- Ranching in Panama dates back to the 1500s, when Spanish settlers decided that cattle were the agricultural commodity that grew best in the tropical climate.
- This tradition has severely deforested the tropical nation and depleted its soil resources too, twin problems that are worsening in tandem with the effects of climate change.
- However, the agroforestry technique of silvopasture ranching, where trees and woody shrubs are planted into livestock pastures, is gaining ground here.
- Not only is it much more profitable than conventional ranching, but the system also provides habitat for monkeys, insects, birds and more while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
LOS ASIENTOS, Panama — It was auction day in the town of Santiago, and ranchers from the region gathered to buy and sell cattle. A metallic clatter rang out from the livestock pens in the early afternoon heat as the bulls became restless, thrashing and kicking in their crowded quarters. Attached to the outside wall of the pens was a raised wooden platform where one could walk and take stock of the livestock, taking care to avoid agitated horns that sometimes swiped through the gaps.
Those who gathered were almost all men in jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps. But not all.
Odielca Solís also frequents cattle auctions like these, driving from her home in Los Asientos to auctions hours away, two or three times a week. “It’s my business,” she says simply.
Wearing black velvet three-inch heels, dark navy jeans, and layered sweaters, Solís’s attire could have sufficed for a night on the town. But she was there for the same purpose as everyone else: buying cattle for her diversified cattle ranch.
As the auction commenced, Solís took a seat and watched as the cattle were prodded from pen to scale, to sale, and back. She used her iPhone calculator to decide which cows to bid on, chatting with nearby cattlemen. Out of the dozens of ranchers present, she was one of only two women. And there was something else distinguishing about her as well: the way she runs her ranch.
Instead of raising cattle on plain grass pasture, Solís uses a system called silvopasture, the planting of trees and shrubs into pastures, which benefits the cows and increases the biodiversity of her ranch’s ecosystem. After taking a sustainable ranching course taught by a Yale University-affiliated program in Panama and visiting some model farms, Solís became convinced that she could increase the profits from her ranching operation without needing more land or chemical inputs. A type of agroforestry, silvopasture is also highly rated as method of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
But in choosing this system, Solís needed to depart from deeply embedded local norms about what it means to be a successful landowner and cattle rancher in an industry where, as a woman, she is already in the minority.
Managing silvopasture systems requires a lot of extra work compared to traditional ranching. For example, the land must be sectioned and the cows need to be rotated between the sections frequently, so that they don’t overgraze any one area. While helpful to her cattle and local wildlife, planting trees has put her at odds with some farmers — why plant trees on land that your ancestors worked hard to keep clear, people ask? At times, these practices have put her in conflict with old-timers.
Nevertheless, the promise of this system has motivated Solís to keep moving forward. Planting trees and shrubs offers a whole host of benefits that translate into producing more meat, and it benefits the environment in two major ways: improving the habitat value for wildlife, and sequestering carbon.
Though cows are generally blamed for contributing climate-warming gases to the atmosphere, the additional woody plants and improved soils of silvopasture systems result in an estimated 26 gigatons to 42 gigatons of carbon dioxide being pulled out of the air globally before it has a chance to contribute to climate change. In these ways, the practices that Solís and a new school of farmers in her region are using could provide a solution for cattle ranching’s heavy environmental footprint, even in a country where cattle is king.
Old days, new ways
In the not-too-distant past, before the advent of modern banks that made it possible to save money securely, a herd of cattle was essentially a living, breathing savings account. A rancher could look across the landscape and, one by one, count the value of their grazing assets.
The predominance of ranching in Panama dates back nearly to the arrival of Spanish settlers in the 1500s, since cattle were the commodity that grew best in the tropical climate. The early settlers cleared land so that grasses could get enough sun to grow, and also had to ensure trees didn’t sprout back up.
Then and now, when someone inherits a ranch from their family, it’s as if they are inheriting “not only the land, but the way of managing it,” says Jacob Slusser, program coordinator at Yale’s Environmental Leadership Training Institute (ELTI), which offers the sustainable farming courses that got Solís interested in silvopasture techniques.
