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Sustainable Agriculture

Historically, and in a broad sense, agriculture, has had the sole purpose of farming and livestock production, without taking into consideration any principles of sustainability. Traditional agricultural production, which in recent times has become more commercial, has resulted in a dramatic conversion of forests into agricultural land, in the fragmentation, destruction and loss of natural habitats, agricultural intensification of already converted land, soil erosion and subsequent sedimentation of rivers, as well as the advancement of agricultural frontiers into forested areas which had not previously been intervened.

As a result, intensive commercial farming has had a strong negative impact on biodiversity at all levels. The diversity and integrity of ecosystems, species and genes has been severely damaged by the continuous threat represented by unsustainable agricultural expansion. In addition, the appearance of solid, large-scale agribusinesses has created conditions under which small farmers cannot compete, forcing them to sell their farms, begin to work for big agribusinesses, or migrate to cities to seek work, which has actually reduced their quality of life and, in many cases, led to increased poverty among the affected rural and urban populations.

Since in the 1970s, however, several agro-environmental movements have risen, focusing on the promotion of agricultural systems that are less invasive for the environment, more equitable, and socially and economically profitable and, consequently, more sustainable. Movements worth mentioning are those promoting organic agriculture, organic farming, biodynamic agriculture, permaculture and eco-agriculture, all of them different forms of the concept now known as sustainable agriculture. This system aims, not only to satisfy the basic needs of grain and food for humans, as was historically the case in traditional agriculture, but also the improvement of farmers’ quality of life, the conservation of biodiversity and an increase in the quality of soils, water and air. It also aims to be more economically viable and socially just.

Sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of agricultural production techniques, which is applied in a particular place and uses the existing productive resources in an efficient manner, without degrading them. It also respects the local flora and fauna, by reducing the amount of agrochemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides used. Traditional pest control using pesticides, for example, is replaced by integrated pest management (IPM), which is based on practices that are more biological, such as organic control. An example of the success of this technique is the natural control of the cucumber beetle. These insects are one of the most serious pests of cucurbitaceae, such as squash, cucumbers and melons. In the United States of America, the adult insect that survives winter causes damage by feeding on young plants that are sprouting; larvae that emerge from the soil feed on plant roots and the adults which emerge from these larvae feed on leaves, flowers and fruits. Some of the organic control measures against this beetle include planting later in the season, and using trap crops, parasitic organisms, and organic pesticides made from native plants.

Certification of agricultural and forestry products
Strategies for the adoption of sustainable agriculture
Organic farming
Organic production in the Dominican Republic

Certification of agricultural and forestry products

Nowadays, in both industrialized and developing countries, there is a growing tendency to pass laws and regulations which require that agricultural and forest products be certified by specialized agencies before they can be marketed as "organic", "biological" or "natural." There are programs in place in many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that help small and medium rural producers to produce more sustainably, for example, through a strong reduction of chemical inputs.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, international organizations such as Rainforest Alliance are working with governments, companies and conservationist NGOs in promoting sustainable agriculture. These organizations are making efforts to build coalitions of groups that link responsible producers with environmentally conscientious consumers, through the use of Certified seals of approval. The vision behind this idea is based on the concept of sustainability and recognizes that the welfare of societies and ecosystems is intertwined and depends on a development that is environmentally healthy, socially equitable and economically viable. Such initiatives seek to transform the social and environmental conditions of tropical agriculture, through the implementation of sustainable farming practices. In this regard, the Certified seals that organizations such as Rainforest Alliance grant to agro-producing companies are a recognition that in the productive farms certified there are lower levels of: waste, water employed, water pollution and soil erosion; a reduction of threats to the environment and human health, a well protected wildlife habitat, a more efficient farm management; better conditions for farm workers; improved profitability and competitiveness for farmers; and more collaboration between farmers and conservationists.

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Strategies for the adoption of sustainable agriculture

Other initiatives in the tropic of the western hemisphere promote the adoption of changes in conventional practices of small producers, with the goal of enhancing land yield and protecting the environment. Moreover, these initiatives attempt to stimulate training, monitoring activities and technical assistance, to enable a deep reflection process on the environment that will ultimately lead to the increase of an environmentalist mentality. The strategies that help achieve these objectives are: the establishment of home vegetable gardens in the context of local economies, aiming to improve and diversify families’ incomes and diets; the validation and promotion of model plots with the objective of developing small farmers’ potential; the establishment of community nurseries and experimental vegetable gardens that create a validation experience and offer training to participating farmers; and the creation of agricultural credit funds, with the capacity of serving a sufficient number of producers during the production seasons.

