OK, I realize that the third word in the title doesn’t exist, and that the second one is a stretch.

The connection between high levels of biodiversity within an ecosystem and increased stability and resilience is fairly well understood. The more genetic diversity there is within the plant and animal communities, the more likely the overall population will withstand disturbances like famine, shifts in climate, or diseases. Does that theory of diversity hold true, for example, when looking at an organization’s approaches to raising the quality of life for rural communities? Or strengthening the economic stability of a region?

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At Efrain and Luz Maria Solis’s house, some serious retaining walls were built to capture soil eroding from yards up-slope. The 20ft x 3oft garden contains a mix of plantains, yucca, mint, squash, hibiscus, grasses for animal forage, and tomato and pepper seedlings. The biodiversity in these kitchen gardens helps to ensure that families will always have something to harvest, and no one kind of disease or pest will wipe their whole garden out.

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Two years ago farmer Jose Natividad Padilla planted ten acres of citrus trees. The EcoCentro worked with him to fill in the space between the young trees with plantains, canavalia beans, and squash and watermelon crops. Increasing the biodiversity of these larger fields not only increases their productivity and economic value, but will help to conserve water and protect the soil from erosion by establishing dense root structures.

The team at the EcoCentro believes it does. They are taking a super diverse approach to working with rural communities in Nagarote, Nicaragua. Workshops in companion planting and forest gardening encourage biodiversity, a handful of ecotechnologies like fuel-efficient stoves, rainwater catchment systems, and composting toilets help to conserve natural resources, and working with people who may only have 1/4 acre as well as with farmers who manage 25 acres of land makes it possible to have a significant impact within a community.

Theoretically, there are many arguments for community development organizations to have a diverse approach toward solving environmental and economic problems. No one solution will fit the many types of people in a community, and not all them experience the same problems. But what are the costs associated with tackling so many approaches at once? We spent some time over the last two weeks digging into the programs that the EcoCentro offers and trying to flesh out how they are connected, which activities support others, and what kinds of the benefits are reaped from different approaches.

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Veterinary student Juan Pablo disinfects a small wound in the leg of a calf at a one family’s house. Animals are an integral part of the rural family’s income and food security. In the past, the EcoCentro has heavily promoted the use of animal fertilizers in compost, and are now offering resources to help maintain the health of those animals as well. 

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EcoCentro team member Eduardo talks with Magali Solis about maintenance for her fuel-efficient stove. The Solis family harvest all their own wood from land they own outside the village. The new stove has saved Magali hours of time cutting and hauling firewood. 

We started with a simple graph of a multitude of programs – school and family gardens, a farmer’s market, co-investments in cash crops, agroecological extension services, ecotechnologies, and hosting voluntourism groups. As we began to discuss the interconnections between programs, different classifications of relationships began to emerge. We talked about liquid capital – the cash needed for agricultural investments or supplies to build a stove – and “corazon” capital – the “feel-good” social capital gained by supporting educational and community-strengthening activities like intercultural exchanges and school gardens. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of relying on certain programs to generate income, and the risks associated with them. The market leapt out as an “indicator” program – if it is going well and farmers are coming and selling things, then it means that the gardens and farms are doing well.

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Can you see all the hearts? Hint – they aren’t all red.

Hopefully this was the first of many ongoing visioning exercises the team will have on the programming structure. We didn’t come to any concrete decisions, but a few things jumped out. Many activities that support food security also have the potential to generate huge amounts of “corazon” capital (heart capital!), monitoring and tracking each program – both the costs and the measurable impact – will be super important going forward, and every program positively benefited at least one other one: a hopeful indicator that the biodiversity, technodiversity, and scaleversity of the EcoCentro’s work will increase the resilience of the both the EcoCentro and the communities who work with it.

 

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Wednesday I spent the morning on the back of a motorcycle driven by Fanny Mercado, a graduate of the UNAN Agroecology program who is working for SosteNica‘s EcoCentro and is in charge of helping six local schools create and take care of educational gardens.

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We hit some traffic along the route to Chilama.

When we conducted a survey at the end of a project promoting family gardens a few years ago, one of the most common reasons that crops failed was because children or pets destroyed them. Families here often live several generations in one house, with a small yard, and space to run around is also valuable! When we stopped by to check on the gardens, we always made sure to involve the youngest family members so they learned to understand and respect the plants. But not all kids have that opportunity at home – so school gardens are another place where they can learn to value gardening.

When Fanny visits the schools weekday mornings, a few students are selected to work with her each day so that they get to integrate into the work. Sometime if there is an activity that is appropriate for all the children, the teacher will invite Fanny into the classroom. When we arrived at each school, the kids were excited to see her, and clearly saw the opportunity to work in the garden as a prized experience.

