Amidst the green mantle that covers the steep hillsides of Nicaragua’s mountainous center-north region, Doreyda Dávila proudly surveys her cocoa trees. “I have two manzanas of cocoa. They’re still little, but they’re growing,” she smiles. “It is hope that we have for the future.” For Doreyda, like many farmers in the region, working the land is a continuous loop of giving to and receiving from the land they inherited from their ancestors, ensuring their families and communities thrive.
Nicaragua is facing a complex web of development issues that are challenging the delicate balance of traditional production practices that have been passed down over generations. Extensive, unsustainable livestock farming and a lack of incentives and policy enforcement to protect conservation areas has resulted in the rapid expansion of the agricultural frontier, with over 20% of the country’s forests lost to date.
Natural resource degradation is exacerbated by the region's high vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Currently emerging from one of the most severe droughts on record, farm families have suffered significant losses in crop production and negative impacts to their food security. Over half of the country’s rural population lives in conditions of poverty as an evolving economic landscape, coupled with limited access to markets, is leaving vulnerable communities behind.
Knowledge is Power: The Territorial Learning Alliances
When it comes to agricultural development, Nicaragua is not starting from scratch. Nicaraguan communities consider knowledge sharing and learning experiences crucial channels to facilitate sustainable growth. Local development organizations have decades of experience facilitating these processes in their territories and building trust with rural farming communities. However, the Organizational Analysis conducted by CIAT and Bioversity International through the CGIAR Research Program on Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics (Humidtropics) revealed important contradictions.
Organizations expressed that innovation and learning most often result from the collaboration between different stakeholders, and rarely from a single organization working on its own. However, there were no dedicated spaces to facilitate collaboration aimed specifically at encouraging innovation and learning. Furthermore, while eager to take part in innovation processes, organizations are often reluctant to take on leadership roles in these initiatives.
To better integrate the development initiatives seeking to enhance innovation and promote sustainable intensification of small-scale agriculture as a means to raise the incomes of rural families, Humidtropics established the local Territorial Learning Alliances. Involving farmer associations and cooperatives, national and international NGOs, academic institutions, research centers, and stakeholders from the private and public sectors, the Alliances offer an inclusive platform to harness the research efforts of the Program and its partners, fostering exchanges among actors working with coffee, cocoa, and mixed staple crop-livestock systems.
In response to the issues facing each of the territories, Humidtropics developed an integrated toolkit aimed at facilitating informed management and decision-making at farm level, while creating a process that encourages local organizations to take on leadership roles in their territories. This initiative provides an important base on which to harness the broad range of tools and methodologies developed over decades of collaborative work in Central America to improve key agricultural products, strengthen their commercial potential through new market links, and reduce vulnerability in the face of climate change and other pressures.
A New Vision for Nicaragua's Smallholder Cocoa Farms
Working alongside cocoa farming communities, this initiative is developing, validating, and implementing an integrated system to monitor on-farm decision-making processes and their impact on smallholder cocoa farms. The decision-making toolkit consists of a series of seven workbooks which lead farmers and technicians through a learning journey on their farms and provide a way to track progress.
"It's essential to document the toolkit implementation process and promote continuous feedback between farmers, technicians, and facilitators. This way we can strengthen the methodologies that make up the toolkit, to ensure this collective learning and decision making process remains accessible and useful for farmers, technical teams, and local organizations alike."
Marie Turmel – Humidtropics researcher, Bioversity International
The cycle begins with an initial assessment of the farm, followed by periodic visits to provide guidance and follow up on shade and pruning, soil management, nurseries and harvest, agroforestry systems, and plagues and diseases. At the end of the cycle, a final assessment of the farm is conducted. This process engages both farmers and local territorial organizations in data collection, which is crucial to better inform integrated management of production components.
“As a technician, this is an important methodology for me. I used to visit the farmers, and we would only observe the farms. I would have no information backup after my visit. Now we have data, and that is a valuable resource for me to keep making decisions, proposing new ideas, and seeing how the area’s cocoa farms are evolving.”
Esmelda Suazo – Technician and project coordinator, CACAONICA Cooperative
During its first year of implementation, the toolkit has been applied by eight technicians alongside 65 smallholder farmers. The first cycle of data collection and analysis revealed that only 17% of farms had an adequate shade component, while the rest identified problems such as inadequate types and density of trees, competition for light and water, poor or excess shade cover, and non-uniform distribution. As a result, only 9% of the cocoa plants had high productivity (over 30 pods per tree), while 68% had low productivity (less than 10 pods per tree).
These observations helped field technicians and farmers focus their efforts to improve pruning and shade management. At the same time, soil fertility management was addressed based on nutrient balance information collected from the soil analysis. These actions have allowed farmers and technicians to begin a journey towards improving the productivity and quality of their cocoa plants in a sustainable way.
Furthermore, all of the information gathered has been stored on a digital platform as an open resource to be used by all participating organizations. These databases, alongside the toolkit's calendars, guides, and worksheets, are valuable tools which have allowed participating farmers and technicians to improve their decision-making in cocoa farm management and inform organizational and territorial scaling initiatives.
“The successful scaling of the decision-making toolkit is driven by the fact that the field technicians now have a structured way to observe, analyze, and make decisions with the farm households, as well as follow up on those decisions," explained Falguni Guharay, Humidtropics researcher at CIAT. "At the same time, they can access an open, virtual information system to register their data, which allows them to document changes in real-time and learn about these issues in a collective manner.”
"We have improved our soil management. With the technicians we conducted tests where we dug holes to see where we found more earthworms. Where there are worms, it is an adequate soil to plant cocoa. We found many, so we dug up that earth and combined it with manure and lime, to fill up the bags for our nurseries; we also have cocoa nurseries to renew our plantations. We want to change the varieties that are of no use to us, now we know which cocoa varieties work best for us, and we see an improvement in the fruits, we have higher yields. This year [the lack of rain] has affected us a lot. If we weren't managing our cocoa farms in this way, our yields would be much less."
Marbelis Mairena - Cocoa farmer (Waslala, Nicaragua)
Bringing together local organizations, farmers, rural women and youth has been a revealing learning process, highlighting the value communities place on knowledge and information as key building blocks for development, translating into actions that reduce rural poverty, increase food security, improve nutrition and health, and promote the sustainable management of natural resources. Through their ongoing work, the Alliances are cultivating a new vision through which communities can conserve their roles as guardians of these valuable resources, transforming their farms into life-giving spaces for innovation, risk mitigation, and safeguarding natural resources for future generations.
“Yesterday I was visiting a farmer who [last year] only produced 42 pounds of cocoa," comments Manuel Herrera, technician at Nueva Waslala Cooperative. "With this tool, farmers can see that proper management of their cocoa farms will yield a profit for them. There are farmers today who are producing 200, 300 pounds of cocoa, when last year their yields were less than 50 pounds. And that's when they realize it’s worthwhile, to put love and enthusiasm into their work.”
The decision-making toolkit is now being scaled for use by 40 field technicians working alongside 500 smallholder cocoa farmers in Nicaragua. Humidtropics, through CIAT and Bioversity International, alongside local partner organizations, are seeking support to continue scaling the toolkit, incorporating it in upcoming technical assistance and development projects. Next steps include full digitalization of the toolkit for data collection, processing, and generation of figures for results interpretation; conducting a regional project in other areas of Central America; and adapting the toolkit for use in cocoa producing regions of Africa.
Original article published in Spanish on CIAT's website.