“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” ― Masanobu Fukuoka
In Nagarote, the challenge remains ever present. The lack of accessing credit and technology, together with limited technical expertise, represent overwhelming challenges for local agricultural producers.
Nagarote’s eco-system is “tropical savannah” with a short five-month rainy season. The bioregion has been severely deforested, with what little remains being partially covered by deciduous forests. The average temperature ranges between 37 and 39 degrees Celsius (98.6-102F). The soils are heavy clay, which makes them unsuitable for most intensive agriculture and unfit for certain traditional food crops. These are some of the natural limitations farmers face year in and year out. Small farmers growing native crops for subsistence or for regional markets lack access to credit, technical assistance and appropriate technologies. Agricultural services and banks tailor their products to large industrial businesses. Small and medium farmers tend to concentrate their investment in one cash crop and lack the support needed to diversify, which would allow them to achieve greater economic stability.
The good news is that Nicaragua has many miles of arable land, sufficient water supplies, and a very favorable climate for growing food. Thanks to the Agrarian Land Reform, which followed the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979, Nicaragua’s land ownership is one of the best in Latin America. Thousands of families own land suitable for small-scale agriculture. Unfortunately, much of that land had been dedicated to mono-crop, export-oriented agriculture. For example, in the León region, the dominant export crop has been cotton. In 1991 when the cost of producing cotton exceeded the international market price, farmers were left with no markets for their crops. Hundreds of thousands of acres fell fallow, and thousands of farmers, field hands, and support businesses lost their incomes. Now sugar cane and peanuts are the established agribusiness exports in the region.
The rural population in Nagarote, estimated at approximately 14,000 people across 30 communities, practice mostly subsistence agriculture and cattle farming. To support these communities, SosteNica is implementing a group of programs through the EcoCenter. Rural families, their farms, and their communities are socially and economically interdependent. Our program targets model families in several comarcas (rural communities).
SosteNica has developed a group of programs that promote farm planning and production, diversification of economic activities, food security, microcredit and a gender development component, bringing integrated solutions to local problems. These programs address many social and economic problems indigenous to area. SosteNica’s program brings technical assistance through a team of professionals who promote and implement agro-ecological and sustainable techniques, such as soil and water conservation, crop selection, reforestation, planting and harvesting planning and others. The team works with each producer according to the farm’s unique limitations and potential.
Programs directed toward producers meet two primary needs: agricultural education and resources. The EcoCenter team has presented countless workshops on the techniques of sustainable agriculture including composting, soil conservation, water preservation, planting and care of trees, and nutritious cattle feed. The team also acts as an ‘extension service’ consulting with producers on crop selection, pest management, and problem resolution. The EcoCenter also acts as a source of agriculture supplies not readily accessible in Nagarote including plants, fencing and specialized seeds.
Importantly, the EcoCenter has recently initiated a set of programs which combine education with financing. Two examples are most noteworthy. Recent drought conditions and high rates of water extraction by industrial producers have caused significant problems for shallower agricultural wells operated by small producers. Manual perforation of these wells can significantly improve water flow, but most families cannot afford cost. The EcoCenter has made arrangements with a well-perforation company and is providing financing to the families in need of the service. A second example is the “mano-a-mano” program. Under this program, the EcoCenter provides plants and planting assistance with no up-front cost to the family, and then shares in the harvest revenue.
The EcoCenter also actively assists families in reaching markets for their produce and other goods. A “Campesino Mercadito” to be unveiled in Nagarote in 2016 has the objective of making local produce available in the center of ‘urban’ Nagarote while creating an outlet for producers who grow more than they consume. The team is also connecting local producers with other buyers in more distant urban centers. Lastly, the EcoCenter is investing with local families to develop value added agricultural goods for sale locally and elsewhere in Nicaragua.
The EcoCenter also works with young members of the Nagarote community. Through its School Gardens Program, the team is supporting six schools in the establishment and maintenance of vibrant vegetable and fruit gardens. These gardens later become an important source of nutrition for young farmers. program includes an education component that teaches about nutrition, plant science, and crop management.
“Teaching kids how to feed themselves and how to live in a community responsibly is the center of an education.” ― Alice Waters
Another component of SosteNica’s Rural Sustainable Develpoment Program views each family as both a social, as well as an economic unit. For that reason, our program includes a gender development component supported by microcredit, workshops in bio-intensive agriculture to enhance food security, waste management, family planning, sex education, and vocational education for campesino youth.
