Minimizing external assistance and inputs key to sustainability
It’s a mantra in international development work: Don’t just feed people—help them become food secure by feeding themselves.
A noble goal, to be sure. But how do you achieve it?
Finding an answer to that question was the goal of a September 24-October 2 Canadian Foodgrains Bank-sponsored delegation visit to Honduras.
The delegation, made up of representatives from Foodgrains Bank member agencies, was led by Alden Braul, Capacity Development and Food Security Coordinator for the Foodgrains Bank.
The goal of the visit was to learn how local organizations in Honduras are promoting sustainability and community ownership among poor farmers, and to provide recommendations to the Foodgrains Bank for future work.
For Braul, a main benefit of the visit was seeing how local people utilize local know-how and resources to help themselves.
“The visit confirmed that the best way to ensure that people are able to feed themselves is by minimizing external assistance and inputs,” he says.
This means limiting the amount of free assistance provided by North American aid groups, he notes—things like equipment, seeds, fertilizer and other inputs.
“If we want to empower local people, we have to make sure they don’t become dependent on free resources from aid groups.”
That doesn’t mean aid groups shouldn’t assist people during and after emergencies, he notes.
“But we need to make sure our assistance empowers them to take ownership of projects that help them recover from disasters and improve their lives,” he says. “Otherwise, the project could simply end when external help is removed.”
By building up local systems, organizations and capabilities, and by empowering local people, “there’s a higher probability projects will continue after we go home,” he says.
The visit also showed the danger of overreliance on fertilizers and herbicides.
“Farmers used to use traditional methods to control weeds, prevent erosion and replenish the soil by growing legume cover crops,” he says, noting that many farmers began using fertilizer and herbicide because it seemed a simpler and less labour-intensive way to farm.
The result was not what they hoped for, however—the lack of cover crops led to reduced soil fertility, and to increased erosion.
“Since most farmers in Honduras farm on hillsides, the lack of a cover crop made the soil susceptible for washing away during rain storms,” he says. “Some farmers lost up to an inch (2.54 centimetres) of topsoil a year.”
Traditional methods take longer, and require more work, he notes, “but it’s better in the long run, it costs less, and farmers will be able to earn more.”
Plus, he adds, growing legumes “provides an additional crop that can be sold or eaten by the farmer’s family.”
In communities where farms were productive and sustainable, the results were dramatic, Braul reports.
“On productive farms, children were healthier, parents had more money for medicine, clothing and school supplies, and the family had a more diversified diet,” he says.
An additional bonus was that fathers were able to stay with their families—not move to the city to find a job, or try to get into the U.S. illegally to find work—and young people felt they had a future in farming.
“We met young people who were glad they didn’t have to leave the farm to find work,” he says. “They were happy to stay home and be farmers.”
Because almost 70 percent of people who are hungry rely on agriculture for their livelihood, finding ways to help farm families boost productivity, be sustainable and meet their daily food needs “is a priority for the Foodgrains Bank,” says International Programs Director Grant Hillier.
“Trips like this confirm the direction we are going when it comes to helping people improve their lives,” he adds.
At the same time, they also help the Foodgrains Bank “learn new ways to help farmers develop more resilient agricultural practices, so they will be better positioned to cope and adapt to the cyclical nature of food insecurity,”
Delegation participants were: Gillian Rumney (ERDO), Curtis Doell (Christian and Missionary Alliance), Wendy Galloway (United Church of Canada), Dan Wiens (Mennonite Central Committee), Chris Woodring (Foodgrains Bank consultant) and Braul. Top Photo: Alden Braul in Honduras Bottom Photo: Farmer Tranquilino Montano adopted a zero-tillage system with cover crops to sustainably produce corn on steep hillsides.