Tag Archives: economic issues

Responding to “Rain Forest for Sale” by Scott Wallace

Geoff Gallice rainforest photo

Yasuni National Park Trees by Geoff Gallice

The recent issue of National Geographic arrived at the house the other day, packed (as usual) with pictures and diagrams of places I’ll likely never be able to visit.  One story in particular caught my eye, or rather, one tidbit in one story.  The rainforest in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park is described as possibly the most bio-diverse places on earth.

Think about that for a sec.  Of all the diversity on the planet, of all the amazing array of life packed into every little corner of the world, including a dozen other rainforests around the tropics and even a few in the temperate zones, this park is considered to possibly be the most diverse.  At lest 10 species of monkey (maybe 12).  At least 100,000 kinds of bugs in just one or two square miles.  An array of plant life that thrives in the branches of forests so diverse themselves that learning the species of the trees is nearly impossible, there are as many different genuses as I’m used to seeing species.

Follow me down this logic chain: when I mentioned millet a few weeks back, I talked about it coming from central Africa.  There is millet all over the world, I explained, but here is where there are the most different varieties (wild and domesticated) gather themselves.

The underlined sound is the phoneme being called out by the Secret Code of Linguistic Nerds

When Perreault and Mathew study the evolution of language around the world, they track the phonemes (sounds. S is a letter, ssss is a phoneme, sshhhh is a different phoneme).  The number of phonemes in a language tracks pretty well with the archaeological evidence of the migration pattern (and speeds!) of ancient humans leaving Africa to spread throughout the world.  The idea of tracking migration this way has some naysayers and some doubters, but the gist of the idea that I’m interested in here is Continue reading

Pollarding trees: a fancy form of bole hack-y.

filoli mansion pollard trees

Filoli gardens in California pollards every year to achieve such serious "fists."

Despite most often seeing the tight fists of pollarded branches waving their witches brooms into the breezes of fancy rural neighborhoods, I don’t think fancy thoughts as I look at them.  It’s not that this form of pruning didn’t have both its place and its purpose in its day, and even some artistry in the right contexts, it’s just so divorced now from any usefulness.

Pollarding a tree means hacking off the branches at the same basic spot on a regular basis.  Akin to how the coppice stool comes back with a  boom of super straight sprouts , pollarded branches respond with a similarly linear thrashing of twiggery (like hair, which the root word “poll” used to mean), but three things are different:

  1. The fresh brash is up the tree, higher than the browse Continue reading

Our Just Deserts?

Watching the fields of Sandhill cranes recently has given me refreshed vision for seeing the fields without the birds as I pass them on the highways: vast blankets of crop stubble, stoic pivot irrigation structures waiting through the winter lull, and field edges that are often barely lines on the ground.

I’m seeing the desert afresh.  All the life and vibrancy of the birds is replaced by the endless miles of nobody doing anything, punctuated by the small islands that teem only in comparison.

The single largest land use on the planet is agriculture.  We’ll never ever be able to save sufficient biodiversity if we just aim for the park and wilderness set asides.  If you were falling off a cliff, I reach for more than just your wristwatch to grab onto.  But how on earth do we feed everybody if we don’t use industrial ag?

Here’s an interesting thought: industrial has never yet fed everybody- the bulk of the world still eats from small farms within a half days walk from their homes.

What it is doing is creating enormously areas of depleting fertility and sharply reduced biodiversity, which can’t possibly be a good long term plan.  Can it be done differently?  In some places, it is.

ecoagriculture partnersEcoAgriculture Partners, in Washington, DC, is considering the problem through three lenses: productivity (the people need to eat), ecology (a farmer needs the process to be sustainable if their children’s children’s children are to inherit fertile land), and economy (a farmer needs to make a living).  The interconnectivity of these three pillars of ecoagriculture practice comes clear when one is out of balance.

If the farmer can’t make a living, the long term unsustainability of a project will count for less than the short term economic assistance it can provide.  If the people don’t have enough to eat in the here and now, they’ll eat the seeds of the next year’s crops rather than plant them.  If ecologically unsound practices endure too long (a measure which varies by practice and place), the whole community will have to move and find new lands to live off of, a prospect their new neighbors may find less than appealing.

Strong proponents of PES programs (payments for ecosystem services), EcoAgriculture Partners (EP) hopes to use PES money to give tangible value to farming practices that benefit the whole community: water filtration and infiltration, erosion control, and carbon sequestration all come to mind; somewhat difficult to measure, but not impossible.

