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The impact of organic bananas in Alto Beni, Bolivia

  Poor farmers in the Alto Beni region of Bolivia continue to enjoy improved livelihoods thanks to a project on organic bananas implemented by Bioversity International. An impact assessment, using an asset-based livelihoods approach, found that 85% of farm families in the region said their incomes had increased since the end of the project. In 2004, just after the project started, a study estimated average annual farm income at US$2206. Five years after the end of the project, the income of farmers who took part in the project averaged US$6300. Looking beyond income, project families spent more than non-participants on food such as milk and meat, an average of US$599 compared to US$488. Many also bought household assets, further increasing their standard of living. More than half (55%) had improved the roof of their house during the previous 5 years, and almost a third (31%) had invested in cement floors. These improvements were based on the increased human capital created by the training delivered by the project partners. The project, which ran from 2002-2005, was funded by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, to combat fears that poor farmers in Alto Beni might be tempted to grow coca. Prices for coca are high and stable, unlike the volatile prices for legal crops such as bananas, citrus and passion fruits. Poor infrastructure, with bad roads and unreliable transport, and the remoteness of the region from urban markets, also work against legal crops, which are highly perishable compared to processed coca. One estimate put the profits for coca at 5 to 10 times greater per hectare than for conventional crops. Bioversity’s project aimed to improve farmers' livelihoods by modernizing banana production to tap into the emerging specialized market for certified organic bananas. Farmers would be trained to produce certified organic bananas and a community enterprise formed to commercialize the product, establishing links with clients and taking care of logistics, marketing and sales. To that end, the project helped to set up BanaBeni, a profit-oriented enterprise owned and operated by UNABENI, the Asociación de Productores Agroecologicos de Alto Beni. BanaBeni was originally intended to supply export markets for organic bananas. In 2004, however, Bolivia implemented a policy to promote local, organic, small-scale farmers by incorporating organic bananas in the meals offered by public schools in La Paz. Although the school meal programme pays no premium for organic produce, the stable price it offered was an incentive to BanaBeni to become the primary supplier. At the end of the project BanaBeni was shipping 31,000 boxes a year; five years later, in 2009, this had increased to 173,000 boxes, more than 20 million organic breakfast bananas for schoolchildren in the towns of La Paz, El Alto and Santa Cruz. BanaBeni itself had grown from 10 farmer associations with 630 members to 14 associations with about 1000 members. The project kick-started the formation of BanaBeni and promoted organic bananas, and impacts continued to accrue after it had ended. In 2006, USAID brokered exports to Argentina and later Chile, which do offer a premium for organic bananas. USAID concluded that “producers in Alto Beni … are helping to prevent the spread of coca production”. Further opportunities remain; for example, although the farmers are growing organically, they do not have access to the technology needed to manage soil fertility effectively. Read original post on the Bioversity International website.