Agricultural intensification associated with population growth, market forces and cultural shifts in land management (among other factors) has led to declining soil fertility and agricultural productivity in much of the Andean highlands and represents a growing threat to the livelihoods and wellbeing of farming communities throughout the region. While agricultural systems in the Andean region are generally more diversified than farming systems in other parts of the world and have a longer history of apparently sustainable management, this trend is changing rapidly. Hence, it is imperative to identify alternative forms of management that address soil fertility loss and the changing needs of Andean farmers. Climate change further emphasizes the importance of developing robust agricultural systems that can help small farmers adapt to more variable weather conditions while mitigating some the root causes of climate change.
Within the context of the Andes, fallows represent a common strategy to restore soil fertility and function and are in many ways emblematic of traditional low-intensity agriculture in the region. Shortening fallow cycles associated with land use intensification now impedes the restorative capacity of this phase, with important implications for long-term soil fertility and rangeland forage production. The services provided by fallows are often indirect and difficult to estimate; thus farmers and researchers generally pay less attention to fallows than to other phases of the cropping cycle. The project proposes to focus on developing more intensive, but sustainable fallow systems via a more active management of the fallow stage with a focus on low-cost fertility inputs and plant species assemblages that are more productive and better able to restore soil fertility. Similarly, it plans to work at the farm or landscape scale supporting planned diversification and more holistic management of all farmscape components (i.e., agricultural plots and non-production areas).
During the inception phase, the project sharpened its approach and strengthened its operative capacity. The project team explored community social and biophysical contexts and existing management practices related to fallows and cropping, identified several excellent research contacts, and became aware of existing research on species for forage availability and rangeland intervention. The project will continue to study the drivers and real constraints of current management practices in fallow-based systems, that were examined in the inception phase of this project, and will work closely with farmers and technicians to explore opportunities for fallow improvement in a local context. The research will benefit farmers directly by building local capacity for research and innovation, while providing new options for restoring soil fertility and improving other services offered by fallow stages (e.g., forage production). At the same time, a detailed assessment of production and ecosystem services (including biodiversity conservation) will provide local governments and development organizations with vital information for guiding investment and policy decisions in the region.
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