May 2010


…and six more wells being better dug.

Last week was all about wells.

On Nick’s land, a contact I made over a year ago here in León dug a 45 meter well using a low-impact drilling system he has developed with some Dutch engineers.  The system requires a low cost investment (~US$3,000), which allowed him to open his own business, and he empoloys three steady workers.  The finished well is a 4 inch PVC tube with a sand and gravel filter, that has a maximum capacity of providing 65 gallons water/minute (if you install the right pump).  It cost $40 a meter plus the small concrete base that protects the tube and the tank we had to rent from the neighbor to haul water for the drilling.

Roger’s company, Perfor, has perfected this system of manual drilling.  The finished well is more reliable than the artesenal dug well because it perforates the aquifer rather than relying on surface water that fluctuates with rainfall, and is also less likely to become polluted (or become a pollutant for neighboring wells) because of its narrow opening.  The hitch is that because in this perforation system the down pressure is only gravity (the steel tubes are dropped into the opening) and the torque is man powered, wells can only be dug in sand or gravel sediments, not through rock.  Luckily, León has perfect sandy volcanic rockless soil for at least the first 44 meters.

Nick and Brigido at the finished well.

We chose the spot to dig several weeks ago with the help of a friend and douser, Brigido.  Hilariously, even though Roger says he doesn’t believe in dousing, the well was put on the spot that Brigido chose and results we exactly as he predicted.  Roger hit water at 21 meters, no problem.

The finished well is just the tube with the concrete base.  There isn’t anyone living on the land yet, so it’s unwise to install a pump just now (even the fence posts walk away when there’s no one watching!).  Now that there is water though, Nick can build a small house for a cuidador and start building the community he’s been dreaming of.

Meanwhile, I was travelling up to Villa Nueva, three hours north of León, where I am coordinating a small project to improve the water situation in the La Pacayra community.  Working with a very tight budget, I found an organization willing to lend us a jackhammer, the community borrowed a generator from the mayors office, and we were  ready to begin deepening 6 wells that were drying up.

The process is time consuming and required a few more folks than Roger’s team.  When we started at the first house, four men from the community and a handful of neighbors and children gathered around, watching the process and helping to haul workers, rubble, and tools in and out of the well all day long.  First the jackhammer, then the worker to power it.  After a half hour, the worker comes up and then the jackhammer.  A helper goes down, then a bucket, which is loaded up with rubble and mud as many times as necessary until the well is cleaned and the jackhammering can begin again.

The first well started at 12 meters and was in hard rock.  In two days the jackhammer only advanced 20 centimeters, but the currents of water streaming out increased and by the second day the well had to be bucketed dry every half hour in order for the jackhammer to continue working properly.  Hopefully Rosa Emilia will notice a difference now, and will have sufficient water in the coming summer to continue irrigating her vegetable patch and also not need to go to the river to wash clothes.

The bottom of the well.

Watching only men go down to work or clean out the water, I decided to see what it was like at the bottom of a 12 meter well.  All the women present said they were scared to go down, although they were fine sending their 10 year old sons down to fill up buckets with rubble.  I finally convinced them that if a little kid could fill a bucket than I could as well.  A group of neighbors watched with raised eyebrows as first Nick and then I were lowered down with the pully to the bottom of the well.

There is no fresh air at the bottom of a well.  It is hot, hotter than the 90% weather outside the well, and you can feel the increased air pressure.  All I had charged myself with doing was filling a few buckets with rubble and muddy water – not working with the spike and mallet that the men used to break more rock free while the jackhammer worker was resting.  I filled three buckets with water and rubble and then emerged, exhausted and sweaty.  I pride myself here on being fit, and enjoying the hard physical work that farming and rural life entails.  One trip down to the bottom of the well helped me to understand why helping this community to improve these wells is so important.  It’s work that these people know well, but it’s hard work.  Just by offering to cover the wage for one paid worker and gasoline for the generator I can be the catalyst for a community work force, and make an taxing job into a special day.

