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‘Up in Smoke’ Film Examines Perils of Slash and Burn Agriculture

June 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In "Up in Smoke," filmmaker Adam Wakeling follows ecologist Michael Hands as he introduces Honduran farmers to the inga tree, his solution to problems caused by slash and burn agricultural practices. The documentary is part of a series of independently produced films aired in a partnership between The Economist and the NewsHour.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn now to a story about changing age-old farming practices in the tropics. It’s part of The Economist Film Project, a NewsHour collaboration with “The Economist” magazine.

Together, we showcase independently-produced documentaries that take us places we don’t ordinarily go.

Here’s an excerpt from “Up in Smoke” by filmmaker Adam Wakeling. He followed ecologist Michael Hands as he introduced Honduran farmers to the Inga tree, his solution to the problems caused by so-called slash and burn agriculture.

MAN (through translator): We start the fire there. OK, this is why we burn. The weeds and the trunks are thick. And we can’t plant amongst all of that, so we just burn it all. I know this destroys the soils. The fertility disappears. I know this. But there is no other way to eat. Do you understand?

MIKE HANDS, ecologist: You are looking at a slowly enacted catastrophe. To put it in context, it’s in the order of a few hundred million families worldwide, one billion tons of carbon straight up into the atmosphere annually.

MAN (through translator): Fire it now.

(LAUGHTER)

MIKE HANDS: In Honduras, talking to slash and burn farmers, both down in the valley and up in on the mountain slopes, I found that things were not very simple. They were not as simple as they appeared, because what they want is access to fresh forest every year for a fresh burn to guarantee a crop of maize, and then to move on the following year.

MAN (through translator): The rains come and they wash away the soils, so we just clear more further up. Do you see? There’s no other options for us. So, we burn two hectares this year, then another two the next for maize or for beans. We plant wherever we can.

MIKE HANDS: You have got to learn from what the forest is doing. It is the most sustainable, most productive ecosystem on the planet. You have got to listen to it.

We have cracked a problem. We have bloody cracked it.

You are seeing a cropping system which takes place between rows of trees. The system is called alley cropping because the rows resemble alleyways, rows of trees planted close together in what was a grass-dominated site.

And the trees have grown and have now completely shaded out all of the grass. At the appropriate time, they will be pruned down to about the height of one’s chest, and the mulch, the green material from the leaves, will be placed on the ground as a physical protection and as slowly decomposing green manure.

Once the light has been let in and the ground is covered with mulch, the crop can be sown. It has got enough strength to come up through the — the cover of mulch, which will largely be suppressing all the regrowth of weeds.

During the course of the growth of the crop, the trees will regrow. There will be a little bit of light pruning of the regrowth to control the shade. At the point of cropping, the trees are regenerating. They will recover the canopy, and they will be available for pruning and cropping the following year.

What Inga particularly appears capable of doing is to at least retrieve, retain and recycle the key nutrients. It has to be demonstrated. You cannot preach it. You can’t describe it. People have got to be able to get their hands on it and see it. Secondly, you have got to test a system that was developed by an academic to see whether it has any meaning at all for real people.

MAN (through translator): When the forest disappears, the temperature rises and the plants suffer more. The more we weed and burn, the worse things get.

MAN (through translator): One advantage of this system is that you can grow organic crops, completely healthy food.

MAN (through translator): What do you think so far?

ALADINO CABRERA, farmer (through translator): Seriously surprising.

MAN (through translator): Surprising? How so?

ALADINO CABRERA (through translator): The Inga.

MAN (through translator): Really? What do you mean?

ALADINO CABRERA (through translator): Well, the roots hold onto the soil, so it doesn’t wash away. And you have seen just how steep our land is.

MIKE HANDS: The task we have, which is capturing hearts and minds, is crucial. It’s fundamental. What’s going on in Aladino’s mind? He’s going to take some time to change that.

FAUSTINO REYES, farmer (through translator): We’re trying to keep people on one plot of land, and not keep moving on. Farmer to farmer, it’s easier to explain. That’s how the message spreads.

All those mountains used to grow onions and maize, bananas, even rice. But when the soils failed, people abandoned them, and just moved up there into fresh forest. If we had had this system then, we wouldn’t be lacking water or forest now.

MIKE HANDS: This is going to be done family by family, people like Aladino, one at a time. It’s got to work. It’s going to work. It’s going to take whatever it takes to — to make it work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have got more on the making of “Up in Smoke” on our website.

Our next installment of The Economist Film Project will feature “Skateistan,” a look at young skateboarders in war-torn Afghanistan.