Promoting Rural Resilience: Lessons from Cuba

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

For many folks, Thanksgiving conjures up images of abundance and family, a smorgasbord of food laid out on the dinner table with smiling faces and conversations ranging from the day’s football matches to work or politics.

For Sebastian Africano and myself, the week of Thanksgiving involved a different perspective: learning about the challenges of food production and security in Cuba. Since the embargo was put into place in 1962, Cuban agricultural authorities have developed multiple strategies to sustain its population. Urban horticulture and permaculture have been built within the larger infrastructure of the socialist food production system. However, Cuba still faces serious food security issues.

The World Food Programme estimates that the island currently imports up to 70-80% of its food, meaning that only 20-30% of Cuba’s food is produced in-country. The pressure to grow more food locally will only continue to increase as the lucrative and fast-growing tourism market explodes in Cuba (eloquently discussed in a recent NYT article). The question remains: How will Cuba meet the increasing food demands from the tourist market?

Cuban plant nursery
In just over two years, this start-up nursery is now producing over 200,000 plants per year.

The primary purpose of our trip was to try to learn more about the opportunities for “agritourism” in Cuba. Agritourism is a type of tourism that brings visitors to a farm or ranch, to enjoy the rural setting, and to be educated on the food system and/or culture. In particular, we noticed that the Cienfuegos and Cumanayagua regions of Cuba, were excellent sites for agritourism due to the intriguing mix of cultural and musical efforts that are combining to preserve rural, Campesino culture, all while maintaining the foundations of sustainable agriculture in the region.

Some of the places we visited included the Universidad de Cumanayagua, Teatro Los Elementos, and the music group Kfé Mezclado, which is located at the base of a large mountain range in prime coffee country. Music and art are the lifeblood of Cuba in many ways, and these groups promote a uniquely authentic experience that is a gateway to the essence and soul of the country. At TWP, we strive to create authentic travel opportunities for intercambios, or exchanges, between our U.S. supporters, and our Latin American partners in Central America and the Caribbean, all working in the same vein for a healthy environment and human well-being. As we begin to build partnerships and travel opportunities within Cuba, we hope to convey the importance of sustainable travel, so that many people can enjoy Cuba’s unique offerings and livelihoods for years to come.

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Lucas Wolf, TWP assistant international director, surveying yuca plants on a demonstration farm outside of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

The Cubans are eager to show the world their beautiful country and their ingenuity and thirst for innovation and knowledge. There is a warmth and genuine human spirit that seeps through in any conversation on the street or at the farm with the Cubans. Despite the transitional moment and the challenges inherent, particularly after the death of Fidel Castro and before the start of renewed uncertainty with a new Administration in Washington, we seek to create a broader horizontal dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba focused on education and innovation for all involved. Through it all, we at TWP strive to promote and advance the skill sets and toolboxes that build broader rural resilience, an ability to adapt to and mitigate climate change, and continue to further education processes, for local beneficiaries, for tour participants and for ourselves as an organization. Cuba, and its land and people have a great deal to offer when it comes to teaching in these areas, and we at TWP are hungry to learn.

If you would like to support TWP’s work to promote and advance the skill sets and toolboxes that build broader rural resilience, please donate today!

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Volunteer Voices: Working on the Solar Warrior Farm and Loving Every Bit!

by Patrick Hall, TWP’s Solar Warrior Farm Intern 
What an exciting season it’s been! The farm seems to have a life of its own. I’ve been surrounded by farming my whole life, I’ve seen bits and pieces throughout the seasons, and I’ve studied a little and talked about it with friends, but I haven’t actually done farming myself. So in a way, this has been a very new and experimental opportunity for me. I’ve grown and learned so much just by listening to the winds and watching nature.

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The Solar Warrior Farm is thriving despite some setbacks earlier in the season, thanks to the hard work of Patrick Hall!

One difficulty I had early in the season was that the truck we use for hauling things and making store runs broke down, so I’ve been unable to get a lot of the supplies that I would like. However, that allowed me to focus on what I DO have and how I can utilize those things to reach my end goal. This season’s theme has been success and failure. Two steps forward, one step back. We started off with a late frost killing ALL of the transplants. Ouch. But with determination, we grew enough seedlings and talked to enough organizations in Fort Collins, CO to resupply.

