April 2010


…at 2 am in the morning.  Last night I was shocked into wakefulness by a trumpet right outside the bedroom window.  Although they were just out of sight around the corner of the house, a group of musicians five yards from our open window began crooning love ballads to someone in the neighboring house, accompanied by trumpet, accordion, and guitar.  After a few slow, romantic melodies there was a conversation about some keys being passed through a window, a short chorus of neighborhood dogs, chickens, roosters, and cats who thought they could pick up the melody with some practice, and then the dark night was silent again.

As a whole I am a “latin lover” cynic.  Latin men (and let me generalize here, because there is not other way to address this topic) are often crude and aggressive.  Their flirting tactics often come across to me as belittling and sexist, whistling and cat-calling at women in the streets, demanding hard work from women in the house – hand washing, cooking with giant pots, carrying children around – but then making a big show in a public setting of lifting a chair to place it where a woman should come and sit down.  And the double-faced flirting of holding their girlfriends hand while looking the other way to flirt or call at another woman is standard practice.  The pressure for men to be constantly proving their masculinity by attracting women is exhausting.  Their have been times here in a work situation (and working with financing and farming here means working with 97% men) where I have felt truly disappointed that the only way a man here learns to interact with a woman is through flirting and sexual comments.  What I’ve learned  is that really the game has very little to do with the women.  It’s the men needing to prove themselves to their company.  So I can choose to be complimented by an invitation to flirt if I want to, or I can brush off the comment easily knowing that it doesn’t actually come from an honest attraction.

But somewhere in this sea of unwanted sexual attention there are some truly romantic traditions.  Just as in American popular music you can sift through the songs of sexist portrayals of women and vulgarities and find true romantic gems, the most romantic Spanish songs surface from time to time on the radio, or with the mariachi bands who circle restaurants looking for families celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, or maybe at 2 o’clock in the morning on the street in a residential neighborhood.

Publicly announcing your love is bold but respectable thing to do.  In this world of double and triple playing (I once heard a story of a cousin of a friend who couldn’t attend his own uncle’s funeral because all five of his girlfriends showed up!!), waking the entire neighborhood up by serenading one woman is about as public here as announcing your engagement on television.  At the least, if he’s got another woman she is probably in a different city.

My neighbor was probably serenading his girlfriend to make up for an argument or maybe even for having an affair.  But the music was truly beautiful, and of all the things in this neighborhood that can make noise at ungodly hours, I’d welcome a crooning trumpet any night.

Live music is an important part of Nicaraguan culture. Brass instruments especially are found in Catholic processions (like the easter week parade pictured above), mariachi, funerals, and school bands.

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A news piece by Real News on the MUCA movement in Honduras.

Latin America is famed for its corruption, but actually only because it’s more visible here. Look at what the Honduran media has done for the 3,500 campesino families, and the only piece of it that has been picked up by the mainstream press in the US.

One of the farming communities I got to know during the week I spend in Honduras with a BALASC sponsored delegation is in serious trouble right now.

Their struggle over land rights is representative of many small farming communities in developing countries stuggling with vast wealth gaps and powerful agro-businesses fighting over the same land.   At one point in Honduran history, the government attepted to close the gap between the poorest and richest by redistributing land by giving poor families organized in farming cooperatives titles to land. With property, small farmers have autonomy over their business decisions such as what crop to plant, where to market it, and have access to financial credit. The land reformation in Nicaragua gave many of the small farmers I work with here the titles to their land.

Members of the MUCA talking to us in La Ceiba, Honduras

The difference is that wheras the revolution in Nicaragua (aided by the American embargo which prevented American owned private agri-business corporations to take hold in Nicaragua) prevented a large portion of the wealth from falling back into the hands of foreign elite, in Honduras the oligarchy maintained its hold on the vast majority of land and wealth.  In 1992 a law was passed allowing lands distributed to agricultural cooperatives to be sold if a majority of the associates voted in favor.  This allowed large landholders to reclaim their lands, and in instances where the cooperatives were “uncooperative” to the desires of the landholders they resorted to assassinating and bribing leaders of the cooperatives until the remaining members felt threatened into selling.  The prices paid for the land was in some case less than 10% of the agricultural worth of the land.  In this way, 28 cooperatives in the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras, today representing 3,500 poor families, lost almost 50,000 acres of land to three landholders: Miguel Facusse, Rene Morales and Reinaldo Canales.

Honduran agrarian law requires a series of documentation to be filed an legal requirements to be met in order to hold the title to land.  Although the purchase of land from these 28 cooperatives was never legally filed, the government allowed the landholders to hold the title to the land in a concession that expired in 2005, during Mel Zelaya’s presidency.  Meanwhile, the landless families from the cooperatives formed a unified movement called the MUCA (Movimiento Unido de los Campesinos de Aguan) and began filing lawsuits in 2001, demanding that the details of the land purchases be examined and their legality examined.  Their lawsuits were continually ignored, despite established time limits for judicial review.  On June 12, 2009, the MUCA signed an important agreement with Mel Zelaya, where the farmers agreed to vacate the premises during a period of investigation during which the landowners would be obligated to prove that their land was purchased legally and the accusations of bribary, fraud, and assassination involved with the land purchases would be investigated.

