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Cover crops in hillside agriculture: farmer innovation with Mucuna

Author: Buckles, D.
Author: Triomphe, B.
Author: Sain, G.
Year: 1998
ISBN: 0-88936-841-4
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10883/965
Abstract: Farmers in northern Honduras are at the forefront of a significant development in hillside agriculture. For more than 20 years, they have been quietly developing an aggressive vining legume called velvet bean and adapting it to the needs of maize production. These farmers developed the velvet bean-maize practice because they were excluded from the prime coastal land of northern Honduras, increasingly taken up by pineapple and African palm plantations and pastures owned by the elite classes and agroindustries. The farmers had to find a way to produce maize — their staple food — on poor and fragile hillside land. The velvet bean-maize cropping practice they developed enhances productivity while conserving the resource base — a rare combination in hillside environments. Velvet bean seed (Mucuna pruriens) is initially introduced between the rows of maize, where it continues to grow profusely after the maize harvest. Once it has matured (some 8 months later), the velvet bean crop is slashed, and maize is planted once again in the mat of decomposing leaves and vines. Velvet bean residues are not burned or incorporated into the soil but left as mulch on the surface. Seed from the velvet bean crop eventually germinates on its own in the maize field, and the cycle is repeated. This cropping practice reduces labour costs by controlling weeds and increases maize yields by supplying nutrients when they are most needed. Productivity gains are realized without a concurrent decline in the resource base. In the words of Teodoro Reyes of La Danta, Atlantida, "with velvet bean, cowardly land becomes brave." The maize—velvet bean combination represents a radical departure from the traditional techniques of slash-and-burn agriculture characteristic of the humid tropics. Slash-and-bum agricultural practices, with long fallow periods, used to be well adapted to the prevailing ecological and socioeconomic conditions. However, population growth and the conversion of forest land tq, pasture have increased pressure on land resources and induced more frequent cultivation. Without external inputs, intensive cropping using traditional slash-and-bum techniques leads to a decline in soil fertility and increases in weed invasion and soil erosion, which undermine the productivity and sustainability of shifting cultivation. By contrast, farmers in northern Honduras have been cropping maize—velvet bean continuously on the same plots for 20 years while maintaining or even markedly improving both yield and soil fertility. Velvet bean seed, along with the knowledge of its potential uses, was introduced in northern Honduras through a complex process of innovation involving fanners, scientists, and transnational corporations on three continents (Buckles 1995). Originally from eastern India and southern China, velvet bean traveled to Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, Central America, and the United States, circumnavigating the humid tropics over several centuries. Throughout the seed's history, farmers, acting in their own interest and with occasional scientific input, adapted the plant to their needs; in so doing, they provided the impetus for its spread. In northern Honduras, the adaptation and diffusion of velvet bean — or "the fertilizer bean," as it is known in the region — occurred spontaneously, from farmer to farmer, without the direct intervention of external groups. Currently, more than 10 000 farmers in northern Honduras and thousands more in Guatemala and southern Mexico use velvet bean to fertilize the soil, control weeds, and protect cropland from erosion. Spontaneous adoption of a farmer-generated technology merits attention. Although science-based agricultural research is to be credited for huge successes in raising agricultural output, many scientists fail to realize that uneducated, small scale fanners successfully experiment and innovate on their own initiative and achieve notable results. By definition, farmers' modes of experimentation are not equivalent to scientific inquiry, as they rely heavily on empirical, locally validated experience. Hence, they may not generate knowledge in a form easily accessible to outsiders or directly applicable in other regions. Nevertheless, many insights were gained in the past and many more may still be gained from assessing what farmers are doing to address key issues in crop or environmental management (Richards 1985; Sinclair et al. 1993). An important task for outside agencies therefore is to tap into this knowledge and strengthen the capacity of farmers to generate new ideas and agricultural practices to meet their own needs (Bunch 1982). Interaction with Honduran farmers challenges researchers and development workers to redefine their role, as well as that of farmers, in the process of technology generation and diffusion. Farmers have been remarkably creative with velvet bean and other cover crops, not only developing and diffusing the system as practiced in places like northern Honduras, but also experimenting with numerous variations in crop associations, planting dates, densities, pruning, and weeding practices, as well as food and forage uses (Bunch 1990, 1995; Holt-Gimenez 1993; Buckles and Arteaga 1993; Buckles and Barreto 1996; Flores 1997). Neither researchers nor development workers would dare claim that they are "leading" the research in this area or are in complete control of the processes of technology generation and diffusion. This local initiative has much to teach people who still doubt the potential role of farmers in the development, adaptation, and diffusion of improved technology.
Format: PDF
Language: English
Publisher: CIMMYT
Publisher: IDRC
Copyright: CIMMYT manages Intellectual Assets as International Public Goods. The user is free to download, print, store and share this work. In case you want to translate or create any other derivative work and share or distribute such translation/derivative work, please contact CIMMYT-Knowledge-Center@cgiar.org indicating the work you want to use and the kind of use you intend; CIMMYT will contact you with the suitable license for that purpose.
Type: Book
Region: Central Africa
Region: West Africa
Place of Publication: Canada
Pages: ix, 218 pages
Agrovoc: COVER PLANTS
Agrovoc: GREEN MANURES
Agrovoc: MUCUNA
Agrovoc: DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS
Agrovoc: TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER
Agrovoc: INNOVATION ADOPTION
Agrovoc: ECONOMIC ANALYSIS
Agrovoc: SMALL FARMS
Agrovoc: COVER PLANTS
Agrovoc: GREEN MANURES
Agrovoc: MUCUNA
Agrovoc: DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS
Agrovoc: TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER
Agrovoc: INNOVATION ADOPTION
Agrovoc: ECONOMIC ANALYSIS
Agrovoc: SMALL FARMS


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  • Socioeconomics
    Including topics such as farming systems, markets, impact & targeting, innovations, and GIS
  • Sustainable Intensification
    Sustainable intensification agriculture including topics on cropping systems, agronomy, soil, mechanization, precision agriculture, etc.

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