A few weeks ago, as I was planning this trip, the current director of SosteNica‘s projects in Nagarote apologized that they had a workshop scheduled for my first day in Nagarote. I was thrilled. To go straight out to the campo right away, see the program in action, meet the farmers we are working with now – fantastic! It was as good as I could have hoped for.

The farmers gathered at Manriques farm on the porch.

The farmers gathered at Manrique’s farm on the porch.

The topic of the workshop was rotational planting, and designed to help a group of farmers who have been working with the EcoCentro to be able to provide an exciting new market with products for as much of the year as possible. Another SosteNica investor and old friend of mine, Delaura Padovan, is volunteering here for six months to help get this new market up and running. (She is also writing a beautiful blog!)

The farm where the workshop was is owned by Manrique, a farmer who was injured by a hand grenade in the revolution that left him nearly deaf. He built his house himself, and has dedicated himself to his farm. He recently invested in a pump and irrigation, and has a beautiful patch of mixed hardwood trees, papaya, plantains and watermelon.

Delaura and Manrique discuss details of his next planting by his field of mixed papaya - plantain - fruit and hardwood trees.

Delaura and Manrique discuss details of his next planting by his field of mixed papaya – plantain – fruit and hardwood trees.

Some things here haven’t changed much in six years: the park at the entrance to the town is still under construction, the oppressive heat of april at the end of the dry season beats just as heavily on my head as ever, and the positive attitudes and energy of the team working with food security and sustainable agriculture are just as obvious in their ambitious  plans and visions.

Other things are noticeably different: Instead of arriving on a fleet of horses, bicycles, and ox carts, most of the farmers came on motorcycles. Over half of the farmers were women. The workshop was not a presentation, but mostly a conversation and then an exercise that the farmers did together to model a field with crops in succession.

Fourteen motorcycles and one truck brought 24 farmers to our workshop!

Fourteen motorcycles and one truck brought 24 farmers to our workshop!

They were given blank pieces of paper to fill in with crop names. At the end of the exercise the farmers presented their designs to the larger group: watermelon, tomatoes, and cucumbers separated by living fences of canavalia or gandul beans. They explained, these were to prevent the spread of diseases and to fix nitrogen.

Seven years ago, we began talking about green manures and nobody had heard of gandul. Living fences was a part of a soil conservation component that we dedicated a whole three-hour workshop to. Seeing a different group of farmers present designs and bring these concepts to the table on their own was incredibly gratifying.


My sketch of some observations in the yard: Water to irrigate, motorcycles to arrive (in Spanish it rhymes….)

It’s hard to believe – it’s been seven years since I first arrived in Nicaragua, excited to learn everything I could about tropical sustainable agriculture. Although I’m living in the states now, I know the connections I made over the six years I lived here will persist for the rest of my life. One of the ways that I know this will happen is through the work of SosteNica: The Sustainable Development Fund. Now in existence for over 20 years, SosteNica makes it possible for people in the US to invest in family-run enterprises in Nicaragua, and support sustainable agricultural extension work in Nagarote, a town just north of the capital city of Managua.

As an investor since 2000, former employee, and current board member, I’ve been able to see and be a part of many eras of the organization. As a Fulbright scholar, I participated in a shift of programming from primarily investments to slowly building up a robust agricultural extension program, with tailored loans and educational resources for farmers, urban gardeners, and school children. There was an economic crisis to overcome, there has been political upheaval, there are active volcanoes that spew ash only miles from where many of our participants live and work their land. Living and working in Nicaragua is real, vibrant and never boring.

I’m excited to be back to participate in some of SosteNica’s new programs, to reconnect with old friends and document some of the new changes, and revive this stagnant blog again with photos and stories of the real struggles and good work happening here!


