UNAN León


SosteNica’s pilot reforestation project with CEPRODEL in Nicaragua is not just about planting trees.  There are many organizations and government initiatives reforesting Nicaraguan hillsides.  What makes the project in Nagarote unique is it’s marriage between financial credit and reforestation.  Why would – and should – small rural farmers accept trees on credit when they can get them for free from other sources?  Last weeks workshop on farm planning and development strategy shows why.

A professor from UNAN León's Agroecology department looks over Edgard Garcia's plan. Edgard has decided to invest in beekeeping; a bottle of his first honey batch is on the table.

SosteNica borrowers that chose to participate in the project are invited to workshops every Saturday, where the financial officers of CEPRODEL along with university professors work in small groups and individually with each farmer to create five-year farm development plans.  The plans include labor intensive projects, such as digging ditches for irrigation or ponds for water retention, along with projects that require financial resources such as purchasing irrigation equipment and fencing.  The aim is to help the farmers balance labor, debt, and natural resources to create realistic goals for strengthening the economic and environmental sustainability of their farms.  By linking the environmental and financial resources together, and supplying trees, organic fertilizers and pest control methods as well as financing the purchase of irrigation pumps and fencing materials, our micro credit services provide a much more integral support system for the rural poor than the normal rural credit line of loans to purchase cattle without any additional support.

Success depends on how you measure it.  The micro credit industry has been extolled for creating a viable (and profitable) solution to poverty and also criticized for the same profitability and high interest rates.  Most micro credit institutions in developing countries are evaluated by the number of loans they make and their payback rates, which are important from the investor’s perspective, but the actual impact of the loan is much harder to measure.  Micro credit organizations aim to reach as many borrowers as possible and keep repayment rates high.  I’d like to see more micro credit organizations aim to educate their borrowers, to work with their borrowers so that their loans have a long-term effect, and to find creative ways of adding value to a loan through linking technical assistance and additional resources.  We are just beginning to see how this can influence a small farmers business over the years, and one thing that’s clear is that how we measure success and impact needs to change to incorporate not just the needs of the investor, but the needs of the borrower as well.

Erasmo Perez Salazar shows off the farm plan he created with his grandchildren, showing the reforested fence lines and new house they dream of building.

Here are some highlights from the SosteNica visit, one of the results of which is that I will be working as a Sustainable Development Coordinator here until August, which I am very excited about.  Also some pictures from Somotillo, where I am starting to help a group from Scotland channel funds to a group of women who need to repair and improve their irrigation systems to grow tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables.  These two projects are my work for the next six months – along with bopping home to the states occasionally.

Alan Wright, the president of SosteNica, meeting one of the farmers in the Reforestation project in Nagarote.  I will continue working with the project for at least another six months.  The project encourages farmers to companion plant, build soil fertility, reforest river bank, and create an integrated development plan for their farms that uses the natural resources available to their full potential.

Yamilette, the wife of one of the participants, has participated in all the workshops offered by the project enthusiastically, and has already been promoting the project to her neighbors who have riverfront property.  The next phase of the project will be open to new clients, provided that they qualify for a commercial loan from the micro credit company first.  The involvement of women and children in the project is fundamentally important – everyone benefits from a prosperous and sustainable farm.

My new colleagues Jay Pressman and Chris Bell.  We witnessed the signing of an agreement between the National Autonomous University here in León and CEPRODEL.  The agreement means that they can get funding internationally to expand joint projects, such as the reforestation project which incorporates students and faculty into the education component, and also work with research projects such as seed banks and investigating new biological controls that can benefit our clients.

We visited several offices in the department of Chinandega, north east of León.  Chinandega is hot.  The offices serve a mixture of agricultural clients and small business owners, and in order to be accessible the offices in the city are located inside the actual markets.  Also remarkable in Chinandega are the teams of women responsible in the offices.  Here is the departmental Director, Eneida, with one of the cashiers Erika and me.  As Chris pointed out, next generation SosteNica and CEPRODEL, represent!

The celebration of signing another year contract with CEPRODEL, whose motto in English should be “Not Just Microcredit”.  Working with housing cooperatives, sustainable farming, food security, commercialization of agricultural products, and integrated regional development along with municipal governments, CEPRODELs impact potential is much greater – and much more positive – than your average micro credit company.  This year, to celebrate their 20th anniversary, they have rearranged their company motto to: “Socially Just, Fiscally Responsible, and Environmentally Sustainable.”  Congratulations CEPRODEL.

