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Sustainable ranching gains foothold in Panama’s drought-prone zone

September 29, 2014

Sustainable ranching gains foothold in Panama’s drought-prone zone

When Smithsonian scientists from the Native Species Reforestation Project “PRORENA” asked Alcibiades Vergara to consider planting trees and shrubs on his ranch, the 70-year-old rancher scoffed

When Smithsonian scientists from the Native Species Reforestation Project “PRORENA” asked Alcibiades Vergara to consider planting trees and shrubs on his ranch, the 70-year-old rancher scoffed. In Panama’s Los Santos province a ranch that is not 99 percent grass goes against the region’s generations-old identity. Cleared, seasonally green pastures are the societal norm.

But Los Santos’ grazing lands are in Panama’s most deforested, driest zone. Cattle suffering from dehydration and malnutrition make headlines every dry season. So, somewhat skeptically, Vergara set aside a few hectares for a silvopastoral experiment where trees, forage shrubs and grasses complement livestock production. Three years later, he couldn’t be happier.

“Now the cattle don’t die on us,” he said, hosting a group of ranchers on his farm, now tall with grass and nutrient-rich shrubs. “And we milk them all through the dry season.”

Vergara is one of more than 30 members of the Association of Livestock and Agro-Silvopastoral Producers of Pedasí (APASPE). They are gradually transforming farming practices in Los Santos, under the guidance of the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative (ELTI), a collaboration between the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and STRI. ELTI built on experiences from the “PRORENA” project, another STRI-Yale initiative that conducted on-farm trials of native tree species in Los Santos beginning in 2004.

ELTI provides ranchers with knowledge that helps them select their best farmland for intensified silvopastoral systems, freeing-up marginal agricultural land and highly degraded areas for conservation. As Vergara attests, a few hectares of better-managed land are more profitable and better for the environment than larger, barren pastures.

“Farmers adopt these practices as they witness an increase in production and resiliency of their farms, and most importantly, it seems to be breaking the cultural barrier,” said Jacob Slusser, the Panama Coordinator for ELTI’s Neotropical Training Program.

The barriers are considerable. Vergara, in spite of his success, says he’s subject to ridicule from fellow farmers for not having a “clean” pasture. In Los Santos, his silvopastoral land is considered a “widow’s farm” because it appears abandoned. Yet the system is expected to expand as an increasingly unpredictable and harsh climate takes its toll on subsistence farming communities.

Fernando Uribe, of the Colombia-based Center for Research on Sustainable Farming Systems (CIPAV), says the two biggest challenges facing silvopastoral systems are access to funds — a system can cost some $1,500 per hectare — and technical training.

CIPAV data from Colombia show that daily output of dairy cows more than doubled. Milk quality, measured in protein and fat content, increased four to six times. And the system is far less reliant on herbicides than traditional farming.

Since 2009 ELTI has been providing capacity building opportunities and leadership support to farmers in Los Santos. This month’s course emphasizes ecosystem services provided by tree-covered landscapes — soil fertility, water infiltration and climate regulation, most importantly — and introduces landowners to the process of implementing silvopastoral systems.

“It won’t be easy, but we have to do this,” said Edelmira Navarro, one participant. “Things are going from bad to worse. We have to look for alternatives.”

The younger generation has been abandoning cattle ranching. Misael Batista, who turned 22 during the course, will stay to implement a silvopastoral system on 34 hectares of land. He sees this as a way to change the way farming is done: to improve the productivity of the land while preserving a healthy way of life.

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