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Journal ArticleDOI

Use of Live Fences of Nopal (Opuntia) and Associated Crops to Rehabilitate and Protect Sloping Land in Loja, Ecuador

01 Feb 2002-Mountain Research and Development (International Mountain Society)-Vol. 22, Iss: 1, pp 22-25

Abstract: A live fences project in Ecuador sought to associate the idea of environmental recovery, characterized by an agro-ecological focus, with a perspective on social and economic development. Cultivation of the Opuntia cactus and the cochineal insect (Dactylopus coccus), environmentally and culturally adapted to the region, permitted the recovery of several degraded areas and generated income for rural dwellers, especially during periods of drought. Among the most important project impacts were: recovery of traditional knowledge, cultural values, ancestral skills, and inveterate attachment to communal properties; determination of the ecotones of the cactus for production of cochineal, fruits, forage, and live barriers; recovery of areas eroded by overexploitation and inadequate management; increased sensitivity among political leaders regarding the problems of desertification and the need to support a second phase of the project; decision-making by community-based organizations; and commitment of the ...

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Use of Live Fences of Nopal (Opuntia) and Associated
Crops to Rehabilitate and Protect Sloping Land in Loja,
Ecuador
Authors: Matallo, Heitor, Casas-Castañeda, Fernando, and Migongo-
Bake, Elizabeth
Source: Mountain Research and Development, 22(1) : 22-25
Published By: International Mountain Society
URL: https://doi.org/10.1659/0276-
4741(2002)022[0022:UOLFON]2.0.CO;2
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Applying ancestral skills in a
coastal Andean area
The Province of Loja is located in a moun-
tainous coastal region in southern
Ecuador, bordering on northern Peru. It
covers 10,793 km
2
, equivalent to 4% of the
country’s land area. Altitudes vary from
140 to 400 m, with temperatures ranging
between 0 and 22°C and annual rainfall
between 380 and 774 mm. Soil fertility is
low and water content deficient; only 26%
(280,000 ha) of the area is suited for agri-
culture and 40% for livestock, with similar
restrictions. The remaining 35% resem-
bles deforested soils—very fragile and vul-
nerable and unsuitable for economic
activities other than conservation.
The project was implemented by the
Department of Agricultural Sciences,
National University of Loja, Ecuador. The
project philosophy was based on the use
and exploitation of ancestral skills and the
centennial tradition of planting and har-
vesting of opuntia and cochineal crops. A
site accessible to local farmers was select-
ed for the experimental phase with 2 crite-
ria: suitability for healthy and vigorous
growth and longevity (about 30 years) of
plants that would serve as barriers; and
exhibition of an ecotype highly receptive
to cochineal productivity, as this was iden-
tified as one of the main future sources of
income, including fruit and forage pro-
duction.
The opuntia was planted in burrows
that follow contour lines. The project pro-
moted the practice of leaving existing
native faique bush vegetation between the
opuntia burrows for exploitation as a
source of firewood (Figures 1, 2). Numer-
ous outputs were expected:
Rehabilitation of degraded hillsides
through cultivation of opuntia as
fences or barriers in association with
other crops.
Use of Live Fences of Nopal (Opuntia)
and Associated Crops to Rehabilitate and
Protect Sloping Land in Loja, Ecuador
Heitor Matallo Jr
Fernando Casas-Castañeda
Elizabeth Migongo-Bake
22
Mountain Research and Development Vol 22 No 1 Feb 2002: 22–25
A live fences project in Ecuador sought to
associate the idea of environmental recovery,
characterized by an agro-ecological focus,
with a perspective on social and economic
development. Cultivation of the Opuntia cac-
tus and the cochineal insect (Dactylopus
coccus), environmentally and culturally
adapted to the region, permitted the recovery
of several degraded areas and generated
income for rural dwellers, especially during
periods of drought. Among the most impor-
tant project impacts were: recovery of tradi-
tional knowledge, cultural values, ancestral
skills, and inveterate attachment to commu-
nal properties; determination of the ecotones
of the cactus for production of cochineal,
fruits, forage, and live barriers; recovery of
areas eroded by overexploitation and inade-
quate management; increased sensitivity
among political leaders regarding the prob-
lems of desertification and the need to sup-
port a second phase of the project; decision-
making by community-based organizations;
and commitment of the community to the
activities of the project, based on agree-
ments between authorities, academia, and
the community. In 1999, the project was hon-
ored with the “Saving the Drylands” Award
given by the United Nations Environment Pro-
gramme (UNEP) at Recife, Brazil, during the
Third Conference of Parties (COP 3) of the
Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD).
FIGURE 1 The project includes
planting of opuntia among
native, drought-resistant trees
that can provide fuelwood. (Pho-
to courtesy of UNEP)
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Development
23
An increase in production and agricul-
tural productivity through improved
soil fertility.
Increased income for farmers, particu-
larly during drought, from sales of the
edible opuntia fruits and cochineal—
important elements in food processing
and dye, the value of which has
increased considerably in the interna-
tional market in the past few years.
Appropriation of useful skills in the
search for alternative livelihoods in
Loja, with the aim of promoting a new
economic climate and sustainable
development.
Implementation through alliances
and rural mobilization
The project strategy had 2 main compo-
nents: alliances with the different groups
in the regional community; and the
involvement of producers in the utiliza-
tion of the technology.
