Water


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47% of New York State was in a severe or moderate drought in July 2016.

This summer, western New York saw the worst drought since 1943. Farmers have been hit hard. Dairy farmers, because they rely on wide expanses of pasture and often do not have the capacity to irrigate, are forced to purchase food for cattle that can’t forage enough to sustain milk production. Many farmers that do have irrigation set up use rivers and ponds as sources of water, and don’t have an alternate option when the rivers and ponds are too low to pump out of. The CSA farm I worked at for years in Hadley, MA used the Fort River to irrigate. Running pipes and pulling water was a massive effort saved for dire situations. 25′ sections of 6″ aluminum pipe had to be loaded onto the truck, then each section walked out into the field on our shoulders, attached by hand, and connected to a hydrant. My former boss, Michael Doctor, now runs Winter Moon Farm. The land he currently grows on doesn’t have the buried pipes and river access that we had back then, so in the midst of the drought he shelled out the money to drill a well. Since his whole business plan relies on fall crops that need to be seeded and germinate during the middle of the summer in order to mature before the first frost, spending the money was a make or break move.

All this talk of drought in Western Massachusetts felt like a bit of a deja vu to me. I spent a significant amount of time in Nicaragua in April discussing the drought, la sequía, that persists and dries up wells and rivers and the cash flows of smallholder farmers. The Eco-Centro that SosteNica supports started a new line of credit specifically for cattle farmers whose wells had dried up, to deepen them in the hopes that just a few meters farther would strike the tip of the receding aquifer. The new line of credit was designed to extend deeper than just what the well-diggers pickaxe could achieve. Recipients of the loans were invited to workshops on water conservation, and asked to commit to implementing water-saving methods on their farm, apply mulch to any irrigated land, and sign promises that they would only run their irrigation in the early morning or late evening to reduce evaporation and conserve water.

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Oh, I was hoping you were bringing an ice cold lemonade, not just some farming advice!

At Gertrudis and Antonio Solís’s farm, the pasture was dry and brittle. Their garden that I helped them establish four years ago was reduced to less than 1/3 the size to accommodate what they could realistically water. A loan had helped them successfully deepen their well so that it was recharging more often. But as Don Antonio launched into a long explanation of how, since the work on his well has increased the amount of still-limited water, he sets alarms to wake up every three hours all night to change over the valves on the irrigation system and avoid watering during the day, it’s hard for me to feel like that was a complete success. There is so much more that needs to be done to help farmers like these two people, who are so dedicated to sustainable, diversified food production, to live the quality of life they deserve.

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Antonio and the well we helped him improve.

Over the last six months I have watched farmers in two very different parts of the world, many of whom I have worked alongside of to plan and plant and harvest, struggle similarly under the burden of climate factors out of their control. This is not a kind of solidarity to celebrate. If prices actually rose to cover the costs that these farmers are pulling out of their pockets and from their nights of sleep, maybe consumers would realize the value in spending more of their own time and money voting for policies – and politicians – that support  climate change mitigation, investing in renewable energy, and protecting the open land that provides environmental services like carbon sequestration.

The design firm where I now work, Regenerative Design Group, helps farmers to develop master plans and implement land-management practices that over time build resilience to climate anomalies like drought. Establishing silvopasture for grazing animals, using swales to maximize water infiltration, and building the organic matter in soil through regenerative practices are proven methods of increasing a farm’s overall productivity and ability to withstand extreme weather. Bringing these technologies and practices to farmers around the world is one way that we work in solidarity with the stewards of the land and providers of our sustenance, whether they are in the tropics or in our hometowns. Supporting SosteNica’s equitable lending practices, that are accompanied by education and technical support, is another way we show farmers that we stand with them through thick and thin, floods and drought.

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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!

 

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 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.

The town water system in León was shutdown for nearly 48 hours last weekend.  Rumors were that an electical plant failed to provide the energy needed to pump water.  The water stopped before dawn on Friday, and didn’t come on until late Saturday night.

Luckily, I live in the Sutiaba neighborhood – the old indigenous part of the city – and we are already lucky enough to have a water cut nearly every single day.  I’ve learned well the Nica habit of filling up tubs and and plastic trash cans every night before I go to bed while the water pressure is good.  If I don’t make it out of bed by 6:30 am, I’m bathing with a bucket and a little plastic bowl.  Since I often work outside the house, it’s not such a big deal.  A nuisance, but it’s necessary to have patience with these things living abroad, and it’s not like I’m alone.  Sutiaba is a rather large neghborhood of León, a city of 150,000, so I am accompanied every day in my bucket baths by hundreds of other folks dealing with the same.

48 hours is different.  For the first day, all is well.  Blissfully ignorant, while the rest of the city panicked we just used our barrels of water like we do every day.  Until when the problem wasn’t fixed, we discovered we couldn’t fill them up again that night.

Rumors flew – the farm six blocks south and 3 km west was giving out water if you bring a truck and barrels, the neighbor’s brother-in-law’s cousin has a well two blocks north, the town paid for 5,000 gallons of water for the hospital but aren’t doing anything for the rest.  Trucks started passing in the street shouting, “Water for sale!” while the pulperias on the corner spiked the prices of bottled water.

What’s the first thing you think of when you realize there is no more water?  Drinking.  I need water to drink.  If not, I’m paying for whatever I drink – soda or bottled juice or drinks.

Bathing – Nica’s are impecably clean, very aware that the combined effects of the hot tropical sun on skin pores leads to sweat and unpleasant stink.  No one ever leaves the house before bathing.  I wonder if perfume sales rose during the 48 hours?

