The Value of Failure

Widespread monocropped use of any introduced species, no matter how productive and promising the species may be, entails risk. An enthusiastic United States Peace Corps agroforestry campaign learned this lesson the hard way. In an attempt to establish woodlots in Paraguay in the 1980s, they introduced the tree species, paraiso gigante (Melia azedrach var. gigante). This well-intentioned effort was unsuccessful in the longrun due to lack of technical expertise and poor extension methods. Widespread disease did not help matters. The example of the paraiso woodlots as a failed project is as valuable as a successful project.

Heavy reliance on one species contributed strongly to the downfall of the project. When the trees were hit by two diseases in 1986, their productivity declined. The diseases alone did not stop the project. Initially the trees were planted too close together, and in combination with other tree species that outcompeted the paraiso.

These technical shortcomings were compounded by flaws in extension methods. The early extension program which promoted paraiso was misguided. Extension workers emphasized the economic value of paraiso, which never materialized. There is no market for paraiso in Paraguay. Instead, extensionists should have made it clear to farmers that they were conducting a long-term experiment with no guaranteed outcome. This misrepresentation of the project's potential benefits derived not from intentional deception on the part of extension workers but from excessive faith in agroforestry. Extensionists should have encouraged farmers to evaluate agroforestry as a land-use alternative before urging them to plant trees.

Now farmers are waiting for project extensionists to advise them on the next step. They realize that the woodlots need to be thinned but are reluctant to thin without technical assistance. Without follow-up extension programs in marketing and tree management, farmers cannot be expected to bring their woodlots into maturity.

There are lessons to be learned from this experience. Cash should not be the sole incentive used to get farmers to plant trees. Farmers appreciate long-term economic and environmental benefits, an advantage to build upon. Future woodlots should be planted at very wide spacings or in windrows and managed carefully from the beginning. Currently established woodlots could be planted with a shade-tolerant grass-legume mix for forage. If markets are developed for paraiso, mature woodlots will be valuable resources for rural households, as it can be harvested, stored and sold throughout the the year. What was a good idea can become a reality through follow-up extension to evaluate and fine-tune the woodlot technology.

Rombold, John et al. 1990. A Report on Paraiso Gigante Woodlots in the Department of San Pedro, Paraguay. Unpublished paper.