Students, professors examine ways to improve lives and agriculture in Ecuador
By Zeke Barlow
The Andes Mountains where Luis Elvae grows crops are as steep as they are fertile.
The cake-batter-thick volcanic soil is perfect land for growing maize, potatoes, wheat, and the lucrative naranjilla fruit that is a ubiquitous crop in Ecuador. But the slope of the massive mountains also poses challenges for Elvae and other farmers.
Erosion, runoff, and deforestation have become serious problems in Ecuador over the past few decades as the South American nation’s population has expanded, and more and more farmers are taking to the impossibly steep mountains to grow crops.
This is why Corinna Clements, a senior from Round Hill, Virginia, majoring in agricultural and applied economics, and Austin Larrowe, a senior from Woodlawn, Virginia, majoring in agricultural and applied economics and agricultural sciences, spent two weeks in Ecuador talking to farmers about a project to curb deforestation by using a better variety of the naranjilla plant.
Meanwhile, Elli Travis, an agricultural and applied economics graduate student from Washington, D.C., spent the summer working with Ecuadorian farmers on ways to use text messages to improve the environment and boost profits by adopting pest-management techniques. The messages remind farmers to perform certain soil-saving practices on schedule.
All of the students work with Jeff Alwang, a professor of agricultural and applied economics who has been working in South American countries for decades on ways to improve their landscapes and the livelihoods of their citizens.
By working with partners and farmers in Ecuador, we have been able to find simple but effective ways to increase incomes while helping to protect the environment in extremely fragile areas. – Jeff Alwang
Alwang’s work incorporates all three missions of the land-grant university.
He researches pest management and conservation agriculture. He conducts outreach by working with local governments and farmers to put his findings into practice. And he teaches the scores of graduate and undergraduate students he brings to Ecuador about international development.
Clements and Larrowe spent part of their summer examining the role that the naranjilla fruit plays in Ecuadorian agriculture.
Although the lucrative plant grows heartily in the Andes, it is also susceptible to a vascular wilt that infects the plant and soil. The soil is then so laden with pests that farmers will simply clear-cut a nearby tract of forestland in order to plant in a pest-free environment, leading to a continuous cycle of erosion, runoff, and a host of other environmental problems.
So Alwang and his Ecuadorian partners have developed a grafted variety of naranjilla that uses rootstock of wild species of the plant, which is less susceptible to the pests. Clements and Larrowe were there to examine if and how farmers are adopting the new plant.
“I’ve been studying these issues in textbooks and classes for years, but being able to witness them firsthand — and to be part of a solution — is a remarkable experience,” Clements said.