March 2009


Biointensive garden at Las Cañadas

Biointensive garden at Las Cañadas

After a week of living in an ecovillage in Veracruz, Mexico it feels very weird to flush a toilet.  Las Cañadas is a paradise in a cloud forest, a cooperative of 36 members who collectively grow their vegetables with organic and biointensive methods, and raise cattle and animals using a model of silvopastoreo, which enriches pastureland with nitrogen fixing and nutrient providing trees.  The members are reforesting over 100 acres of previous bare pastureland, building terrasses for their crops, and offering courses in agroecology, sustainable building methods, and seedsaving, among other things.

SosteNica arranged for seven credit managers from CEPRODEL to attend the course.  Overall, the experience was incredible.  I love the work Las Cañadas is doing, and it was an excellent opportunity to  get to know the managers from CEPRODEL.  It was a serious culture shock for us coming from Nicaragua.  Not only were there no televisions, no radios, and no meat in any of the meals, and we had to make compost and get dirty during the day – but ALL the buildings had composting toilets, and there was SALAD.  Nicaraguans don´t eat leaves.  So there were some challenges, but hopefully the results will come in the form of some more effort and money on the part of CEPRODEL to train the rural technical assistants in more sustainable farming methods.

One of the highlights was a trip to a local farmer named Don Isidro who grows organic coffee under plantain, avacado, and macademia nut trees, as well as has a large shade house filled with orchids and flowering plants.  Visiting his farm made a huge impact on the credit managers, who I think were impressed that a “normal” resident of the area took the methods that these crazy eco-nutty mexicans are practicing out in the forest and uses them in a successfull business.

I am spending my last few hours in Huatusco, Mexico eating as much salad as I can before heading off to Guatemala for a Fulbright reunion.  I´ll post pictures as soon as I can.

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The Yaxallitas

The Yaxallitas

In honor of St. Patricks day, I performed a slip jig for a class of 8-12 year old girls.  They have been learning a River Dance inspired dance to an Alistair Frasier cut that their teacher and choreographer, Sterling Vasquez, created after watching a video of Michael Flatley.  It is a heartfelt but somewhat hilarious interpretation of Irish Dancing, and the first performance was appropriately last week, a few days before St. Patrick´s Day.  Sterling invited me to help refine the dance after we met salsa dancing several weeks ago, and although I´ve been going twice a week to volunteer in the class, I haven´t had the opportunity to demonstrate.  So Tuesday I took a few minutes to talk about Santo Patricio and why my whole family is out listening to Irish Music (or playing and earning money) on that day.  They were thrilled, and it was really fun to dance.  The photo above is from their performance last Thursday, in the municipal Theater.  Honestly, I certainly never expected to find a little Irish dance troupe here!

I’m leaving for Mexico on Sunday to attend an intensive agroecology course and then going directly to Guatemala for a week to attend a seminar of all the Fulbright grantees in Latin America.  I need to give a presentation there, and so I’ve been trying to sum up my experiences thus far into a somewhat logical and streamlined outline.  This is proving alot harder than I thought.

Partly what makes this hard is that the more I learn about projects that have been running here to encourage sustainable agriculture, the more I am unsure about what I personally believe the goal of these projects should be.  Or rather, what I am missing is a clear vision of what a sustainable agricultural eceonomy here would look like.  In the U.S., I believe in the effectiveness of CSAs to provide quality organic produce and strengthen local economies.  After working at Food Bank Farm, I believe it is possible to scale up a diverse organic production to a size that is capable of feeding a large urban community.  Here – I run constantly into contradictions and find myself disoriented.  For example –

– The only market that is able to offer a more stable and higher price for organically grown produce in the international market.  So in theory,  encouraging more export of organic crops could potentially drastically reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides dumped in the soil and water.  BUT that is also encouraging a form of agriculture that tends toward industrial scale, monoculture, and large areas of land under ownership of one individual, which are all qualities that I do not put under sustainable.

– In order to convince small and medium sized growers to switch from using chemicals to growing organically, they have to see working models and proof that it is economically viable.  BUT there are very very few if any examples.  Even the University, which offers a degree in Agroecology, does not have a functioning agroecological farm.  The farm there is Integrated Pest Management.  Part of the reason for that is the tenacity of the pests here is unbelievable.  Of course part of that is due to built up resistence to the sprays, but part of it I think is the nature of the tropics.  If the same people who have spend fifteen years building up a degree in sustainable agriculture and have resources, partnerships with countless other ag schools abroad, and over a hundred acres of land to work with can’t produce an economically viable product organically, is it possible for a farmer with alot more at risk?

– There are projects here that are successfully producing organic produce BUT the majority of them are small subsistence projects run by internationals and are heavily subsidized by money from abroad, NGOs, or other sources of income such as tourism.  The exception here is shade grown organic coffee, which I know little about because it is grown in a different zone, but is the number one organic export crop.  Many of the projects run by foreigners here are inspiring, empower and educate Nicaraguans, and involve the communities they operate in in wonderful ways.  I don’t want to discourage them by any means, but they don’t offer producers who want – or need – to compete in the local and international markets alternatives to using chemicals.

