Vetiver as a Component of World Relief's Sustainable Agriculture Program in Nicaragua


Since the 1960s, the southern Atlantic region of Nicaragua has been undergoing a transformation as its tropical forests are reduced to small forest fragments. The primary cause of forest losses has been the clearing and burning of forest lands along the advancing agricultural frontier. This in turn has been fueled by the in-migration of large numbers of landless campesinos, and the common use of inappropriate farming practices in the region.

World Relief’s agricultural program in Nicaragua works with subsistence farmers in two regions of the Southern Atlantic - Nuevo Guinea and the Río San Juan. The elevation ranges from 0 - 250 m above sea level and average rainfall varies from 2000 mm per year inland and increases towards the coast to an average of 5500 mm. Annual evaporation in the region varies between 500 mm to 1500 mm per year and temperatures range from 23º to 36º C, the months between March and May being hottest.

In general the clay soils are inappropriate for both agriculture and raising cattle. Until the 1960s, this region of humid tropical forest was sparsely inhabited. Those small farmers colonizing in these zones soon found that crop yields declined rapidly and were not economically viable. Thus farmers moved on to other lands and sold their farms to the expanding cattle ranches. Regardless, until the 1980s the population continued to increase and economic conditions improved as a result of the cattle ranching, the production of basic food crops, and through investment by government and donors in projects (non-sustainable) that helped develop the zone agriculturally.

After the revolution of the 1980s, this area was hit hard by the civil war and much of the population was concentrated in small communities, became refugees in Costa Rica, or were involved in both sides of the conflicting parties of the civil war. The ongoing war allowed the existing forests to remain untouched while other areas were able to regenerate to secondary growth. Unfortunately in 1988, Hurricane Joan destroyed much of the remaining forest cover in many of the areas.

After the end of the war and the change in government in 1990, large numbers of refugees began to return to the area putting heavy pressure on the poor, non-productive land. The Nicaraguan government has several projects and plans on paper to assist farmers to increase the sustainability of agriculture in the zone and to conserve forest reserve areas. Nonetheless, few of these projects are actually operating.

The goal of the World Relief program was to assist 2,600 farmers and their families to protect natural resources on their farms and improve sustainable crop yields in order to attain food security and steadily increase incomes. This was to be accomplished via three principle components. 1) Change agricultural practices to protect and improve soils and introduce crops (perennial) which were more suited to the zone; 2) Post-harvest management; and 3) Educating women in nutrition, horticulture and gardening, and food preparation to address nutritional deficiencies.

Migratory agriculture and its associated negative impacts on the environment was the main obstacle to overcome. The cultivation of basic grains (rice, corn and beans) that constituted the basic part of the diet and income of the campesino family resulted in continued movement on agricultural land year to year. Along with inappropriate farming practices, soil fertility declined rapidly which worsened yields in each cropping cycle. Small farmers were thus forced to sell their land to large landowners for their extensive cattle ranches and migrate into areas of forest reserve which has lead to the reduction of tropical forest.

When World Relief started working in the region in 1993, we tried to implement the same types of program activities used in the dry tropics where farmers had small parcels of land of 1 to 5 manzanas. Initially, the main activities included the construction of physical engineering works (drainage ditches) reinforced with live barriers of pineapple, lemon grass and Taiwan grass. Also, the use of green manures such as frijol terciopelo, canavalia, gandul, etc. were inlcuded for soil recuperation.

Soon it was discovered that these activities were not sufficient and the farmers avoided further soil conservation activities. The construction of drainage ditches on terraces required labor for construction and maintenance that the farmers and their families could not provide. The problem was that the small farmers in these areas had relatively large pieces of land (30 - 50 manzanas) and the available labor per area of land was significantly lower than that the farmer of the dry tropics who had only 1 to 5 manzanas. Furthermore, the plant species being used for live hedges were not acceptable. Pineapple did not function well as a hedge and it wasn’t being managed by the farmers. Lemon grass with its poor rooting system and susceptibility to attack by insects and diseases was not a better alternative. In many cases, Taiwan grass was a problem. It worked well if maintained, but unmanaged it became an invasive weed which was difficult to control. Again, it was a mistake not to consider the difference in agricultural practices of the area. In the dry tropics where the farmers have little land and need a supply of grass, Taiwan grass worked well because the farmer maintained it by cutting to feed to his cattle. But in the area of the World Relief Program, the quantities of available fodder exceeded the needs of the families due to their larger parcels and the dramatic reduction of the cattle herds due to the war.

