March 2010

Two weeks ago I participated in a delegation of North Americans in Honduras.  The trip was organized by the Bay Area Latin America Solidarity Coalition, and the goal was to meet and talk to members of the resistance movements who have been marching and protesting since the June 28th 2009 coup that sent the elected president Mel Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint.  Very little mainstream media publicizes the current political situation, and although the US Government has recognized Profirio Lobo, who won controversial elections last November, there have been reports of increased assassinations and attacks on resistance leaders.  During our week we spoke with over 50 individuals, many of them women, who represent over 30 different organizations and groups – including a visit with the American Ambassador, Hugo Llorens.

Laureano speaks eloquently - even poetically - about his work with sustainable farming.

One of our trip leaders, a Guatemalan lawyer who organizes with campesinos and promotes sustainable farming, brought us to a Center for Teaching and Apprenticeship in Sustainable Farming in Siguatepeque, Honduras.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see a project that stemmed from the same values and vision as my work in Nicaragua.

Laureano Jacobo Xajil, originally from Guatemala, fled to Honduras nearly thirty years ago and has worked with both government and non-governmental organizations promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development work in Honduras.  Eighteen years ago he founded the first center for Teaching and Apprenticeship in Sustainable Farming that is now a network of 18 centers called Red CEAS.  The centers run many levels of workshops and maintain model farms.  Laureano says, the governement agricultural ministry has a difficult time influencing agriculture because they don’t model anything, they only promote ideas that they themselves can’t show results from.  At the centers, “the lessons flow from the brain to the heart” during the work at the model farm.  The farm in Siguatepeque where we spent the night is a self sustaining business – it doesn’t need the income from the students at the center to survive – and has worked recently in reforestation and the production of grains.  They have planted over 40,000 trees – and have plans this year to seed and plant 60,000 more – with 200 families in neighboring communities.  “We are battling again global warming and climate change,” says Laureano, “one tree at a time.”  The families come together to seed and raise the tree saplings in communal nurseries, with the support of the center and partner organizations who have donated seeds and bags.

Many of the trees are leguminous, which fix nitrogen in the soil and provide protein rich pods for cattle.

I woke up at 5:30 to slip out and see the model farm while the rest of the delegation slept for an hour and started breakfast.  At the farm Laureano showed me some of the recent reforestation work, creating living fences out of fast growing trees that are also excellent firewood species.  The house on the farm is made of adobe blocks and every wall is lined inside and out with barbed wire.  The combination of the flexible adobe and tensioned wire means the walls flex and and are less likely to collapse in earthquakes.  The family has a tank which fills with water from the roofs during the rainy season, and with the 18,000 liters of water they have water for their consumption for the dry period.  A large section of the farm is coffee, with terraces created out of many different model plants.  Students at the center can look at the variety of terraces and imagine which would work the best on their own farms.

The center provided a wonderful breakfast with the tastiest tortillas we had on the trip made from their organic native corn.

Back at breakfast I joined in to listen to a presentation by a member of Red COMAL, the Network for Alternative Community Commercialization.  Red COMAL promotes community owned stores, value added products, local farmer/consumer relations, and the production and consumption of native traditional food as opposed to processed imported food products.  The presentation was focussed on their role as one of the organizations who, after the coup, supported the return of Mel Zelaya.  We were first shown the myriad of ways that the Hunduran population has resisted the coup regime, from the age old uses of song, poetry and peaceful marching to technology that has become recently available to small farmers such as using cell phones to send group text messages.  Red COMAL used their list serves to send out information about how to become involved in different actions, and has over the last few years hosted workshops and published material to raise consciousness about how CAFTA affects small Honduran farmers.  Their website, however has always showed their primary focus – creating alternative ways for small farmers to market their products.

The presentation ended with a recount of a raid on the Siguatepeque Red COMAL office and ECOSOL, the networks school for community economics and conference center, the day before the elections.  On November 28 armed police entered the offices without reading the residents inside any rights.  They took computers, cameras, posters, and documents including a report of human rights abuses in Honduras that Red COMAL had presented to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, copies of legally published left wing newspapers that are available on the street for purchase, and other resistance literature.  The material was deemed as “subversive” and removed.  Two hours after the raid, an officer arrived to read a document prohibiting the disclosure of the seized documents.  At ECOSOL, an office guard was shackled and threatened with ten years in prison if he did not agree to the accusations of sedition presented.  The internet system and computers were destroyed, and the raiders demanded that any “military equipment” housed at the economics school be turned over.

