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?