My experience visiting clients and small producers is that for the most part they both understand and are interested in diversifying their productions and cutting down on the use of chemicals.  For that reason, I think that encouraging diversity and practices such as reforestation with fruit trees that provide extra income are some of the best ways to work toward a more sustainable agriculture.  Don Marvin Ordoñez is an example that I find hopeful.   Two years ago he was encouraged to turn two acres of his cattle pasture into a plantain grove, which now earns him enough income to quit his supermarket job and still send his grandkids to school.  He grows open pollinated varieties of corn and sorghum to feed his cattle, and saves his own seeds.  He sells the plantains himself to cut out the intermediaries, and gets the best prices for them.  He wants to plant a subsistence garden for his family when he can afford the seeds.  Sustainable economically, and diverse, yes.  But he uses conventional fungicides and fertilizers.  My inclination is to dwell on all these good things that access to micro credit has helped him acheive, and save the pressure to drop the use of chemicals for agro businesses that have less to lose with the risk of experimentation.  Is that throwing my hands in the air?

CEPRODEL client Marvin Ordoñez with his granddaughter.

CEPRODEL client Marvin Ordoñez with his granddaughter.

The view from Don Marvin´s land toward Volcan San Cristóbel

The view from Don Marvin´s land toward Volcan San Cristóbel

While you all are doing a splendid job protesting new investments in coal in Washington D.C. and Massachusetts (so I hear),  tthere are some interesting developments in Nicaragua on the sustainable energy front as well.  If you look closely in the picture above, taken from the property of a SosteNica client near León, you can see a wind turbine.  Unfortunately neither the client nor Edgard, from CEPRODEL, knew anything about it, but it prompted me to do some looking.  I found this article summarizing some recent developments here.   The San Jacinto  Geothermal project is close to León, and we heard about it from all the locals when we went to visit the bubbling mud springs there.  And hydroelectric power has been made infamous here unfortunately partly because of the death of Benjamin Linder, an American engineer who was killed by the Contras while evaluating a site for a hydroelectic plant.

Although CEPRODEL doesn´t currently have any projects in wind, geothermal, or hydroelectic power, they have initiated an allianze with TECSOL, a company making solar panels.  For example, SosteNica client Don Mauricio Mendiola bought a solar panel with credit to power the electric fences for his cattle.  His farm is outside the city and doesn´t otherwise have electricity.   As far as I know Nicaragua does not have a system of selling back to the grid, although that would also be a good way to encourage rural borrowers invest in solar panels.

Judy spraying the ashes from the fire.  Flames continued appearing for over an hour.

Judy spraying the ashes from the fire. Flames continued appearing for over an hour.

Rather than going to Church to have a cross drawn on my forhead in ash, I was reminded that all will return to dust in a more dramatic manner.  As I was leaving on my bicycle to go to the University after lunch, Judy came into the house looking worried and motioned to the edge of the yard, where there were flames six feet tall.  This is the dry season, and it hasn’t rained since December, which means that except in the garden where we water all day long, the forest that surrounds the house is extremely dry.  We connected all the hoses we could find and started sprinkling the flames with the tiniest trickle of water, which is all we have in the middle of the day here.  Jose Ernesto started hauling dirt down from the garden to throw on the edges and stop the flames from spreading.  It was effective, luckily, and frankly I have no idea why, with the strong wind we have here, the fire didn’t spread down the whole gorge along the property.  We were left with a gigantic pile of smoking ashes, and when I returned at 9 at night there were embers (and a branch of a tree!) still glowing.

The fire was either started by kids as a prank, or more likely by someone burning trash.  Burning trash is an everyday affair here.  It is absolutely normal to come across small fires along the streets, in front of peoples houses, and along the sidewalks in public parks.  Mostly what they are burning are plastic bags and paper trash.  There is municipal trash removal, but the service is limited, costly, and the city just carts it to a hill south of the city and burns it there. If there were an effective system of recycling, maybe that even involved returns like on cans and bottles, maybe there would be fewer trash fires that spread out of control and threaten peoples property and lives.

Below is a photo of the mountain of smoking trash that is the city dump.  I took the photo out of the window of a truck as we passed the dump on the way to visit a SosteNica client.  The air covering the whole village, called Conmarke de Almendro, was faintly foggy, and you could smell the burning trash.  This is what the family lives with every day, breathing this smoky air.  Can you practice sustainable farming with a constant sediment of burnt plastic particles settling out of the air?

Luis, who works in the extension office, told me that in the U.S. trash may be a business but here it is just a nuisance.  There are no recyling facilities, with the exception of metals, and so there is no incentive to collect plastic bottles or paper.  The city streets and any public property lining highways (or the Rio Chiquito that runs through the city, for example) are completely covered in trash.  The city doesn’t have the tax money to remove it, and no one seems to care.  Possibly, there is room here for a profitable plastic recycling business (calling all entrepeneurs!).  But the larger question is, does a better system of trash removal and treatment exist?  Something clearly should be implemented here, but in the states as well we struggle with the volume of trash created and where to dump it all (and in who’s backyard that ends up being…).  Implementing and financing a better system might be among the priorities of the government here, but for now I can just look forward to the coming rainy season, when apparently people burn even more waste in the streets to ward off the mosquitos.

The entrance to the city dump.  The haze covering the mountain is from burning.

The entrance to the city dump. The haze covering the mountain is from burning.

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