However, I had never worked with irrigation before. So during this lag time between extermination and revitalization, I began experimenting and learning. Even after the plants came into the ground, I was still puzzled about certain aspects of irrigation. I still play around with it, trying to maximize the amount of water the plants are getting, only to realize I need a lot more emitters. So I bought some more — they were the wrong type. So I bought some others from somewhere else — they didn’t work. And we were buying hundreds at a time, so I really hope I can get some emitters that do WORK because these plants need more water!

Patrick (left) the intern with volunteer
Patrick Hall (left) works with volunteers to produce local food on the Solar Warrior Farm on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Something I truly appreciate is the magic of this place. Listening to stories of the elders, reading books written by medicine men, visiting sacred sites and hearing the spirits’ call, this has been a beautiful place to reside. I’ve left the farm a few times to go to a sweat lodge or go hiking with a friend, but for the most part, I’ve been staying right here. We even had a local mama turtle lay her eggs in one of the garden beds! Good turtle medicine, showing signs of fortitude and persistence, which was really helpful for me at the time. Tankashila (Grandfather Spirit) blesses me with what is needed, not just what I want. I’ve had a friendly face show up just as I begin to get lonely; a volunteer engineer shows up on the day that I was determined to put together the irrigation system and much more.

Trees, Water & People is a unique nonprofit working to find solutions to some major issues on the Pine Ridge Reservation. If you like the work they’re doing, show it by supporting projects like the Solar Warrior Farm.

 

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Spring has Sprung with 15,000 Trees!

by Molly Geppert, Marketing Manager

After a long winter, we at Trees, Water & People (TWP) are excited to begin the planting season on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. This morning, we happily bid farewell to 15,000 Ponderosa Pine seedlings provided by the Colorado State Forest Service Nursery. These trees will help reforest areas burned by wildfires on Pine Ridge.

Planting the Ponderosas will sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases, improve air and water quality, reduce soil erosion, reestablish wildlife habitat, and enhance ecosystem resiliency, while engaging Native Americans in the protection of their lands. One thousand of the seedlings were sent with special well wishes written on gardening stakes by the Earth Day patrons from TWP’s recent Earth Day event in Colorado with New Belgium Brewery and Topo Designs. The collaboration was a huge success and a whole lot of fun!

 

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Earth Day patrons wrote well wishes on garden stakes to be planted with their donated trees at New Belgium Brewery.

In addition to the trees, 1,000 veggie starters are also making the trip to South Dakota. The plants are destined for Solar Warrior Farm, an educational demonstration garden located at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Solar Warrior Farm produces native and traditional foods such as, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, corn, melons, peppers, carrots, and a variety of berries, all of which are harvested and distributed to local Lakota families.

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15,000 Ponderosa Pines and 1,000 veggie starters safely stowed for the trip to Pine Ridge.

Helping us plant all these trees and veggies is long-time supporter, Rob Beheady of BeHeady.com. Rob has been raising funds to plant trees with TWP for many years through the sale of his beautiful steel drums. We are so grateful to have his help and support!

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Sending off the trees with the well wishes from the Colorado Earth Day event. (Pictured from left to right: Richard Fox, Amanda Haggerty, Molly Geppert, and Rob Beheady)

If you would like to help us plant trees on the Pine Ridge Reservation, please make a donation to our Tribal Reforestation program.

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Volunteer Voices: A Bittersweet Trip to Pine Ridge

by Gemara Gifford, TWP Intern and CSU Alum

Those of us who work in sustainable development and conservation know all too well the roller coaster of “inspiration highs” and “heartbreak lows” that go along with this line of work. Working from an office is one thing, but working directly with the communities we are supporting is another. I am so grateful to have had the chance to visit Pine Ridge Reservation as a part of my internship with Trees, Water & People. As hard as it was to see the striking overlap between rural farmers in Guatemala, and Lakota families in South Dakota, it is incredibly important to recognize how these stories weave together.

“For me, it was difficult to see and hear about the state of people’s living conditions on the reservation, and their own personal struggles. Though, I also saw hope in the people we met who take pride in their culture and are excited to share it with others.” – Julia Matteucci, CSU Freshman

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Building a house for a Lakota family using sustainable Compressed Earth Blocks (CEB) from local materials on Pine Ridge. Photo by Vanesa Blanco Lopez

I wasn’t alone on this roller coaster ride, however – nine enthusiastic Colorado State University (CSU) students participated in a week-long service learning trip as a part of their Alternative Spring Break. In fact, the TWP-Pine Ridge-CSU partnership has been in existence for over 10 years! During our week, we worked alongside Henry and Gloria Red Cloud and Lakota community members on a variety of service projects. On our first day, we prepared the Solar Warrior Farm for planting, an initiative that feeds hundreds of people each season who usually only have access to over-priced-and-processed foods found at the only grocery store in town. When I learned that over 60% of people in Pine Ridge suffer from diabetes and other diet-related illnesses, I realized first-hand how important food sovereignty initiatives are and have been within the Lakota Nation.