Kijabe Environmental VolunteersSometimes their work leads them to study and quantify ecoagricultural communities already existing in balance with their landscape.  The integrated land management being used on the Kikuyu escapements of Kenya are one recently lauded example. KENVO (Kijabe Environmental Volunteers) works with local communities and farmers to balance the environmental pressures mounting as both Kijabe province and downstream Nairobi experience rapid population growth.

sylvopastoral silvopastoral woodspasture

(from the FAO)

In another project, grant monies were found to compensate small cattle farms in the Matiguás–Río Blanco area in Nicaragua for planting trees in their pastures.  Not forests, just what the English might refer to as a ‘woods pasture’: trees prevalent enough to provide some shade, soil retention, and water infiltration benefits, but sparse enough that pasture still grows readily beneath and between the trees.

This style of silvopastoral integrated agriculture has been practiced in a variety of cultures around the globe, each experiencing increased carbon sequestration, water quality improvement, water infiltration improvement, reduced soil loss, and increased on-farm biodiversity.

The project grant helped farmers overcome the gap between investment and return inherent in any tree crop.  While not all farmers stayed with the program after it finished, a significant number did, citing the improved pastures that the extra maoisture allowed for, and the decreased mid-summer heat-stress experienced by the cattle who were able to graze in the dappled shade. 

So no: barren, lifeless land-as-factory producing farm goods is not necessary, but yes, even as we learn more about the needs of the planet, we must also to learn about the needs of the farmers to learn what the barriers are to implementing practices they believe will improve the ecological soundness of their land.


KENVO image frrom the KENVO webpage.

Restorative forestry III: using Nature’s Tree Marking Paint for the long haul


jason rutledge healing harvest foundation draft horse logging

Jason with his Suffolk Punch horses

Jason Rutledge mentors biological woodsmen in southern Virginia.  His students learn draft logging skills that focus on restorative forestry- a strong departure from the chop-and-cheque mentality of most timber industry leaders.  These neophyte loggers learn skills that speak to a longer time horizon than most business deals consider, preferring success measured by repetitive good results over the monetary worth of a single cutting.

Really, the goal is the anticipation of the next cut, 7, 8, or even 10 years hence.  Every cutting is about the stripping away of the sub-par, the removal of the stains from forests that have seen human greed dwindle not just the excellent timber stock, but the capacity to regenerate excellence.

Rutledge is teaching to reverse this legacy, to turn loggers into the wolves that purify the herds of prey by picking off the oldest, the weakest, the sickest.  But how do his loggers have confidence they’ll return to the same forest-herd in the future?  How are they able to establish a long term bond with a piece of the planet they neither own nor inhabit?

Land owner contracts.  Biological woodsmen enter into long term contracts with private, non-industrial land owners (who are by far the largest set of land owners in the U.S.).   The long term contract establishes 50 or, preferably, 100 year contracts for these  timber crews to work this land.  The land owner can hand down a self-funding parcel, the loggers can pass along an established, sustainable business with a portfolio of increasingly valuable assets. Continue reading

Urban agriculture in Venezuela: a Success Story

When the U.N. chose Caracas, Venezuela, for the next piece of their long quest for viable forms of urban agriculture, they did not send in fancy Americans in suits, nor learned Europeans with multiple degrees.  They followed a philosophy known as South-South relations, which encourages developing nations to share knowledge and skills with each other.  The U.N. sent urban farmers from Cuba, and a few from Senegal.

organoponico photo by Jeff McIntireCuba’s Food Revolution

Cuba has gone through its own version of peak oil.  When the Soviet Union fell, almost overnight all imports of oil to Cuba ceased.  In the two years that followed, the average caloric intake for adults dropped to between 1400 and 1900 calories from the previous norm of 2600.  To put this in perspective, the U.N. begins famine watch assessments below 2100 calories on average for adults.

In a hurry, Cubans began planting food to be eaten far far closer to home.  To hell with the export crops, they turned rapidly to mass vegeculture, planting urban gardens known as organoponicos.  Despite the return of oil to the country in recent years, and the resumption of such agricultural luxuries as tractors, these urban gardens remain.

organoponico image by Scott Braley

(image by Scott Braley)

The food is fresher,” people say.  They aren’t kidding.  A customer to the farm stand at Continue reading

Definition: Food Sovereignty

via campesina logo food sovereigntyEver since Via Campesina put out their food sovereignty declaration in the late 1990s, definitions have proliferated for food sovereignty.  Here’s how it makes sense to me:

Food sovereignty is about people being allowed to eat the traditional foods of their culture.  Often, preserving a culture means preserving a diet, and preserving a diet often means preserving an ecosystem.  Occasionally, preserving an ecosystem means changing a diet.  Then the question becomes ‘whose diet, whose ecosystem?’ Continue reading

What is a CSA? Community Supported Agriculture and variants thereof.

