It is dry season in Nicaragua, where one of the worst droughts on record is affecting the region and the rocky hillsides of Condega, Estelí, languish beneath the merciless sun. However, in the midst of the wilting landscape of the country’s most difficult region for agricultural production, Javier Loza’s farm is a cool, green oasis. He is one of 16 farmers with whom CIAT started the Quesungual project with a silvopastoral component in Nicaragua’s hillsides, where each year farm families struggle with low soil fertility and forage shortages due to the lack of rain.
“We will be a mirror for the rest of our community. Right now we are few farmers in the association, but there are more people who want to join,” Javier had said three years ago. Since then, over 300 smallholder cattle farmers in the area have adopted silvopastoral systems in their farms. Dissemination efforts continue through the work of national and regional partners, with potential to reach 10.000 farmers in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Silvopastoral systems provide a broad range of environmental and productive benefits. The presence of trees in farm plots stabilizes hillsides, minimizes erosion, improves the soil’s water retention and nutrient balance, and provides feed and shade for cattle. These practices generate higher milk and meat yields while contributing to the resilience of production systems in the face of climate variability, which is manifesting in increasingly extreme ways in Central America.
This way, silvopastoral systems become a key practice to contribute towards rural families’ food security, as well as increasing their income and mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. At the same time, they provide accessible alternatives for the sustainable management of natural resources, playing an important role in reducing the expansion of the agricultural frontier.
Taking benefits to the next level
As silvopastoral systems spread, their benefits are manifesting beyond the farms, creating a solid base for the development of Central America’s cattle value chain. To make the most of this opportunity, CIAT through the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock and Fish, alongside CATIE, Heifer International, CEI-Nicaragua and the NICACENTRO Cooperative concluded project GANASOL, conducted through Solidaridad Network’s Farmer Support Program and financed by the government of the Netherlands, to clearly articulate farm-level natural resource management improvement as a base to strengthen the value chain
Rein van der Hoek, forages specialist and coordinator of Livestock and Fish for CIAT in Central America, explains that the accessibility of silvopastoral systems is ensured through a combination of long-term environmental benefits and short-term yield increases through the use of improved seed and forage varieties.
During the first year of GANASOL’s implementation, milk yields increased by 26% in 6 out of every 10 participating farms, while improvements in milk quality resulted in a 19% income increase for over half of the families involved.
“It is important for us small cattle farmers to be concerned with the quality of our milk, because we do not produce great volumes. If we produce a low-quality product, we would fail,” comments Dagoberto Diaz, a small cattle farmer from the municipality of Camoapa. “We have improved our cattle management very much, thanks to the training sessions we have received about farm management, how to improve our cattle and our grasses, how to feed the animals, and managing animal health. All of this has helped us to keep improving the quality of the milk we produce, and the cooperative recognizes our effort.”
At the same time, around 1.000 farmers applied the sustainable cattle farming practices promoted by the project, which led to the establishment of nearly 4.000 hectares of silvopastoral areas. This created corridors for biodiversity conservation, reduced deforestation, and allowed for the regeneration of natural water sources.
“Once established, the benefits of silvopastoral systems are ongoing and magnify over time. The permanence of the system and its benefits ensures the sustainability of these interventions,” explains Van der Hoek. “Now it’s time to take these benefits to the next level. Sustainable animal-source foods produced by small-scale farmers can be highly competitive in local and regional markets, and our objective is to position them as such.”
To mediate this link between small cattle farmers and specialized market niches, GANASOL elaborated a business plan for cheese commercialization in Nicaragua and El Salvador, connected to incentive mechanisms for the adoption of sustainable cattle farming practices. The plan, led by CEI-Nicaragua, seeks to strengthen commercial abilities and build marketing capacities and knowledge in implementing partner organizations.
Aside from identifying potential buyers in El Salvador, the plan proposes to reactivate the “Caño de Agua” processing plant located in the municipality of Paiwas, Nicaragua, in order to mitigate irregular milk supply at different times of the year. Focused on cheese commercialization towards domestic and international markets, this proposal will increase the plant’s income by 10% while reducing negative environmental impacts, will generate jobs, and will increase income for cooperative members in the region.
The continuous involvement of NICACENTRO Cooperative during the project’s implementation was a key factor in achieving significant impacts on farm families’ productivity, product quality, environment, and income. Their permanent integration of Farmer Field Schools (FFS), coordination with farm families, and extension services were a core strength of the initiative, while improving access to organizational networks and promoting the participation of municipal governments.
A successful precedent for Central America
CIAT keeps working with national and international partners to strengthen the adoption of silvopastoral systems in small scale cattle farms. Through CATIE and Heifer International’s leadership, 20 Farmer Field Schools were implemented with 520 small farmers. Each school approached the establishment of silvopastoral systems, farm planning, pasture and water resource management, feed alternatives, cattle management, milk quality, and introductions to certification systems.
“Silvopastoral systems are a solid starting point from which to strengthen the rest of the levels of the value chain. The results of these initiatives in Nicaragua establish a successful precedent for sustainable and profitable agroforestry systems, which can be adapted and replicated in other areas of Central America,” expressed Omar Palacios, from Solidaridad Network.
GANASOL’s encouraging results present possibilities to further intensify these impacts. One of the main opportunities consists of increasing the public and private sectors’ impact on public policies in regards to sustainable cattle farming development. Activities involve establishing incentive mechanisms for farmers, including the creation of a national payment system based on milk quality, the establishment of sustainable supply chains, certification of sustainable animal-source products, and continuing to strengthen equitable participation of women and youth in the cattle sector.
“An essential factor for this project’s impact is the effective inclusion of women farmers,” expressed Alejandra Mora, gender specialist for Livestock and Fish at CIAT. “It’s not enough to quantify women’s participation. We need to make proposals that transform social relationships and norms which limit access to and control of resources and information for women, with the goal of improving their level and conditions of participation in the cattle sector.”
To take on these topics and continue the transformation of Central America’s small-scale cattle sector, the project proposes including the private sector in activities involving inclusive business development and facilitating access to technical and financial services for farm families. At the same time, it is important to emphasize the gender disaggregation of data, and the active participation of youth and women farmers in the country’s cattle sector.