of information sources was identified as the greatest hindrance to the adoption of QSMAS”.

Figure 3. Based on the interviews Mason (2016) identified the following reasons to adopt (left) or not adopt (right).
Young farmer Brian Pineda, La Danta, at work in his Quesungual plot. Photo: Melanie Mason.

A few La Danta households have found innovative ways of overcoming the obstacle of weak land tenure. Some property owners allowed renters to use their land if they implement QSMAS instead of asking for monetary compensation. During a field visit to a rented plot using QSMAS, the renter was asked what he would do if forced to rent a different plot next year. He said: “The trees, the system, they make my crops grow better. I can’t afford my own land now so I can only rent, but I will keep letting the trees grow wherever I plant my crops.” This shows that the system requires low investment for high levels of reward, and renters are beginning to take up the system.

Households with limited landholdings are interested in implementing the system because it is known to have many benefits beyond improved crop yields, according to Mason:

“La Danta farmers who have sought to improve their land-use management systems by adopting Quesungual identified several advantages to implementation, including improved water efficiency, weed control, increased soil fertility, decreased use of chemical fertilizers, lower production costs, reduced erosion, and increased access to fuelwood, timber and fence posts”.

Lessons from Quesungual in Central America

The Quesungual system has been implemented by farmers in one of the poorest regions of the Western Hemisphere, where severe ecosystem degradation is occurring every day. Central America has just experienced its third consecutive year of prolonged dry weather. This period of drought has hit Nicaragua hard, and many subsistence farmers have suffered a partial or total loss of their crops. At the current rates of deforestation, Nicaragua is expected to lose at least 20% more of its already decimated and fragmented forests by 2020. Across Central America, only 2% of the original dry forest remains.

Within a field utilizing Quesungual, the large trees marked for removed are cut and hauled away for retailing or construction. The kept trees are then heavily pruned using ladders and machetes to increase sunlight penetration, La Danta. Photo: Orlando Téllez.

Ultimately, this loss in forest land and climate instability could lead tofurther loss of soil fertility, resulting in crop yield declines and food insecurity and a loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity. Quesungual can help to reverse this trend by partly restoring the original tree cover.

To help farmers sustainably adopt QSMAS, we need to adequate target them, and deliver the relevant information to them. Similarly, targeting households with more diverse demographics can ensure inclusion of the more vulnerable members of the community. CIAT, through a BMZ-funded project, is providing the necessary research and training, targeting farmer groups through farmer-to-farmer exchange visits, and technicians from local NGOs and government institutes, with the aim of helping Central American smallholder farmers to achieve improved crop yields, and to restore ecosystem services.

This study was developed through a collaboration between Copenhagen University and CIAT, with financial support from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and logistic support provided by CIAT scientists. The BMZ-funded project is known as:  Addressing the challenges of smallholder farming communities: Restoring Degraded Agroecosystems and is being carried out in collaboration with the University of Hohenheim, Nicaragua´s National Autonomous University (UNA), and Catholic Relief Services (CRS-Nicaragua). This study contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Landscapes and Ecosystems (WLE), in which CIAT is one of the implementing centers.

For more information contact: Mirjam Pulleman (m.pulleman@cgiar.org) or Pablo Siles (p.siles@cgiar.org).

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