The Nicaraguan summer, or verano, is November through May, during the dry season when it doesn’t rain.  The only crops that survive are perennial crops like fruit trees, crops that have been well established during the rainy season, and anything planted with irrigation.  Because many of the fields are bare right now, waiting for late April and early May plowing and soil preparation, the Reforestation and Watershed Protection project that I work with through SosteNica is concentrating on soil conservation.  The open fields are ideal for marking out  terraces with an Aparato A, a simple instrument used to measure the slope of a field and find the level terraces that will, when planted or lined with rocks, help to prevent soil erosion in the heavy rains that begin in May.

The days when we go out to the farms to lead workshops or work with farmers are long.  We leave León by 7 am, taking either the fast newer highway or the old potholed highway toward Managua.  At some point I get off a bus and onto the back of the motorcycle, driven by Vernon, our Agroecologist.  The country roads right now are incredibly dusty, we wear heavy jean jackets to protect ourselves from the sun and dust, and I carry a handkerchief to hold in front of my mouth and nose so I don’t choke.  Sometimes the dust is so deep that Vernon has to slow the motorcycle down and put his feet down as if he’s crossing a river to keep our balance on the bike.  There’s a very short season change here between dangerously muddy: slippery and poor traction – to dangerously dusty: powdery and poor traction.

The first step when we work with the farmers is making the Aparato A.  The poles need to be straight, carefully measured, and the last detail is making sure it is properly balanced, and the exact point is well-marked in the center of the cross-pole where the string rests when the Aparato is perfectly level.

On this farm, we started at the top of a shrubby hill behind the farmers house.  The Aparato A measures the slope of the hill; with one leg uphill, the downhill leg is held up until the string falls on the center mark.  By measuring the distance in centimeters the second leg hovers above the ground, and dividing by 2 (the legs are 2 meters apart), you can deduct the slope of the hill.  That will tell you the distance you should build the terraces in order to sufficiently reduce erosion.

Two of our participating farmers, Pedro Sabino and Juan Enrique working together to measure the slope at Pedro’s family farm.

After the slope is measured and you know how far away to make your terraces, you can use the same Aparato A to mark them.  This time, both legs of the tool are on the ground, crossways around the hill, and the level point is marked with a stake.  The stakes are then connected, like a big connect-the-dots, and planted with grass, shrubs, or nitrogen-fixing plants.  The roots on the plants retain the soil, and the plants themselves catch sediments carried downhill by rainwater.  On Juan Enrique’s farm, the terraces will protect the back of his new house from being washed in by sediments.

While we’re onto soil conservation, might as well take the time to make a compost pile.  Instead of burning all the leaves and kitchen scraps, why not turn them into the rich organic matter which feeds your crops and helps filter the rainwater down to the aquifer.  Of course, when you are on your own time and not in a workshop, you can make your compost pile in the evening instead of under the scorching mid day sun.

At this farm, the family earns much of its income making and selling charcoal.  The dead wood from nearby forests is cleared out and then burnt very, very slowly in a big pit.  The chunks of charcoal left are sorted by size and packed into sacks and bags to be sold in markets.  The woman on the right is paid just under US$1 for making up 100 small plastic bags of charcoal.  Dirty work.

Luis Picon and Felipa Mayorga at their farm.  After we built the compost pile and talked for a most of the day about soil amendments, the conversation moved to their granddaughter who is still single at 26, and how young people just aren’t the same as they used to be.  There aren’t any young men good and responsible enough for her, said Luis, trust me, we weren’t so well behaved ourselves when we were young but they’re worse now these kids.  Oh yes, agrees Felipa, if you know what he put me through!  He’s caused me some trouble over all these years! I know why she’s still single, believe me.

One of the farms was an hour off of the main road, only accessible by horse or motorcycle.  At the end of the day, I was elected to ride the horse while my two colleagues set off on motorcycle.  My guide was the farmers eight year old son, Osmar.  He spent the entire hour trying to face backward on the horse while talking constantly.  I heard the whole history of his family, how his grandfather was forced to sell a whole piece of land, how he was born at home with a caul and was lucky his father had a cigarette ready so when they took the amniotic sack off him the cigarette smoke made him alert and saved his life, and how that very same horse he is riding once spooked at a snake and bucked him off and he hit his head on a rock and nearly died.  I was glad he was riding that horse instead of me.

