Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Day 13, Part 1 - Industrial Ag in Santa Cruz, Bolivia

This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. Our thirteenth day, we traveled around the agricultural area of Santa Cruz with Productividad Biosfera Medio Ambiente (PROBIOMA). There, we saw a little responsible soy production and lots of irresponsible soy production.

This is a diary that I have been both anticipating and dreading, because I swore that when I wrote it, I would commit to giving up sugar for a month, with minimal cheating by substituting honey and maple syrup. You'll see why as you take a look at Santa Cruz's industrial agriculture below.

Our trip through the industrial ag region of Santa Cruz was depressing. We weren't able to visit any large soybean producers or any other large scale producers either for that matter.
For our look at "irresponsible" production, we had to be content with what we could see from the bus window, and what our guides from PROBIOMA told us. I picked up a book on soy production in Bolivia, so at some point in the future I will write up what I learn in that book.

Santa Cruz was not very well populated until a push for colonization of Bolivia's eastern lowlands began after the 1952 revolution. The wealthy and well-connected got huge landholdings here, but many peasants came from the highlands hoping to get some land here too. The majority of people here moved here from somewhere else, or else their families did before they were born.

In Santa Cruz, a "smallholder" is one with 20 hectares of less. The average landholding of a large producer around here is something like 16,000 hectares (nearly 40,000 acres). There was a successful referendum that limited landholdings to 5000 hectares, but it was not retroactive. Also notable: 70% of land in Santa Cruz does not have a legal title.

We often saw enormous mounds, which are anthills large enough that you could comfortably sit on them, were it not for the ants. Ants like open spaces and poor soils, which is what there is a lot of here in this area that used to be forest. The ant hills are a sign of soil degradation.

This area is almost entirely deforested.

Hello, monoculture

As we drove, we saw fields and fields of monocultures on both sides of the road, interrupted now and again by billboards or shops for agrochemicals, processing plants, and a house or tree or two here and there. It was terribly dusty and every vehicle would kick up enormous clouds of dirt. Here's a shot I took of one of the processing plants we passed - a soy processing plant, I believe:

Processing plant

Honestly, what made an impression on me even more than soy was sugar. Soy is something I avoid when possible. Even most of the animal products I consume come from animals that did not eat soy, although it's very possible that the cows that make the organic milk I drink get some soy in addition to the grass they eat. But sugar, on the other hand... oh man do I eat sugar. And now that there are genetically engineered beets on the market, the sugar I eat is cane sugar.

We passed field after field of sugarcane. I did not take pictures because it's boring and not worth it. I've taken pictures of sugarcane before, in the Philippines. And if you've seen one field of sugarcane, you've seen 'em all. Then we came to a sugar processing plant. It STUNK. Bad. Here's a photo of the enormous area where the trucks come to drop off their loads of sugarcane:

Trucks carrying sugarcane

More trucks carrying sugarcane

Truck carrying sugarcane

These pictures were taken during a low traffic time of day. Later, we passed this spot again when there was a full-fledged sugarcane truck traffic jam. Truck after truck after truck, full of burnt cane. They burn the fields to get rid of all of the leaves, making it easier to harvest the cane. Burning is bad in a number of ways. When they do the burning, there are emissions of gasses, and sometimes all of the nearby homes are covered with smoke. But the burning is also very harmful to the soil.

In the past, there was a push for self-sufficiency in sugar and rice in Bolivia. These days, there's a resurgence in sugar production, and now sugar is replacing other crops like soy, corn, wheat, and even some ranchland. The area we were passing through used to grow wheat in the winter and soy in the summer, but now it was growing sugarcane.

In March of 2011, there was a sugar shortage and the price went up. The government responded by restricting exports of sugar. Producers and processors responded to that by turning the sugar into ethanol and exporting it that way.

Sugar processing plants only pay US$50 per tonne of cane, but only if the cane has 12% sucrose. For every percent less than 12% of sucrose, the producer gets less money for the sugarcane. It costs $800 per hectare to plant sugarcane, and that must be done every 5 years because it's a perennial. It yields about 60 tonnes per hectare, or US$3000 per hectare if it has 12% sucrose. Sugarcane is harvested annually.

The processing plant, as I said before, STUNK. It was impossible to drive past it without wondering about the overpowering smell. The plant is a source of air pollution, but it also produces effluent because it uses a lot of water. In addition to all of the water used, the plant also uses chemicals to whiten the sugar. The effluent from the plant is very contaminated, and it sits around in oxidation pools, which is what caused the smell. When it rains, the pools overflow, resulting in fish kills. The plants are powered by burning bagasse, which is the term for sugarcane after the juice containing the sugar has been extracted.