Our Technical Team is based in Nagarote and has significant and varied expertise. Leysman Mendez directs the EcoCenter. Eduardo Lacayo and Fanny Mercado guide our Agroecology extension work. Ricardo Cruz directs our Sustainable Affordable Housing Program and Becky Hervieux manages our delegation program. Leysman, Eduardo and Fanny are graduates from the Agro-ecology program at UNAN. Ricardo Cruz has a degree in Community Economic Development. Becky is a Cornell University trained agronomist. But none has ever stopped learning. Leysman, Ricardo and Becky have attended the agroecology training at Las Cañadas and have received training from the Biointensive center in Managua as well as from Tito Anton, one of the founders of the Agroecology program at UNAN.
WHAT IS AGROECOLOGY?
A whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences. Linking ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities
HOW DOES SOSTENICA INCORPORATE AGROECOLOGY INTO OUR WORK?
Since 2008 SosteNica has hosted top executives, credit officers, managers, and technical staff from our partner organization, CEPRODEL (The Center for Promotion of Local Development) to week-long workshops at Las Cañadas, an educational agroecology farm in Huatusco, Mexico. The workshops provide training in agroecology principles. SosteNica encourages CEPRODEL to incorporate those principles into the technical assistance offered with their rural loans and into our innovative Reforestation and Water Source Protection Project. Our Project embraces the principles of agroecology, and offers microcredit accompanied by workshops in topics such as alternative technologies, soil conservation, water catchment systems, and the production of organic fertilizers.
AGROECOLOGY AND ECO-TECHNOLOGY DEMONSTRATION AT THE ECOCENTER
The EcoCenter property, located in the center of Nagarote, houses our staff, provides a space for educational programs and overnight guests, and demonstrates a number of important techniques and technologies. The property behind the EcoCenter serves as a demonstration garden where new seeds are trialed and agroecology approaches are illustrated. It makes real the many possibilities available to small producers.
The EcoCenter building is constructed with adobe brick, a building material commonly used elsewhere in Nicaragua but out of fashion in the Leon-Nagarote-Managua area. Adobe bricks are sun-dried earthen blocks and have a much lower embedded energy than cement products or over-baked bricks. They are also more effective at maintaining a more comfortable interior temperature. The building demonstrated its durability when an earthquake struck the Nagarote-area soon after completion in 2014. The EcoCenter property also features four ecologically sustainable technologies:
- Wood fired cook stoves are no novelty in Nicaragua . For centuries, wood has been the preferred fuel for cooking tortillas and Nicaragua’s staple, “gallo pinto”. But wood has its disadvantages – most notably blackened lungs and country-wide deforestation. The innovation of SosteNica’s wood stove at the eco-center is its ability to use significantly less fuel wood, while safely piping the exhaust out of the home. At a recent workshop held at the EcoCenter, participants were so taken by the stove they insisted that, at the next workshop, food be prepared on it — and they signed up to do the cooking!
- A second eco-technology on display at the EcoCenter is a very low-tech grey water treatment system. A series of phosphate loving plants grow along one wall of the EcoCenter, very near the wash basin. Every time anyone washes their hands or a dirty plate, the sudsy runoff irrigates these hungry plant friends which, in return, supply us with oxygen and beauty without the unpleasant odor so often associated with untreated grey water.
- Unlike homes plumbed to the city sewer, the EcoCenter can take advantage of grey water, rather than mixing it with human waste, thanks to our demonstration composting toilet. The toilet uses a unique rim in the toilet bowl to separate some, but not all, of the urine from solids. The captured urine drains off into a 5-gallon bucket for later use as a foliar nitrogen fertilizer for plants in the garden. The rest of the liquid combines with carbonous matter such as sawdust and soil, as well as toilet paper and feces to be held in isolation for one year. During this time, bacteria and worms do their part to convert the nutrient rich mixture into healthy and safe fertilizer for the garden. A small chimney wicks any odors out of the collection chamber.
- Our fourth appropriate technology on display at the EcoCenter is a low cost rainwater catchment and drip irrigation system. Using only gravity, the system on display in the model garden captures 55 gallons of rainwater for every day of rain, ready for use on the next dry day. A drip tape connects directly to the drum by way of a tap. With one turn, the barrel is capable of watering several beds for several days. While this system, by itself, will not get a family through the dry season, it does demonstrate the utility and simplicity of capturing rainwater for use at a later date.
Each of these four technologies improves the quality of life of the user by making the home more self-sufficient. Using less fuel wood, when combined with a small wood lot, allows a family to control and meet their energy needs at a lower cost. The rainwater catchment, as well as the composting toilet, contributes to food security by providing the moisture and fertility needed to make a home garden possible. Finally, the grey water treatment system supports family health by dealing with otherwise unsanitary conditions breeding mosquitoes and contributing to soil contamination.