Environmental justice

The ground seems fertile for new sustainable agriculture markets, pun intended.  A recent estimate places a $4.5 billion value on the “green agricultural technologies” market over the next decade, including improvements in available biopesticides and organic non-petroleum based fertilizers.  Which is great, except that with harsher climate extremes and increasing intensity of pests and diseases, it is unclear whether this investment will result in increased production yields or simply be necessary to maintain the current level of production.  And of course, this doesn’t mean $4.5 billion for farmers – unless farmers come together to invest in the development and creation of amendments.  The infrastructure within the agricultural cooperative movement should give farmer cooperatives an advantage in centrally producing economical and ecological inputs for their member farmers, retaining some of the value of this growing industry in the hands of small farmers.

UNCTADThe recent United Nations Trade and Environment Review 2013 is entitled “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late” and stresses the need for transformations in our food systems that strengthen farmers’ ability to employ ecological practices that increase the stability and health of agriculture.  The report, compiled by over 60 experts in the field, lists as one of its key points the need to recognize farmers as more than just producers.  Farmers are managers of agro-ecosystems that impact public goods and services including water, soil, land use, energy, biodiversity and recreation.  When we recognize them as managers with influence in several areas of long-term impact, the resources that we make available to them and the role they play in trade relationships and business takes greater importance.  In one section entitled: Democratizing the Role of Agriculture to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century” the report outlines the effects of the consolidation of corporate interests in agriculture – from monopolization of the input markets including seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, to lobbying and influencing policies that are not in the best interest of farmers.  Although as stewards of the land farmers have the potential to greatly impact carbon sequestration, erosion, local food systems and energy production, the consolidation of corporate interests effectively prioritize profit margins on fertilizers, seeds, and retail over supporting good farm management and profitability.  As the graph below from the Canadian Department of Agriculture shows, the price of fertilizers is rising at a faster rate than the price of crops, cutting into farmers profitability.

The fuel, fertilizer and crop price trends for Canadian farmers.

The fuel, fertilizer and crop price trends for Canadian farmers.

The report suggests a variety of concrete actions that should be relevant especially within the movement of organized farmer advocacy groups and cooperatives.  There are examples of farmer groups who have made investments in the production of fertilizers and seeds.  I have previously written about SOPPEXCCA’s fertilizer plant as a model coffee cooperative’s initiative to take into their own hands the lack of effective organic certified fertilizers on the market.  Because the farmers themselves have a stake in the fertilizer production, the quality of the finished product, and the profitability of the coffee production, the investment includes annual tests and improvements in the composition of the fertilizer they make, effectively lowering the cost of the fertilizer for farmers rather than raising it.  Other examples of farmer groups taking a pro-active stance to protect available cost-effective quality inputs for farmers that are not controlled by  are seed savers groups and seed banks.  The difference between farmer-driven and corporate-driven amendments is simple – farmers have a vested interest in the effectiveness and quality of the product, as well as in their affordability and long-term ecological impact.  Corporations only have a vested interest in the first.

What other innovative farmer-initiated production models or policies do you know of that shift market control and profitability toward farmers?

When two volunteers asked to come and work with SosteNica a few months ago, we and our partner organization saw an opportunity to shift the nature of our work in Nicaragua and focus on bringing some of the food security work from the rural area into the urban, and on education and capacity building rather than on lending.  Our volunteers helped design the project, and after visiting Estili, a city in northern Nicaragua known for its mural-covered walls, they proposed including designing and painting a mural as part of the project.  For the project, we partnered with the Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project, and they approved of the idea and chose a wall for us on their brand new community center.  The idea was for the mural to be a community activity, bringing the youth and kids from the families in the gardening project together to express the importance of gardening in another medium.  In the end, the mural became a much broader process, involving many people who were not part of the gardening project.

SosteNica volunteer Danya and the Sister City project field director Ramon gathered a group of local kids to start a brainstorming session.  They created drawings and wrote verses and their own reasons for gardening.  Danya used the drawings in her own design that formed the base for the mural.  Ramon suggested that the kids be given an opportunity to paint directly on the wall, and so nobody really know how it was going to turn out.  The design created environments – fields, patios, a river – and the kids filled the environments with plants and animals of their own design.  Danya painted a sketch version for us to follow, and we invited some of the older kids to help lay down the base design.