The goal in the community is to deepen six wells.  Unlike the well on Nick’s land, these wells are between 12 and 20 meters deep.  Only one is in sandy soil, the others are hard rock that would not be able to be perforated by Roger’s drilling system.  Instead of $40 per meter, there are more than 40 man hours logged per meter advanced.  Something to think about when you turn on the tap and water flows out.

Fair Trade certified products have exploded into markets from import craft shops to chain coffee shops and supermarkets, but how many consumers educate themselves about what the certification means and how it works?  Fair Trade began as a radical group of individuals using trade to help impoverished and disadvantaged groups of farmers and artisans.  As the movement grew and unified, a certification system was developed with standards that any large importer could choose to follow in order to also sell certified fair trade.

Good theory.  But in practice, certification bodies based in the States and Europe deciding what is “fair” for farmers around the world in many different economies not only sounds like a nightmare, but is also a very top-down structure for a product labelled “fair”.  The  Fair Trade certifying body establishes an internationally recognized minimum price based on the cost of production that is applied to the sale of that crop wherever it is sold in the world.  The full minimum price needs to reach the farmer.  So if there are any middlemen or middleagencies involved, they add their cut on top of the fair trade minimum.

The farmers involvement (the part the makes it not so entirely top down) comes with the social premium.  The social premium, set at an additional amount per pound, is intended to be invested by the farming community in long-term social or development projects that benefit the whole community.  Some examples are building schools or roads, giving scholarships, and creating community revolving loans funds.  Because the money is intended for the community, the farmers need to form a social structure – a cooperative or marketing group – to manage the funds.  Often those organizations are run by representatives of the communities involved, so that the ultimate decision for how to spend the social premium is made by a select group and not every single farmer individually.

Hence, one offhand comment by a Fair Trade certifier in the sesame farming community in Achuapa, Nicaragua and a group of angry Fair Trade farmers come knocking on the cooperative doors.

“The social premium is yours to spend!  You decide how you want it to be spent.” was the comment made to the organic, fair trade certified sesame farmers while visiting their farms.

Empower those farmers!  Ensure $0.10 extra per pound for social projects (the social premium for sesame) and then make sure they know they have the autonomy to choose how to spend it!

Problem is, when you tell individual farmers who may be struggling to send their kids to school, whose roofs may be collapsing over their heads, who may have to choose between buying clothes, farm equipment, or medicine for their ailing mother that they choose how to spend money they say, “ok, put it in my pocket.  I’ll spend it.”

The inadequacy of verbal communication.  You (the cooperative of farmers) was said, and you (the individual farmer) was heard.  The fine print on the certification requirements wasn’t enough to quiet them down, clearly that doesn’t stand against what the certifier said in person at their farm!  Once anyone decides that money is rightfully theirs, it’s an upstream battle convincing them otherwise.

Now a letter will be written to the certifiers, requesting a representative to come to a meeting with the farmers.  Meetings will be held, time and money will be spent, and eventually the issue will be resolved and a new fund will be created from this years social premium.  The farmers may or may not leave feeling cheated by a system that was created in part by their colleagues to empower them, and may or may not end up pulling out of a successful cooperative that has become a leader in the small farmer movement in Nicaragua.

The weakness of an international certification system is revealed.  A system originally developed horizontally between buyers and producers who had a shared vision is now a top-down imposed set of standards regulated by outsiders.  If the social premium funds are distributed individually the whole cooperative system of thousands of Nicaraguan sesame farmers – not just the group of 20 complaining sesame farmers – risk losing Fair Trade certification, and the certainty of a higher price.  This is the cooperative who piloted fair trade sesame and set the standards by which sesame around the world is certified Fair Trade, and yet now the farmers are divided over the Fairness of those standards.