In addition to sugarcane, I also asked about a few other crops. Our guide told us that farmers would spend $350 to plant a hectare of soy, yield 2 tonnes per hectare, and sell the soy for about US$400/tonne. That means each year a farmer would net about $450 per hectare, less any interest paid on loans. For corn, a farmer would spend $280 to plant each hectare, yield about 35 quintals, and sell them for 90 Bolivianos apiece. That equals 3150 Bolivianos (US$455) per hectare (gross), netting the farmer $175 per hectare.

As we drove, we saw one man spraying pesticide. We could smell it inside our bus, and the man was wearing no protective clothing whatsoever. The most popular herbicides around here are glyphosate (Roundup), 2,4-D, paraquat, and atrazine. Popular insecticides are cypermethrin, methamidophos (banned in the US), chlorpyrifos, endosulfan (which is banned in Bolivia but people use it anyway), aldrin, dieldrin, and endrin. Many of these are highly toxic.

The other major site we saw were pesticide ads:

"Before planting, kill weeds"

Syngenta's Bolivia site is under construction, but in Mexico, Doblete Super is made from Paraquat and Diquat. In other words: VERY TOXIC.

Our friend Arysta Lifescience, the makers of methyl iodide, with their slogan "Harmony in growth"

I made a list of products I saw advertised:



  • Uptake (A spray additive to improve the spreading and wetting of herbicides on plant surfaces)
  • DAS-5000 (Hybrid sorghum seed)



Nitrogen fertilizer


  • Doblete (paraquat and diquat)

Bayer Cropscience

Other Companies
  • Genesis fungicide by AgroBolivia (Azoystrobin and Cyproconazole)
  • Orius fungicide by Mana Crop Protection (Tebuconazole)
  • BIOGAL - a biological control by PRIOBIOMA!

Other Fertilizer Brands
Nutripak fertilizer
Misti fertilizer
Borpak fertilizer
Croplift (by Yara)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Day 12, Part 5 - More on Biological Control with PROBIOMA

This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. Our twelfth day was one I was eagerly anticipating. We left the city of Santa Cruz for two days with Productividad Biosfera Medio Ambiente (PROBIOMA). First, they took us to their training center, where we would spend the night, where they presented on their work. Then we visited a small, organic farm. The next day they took us to the heart of the industrial ag region of the department where we saw responsible soy production and lots of irresponsible soy production.

This post covers the last of a very long, tiring (but wonderful) day with PROBIOMA, in which they presented to us on some of the specific biological pest controls they promote.

The next presentation went into more specific details about biocontrols. Here is what was said, to the best of my ability to transcribe it:

The talk was about agroecological management strategies. Our presenter said that the solution to Bolivia's food sovereignty is not the expansion of the agricultural frontier but in the improvement in the management of farmland. PROBIOMA works with communities and producers associations so they can identify their own problems, their own priorities, because it's very difficult for individual smallholders to do that by themselves. PROBIOMA could have some idea of what's best for the producers, but they have to develop that and arrive at it on their own with their own priorities so they don't become dependent on PROBIOMA.

They identify, for example, a problem in a certain crop. Let's say something is attacking their fruit, or there's a plant disease, an insect attacking vegetables. So let's say there are aphids (pulgones). After identifying the problem, making the diagnosis, they come together to make a decision. They identify the proper way to apply bioregulators to address the problem. The agrochemicals they often use will cause imbalances with the relationships in between insects, microbes, and plants, so we come in with these bioregulators to try to restore this balance. The goal is to increase the amount of healthy, safe food produced. With the efficient and correctly timed use of biological control, we've been able to increase yields.

An important component is training in nutrition. Sometimes it's important to note that the actual pest that is causing the problem is actually the least important part of the problem, it's more of a systematic problem. The first thing PROBIOMA looks at are the elements of soil. A healthy soil with lots of microorganisms - a living soil - yields strong plants. One thing they use is a fertilizer called bocachi. It is made from locally available resources: straw, manure, charcoal, wheat husks, molasses, and yeast. They mix it and after 20 days it is ready to incorporate into the soil.

He then showed us a sponge with 2 million beneficial nematodes in it. To use it, a producer soaks it in water and then sprays the water-and-nematodes on the soil. It takes 10 sponges per hectare to control the pests. The sponges sell for about US$2. Later, they showed us a demonstration of the nematodes in action, under a microscope. The nematode will control for larvae of an insect that eats the roots of plants. The nematode carries a bacteria with it, and when it finds a larva, it inoculates it with the bacteria. The bacteria will multiply, killing and digesting the larva, and then the nematode eats the bacteria.

