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International Programs News & Views Volume 13

March 1999 

INTERNATIONAL OUTREACH IN CHILE

I participated in a conference sponsored by the International Society for Ecological Economics: "Policies and Institutions for Sustainability," November 15-19, 1998, in Santiago, Chile.  The purpose of the conference was to transfer information from private and governmental sectors, business and academia, to achieve economic efficiency in growth without depleting global natural resources.

Over 800 foreign scientists and colleagues attended the conference, sharing news on their latest research on the subject of economic growth as it relates to use of our global natural resources.  Participants included the United Nations Earth Council Advisor/Secretary General; USDA representatives from Forest Service and NRCS; universities; natural resource agencies; and businesses and private industries.

I gained an understanding of international efforts to satisfy human food and fiber needs while enhancing the natural resource base to ensure global environmental health.  I learned about program trends and policies that facilitate the multi-national exchange of environmentally friendly technologies including waste disposal, water quality and quantity, and efficient consumption of energy and resources.

Following the conference, I met Richard Blabey, Agricultural Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Chile -- a personal honor and learning experience.  Mr. Blabey was pleased that USDA, and especially NRCS, showed such an active interest in global sustainability to be represented at an international conference of such high caliber.

I visited two Chilean conservation farm families to establish positive relationships and to gain an understanding of sustainable agricultural methods and the socio-economic and resource concerns of farmers in Chile.  The farm of Alejandro Celsi is located at Isla de Maipo, about 40 miles from Santiago; and the farm of Carlos Crovetto, "Chequen," is located near Concepcion.

Meeting Alejandro Celsi and Carlos Crovetto was a reminder of how inter-dependent the economic fates of all countries have become.  This awareness leads to lifting  up international commerce through more free and fair agricultural trade while sustaining a reliable global food supply.

Farming in Chile is very different from that in the United States.  Each farm is likely to have many "small" size operations.  For example, the Celsi farm has vineyards for wine production and table grapes, walnut groves, lemon orchards, hog production, and a laying hen operation.  The family members are responsible for production, marketing and sales, including export activity, for all operations on the farm.  Because their operation is very labor intensive, farm workers are hired for picking, packing and loading of the farm products.

The Celsi's are planting native trees and developing fence rows for conservation.  Because of the lack of native vegetation and the reduced water supply, there are few opportunities to observe wildlife in the lowland valley.  Soils on the Celsi farm are droughty.  Irrigation is almost a necessity for a successful operation in the lowland valley where most agricultural activity occurs in Chile.  With water at such a premium,  it is difficult for most farmers to understand the benefit of tree plantings and fence row development.  In fact, to most, these practices appear to further the already strained competition for water resources for their crops.  The challenge of having enough water for annual crops makes it difficult to comprehend the long-term benefit of planting vegetation and how it effects the water cycle, evapo-transpiration and global warming.  Replacing native trees and vegetation increases carbon sequestration and is an investment for the future in the soils on the Celsi farm.

Carlos Crovetto is an agronomist who has maintained an established relationship with NRCS since the 1970's.  He wrote a book about no-till, Stubble over the Soil, in Spanish that has been translated into English by NRCS agronomists.  As a follow-up, I ordered a supply of the books for distribution to local farmers in Illinois.  I mailed a copy of the book to Alejandro Celsi to thank him for his hospitality and because he showed an interest in Carlos' philosophy on soil health.

On the "Chequen" farm, the Crovetto family has an extensive laying hen operation.  Their main crops are corn, lupin (a nitrogen fixing legume), and triticale (a wheat/rye cross suitable for droughty soils).  The crops are grown mainly as feed to support the laying hen operation.  All of his crops have been no-tilled for eight or more years.  The humus layer of the soils is several inches thick.  Even in a dry year, there is enough soil moisture for root growth, when crops on surrounding farms are failing.

Carlos is a pioneer for no-till in Chile.  He is the founder of the Scolded de Conservacion de Suelos de Chile (The Soil Conservation Society of Chile).  Carlos has a conference center on "Chequen", where he invites people from all over the world in order to deliver his message about no-till and soil health.

Chile (as well as other South and Central American countries) has been tormented by a terrible drought for more than 15 months.  It is being called "the drought of the century".  Even in a normal year, the agricultural lowlands receive little rain.  They depend on rain and melting snow from the Andes and Coastal Range Mountains for their water needs and hydroelectric power.  But even in the mountain areas, there has only been a couple of inches of precipitation in over a year.  To ease consumption of hydro-electric power, "brown-outs" or power shut-offs from 8 am to 11 am, were enforced daily throughout the entire country.  In my opinion, this is an omen of what can happen if even one of our natural resources becomes depleted.

The economic wealth of Chile is largely dependent on their ability to export agricultural goods.  Chile is just ending their summer season (the driest months of the year).  Fortunately, both of the farmers I visited have irrigation for their crops.  Those without irrigation will suffer terrible losses.

To follow up, I recommend an exchange with Carlos Crovetto, where I would be willing to organize a group of young farmers from two local counties to visit the research center on Carlos' farm in 1999.  I hope to spread the enthusiasm about no-till that I learned from Carlos.  It would also be beneficial for Carlos to visit Gallatin and Hardin Counties to personally direct his no-till message to Illinois farmers. 

Author:  Michele R. Gidcumb, District Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Gallatin / Hardin Counties, Illinois

Editor:  Gail C. Roane, International Programs Division