Juniette (above) and Junior, whose family is part of the Urban Gardening project and has built a very creative kitchen garden with raised beds lined with recycled plastic bottles, helped often.  When the “environments” were created, we organized a community painting day and invited all the kids from the Sister City project classes, the neighborhoods where we are helping to create kitchen gardens, and the neighborhood where the community center is.  We organized colors of paints, collected empty bottles and egg cartons, bought some refreshments, found some scrap paper, and braced ourselves for chaos.  And chaos it was!

The extra table for kids to practice their plant or animal, or just to keep them occupied while the wall was overcrowded was very helpful.  Needless to say, we had a few incidents of paint throwing, uninvited additions, and squabbling, but by the end of the afternoon the mural was definitely more lively.  We continued working over the next week with smaller groups, and fell into a good groove, adding some people and using the images the original group of kids had drawn to fill in the gaps.  The final design is rich and luscious, filled with life and creativity.  There is a sign in the middle for a very simple verse that one of the kids wrote at the beginning of the process: “we protect our plants because we depend on them for our food and our good health, thank you…”

You can read more about SosteNica’s work on their homepage.  Our volunteer, Danya, maintains her own site www.danyafrench.com with pictures and descriptions of her artwork and other community art projects.

Thanks to a high school classmate of mine, a version of the entry I wrote below was posted on Turnstyle Youth Radio’s blog here and on the Huffington Post’s Green blog here.

Thanks Charlie!


Wangari Muta Maathai (1940 – 2011) will be remembered and honored by millions of students, youth, environmentalists, professors and heads of state.  She demonstrated to the world that the eradication of poverty, the empowerment of women, and a sustainable future for our planet are fused in a single path to a just and peaceful world.  With her powerful vision and eloquent words, it’s no wonder she individually touched so many of us.  As they say here in Nicaragua to honor the life a heroine leaves behind, Wangari Maathai, Presente! 

Prof. Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, and has since mobilized hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees, restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty.

Although I only met Wangari Maathai very briefly, her vision for creating social change through environmental stewardship and community organization has stayed with me for nearly a decade.

I helped to create a community garden in college, and with that innocent beginning became passionately involved in gardening and farming, eager to expand my knowledge and experience. So in 2002 I attended the winter conference for the Northeast Organic Farming Association.  The conference offered a smorgasbord of workshops and lectures, everything from plant pathology to how to douse for underground water sources.  Having recently declared cultural anthropology as my major, it was an easy choice for me to attend the lecture by a woman from Kenya who worked empowering rural women through reforestation.  For an hour, Wangari Maathai presented photographs and maps showing the achievements of the Green Belt Movement to a small group of Connecticut farmers, students, and environmental activists.

I can clearly recall the way she told her story with such optimism, humility, and confidence.  She related her years of tirelessly working to organize impoverished women and plant thousands of trees, transforming the landscape one hill at a time, in the manner one might use to tell someone what they cooked for dinner last night.  Her compelling argument transformed the struggle for equality and the fight for environmental stewardship into one and the same, instilling in all of us the importance of coming together across countries and cultures to work for a better world.

I remember approaching her afterward, completely enamored, and there and then asking whether it would be possible to come do my thesis in Kenya with her movement.  “Of course,” she told me without hesitation, “we have had wonderful students come work with us, of course you can.”  This is what I remember so clearly about hearing Wangari speak in person: she said yes unequivocally.  Yes, I have never met you but you can work with us.  Yes, rural African women have the strength and the power to reverse the damage of decades of deforestation.  Yes, we can bring peace to the world by planting trees. It’s that easy.

When the time came to begin researching for my thesis proposal, I began by contacting the organizers of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya.  As my plans came together, however, I decided I needed to work closer to home and use the lens of anthropology to reveal the intricacies of my own world rather than travel across the globe.  In the end my thesis explored the power of community gardens to transform an urban neighborhood in Connecticut, only blocks from my university.

When the Nobel committee awarded Wangari Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 I was thrilled, but also slightly remorseful for having passed up the opportunity to work with such a successful movement.   Over the years each time I have come across a reference to her and her work – honored by Forbes Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most powerful women, by Times Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, launching the Billion Tree Campaign, founding the Nobel Women’s Initiative and receiving countless awards – I am reminded of my past desire to go and learn from her.

