Throughout most of Latin America, the climatic phenomenon called El Niño is usually anticipated with dread, since the torrential rains it brings can cause severe flooding and crop loss. But the farmers who live in Piura, on the north coast of Peru, consider the seasonal weather pattern a blessing. Through an agricultural technology transfer project, they are learning to improve crop yields despite the extreme drought conditions and abundant rains generated by El Niño.
Illustration by Allan Núñez (“Nano”)
The variable and severe weather swings in Piura are related to cold air currents from the South Pacific and above the 19,600-foot-high Andes Mountains, which block moist winds from the Atlantic and generate precipitation. At the same time, as Fidel Torres, regional representative of the Agrarian Research and Extension Project of Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture explains, “The region also suffers the added effects of warm ocean currents from Ecuador, converting it into the very center of impact of the El Niño phenomenon and completely altering the region’s flora and fauna landscape.”
Piura and neighboring Tumbes hold the largest expanse of dry forest remaining in western South America, and the area’s vegetation helps control the northward advance of the Sechura Desert.
To help farmers survive the harsh weather conditions, the Community Promotion and Development Center (CEPRODECO, for its name in Spanish) together with three grassroots organizations, developed an initiative called the Improved Agricultural Technologies Project in the Malinguitas-Rinconada Dry Forest. The project involves some 400 families in the villages of Callejones, Casaraná and Rinconada in the farming community of José Ignacio Tabarra Pasapera.
According to Reynaldo Neyra, executive director of CEPRODECO, the project seeks to improve the quality of life for families through improved farming techniques and sustainable forest management. “The objective is to conserve the forest area in the communal lands, counteract desertification, improve soils eroded by winds and rains, and improve water infiltration in the soil,” he says.
Through the project, local landowners are managing three tree species characteristic of the dry forest: sapote (Capparis angulata); an acacia known as aromo (Acacia huarango); and a type of mesquite called kiawe, or “algarrobo” in Spanish (Prosopis pallida). Algarrobo is well adapted to arid conditions and sandy soils because its deep roots can reach ground water. The trees are also adapted to periods of abundant rainfall, because their seeds have different germination strategies. Torres adds that algarrobo pods are a good source of vitamins and proteins, and its leaves can also serve as fodder for cattle.
In addition to advising residents how to grow tree species well adapted to both arid and wet conditions, CEPRODECO experts have also introduced a breed of sheep that is well adapted to dry tropical climates; the livestock also contribute to seed dispersion. Crops promoted by the project include tamarind, which is resistant to drought and has high potential in international markets, cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), and watermelon.
The government of Peru finances 80 percent of the Malinguitas-Rinconada Dry Forest project, and the remaining 20 is covered by CEPRODECO and the local communities. Contracts stipulate that local farmers can pay their share after they harvest crops. That way, Torres points out, they perceive the project as an investment in which they are involved, not as a gift. “Farmers can work together in order to get involved in larger markets,” he says. “This is the only way to standardize technological changes. Collectively, costs can be reduced and access to markets expanded.”
CEPRODECO estimates that monthly per capita income of participants will soon increase by some 50 percent through the sale of cowpeas and sheep. Neyra asserts that farmers growing tamarind will earn 100 percent more than the average income in the region, after three years.
“For lack of regional strategies the El Niño event used to be considered a threat,” Torres admits. With efforts of the government and CEPRODECO, downpours brought by El Niño “are an opportunity to supply water to a normally deficient system.” To avoid seasonal flooding in Piura, the project focuses on watershed management and protecting trees and vegetation along rivers.
— Katiana Murillo
Contacts in Peru:
Community Promotion and Development Center
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index: