The Demise of Open Agricultural Burning: South America Leading the Way

Open agricultural burning impact and solutions

Carlos Crovetto has been one of the pioneers in Latin America and globally in the techniques of conservation agriculture:  using methods such as direct seeding and cover crops to improve soils.  Now, this powerful tool is being used also for climate and air quality protection by providing an alternative to open burning, the largest overall source of black carbon globally.

Many farmers set fires in their fields after harvest as a way to clear the land, but the practice damages soil fertility by destroying organic matter and soil structure. Smoke from the fires also endangers human health and can spread to neighboring fields, forests and buildings. And recent studies have shown that smoke produces particle pollution, particularly black carbon, which contributes to the atmospheric contamination that leads to climate change.

The message was communicated forcefully at the recent Andes Regional Conference: Mitigating Open Agricultural Burning in Lima, Peru by representatives of the Peruvian and Chilean governments, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the academic community and civil society.  The speakers noted that in regions that are covered with ice and snow – the cryosphere regions, such as the Andes – the black carbon darkens the surface and increases melting, thus threatening the future of the glaciers, a major source of irrigation for crops in the region.

Burning [agricultural residue] has a tremendous impact on soil around the world, and it’s a tremendous problem for sustainable agriculture." Renowned Chilean farmer Carlos Crovetto

For the Andes region the result is significant. Most polar and alpine regions like the Andes are warming more rapidly than the earth as a whole, and the trend is accelerating. The concern is that this could lead not only to the loss of land glaciers but also to changes in water supply, precipitation and weather patterns, increased methane and CO2 release from permafrost and seabed, and sea level rise.

Crovetto, who has been a leader in conservation agriculture since the 1970’s, uses what is known as no-till methods on his farm near Concepcion. The practice involves chopping the straw rather than burning it, and planting through the residue. He finds that the practice prevents erosion, and the soil holds moisture much longer during dry periods. “After 60 years working old eroded soils,” he says, “today, instead of losing soil, we are building soil every year through no-tillage. We have increased soil organic matter from 0.6% to 5% in the first inch. . . . [Grain] residues are chopped and remain on top of the soil.”

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Burning of rice residues after harvest around Sangrur, SE Punjab, India. Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Farmers in South America are discovering that no-till agriculture is not only possible but advisable. Brazil had one million hectares under no-tillage in 1990. Today the number is 31.8 million hectares. In the process, the country has doubled its grain production while increasing cropped land only 9%.

Argentina grew from two million hectares to 27 million today. About 80% of all crops in MERCOSUR (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay) are planted no-till. Farmers are finding that no-till agriculture not only reduces pollution but also reduces costs, saving as much as 66% on fuel.

To get there hasn’t been easy. Barriers that had to be overcome include lack of basic know-how on no-till agriculture, prejudice against some new farming methods, lack of adequate seeding machines (microfinancing has been key to correcting this problem), scarcity of suitable herbicides to control weeds, and a lack of the right government policies.

Amazingly, farmers have driven the changes. Now donors, development organizations and governments are playing catch-up.

One of the main organizations supporting the reduction in open burning has been the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC). With its partner, the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) taking a lead role, the CCAC has asked basic questions of Andean farmers and other experts in a results-oriented scoping project:

  • Where and when does burning take place?
  • What crops are being burned?
  • Why do farmers burn these particular crops and lands?
  • What are the available alternatives?
  • What are the barriers to their implementation?
  • Who can contribute what to addressing which part of the problem?

 

As it gathers this information, the CCAC is mounting conferences. In February it held regional conferences with agriculture ministries, extension services, experts, academics and farmers in Lima, Peru (aimed at the Andes) and in Kathmandu, Nepal (focused on the greater Himalayan region).  Next steps will include additional work to raise consciousness by conducting regional visits, and the design of pilot projects in each main region focused on at least two major crops burned in that region. Each project will identify proven alternative methods specific to these crops, and then seek funding for their deployment.  The projected completion date, with shovel-ready projects for both regions, is late summer 2015.

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Carlos Crovetto sees definite progress. “On these matters I have worked hard trying to convince farmers about the great benefits of no-tillage,” he says. “And we have some leaders in the country that are doing a great work producing without plowing and using straw without burning.” Sometimes he finds resistance, he says, and feels as if he is “going against the stream.” But he believes the resistance is born of lack of knowledge about better ways to do things.

“Today farmers have all they need for a real sustainable agriculture or soil improvement,” he says.

Crovetto has a motto: “The grain is for the man, the straw is for the soil.” He adds: “The soil does not belong to me, it belongs to every living thing on this planet.”

 

 

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