Two years ago, Manolo Rojas was prepping his fields to plant green peas on his farm in Huayao in central Peru the way he always did, by burning the debris from the previous crop and tilling the soil. When a technician from humanitarian organization CARE International approached him to say that he’d have better results if he didn’t do either of those things, he was sceptical.
“It seemed illogical,” Rojas said. After all, it was how farmers around the world turned their fields over between growing seasons. But Rojas had started seeing rocks on the surface of his fields which he knew meant he was losing topsoil, the nutrient-rich upper layer necessary for a robust harvest. He had also started to worry more about climate change so when the technician told him that open agricultural burning was responsible for over a third of all black carbon emissions, a short-lived climate pollutant that contributes to air pollution, climate change, and increased melting of the cryosphere (regions of snow and ice), his interest was piqued.
“We don’t know if we don’t try,” he said. “So I decided to give this technician a chance and try it.”
It’s been two years and Rojas is staggered by the difference it has made on his farm and in his life. Not only are the rocks gone but he’s starting to see earthworms and other insects again in the now rich and dark soil where he plants corn, carrots, and other vegetables. Better yet, his yields are either the same or even higher than before. Not since he met his wife in college and moved to her hometown to start farming has he seen the soil this healthy.
“I committed to the project because I was worried about climate change and all the climate issues that we are facing. I know that if we don’t take care of the environment we’ll be facing lower yields and lower production in the future. Now that I’ve done it I realize that it’s also boosted production and I’m so happy about that.”
The lessons Rojas learned were part of a project implemented by CARE Peru with international coordination by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) that helped farmers learn about conservation agriculture through training and study tours.
I know that if we don’t take care of the environment we’ll be facing lower yields and lower production in the future.
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s (CCAC) Agriculture Initiative supports regional networks and projects that facilitate the adoption of open burning alternatives. Implementing these “no burn” methods could cut global black carbon emissions by half, while simultaneously providing economic and social benefits for farmers like Rojas.
Since 2014, the CCAC has worked with the ICCI to tackle this problem with local partners through demonstration projects in Peru and India.
In Peru the demonstration project was implemented with the support of CARE Peru and the National Agricultural Innovation Institute for Peru.
Conservation agriculture is picking up around the world, spurred on by successes of farmers like Rojas who have participated in these kinds of projects. In fact, it is replacing conventional tillage agriculture at a rate of 10 million hectares of cropland every year.
The practice involves zero or very minimal mechanical disturbance through a practice called no-till seeding. Instead of burning the crop residue to clear the way for the next planting season, it is retained and used as soil mulch cover which helps it retain moisture making it healthier and less likely to erode. It also uses crop rotation to optimize soil nutrients and combat pests and weeds. Not only does conservation agriculture generally result in increased yields, it also makes crops more resilient to extreme events, making it a potential climate change adaptation strategy.
Open burning, which is defined as all intentional burning in the agricultural sector but excludes prescribed burns on wildlands, isn’t something only Peruvian farmers do. It’s widely practiced around the world as a cheap and fast way to remove the excess agricultural straw from previous crops. There’s a misconception that burning helps fertilize the soil but it actually strips it of nutrients by destroying organic matter. This means farmers spend more money adding fertilizer to maintain their crop yields. By using conservation agriculture farmers can improve wheat yields, for example, by 10 percent within the first two years.
Open burning is a huge problem in India, where the CCAC is also pursuing a multi-pronged approach to eliminate the practice, including educating farmers and helping them access alternatives, monitoring fires and tracking their impact using satellites, helping turn agricultural stubble from waste into a resource, and supporting policy interventions such as burning regulations or agricultural subsidies for better farming equipment.
“I’m not destroying the environment anymore because I’m not burning and I’m taking care of organic matter,” Rojas says. “Before when I burned I was polluting the environment and nowadays I’m not doing that and I’m really happy about it.”
He adds that more immediate and personal benefits are also evident. “I get a higher quality product, with fruits and vegetables that weigh more and taste better. I sell my products for human consumption, so that really matters.”
Rojas says he and his wife have also benefited from the time they’ve saved, time that they can now spend with their son who just finished law school. There are also financial rewards. Rojas estimates he’s saved $200 per hectare per year since he’s adopted conservation agriculture techniques because it’s easier to prepare the field for planting. Conservation agriculture saves money from tillage and irrigation by reducing the frequency with which they’re needed. Farmers also save money on manual labour, fuel, and fertilizer by up to a net of 50 percent.
Rojas wasn’t alone, the project has had impressive success rates, in part because farmers like Rojas provide leadership and stellar examples of the ways in which conservation agriculture can improve conditions for the farmers and for the planet. Of the 32 farmers who participated in the training, 23 do not burn anymore. Yields of both green peas and maize increased as a result of the new farming practice.
“I started by myself but I want to lead others to continue with the change,” Rojas said.
“I think that the most important changes I’ve seen in Manolo and in other farmers that I knew throughout the project was the change in their mindset,” said Juliana Albertengo, ICCI Andes Open Burning Coordinator. “They’ve opened their minds and they’ve learned to think systematically. Instead of thinking in terms of individual crops, they’ve learned to see everything as a system which includes both their economic issues and also the climate.”
There’s another environmental benefit from the method, it also helps save water. Rojas says he used to irrigate his crops every 10-15 days but now they can go much longer because the soil retains moisture better because the crop residue covers it.
“Water is a limited resource here and those resources are disappearing. So we know we need to take care of the resources we have,” he said.
This is particularly important where Rojas is from, given that the Huaytapallana glacier is the main source of water supply for Huancayo. Over the past 20 years, the glacier’s snow area has been reduced by 50 percent, devastating given that it provides 40 percent of the water for a river that is a main source of drinking water. Black carbon from open agricultural burning is a major factor in glacier degradation as black carbon particles settle on snow and ice and reduce surface albedo, or the ability to reflect sun.
“Even if it’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to climate change, I’m still so happy about it,” said Rojas. “We will pass away and if we don’t do anything nowadays we will leave the problem for our children so we need to care about the future. That’s the most important thing.”