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Fanny works with a group of students to start a compost pile in the corner of the school yard next to the garden. In this school, they are close enough to the urban center to have potable water (with water pressure!) from the city. 

The drought right now at the end of the dry season is very serious. Even though the students take on the chore of watering the gardens twice a day, the gardens in full sun have had very low germination rates. At some schools, there are only artisanal wells and no water pressure, so the children draw water by hand and walk it to the garden to water. Now is the time to start seeds in the shade – tomatoes, beets, peppers, onions – so that they can be transplanted in a few weeks when the rains start.

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Fanny starts the hard work of cranking the wheel to bring water up from the well to water the garden in Chilama. 

At the first garden we went to the importance of a fence became incredibly obvious. The elementary school in the village of Silvio Mayorga is in the middle of a group of houses. The barbed wire fences don’t keep the chickens from the surrounding families out of the schoolyard. Just outside the chain link fence surrounding the garden, the dirt was filled with the marks of chicken feet scratching and digging for bugs or sprouted seeds. Fanny told me that before there was a fence, they planted squash seeds in the garden. A few days later a neighbor’s pig escaped and spent a lovely evening digging himself a cool spot to spend the night in the damp soil of the garden. So this time they waited until the fence was built to plant any seeds.

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Radishes!

At the school in the village of Valle de Jesús a boy ran out to greet us. “What are we going to plant! I want to plant seeds!” But the fence there isn’t finished yet. A group of parents had come over the weekend and put posts up, but it wasn’t finished yet. He was disappointed, so before we left Fanny pulled out her seed packets and gave him a few watermelon seeds to plant at his house. Whether they sprout or not, it’s great to see such enthusiasm here for gardening.

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Two young sisters in Chilama carefully water the beds with a bowl to not disturb the sprouting seeds. The stand to the right will hold a tank of water to operate a small drip irrigation system.

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.

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

The end of the dry season is here, finally the heavy hot humid nights have a chance of breaking into real rain.  Two nights ago we fell asleep to such a pleasant soft rain – a gentle beginning to what we know will be months of torrential downpours and dramatic lightning storms.

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The dry season here is s o  d r y  that we had just about given up our back yard garden. We could keep a few pots of herbs in the courtyard, but watering behind the house became so time consuming and difficult to coordinate with all of our business trips up to the coffee region. The courtyard thrived, the ornamentals enjoying the pure sun, and we’ve enjoyed a few more heads of those heavenly little banano rosas.  Everything changed when we installed a drip irrigation system with a battery run timer in the back garden.  Amazing.  Irrigation is a life and farm changing technology here. I knew that theoretically, but now I have lived to see and feel the difference a good system can make in a gardeners life.  Finally we can have a green garden out back, with basil and eggplant and tomatoes and garlic and ginger. Drip irrigation systems do not, however, resolve the leaf-cutter ant and iguana pest problems, and they continue to devour anything that isn’t smelly or spiky.

espanta pajaroAlong with our little chicken coop and garden, we have managed to cultivate such a sweet relationship with our next door neighbors.  Luisito, who is five, is in charge of our chickens when we leave on a trip, and has done such a good job that he has been promoted to garden-waterer and protector-of-the-garden-against-iguanas. Which he usually does with his little rubber slingshot.  Although I haven’t witnessed a successful hunt, I often get long rambling accounts of which trees and holes the iguanas came out of while I was gone, and how many piedras Luis slung to scare them all away. When we left for the states for a short trip last month, Luis promised to be extra attentive.  The morning after we returned I glanced out the back and stopped, thinking someone was in our yard.  No, Luisito and his grandfather had built us a “scare-iguana” in the back bed!  Now we just need to figure out what a “scare-leaf-cutter-ants” looks like!

ginger sprout

Ginger is one of my favorite things. Period. To watch sprout, to grow, to grate, to eat, to drink.

 

On it's way to unfurling into an impressive 5 feet tall orange cactus flower.

On its way to unfurling into an impressive 5 feet tall orange cactus flower.

 

Sacuanjoche, the national flower

A Sacuanjoche tree, the national flower, unfurling new leaves

 

Gallon water bottles make excellent seed trays along the sunny wall in the courtyard.

Gallon water bottles cut in half make excellent seed trays along the sunny wall in the courtyard.

 

Last week we celebrated my birthday with lots of tropical flowers, fruits, and friends.

Last week we celebrated my birthday with lots of tropical flowers, fruits, and friends.

 

Here are some more quick, personal updates from our patio garden and mini-zoo.