One group of alliances with various
institutions helped to make the proposal
viable. These alliances facilitated the
incorporation of different social actors in
the implementation of the project, includ-
ing the communal, academic, political,
and governmental sectors. For instance,
technical schools and nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) present in the
region adopted the technology as part of
their educational curriculum, teaching
students to implement pilot areas on their
respective campuses. NGOs, on the other
hand, spread the project concept, taking
advantage of their strong links with the
community. Another important institution
in the alliance was the Church, which was
instrumental in diffusing the technology
among farmers, whereas the alliance
formed with the Ecuadorian army resulted
in their helping farmers to plant opuntia
in many localities close to soldiers’ camps,
despite border conflicts.
Farmers were also involved through
direct mobilization and participation. The
project implementer, the National Univer-
sity of Loja, visited the entire province,
identifying the characteristics of the pro-
ductive systems and the environmental
conditions of individual and communal
properties and opuntia with the farmers.
Farmers met periodically to discuss their
problems and other important matters.
Striving for sustainability
The lessons of the project are of interest
in terms of sustainable development
because they demonstrate the long-term
social and economic strategic importance
of conservation and rehabilitation of soils
in the region:
Environmental sustainability. The project
area provides evidence of the feasibility
of producing opuntia and cochineal
species on very steep slopes, varying
from 30 to 58%, a significant fact in the
battle against desertification.
Initial data showed that soil rehabilita-
tion was directly related to improved
levels of humidity and water retention
capacity. If this is confirmed in the long
term, the technology will broaden the
ability of the farmers to manage opun-
FIGURE 2 To prevent further
land degradation and increase
agro-ecological benefits, opuntia
is planted in burrows following
contour lines. (Photo courtesy of
UNEP)
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Heitor Matallo Jr, Fernando Casas-Castañeda, and Elizabeth Migongo-Bake
Mountain Research and Development Vol 22 No 1 Feb 2002
24
tia together with other crops. The tech-
nology diffused by the project seems
well adapted to existing environmental
conditions and has proven to be a good
ecological alternative in strengthening
agro-ecological practices. In the last
phases of the project, as part of its strat-
egy of replicability, economic value was
assigned to native species and an “agro-
ecological model” adopted as the start-
ing point for environmental sustainabil-
ity.
Economic sustainability. There are no
economic data to evaluate the results of
the project. However, it can be inferred
from interviews and observations that
levels of uncertainty with regard to gen-
eration of income have diminished.
The project has elements of efficiency
(use of resources with reduced environ-
mental impact) and impartiality (atten-
tion to current and future generations
of farmers).
Sociocultural sustainability. The project
respects traditions and ancestral skills,
including a demonstration that innova-
tion is possible by rediscovering the
potential of an agro-ecological model
compatible with community culture
and values. The new aspect of sociocul-
tural sustainability has to do with the
capacity of the people to control their
lives and maintain community identity.
Political–institutional sustainability. The
dimension of sustainability reflects
interinstitutional coordination and
alliances between groups with a com-
mon vision of an agro-ecological proj-
ect. This process is just beginning.
Although it will take many years to
show its real potential, the first steps
have been taken. Replicability is a ques-
tion of time and perseverance.
Commitment to project
objectives and proposals
Decisions based on project proposals, and
doubts or questions from farmers, estab-
lish the scope of commitments through a
mechanism of agreements between com-
munal authorities and public organiza-
tions that support the project. Signature
of such agreements is preceded by ample
discussion within communal organiza-
tions. This procedure has the advantage of
clearly defining commitments and distri-
bution of responsibilities.
The agreements imply an acknowledg-
ment of the objectives and the resources
available to the parties in facing problems
caused by eroded soils and steep slopes.
They also imply the participation of com-
munal institutions in a joint program of
promotion and production of opuntia as
well as cochineal and land conservation
and determine the contribution of differ-
ent parties.
Enhancing social capital
Strengthening social institutions
The project has used 2 soil resource-relat-
ed social institutions to promote its objec-
tives. One is communal properties, whose
ownership and resources are shared by all
members of the community. Another is
inherited family properties, localized gen-
erally in the neighborhood of the commu-
nal properties. The project has succeeded
in calling attention to farmers and their
forms of ancestral organization by initially
studying the production systems of each
local community and environmental con-
ditions. Some community groups partici-
pate in the project as a direct effect of the
demonstration zones promoted by profes-
sionals and university students, whereas
others establish planting of opuntia and
cochineal on existing farmlands, support-
ed by other initiatives.
Social cohesiveness stems from the
communal custom of meeting on the first
Sunday of every month to discuss prob-
lems, with the aim of organizing shifts for
the use of water and the management of
other common resources. Community
authorities have used this opportunity to
replicate the messages of the project. This
has increased interest among rural fami-
lies in adopting project proposals.
At least 10 communities participated
