Piet Sabbe is the owner/operator of Vetiver Consult Ecuador. He is has 30 years of hands on experience using vetiver for eco-restoration. He was also the winner of the 2022 Vetiver Short Video competition with his movie “Vetiver on Contour Lines in Your Farm and in the Landscape“.
There are many experienced vetiver users, like Piet, around the world whose skills should be tapped, supported and encouraged with the objective of upscaling Vetiver Grass Technology (VGT) in their communities and localities. Most of them are very willing to share these skills, but need additional support (perhaps in the form of a couple of young technicians that they could train in VGT extension). Agencies such as the Inter American Development Bank (that supports vetiver initiatives in the Caribbean) might want to give Piet’s proposal consideration.
The following is Piet’s assessment of the current dire situation in his part of Ecuador and his proposal (concept) on how it could be resolved.
Demographic pressure, deforestation, and unsustainable agricultural practices have caused severe land degradation worldwide. It is estimated that in Ecuador, 30% of arable land is depleted or in the process of becoming unproductive, leading to economic difficulties for small farmers and subsequent migration. Ecuador is an incredibly biodiverse country but is also a victim of constant attacks on pristine landscapes. Even at the farm level, what used to be rich and diverse farms have been impoverished and replaced by commercial crops, with every square meter of wild vegetation being cleared for monocultures and pastures. The misguided agricultural reforms of the 1960s and the Green Revolution of the 1970s have reduced small farmers’ farms to economic units that have to produce dollars at the expense of the many services nature provides, resulting in very negative impacts on the environment and the farmers’ livelihoods. The silent and unnoticed disaster on every hillside farm is erosion, the wearing away of the fertile layer.
Parallel to the loss of productivity of cultivated areas due to inappropriate agricultural practices, soil erosion caused by rain and wind is not only causing landslides within the farms but also the runoff of tons of sediment, carried by creeks and rivers to lower areas, causing disasters and floods. For example, the flood in Esmeraldas at the beginning of June 2023, due to the overflow of the Teaone and Esmeraldas rivers, which displaced 14,000 people, is precisely the result of the disaster that has been gradually developing for seven decades and continues to threaten. In other words, it is a continuous disaster with two faces: on the hillsides, soil fertility and productivity are lost, and landslides occur, while in the plains, floods occur due to the excess sediment from the farms.
2 Reversing this process of degradation and disasters.
If nothing is done, serious social and economic conflicts will inevitably develop in the coming years, further aggravated by the effects of climate change. The threat must be addressed at its source: the family farm. There is an efficient and low-cost technical solution, developed in Asia since the 1980s and based on planting a grass species called Vetiver on contour lines as hedgerows.
Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides) is a rigid, erect, perennial grass with deep roots. Since it does not produce viable seeds, it reproduces vegetatively from “splits” from the mother plant (for more details about the plant see this link. These unique characteristics make it suitable for planting barriers on contour lines to stop erosion and recharge water in the soil. Over time, bench terraces are formed, and the resulting reshaping of the slopes not only reduces soil loss and improves farm productivity but, when implemented at a community and regional scale, is the most promising strategy (in tropical and subtropical areas) for increasing resilience to climate change, reducing land degradation, and disaster risk.
3 Creating RESILIENCE at the family farm level.
The purpose of the Vetiver Grass System (VGS) is not merely to set out contour lines against erosion but also to increase the farm’s resilience to climate change by creating a relationship between vetiver, crops, and wild vegetation. In other words, the only way to make the farm resilient is by significantly increasing both biomass and soil biodiversity and soil microbiology. VGS is the first step in designing the farm according to the water flow through the property. This is followed by the introduction of trees and shrubs according to the family’s desires and needs.
4 Overcoming resistance to the VGS.
It is expected that farmers will initially resist a technique that is completely unknown to them. Therefore, it is advisable to analyze their economic situation and how it can be improved. Here are some guidelines observed in the implementation of VGS in various countries around the world in tropical and subtropical regions:
- Demonstrate the benefits: Farmers are often more convinced when they see firsthand the positive results of a new practice. Organize field demonstrations and test plots to show the advantages of practices that improve soil productivity and reduce erosion. You can invite other farmers to observe and ask questions and share data on higher yields, reduced input costs, and more.
