Potato farming becomes healthier in Ecuador

July 17, 2012
Alicia Iglesias

Without losing its important place in the life of Andean villages, potato growing is changing in Ecuador. Agricultural modernization has altered small-scale, traditional, subsistence farming systems. Many farmers combine traditional practices with machinery and agro-chemicals. They also may rely on highly or moderately toxic pesticides, which are inexpensive, readily available, and widely promoted by sales people.

From 1998 to 2011, IDRC supported the International Potato Center’s Ecohealth project in Ecuador’s Carchi, Chimborazo, and Tungurahua provinces. The project brought together communities, experts, and policymakers to learn about small-scale farmers’ realities. They discussed their environment, health, society, agricultural production, and livelihoods. Farmers and researchers experimented with potato growing methods, drawing on expertise in farming systems, economics, health, gender, pest management, and rural development.

A win-win situation for farmers

The project uncovered high rates of pesticide poisoning among farmers and their families. Pesticides contaminated the water, soil and even family kitchens. Some native fauna had disappeared. People suffered from headaches, reduced attention span, irritability, and reduced ability to think (cognitive deficiencies). These neuro-behavioural effects of pesticide exposure were more widespread than existing health records showed.

The project touched many lives. Farmers in provinces where the team was active are now aware of the toxicity of agro-chemicals. For example, by 2002, 85% of farmers interviewed in Carchi reported significant knowledge of the risks associated with using pesticides. This was a significant rise compared with the 38% when the project started. They also reported using less highly hazardous “type 1b” pesticides per crop cycle. For some, tests of memory, concentration, and attention had improved, suggesting a reduced exposure to harmful pesticide. Differences were attributed  to level of education, socio-economic status, and the level interaction with the project team.

Many farmers in Carchi have turned to alternative growing methods and integrated pest management, a more ecological approach to pest control. They can apply less pesticide without reducing crop yield. Farmers’ field schools and field days run by more than 100 farmer facilitators encourage practical learning. Theatre productions, puppet shows, and health promotion groups also spread environment- and health-friendly advice among farmers, families, and local officials. 

Health workers in participating regions were trained to recognize signs of pesticide poisoning and treat it more efficiently. They also report more reliable poisoning data to the new regional surveillance system designed by the project.  

From local to national policy

Municipalities that had participated in the project for longer were more likely to pass new health-friendly and ecological municipal laws. They also invested in programs that benefitted both community health and agriculture. For example, one municipality set up an agricultural extension program that trains farmers in alternative practices. Another supported the development of a resource centre and shop (Coagro Q) for alternative agricultural practices. The centre trained more than 300 farmers in integrated pest management.

Extending beyond municipalities, “potato platforms” are new social spaces that reach people with different knowledge, experience, and decision-making power. Monthly meetings address issues related to farming, including the threats posed by pesticides, and the lack of training on health effects and integrated pest management among women.

After 15 years of research and policy efforts, CIP celebrated an important success when, on 29 June 2010, the Ecuadorian Agency for Agricultural Quality Assurance (AgroCalidad) passed a ruling prohibiting the fabrication, formulation, importation, commercialization, or use of class 1a and 1b (highly toxic) pesticides. The Ecohealth project’s findings helped with the campaign for this ban, an important step in the effort to make agriculture safer for farmers and their communities. The Charter of Farmers’ Rights also gives farmers a voice for better protection of both health and the environment.

See selected project publications

Image (top): Jackeline Arevalo
Image (right): If you are poisoned by pesticides seek medical help!