One of the MUCA leaders looks at a poster from La Prensa in Honduras, picturing a group of campesinos. The title reads "Guerillas take up Arms in the Bajo Aguan" Everyone in our group examined the picture; we couldn't even find a machete in the hand of any campesino pictured, let alone a gun.

This past Saturday, April 10, the MUCA began sending reports of heavily armed troops entering the Aguan, both in vehicles and boats.  The numbers reported were 3,000 troops – nearly one per campesino family – and the date of invasion is suspiciously timed three days before the April 13 negotiations where Profirio Lobo’s government was to present their “settlement deal” to the MUCA for the fourth time.  The fear of a masacre in the event that the MUCA refused to sign the deal was real, and alarmed reports surged through social justice and human rights watch networks.

The settlement proposed by the Honduran government sells 6,000 of the contested 20,000 hectares back to the campesino, under the premise that the farmers continue farming African Palm on half the land and sell the product to the refinaries and export companies owned by the three businessmen.

The latest news report released by the Quixote Center, a Washington DC based social justice watchgroup, is that the group has signed a preliminary agreement with the Honduran government, who agreed to withdraw military and police from the zone.

Are we living in 2010 or in the middle ages?  Since when are serfs part of a modern societal structure?  In exchange for selling you my land (which may or not even be legally mine to sell), you have to continue to farm what I tell you and sell it to me at a price I set for an indefinite amount of time.  Oh and by the way, and if you don’t agree to it I have military, paramilitary, and police forces surrounding your house and my friends in the government have put a restriction on civilians entering the area so you can’t call for help from your neighbors.  This is what our current free-trade transnational agribusiness-run food system apparently endorses.  Is this the direction you want to take rural development in?

Thanks to Annie Bird from rightsaction.org who compiled a history of the struggle in Bajo Aguan.  More information on the Honduran coup and resulting current political situation can be found at http://www.rightsaction.org/index.htm

Last Monday I went on a vampire bat (desmodus rotundus) capturing adventure at the farm of Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapato, one of the Reforestation Project participants.

Spending the evening at a rural farm and returning home at 3 am is not your average days work in Nicaragua, even for a tropical sustainable agriculture technician.  But for a micro credit company who lends to farmers who depend on their cattle not just to pay back their loans but also feed their family and hopefully invest in some farm improvements, helping to control a large population of vampire bats can significantly improve a family’s financial outlook.

Dried blood on the necks of the cattle at Santiago's farm are tell tale signs of vampire neighbors.

It’s tempting to think of these creatures as the origin of the popular vampire myth, but the truth is that the legend originated in Eastern europe long before the existence of this american species was discovered by botanists.  In spanish, drop the “bat” and just call them vampiros, to differentiate them from the non-blood-sucking (or technically non-blood-licking) mucealagos bats.   Vampiros have little black beady eyes,wrinkled pig noses, and two razor sharp incisor teeth that pierce the neck of cattle.  Nestled among the wrinkles in the bats noses are thermoreceptors which help them locate where large veins run close to the surface of the skin.  They use their teeth first as little razors to shave off the wiry hair and then to pierce the skin, where an application of saliva which has anticoagulant properties ensures that they can lap up enough blood to last them two or three days.  The bats tend to return to the same cattle to feed, which can stunt the growth of young calves especially during the dry summer months when cattle are often already malnourished from the lack of fresh green food.

The promoted method of controlling the bats is a capturing and poisoning routine that cuts the bats populations down but doesn’t exterminate them or negatively affect populations of fruit and other species of beneficial bats, which may be mistaken for vampire bats but actually curb insect populations and pollinate fruit trees.  In this particular zone of Nagarote, the vampire bat population is very high, but other bat populations are also present.  For Santiago Sanchez, CEPRODEL brought an independant bat catcher who has high quality nylon nets.  The first thing we did before the sun set was measure and mark out an area where we could surround a group of cattle with the nets.  Cattle manure and twigs that could dirty or tear the net were cleared away with brooms and machetes, and four tall posts were cut and set into the corral floor at the right distance.  The nets are two meters tall, and need to fall just along the ground without sagging too much.

Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapata, his wire Petrona Meranco, daughter Maria Orfilio, and grandaughter Natalya.

After we set up we relaxed.  Santiago Sanchez’s family are known within the Reforestation project for their home cooking.  It is rare to show up at their farm without being served something delicious from Petrona’s kitchen.  Smoked venizen, chicharron (fried pork rinds), fresh cuajada (farmers cheese) and plantains or yucca from their vegetable huerto (backyard garden, one of the most diverse I’ve seen in Nicaragua!).  Whereas many Nicaraguans spend Easter week heading to the beach where they drink too much beer and risk their lives in the strong pacific surf, this family slaughtered a pig and feasted for three days on nacatamales and chicharron.  They treated us to an excellent dinner and we had some coffee before heading back to the corral around 7:30 pm to wait for the vampires to arrive.