in the cultivation of opuntia and
cochineal crops within the framework of
the project, and around 50 others were
interested. Community organizations and
local NGOs predict a greater impact as the
influence of the project reaches more
than 1000 farmers. The combination of
activities including demonstration sites,
FIGURE 3 A farmer on his land,
showing the Opuntia burrows
technology, which is perfectly
adapted to dry conditions and
improves the productivity of tradi-
tional crops such as the maize
visible in the background. (Photo
courtesy of UNEP)
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Development
25
undergraduate theses, meetings, field
days, visits to community properties, and
publications has raised awareness among
certain sectors of the regional community
and promoted the diffusion of the tech-
nology. Synergy between the actions of
community organizations, the university,
NGOs, and the Provincial Council has
been achieved.
Community benefits
Communities already perceive project
benefits, and those that participate in oth-
er initiatives influenced by the agro-eco-
logical perspective and the proposed tech-
nology have better control over their lives.
For example, farmers expressed their sat-
isfaction with the extra income received
from the cochineal, the retention of soil
in the opuntia plantations, and fruit con-
sumption as part of the family diet. Above
all, farmers noted that the project recog-
nizes the value of ancestral skills and prac-
tices. Opuntia and cochineal are part of
the cultural patrimony of these peoples
(Figure 3). Their use strengthens self-
esteem among older members of the com-
munity and represents an opportunity to
keep younger members from abandoning
the region. The possibility of income
throughout the year increases levels of
certainty about the future of the family,
decreases anxiety during lengthy
droughts, and could eventually reduce
emigration.
Aside from empowerment, communi-
ties perceived the following project benefits
as important contributions to their lives:
The opportunity to obtain opuntia
seeds (suckers) for annual increase of
density on each farm.
•Laboratory support for the improve-
ment of soils, which retain a greater
percentage of potassium, phosphorus,
and nitrogen as a result of cultivation
of opuntia. The productivity of other
crops such as maize has also improved.
The recycling of organic residues as fer-
tilizer for opuntia, especially manure
from goats, cuye (guinea pig), chickens,
cows, and pigs.
•A greater awareness of the importance
of vegetation, especially those few trees
and shrubs that withstand the long
droughts and furnish firewood.
The participation of government agen-
cies in financing field work days on a
national scale.
Communities also attribute some gen-
eral benefits to the project, directly or
indirectly:
The technological possibility to reduce
the impact of desertification in a high-
risk region.
•Updated information on the diversity
of productive systems and arid ecosys-
tems that characterize the region.
•A change in credit systems by including
loans for planting opuntia and harvest-
ing cochineal.
The participation of women’s organiza-
tions in the production of opuntia and
cochineal in a communal society tradi-
tionally organized around men.
Increased applications for technical
assistance and information.
Greater interest among undergraduate
students at the University of Loja in
research on various issues related to
project objectives.
•Greater dissemination of the project
approach among different organizations.
Conclusions
This project has demonstrated that it is
possible, with scarce financial resources
and the efforts of many years of agro-eco-
logical research, to increase awareness of
responsibility for survival strategies among
diverse social actors, and, in the long
term, among the poorest population
groups. It is gradually becoming sustain-
able in environmental, economic, socio-
cultural, and political terms.
The dissemination of a technology in
the context of a local development model
is closely connected to its simplicity, cul-
tural adaptability, and a low level of
investment. The process of dissemination
and replicability cannot require external
institutional or financial instruments, at
least not in the case of traditional popula-
tions. Future plans could include initiat-
ing a databank on specific productive sys-
tems in the region and their environmen-
tal conditions.
AUTHORS
Heitor Matallo Jr
SQN-115 Bloco G Apto. 607, 70.772-070
Brasília DF, Brazil.
hmatallo@mma.gov.br
Heitor Matallo Jr is a sociologist based
in Brazil. He is an expert in the field of
environment management, including eval-
uation of community-based rural projects
in Latin America. He was Coordinator of
the National Program to Combat Desertifi-
cation in Brazil from 1995–2000.
Fernando Casas-Castañeda
CALLE 127
a
No. 31-48, Bogotá, Colombia.
casasf@cable.net.co
Fernando Casas-Castañeda is an
expert on Environment and Natural
Resources Planning and Management
based in Colombia. For the past 10 years,
he has acted as a negotiator for various
processes, including the design and for-
mulation of a joint Andean decision on the
regulation of access to genetic resources.
Elizabeth Migongo-Bake
Programme Officer, Land-Use and Man-
agement, Coordinator, Best Practices and
Success Stories, DEPI/TCU, UNEP,PO
Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya.
elizabeth.migongo-bake@unep.org
Elizabeth Migongo-Bake is a Pro-
gramme Officer with the United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP), head-
quartered in Nairobi, Kenya, in the Divi-
sion of Environmental Policy. She is an
ecologist and a natural resources expert.
She is responsible for UNEP’s Land Use
and Management sub-programme and is
also the Coordinator of UNEP’s Initiative in
Best Practices and Success Stories.
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Cites background from "Use of Live Fences of Nopal (Opunti..."

  • ...Soils in the area range from rich and fertile to nutrient-poor, droughty, fragile, and highly erodable ( Matallo, Casas-Castaneda, & Migongo-Bake, 2002 )....

    [...]