March 1, 2013

Landscape of the Week: Farmers of the Caribbean

Implementation of Sustainable Farming Practices in Trinidad’s Northern Range Communities

In the hillsides of Trinidad’s Northern Range, smallholder subsistence farming systems dominate the landscape. Pushed to this frontier by escalating pressure on low-lying agriculture lands from more urban development and a rising population, farmers continue to rely on short-term crops on the steep slopes there. Absence of trees (or agroforestry) and little or no investment in soil conservation measures, such as mulching and terracing, has resulted in runoff from fields, siltation of water courses, not to mention dangerous flooding and mudslides.

The challenges posed by these land use practices to the island’s ecosystems and human population prompted the piloting of an integrated approach to agricultural land management in the region. Led by The Cropper Foundation, and funded by the Inter-American Development Bank, the project focused on sustainable agriculture practices, knowledge sharing, and collaborative decision-making in the Caura/Tacarigua and Maracas/St. Joseph watersheds. The mission of the Foundation – to act as a framework mechanism for networking people and resources across various sectors to achieve Sustainable Development policy and practice – brings this project beyond the farm to the wider landscape or watershed.

In terms of transitioning agricultural land management, incorporating a high nature value farming index (HNVI) into the design of individual farm plans played an important role. This index, which considered local pest and disease pressure; agronomic practices; fertilizing practices; and management of crop growth, addresses some of the farm-level hurdles.

However, lessons and experiences from this project were intended to have broader impact, informing policy and programs in the government and non-governmental agencies involved in land use patterns and planning, environmental and water resource management, and agricultural practices of the Northern Range and other similar environments. Many of the lessons from the project reflect the principles of integrated agricultural landscape management, and are particularly informative for expanding to other areas in the region and to smallholder production in other regions of the world.

Participatory approachesincluding all relevant stakeholders and institutions, were deemed necessary for not only understanding the suite of challenges facing small-scale farmers, but also for developing solutions. It was therefore important to ensure that all project activities, including project design, implementation and evaluation, had a participatory focus and fostered a greater sense of ownership.

In dealing with agricultural systems, and a farming population, that were well-established, the project identified the importance of taking small steps towards a wider goal. Rushing big changes for these farmers, is neither beneficial nor effective, and undermines the confidence and buy-in built by collaborative processes. Finally, recognizing the need for longer term technical support and capacity-building is critical for dealing with the challenges these farming communities face. A long-term perspective is often necessary to establish sustainable farming practices, and incorporate considerations for stresses such as climate change.

Have these initial efforts of integrated management principles in Trinidad been successful? In February 2013, The Cropper Foundation received additional funding from GEF/UNDP to apply the lessons learned from the EcoAgriCulture project in the Maracas and Caura Valleys to three new valleys of the Northern Range: Santa Cruz, Lopinot and Aripo. This could be a first step to establishing integrated landscape management in this Caribbean region.

Read the final project report for more details.

Photo credit: Denni Schnapp

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