The first vampire catch of the evening

Like many exciting sounding adventures, this one actually involved quite a bit of waiting time.  Marlon, the bat catcher, hung a hammock off the back of the truck, and we all found a good spot to settle down, turn off our flashlights, and be silent.  Santiago’s four sons were with us, and I was a bit worried that the bats would sense our pick-up-truck-and-seven-person presence and decide that actually they could wait another night for a meal.  But we only waited about forty minutes bofore the first bat was caught in the net.

Vampire bats approach their victim low to the ground, often landing and then walking up to the animal.  Four vampire bats flew into our trap within an hour an half, all of them catching in the bottom two feet of the nets.  Unravelling their claws and wings from the delicate strings of the net was the most time consuming part of the evening.  Marlon, who used thick leather gloves, needed Vernon’s assistance using the tip of a pen to carefully pull each nylon strand off of the bat.  Although bats are the most frecuent rabies carrier to infect humans (and Luis had two rounds of rabies shots when he worked professionally as a bat catcher), the joke this night was that the bats were very clean.  Because Santiago treats his cattle with antiparasitic supplements, the bats recieved this benefit along with the blood and were assuredly parasite and tick free!

As we untangled the bats (by we I mean our team of one Professional Bat Catcher, one Bat Untangler Assistant, one Former Bat Catcher Advisor, five Curiouser Onlookers, and me serving as journalist and photo documenter for the evening), we secured them in a sack to apply the poisonous pomade at the end of the evening.  By 10:30 pm we had caught four vampires, one regular bat, and listened to the evening rendition of Pacho Madrigal, a radio drama that is extremely popular in the countryside.

A small stick is used to apply the pomade, which contains the powerful anticoagulant diphenadione.  There is a unmistakable irony in the fact that this is the best chemical to curb a beast which lives off the blood of animals and humans using the help of his own anticoagulant in his saliva.  Diaphenadione causes intense hemoragging when it enters the blood stream, and is a common rodentcide.  It is applied to the body of the vampires to take advantage of the habit that vampires have of licking the other vampires in their colonies to verify eachothers identities.  In this way, it’s possible to poison an average of 25 vampires by smearing the lotion on one.  And since vampires and beneficial bats do not share colony space, the poisoning targets only the community of vampires and doesn’t endanger the other species.

In this video you can see the pug faced shape of the bats face and even hear the piggy like squeal of the vampire over the truck motor.  I was surprised at how clear the difference was between vampires and beneficial bats.  The beneficial bats have a much more mousey nose with a flat horn like flap of skin in the center of its face that polinates as the bat visits different flowers in the forest.  The one mucealago also set himself apart by getting caught in the very top of the net.  We let him go without the greasing ritual.  Bats are fascinating creatures; it’s a shame that Desmodus rotundus has evolved to feed off of the principal source of income for small Nicaraguan farmers.

The Team: Santiago Sabino Sanchez Zapata and two of his sons, Luis Rivas, myself, Marlon the Professional Bat Catcher, Vernon Berrios our technical assistant (taking the picture), and some calves willing to be bat lures inside our net (far left).

March is famed in Nicaragua for unbearable heat, and León famed for one of the hottest of hot cities.  I braced myself for the beginning of March, although with a short trip to Honduras in the middle of the month and some very unusual cool nights and rains, it has been quite livable.

Early in March three McCloud brothers from the Salt Spring Coffee Roasting Co in Canada came.  We’ve laughed at this road sign just outside of Matagalpa the last couple times they’ve come; this time we took the time to stop and play around a bit.

In La Pacaira, an arid mountainous region of northwestern Nicaragua, Rosa Emilia shows me the remains of a greenhouse she built to start tomato seedlings from seeds she got from the government agricultural agency.  “I sewed every scrap of fabric I could find down to all our underwear,” she joked.

During the drive up to Tegucigalpa, Honduras we followed this truck full of brightly colored cashew fruits (mareñon). There were also people along the road selling bags of the fruit to make juice or suck on the fibrous fruit.  The juice leaves a bitter aftertaste that I don’t like, although I do think they are fantastically beautiful fruits.

Andres Contaris from Democracy Now en Español and Dionicia Diaz, the “grandmother of the resistance” at a rally in front of a court in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

A leguminous tree at the model farm in Honduras, latin name is Tefrosis, that fixes double the amount of nitrogen (8 ounces per root nodule) that the average leguminous species fixes.

Adobe surrounded by barbed wire, the Guatemalan appropriate architecture for zones prone to earthquakes.

Brigido Sosa showing me how to douse for water using a flexible wire.  If you concentrate and walk slowly, the wire twists until it’s doubled over when you cross an underground current of water.  This was the second time I have tried dousing; the first was at a NOFA farming conference in 2002.  This time the wire didn’t cross over entirely for me, but it did begin to arch upward.

A member of a women’s savings and loans initiative at the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa showing off her bank statement with her deposits.  The project is financed by purchasers of the community- and fair trade sesame oil produced in the cooperative.

A pineapple plant in Lagartillo, Achuapa

A window detail made from colored bottles in a cob house that Oscar and Maria, a couple in Lagartillo are building.  The house is build over an enormous tank that will store water from the rainy season all through the summer drought.