This is part of the group of 34 women and their families who are organized in a cooperative in Villa Nueva.  I will be helping with a small project to repair drip irrigation systems and support them to better cultivate their tomatoes and peppers.  The project, funded by a group in Scotland, is called Agua Pa’ Todos and has their own website which I will be posting on regularly.

Cheers to a future filled with hard work, exciting projects, a more sustainable countryside, faith in the power of cooperation and solidarity, and more exploring in Nicaragua!

1. Compost Piles

Nicaraguans burn their trash – plastic, organic, or otherwise.  Some of it gets picked up and taken to the dump, where it’s burned or buried.  But most of it is burned.  The heavy hot air in Leon is at any given point tinged with the smell of burn, something that I rejoicingly noticed the lack of the minute I stepped out of the car in New York.  Compost is an unknown concept – there is no real spanish word for it, the university calls it composta.  I don’t know anyone – not even the agro-ecology professor with a nursery where I lived for three months – who has a backyard compost.  Except for the hostel where I lived and Nick’s house, where I started them.   They are both working really well, and the heat in Leon helps them decompose so much more quickly than I am used to!

The scraps from the kitchen get mixed with dirt and dry leaves from the patio. It composts rapidly in the Leon heat!

Two days after planting the young banana tree with pounds of my compost, the core started emerging rapidly. It's now about five feet tall with four large green glossy leaves.

2. A group of inspiring hard-working Micro Credit professionals.

I am so grateful to CEPRODEL for making the internship with them work.  They went above and beyond what I expected all the time, up to the last minute when they made me a little booklet with a report of my project with them and took me out to a festive dinner at one of my favorite restaurants.  Many of these guys travel three hours one way to work, and spend over 12 hours a day away from their families in order to do their work.

The group of CEPRODEL officers that took me out to dinner. The dinner helped me realize that many parts of my project were a challenge for different reasons, for example, not only speaking a new language and coming from a different background but also being the only female in a very male work environment.

3. Puestos para Plantas

An excellent project run by a British NGO mimicking Paul Farmer’s Village Health Network model and using it to create a Plant Health Network.  The project uses already existing avenues of resources to small farmers, such as cooperatives and university extensions, to create a national system of data collection and standardized advice for farmers.  The system uses an approach called MIC, or Integrated Cultivation Management.  MIC emphasizes  improved cultural practices like good weed management and soil fertility that play a large role in preventing the onslaught of diseases and the need to use chemical applications.  In Nicaragua, the project is part of a national campaign to reduce pesticide dependency.

Tecnicos from the Cooperative Juan Francisco Paz Silva with representatives from the British NGO CABI and UNAN Leon Agroecology.

4. The worlds most handsome and intelligent kitten, Theo

He can climb in and out of the house windows, he gets out of the house using the storm drain, and happily plays with and eats the cockroaches out of the bathroom.  No cat doors, minimal effort on our part, and a huge return for having a happy purring sometimes snuggly mouse eater in the house.

Theo also provides endless entertainment for all our guests, as my little friends Ale and Fabricio demonstrate.

Our ´Reforestation Teams´ had their first day of “training” today, a full day of information and demonstrations about Organic Fertilizers.  We started off the day talking about worms, and then covered Bokashi (an ancient Japanese recipe for a very fast-acting compost), compost, and bio-fermentation.  It was a long day, but I was impressed with how our young interns stayed engaged. The demonstrations were held at the Norwalk Nagarote nursery and garden, which is lush and beautifully designed; one of the most inspiring organic projects I´ve seen here.  The professor, Jorge Luis Rostran, graduated from UNAN Agroecology program and is now the professor of organic fertilizers and insecticides made on campus.  He is an excellent speaker, the only thing I wish was that the information was more tailored to the resources available to the clients we have.  The recipe for bio-fermentation that he demonstrated uses mineral salts that he goes to Managua to buy once a year, something that our clients do not have the resources to do.  So that´s our job next week  -to take the scientific based technical data that the professors from UNAN are giving us this week, and transform it into technologically appropriate workshops for our clients.

I was reminded of a lot of really interesting facts about worms, like:

- Worms have 5 hearts and 6 livers

- California Red worms consume the equivalent of their weight in a day.  Can you imagine what I would look like if I ate 120 lbs of food a day?

- Because worms are hermaphroditic, after mating they each lay 1-2 eggs.  From each egg hatches 2-21 worms.  21 worms from one egg!