Washing – well, the dishes in the sink sure gathered flies for two days.  I half expected the health ministry to close the downtown restaurants and bars, but they stayed open.  I consulted a friend and found they paid to have water trucked in from outside the city in barrels in order to keep business up and running.  And the laundry can wait, for a little while at least.

But Flushing Toilets can not wait.  In the photographs published about the situation, I wonder how much of the water, refered to as “the vital liquid” in one of the national newspapers, ended up being used to flush?  The joke became that even precious rum became more valuable as a potential liquid to flush toilets than as a drink.  The situation in public restrooms was dire.

Only 0.63% of the world’s water is potable at any given moment; the rest is held in salt-water oceans, ice caps, glaciers, bodies of organisms like us and plants, and in vapor.  When there were five people in my house during the water cut, half of our saved water went to flushing the toilet.  All of a sudden a difficult situation becomes desperate – do I drink and hold it in, or be thirsty but relieve myself?  What a terrible decision!

Our solution was clear – go to Achuapa, where the community we visit not only has water but also has dry composting toilets.  A much more technified and improved version of an outhouse, the dry composting toilets separate urine and feces, eliminating odors and allowing the feces to dehydrate and compost faster.  Not only did they have water in Achuapa (they all have their own wells) but the toilets don’t need any water anyway.  Hand-pumping your own water certainly helps you get your priorities straight – water for drinking please, not for the can!

Many people say the next world war will not be fought over petroleum but over water.  Clean potable water is already a scarcity in many tropical countries – without increasing the amount of water uban dwellers flush away un-drinkable.  If the 48 hour scurry for water in Leon lasted any longer, there would have been a serious hygienic disaster.  And our continued contamination of potable water makes that frighteningly  not so far in the future.

On 10/10/10 people around the world joined together in efforts to reduce carbon emissions, pollution, and contamination.

We decided to use our 10/10/10 to visit a rural Nicaraguan community who have inspired us by always taking into account the long term sustainability and health of the local ecosystem, and taking great pleasure and pride in their choices.  For us, the community of El Lagartillo exemplifies a low-impact lifestyle with a high quality of life.  Here is why:

The houses are surrounded by gardens, filled with vegetables and flowers, which host a myriad of wildlife like this hummingbird.  Among dozens of ornamental plants (most of which are traded amongst the community members and do not come from nurseries), our friend Tina has coffee, papaya, lemon, bitter orange, herbs, and mangos in her yard.

Laundry is washed by hand and hung out in the sun to dry.

Most of the food in the village is grown or sourced locally.  Helen’s neighbors have enough cows to generate twenty liters of milk daily, and they make cheese for many of the community members who don’t have cattle.

When we arrived in the evening on 09/10/10 Tina was baking rosquillas, a salty corn cracker with sugar on top, in her cob oven.  The oven is made of mud and straw, and built on a large rock.  A wood fire is lit inside the oven, and burned down to ashes.  When the coals are scraped out, the cob has absorbed enough heat to bake a batch of nearly 600 rosquillas. Much of the cooking is a community activity – instead of everyone lighting their own cob oven every day, the community members will flock to Tina’s for rosquillas until they are gone and someone else lights their oven to make the next batch.

The daily cooking is done on a wood fire stove in the kitchen.  Chemer, Tina’s son, built this cookstove (fogón) recently after seeing a similar model, and then built several more for his mother and other members of the community.  Instead of the traditional open fire, this cookstove has a chimney and flu so that the airflow can be controlled by blocking or opening the hole on the side.  These improved cookstoves can reduce firewood use by up to 50% and also improve community health by removing the smoke from the kitchen.  The United Nations declared the instilation of improved cookstoves on of their top goals this year.

Tina stores her tortillas in this eco-friendly calabaza gourd.  She can easily afford a plastic tupperware like the city folks use, but prefers this traditional method.

There is no regridgeration in the community, although most of the houses now have solar panels for lightbulbs at night.  These are Tina’s water jugs, double-ceramic vessels that have a ceramic filter inside that filters out parasites and bacteria.  The jugs are filled in the morning when the well water is cool, and the ceramic keeps the water cool all through the hot days.  I always look forward to drinking this water and have never treated it with anything and never gotten sick.

About six years ago a project came to El Lagartillo and installed a few of these baños secos, or separating composting toilets.  The toilet separates urine from feces, and the urine goes through a tube straight out to the garden, whereas the feces are collected in a chamber, layered with ash or sawdust, and composted for over a year before being applied to the community coffee patch and citrus orchard.  When properly maintained, these toilets are cleaner and less smelly than the traditional “drop toilet”, and don’t contaminate the thousands of gallons of fresh water that flush toilets do.  Tina, who was a recipient of the original project, much prefers using her toilet and sealed off her traditional outhouse years ago.  Since then, nearly the entire community has adopted these toilets, and all the new houses being constructed have them.

The community owns one truck together, which can be rented by members of the community.  Most of the transportation is by bus, a few motorcycles, bicycle, or horse.  Horses serve as both transportation for people and goods, and also pleasure.

Perhaps most inspiring of all is that the village of El Lagartillo fosters strong, community oriented visionaries who maintain the traditional values of living sustainably and healthily.  Our conversations during the day were filled with discussions about which green manures were best for which crops, what building materials were most easily available and most sustainable, how many grains and beans can be grown for auto-consumption, what kinds of water systems save the most water, why breast milk is a million times better than infant formula, and what the indicator species are in a naturally regenerating forest.  And we didn’t bring up these topics because of 10/10/10 – these are among the most relevant and important themes in their lives.  Our friends in El Lagartillo always inspire us to pay attention to the details in our city life, to think about the quality of what we eat and how we live, and to strive to have the same pride in our daily decisions.

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