Up in smoke: a scientist's mission to stop slash-and-burn farming

Up in Smoke
An Ecologist cover story in 2005 prompted the making of an epic documentary, Up in Smoke, about slash and burn farming. Now the film finally airs on More4 on September 27th... Matilda Lee reports

The Ecologist's editorial team had misgivings about the February 2005 issue. The cover story on Mike Hands's ‘Rainforest Saver' technique was a winner. Yet the problem was figuring out how to illustrate it. The last-minute wrangling amongst editors revolved around to what extent the cover image of the Inga seed resembled a pile of poo. We ran it, as is. But what happened next we didn't plan.

‘I read it and off I went. I went down to meet Mike, and he told me to come and see for myself,' says Adam Wakeling.

Inspired by the article (read it here) about the scientists' 20-year crusade to stop slash and burn farming, Wakeling, who'd never done any filming before, picked up a camera. Over the next 4 years, he documented Hands's work, the result of which is in the new film Up in Smoke .

‘I thought, there's got to be a way to help this along, to give a voice to this. I had never made a film before, my day job was in selling TV programmes. Reading that article is what kick started the whole thing,' says Wakeling.

Making a difference

Slash and burn farming is practiced by anywhere between 250 and 500 million farmers around the world. In the tropics, slash-and-burning leaves the soil infertile, leading farmers to cut down ever more trees in order to grow food.

Up in Smoke tells the story of Mike Hands' struggle to find out why the soil was losing its fertility. He became convinced the problem was a lack of phosphorous, a key nutrient, and discovered that the Inga tree, planted in rows interspersed with food crops, would act as a natural soil fertiliser while providing shade and blocking out weeds. Working with two Honduran farmers, he began the slow process of trialling the technique - overcoming a lack of funding, support and the farmer's initial skepticism.

As the film is about to air on More4, Hands is in Honduras trying to scale up the successful small trials into a working model for 200 Honduran farming families.

If this works, the next step would be to scale it up even further. But before that can happen, Hands needs support.

‘All it would take is one politician to believe in it,' Hands says in the film. Anyone listening?

Up in Smoke airs on More4's True Stories on September 27 at 10pm

Further information:
Inga Foundation
Up in Smoke

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