Agro-ecological practices include the use of native seeds, organic fertilizer, biological pest control, crop rotation, and respect of the ecosystems.
There are no shortcuts to wisdom. There also is no magic formula to retain knowledge and pass it on to future generations. El Salvador is beginning to understand now that its soil and food are contaminated with chemicals.
But within the uncertain food production dynamics in the Central American country, there are other mechanisms at play that are harmonious with the land and its crops. This is occurring after the recovery of the ancestral knowledge, the respect of the ecosystem cycles and the willingness of men and women who seek food security through agro-ecology.
“We have applied the ancestral processes gradually. Our ancestors did not practice monoculture, that’s why we seek to plant yucca, corn, zucchini, and loroco. The people have even stopped planting flowers in their plots. That’s why our soils before were rich and that’s why we want to recover all of that tradition that also included the planting of herbs such as blackberries”, explains Juan Pablo Perez.
Perez is a farmer from the central department of Cuscatlán. He farms basic grains, vegetables and fruits. He works with organic fertilizer to protect the crops and uses aromatic plants to repel predators and prevent the growth of fungi. His method is successful at warding off whiteflies in crops such as chili pepper, tomato, spinach, red bean and creole corn.
“What we do is prepare strong substances that smell badly to scare off infestations or insects. One of the [substances] is made of chili pepper, garlic and onion. Or we make a soap with olive seeds. That product is placed in a gallon of water and [is used to] fumigate the leaves of the plants”, says Pérez. “For us, all insects must be in an agro-ecological plot: larvae, worms, ants. There must be a balance for a good harvest”, he adds.
Pérez has strong links to the nongovernmental organization Salvadorian Ecological Unit (UNES), which searches for new alternatives to combat the damage that agrochemicals and climate change cause.
“Agro-ecological practices follow a completely different procedure than traditional [practices] of food production which have been implemented since the worldwide ‘Green Revolution’. This has to do with organic products that become sustainable [for the land, the farmers, the nation] because they do not need agrochemicals nor the use of hybrid or improved seeds”, explains Mercy Palacios, from the UNES’s Public Policy Impact on Food Sovereignty area.
Palacios said that in San Julián, a municipality located in the western department of Sonsonate, the community leaders are the ones who have retaken these ancestral concepts to gradually replace agrochemicals.
The effort of the UNES and other organizations now has a vital component on their side: the Legislative Assembly recently banned the import, export, distribution and commercialization of 53 agrochemicals. The action of the legislative body created a domino effect, starting with businessmen, the farmers and up to the government, for the latter has two years to search for substitutes for these now banned agents.
The banning of these chemicals is rooted in the death of 60 people, all of whom died from renal failure last year in San Luis Talpa, department of La Paz, at the centre-south of the country. The people of the area blamed the contamination on the use of agrochemicals.
“One of the obstacles that we must overcome is that without pesticides it is not possible to cultivate and this [belief] is due to the news from the media and deceptive propaganda. This limits the recognition of ancestral techniques and knowledge”, emphasizes Palacios.
But the UNES also recognizes that the farmers are the ones who voluntarily and blindly seek agrochemicals and overuse them.
“There has been an alignment from the farmer’s side towards olden practices but on the other hand, the soil is highly contaminated”, says Palacios.
To make the land fertile again, adds Palacios, people must “think agro-ecologically” and “start by de-contaminating the soil by using native seeds”, because “these [seeds] can be produced year after year in the same community”, without having to resort to an agrochemical.
Women as protagonists
If the issue is about legacy, the principal role of women in ancestral agriculture survives until today. Sonia Brito, from ‘Mujeres Produciendo la Tierra’ or ‘Women Working the Land’ Farming Association, is an example. Not only is she an important member of the organization, but she also works the land.
“I cultivate in a small plot that I have with my husband and family and we make fences with vetiver grass. With my family we are totally organized to maintain and conserve our plot”, says Brito
She grows radishes, tomatoes, and bell pepper. She has also started growing coffee in her plot of land in the Talcomuna canton, located within the Buena Vista township of the Izalco municipality, in Sonsonate, a place with strong indigenous roots. She will see the fruits of her efforts in three years.
The work does not end there; she also shares her knowledge. Along with the association she is the mentor of 12 groups of women in the departments of Sonsonate and Santa Ana. The agro-ecology she learned focuses on many areas: organization, formation, provision, advocacy and community health. Though it takes time, there are fruits to her labour.
“The land is very contaminated and we will not be able to combat this from one day to the next. We have carried out practices that have ended up being very slow, but we have had changes, many changes. There is something that should not be allowed and that is logging, [because trees] help us in this very rainy area of the country. It seems simple but it is a form of defence against climate change”, says Brito from her experience.
Brito is happy because the Legislative Assembly passed the ban on pesticides, though she recognizes that “we use agrochemicals, but to stop using them is also our great challenge. We already reached a 35 percent reduction. We struggle on this topic”.
For Palacios, the State must establish “a legal framework to create food sovereignty in the country. It must launch a native seeds program that excludes chemical fertilizers and adds at the appropriate time technical aid for farmers. And the most important thing: it must begin to rescue the knowledge of our ancestors”.