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Organic farming

Fortunately, organic farming is increasingly seen as an alternative to promote the diversification of small farmers’ production of in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to a study by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), small farmers in different Spanish-speaking countries of the American continent are increasingly adopting organic farming as a mechanism for sustainable production, which basically consists of replacing synthetic chemical inputs with agronomic, biological and mechanical practices. Small farmers have also begun to implement a variety of integrated management practices that are friendlier to the environment, such as the implementation of soil conservation measures, crop rotation, use of green manure, and the use of mechanical methods instead of burning. The aforementioned IFAD research uses as a case study the production of bananas in the province of Azua, in the Dominican Republic. In that region, organizations of small farmers were successful in adopting technologies for organic production, and in marketing and exporting their certified organic products.

IFAD reports that the adoption of organic production methods in the cases that were studied had positive impacts on the incomes of small farmers. Although there were differences in the situations and conditions of the cases studied, in reference to the evolution of their production costs, yield per hectare and product prices, in all instances organic producers obtained higher net revenues when compared to their own previous condition. The study concluded that the sustainability of these results depended on several aspects, such as the ability to maintain or increase the yield per hectare (which depends in part on the use of organic fertilizers that compensate for the extraction of nutrients by the crops) and the future evolution of prices of organic products. In the specific case of bananas in the Dominican Republic, it was observed that this practice implemented conventional production systems and technologies that were closer to organic systems and technologies. This caused a hike in production costs due to the introduction of improvements in technology. In general, it was noted that organic production had positive effects on the health of small farmers and rural workers, as well as on the environment.

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Organic production in the Dominican Republic

In 2008, the Dominican Republic celebrated the Week of Sustainable Organic Agriculture by the Biointensive Method, an event organized by the Dominican Institute of Agriculture and Forestry Research (IDIAF) and the Universidad Católica Tecnológica del Cibao (UCATECI ), with the support of the ECOPOL Foundation of Mexico. The fundamental purpose of this activity was to restore, in a sustainable manner and in the medium term, soil fertility in the northern region of the Dominican Republic, in the provinces of La Vega and Espaillat. The strategy employed included training of the region’s farmers and agricultural technicians in the use of the tools necessary to manage the principles of the biointensive method, and composting practices, as well as other techniques commonly used in this system. Through this activity, small-scale organic farming, with low input costs and high productivity, was fostered.

As the above examples show, today, sustainability of agriculture is increasingly perceived as a key element for the healthy sustainable development of the Dominican Republic. This is illustrated by the results of the Sustainable Agricultural Development Project for Small Farmers of the North Central Region of the Dominican Republic (PAS), which were presented in 2009 by the State Secretariat of Economy, Planning and Development (SEEPyD) and of Agriculture (SEA), in conjunction with the Dominican Institute of Agriculture and Forestry Research (IDIAF) and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). This program, which has already been in operation for seven years, is being carried out in five agricultural sub-areas of La Vega (Jarabacoa, Rincón, Barranca, Cutupú and La Torre) and its objective is to incorporate small farmers into the system of sustainable agriculture, raise their competitiveness and increase their income, through the production and marketing of high value agricultural products. To date, the program has worked around four axles: technology validation, marketing, agricultural extension and dissemination, and training of technicians and farmers. As the results presented reveal, new crop varieties and agricultural technologies have been successfully introduced, along with a significant reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have helped raise agricultural productivity in a sustainable manner and have brought additional revenue to small producers. In addition, the same agricultural farmers from La Vega have also expressed their satisfaction with the results and impacts achieved.

Experts from IFAD and other agencies agree that it is essential to strengthen farmer organizations in countries such as the Dominican Republic, as they play a key role in the incorporation of small farmers to organic production. The main reasons are that these organizations: 1) enable the exploitation of economies of scale in the marketing of production, handling volumes that are interesting to buyers; 2) can train a large number of small farmers in the basics of sustainable production, as well as promote among them the adoption of new technologies; 3) manage to organize monitoring systems to verify that their members comply with the standards of organic production; 4) manage to attract governmental and non-governmental organizations to help the organization and its members adopt the necessary changes to successfully start sustainable and organic production.

Of course, it is also transcendental that producers obtain better prices. This is possible when the commercialization of organic products takes place directly, through producers’ organizations that establish direct contacts with the buyers. Experts claim that long-term contracts are ideal because they ensure a safer market and more stable prices. In this regard, access to fair trade also increases the final price substantially and reduces price instability even more.

By working on these strategic priorities, society can be steered towards a more sustainable agricultural development, where food and grains for human consumption are produced in a way that is environmentally friendly, economically profitable, and also more equitable in terms of distribution of costs and benefits among producers, traders and consumers.

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