My work with community gardening led me to organic farming, and my desire to work with social justice led me to learning Spanish and most recently has brought me here to Nicaragua.  Now I work with rural Nicaraguan families, coordinating a sustainable agriculture extension program and a reforestation project.  Together we plant trees into deforested cattle land, one hillside at a time.

And only now, as I sadly read her obituary nearly ten years later, it occurs to me that maybe I didn’t pass that opportunity up at all.

This week, July 21-27, was designated by the USDA as national pollinator week, and there are events and classes highlighting the important work these insects do for us all around the country.  I’ve been chattering about it to anyone who I think will listen here.  This is a picture of a pollinator I found on the tree saplings we are giving this year in SosteNica’s Reforestation Project in Nagarote, Nicaragua:

It’s a fantastic week here to celebrate.  The rainy season started enough time ago that the caterpillars have had time to eat their fill, metamorphasize, and emerge and pollinators instead of pests.  Wasps have begun building nests on the underside of leaves which have emerged in the last month, and many of the crops that were seeded with the first rains are flowering right now.

Did you know

– The main cocoa pollinator responsible for producing all our chocolate is a midge fly that is smaller than a pinhead.

– There are 200,000 species of pollinators, including insects, bats, hummingbirds, and even small mammals such as mice.

– US farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate of 3,000 acres a day.  When farmland is converted to industry or residencies, the amount of native pollinators available to pollinate the remaining farmland drops and can negatively affect yeilds.

– In the US, managed pollination such as beekeeping results in an estimated benefit of $20 billion annually in the agricultural industry.

Obama’s Oval Office address on the BP Oil Spill was amazing dissapointing.

The phrase, “This is the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States” is buried under weak defenses and excuses for spending millions cleaning up a disaster that doesn’t just reflect a completely corrupt energy policy but also a national crisis in lifestyle.  I’m sorry, but putting a six month moratoriam on deepwater drilling (with the exception, or course, of the unexplained “relief well” that BP is currently drilling to stop the leak) means jack shit to me.  It’s time to talk about what this spill actually means, and how the sheen of oil on the gulf reflects back to each and every one of our lives and daily choices.

Addressing the “failed philosophy” that oil companies can write their own regulations is clearly important (the idea that any industry can be it’s own regulator is a failure to begin with), but how about the “failed philosophy” that US citizens can burn as much oil as they want, whether it’s in their SUVs or heating or plastic food packaging?

Maybe I am just an economic skeptic in general, but I fail to see how ensuring that BP pays for all the cleanup and creating a third-party managed fund will sufficiently reverse the damage of 60,000 barrels of oil a day leaking into our oceans for months.  That is not an economic disaster.  Nor is it an environmental disaster.  It is a LIFE disaster, one that we should be addressing not just economically and environmentally but with changes in our LIVES!!!

Nicaraguans know disasters.  They know catastrophes.  When Hurricane Mitch came through over 800,000 Nicaraguans lost their lives and land, cattle and immeasurable amounts of wildlife were lost, and all told estimated damages total over US$300 million.  I still talk to farmers who have never recuperated their land, who show me rivers that have changed their course completely, and boulders on their land that weren’t there before.  After a hurricane, where is the private company to blame, to force to pay damages?  That is the most shamefull, unspoken truth about this environmental catastrophe.  We have made this disaster.  We have something to blame, but it’s not just an oil company, it’s ourselves.

That’s why in addition to addressing the dire situation of tribal fisherman and endangered pelegrine flocks we should be making widesweeping changes in our daily lives.  If Obama really wants to promote hope and change he should be talking about about movements like the statewide ban on plastic bags and successfull local food movements that greatly reduce food miles and plastic food packaging.  Plastic and oil are not evil – they have their medical, safety, and technology uses that have become indespensiple to our society.  But at the risk of destroying ourselves completely, why can we not make every effort to cut out the waste!

Is it too much to ask that our political and economic leaders can dip into morals and ethics as well?  We DO need to rewire our countries energy system so that it is connected to renewable sources of energy, but we also need to rewire ourselves, so that we think twice before carelessly throwing out over 1,675 lbs of garbage per year per person!  And that doesn’t count the barrels of oil that each of us are responsible for wasting daily.  We do need the commitees to look into the lies and conflicts of interest that led to the BP disaster, but we also need to realize that our current petroleum centered lifestyle is itself a lie and a conflict of interest.

