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Local name: Nopal and Cochenilles Cultivation
Site: Province of Loja, ECUADOR


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Continent: South America
Country: Ecuador
Site: Province of Loja
Lat: -3.98
Long: -79.17

Description of the local variant of the technique

The province of Loja is located in southern Ecuador, in the regions bordering with Peru. It is characterized by a mountainous morphology, with steep hills and little land suitable for agriculture. The process of desertification is vividly present here. Almost 80% of the province of Loja is affected by, the vegetation is degraded and the number of animals decreases. The inhabitants say that their productivity has a tendency to decrease and droughts have increased from year to year. Reintroducing the cultivation of nopal, combined with cochineal farming , the National University of Loja has chosen an interesting way for meeting the needs of the population in the dry season, combat erosion of mountain soils and protect crops, through the building plant barriers. In the province of Loja the only soils apt for cultivation are found in Andes valleys where elevation varies from 140m in the south to 4.000 m in the north. The climate also varies greatly, temperatures span from zero to 22°C, and the greater part of the province enjoys a truly tropical climate. The soils of this province may be described as very poor, thin and highly stony. Soils subject to agriculture have little fertility and are dry, they are often the result deforestation and this makes them highly vulnerable since deprived of thenatural vegetation which would protect them from erosion and replenish them with organic materials. The occupation of the lands of the Loja province starter with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1750. They settled in the area and exploited its natural resources in a haphazard fashion. The indigenous population passed on their knowledge concerning the therapeutic virtues of the cinchona tree bark (Sinchona officiales) to them. This tree, native of the region, contains quinine, which up to the 20 century remained the most effective remedy for malaria. The development of cinchona for the extraction of this substance has dramatically contributed to the deforestation of the vast Loja province territory, and in particular of the forests between 1 550 and 2 900 m of altitude. The quinquina produced in Loya was exported all over the world. Between 1755 and 1758 the customs registered exports of 717 156 kg of quinine, therefore, calculating that 15 trees are necessary for producing 12 kg of quintina, we can estimate that around 900 000 trees were felled within three years in this region. All this has amounted to an ecological disaster after the introduction of the goat in the already fragile ecosystem. In the 19th century the introduction of cows, sheep and horses along with the development of agriculture in the mountains, contributed to the acceleration the depletion of residual forests. The land was turned into pasture and fields. In the majority of cases, Spanish colonists have employed techniques without taking into the environmental character of the region. Ploughing too has seriously contributed to the erosion of soils: In fact, colonists had imported this European agricultural technique without realizing that it contributed to the erosion of slopes in the province. The terracing system of cultivation and other inventions adopted by pre-Columbian communities were completely ignored. Slope cultivation was practiced for the lack of level lands without measures against the risk of erosion and for making irrigation possible in these soils with a peculiar topography. Techniques of clearing and stubble-burning (or slash and burning) have played their role in accelerating the destruction of ecosystems, soil, forests, waters and wildlife. The inhabitants of the Loja province have inherited these damaging practices for the local ecological conditions. The results could not be more devastating: the deterioration of soils, the acceleration of erosion and the reduced fertility are responsible for a consistent decrease in agricultural produce for several decades. The economic situation of families deteriorates. To add to human intervention, long lasting draughts periodically afflict these regions, forcing the rural population to migrate to the cities in ever growing numbers. During the first half of the 1990s, of 400.000 inhabitants of this region, 160.000 have left. The agrarian reform of 1964 too has not had the expected effects. The inhabitants have in fact being given poor quality land on the most difficult slopes, without any possibility for irrigation. Their tendency towards an over exploitation of the poorest soils, utilizing inadequate technologies is understandable. According to the official census of 1990, 78% of farmers live in poverty and have no alternatives. During the early months of the year, taking advantage of the scarce rainfalls, the inhabitants of the area cultivate plants with a short growing period, such as maize, sweet potato, peanuts and beans. Despite of such environmental difficulties and the devastating influence of colonial techniques, the communities of the Loja province have preserved some pre-Columbian techniques and some empirical knowledge of local flora and fauna. These continue to be much appreciated by farmers, the elderly in particular, who understand the advantages which may be has during draughts. So, the cultivation of nopal (Opuntia ficus-indica), also called prickly pear, whose leaves and fruit have been appreciated for centuries by the Indians, has survived to this day. This cactus presents many advantages: the fruit are delicious the leaves are ideal for salads or as animal fodder. Furthermore, its cultivation enables to harvest cochineal (Dactilopius coccus), small insects which feed on the leaves. Cochineal is traditionally used by the locals for the production of dyes. These insects, wrapped up in a cotton wool cocoon, are full of a carmine red liquid. After harvesting the insect on nopal leaves, cochineals are dried up for the purpose of extracting the pigment for the production of dye for garments, ceramics and ceremonial ornaments. Before such a degraded social, economic, environmental situation, the National University of Loja has planned fight against desertification and a recovery of traditional knowledge. The idea behind this project is to rely on the cultivation of nopal and the exploitation of cochineal to enable the inhabitants to make a living out of these products and at the same time combat desertification. To do this, nopal, associated with local vegetation resistant to aridity, is cultivated as a barrier. These plants growing along the edges of the small terraces which follow the contour lines, stabilize slopes and protect cultivations from the action of wind and erosion. Thus nopal barriers have been planted on an area of two hectares, near the road connecting Malacatos and Vilcabamba, where 1.800 farmers live. The project has therefore been developed with: an initial selection of nopal varieties suited to the ecosystem, characterized by an abundance of fruit and leaves and greatly attractive to cochineal; the construction of small terraces, (from 0.8 to 1 m wide); the excavation of small irrigation canals which follow the contour lines. During the implementation of this project, the University of Loja has endeavoured to involve the population and local organizations (schools, ONGs, the Church).

Survival prospects

Technique still in use. 




B - Agriculture
Identification code
Other Local applications of the technique


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