April CSA shares from Boistfort Valley Farm

April CSA shares from Boistfort Valley Farm

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  There are several different types of CSAs, but at core the gist of it remains the same: farmer’s have a lot of upfront costs (capital investments) at the start of every spring- seeds, fuel, payroll (even if it’s just the one farmer, that person still has to eat and be housed).  Farmer’s incomes are on a lag, coming mostly in summer and fall.

The farmer with insufficient savings to cover the spring costs (and let’s be real, how many of us have huge chunks of money sitting around?) has two choices: take out a loan or mortgage something.  Both of those options leave the farmer paying interest on the loan, reducing their profits and making it harder to save up for next year’s spring inputs.  And eegads if a major crop fails!  Then the next year they are paying interest on two years of inputs and late fees on one.

Community Supported = Shared Risk

A variant solution has been found in the form of Community Supported Agriculture.  Local families ‘pre-buy’ some of their groceries in the form of a CSA membership at a farm.  Together, they cover the costs of the farmer’s spring investments.  Over the course of the season, the farmer pays them back in a portion (a share) of the farm’s bounty.  If it’s a bad year, well, everybody’s share is a little smaller.  If it’s a good year, everybody’s share is a little larger. Continue reading

Biodiversity in the Kitchen, part IV: the local food movement

(This is the fourth entry in a series about eating biodiverse foods; having looked at the early history of food, Industrial Revolution agriculture, the Green Revolution [and its unintended side effects], this piece brings it home: your plate and our planet.)

So, now that I’ve romped through key moments in the genetic history of food, here we are, knowing one thing for sure: we eat a tiny little slice of the edible gene pool on the planet.  A stunning percentage was dropped to accommodate the mechanization and shipping and another big chunk was lost to accommodating the chemical fertilizer folks.

There’s one more source that narrows the biodiversity of what we eat: our lazy, boring, stuck-in-a-rut tongues.  We the Eaters, in order to allow more ecological agricultures to bloom, have got to learn- have got to be excited about learning- new-to-us foods. We’ve got to put a little slack in our farmers’ lines.

The gist is this:

produce market vegetables co-op local organic foodThe key difference between a gardener and a farmer is the market.  Our farmers are growing what they (think they) can sell.  Both the organic and local food movements are rife with farmers who want to be good stewards of the earth, but that absolutely requires on farm biodiversity.

We need to eat more diverse foods, we need to try a lot of new foods.  We need to be willing to embrace foods that are not necessarily what we want to eat all the time, but that could be a good food to eat this week. 

As the organic foods movement was getting off the ground, there was a lot of talk about the need for the consumer to accept that the tip of the corn might be a lil’ fugly. The tomatoes will not all be round, the apples may be lopsided, but the taste!  Same thing for local foods: a lot of new, odd, but very likely very good for you and for the farm items. (In fact, I have a list below.) Continue reading

Occupied Blog

It’s hard to write steady blog entries from the Occupation! I’m lucky enough to live where the police have not been asked (externally or internally) to become (police) Forces.  Instead of battling them, people are able to really talk about stuff: how to facilitate a consensus-based, direct-democracy meeting; cold weather camping skills; and what exactly to people want to see change?

My town’s Occupy is in accord with most of the national basics: get the corporate money out of politics (we the People), overturn Citizens United (corporations are not people), close corporate tax-loopholes, hold white collar criminals accountable, etc etc.

I’m also hearing interesting discussions about that focus more on local and regional issues, including empowering neighborhoods as the basic civil unit, and creating in-‘hood language classes so neighbors can talk to each other.

Food and agriculture both keep coming up. The (current) plan is to focus this Tuesday morning’s Solutions discussion on food justice issues. It may take me a day or two to digest what’s said, but I’ll bring back what I hear. Continue reading

Occupied Pantry: the intersection of agribusiness, finance, and regulatory practices.

This post is in response to last Friday’s Mother Jones article “Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street” 

Tom Philpott’s article on the consolidation of wealth and political clout in the food/ agribusiness sector has incredibly valuable information in it, but I’d like to make clearer his somewhat buried premise: the banking/finance and food/agribusiness industries have a comparable grip on public policy.  Further, while Mr. Philpott spends time arguing (not without reason) that the agribusiness situation is worse than the banking sector situation, I focus my vision slightly differently: rather fussing about the hierarchy of horror, the parallels between these industries points out that food and finance are two enormous symptoms of the same larger problem.

If we in the Occupy Movement focus solely on the banking industry without attending to how it impacts (and self perpetuates through this impact) public policy, then we will not uncover the mechanisms that allow industry in general to create imbalanced access to and influence over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Looking at agribusiness is one way to keep our vision sufficiently broad.

Some background: How consolidated is agribusiness?

Start with the inputs (seeds, fertilizers, biocides [the combination of herbicides and pesticides]) (I’m using 2007 numbers)

Seeds:  Four companies own half the world’s seeds. Continue reading