What is Fair here? Some of these farmers already owe money to the cooperative and wouldn’t be eligible for a loan from a revolving fund.  Some don’t have school-age children to benefit from scholarships.  Ask them what community project they would support and they won’t come up with one single one that will benefit every single farmer directly.  So the easiest thing is to divide all the money up ten cents here ten cents there.  But is that Fair either?  Would the social impact of that money be the same divided up amongst everyone?  Or would it just disappear in the daily purchase of food or weekend beer at the bar?

This is real.  This is the ebb and flow of an international community created around trade and social ideals that are hard to pin down.   There are tough decisions and struggles behind the angelic face of the indigenous child on the package of your fair trade food.

Theo noticed first when one of our neighbors wandered into the house.

The gallina was escorted back safe and sound to her abode next door, and Theo only  enjoyed some eye candy.

They say it takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a village to celebrate a birthday in high Nica style!

This year to celebrate my birthday Nick and I decided to try making Carne en Baho, a traditional Nicaraguan party dish that everyone loves, and ask everyone to bring fresh tropical fruit juices instead of big bottles of coke that most parties consume loads of.  Celebrating traditional Nica culture is very important to many people, even though on a daily basis hot dogs and coke are consumed in vast quantities in the city.  Although it was an odd request to ask of people, everyone enjoyed it and there were plenty of rum shots dropped into glasses of fresh watermelon, mango, and passionfruit juice!

We started out with a vague idea of how to make Carne en Baho and then began asking around.  After getting five or six recipes with conflicting tips and instructions we were possibly even less sure we knew what to do, but we carried on somehow.  The village continued supporting us, calling and dropping in on the well-meaning foreigners the whole time to make sure we were on track.  I’ve included all the little dos don’ts and maybes so you can make your own choices of what to follow.  Our next door neighbor Griselda and friend Melaña from Achuapa ended up walking us through the process.

Carne en Baho starts with the salted meat.  The cut is called tapa barriga, which is the fat and meat around the stomach, but make sure you get a section that is neither too fatty (like we ended up with at first) nor too little fat (like the extra five pounds of meat we went to get afterward to make up for the difference).  It comes in giant flat sections which are scored, and need to be washed four times very well and then cut into long skinny strips.  We started with 20 pounds and then went to get an extra five to have enough meat for the anticipated 40 people, and ended up serving over 60 plates!!!  Nicaraguans don’t leave their houses empty ever, and so it is customary to send guests home with a plate of food or peice of cake for the generous person left guarding the house.  Which means, cook for twice as many!

A marinade is made by blending half the total amount of onions, garlic, sweet peppers, and juiced bitter oranges (or you can mix bitter and sweet) and all the celery and if you like some Worcestershire sauce and/or tomato puree and/or ketchup and/or fresh tomatoes and/or mint.  DON’T ADD SALT, if you washed the meat correctly it still has more than enough for the whole dish. Another suggestion is to not get your recipe amounts specified in cordobas (10 cordoba of peppers for example) because foreigners routinely pay the highest imaginable prices for everything and you will end up with a little bit less of everything than you actually need.  Try pressuring your village into providing useful quantities such as pounds, kilos, and dozens.

Marinate the meat in the sauce mixing it well in.  If you are used to making big roasts you should satisfy your basting urge in this stage because once the lid goes on this dish it doesn’t come off till it’s done.  Period.

While meat is marinading, you can start getting your pot ready.  If you don’t own an olla that is big enough to bathe in, than you will need to go around to all your neighbors until you find one suitable.  Kudos if your neighbor also has a giant metal bowl that fits in upside down as a lid.  Asking around for giant pots is also a great way to start spreading party anticipation and invitations.  The branches are guayaba branches, which are not sold in any market but essential for a proper Carne en Baho, so there’s another great way to involve the neighborhood and even make some new friends (when the neighbor’s sister’s mother-in-law has a guayaba tree).

