How an Indigenous Community Is Boosting Crop Productivity While Conserving the Rainforest (Video)

In the Napo province of Ecuador, the Kichwa people have been cultivating naranjilla—a citrus fruit that looks like a tomato but tastes like a blend of lime and rhubarb—and selling it informally in markets across the country for many years. In fact, naranjilla production has been the primary cash crop for indigenous Kichwa communities in the Hatun Sumaco parish.

Unfortunately, naranjilla has also been the primary driver of deforestation in the area—and thus directly contributing to climate change.

Without direct access to markets, the Kichwa had traditionally sold their harvests to middlemen, who promoted dangerous quantities of highly toxic, red-listed pesticides to stimulate short-term production increases and then deducted the cost of the pesticides from the farmers’ profits. This mode of production depleted soils, forcing farmers to clear more forest for crops; it kept farmers entrenched in a cycle of poverty; and adversely impacted public health by contaminating local ecosystems with high levels of residual pesticides that have been linked to suicides and illness.

Starting in 2011, a group local and international NGOs, the Rainforest Alliance, United States Agency for International Development, and Kichwa communities started to make changes. Collectively, the groups saw a need to conserve the forest for the long-term while boosting naranjilla production.

Using climate-smart agriculture practices, such as manual weed-pulling to minimize herbicide use, applying organic fertilizer, and other soil conservation methods, farmers were able to increase the productivity of their soils and naranjilla plants. This in turn decreased the amount of pesticides needed to keep harvest rates up and helps reduce health risks. And because harvests increased without having to clear more land, the Kichwa communities significantly slowed deforestation rates.

The group worked to connect Kichwa communities to government programs, enhancing communities’ abilities to get funding and grants to further support their efforts. The Rainforest Alliance and other group members also increased Kichwa access to other naranjilla buyers, cutting out the middleman who had promoted dangerous pesticide use.

As forest-dwelling communities, Kichwa recognized the importance of replanting the degraded forestland around them. With the help of the Rainforest Alliance and other groups, young members of the community began to planting trees.

“We are reforesting and restoring the land so that our grandchildren and our children have a future,” says Claudio Shiguango, president of ASOCOSAKAWA, an organization of young leaders helping the community to implement its vision for conserving the forest.

Replanting the forest not only provides a legacy for future generations—increased forest cover provides habitat for animals, insects, and other plants; sequesters carbon from the atmosphere; and helps stabilize climate patterns in the area. This multi-faceted approach strengthens opportunities for communities to earn a sustainable living from the forest—and defines a powerful incentive for defending it.

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