Though two-thirds of the population lives in Panama City, and cattle ranching accounts for less than 3% of the country’s GDP, many people in rural areas still tend to be connected to it in some way for their livelihoods. West of the big city, the Azuero Peninsula is widely considered the agricultural and cultural heart of the country, and was one of the first areas where the Spanish established ranching. Throughout the year, people come from around the country to attend its colorful festivals and fairs celebrating holidays such as Carnaval and saint’s days.
Video by Nisha Balaram
But after 500 years of ranching, much of the land is severely degraded. Cows have roamed it for so long that their collective weight has compacted it greatly, making it difficult for plants other than pasture grasses to grow. That also makes it harder for rain to soak into the ground, and without enough roots to hold it in place, the soil is prone to erosion.
Tropical soils are also nutrient poor to begin with, and there often aren’t enough naturally occurring insects around to break down cow dung, so the recycling of even these nutrients back into the ground is minimal. Reduced biodiversity also means there are few herbivores around to control weeds, so farmers increasingly rely on herbicides to do the job. Couple all of this with climate change-induced drought and there is a real sense that the ranching business just isn’t what it used to be.
Even in the province of Los Santos in the southeastern part of the peninsula, where ranchers’ adherence to the traditional practice of cutting trees has earned them the nickname arrieltas, or leaf-cutters, some have recognized the need for a change.
In 2009, a group of ranchers from Los Santos participated in an ELTI program to learn about silvopasture’s benefits. Beside the carbon and soil effects, they learned how the system provides wildlife habitat, shade for the cows, and perhaps surprisingly, food for the cows as well: it turns out that cows enjoy eating a more varied diet than just grass, and that these plants can have a higher protein content, too.
Better forage translates into higher milk and meat production, so when the ranchers returned to their respective farms, they were interested to try it. But they quickly realized that to adopt silvopasture, and for others to do the same, they needed support to help cover initial costs and investments; converting a ranch to silvopasture can cost up to $2,000 per hectare, or about $800 an acre — a steep investment for the average farmer. Panama does have a program that supports silvopasture in the lands adjacent to the Panama Canal, but there is no funding or incentives for it elsewhere in the country.
With encouragement from ELTI, the ranchers formed the Association of Livestock and Agro-Silvopastoral Producers of Pedasí (APASPE) and sought funding to help themselves and others in the region cover startup costs. They were able to secure a grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a program of the World Bank that supports climate change mitigation projects to support biodiversity, as the carbon sequestration services and increased biodiversity from these systems dovetailed well with GEF’s stated purpose. Now, nearly 10 years later, the organization has more than 30 members and boasts multiple model farms where farmers can witness silvopasture techniques in action.
At first, even Solís was skeptical of claims that she could boost meat production just by making changes to vegetation and water availability on her ranch. But after going on a field trip to a model farm in the province of Chiriquí, she was sold. She is now one of just three female farmers in APASPE, and one of the earliest members.
“I became convinced that [I] didn’t need to have a ton of land to make a profit,” she said, and began focusing her energy on adapting the new techniques to her land, despite the cultural stigma of being a female cattle rancher and planting trees. Even for a seasoned cattle rancher, it has taken years of concentrated hard work to implement the system, but her farm has begun to reap the rewards.
Financial benefit and biodiversity boon
It’s 8:40 a.m., and the soft light that bathed Solís’ farm since dawn is intensifying as the sun inches higher into the sky. In the town of Los Asientos, most farmers don’t live on their farms, and traditional cattle ranching can be fairly hands-off; some farmers visit their farms every two weeks or so. Solís visits hers almost every day, and today, she is walking wheelbarrows full of sacks of corn shuckings and corn and soy meal down the hill to further supplement the cows’ diet.
It has taken a while for other farmers to come to terms with Solís’s intensive approach to cattle ranching, though ranching has been part of her life from an early age. When she adopted this management-intensive form of raising cattle, people in town started to talk.
