Reforestation Project

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….)

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.

The only possible thing to do after coming home from the market with this glowing fruit was to dig out some dusty pastels and spend a half hour focussing my attention completely on its color and form.  And then, of course, cut it open and slurp up the slippery tangy orange fruit.  The most perfect mango ever.

This year the early rains have pushed the mango season earlier, and the markets right now are flooded.  Nicaraguans eat mango in pretty much every form, and some other foreign friends and I have been enjoying pushing the limits of how to eat them.  It’s not a far cry to call my friend Emma and I mango nuts.

For example, here is a picture of about half the mangoes that I happen to have in my house right now.

The largest four mangos on the upper left are “Mango Papaya”, the next three to the right with the lovely rosy yellow color are “Mango Rosa”, the pile of little green ones are “Mango Liso”, and the four yellow longer ones in the front are the every abundant common “Mango Mechudo”.

The largest mangoes at the moment are three for 20 cordoba (just less than US$1) and the mango mechudos – 3 for 1 cordoba!  Yes, that is three lovely ripe golden mangos for less than a US nickel.

Yesterday on our routine visits to farmers in SosteNica’s Reforestation Project I found…yes, more mangos.

Carmen Reynaldo Morales, one of the project’s participating farmers, shows off the mangoes on his young mango tree we helped him plant.  The trees are all grafted, which means they produce more quickly and maintain their true variety (in this case a large mango suitable for export called a Tomy).  However, this tree is only in its second year, which is early even for a grafted tree to produce!

Mango flowers are large and airy.  The poke up at the ends of all the branches and then slowly tip down as the tiny little green mango balls grow heavier and heavier, dragging the branch down until each branch ends with a wiry bunch of heavy fruit.

Mango Liso and Mango Mechudo trees surrounded the tiny house of one farmer, who clearly couldn’t keep up with the harvest from these towering trees.  A mango tree can grow up to 40 meters tall, and often provide a wonderful deep shade over Nicaraguan campesino houses but also prove quite a challenge to climb and harvest.  The ground underneath our feet was littered with rotting mangos, and swarming with bees and butterflies.  The smell was sweet and alcoholic, and reminded me clearly of the smell of rotting apples in the New England orchards I know.  I calmed my panic at seeing so much valuable mango flesh rotting and wasted by thinking, this must be how horrifying an Apple orchard looks to a Nicaraguan, who’s only context for fresh apples are the tiny imported Red Delicious in the markets that cost one US dollar a piece.

Needless to say, mangoes have been making it into nearly every meal recently.  I’ve learned to snack on semi-ripe mangos with chili and vinegar sold on the streets in every busy intersection, made some amazing mango curries, mango salsa, put my good New England food preserving skills to task with mango chutney and mango-passion fruit-pineapple jam, and of course my crowning mango ginger molasses pie.

A last and final word of caution – beware of the effects of over exposure to mangos for northern temperate climate foodies.  Symptoms may include but are not limited to obsessively filling pockets with harvested mangos resulting in very sticky stained clothing; a slightly yellow mango colored glow on white skin from overindulgent eating, and immature jumping and snapping at mangos hanging on branches.  Viva el Mango!!!

One of Nicaragua’s national newspapers, El Nuevo Diario, ran this article yesterday, linking two things I had never put together before: the Catholic Church and the threat of extinction for iguanas in Nicaragua.  Iguanas are a typical Nicaraguan dish eaten year round, but as the Nuevo Diario points out, the fact that they are “green-blooded” instead of red-blooded means that they are acceptable fare during lent.

We have iguanas living on our roof in the center of León.  They can be heard all hours of the day, scratching along the fiberglass sheets and ceramic tiles.  When they cross over the skylight in the bathroom they cast an enormous distorted dinosaur shadow along the wall.  The males fight, knocking each other off the tree limbs and roofing, and every now and then they fall into our courtyard and scurry behind the potted plants.

They have every reason to be scared of us.  We are giving them one safe roof, but I often see the neighbors kids behind our backyard throwing stones with slingshots at the iguanas in the trees.  Granted, kids will throw stones at lots of things, but in this case they are probably actually trying to kill dinner, not just goof off.


Pedro Sanchez caught this iguana for his family to eat, and was so impressed at its size that he stuffed the skin with ash to preserve it.

Are you sick in bed with a fever and chills?  Someone is bound to tell you (or bring you!) iguana soup.  It’s supposed to be rich in iron, the perfect get-well meal.  Until reading the article in yesterdays newspaper, I hadn’t made the connection between celebrating lent and increasing consumption of iguana.  The article encourages Catholics to find other ways to avoid eating red meat during lent, and respect the un-enforced laws against the illegal sale of iguanas for pets or meat.  I have seen iguana in the markets, and the boys along the highway who hold up their iguana for the commuters on the highway to buy (I have a friend who buys them every now and then, and then feeds them in yard where they live happily and grow to enormous sizes). It’s visible; certainly not eaten in the quantities that beef, chicken, and pork are but clearly a traditional dish and delicacy.


I have eaten iguana.  Most foreigners don’t, and I know in certain areas it’s in danger of extinction.  But here’s the dilemma – it’s an important source of food for poor rural families.  Imagine one family in the isolated country side – beef and pork are rare treats, saved for large festivities or for selling to market.  When I first arrived here I was faced with a decision about eating meat.  I have been vegetarian in the past; in the states I pretty much only eat meat I purchase (i.e. I or my family will buy what we decide is quality meat, mostly organic or pastured, but when I eat out it’s mostly vegetarian).  My choices have always revolved around a protest of factory farmed and over-medicated meat; I have no moral beef with consciously raised or hunted meat.

