Kate explaining the details of our silvopastoril project to our cattle producers group.
So it’s been a while (ok almost a month) since my last post. For those of you who have been wondering what we’ve been up to for the last several weeks. The following passage should give you a pretty good idea:
Los sistemas silvopastoriles según su distribución especial se pueden clasificar en sistemáticos y no sistemáticos. Los primeros tienen un arreglo espacial uniforme en el terreno, generalmente plantados por el hombre; mientras los del segundo grupo presentan una distribución heterogénea y en general proceden de la regeneración natural.
I pulled this passage at random from one of the technical manuals that has been living on our kitchen table as we have been working on our grant proposal for funding from the United Nations Development Program. The above passage talks about different types of silvopastoril systems and how they are classified based on how trees are distributed throughout the system. Wait…those last two sentences probably didn’t make any sense so we should probably start from the beginning…
(Queue Wayne and Garth from “Wayne’s World” doing their finger wiggling “doodoodoodooodooodoo” time traveling effect. I know it’s a dated reference but that’s what came to mind.)
Okay, so months ago we started asking the cattle ranchers group in our community what some of their problems are and what ideas they had to fix them. We decided to work with this group for two reasons: 1) they are organized and have been doing a joint cattle purchase program for nearly ten years and 2) cattle ranching IS the economy in our community so if we wanted to do any sector related work (we are Community Economic Development volunteers after all) we thought it made a lot of sense to work with them. We did this problem identification based approach as part of our community analysis (refer back to our community analysis posts for a recap) in order to have the community define work projects that they were interested in participating in, instead of us doing something that would have little benefit for the community and not be very sustainable after we left.
So after many conversations and activities, we, as a group, determined that dry season milk production was both a major problem and something we could feasibly strive to improve. Panama essentially has two seasons. The rainy season or “winter” lasts about 7 to 8 months in our region and typically has frequent and regular rains throughout. The dry season or “summer” on the other hand is quite dry and has very little rain. As you can guess, the major difference in rainfall is not very good for the pastures that our ranchers use to feed their cattle and, hence, milk production and cattle body mass drops. As a result, family incomes decease significantly during this time of year.
There are also several negative environmental impacts that result from the ranching methods of our cattle producers. This is an example of a typical cattle pasture in our community during the dry season:
As you can see, it contains little more than dead grass. When compared to soils in the United States and other temperate climates, the soils here in Panama are very poor. Before Panamanians began ranching in this area generations ago, this hillside was likely part of a tropical rainforest and was able to store and recycle nutrients with extensive networks of trees and other foliage. Without this ecosystem, the area not only loses the nutrients but also loses most of its soil. Today, this hillside has virtually nothing keeping what little nutrients and fertile soil remains. I’m sure you have heard about the negative environmental impacts that cattle ranching has in tropical areas so I’m not going to dwell on this suffice to say that it is not a very sustainable practice.
So, now we have poor soils, long periods of time without rain, few trees, and ranchers who are dependent on keeping their cattle alive as a means to sustaining themselves. What if I told you that there was a way to not only to improve dry season milk production, but also to mitigate some of the negative environmental impacts at the same time. Well, you are in luck because there is and that method is called silvopastoril. Silvopastoril literally means literally “tree grazing” and is essentially a method of combining drought resistant and shade tolerant pasture grasses with nitrogen fixing shrubs and a variety of trees.
Silvopastoril has several benefits for both the environment and for cattle. The system provides cattle with shade which reduces activity and sweating and in turn helps cattle keep body mass. The trees and shrubs also provide the cattle with a more diverse and nutritious diet that lasts longer during the dry season. Environmentally, the system minimizes erosion, helps improve soil quality by retaining vital nutrients and also increases biodiversity of plant and animal species (turns out tropical birds love silvopastoril systems because they like eating seeds and fruits from the trees). So instead of having an arid and denuded field you end up with something like this:
This is a picture of a silvopastoril system that was planted in 2009 by a group in a nearby town. Though it may not look like much now, it will eventually grow into a system that is good for everyone involved. Our producers also determined that they could better utilize this system if they could better control the degree of access that their cattle had to pastures. In order to do this, the producers determined that breaking their pastures up into smaller segments would allow them to better control both the quantity and speed at which their cattle grazed on the silvopastoril system. Building and maintaining traditional fences is time consuming and expensive and is a major barrier to demarcating pastures into smaller segments. In the long run, electric fences are much cheaper to use and maintain since they require fewer posts (traditional fences have to be strong enough to physically keep cattle out while once a cow learns a fence is electric they learn to stay away from it despite how skimpy it might appear). Since our producers do not have electricity out in their fields, we determined that the best way to power electric fences would be by using solar panels.
Now that we had a project idea fully developed, Kate and I had to figure out how we could connect an appropriate technology (a combined silvopastoril, electric fence system) with those who could benefit from it the most (our cattle ranchers). The major downside to our project is its costs; drought tolerant grasses and solar panels are not cheap. Fortunately for us however, the vast majority of the project costs are up front and once they are paid the system is quite inexpensive to maintain. Kate and I felt strongly that if we could find a way to pay most of the upfront costs and train our producers on how to implement and maintain these systems, we would be able to create a sustainable program that would benefit both our producers and the environment.
Luckily, the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) has an established Small Donations Program fund in Panama. This fund provides groups with “small” (by UN standards) grants of up to $25,000 for implementing projects that help with environmental conservation. We have been working on obtaining funding from the UNDP for the past six months. In order to get funded, the UNDP requires each group to complete a two step application process where each step is composed of writing several pages about your project and completing budgets, timelines, and logic models. The grant process here is essentially what you would expect when soliciting funds in the U.S. Since, this application needs to be completed in Spanish and we are working primarily with people who did not go to school beyond the sixth grade, we’ve had our work cut out for us.
In order to write the grant proposal, our producers group created a commission composed of three members (plus us) to put together the proposal for the group. As a commission, we have been meeting weeklyfor the last six months. In addition to these meetings, we have also organized trips see other silvopastoril systems, researched prices of seeds, solar panels, and other materials, coordinated with the Ministries of Agriculture and the Environment to request materials and trainings, and spent hours writing the grant.
We both feel that this project has been a good mesh of our skills with the hands-on experience and insight that the members of our commission have. Kate and I bring project management experience to the table and have helped our community counterparts organize their ideas with timelines and budgets. Thankfully, our producers are bringing the vast majority of the ideas to the table; for the most part, they know how to implement this project but have not had the financial means to be able to do it. What we are doing is helping them get access to the funding so they can do something to improve their own lives.
Personally, this project has been the most rewarding work for me in Panama because we have been participating in the process from beginning and we are helping our counterparts bring their own idea to life. Because of this, I know that this project will be in use long after we leave.
So that is the project in a nutshell. I have left out a lot of the minutia (which there is a lot of). We will be submitting the final proposal to the UNDP by the end of March and are hoping to receive the funding by June. We will be much better about keeping you all up to date on how the project is going now that I have spelled out what exactly we are doing.
Here’s a link to some pictures that will hopefully make the project clearer.
Hope all is well for everyone. Until next time.