Jim Adriance worked as a Foundation Representative at the IAF from 1986–2004, managing in succession the portfolios for community-led development in Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Today, Jim consults for the Global Evergreening Alliance, a network of environmental, agricultural, and research groups aiming to scale up agroforestry and soil conservation.
Jim was interviewed by Sarah Stewart, a current Foundation Representative who also works with Central American grantees, including grantees Jim supported like COSECHA in Honduras. Sarah shares her takeaways after Jim’s recollections.
Primary challenges faced by indigenous peoples, particularly in agriculture
Jim explains that many indigenous communities felt a tension between using modern farming methods and traditional approaches well-rooted in the region. Many rich, valuable techniques came from the past, but farmers had to analyze the labor investment of each versus the benefit, as well as navigating outsiders’ opinions about which practices were considered authentic.
Terracing, the practice of shaping steep, hilly land into a series of stepped flat fields to grow crops and prevent erosion, was one key example. Traditional terracing using rock walls was a good idea in theory, but labor intensive in practice.
Farmers married positive aspects of terracing with current needs and developed a soil conservation technique called labranza mínima (“minimum tillage”) in which farmers only till the area they are going to use and gradually cultivate hillsides that are stable and apt for farming, using live plants or rocks for borders and working with the contours of the land.
In the 1980’s, Guatemalan indigenous leaders advocating for more environmentally-friendly techniques, including a focus on soil conservation, came to Honduras to share these techniques as well as the idea that indigenous farmers can learn from each other—they do not need to rely on a formally anointed technical expert to improve their production. Their ideas and methods spread across Honduras. Farmer organizations that espoused these techniques sprouted up, including the Asociación Consejeros para una Agricultura Sostenible, Ecológica y Humana (COSECHA) in 1992, which later became an IAF grantee in 2014.
“I think the genius of COSECHA was this co-generation of techniques together with farmers,” Jim recalls. They invested in farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchanges and research into agricultural issues such as which plants work best as “cover crops” to restore soil health.
COSECHA took a unique approach of starting with very small groups of farmers that would pilot, study, and evaluate techniques. They transmitted what they saw and learned to others. They started with basic approaches and adapted them to local conditions. This idea of testing, adapting, and applying practices to one’s own parcel is a basic tenet of COSECHA that has yielded long-term sustainability and a multiplier effect. Organizations like COSECHA learned that ideas stick when farmers are involved at all levels, from research to implementation.
According to Jim, the key role for nonprofit grantee organizations in sustainable agriculture is to spread ideas across communities and across generations: “There’s a notion that farmers will talk to each other naturally,” Jim commented. “But it’s really odd for one farmer to go over to another community and just volunteer to share his or her techniques. If organizations can earn trust, then they can promote real exchange. Absent a benign, trusted facilitator, it’s hard to make information spread spontaneously.”
The IAF’s Approach to Fostering Innovation
Jim explains that some specific technical innovations from that period included sustainable agriculture and agroforestry practices for difficult terrains, techniques for growing more crops on small plots, and the introduction of cash crops such as tomatoes as a gateway product to enter the commercial market.
But the real innovation was around methodologies and approaches, such as increasing awareness of indigenous cultures, engaging with farmers, cultivating leaders, and promoting the idea that innovation itself is ongoing. As Jim puts it, “We’re not about pushing a particular idea, we’re about trying new things. If you get the methodology right, innovations come out.”
To produce and/or capture ongoing innovations across the region, farmers in isolated and underserved areas needed access to peers from whom they could learn about sustainable agricultural practices going on in other areas that could be adapted to their own. Bringing farmer exchange programs to under-resourced, rural areas and getting farmers involved in sharing their knowledge as well was an innovation in itself.
Indigenous peoples have developed agricultural production methods over centuries and dealt with issues that resonate today, such as concern for soil health and using local natural resources effectively. We should look to understand their approaches to food production, because their ways have persisted over time. Not only do we need to seek out lessons from these groups, but we need to help them amplify their efforts to raise awareness of these practices in other areas where they may be applicable.
Takeaways from interviewer Sarah Stewart
Foundation Representative for Honduras and Belize