The first time I was served iguana I panicked.  I was staying with a rural family for three nights.  The first night we had beans, cheese, and tortilla for dinner.  Then again for breakfast.  Then again for lunch.  At dinner, the family proudly told me their son had gone out with his slingshot and caught two iguana so they could serve me meat.  The environmentalist and anthropologist in me were in a terrific struggle.  Eat an endangered animal, or offend a family by refusing their gesture?  I ended up eating the iguana, and I have done the same since then whenever it was offered to me by a rural family, which thankfully has not been very often.  The meal below – an example.  Hidden below the plantain chips and salad are pieces of stewed iguana with vegetables.

I have never and will never purchase iguana at a market or restaurant.  I don’t particularly like it – it’s a bit tough, stringy, doesn’t have much meat or flavor.  I can’t stomach iguana eggs; they are dense and dry and I don’t agree with robbing nests so I draw a line there.

I haven’t seen many iguana farms for food production.  At the Cerro Negro reserve outside of León, the park center maintains an iguana rehabilitation project.  They raise and set free hundreds of iguanas a year, probably a portion of them to be hunted and lunched upon, but hopefully a portion of them to live and reproduce freely in the surrounding forest.

Deforestation is listed as a main reason for the disappearance of iguanas, after illegal sale on the international exotic pets market and consumption.  Forest fires, lit by accident or by hunters of the very same iguana who light brush on fire to scare the lizards out, decimate their habitat.  At least for the time being, whenever I need to console myself while being proudly served a beautiful meal of iguana by a señora in the countryside, I know I’m helping by working to reforest their habitat.  And of course there are those gangs of iguanas on my roof, waking me up at 3 am with their boxing matches.  May they live long, happy lives and never find themselves on my plate.

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.

Right now the Occidente of Nicaragua is flush with flowers.  This year the rainy season was particularly heavy, and the remaining moisture in the ground – unusual for early February – is reflected in the abundance and quality of fruits and flowers.  The jocote fruits and mangos in the market are earlier and larger than usual, and the veranera, or bougonvilla, is particularly spectacular.  The forests along the highways where I travel regularly have changed from thick green vegatation to multicolored landscapes, as the madero negro, poroporo, laurel, roble, sacuanjoche, and sardonilla trees, among others, are all blossoming at the same time.  Trees are much easier to identify when they are flowering, when they stand out from their neighbors and can be seen from a distance.  For example, I’ve always known that Madero Negro is an abundant and common tree, but now I really understand as a pass by  whole hillsides shrouded in its pale pink blossoms how abundant it really is.

Madero Negro and Laurel are two of the types of trees that one of the producer in SosteNica’s Reforestation Project has chosen to plant on his farm because of their abundant flowers and attractiveness to bees.  Edgar Cisnero has 20 bee hives and plans to expand, and one of the reasons he has joined the project – besides investing in the family farm he and his four sibling are jointly running – is to increase the number of flowering trees and improve the quantity and quality of honey.  Last week when we visited he helped us to measure the growth of the pochote trees he planted in June.

After we finished measuring and marking the trees Edgard showed us a pila, or trough, that he keeps filled to the brim for the bees to drink from.  The edges of the rectangular concrete trough were lined with bees, and there were sticks floating in the water as well for bees to perch on and drink.  We walked right up to the pila to watch them; they were much more intent on drinking than paying attention to us.

We got so close we could see their tongues.  Look at the bee on the left.

In the middle of the dry season the sun beats hard, all day, and many of the trees like madero negro and the pochote trees we measured drop their leaves.  No shade and hot sun means that Edgard needs to pay careful attention to keeping this pila filled level with the brim and not let it evaporate.  If the bees fall in they will most likely drown.  Right next to the bee – pila, another larger pila was filled with water, but not all the way up.  This was the pool, for humans to enjoy.  And as long as they keep it free of floating sticks, the bees don’t go near it.  There is also a 5 meter tall water tower to provide irrigation for Edgard’s agricultural fields.  From the top, I could see all the way across to Momotombo and a geothermal electrical plant at the base.  The view inspired my new photo heading.

Three days later I attended the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Juan Francisco Paz Silva cooperative in Achuapa.  The cooperative’s principal focus is sesame, and they have a processing plant to press unrefined sesame oil.  This past year, however, they have encouraged their farmers to diversify, offering their farmers technical assistants and special loans to invest in one new crop on each farm.  The farmers have a menu of choices – fruit trees, vegetables, coffee, rice, grains, or bees.  In all cases the technical assistants are trained in organic production methods, but only the coffee and honey is required to be certified.  Why?  Because now that the cooperative is exporting one product, they may be able to export coffee and honey, and both of those products receive a much higher price on the market if they are certified. The farmers at the celebrations displayed some live combs and sold bottles of their clear, incredibly flowery honey.

Increasing the production of honey in Nicaragua can only be good.  Not only is it healthy for all of us to consume more honey and less refined sugar (not to mention the terrible labor and environmental practices of sugar production), but honey farmers, who are of course also beans and corn and sorghum farmers, cannot spray pesticides on any of their crops or they will endanger their valuable bee hives.  And where the farms are smaller, they may have to convince their neighbors to take up bees and lay off the pesticides as well in order to protect their hives.  It seems that here, where is no national market for organic produce but honey is both popular and expensive, the possibility of producing honey may be one of the strongest incentives for sustainable farming.

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