The horse I was riding was blind in one eye.  I thought for a while about whether that was good, i.e. 50% less chance of spooking, or not good, i.e. more nervous.  But aside from the chatter it was an uneventful hour of slow walking to the main road, where there was a little venta for Osmar to buy some chocolates for his sisters before returning to his house with both horses.  I waited until the painted school bus going toward León passed by, getting back to the city around 7pm.  Another long hot dusty summer day done.

For SosteNica´s promotional tour this fall I´ve made a short video highlighting our environmental work with borrowers.   Tell me what you think.

SosteNica’s pilot reforestation project with CEPRODEL in Nicaragua is not just about planting trees.  There are many organizations and government initiatives reforesting Nicaraguan hillsides.  What makes the project in Nagarote unique is it’s marriage between financial credit and reforestation.  Why would – and should – small rural farmers accept trees on credit when they can get them for free from other sources?  Last weeks workshop on farm planning and development strategy shows why.

A professor from UNAN León's Agroecology department looks over Edgard Garcia's plan. Edgard has decided to invest in beekeeping; a bottle of his first honey batch is on the table.

SosteNica borrowers that chose to participate in the project are invited to workshops every Saturday, where the financial officers of CEPRODEL along with university professors work in small groups and individually with each farmer to create five-year farm development plans.  The plans include labor intensive projects, such as digging ditches for irrigation or ponds for water retention, along with projects that require financial resources such as purchasing irrigation equipment and fencing.  The aim is to help the farmers balance labor, debt, and natural resources to create realistic goals for strengthening the economic and environmental sustainability of their farms.  By linking the environmental and financial resources together, and supplying trees, organic fertilizers and pest control methods as well as financing the purchase of irrigation pumps and fencing materials, our micro credit services provide a much more integral support system for the rural poor than the normal rural credit line of loans to purchase cattle without any additional support.

Success depends on how you measure it.  The micro credit industry has been extolled for creating a viable (and profitable) solution to poverty and also criticized for the same profitability and high interest rates.  Most micro credit institutions in developing countries are evaluated by the number of loans they make and their payback rates, which are important from the investor’s perspective, but the actual impact of the loan is much harder to measure.  Micro credit organizations aim to reach as many borrowers as possible and keep repayment rates high.  I’d like to see more micro credit organizations aim to educate their borrowers, to work with their borrowers so that their loans have a long-term effect, and to find creative ways of adding value to a loan through linking technical assistance and additional resources.  We are just beginning to see how this can influence a small farmers business over the years, and one thing that’s clear is that how we measure success and impact needs to change to incorporate not just the needs of the investor, but the needs of the borrower as well.

Erasmo Perez Salazar shows off the farm plan he created with his grandchildren, showing the reforested fence lines and new house they dream of building.

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.

Here are some highlights from the SosteNica visit, one of the results of which is that I will be working as a Sustainable Development Coordinator here until August, which I am very excited about.  Also some pictures from Somotillo, where I am starting to help a group from Scotland channel funds to a group of women who need to repair and improve their irrigation systems to grow tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables.  These two projects are my work for the next six months – along with bopping home to the states occasionally.

Alan Wright, the president of SosteNica, meeting one of the farmers in the Reforestation project in Nagarote.  I will continue working with the project for at least another six months.  The project encourages farmers to companion plant, build soil fertility, reforest river bank, and create an integrated development plan for their farms that uses the natural resources available to their full potential.

Yamilette, the wife of one of the participants, has participated in all the workshops offered by the project enthusiastically, and has already been promoting the project to her neighbors who have riverfront property.  The next phase of the project will be open to new clients, provided that they qualify for a commercial loan from the micro credit company first.  The involvement of women and children in the project is fundamentally important – everyone benefits from a prosperous and sustainable farm.

My new colleagues Jay Pressman and Chris Bell.  We witnessed the signing of an agreement between the National Autonomous University here in León and CEPRODEL.  The agreement means that they can get funding internationally to expand joint projects, such as the reforestation project which incorporates students and faculty into the education component, and also work with research projects such as seed banks and investigating new biological controls that can benefit our clients.