After some thought, a program better adapted for soil conservation and improvement was developed. This took into consideration the following factors: type of soil (texture and structure), rainfall, degree of slope, amount of labor and agricultural practices in the zone, and erosion process (hydrologic or wind). We began to plan a new conservation strategy that was appropriate for the characteristics of the zone. It was decided to redirect activities from physical engineering works towards the establishment of live hedges and wind breaks. In addition, the promotion of annual green manures and alley cropping with leguminous trees would be continued. To avoid the problems experienced with the original species, it was necessary to search for a new species of hedge plant that was strong, established rapidly and required low maintenance. The only plant discovered with these characteristics was vetiver.

In March of 1994 we started working with vetiver obtained from CATIE (Center for Agricultural Technology and Training) in Costa Rica. We started by establishing demonstration plots with hedges that would serve as a source of planting material to supply the project area and other regions. Eight months after the establishment of the first hedges we started to harvest material and establish plots demonstrating other uses. Establishment on slopes and stream banks and dams were very successful. Without other methods, we succeeded in stabilizing large masses soil that were threatening to slide.

Based on our initial positive experiences, a year later we started harvesting and distributing vetiver plants to participating farmers, focusing principally on the use of vetiver in the following activities: 1) As a live hedge established on a double or single row with 15 cm spacing between plants and 25 cm between rows; 2) As a material to strengthen slopes or sides of gullies, streams and drainage ditches; 3) As check dams spaced 3 meters apart, combined with stone walls and embankments to stabilize gullies.

We promoted these activities because they were successful in our trials and we were confident in their results. Since we had no other technical information, bibliographies and further experiences we decided not to implement other alternatives. One of the major limitations we encountered in developing a program based on vetiver grass was the limited supplies of planting material. We then sent out all our technicians to search the entire region for material and were surprised to find vetiver in the zone. Although quantities were still limited that there was enough material with which to continue our program.

At that time some of the farmers selected centrally located access points to distribute vetiver to farmers to establish more demonstration plots for erosion control and multiplication. The road is long, but the first tries were solid, as one of our farmers said "the root of this vetiver grass is so deep that in order to pull out a clump you need not only a good tool, but a real man".

Vetiver grass has demonstrated that it is an undeniable success for its ability to control erosion, representing one of the most viable and accessible alternatives to the small farmer in the fight against erosion.

Some of the pioneer farmers in the establishment of vetiver grass were Don José Gómez, Ramón Reyes Mejía, Fausto Aguijar García, who have their farms in the Cerro Las Maravillas in the Department Río San Juan. From this small group, vetiver planting material has been shared with 2,600 farmers between the two project areas.

The zone of Maravillas is characterized by an irregular topography with slopes ranging between 22 and 28%. It is an area which suffered indiscriminate clearing where in some places the soils have practically disappeared and bedrock is exposed. Farmers in such areas felt helpless and without immediate alternatives to provide for their families.

The process has been slow, but the results are tangible. Starting with soils which were depleted by poor farming practices and subjected to washing away during high intensity rainfall. some soils have actually regained some of their fertility and are producing basic grains, cacao, coffee, cinnamon, and fruits among other crops with good yields. The key to success was the combination of a conservation program which utilized vetiver, leguminous cover crops and perennial crops that have returned to the environment part of what had been lost.

As the farmers say, "it’s a wonder to live on this hill, to enjoy the vista and life which comes from producing crops, and knowing that the children are growing up with hope for a better future".