- California Red Worms take 90 days to reach maturity, and after that they reproduce about once a week.

- Worms are the cheapest and most efficient form of protein to raise.  Are we ready for a campaign to solve world hunger with red worms?

CEPRODEL, SosteNica, UNAN Leon, and the city of Norwalk, CT in conjuction with the city of Nagarote here in Nicaragua are colaborating in a reforestation project.  The idea is to provide thirty families that are all current CEPRODEL and SosteNica clients and have farmland along rivers in Nagarote with three manzanas of trees – one third trees for timber, one third fruit trees, and one third plantain trees, which technically aren´t trees but large plants, and are very profitable.  The idea is to reforest land along the rivers, protect the water and river banks, and provide some extra sources of income for the families.  This past week I went with Tito Anton, a professor from UNAN who works in a part of the biology department that has a huge selection of different plantain varieties, and Luis Rivas from CEPRODEL to visit a nursery here in Leon that sells fruit trees.  We looked at fifteen different kinds of citrus saplings, about three feet tall – sweet orange, sour orange, lemon, grapefruit – , tamarind trees, papaya trees, mangos and avacados.  For a three foot tall sapling that will start to produce fruit in a year or two: $1.  For the same size tree for timber: $0.75.  Of course it adds up – you can put 800 timber trees on one manzana.  There are alot of things about this project that excite me, and I´ll keep writing about it, but my first impression is, man, let´s reforest the whole damn country! It needs more shade!

Don Julio shows us a selection of citrus trees

Don Julio shows us a selection of citrus trees

A post about the farm at UNAN León is long overdue.

First, the current header photograph on this blog is an impressive 80″ x 60″ greenhouse that was constructed seven years ago and isn´t currently being used. Instead of plastic it is covered with a very fine netting, that allows the air to pass through and ventilate it but prevents insects from entering. The unusual shape of the roof is to capture the wind and suck it down to create a cyclical air current, further cooling the temperature. Overheating in greenhouses is a serious danger. Here, greenhouses are used primarily to protect young plants from insects and direct sun. Electricity and ventilation systems like the one in our greenhouses at Food Bank Farm are very expensive and hard to come by here, and so this passive ventilation system was developed.  The result is that these greenhouses are oriented to the direction of the wind in order to catch it lengthwise, instead of in relation to sun like in New England.

There are two organizations within the University that govern the farming here. One is the Agroecology Department, and the other is an independant foundation that the University funded called Fundacion Alma Mater. The Fundacion is financially self sufficient and doesn´t receive any additional funding from the University, although all of its expenses are funnelled through the University. For example, the workers are employees of the University and receive benefits, but the cost of the salary and benefits needs to be covered by sales from the farm. Any crops that are going to be used for research and classes by professors within the Agroecology Department are funded by the department. The students can design a thesis project, such as Margarita´s with papaya and plantain, and the department covers the costs and hires labor by selling the product.

Both the Fundacion and the Agroecology Department sell primarily to the University cafeteria and employees of the University. They also sell certain crops to the public, such as the plantains. The people who come for the most part are purchasing in order to take the produce to local markets and resell it. According to Don Noel, who is in charge of all the land cultivated by the Fundacion, the University receives a better price when they sell to the University cafeteria and employees, because they cut out the intermediary wholesalers, and can straddle the difference in price to that they charge more than they do to the general public but less than if the University were buying from a distributor or the markets. Additionally, because it is within the University, they deliver to the cafeteria an no extra cost, whereas all wholesalers need to come to the University to purchase the produce.

This is the closest form of selling to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm that I have found here. So far, all the farmers I have talked to sell all their produce to large international companies that send representatives to farms to purchas crops like yucca and sesame, or to other locals who purchase it to resell in the markets. The already existing structure of the University gives them access to a defined market, which they have been able to use to their advantage.

As far as I know so far, this is an unusual marketing system for produce in Nicaragua. Most people here respond very skeptically to the word ´cooperative´. I understand why a CSA is a economic agricultural model that doesn´t fit easily into the market structure here. Produce sellers are bountiful, on every corner of the city, street markets are overflowing, and people are accostumed to having the freedom of buying what and when they want. But there must be other structures within society that could be utilized to create this double advantage to consumers and farmers.

I have updated photos and added lots of description about the plantain project in Flickr (link in the sidebar on the right). I am still learning my way around that site and am a little frustrated with the presentation and organization. If any of you work with flickr and have suggestions, they would be much appreciated.

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