Meet a Solver: Michael Hands, Inga Foundation

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Author: Alexander Dale and Francesca Eremeeva | Published: June 13, 2017 

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.


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