True Stories: Up in Smoke began with an old man called Santos talking about the bad old days. It was all trees here then, he said, whole place full of animals, and the canopy so dense that it was dark in daytime. "There were no roads, but we cleared it all."
He seemed pretty proud of what he and his contemporaries had achieved. But for the ecologist Mike Hands (and, let's face it, pretty much everyone in the audience for a More4 documentary) he was sitting in the middle of a "slowly enacted catastrophe". Santos was a slash-and-burn farmer and thus – in Mike's eyes – responsible for an ongoing ecological disaster. Mike doesn't hold this against him personally (he knows he's got to eat), but he hopes that he might be able to persuade him to do things differently in future.
Adam Wakeling's film was about a good idea dying for lack of sunlight. "You have got to learn from what the forest is doing," said Hands, who's spent well over 20 years studying the problem of slash-and-burn farming and trying to come up with a better way for subsistence farmers to make ends meet. His solution is what you might call Rainforest 2.1, a system called alley cropping, in which food crops are planted between rows of inga trees, which themselves provide firewood, fertiliser and, at the right point, enough shade to choke out competing weeds. Hands knows it works, but his problem is convincing people like Aladino – a Honduran subsistence farmer – that it's better than torching a section of rainforest and then moving on to a new patch when that one is exhausted.
"If you knew what's really going on with malaria and you didn't do anything about it... you would be bloody culpable," Hands said, explaining the dogged persistence he's brought to his cause. And it was about here that you wondered whether Up in Smoke had told you everything you needed to know about alley cropping. "It'll grow like a virus," Hands said of his technique. But if that was true why hadn't it done so already and why did he need to monitor his guinea pigs so carefully? Viruses don't usually wait on government funding before they start to spread, and that should be true of viral ideas too. A line in the script about how Aladino had needed a good crop "to fund the changeover" hinted at one possible answer to the puzzle. If you're a subsistence farmer any method that takes a year or two to bed in before it delivers results may be as unreachable as the moon.
Independent News Service