A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

Once upon a time I believed that creating and supporting healthy local food systems meant eliminating imported products – for example, sticking to a 100 mile-diet.  I believed that preaching a local food only diet could solve societal issues such as a disconnect from agricultural businesses and the source of our food, struggling local economies, and poor health and nutrition.  But I began to question that belief as my work in Nicaragua evolved from development centered NGO work to trade oriented development work.  As I have gotten to know several fair trade cooperatives, their histories and their work today, I have had to reassess to a certain extent my intense focus on the benefits of consuming only local food.  Maybe there is a space for positive global trade, one that can, despite the enormous capital and fuel resources, create net positive social impact and work pretty hard on the environmental ones too.  After all, while many local farms in the US have sprung up, grown and profited off of the local food movement, local independent coffee roasters have too!  In general I am a supporter of positive campaigning (put your energy behind what you DO want – if not instead than at least as well as what you DON”T want).  I would not recommend to any local food advocate to go an a campaign to convince the masses to stop drinking their coffee.  Not worth your energy.

It is worth your energy to drink the right coffee though!  Over the years I have found that the agricultural cooperatives I work with here that export coffee and sesame share many of the same values as movements I connect with in the states, such as the local food movement.  The funds they generate – through exporting a commodity to people in countries whose climates or economies that do not support the production of that crop – are often invested in funding environmental youth movements, organic fertilizer production, educational scholarships, and strengthening local food networks.  Every coffee coop we work with has or is currently developing a national brand of export quality coffee to market nationally.  This focus on raising the quality of the Nicaraguan coffee culture through national distribution is a strategy that I find both empowering and an example of good business.  Investing in a product for local markets will help the coops grow, reach new markets, and give them a way to leverage the difference between national and international prices to make the best business decisions each year – as well as strengthening the local food system by providing Nicaraguans the opportunity to drink high quality Nicaraguan coffee.

Another coop we work with, the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, exports sesame oil to Europe, mostly for use in cosmetics.  The exports work like the engine that fuels the Cooperative.  It means the Cooperative provides jobs for locals (many of them youth) to run the oil press, the business administration, and the services the coop offers, it generates fair trade premiums – funds that are ear marked for social or environmental projects.  The profits are invested into the business and distributed amongst its members, similar to dividends in a public company.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Because the cooperative has been successful both in producing a quality product that has demand on the market and in investing their profits in the community, other organizations are attracted to working with them, and they have been able to collaborate with local and international development organizations on projects improving farm diversity, establishing technical schools, improving access to potable water, and strengthening local food networks.  Over the last three years, the coop has invested in developing a local line of products using what is available and abundant – including sesame, a very nutritious grain which is not a staple of Nicaraguan cuisine.  Through the creativity of some coop members and employees, and now through a new initiative to Recognize the Unpaid Work of Women in the cost of the sesame and use those funds to help women fully participate in local communities and economies, the coop is lending their facilities and marketing support to the development of new products.  The first Nicaraguan-produced Tahini, which has at least made a splash amongst some local expats, was revolutionized when Doña Ernestina, who works at the coop, mixed it with honey produced by the coop and created a sweet sticky spread that appeals more to a Nicaraguan palate.  Individuals and groups of women in Achuapa have the full support of the cooperative in developing and marketing foods made from local ingredients to local communities – funded through the export of sesame oil and sesame seeds to communities as far away as Europe, the US, and Japan.

Suddenly, export vs. local isn’t so black and white anymore.  When a democratic organization with a strong social and environmental vision successfully enters an international market, the impact can be felt very locally.

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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.

The stakes used to create fences are carefully chosen from species that take root easily, making living fences that support wildlife diversity.

The header photo at the moment was taken in the afternoon light at the model farm owned and run by the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa.  The red brush is jarao (sp?), a pasture planted for cattle.  The farm isn’t being managed to it’s full potential, although I was impressed with many things; a beautifully designed silvopastoreo system with different pastures for cattle and madroño trees planted in curvas a nivel, some experimentation with dry rice, and a fairly substantial intercropped fruit orchard.  The cooperative recently began organizing trucks to bring members’ cattle to the slaughter house in Managua, allowing the members to earn the full price of the beef they raise instead of selling to a middle man.  The farm serves as a docking point, and needs to provide food for the cattle between the time the members deliver them and when the truck departs.  At the moment, the farm can sustain up to 40 cattle at a time, with plenty of pasture.

The rows of leguminous trees slow the harsh winds, fix nitrogen, and provide protein rich fruits for the cattle and firewood and fenceposts for the farm.

Last week we attended the presentation of a new project the cooperative is offering to 130 participants.  Typically Nica, the project has a lengthy title:  “Fortalecimiento de fincas y Organización, con sistemas de Producción y Administración diversificados y sostenibles.” That is, “Strengthening farms and Organization with diverse and sustainable systems of Production and Administration.”  The project offers each participant support in diversifying their farm in one of five areas:  beekeeping, field crops, fruit trees, vegetables, and coffee.  By offering so many choices each farmer can think carefully about which direction they would like to take their business in, and the project as a whole helps to diversify the whole region.