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

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.

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.

Two recent events here in Nicaragua have made me realize that the “local” and “direct connection to the source” movements in the states around food have only just begun to scratch the surface.  The fact is that a huge percentage of our food is processed, even what we think of as “natural” or “unprocessed” foods such as nuts and grains need to be shelled, cleaned, sorted, roasted, etc.  Who benefits or controls those processes, and the social and environmental ramifications of them, is just as important as the original source: the farmer.

In the states, a recent rise in the awareness and involvement in farming has had ramifications from CSA becoming a widely accepted and understood farming model to individual coffee farmers faces on the bags we buy.   The next step for this know-the-source-of-your-food is to bring to light and work on the remaining steps in the chain that remain invisible.

Sesame seed processing is just one "invisible" step among hundreds of specific industries that process foods we consider unprocessed.

Two days ago a group of students from Oberlin came to León and I arranged a tour of a sesame processing plant owned by a cooperative of 11 agricultural cooperatives from around the country.  The sesame is exported from the plant in one of three states: sorted and cleaned (with no leaf or plant bits or rocks, etc.), peeled or de-husked and sorted, or in drums of raw sesame oil.  ALL sesame that we encounter, whether in tahini, hamburger buns, oil, or as ingredients in cosmetics, goes through this process.  The difference is that here the farmers, with representatives they elect and hire, own and manage this plant.

The processing plant is huge.  It’s a factory.  Overwhelmingly large and complicated machinary requires us to climb two flights of metal staircases to understand it’s complex process of heating, washing, and peeling sesame.  The sorting room is sterile, and anyone who enters puts on lab coats, hair nets, and disinfects their hands.

It’s understandable the the students came away awed, and also worried that the small farmers of Nicaragua were sucked into a big bad industrial food processing business instead of focussing on the crops that feed their families.  At first I was frustrated that they hadn’t understood the power of the farmers owning this part of the sesame chain.  I felt I we had failed by not emphasizing enough that the farmers ARE growing their beans and corn as well as the sesame they send to the plant.  But then I realized that it’s not the lack of information as much as a mentality that the students, myself, and many other very enlightened consumers in the states unconsciously submit themselves to.  “The farmers are good.  The industry is bad”.

What helped me see this is another conversation we are having with a coffee roaster in North America.  The roaster agreed to pay a premium on the coffee that will be used to organize women in the coffee chain, symbolically recognizing their unpaid work in the house and fields and the benefit that their work has on the quality and quantity of coffee produced.  Practically, the project supports the women in organizing themselves into cooperatives and groups and finances economic activities such as baking or small shops that the women are already struggling to fit into their busy lives.

Over 60 women attended and were excited about the opportunity for them to join the cooperative movement and have access to savings accounts and loans.

The problem: including the women who are employed at the coffee processing plant, and not keeping the project exclusively focussed on the women coffee farmers or wives of farmers.  Why?  Because it’s less marketable in the states.  The roaster is worried that because the women have a paid job at the processing plant, even though it is a job that only lasts four months of the year and most of them have no steady income those other 8 months, he won’t be able to sell the project as empowering women in coffee.  My view of it: he’s scared of the images of women in a giant warehouse, of thousands of sacks of coffee, and of big sorting machines.  He wants the image of the lone woman farmer surrounded by plants to show his consumers, because that’s as far as the ‘direct connection’ socially responsible food consumer movement has come.  That’s what is acceptable, trendy, marketable.

If consumers who shop at farmers markets and Whole Foods out of a desire to buy socially and environmentally responsible products want to make truly educated decisions, they need to accept the level at which ALL of our food is processed, and include the steps in the chain between that picturesque farmer and the bag on the shelf.  Sesame and coffee IS processed, so why not support the farmers in creating some competition to the US companies that buy foreign soil to build their own processing and exporting plants.  Given the frequency of small farms highlighted in the media in the last decade, we are on our way to highlighting and valuing the primary production of our food.  Now it is time to continue that work while also reclaiming the image of the food industry as having the same empowering potential as properly acknowledging and paying small farmers for their work.

This coffee processing plant doesn't look any different from its neighboring plants in Matagalpa. The difference is, like the sesame plant, it's actually owned by the coffee farmers organized into cooperatives.

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