Take all the leaves off the guayaba branches and use the fattest parts to create a screen at the bottom of the pot.  This keeps a space for the water to boil initially, for the juicy fatty liquid to gather at the end, and keeps the bottom layer from burning.  It’s a good thing this dish isn’t any easier to make, because if it was made more often we might have guayaba deforestation issues.  At least in my house the leaves all went straight into the compost instead of being burnt in trash piles in the street.  After the guayaba branches comes the banana-leaf lining.  The leaves should be the young tender ones used for wrapping Nacatamales, not the tough older ones sold for plates and wrapping materials.  They go shiny side down, covering the bottom and then the butt end in and the pointy end hanging over the edge to fold over the top.

Now, the layering part.  This became a bit of a sticking issue.  It seems there are two schools of en Baho makers, one of the All-the-Yucca-at-the-Bottom mind and the other of the Layer-Everything-Twice mind.  Our consultants were split about fifty-fifty, and in the end we decided:  the fattest yucca on the bottom layer and the skinnier ones the second time around.  That meant starting from the bottom we layered: fat hunks of peeled yucca interspersed with peeled green plantain, then one layer of marinated meat, some chopped onions, garlic, sweet peppers, and mint sprigs if you like, then more yucca, plantains, meat, vegetables and finishing everything off with the unpeeled ripe plantains (some say yellow others say black, we went for yellow and they ended up soft and tangy sweet delicious).  Finally pour all the remaining marinade and bitter or sweet orange juice over the top.The finished masterpiece…

…is covered up with the remaining plantain leafs…and firmly capped.  We added boiling water – 3 liters – to the bottom.  Better to pour it in the side along the outer edge of leaves, not over the top where it will wash off marinade.  We chose to cook it over firewood, which even in the city is the standard for dishes as big as an en Baho.  I’m pretty sure the small tin gas stove in the kitchen was not made for pots of food that weigh more than I do, nor is the size or our natural gas tank sufficient to keep it at a rolling boil for four hours.

The best part of this dish is that it is a ton of work which is completely done six hours before the party starts.  Even unlike roast turkeys which need gravy and carving, there is no last-minute prep work.  So I had the most relaxed set up for a party ever, with plenty of time to make the shredded cabbage, cucumber, tomato and carrot salad that is eaten with Carne en Baho, blow balloons up and even slip away and plant some seeds and garden for a bit before 2 pm.  Just keep the fire going strong for four hours and battle the smoke which wants to fill the house and all our lungs.

When the first people showed up we opened the pot and the most amazing odor escaped.  People lined up with plates and I was stuck serving for the first hour of the party, which also was a good way to say hi to everyone.  The yucca had softened and absorbed the salty meatiness, the plantains were cooked perfectly, and the meat and fatty bits were tender.  As it should be, it turned out to be a nearly bottomless pot which kept on feeding the masses until 9pm.

Brigido and Will sang me birthday songs for such a long time that the candles were about to light the cake on fire!

Nicaraguan easter egg decorating; a friend who dances with a National Folkdance troupe painted this one.  Easter eggs are not a tradition that made it into the mesh of pagan catholic celebrations, so I get lots of comments on the bough of painted eggs I still have hanging in the kitchen.

Another Easter tradition that León is famous for, painted sawdust carpets.  This one was made by the art students from a small art workshop down the street from my house, and won second place in this years municipal selections.  The carpets, or alfombras, stretch on literally for miles in the streets of the indigenous Sutiaba neighborhood, and are trodden on by a six hour procession that leaves the church at 5pm.

The worlds naughtiest cat up to who knows what. As a result the better half of those roof tiles we bought to fix the patio roof are busted…

A good reason to wash your dirty dishes right away….there is no water in this neighborhood often in the morning, but someone thought a blender with fruit shake remnants made an awfully good fly catching trap.  And wasn’t at all worried of becoming perrosanpopo smoothie.

We re-bagged some tired trees for the reforestation project, and uncovered nests of ants in the root systems.  Apparently their bites are as feirce as wasps, and by the end of the day we had rebagged 300 trees and my hands and wrists were swollen, and didn’t return to normal until the following day.