We visited several offices in the department of Chinandega, north east of León.  Chinandega is hot.  The offices serve a mixture of agricultural clients and small business owners, and in order to be accessible the offices in the city are located inside the actual markets.  Also remarkable in Chinandega are the teams of women responsible in the offices.  Here is the departmental Director, Eneida, with one of the cashiers Erika and me.  As Chris pointed out, next generation SosteNica and CEPRODEL, represent!

The celebration of signing another year contract with CEPRODEL, whose motto in English should be “Not Just Microcredit”.  Working with housing cooperatives, sustainable farming, food security, commercialization of agricultural products, and integrated regional development along with municipal governments, CEPRODELs impact potential is much greater – and much more positive – than your average micro credit company.  This year, to celebrate their 20th anniversary, they have rearranged their company motto to: “Socially Just, Fiscally Responsible, and Environmentally Sustainable.”  Congratulations CEPRODEL.

This is part of the group of 34 women and their families who are organized in a cooperative in Villa Nueva.  I will be helping with a small project to repair drip irrigation systems and support them to better cultivate their tomatoes and peppers.  The project, funded by a group in Scotland, is called Agua Pa’ Todos and has their own website which I will be posting on regularly.

Cheers to a future filled with hard work, exciting projects, a more sustainable countryside, faith in the power of cooperation and solidarity, and more exploring in Nicaragua!

I spent three and half weeks catching up with friends and family in the states, finding out what has changed during the last ten months.

Now I am back in Leon, finding out what has changed in Nicaragua in the last month.

The streets are filled with fake Christmas trees, plastic toys and imported apples and grapes for sale.  Every night there are dance presentations and concerts in the parks.  Bands of boys wander the streets after 4 oclock in the afternoon with gigantona puppets, pepe costumes, and drums, and stop and perform in front of houses for a few cordoba.  There is cheesy Christmas music in all the supermarkets, just like at home.  So far, Christmas is marked by familiar tinsel and consumerism.

The shift into Christmas season in a Christian dominated country was anticipated.  I didn’t anticipate the news I received from Luis, the coordinator of the Reforestation Project.  Maximino Munguia, one of the farmers from Las Limas, where I stayed and worked for two weeks in June, passed away suddenly at the end of November.  He was 49, and I was told he died of a heart attack while sleeping.  He lived by himself on the very small farm his grandfather bought, 8 manzanas along a river.  I worked with him for two days, building a compost pile and planting trees along the edges of the fields and riverbank.  He was game for anything, and happily included the neighbors kids in the projects as well.

Maximino was one of the most amicable and outgoing participants in the project.  He always broke the ice at our workshops by asking lots of questions – usually preceded by a completely un-selfconscious apology that he received a strong blow to the head several years back and has trouble remembering facts so could you please repeat that information?  He always mentioned this cheerily, with a smile so wide that it made you wonder if he didn’t really enjoy that blow to the head!

It’s definitely a tragedy for his family to lose such a young positive man, and sad for our project to lose an enthusiastic participant.  I’ll always smile when I think of him.

Maximino on the far left, with some of his family members, who came to help him the day we distributed the plantain corms.

Maximino always stepped forward. He was one of the first to volunteer to graft a tree at our last workshop.

1. Compost Piles

Nicaraguans burn their trash – plastic, organic, or otherwise.  Some of it gets picked up and taken to the dump, where it’s burned or buried.  But most of it is burned.  The heavy hot air in Leon is at any given point tinged with the smell of burn, something that I rejoicingly noticed the lack of the minute I stepped out of the car in New York.  Compost is an unknown concept – there is no real spanish word for it, the university calls it composta.  I don’t know anyone – not even the agro-ecology professor with a nursery where I lived for three months – who has a backyard compost.  Except for the hostel where I lived and Nick’s house, where I started them.   They are both working really well, and the heat in Leon helps them decompose so much more quickly than I am used to!

