Bruno Montesinos gives an insight from the field on the Rurality project we began in November 2017 to get to know smallholders within the palm oil supply chain in Peru.
In the time we’ve started work to learn about farmers in the Tocache Province of San Martin, Peru, we have seen how many are using their skills to improve the quality of soil. We met one who had planted guaba or pacay (Inga feuilleei) on the mountainous areas of his land, causing the roots to draw in nitrogen which has regenerated soil and created natural vegetation for his land to prosper. It was encouraging to see because deforestation is still an issue in the country.
Palm oil has been grown in the area since the late 1970s. We have seen that there is a trend to opt for monoculture of palm oil due to the market growth, easiness of agricultural activities, and periodic harvest, which means constant income to the household. However, many palm oil farmers rely on cocoa as an alternative crop. This is a challenge. Planting the same crop in the same field can cause the build-up of pests and disease.
The soil in the area, as in many other places in the world, is made from many nutrients, that without proper management can be depleted. For example, some plants like guava and kudzú (Pueraria phaseoloides) are able to fix nitrogen from the air back into the soil; and farmers here are very aware of this agricultural practice.
Another useful species in the region is swamp palm, locally known as aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa), which is not only used in a popular refreshing beverage called aguajina, but also fixes carbon to soil, preserves water fonts, and provides abundant organic matter. Raising awareness of its importance for conservation is a challenge, this is an issue for farmers too.
Obviously, it is important not to rely on just one crop. Our research has found that most of the Peruvian farmers in Tocache we have met were once cocaleros (coca leaf producers). Programmes have intervened in the area with alternative crops such as cocoa. Tocache is known as Peru’s cocoa centre and the commodity is one way for farmers to diversify, as is rice, and plantain.
The farmers are open to diversifying their crops, but they need support. There are also other issues to contend with – we have noticed a shortage of water supplies for consumption and flooded plots close to the river.
Having carried out the first steps in the diagnostic phase of this project, we are now turning our attention to look at how more biodiverse crops can connect farmers to more markets. This work includes visiting more farmers and organisations. We will come back to you with more updates on this project later in the year.