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?

IMG_0615

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.

IMG_0419

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.

IMG_0608

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. 

IMG_0604

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.

13051497_10207749893179297_1400200027782379244_n

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.

 

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.

sketch1.jpg

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

Familia Escoto and the workshop in Las Limas

Familia Escoto and the workshop in Las Limas

Almost two weeks in the countryside with SosteNica/CEPRODEL clients has passed quickly and smoothly.

The trainings concentrated on four topics: Soil conservation, organic fertilizers, organic pest control, and proper establishment and care of the trees. Most importantly, we emphasized the importance of sustainability, in respect specifically to chemical applications as well as to the larger picture of simply thinking long term. I made a personal discovery that trees are an excellent module for addressing the lack of long-term planning in Nicaraguan culture that I’ve written about here before. It’s difficult to stretch what very little resources you have and think about ten years from now when you don’t know where your meal tomorrow is coming from. But everyone understands that a tree grows slowly, and so the leap from understanding that the investment in trees ensures firewood and income in the future to also thinking about the relationship between chemical runoff and the quality of water in the future is more approachable.

Constructing an "Aparato A", a level to construct terrases and barriers to prevent soil erosion.

Constructing an "Aparato A", a level to construct terrases and barriers to prevent soil erosion.

I was particularly impressed with the participation in organic fertilizers. Everyone participated in making a compost pile, and one farmer commented to me afterward, “I’ve heard about this before, but I never would have done it without seeing first how to do it in real life.”

That’s the value in what the organizations who spend countless dollars and hours trekking out into the countryside do. The roads are often in terrible condition, and notorious mud-traps in the rainy season. On our way out to the community the first day of the trainings we slid sideways and found ourselves nicely jammed into a soft bank of mud, perpendicular to the road, with our back wheels elevated and completely blocking the road. After trying futilely to free the truck for nearly an hour using tree branches, 4 wheel drive, and pushing, a neighbor accomplished the task in minutes with his two oxen.  But seeing how studious, involved, and appreciative the farmers were made the tedious journey entirely worthwhile.

That wasn’t the only expected, or unexpected, challenge I encountered. I was prepared for no electricity, no running water, simple meals, and lots of mosquitos, and long conversations about my life in the states and the differences between our cultures. Given that life in the woods and outhouses aren’t entirely unfamiliar to me, and that I seek out that type of vacation in the states, I felt confident about adapting to life in the Nicaraguan countryside. All of the above proved true, and for me, completely enjoyable. What I wasn’t prepared for was a family so generous that they hunted iguanas and killed a sheep so that we would eat meat instead of just beans, in discovering that my mosquito net was more usefull in keeping the bat shit off my bed than protecting me from mosquitos, and that ants are a much more formidable insect than mosquitos (at least at a farm that has such an abundant bat population).

Presenting the participants in the community of Puerto Sandino with certificates of participation.

Presenting the participants in the community of Puerto Sandino with certificates of participation.

To sum up what I could talk about for hours – I have good reason to believe that the success of this project will be able to be measured not just in the survival of the trees we are bringing to these families, but also in the fact that they now have not just the knowledge but the desire as well to re-invest the nutrients available to them back into their pastures and gardens, to plan for years ahead, and will be talking about these concepts with their friends and families. And yes, I did eat iguana and help skin the sheep.