Student - June 18, 2009

REGION OF EQUADOR VICTIM OF MODERN AGRICULTURE

What began as a textbook example of modernized agriculture has ended in economic decline and serious health problems among the people of Carchi province in northern Equador. Dr. Stephen Sherwood’s research revealed how the area is staggering under the havoc wreaked by modernization.

The modernization of farming in the mountainous Carchi province was a big success story. From the nineteen sixties, the government carried out large-scale and successful land reforms which gave farmers their own land. There were fertile soils, hardworking farmers and a flourishing market, so potatoes could be exported. Farmers adopted new potato varieties and used modern artificial fertilizers and pesticides, encouraged by extension workers and researchers from national and international institutions. With great success. Production soared during the nineteen seventies, and in the early eighties Carcho was producing half the national potato crop on less than a quarter of the national land surface.

But the good times didn’t last. In the nineteen nineties, production went down and many farmers were reduced to poverty and moved to the city. In his PhD thesis, Dr. Stephen Sherwood concludes that Carchi was a victim of modernization. He worked there for eleven years as a researcher and for a development organization. He saw how tractors and intensive cultivation eroded soils, causing artificial fertilizer to be washed away. And the monoculture of new potato varieties required more and more pesticides. To date, three quarters of the farming population have been diagnosed with neurological damage caused by toxic pesticides. Ecological damage led to a drop in productivity and because the price of fertilizer and pesticides went up while the price of potatoes went down, Carchi’s economic success waned.

Carchi has gone from being a textbook success story to being a textbook case of what heedless modernization can lead to. Sherwood doesn’t point the finger at any individual farmers or other parties such as pesticide suppliers. ‘It’s a result of the system, in which the producer doesn’t know who the consumer is. The producer then no longer takes the side of his own neighbours, their community and environment, but takes the side of anonymous consumers and faraway export markets. I call that organized irresponsibility.’

Sherwood says it is this system that must be broken down, and this can only be done through locally driven solutions. ‘The problem started because people from outside gave advice and pushed through changes. A condition for solving the problem should be that outsiders don’t propose solutions, but should stick to asking questions. That is in fact the role of science, a role that we have lost sight of.’ / Joris Tielens

Dr. Stephen Sherwood received his PhD on 8 June from Niels Röling, emeritus professor of Agricultural knowledge systems, and Cees Leeuwis, professor of Communication and innovation studies. His thesis is called Learning from Carchi: Agricultural Modernisation and the Production of Decline.

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