Water is life. In every language and culture, the longest-tenured agrarians retell some version of this simple truth. Though it seems impossible to forget, for those who do not regularly work their own land or are distanced from the ecological connections that yield the food on their table, it can be easy to take for granted the importance of water and the need to plan for resilience in the face of uncertainty. Recent droughts in Colombia, results of the El Niño weather phenomenon, keep this reality fresh in the minds of Colombian growers, many of whom are turning to agroecological methods to plan more diverse and secure plantings.
Agroecological Adaptations Provide Resilience During Colombia’s El Niño Droughts
By the end of 2018, the Colombian banana grower’s association was warning producers to prepare for a dry start to the season, expecting the El Niño to be felt heavily throughout the first three months of the year. “The numbers indicate that, historically, there is a 32% decline in rainfall during December and a 35% decline in January, February and March,” said association president Juan Camilo Augura Restrepo Gómez. “We therefore need to take the necessary agronomic measures so that our quality standards are maintained for our production.”
Increasing soil organic matter, which in turn enhances the water holding capacity of soil, is one crucial method of providing buffer during these dry periods. At Ganaderia Pietrasanta, this is accomplished by turning a waste product into a valuable input. When the Viudas Reservoir was cleaned earlier this year, aquatic plants removed from the canal were applied to the coconut trees of the Centro America lot. This application of rich organic matter helps maintain the humidity of the plants and provide them with needed nutrients.
Of course, the incredible importance of our global water supplies has been on dramatic display recently—not only in South American fruit production, but around the world. During most of the years of the past half-century the waters of the Colorado River have failed to reach the sea. Overallocation has led to similar results in the Nile, Ganges, Huang He, Amu Darya, and Sry Darya rivers. Drought-spurred summer wildfires have been the norm in the Western United States and Day Zero continues to loom over South Africa’s residents.
Ultimately, agricultural production is responsible for one of the most direct impacts on our global water resources. As agroecologist Gary Nabhan, an expert in applying traditional methods of water harvesting and drought adaptation to modern agricultural design, points out, “in less than a single century, farmers have extracted more fossil groundwater than all the water pumped from underground aquifers over the rest of human history.”
While arid regions around the globe are often the first to feel the impact of water scarcity, Nabhan explains that “disruptions of our food-producing capacity will certainly not be limited to semi-arid and arid regions alone, but become pervasive in wetter temperate and tropical landscapes as well. Perhaps more than other traditional forms of food production, from biodynamic farming to traditional Latino dooryard gardening, agribusiness as usual will be stripped down and restructured by somewhat novel, profoundly challenging climatic conditions. Its current emphasis on genetic uniformity, monocultural plantings, and high inputs on fossil fuels and water may be its own undoing.”
Nabhan reminds us that in order to build a resilient future, the “future of agribusiness” must change as well. Diversified plantings—such as GP’s teak forest, and the inclusion of perennial passion fruit vines—localized water harvesting and irrigation, and placing a high value on traditional knowledge and methods of drought adaptation will be keys to maintaining productivity in the midst of uncertainty. Agriculture is changing, and agribusiness must change with it. Mimicking the form and function of natural ecosystems is one of the most certain ways to promote flourishing for years to come.