Zooming in: A field inquiry to learn about differentiated practices for sustainable livestock farming in Ecuador

Desk validation and data cleaning

The quantitative research resulted in a list of 77 labeled cattle farms, ranging from “never positive deviants” to “always positive deviants”, depending on the evolution of their yearly rate of deforestation between 2015 and 2020. We individually reviewed these farms and added an “always positive deviants / strict” category for those whose overall deforestation rate was below 2% over the timeframe, so that we could use extreme case sampling in our qualitative research.

Sample design and access to informants

We then conducted a convenience sampling to ensure the diversity of the farms we would visit, and the farmers we would interview. Sample diversity was achieved in the farms pasture (%), forest (% and ha), poverty level (index), access to roads, and proximity to the main city, to improve the generalizability of the findings. We analyzed indicators such as animal unit per hectare (which we referred to as cattle efficiency), percentage of land dedicated to pasture, percentage and area of forestland within a farm, and poverty index level. We also drew transects based on distances to main local cities and access to roads.

Meeting with local technicians of the Amazonian Agenda of the Productive Transformation (ATPA) from MAG Sucúa, with the aim of setting a field work schedule using the identification of farmers’ location in a territory. Photo: Emily Wilkinson
Interviewing a cattle farmer in Sucúa Cantón, Morona Santiago province. Photo: Ricardo Araguillin

Responsible data collection

We carried out our work at a very political moment in Ecuador. The country was in the midst of a presidential election, and we feared our interest in farmers’ practices would be associated with political motives. Indeed, political campaigning was at its peak, so we avoided asking participants to sign papers. Instead, we convened them to verbal socialization meetings to explain our work. We held one in Joya and one in Sucúa. We also used these meetings to plan field visits to farms with the farmers themselves. We were careful not to mention categories like “positive deviants” or “negative deviants” as we did not want people to feel pre-judged. However, we told them that we were interested in good, sustainable livestock farming practices.

Field interviews and findings

Overall, we interviewed 16 farmers. We asked them questions related to their socioeconomic status, income-generating activities, livestock feeding and management techniques, soil use, environmental attitudes, and the training they had received. Our interview instrument combined closed questions with semi-structured ones that were intended to characterize farmers, identify attitudes and practices towards forest conservation, and learn about knowledge sources and exchanges.

Livestock in paddocks in Cantón Joya de los Sachas. Photo: Ricardo Araguillin
  1. Economic: some farmers simply lacked the resources to clear out forestland and invest in other crops.
  2. Topographic: ravines, swamps, and mountainous zones were not cleared out, because access was difficult and land use impractical.
  3. Demographic: older farmers could not physically engage in arduous tree-cutting activities and could not manage the resulting increase in need for supervision of their property.
Preservation of water source and wood trees in farms as ecological and economic value. Photo: Ricardo Araguillin
A feeder made with a recycled tire to prevent wasting minerals and salt that otherwise would have been scattered throughout the field for cattle to consume while grazing. Photo: Ricardo Araguillin

The challenges we experienced

The administrative data we had access to was outdated as the land registers dated back to 2005–2006. This had two implications. On the one hand, some selected farms were difficult to locate; the farmers had either died, or the land had changed owners. On the other hand, the information related to farm size and cultivated area reported by the farmers themselves did not match that of the registration data; farmers often used unreported land obtained through inheritance, renting, or expansion. This meant their farms had a lower cattle efficiency (animal unit per hectare) than what was estimated in the quantitative research. Such indicators related to land use and stocking rate were mainly used to identify the positive deviants, hence, they count as our main source of error in the quantitative analysis that preceded the fieldwork research. This led to the identification of farmers who are false positive deviants. This also could explain why sustainable practices were not identified exclusively in the “Always positive deviants” category. However, the vaccination data used to estimate the cattle numbers turned out to be a useful proxy due to their large alignment with the numbers in the field. This encourages its use as a reliable estimate of cattle density in future applications.

Placing a cut gumboot around a calf’s mouth to prevent it from drinking its mothers’ milk so that the farmer can collect it. Photo: Aymé Muzo

Recommendations

We recommend strengthening training programs on sustainable economic activities, as we learned that some farmers are likely to engage in monocultures (palm, cocoa, coffee, balsa) when market prices are high, without anticipating future market fluctuations. We believe more diversified economic activities are likely to be safer for longer-term household income and soil quality. When farmers were asked about where or how they learned their cattle farming practices — feeding and optimizing resources — most responded some form of empirical learning from previous generations or neighbors. They also stated that they had either not received any specific training in the past, or that their latest training on livestock production was over eight years old. This led some farmers to declare little confidence in their practices.

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