The larva, already dead and being eaten by the bacteria and nematodes.

Tanya looks at the larvae and nematodes under the microscope to see it in action. One of the sponges with nematodes is next to her on the table.

Cultures of bacteria and nematodes.

Another microorganism PROBIOMA uses is trichoderma, a beneficial fungi that controls a number of soil diseases. For example, it controls early blight (tizón temprano). In the case of potatoes, we apply it directly after planting the seed. Then we apply the bocachi and cover it with soil. They also use liquid "teas" (like compost tea) - I think an example of one they do this with are white flies (moscas blancas). And they use insect pheromones to attract and trap pests like moths (polillas). In their system, he said, they can double potato yields compared to conventional systems.

They also work in organic quinoa production. He said of the 35 municipalities in Oruro, 32 are already in the process of desertification. So they work there in soil management. Trichoderma eliminates the toxic residues in soil and also helps the seed germinate. They use 100cc of their trichoderma product plus 200cc water per 8 kg seeds.

And, he said, they use light traps to catch moths, along with pheromones. They work to conserve the natural predators and beneficial insects too, like beneficial wasps in the family Braconidae. The wasp lays its eggs in the pest larva and then when the wasps hatch they eat the larva. Of course, they also use ladybugs as a control. They also use bait (cebo) to attract beneficial insects to come kill the pests.

Another organism they use is a fungi called Beauveria bassiana, which parasitizes and kills a number of types of pest insects. All in all, they have 300 types of beneficial organisms - fungi, bacteria, and nematodes - to use on over 60 crops all over Bolivia.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Day 12, Part 4 - A Santa Cruz Style Small Organic Farm

This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. Our twelfth day was one I was eagerly anticipating. We left the city of Santa Cruz for two days with Productividad Biosfera Medio Ambiente (PROBIOMA). First, they took us to their training center, where we would spend the night, where they presented on their work. Then we visited a small, organic farm. The next day they took us to the heart of the industrial ag region of the department where we saw responsible soy production and lots of irresponsible soy production.

This diary covers the organic farm we visited on our first day with PROBIOMA.

To say we were shocked when we arrived at Casa Loma is an understatement. If you've followed these diaries, you're aware of the poverty we'd seen throughout the trip. Next thing you know, we pull up at a "small farm" that looks like this:

Casa Loma, the house

The couple who owned the home and the "small farm" (which is more of a very large market garden) was lovely. They spoke English fluently. The man was educated at Texas A & M and he was working in the Chaco in the oil industry when they met. The woman was in the Chaco because her father had a cattle ranch there. Since they've been married, they've lived all over the world, in several countries, and their children are now spread out around the world as well.

The couple has lived here now for 10 years. One of their children actually designed this home for them. They named it Casa Loma (Hill House), which is also the name of the brand they sell their produce under. They have a total of 11 hectares, but a relatively small part of that is used for growing food. The land is worked by 8 employees, four full time and four half time. The couple who owns the place spent several months in the U.S. this past year, so clearly production can continue easily without them.

The woman led us around her property and her gardens, beginning with a tour of a small greenhouse, where she had a number of seedling trays for cut baby greens and perhaps for starts to transplant into the garden as well although I'm not sure about that.

The greenhouse

Seedling trays

Beet seedlings

Lettuce seedlings

From there, we walked down a path through a patch of forest to get to the garden. During our walk, I recognized a motacu palm, the most important palm in Bolivia's Amazon region where I visited in 2010. I guess it grows here too. The woman also pointed out a vanilla vine:

A motacu palm


Then we arrived at the gardens:

A view of the terraces

As you can see, it was arranged like a patchwork quilts, with beds that were each maybe four feet wide and perhaps ten feet across, each filled with a different crop. These beds were on terraces, and some were under a roof for plants that cannot tolerate the rainy season. Within each bed, the plants were planted along ridged rows in straight lines.

The plants were planted in the low part of the ridges, where they would be covered in water during heavy rains or when irrigated. Even here, the climate crisis is changing the rains. Usually the rainy season begins in November, she said, but the last 3-4 years it began late, in December.

Casa Loma grows a lot of high value crops like leafy greens and herbs, as well as peppers, tomatoes, and onions. During our visit, we saw: onions, spinach, peppers, lettuce, arugula, carrots, spinach, beets, radish, tomatoes. They also have wild passion fruit growing here, including a local variety called pachío.




Sweet peppers


They also grows several types of sprouts: Broccoli, radish, alfalfa, and one more.

Tanya with some sprouting trays

We also saw the following herbs: chives, thyme, oregano, rosemary, dill, garlic chives, parsley, cilantro, basil, mint, marjoram.