“Why are you working so much on the farm?” they’d ask.
“I’m just working,” was her reply.
“You’re acting like a venao,” they’d say, “like a deer.”
Name-calling like this didn’t do much to deter Solís’s resolve. The work was important to her and she was motivated to implement new techniques that could help her business in the long run.
She began to convert small amounts of land, 3 hectares (7 acres) at a time, into silvopasture. She had to build lots of enclosures — she wanted to be able to rotate the cattle frequently so that they didn’t overgraze any parcels — often by herself. She also planted seeds of native trees and shrubs that could offer more protein to her cattle than just grasses. The availability of extra protein-rich forage has since allowed Solís to host additional cattle on her land, which has had the desired effect of producing more meat. The trees also shade her cattle, helping them avoid heat stress.
Solís started to see dramatic improvements in her production: a hectare of land under silvopasture, about 2.5 acres, now yields roughly the same profit as 3 hectares of plain traditional grass pasture — a figure encompassing the economic promise of silvopastoral systems.
“There is a wide range of silvopastoral systems with a huge variation in efficiency,” Zoraida Calle, of the Center for Research on Sustainable Agricultural Production (CIPAV), tells Mongabay. She says a silvopasture system with sparse trees can be twice as profitable as a conventional ranch, while an intensive silvopasture system — complete with a high density of shrubs and shade trees — can be five times as profitable as a conventional ranch, or even more. “All of them are more profitable (and sustainable) than their conventional counterparts,” she says.
The benefits can also extend beyond profit, Solís noticed — the birds had returned.
“The birdsong — each different one, each different song indicates there are more birds compared to 25, 15, even fewer years ago,” she says.
But hearing about the benefits of silvopasture systems is not always enough to change minds. Solís recalls a time when a neighbor used local expressions to emphasize his distaste for her farming practices, accusing her of haciendo la finca montañas and volviendo la finca monte. The literal translation is “letting the farm turn into mountains,” but is used to mean “letting the farm become overgrown with woody plants.” The insinuation was that the practices she was using allowed trees to take over and that she wouldn’t be able to provide enough food for her cattle.
Because of popular beliefs like this, APASPE encourages its members to invite other farmers to see and learn from their successes firsthand. One day, a skeptical neighbor passed by and Solís invited him to walk with her as she went about her routine. By the end of the walk, the neighbor said he understood Solís better. He had thought she was crazy to be planting so many trees, but once there, he could see that it was possible to raise cattle in that way without harming the land or letting it be reabsorbed by the forest.
See related: Silvopasture in Sardinia
Resilience and adaptation
After feeding the cows in the enclosure near the creek, Solís decides to check in on the rest of her cattle in a different pen up the hill. Jacob Slusser and Saskia Santamaria from the ELTI are taking a tour of the farm today. Together, the three cross the creek and start following the dirt path on the other side. Soon after, they pass from the shade of the creek trees into the full sun and start the slight ascent.
The breeze picks up as they near the top of the hill. The outline of a living fence — one whose posts are made from live, sprouting trees, a common practice in the region — comes into view. It encloses a tree-less, open pasture brimming with greenish-yellow bunch grasses and hosting four cows at the moment. As they pass through the metal gate, a light brown bull with a dark chocolate-colored snout starts and goes trotting briskly toward the back of the pasture, stopping to turn around and stare inquisitively at the visitors.
Black, white, brown, and most shades in between, Solís’s cows reflect the typical diversity of breeds in Panama, many of which are descendants of Brahman cattle, a hybrid of different Indian cow breeds adapted to withstand hot, tropical climates.
But even heat-adapted cows aren’t totally immune to heat stress, and the unpredictability of rain is presenting new challenges. Solís’s town is located in the dry arc of Central America, a swath of tropical dry forest habitat on the Pacific coast that, with climate change, is becoming especially prone to prolonged dry spells.
