Nature’s bounty

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Reportage
09/2021

Nature’s bounty

Why drones are joining chickens and bees in boosting biodiversity. A visit to the Núñez family farm in the Dominican Republic.

Text and Photos
: Sandra Weiss

It’s midday, and even the banana plants are finding the humid tropical heat too much, closing their leaves to prevent excessive evaporation. But the Núñez family farm, or finca, in the north of the Dominican Republic is a pleasant place to be in this climate. The banana plantation is interspersed with aloe vera, coconut palms and cacao trees, which provide shade, while crystal clear water flows from a spring. Butterflies dart in and out of the trees, and you can hear the birds singing. Dayanara Sánchez is enthusiastic: ‘Farming in harmony with nature fills my heart with joy.’ Her husband Richard Núñez picks some mangoes from a tree and cuts open a coconut – there’s always something healthy to eat or drink here on the finca.

The family business is part of Banelino, a Dominican Republic banana cooperative that has been exporting organic bananas to Europe for many years. The association has more than 360 small farmers as members, and Banelino produces around 10 per cent of all the bananas grown in the country.

Bildergalerie Accordion

Núñez is passionate about organic farming, but he was sceptical when he first heard about the ‘biodiversity check’. The 49-year-old wondered if it was yet another organic certification that would cost him money and involve new requirements. GIZ’s Raúl Araujo was quick to reassure him. At a meeting with Núñez and a few dozen other small farmers from the cooperative, Araujo – an agricultural expert – presented the approach. It forms part of a biodiversity project run by GIZ on behalf of Germany’s Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) to support the sustainable production of bananas and pineapples.

The biodiversity check is an individual analysis of banana farmers’ fincas. The aim is to discover how they can farm in greater harmony with nature and diversify production. After all, as Araujo emphasises, ‘organic doesn’t necessarily mean biodiverse’. Although organic farmers do not use chemicals, their farms are often monocultures, which can cause problems such as erosion, pests and declining soil fertility.

I want to protect the planet and pass it on to future generations in a healthy state.

Richard Núñez,
organic farmer in the Dominican Republic.

And these are problems with which Richard Núñez is familiar from his own family farm. He found his banana plants were bearing less fruit and smaller bananas, the plants were vulnerable to storms, and crops were often damaged by flooding. So it didn’t take much to convince him of the new approach. ‘I don’t just want to make a living from agriculture,’ he says; ‘I also want to protect the planet and pass it on to future generations in a healthy state.’ Núñez was one of the first Banelino farmers to sign up for the programme back in 2019.

Pride and joy

With financial support and advice from GIZ, he acquired beehives and planted a barrier of fast-growing Ceylon gooseberry all the way round his 3.8 hectares of banana plants. As Núñez’s wife Dayanara explains, ‘The bees love the blossom, and the trees not only provide shelter from the wind but also produce delicious fruit that we use to make juice and jam.’

Acquiring chickens is another part of the biodiversity programme. ‘The chickens peck for worms in the soil, which loosens compacted earth,’ explains Araujo. It’s a job that farmers would otherwise have to pay labourers to do. Núñez and Sánchez have also planted leguminous plants between their banana plants as ground cover. The plants fix the nutrients in the soil – and, as Núñez reports, ‘the banana plant stems are now 10 centimetres thicker on average.’ It’s a really important outcome for the banana farmers: the diameter of their plant is the key to growing more and larger bananas.

The project in figures
17

different plant species now grow on Banelino banana fincas, which were previously monocultures.

19,000

hectares of plantation have been converted to environmentally sustainable farming following the biodiversity check.

9,400

small farmers and plantation workers are learning about and receiving training in biodiversity-friendly production.

Quite apart from the satisfaction biodiversity brings, though, Núñez and Araujo agree that it also boosts incomes: ‘The chickens save me 15,000 pesos a month that I would otherwise spend on keeping the soil in good condition. And the eggs, the coconuts, the cacao and the honey the bees produce earn me up to 22,000 pesos a month,’ Núñez reports. Everything he produces is sold locally. As Araujo notes, that’s an extra 450,000 pesos a year for the household budget, or around EUR 6,400 – money that Núñez uses to pay for education for his two children.

Greater transparency for consumers

Núñez’s son is also called Richard; he’s 25 and is studying agronomy so that he can take over the family farm. ‘Organic bananas definitely have a future,’ he enthuses; ‘I love being in nature, and this way, I can be my own boss.’ Richard junior was particularly impressed by the biodiversity inventory, which was carried out by drone. The project uses the DJI Phantom 4 drone, which is programmed in the Banelino office using satellite images and then flies slowly over the finca at a height of 60 metres, recording how many different species of plant are growing on the land. A total of 12 fincas in the Dominican Republic have already conducted an inventory of this kind. The inventory provides sound evidence of how biodiversity improves over the course of the project and is also important for the project’s other component – traceability.

Bildergalerie Accordion

The aim is for consumers to be able to trace the origin of the bananas accurately using an app and source code and thus to bring producers and consumers closer together. Shoppers in a German supermarket can scan the source code of a bunch of bananas on their smartphone to discover the name of the farmer who grew them and where. The app also allows them to pay the farmer a bit extra.

It’s something Richard Núñez senior would be thrilled to see: ‘To know that people on the other side of the world value what I do fills me with pride,’ he says. But he’s just as motivated by the words of his 85-year-old Uncle Gaspar. Gaspar still rides a donkey through the banana plantation and recently said to Núñez, ‘My boy, you have made me a wonderful gift. It’s much more pleasant riding in the shadow of these new plants and trees.’

Water source on the plantation of Núñez

Water source on the plantation of Núñez

The Dominican Republic is one of the most species-diverse countries in the Caribbean. To protect its precious resources and work with farmers to promote biodiversity, GIZ is implementing the From Farm to Fork project, creating sustainable value chains in banana and pineapple production in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. The German Federal Environment Ministry finances the project, which forms part of a wider-ranging programme, Business and Biodiversity in Central America and the Dominican Republic, in which GIZ works on behalf of BMZ and with co-financing from the EU to strengthen companies’ efforts to conserve nature.

Contact: Svenja Paulino, svenja.paulino@giz.de