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Inspiration in a muddy field – how biodiversity is helping Amazon farmers

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Standing in a muddy field in the pouring rain is not the best starting point if you are searching for inspiration.

Fortunately the enthusiasm and warmth of Don Tulio, owner of this and several other wet fields in the Sibundoy Valley of Southern Colombia, somehow cuts through the rain and lifts the spirits. Don Tulio is a dairy farmer who’s seeing the benefits of planting trees and letting other trees establish themselves on his cattle pasture.

What’s known in this corner of the Amazon basin as traditional cattle pasture is problematic. It’s low productivity (supporting as little as a single milking cow per hectare), is prone to soil erosion and – because it relies on almost total removal of forest – leaves only very isolated patches of forest in this hilly landscape. Isolated forests lose species, particularly those that cannot migrate across a treeless landscape.

Given that this area – the Amazonian Piedmont – is one of the most biodiverse and fast disappearing ecosystems on the planet, we’re working to halt this decline.

Don Tulio beside a cattle feeding stall.Don Tulio beside a cattle feeding stall with the sugar cane that’ll be fed, as small chips, to his milking cows in a nutrient rich ‘salad’. © Jamie Gordon / WWF-UK

The Sibundoy Valley landscape is now highly fragmented, where once it would have formed part of continuous forest all the way to lowland Amazonia. Maximising the landscape’s potential to conserve biodiversity whilst maintaining and improving the livelihoods of those dependent on it is not simple. However the trees Don Tulio has planted – like Golden Button and Acacias – are high in protein and help increase the nutritional content of his cows’ diet. This is the basis of the intensification that means Don Tulio can now maintain up to 3 cows per hectare of land.

These trees are grown in the fields – where cows graze on them – and also in plots kept apart from the cows. Don Tulio harvests forage from these plots which contain a variety of species, including the sugar cane you see in the picture above.

The high protein, high energy mixture (which Don Tulio humourously likes to call salad) is then fed to the cattle in stalls. As a result milk production is up and milk quality is also improved. So much so that milk from the farm has a higher protein content than when the cows grazed low quality grass only.

Don Tulio is an early adopter and his enthusiasm is helping to convince other farmers in the area to take up similar practices – and he’s even helped convince the local environmental authority to scale up WWF’s work across a large part of the Colombian Piedmont.

Don Tulio and his cattle.Don Tulio’s cattle passing a fodder bank with the bright yellow flowers of golden button (Tithonia diversifolia). © Jamie Gordon / WWF-UK

Don Tulio’s farm is now far more diverse, both in species and in structure. The ‘bare’ erosion-prone pasture is being replaced by a far more diverse landscape. You can really see the results in the picture of Don Tulio driving cattle past a forage bank – the yellow-flowered Golden Button is mixed with sugar cane and surrounded by fences made of living tree posts.

And there is more good news. Intensifying in some parts of the farm means that the least productive and most fragile parts of the farm – the steeper slopes and the stream sides – are now being kept cattle-free to allow naturally regenerated forest to return. This means that the cows no longer erode stream banks and contaminate the water which drains into the Putumayo River, and ultimately into the Amazon River itself.

With trees planted as fence posts, regenerating streams and hillsides, the forest cover is increasing and patches in the landscape are no longer so isolated. That’s the biodiversity gain. It also ensures clean water in the town of Sibundoy, whose water comes from these hills (having first soaked several WWF employees!).

And of course Don Tulio is considering adopting another innovation – artisanal trout farming which relies on copious supplies of cold and clean water. My guess is that he will make a success of that too.

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