A marigold with chives



For fertility, they add composted chicken bedding to the soil. They get it from the many chicken farms in the area, and then mix it with dirt and debris from the forest to compost it before adding it to the soil.

Composted chicken bedding

She brings many of her seeds from the U.S. but sometimes she allows her plants to go to seed and then saves the seeds.

Lettuce that is going to seed.

Arugula going to seed.

The carrots below are too old to sell. When this happens the workers take them home or they are given to a nearby orphanage.

Irrigation and carrots

During our visit, I asked why they were committed to organic. The woman told us she grew up on a ranch in the south of Bolivia and her parents did not use any chemicals. Her grandfather was German and he taught her father how to grow food organically. She went to school in Argentina but then she and her siblings would return to the ranch on their vacation and would help in the gardens. She said that back then, Bolivia just didn't have diseases so there were no reasons to spray. But then industrial cotton production came to Bolivia, and with it came spraying. That's when plant diseases first became an issue.

Her travel around the world increased her awareness of organic, and when she and her family are in the U.S. they buy organic. She has two grandchildren in the U.S. and their mother buys organic food for them.

As a form of pest control, they bring a bunch of baby chicks into the garden during the rainy season every year. The rainy season brings grasshoppers, and the chicks eat them up. But you cannot leave the chickens in the garden forever or else they will eat all of the plants too. The larger chickens are kept elsewhere for both meat and eggs, although she says it makes her sad to kill them. She doesn't kill them herself though - the workers do.

Another pest they have a problem with is one they call an "abuela" (grandmother) bug. They are trying to use PROBIOMA's biological controls on the abuelas but they've also had luck using dish detergent and sunflower oil. (I'd caution anyone who wanted to try that at home. Soap is fine if it works; detergent takes longer to break down in the environment and is possibly contaminated with a carcinogen.) The detergent and oil worked so well she had a hard time finding a live bug to even show us.

An abuela bug

Another abuela

Peppers that were eaten by abuelas

We walked back toward the house with her to see where the greens are packaged. As we walked, we saw a banana tree. This area was all forested when they bought it, and they had it all cleared by hand - not burned - by their workers. The road to their home was also built entirely with manual labor.

Banana tree that is planted right where the greywater from washing the vegetables flows.

Some of the forest that remains on the property.

As we walked, she pointed out a "Palo Borracho" (Drunken Branch) tree, which is also called the Silk Floss tree or Ceiba speciosa. She said you can stuff pillows with the "cotton" but it is so humid in Santa Cruz that you need to put them in the sun every day to dry them out and fluff them back up.

A Palo Borracho tree

The "cotton" from the palo borracho

Here are the greens, being packaged and going to market. They sell the packages for 8 Bolivianos each (a little more than US$1), and the store then sells them for 12 Bolivianos apiece.

The greens, all packaged for the store. Notice that they ARE being advertised as "organic."

Packaged greens

Packaged greens

Greens going to market

A few days later, we went to the grocery store where Casa Loma brand is sold to compare their prices against other products.

It was difficult to compare because everything was packaged and it was hard to account for the weight of the packaging when weighing each product, but it was obvious that Casa Loma's products are expensive. For example, a package of Casa Loma spinach sells for 10.39 Bolivianos. Non-Casa Loma spinach sells for 2 Bolivianos for a bag.

Casa Loma's arugula sells for 11.90 Bolivianos, and the entire package (including the weight of the container) was a mere 0.078 kg. A larger container from Casa Loma packed with mizuna also sells for 11.90 Bolivianos. Same with their romaine and mesclun. Casa Loma alfalfa sprouts were sold for 11.30 Bolivianos. Casa Loma parsley went for 10.60 Bolivianos.

Of the non-Casa Loma products available, a bag of what looked like butter lettuce sold for 6.30 Bolivianos. Parsley went for 6 Bolivianos per kilo, and a bag weighs much less than a kilo.

After our stop near the house where the greens were being packaged, we visited the orchard, where they grow macadamia nuts, bananas, lemons, avocados, different types of mangoes, tangerines, mandarins, oranges, tamarind, and papayas.

The orchard

Papayas... the monkeys like to come take these.

I don't have a photo of it but they also keep 10 beehives and produce their own honey.

Peggy with their dog.

Our last stop was inside their home (which was GORGEOUS), where they showed us the salad dressings they make and market too. They let us try them with some of their vegetables. Delicious, of course.

As we were leaving, the woman's husband asked me what I thought of Rick Perry for President. So there you go, that's Santa Cruz for you. It's another planet from everywhere else in Bolivia I've been.