Planting Ideas That Take Root

Don Genaro

Don Genaro with healthy inga trees that are ready to be pruned.

EcoLogic had planted an idea in Don Genaro Perez’s head.

A farmer in the mountainous region of northeastern Guatemala, Don Genaro had been struggling to make ends meet for his family for years. Like many of the indigenous subsistence farmers in the region, Don Genaro grows corn for his family, and sells the little extra he may have. Over the years, Don Genaro had been experiencing a steady decline in his harvests, despite the frequent use of fertilizers and pesticides. When his family did not know when their next meal might come, Don Genaro needed a new strategy and quickly.

Subsistence or small-scale farming is the predominant economic activity in rural Guatemala. Declining harvests and a dependence on costly inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, contribute to over 70% of the rural population living in poverty. This low agricultural production has resulted in Guatemala having the highest rate of malnutrition in the western hemisphere. Half of all children under five in Guatemala are chronically malnourished, which permanently stunts growth and can cause premature death later in life. Many farmers would like to be able to change their practices, to break this cycle that leaves them at constant risk of starvation. However, without outside assistance this becomes nearly impossible.

In early 2008, Don Genaro became aware of an agricultural practice of known as “alley cropping”—a type of agroforestry—from a representative of EcoLogic Development Fund. Eager to experiment with this new technique, Don Genaro acquired Inga edulis seeds (guama in Spanish) from EcoLogic and began planting them alongside his traditional crop of corn. His neighbors thought he was crazy. Since trees typically compete with traditional crops for scarce nutrients and water, they thought that adding them to his fields could only hurt his harvests. However, the trees that Don Genaro planted functioned differently. In fact, these trees would replenish the soil with nutrients, fostering the growth of his crops without the need for artificial fertilizers or pesticides.

Technology Spotlight

Alley Cropping

Alley cropping involves the planting of nitrogen fixing or leguminous Inga edulis trees in rows alongside crops. Native to South America, the tree produces a sweet fruit which earned it the nickname the “ice cream bean.” The inga tree fixes nitrogen, an important nutrient for crops, to the soil and builds organic matter in soils through depositing their leaves on the ground. Read more about our work with inga.

Within two years of planting the inga trees, Don Genaro’s harvests were 40% greater than they had been in years past. No longer needing to spend money on fertilizers or pesticides, Don Genaro was increasing the size of his harvests, decreasing his expenses, and improving the nutrition of his family. With his larger harvests Don Genaro was also able to sell more of his crops, save for the future, and ensure the food security of his family.

Other farmers soon became aware of the benefits of planting inga trees alongside traditional crops and began adopting the practice as well. Since starting with Don Genaro, EcoLogic has worked with 385 farmers in eight different communities in this region of Guatemala. Our efforts in the region have helped Don Genaro and farmers like him improve their livelihoods and become food secure while conserving the natural landscape.

EcoLogic’s approach to conservation begins with planting an idea. We work with local communities to provide the information and training they need to improve their situation. Through collaboration and mutual understanding, we are redefining how conservation work is done. Our approach has generated impressive results in the countries where we work: Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and Panama. For more than 20 years we have been helping farmers like Don Genaro improve their well-being while conserving the natural world—by planting ideas, one farmer at a time.


Why is inga compared to vanilla ice cream?
Reaching a height of up to 30m (96ft), an “ice cream bean” tree produces cylindrical and often spirally twisted bean-like pods that grow up to more than two meters in length. Inside, lined up in one row, the pods contain numerous large purple-black seeds embedded in an edible, translucent-white pulp. The sweet flavor of the spongy pulp resembles that of vanilla ice cream; hence the name. Basically a yard-long candy bar that grows on a tree, most people will be sufficiently impressed by the size of this fruit and its delicious flavor.

This post was written by EcoLogic intern Sebastian Pillitteri.

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