- Emphasize long-term benefits: Farmers may hesitate to adopt new practices if they seem risky or require significant upfront investment. It can be helpful to emphasize the long-term benefits of increased soil productivity and reduced erosion, such as improved soil fertility, less environmental damage, and higher crop yields over time.
- Explain short term benefits: use of vetiver as mulch/forage, reduction of soil temperature, improved soil moisture, and pest reduction
- Provide technical assistance: Small farmers may lack the knowledge, skills, and resources to effectively implement new practices. Provide technical assistance in the form of training sessions, farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and access to extension services, so they can feel more confident in adopting new practices.
- Address potential obstacles: Identify and address any potential obstacles that may prevent small farmers from adopting new practices, such as limited access to inputs or markets, cultural or institutional taboos, or other gaps effecting resource-poor farmers, solutions may include providing loans to those farmers who apply the VGS design on their property.
Considering that the adoption of any new technology by farmers depends on the income benefit of that technology, we have to demonstrate that the VGS helps improve the family economy. The best way to show this is to have some real-life examples by establishing some small farms with Vetiver on contour lines, first locally in the villages of La Carolina Parish.
In El Limonal, Vetiver Consult has applied the VGS in combination with crops in several plots and invites stakeholders to visit the application. Vetiver Consult is also available for consultations and advice within the province.
5 The role of the State and NGOs.
Apart from some praise, the government and its various subagencies have so far not paid attention to the potential of VGS. NGOs working with peasant families in the application of agroecology and permaculture have so far only mentioned the good properties of Vetiver. They have also donated plants to farmers for pilot projects, but have not fully evaluated the positive impact of VGS on farm design or fully incorporated it into their extension programs.
Despite this initially very poor response to this unique technique, it is of most importance that the government and NGOs take VGS seriously and help farmers with its implementation on their farms.
Of course, it is more than just planting several lines of Vetiver on the slope. It is a revolutionary proposal that requires a lot of energy, resources, patience, and empathy to convince farmers that this VGS design is their last chance to create a productive, abundant, and disaster-resilient farm in the face of the climate change that still lies ahead.
Additional financial resources gives us more leeway to carry out all kinds of activities that draw attention to the VGS. The first action on the part of the state and NGOs will be to contact farmer organizations with an explanation of the VGS and reach agreements to apply the concept of contour lines with Vetiver on motivated farmers’ farms, through the organization of workshops and field visits.
6 Availability of Vetiver plant material for implementation in pilot projects.
Since 1996, Vetiver Consult has been producing large quantities of plant material for VGS projects in its plantations. Piet Sabbe and the staff, thanks to their many years of experience, are available to provide advice, organize workshops, and accompany pilot plantations in the province. Interested NGOs can organize group visits and workshops on the domain and in the conference room of Vetiver Consult. Here is the link to a short video that provides a concise overview in 6 minutes of the application of Vetiver on contour lines: https://youtu.be/0-NC00Cp3uE
This project concept stands out because it promotes a cheap, attractive, feasible, reproducible, effective, sustainable, and ecologically compatible technology for erosion control and soil regeneration. The project differs from other projects in that the leverage is strong; with a minimum of additional resources, the result is high.
VGS is the ultimate survival strategy for small farmers on the slopes of the tropics and subtropics. These farmers cannot afford to worry about carbon sequestration or biodiversity protection, both concepts are too academic for them. They are also not interested in reforestation programs, though they are interested in integrating economic perennial trees (fruit, coffee) into their farms. Their goal is to earn a dignified living from the land.
The project gets to the heart of the matter: water, soil quality, and food production in the context of building resilience against a very serious threat: the unpredictability of climate change.
The VGS is an on-farm activity, directly involving the farmer in the design and implementation of their survival plan. Neighboring farmers who notice the good effects and economic benefits of VGS will not need much rhetoric to convince themselves. The more farmers adopt VGS, the more farmers will jump on the Vetiver bandwagon.
And in the process of establishing properly designed VGS farms, carbon will be sequestered, biodiversity will be protected, and trees will be considered their best allies. The jigsaw puzzle of combined regenerated individual farms will result in a lush and resilient landscape.
El Limonal, June 29, 2023