The scraps from the kitchen get mixed with dirt and dry leaves from the patio. It composts rapidly in the Leon heat!

Two days after planting the young banana tree with pounds of my compost, the core started emerging rapidly. It's now about five feet tall with four large green glossy leaves.

2. A group of inspiring hard-working Micro Credit professionals.

I am so grateful to CEPRODEL for making the internship with them work.  They went above and beyond what I expected all the time, up to the last minute when they made me a little booklet with a report of my project with them and took me out to a festive dinner at one of my favorite restaurants.  Many of these guys travel three hours one way to work, and spend over 12 hours a day away from their families in order to do their work.

The group of CEPRODEL officers that took me out to dinner. The dinner helped me realize that many parts of my project were a challenge for different reasons, for example, not only speaking a new language and coming from a different background but also being the only female in a very male work environment.

3. Puestos para Plantas

An excellent project run by a British NGO mimicking Paul Farmer’s Village Health Network model and using it to create a Plant Health Network.  The project uses already existing avenues of resources to small farmers, such as cooperatives and university extensions, to create a national system of data collection and standardized advice for farmers.  The system uses an approach called MIC, or Integrated Cultivation Management.  MIC emphasizes  improved cultural practices like good weed management and soil fertility that play a large role in preventing the onslaught of diseases and the need to use chemical applications.  In Nicaragua, the project is part of a national campaign to reduce pesticide dependency.

Tecnicos from the Cooperative Juan Francisco Paz Silva with representatives from the British NGO CABI and UNAN Leon Agroecology.

4. The worlds most handsome and intelligent kitten, Theo

He can climb in and out of the house windows, he gets out of the house using the storm drain, and happily plays with and eats the cockroaches out of the bathroom.  No cat doors, minimal effort on our part, and a huge return for having a happy purring sometimes snuggly mouse eater in the house.

Theo also provides endless entertainment for all our guests, as my little friends Ale and Fabricio demonstrate.


Santiago Familia

Three of Santiago Sabino's eight children pose with him in the well-tended plantain, fruit, and watermelon plot.


Last week while I was visiting some of the participants in the reforestation project I found another clever companion-planting combination. Don Santiago Sabino lives about 8 kilometers off the main road, down a dirt road that turned into a mud pit after only one rainfall the night before. We nearly didn’t make it there with the motorcycle. Santiago has planted his citrus and plantain trees en asocio, putting two plantain trees in between each citrus. While the citrus trees are small he can use the same irrigation system for both plants, and the plantain trees will help ‘hide’ the citrus trees from white moths, the citrus’ main pest.



Trying to get the motorcycle through a muddy river. I walked more than half of the 6 kilometers back because the extra weight on the back of the motorcycle made the back wheel spin in the mud.

Not all the participants in the project have irrigation, but Santiago has a pump set up in the river nearby, and has a gravitational irrigation system, where he has dug trenches that run alongside of the rows of plants. The water is pumped up from the river and then runs down the hill in the trenches, watering the trees. Underneath each plantain tree is a sprouting pipian or watermelon plant. Santiago figured that he planting the seeds at the base of the plantain tree will take advantage of the same water and fertilizer, and the sale of the watermelon and pipian will pay for the gas he needs to run the pump and operate the irrigation. Santiago has a farm of 60 manzanas that he has bought bit by bit over the years. He has about 20 cattle right now, but also has years of vegetable experience, which helped him to figure out this clever way of paying for his irrigation. He has one of the most diverse farms I’ve seen here, with fruit trees surrounding his house and a large garden with peppers, tomatoes, papaya, and more watermelon. CEPRODEL selected his farm to trial cocoa plants and see whether they produce well in that zone. He is still figuring out a good spot and system for planting the cocoa in partial shade.



sandia platanos

Santiago's youngest son shows the small watermelon seedlings just sprouting underneath the plantain tree.


A more well established Pipian squash plant growing at the base of a mango sapling. The gravitational irrigation system Santiago dug (trenches going downhill with a pump to fill them) ensures that the plants receive plenty of water.



Next Page »