Colombia: The miracle of earthworms and quinoa
The cultivation of quinoa and the use of organic fertilizer have provided hope for overcoming the rural crisis in the department of Boyacá.
MONGUÍ, Colombia – The cultivation of quinoa and the preparation of organic fertilizer from the kitchen waste of an entire village have become a lifeline for more than 60 rural families in Monguí in the department of Boyacá.
“Necessity forced us to do strange things,” said Joaquín Dueñas, who leads the AgroSolidaria association, which brings together 64 families in the region.
The high cost of chemical fertilizers – which also have detrimental impacts on the soil and consumers’ health – and the falling prices for traditional crops such as potatoes have generated a crisis in rural Colombia.
During the agrarian strike that occurred between August and September 2013, thousands of rural workers shut down several regions of the country, particularly in the department of Boyacá, which until recently has been largely agricultural and is now facing serious economic problems.
Long before the strike began, the community of Duzgua – “running water” in the language of the Muisca, the ancestral inhabitants of the area – had started seeking alternatives that were within reach and didn’t depend on the will of officials.
Viviana Dueñas, one of the Dueñas’ five daughters, studied agronomy in Tunja and brought home some of the ideas that she learned in college and during experiences in Mexico, where she also studied.
The first of these ideas became a campaign to separate organic waste at the source to process it with Californian earthworms, turning kitchen waste from a village of 4,594 residents into the best fertilizer for their crops.
“We were paying $75,000 pesos (US$37.35) for bulk chemical fertilizer, but now we’re preparing much better compost at home by ourselves, and we aren’t throwing tons of waste into the landfill,” said Jesús Figueredo, a member of one of the 22 rural families that also have installed vermicultures in their homes and produce their own fertilizer.
In 2008, a total of 700 buckets were distributed to all of the homes in the town on Monguí. An awareness campaign was launched, a processing plant was built and millions of earthworms were purchased, with support from the municipal administration of then-Mayor Víctor Hugo Siabapo Cáceres.
However, with the change in the municipal administration in 2012, the budget was cut, though the project remained important. Dueñas found himself with no choice but to bring the vermiculture home.
Every Thursday morning, a garbage truck unloads between three and five tons of organic waste at his farm, where it must be cleaned of plastics and any other objects that were accidently included by citizens. It’s then applied to the worm beds.
With mountains of humus at home that the locals had been unable to sell, quinoa came on the scene.
Quinoa grew in the mountains of Monguí prior to the Spanish conquest, as well as in many other areas in the Andes, from northern Argentina to Colombia. But the grain was virtually unknown to the local rural residents – that is, until Dueñas explained that it’s a hardy, nutritious crop that is easy to market.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says quinoa is the grain with the most nutrients per 100 calories. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration supplies it to crew members on extended space missions. Its worldwide demand has increased 18-fold over the past decade, more than any other foodstuff.
The first year of planting in Monguí was hard. Eighteen acres were planted with the crop, and the losses made several families withdraw from the project.
Yet the community was not discouraged, and the lessons are paying off. The second harvest yielded 26 tons of quinoa, which will be added to the many more tons being produced in the other nine surrounding municipalities where quinoa has become a fashionable crop. Most of the harvest is then exported to Canada.
Dueñas recently tore out all of his wife’s flower gardens to plant more quinoa, and he promotes his crop among farmers from other parts of Monguí. His goal is to include at least another 60 families in 2014 and reach 230 tons of quinoa a year.
Lately, the truck has been dumping organic waste at other farms, at the request of farmers who also are planting quinoa and preparing their own fertilizers.
The humus also is used on other crops in Monguí, with the surplus sold to neighboring municipalities, such as Tópaga, Gámeza and Tibasosa. About 25 tons of humus are produced every four months.
“Now, we have to learn to eat quinoa because it’s a very good food,” said Dueñas’ wife, Alicia. “It’s so good that a neighbor’s chickens ate some quinoa and started laying two eggs a day.”
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