Other than the obvious question of legality, the timing and placement of the raid is significant.  As our presenter explained to us, Siguatepeque has in the past been a critical voting sector, housing a large number of progressive voters and institutions.  A violent raid at a community organization in Siguatepeque where lists of names were among the confiscated items has an impact on an election the following day.

The presentation also shed light on an aspect of the coup that has been ignored in most accounts.  Whereas even the US Ambassador listed the poll for constitutional reformation as the main reason for the coup, there are underlying land rights and trade control issues that make community organizations like Red COMAL, who work with large numbers of small farmers, ideal targets for psychological and political repression.

In this part of Nicaragua it doesn’t rain for six whole months.

That can be a challenge for farmers who have planted, say, a couple hundred small trees given to them in a reforestation and farm diversification project.  A few farmers have irrigation systems already installed, most have to work for hours bringing water to the trees every other day.

As us gardeners know, dumping a liter of water at the base of a plant from a bucket is not the same as a liter of water falling from the sky during a gentle rainfall.  Hence the invention of drip irrigation and soaker hoses – plants need constant humidity, and soil which remains humid maintains humidity.  Once soil has dried out to rock hard, it is a struggle to get it moist again.  Instead, water runs off and never reaches the roots.  The is one of the reasons that the negative effects of deforestation are so difficult to reverse.  Once the shade and root structures of living plants are cleared away, soil bakes into a hard clay, and establishing roots and loose humid soil again is a long slow process.

Enter: the old plastic bottle, saved from the trash.

SosteNica/CEPRODEL’s reforestation project  project encourages farmers to use 3 liter plastic bottles to create plant specific drip irrigation systems.  Drip hoses are expensive, and in order to use them from a well or river you need a pump to create pressure.  These bottles pulled from the trash become a low tech gravity fed drip irrigation that is widely available.  There’s one hitch – you or your family has to drink a lot of soda.

The bottle is hung upside-down from a stake next to the sapling.  In this case i is a mango sapling.  An opening is made in the bottom of the bottle.  Now, instead of dumping water from your bucket onto the ground all at once, fill the bottle.  Unscrew the cap just enough until water drips out.  The system has easily adjustable water flow – unscrew the cap more and the water flows out faster.

In the hot tropics, even more water is conserved by adding mulch at the bast of the plant to prevent evaporation, and filling the bottles in the afternoon so they drip during the night while the sun is down.  The farmers add dried cow manure under the mulch, adding some nitrogen fertilizer to the water as it slowly seeps down to the roots.

The participants in the project began installing these systems in November at the end of the rains, but they soon drained their own houses, their families, and even their neighbors of all plastic bottles, and didn’t have enough for the hundreds of trees the project distributed.  So Carlos Caceres and Luis Rivas, project coordinators and micro finance experts, because top bottle recycling heroes.

Luis Rivas told the garbage men in Chichigalpa where he lives: 1 cordoba ($0.05) per bottle, and the garbageman produced this sack of 262 bottles for our project.  The bottles will be distributed to the clients who are still struggling to water their citrus, mango, and avacado trees.

And so the remnants of ‘trashy’ consumerist culture become a tool for a greener future.

I never miss an oportunity to gloat about my compost.  I took this picture while turning it.  This is well into the dry season, and you can see by the difference in color that the high content of organic matter in my compost pile maintains the humidity.

The visit of the SosteNica staff in Nagarote, at the impressive farm of Santiago Sabino.

Sometimes I just can´t hold back the national geographic urge.  I took this picture at a gathering of producers in Somotillo during a presentation on agricultural resources by a government extension agent.

Our display of certified organic sesame and sesame oil at BIOFACH 2010.  We decorated the display case with postcards with the image of a sesame flower painted by a Nicaraguan artist.