Panama has two main seasons: the rainy season, also called winter, runs from around May to December; the dry season, or summer, tends to run from December through April. But in November 2018, the rains abruptly ended a month early. At the time, Solís had a sizeable herd that she had planned to raise over the summer. In response, she decided instead to sell many of them.
See more of Mongabay’s coverage of trends in global agroforestry here.
Her sudden need to react to the lack of precipitation reflects the experience of other farmers, who’ve found themselves in a new world where weather conditions are very different from those experienced by those even just a generation before.
Many people in the region don’t have wells, and depend on surface water from streams to provide water to cattle. Solís decided to invest in a well so that her cattle could have better access to water year-round. She also sought funding for a project that is now one of the defining features of her farm: a solar-powered system that pumps water to where she needs it.
“[APASPE] provided the opportunity to cover all of the necessary costs, all of the materials like a pump, a solar panel, hoses, and troughs,” Solís says. “Just with solar power, we can flip a switch and move water to all parts of the farm.”
Adaptations like these can help farmers build resilience to survive even the toughest times. Her methods have changed, and she thinks the times are changing to allow more women and cattle ranchers to follow suit, too.
Forging new traditions
Another reason that there aren’t more female ranchers here is that it’s traditional for boys to be invited into the trade, while girls are shunted into the roles of wife, homemaker, and child-rearer, and denied the opportunities to learn and grow a relationship with the land.
But Solís says she thinks women are making inroads, in particular through education, where more women are choosing to study agriculture at the university level.
“There are women that obtain land through inheritance [and decide to keep it] and there are women who go into debt so that they can get loans and buy land.”
But Solís says even people who have been given the opportunity to work the land face obstacles to adopting practices that can improve their production and ranching’s often fraught relationship with the environment. This is because younger family members tend to work under the older generation’s preferred model.
“There are fathers and grandfathers who still oversee their lands and don’t give opportunities or open up the land [for] their children or grandchildren to grow or create projects,” Solís says. “There are youth that have seen my model farm but always say that their grandfather or their father won’t give them the opportunity to do something like this.”
Solís has an 11-year-old son, and thinks his involvement on the farm has been very important. Though he sometimes complains about having to help, he understands that it translates to having money, even if it means working on weekends.
APASPE’s model has been reaching a wider, younger audience interested in creating change, and for Belgis Madrid, one of APASPE’s founding members, what the organization has achieved in such a short time is inspiring.
“These [silvopasture] systems are a change from the traditional farms paradigm to farms that are even more productive,” he says. “Starting with small farmers, we have managed to change the model for the landscape.”
CIPAV’s Calle says Latin America will likely experience an expansion of silvopasture, but there are two main bottlenecks. First, there’s a need for incentives that compel farmers to adopt the practice. Second, the people who train farmers need better training themselves.
“We need to achieve a deep and lasting transformation in the relation of farmers with their land, and we need the silvopastoral leaders to inspire others to multiply this change,” Calle says.
Without a robust scaling strategy, silvopasture systems might not take off, says Valentina Robiglio, a landscape ecologist with the Kenya-based World Agroforestry Centre, which supports implementation of agroforestry practices worldwide.
“We are at a very initial stage to promote integration and build a favorable context for silvopastoral systems to take off and move beyond individual success stories as the one you present,” Robligio says, referring to Solís’s system.
Despite the enormous cultural challenges and shifting weather patterns, it’s a future that Solís and the other APASPE members are willing to bet on: a chance to modify traditional cattle ranching into something that better serves the environment and those who practice it, thereby preserving that livelihood for the generations who follow.
Erin Banks Rusby is a freelance journalist covering the environment, business, and health. Her work has appeared in Earth Island Journal, East Bay Express, and Oakland Magazine.
Nisha Balaram is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist. Her work covers issues related to racial justice, climate change mitigation, and mental health, and has appeared in East Bay Express, Capitol Weekly, and KALW.
This report is part of Mongabay’s ongoing coverage of trends in global agroforestry, view the full series here.