We harvested the head of little bananas (bananito rosa) that was growing over the roof; I was worried it was leaning on the roofing and going to cook in the heat where it touched, and the bananas looked fat and plump.  I think we could have left it a tad longer, but we also wanted to eat them while Nick’s parents were here.  We’ve been waiting for two and a half years for that banana plant to give us a head!!  The plantain trees the project I worked with nearby sprouted a head every eight months, so now I understand one reason why these little bananitos are more expensive in the markets.  What our plant lost in speed it made up for in quantity – there were over 125 bananitos on the head!

(Bananas and plantains have heads, hands, and fingers: the whole stalk of fruit is the head, each double row of bananas is a hand, and each individual fruit is refered to as a finger).

It’s best to harvest a head right before it starts to ripen, because otherwise birds and hungry pests attach feverishly.  So we hung the head up in our patio to ripen.  Every morning we examined the top fruit looking for yellow blush.  When the first turned yellow, we picked them too soon but grudgingly swallowed the starchy not-very sweet bites because they were just so valuable.  When after a week the head ripened – like a living firework, spreading downward – it caught us off guard.  Within two days the entire head ripened to soft super sweet bananas and then blackened and they began falling off by themselves.  Begin: banana eating marathon.  Bananas on cereal in the morning, bananas for dessert after lunch, banano con leche in the afternoon, banana cake after dinner, bananas for all the neighbors!  Everyone enjoyed the banana binge, and hopefully we won’t have to wait two and half years for the next of the six teenage plants we have to sprout a head.

Katharine, Nick’s mother, did some beautiful paintings during their month-long visit, inspired by our patio container garden and the bright red cock’s comb that are blooming now.  Most of our plants began as cuttings urped from someone elses garden or seeds I picked up someone on my adventures.  The cock’s comb were taken as seeds from some flowers I bought on the day of the dead (November 2).  It’s a flower that is used traditionally to decorate gravestones.

The flower grows like a giant tumor, starting small and then growing riplier and curlier, and the seeds actually mature at the base of the flower and begin to fall out while it is still blooming, so they are very easy to collect.  These are the second generation I’ve planted here.

At the end of her visit, Katharine decided to give one of her paintings of Arsen (el gato) and our plants to Maria Jose, a good friend who helps us around the house and is the life of the party at all of our gatherings, for her birthday.

Have you ever known a monogamous cat?  Arsen has now had two sets of kittens with the same tortoise-shell gata from next door, and is so affectionate!  He calls her over when we put food out, and they lie around together on the cool patio in the evening.  She was initially very shy with us but is getting bolder, and now comes over and now asks for food directly!  We don’t feed her unless Arsen is asking too.  We just found out that he also hangs out over at the neighbors.  He has never brought any other cats in to our house, only her!  They always greet each other with nose bumps and tail sniffing.  This morning I caught them smooching on the wall behind the bananas.  

We have one broody hen right now who is sitting on eight green eggs, due to hatch three days before Easter.  The most common green-egg breeds in the states are Aracauna and Americauna, but I think probably all of what we have would be called “Easter Eggers”, or mixed breed unknown heritage chickens that lay beautiful eggs.  One little girl who lays green eggs laid an enormous double yolker.  Smallest chicken we have, biggest egg I’ve ever seen!  I’ll never get bored of all the colored eggs we get, and have ridiculous numbers of pictures of them.

We had a chicken health adventure this past weekend.  One blond lady was down in the soil panting, sitting in her own poo, and wouldn’t get up or even move.  She’s done this before – one time I was there and hand fed her some water, carried her over to the water feeder, and she perked up.  Another time Melania was house sitting and said she gave it a baby amoxicillin in water and said it got better.  This time she looked pretty bad, and to make matters worse had a wound on her back from the rooster trying to mount her while she was down, so I decided to do some research.  After consulting the omniscient internet, I did the following:

– isolated her from the rest of the flock in our patio, in a makeshift cage made of chairs on their sides.

– narrowed the symptoms down to two probable causes: egg bind (stuck egg) or blocked crop (food stuck in her digestive system).  I felt around her chest and abdomen for signs of either, and decided it was blocked crop.  She had a large lump in her chest about the size of a small peach that was hard and lumpy (like pebbles packed together with clay).

– with the help of Nick, we gave her a 1/4 teaspoon of virgin sesame oil with a tiny bit of powder from an amoxicillin capsule every six hours to lubricate her system.  I kept feeding her lots of water, and giving her crop a little massage every twenty minutes to help move things along.

– overnight, some major sticky dry poos and now she’s standing up for the first time!  Seems to have worked.  Some hydrogen peroxide on the wounds on her back, and I think after another day of cooked rice she might be ready to go back to the flock.  success (we hope!)