After BIOFACH we went to southern Germany to visit some friends.  We were lucky to catch lots of snow and clear days.  In the back you can see the Swiss Alps and Lake Constance.

Taking off from Friedrichshafen to fly to London, looking down on the Bodensee (Lake Constance)

The top of the enormous bay leaf tree in the back garden of Nick’s parent’s house where we stayed in London.  Lovely gray and sleety cold London.  The tree was amazing, we added bay leaves to everything we cooked, and ate amazing soups and pasta sauces all week.

This video was shown on Nicaraguan television and shows the Central American stand at BIOFACH, the World Organic Trade Fair in Nürnberg Germany.  At the end of the video you can see our Del Campo display of organic sesame in the glass case, and below it some bags of hibiscus flowers, cashew nuts, and peanuts which the cooperative also produces.  Having worked on organic farms in the States for several years and now with small farmers and organic farming initiatives in Nicaragua, it was quite a different thing to see the international trade side of the Organics world.

The fair is enormous.  In four days if I had done nothing but wander through the halls I doubt I would have seen everything.  the investments in temporary booths were astounding – cheese companies with life size cow sculptures, natural food distributors who had bordered their section with fully grown bamboo trees growing in enormous pots.  The halls sparkled, and then of course were all the free samples.  The Central American booth was a bit out of synch with the rest of the fair.  Paid for by a European company as an act of charity, it was located in the European hall between Switzerland and Italy, and had an enormous European flag at the top of the booth.  Next to the european flag the banner announced:  Central America, Mexico, Cuba.  Actually the booth housed a hodgepodge collection of Honduran, El Salvadoreñan, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan sellers. Frankly, we found it a bit pathetic that the European donor paid to have their own flag and logo larger than any other, and mushed us all together without any definition between companies.  That being said, our important buyers found us.

A small part of BIOFACH is presentations.  There are different themes; this year two big themes were natural cosmetics and fair trade – organics.  I went to a marketing talk, one on organic farming and climate change, and another on small farmers and how fair trade and organic supports them.  All the topics were fascinating and relevant, and the speakers were certainly qualified.  Unfortunately, I came away with a bitter feeling of disillusionment.

At the climate change presentation, the first presenters showed scientific data showing how proper organic soil management can sequester enormous amounts of carbon, and how even with land conglomeration, small farmers own 40% of the worlds arable land.  If that forty percent were farmed according to the health of the soil, small farmers substantially slow climate change.  Problem is, the talk highlighted an innovative new certification system based in Sweden that calculated carbon footprint as part of the certification.  Good for Sweden, but no one seemed to catch the irony between the educated white men on the stage first claiming that small land holders (concentrated mostly in Asia, Africa, and South/Central America) switching to organic could have a significant effect on our climate, and then extolling a certification system that not in a hundred years was going to change how those small holders farmed the majority of their land.

The ritzy environment of the trade fair did nothing to assuage my cynicism.  Business suited men and women, the majority European (which figures: Europe is the worlds largest certified Organic consumer, importer, and also the location of the fair), professionally displayed their healthy and environmentally conscious processed products, and the assumption was that their product was clearly benefitting the worlds invisible small and organic producers behind their fancy cheeses and gourmet bread.

I would like to see an analysis on whether the growth of the organic market has affected the majority of small landholders in the world.  My guess is that the answer is not as straight forward as marketers would like us to think.  Here, small farmers certify their sesame and coffee for export, and then use chemical fertilizer on their corn if they can afford it.  In China, small farmers use high doses of chemical fertilizers on their market crops, but farm their own garden patch organically.  The biggest national force in Nicaragua behind small farmer organic and sustainable agriculture is possibly the Campesino a Campesino movement, a Central American movement started in Mexico by proponents of Agroecology, who do not have a vision of exporting or certifying any of the crops but promote an integrated farming system that is healthier for the soil and workers, because.  Just because.

Don’t get me wrong, I will still buy my organic coffee and milk.  Organics are not bad.  It just needs to get beyond its enormous ego, to realize that it isn’t the international certifications that are going to change the whole world and reach into every corner, and that there are many many little ants working hard to battle against the agrichemical marketers that have done a much more effective job of reaching into the nooks and crannies.