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Meet a Solver: Michael Hands, Inga Foundation

You’ve probably heard of slash-and-burn agriculture and its impact on the world’s tropics. The Solver we’re profiling this week is working toward a more sustainable solution for tropical family farms.

Michael Hands and the Inga Foundation are providing an alternative to slash-and-burn that keeps each family’s land healthy, produces higher-value crops every year, and helps keep significant amounts of carbon stored in tropical soils in Latin America and Africa.

Michael’s team joined us by applying to our Carbon Contribution challenge last year. And now, we’ve got four new challenges waiting for your solutions. Find out how you or someone you know can apply to help solve our global challenges on Sustainable Urban CommunitiesBrain HealthWomen and Technology; or Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future

Q: Tell us your story: How did you first become interested in the work you do?
I was dismayed by the devastating impact that centuries of slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture has had in the world's tropics. I was in near-disbelief while a Researcher at the University of Cambridge when I found that science could not fully explain the underlying ecology of the process—nor could it indicate a way out of the problem.
Q: Did you have a turning point moment that inspired you to think differently about your work?
There was a growing weight of evidence that certain plant nutrients could be the key to understanding the loss of soil fertility that prevents farmers' attempts to take more than one or two crops from a slash-and-burn site. Breakthroughs in the ecology of soil phosphorus in my laboratory in Cambridge, UK, cleared away confusion and contradiction in the literature and opened the way to a promising set of field trials. These upheld the original hypotheses and led to the alternative agricultural system, in place of slash/burn, that Inga Foundation is now promoting.
Q: Tell us about your background—professionally, personally, or as a team.
Until 1984, I worked as a Topographic Surveyor on improving projects in many developing countries. Since 1988, I’ve been a Tropical Ecologist specializing in the ecology of tropical rain forests and in the ecology of slash-and-burn agriculture. I am the Founder and Trustee of Inga Foundation and Director of its Land for Life Program in Central America. Our teams in Central America are led by local foresters and agronomists who have extension assistants trained by them on our demonstration farms.

What is the problem you’re trying to solve?
To roll out a revolutionary and highly successful rural livelihood based on the food security provided by the proven agroforestry system developed by the Cambridge projects. This is called Alley Cropping (Inga A-C) with nitrogen-fixing trees of the tropical genus Inga.
How are you trying to solve it?
By the slow and painstaking introduction of the complete model based on the above system. The "Guama Model" provides food security in basic grains grown in the Inga A-C system; cash-crops grown in the Inga A-C system; tree crops associated with more widely-planted Inga as shade and source of natural Nitrogen; reforestation with tropical broadleaf timber trees. Reforesting tropical regions also leads to large carbon uptake into both soil carbon and the trees themselvesthe recently released Drawdown project put tropical forest reforestation as the 5th best out of 100 approaches in terms of potential carbon dioxide reductions.
We started by recruiting 40 families in 2012, and now have 240 families in various stages of adoption, including fully implementing our methodology—the Inga system.
Tell us a story! Who will your solution impact?
Think of Martin Garcia in the Cangrejal valley of northern Honduras. Martin supports a family of about 12 individuals; of various generations. His inherited land had a history of repeated slash/burn episodes over 100 years. He described the soil as "esteril" (sterile) until the Inga system restored it. Prior to taking maize, beans, tomatoes, and Cacao from the Inga system, he says that he would earn about $6 per day as a "peon" manual laborer for three to four days per week, and spent the remaining time struggling to produce anything on his own land. He says the system has transformed his life: "from peon to producer.” He now has his own autonomy. This story is being repeated, with variations, for more than 200 families.

What do you think the Solve community can uniquely bring to solving your challenge?
Networking and a wider audience for this unique and revolutionary strategy. We want to present the phenomenal, game-changing promise of this model to an audience capable of funding its acceleration and expansion across wide swathes of the humid tropics.
What’s the challenge that you think Solve should take on next?
A global campaign to publicize (repeatedly and widely) the solutions it has so admirably supported.

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