Brigido Sosa, the cooperative president, convinced me to get up and share some of my farming experience, and also represent the few women members present. Public speaking is an excellent way for me to feel terrible about my spanish ability - my nerves cause every error possible to surface!

I was impressed with the organization and the presentation, which began with a clear list of the “politics” or details of the project, and then the criteria that all the participants have to meet in order to participate.  In general, the project donates 50% of the value of the necessary investments for each diversification (fencing, irrigation, seeds, tree saplings, etc), and offers the other 50% as a loan to the farmer, with a 3 or 4 year term and the same interest as all loans the cooperative offers.  Some of the criteria the farmers need to meet are the willingness to invest labor, involve family members, market the produce, grow organically (certified honey and coffee, non certified grains, vegetables, and fruit), and have legal ownership of their land.

We spent the night before at the farm of cooperative member Don Antonio, an organic sesame farmer and beekeeper.

Additionally, the cooperative will organize monthly markets in the town promoting the organic produce, provide tecnicos and support for value added products such as honey-wine or fruit jams, and organizational assistance such as making sure the planting dates are staggered so the local market is not flooded by 40 farmers all harvesting their tomatoes at the same time.

It’s a thoughtful project, that asks a lot of the participating farmers but I think- based on only a year here- that it is realistic.  It’s one kind of incentive that can help individuals take the leap to try something new, while potentially improving the entire municipalities markets and diets.  Projects that offer the flexibility of each farmer to decide what he wants seem to be less common than ones like the reforestation project I spent the last year working on, where theoretically every recipient receives the same kind of fruit tree, or pasture, etc.  In the states, a project that arrives at your farm and tells you that you had been selected to participate in a project and now you have to give three acres of your land and labor to their project goals and crops might seem over authoritative in the US, but it’s the norm here.  People participate because they believe the organizations know better, or because of the resources that participation offers.  But I get more excited about projects like the new Path to Organic project in Pennsylvania: financing on an individual basis for farmers to take whatever crops they are interested in or currently experienced in and transition to organic production. The freedom of that and this project is appealing.

Maintaining diversity means balancing lots of pros and cons. Don Antonio lets his cows graze in his sesame fields after he harvests the sesame (the threshed stalks lie in heaps where they were dried and threshed). The compaction of the cows on the fields is less during the dry season, and they fertilize the fields and beat back the weeds.

Here is a gallery from the Christmas Eve celebrations in La Arinconada, El Sauce.

Rachel helping to pack the truck – backpacks, piñatas, extra candy, balloons, lots of vegetables, gifts for kids, baseball bag, and toys for the nursery school.

First stop: buy fireworks.  Apparently they are as important as ours are on New Years, lit off right at midnight on December 24.  Nicaraguans couldn’t celebrate anything without a little bang.  Purchased: sparklers, flares, and several “volcanoes” that spew sparks up six feet into the air.  My favorite oddities (plans for New Years are forming…): the mini Nicaraguan bull costumes the shoot sparks, and the “Laying Hens” that spew fireball eggs.

As we neared La Arinconada, we let off a few flares to announce our arrival.  A few minutes later we were met head on by a sprinting crew of chigüines, who delightedly rode on the tailgate for the last kilometer of the bumpy ride.

Melaña had everything prepared to make her famous stuffed chicken. She skins the chicken, carefully keeping the entire skin intact. It takes her about an hour for each chicken. Then she cooks the meat and mixes it with uncooked rice, vegetables, fresh herbs, and ketchup, worchestershire sauce, and mustard. The mixture gets stuffed right back into the chicken skins and they are sewn up like rag-hens.  As they roast, the rice expands and so when they came out they were all puffed up like fat little chickens.  An impressive and artistic culinary endeavor.  I loved it.

Brigido arrived and started singing with the kids.  We followed with some games – water balloon toss turned out to be a huge success.  After smashing the three piñatas and finding a light bulb and car battery to attach it to for some light, we finally we ready to start handing out gifts as the sun was setting.

Our Santa Claus, Gregorio, with a chigüine.

After the chaos of handing out presents to over 100 kids in the dark, and a looong dance party and a nap before setting fireworks off at midnight, we sat down to a very elegant Christmas dinner with Melaña and her family.  We all took turns slicing into the roast stuffed chickens, and toasted with some wine we brought from León with us.  Merry Christmas!

These are the lyrics to the Nina Simone song we sang on stage at the Achuapa festival.

These are the lyrics to the Nina Simone song we sang on stage at the Achuapa festival.

I wish I knew how it feels to be free

I wish I could break all the chains holding me

I wish I could say all the things I should say

Say them loud, say them clear, for the whole world to hear.

I wish I could share all the love in my heart

Remove all the bars that still keep us apart

I wish you could know what it means to be my

Than you´d see, and agree, every man should be free.

I wish I could give all I´m longing to give

I wish I could live how I´m longing to live

I  wish I could do all the things I can do

Though I´m way overdue, I´d be starting anew.

I wish I could be like a bird in the sky

How sweet it would be if I found I could fly!

I´d soar to the sun, and look down on the sea

Than I´d sing, cause I´d know how it feels to be FREE!

Dancers from UNAN León - look, hobby horses!

Dancers from UNAN León - look, hobby horses! Or are they hobby bulls?