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Agri-Culture – Nature’s legacy discarded

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5.MAY.06

EDITOR: Many people are commenting about the demise of agricultural, a sign that they realise as agriculture disappears, we are losing an inherent cultural connection, a part of ourselves that relates to the landscape.

Agriculture has been pushed aside to make way for an imported model of development based on high-end tourism, informatics and offshore banking. I’m sure we will live to regret this thrust because with it comes many social problems borne of the neglect of the human spirit and a preoccupation with profit and greed. {{more}} With it we remain in the grips of controlling foreign driven forces that have no interest in the empowerment of the people, or what the island can produce for itself. Judging from how the politicians pamper to these outside forces, the ordinary people themselves may be the only ones who care about their own empowerment. Being oppressed through an education system that creates mental dependency and a domineering political system, the ordinary people have no confidence in their own culture, of which agriculture is a central part. But what we will discover eventually is that the humble practices that came out of ordinary peoples lives, now frowned upon, are indeed our most precious treasures. Traditional farming is one of these practices, one that could be highly beneficial to our development.

It’s true that agriculture as we have come to practice it, with expensive imported inputs, has become labour intensive and financially unrewarding for the small farmer. These difficulties have nothing to do with the art of farming itself, but the methods we follow. Using expensive artificial inputs has created a dependence on a certain way of doing things, leaving us with a limited perspective of farming and where the soil has not been washed away, it’s far less fertile than what we started with. These artificial methods are not sustainable and totally different from traditional farming, which worked with principles of nature, not chemicals. If you doubt the wisdom of traditional farmers then consider why when Europeans arrived in the Americas they found the soil rich and healthy even after 50,000 years of use by the Indians. And yet after a couple of generations of tilling by the Europeans, the soil was turned to sand.

The only sustainable way forward in agriculture is to rebuild the soil naturally so that it constantly regenerates itself. With this method one quarter acre can easily be managed by one person to feed two families. If this sounds revolutionary or outlandish, picture the rainforest where nature, left to its own devices without the interference of man, is abundantly lush, supporting a totally harmonious living ecosystem. Trees and plants thrive with no fertilsers or sprays, no slashing or burning. Trees of all species and sizes live harmoniously. In fact they all depend on each other for their well-being; growing mixed together as they do, they attract birds, butterflies, creatures above and below the soil.

What is happening in the soil of the rainforest is of particular interest to us as farmers. It regenerates itself through dead organic matter, which form a mulch or layer over the surface. This retains water and breaks down into nutrients for the plants. Agroforestry and natural farming are based on studying this natural system and reproducing it for productive agriculture. Many farmers throughout the world, in Mexico and Cuba and Japan, have adopted natural farming techniques and are producing yields equal to those produced using chemicals. The soil is not dug or turned, but mulched using organic matter from the land. Fruit trees, vegetables and herbs are grown together, “green manures” are planted, which are plants rich in nitrogen that can be cut and left to go back into the soil to act as a natural fertiliser. And just like the rainforest, there is no soil erosion. Pests are kept down as the culture attracts beneficial insects. The system builds a beneficial community of crops, not a monoculture that unbalances the soil composition.

So why are we in St Vincent following an expensive, labour intensive, artificial model of farming when we have an alternative? Natural and organic farming practices can feed local population and produce sufficient food for export, whilst protecting our soil and forests in the process. Agricultural tourism, a fast-growing niche tourism product, would bring in foreign exchange and benefit our local culture. So what are the specialists and agronomists doing? Young people return from Cuba with qualifications in organic farming but where is their knowledge being utilised?

Natural farming is part of our culture – those traditional farmers who fed their families from a small patch of land practised the method I have described. They understood the wonder and complexity of nature before natural wisdom was replaced with chemicals and artificial farming. No wonder we are in a sad state, feeling that our very survival is threatened. Turning our backs on nature, we have lost our connection with our spirit that even in their darkest hours, our ancestors managed to retain. And a loss of spirit has dreadful social repercussions.

Today the general public and even the farmers themselves are being convinced that prime agricultural land can be put to better use for luxury tourism or housing developments rather than for food production. This is the kind of propaganda that enrages Japanese natural farmer Masanobu Fukuoka who believes that agriculture must be made a foundation for living and that the future of a small island lies in the hands of the farmer.

I agree with his view especially when he says, “A culture born of human recreation and vanity that is divorced from nature cannot become a true culture. True culture arises from within nature and is pure, modest and simple.”

Vonnie Roudette

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