“By working on the farm, we were setting a foundation for Henry to feed people on the reservation and help educate people on how to grow healthy food and find a sustainable way to feed themselves.” – Amy Borngrebe, CSU Junior

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CSU Alternative Break students and TWP intern, Gem (far left) at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC). Photo by Gemara Gifford

Among the cross-cultural experiences we had, such as meeting a storyteller, visiting Wounded Knee Massacre, and participating in a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, we engaged in meaningful reflections each night at the Sacred Earth Lodge, and embraced the ups and downs of visiting Pine Ridge. After a week of bonding with new friends, and experiencing a forgotten culture so close to home, we promised to return one day.

If you would like to donate your time and volunteer with Trees, Water & People, please email Molly Geppert at molly@treeswaterpeople.org to see what opportunities we have available. If you’re short on time and can’t make a trip to Pine Ridge, please consider making a donation.

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Notes from the Field: A New Growing Season at Solar Warrior Farm

Solar Warrior Farm volunteer
We love our volunteers!

Not even a Mother’s Day snow storm could hold back the early plantings at the Solar Warrior Farm (SWF) and Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Hardy cabbages survived and are ready to greet the next sets as they arrive. May is a funny month in Zone 4, but many of the gardeners on the Pine Ridge Reservation are happy to see the last frost behind them and they are ready to start more of those early crops of spinach, cabbage, carrots, radishes and raspberries.

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Anna and Caroline share gardening stories in the sun.

We were lucky enough to have a visit from Lakota elder and seasoned garden expert Caroline Cuny. She helped us welcome our new Solar Warrior Farm Coordinator for the season – Anna Dunlap, a student from Berea College in Kentucky. A lifetime organic gardener, Anna still had many questions about what works best in the particular microclimates on Pine Ridge. It really takes knowledge and experience to sense what the season might be like this year, and we are very thankful that Ms. Cuny could spend a day, have some lunch and share her time and talents with our crew.

And about those other tasks… The SWF needed some TLC. The beds are tilled, the plantings mapped out and visions of big, juicy tomatoes danced in our heads, as we mucked out the solar powered water tank, weeded the cabbages and cleaned out a space for work tables and starters in the greenhouse. Thanks to Uma Black Hawk-Wilkinson from the Cheyenne River community for helping with those efforts.

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It just seems when help is needed, people show up. Trees, Water & People likes to be able to show up for others as well. In 2014, we plan on sharing more veggies and sharing knowledge through more workshops on gardening – focusing on traditional Lakota recipes and healthy eating. Gardening is a perfect time to bring young people and elders together, and helps keep Native communities strong.

We hope you will donate to this important project and consider visiting RCREC and Solar Warrior Farm in 2014. Stay tuned and watch us grow!

Notes from the Field: Always plant extra for the animals!

by Jamie Folsom, National Director

(L to R: Jamie Folsom, Caroline Cuny, Henry Red Cloud, and Ivan Looking Horse)
Sharing knowledge about gardening with Lakota elders. (L to R: Jamie Folsom, Caroline Cuny, Henry Red Cloud, and Ivan Looking Horse)

Sometimes the best lessons come in very short stories, especially in the middle of a very busy work day.

The busy work day was during my recent trip to Pine Ridge with a group of volunteers – mixing mud, plastering, gathering clay and hauling it back to the worksite – all to repair one of the demonstration straw bale houses at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.  We were very lucky to have Henry take a break from his work to spend a few minutes sharing his ideas and advice over some fresh tea.

Talking about the Solar Warrior Farm project, he said they always plant more than they need. He described watching the rabbits, horses, deer and other animals munching away in the garden with a certain fondness and joy. Not the most typical attitude toward animals in the garden (think Farmer McGregor and poor Peter Rabbit).

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Hailey, a Lakota teenager, works on mudding the straw bale home at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.

But then he said, “It’s OK for them to eat food that’s right there in their house. That’s still their house even if it’s part my house, too. I know if I went in my house and saw free food, I’d eat it, you know? So, I always plant extra food for the animals!”

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Thank you Henry for sharing what you do and what you have with others around you, and helping remind me of how we can do this every day in our homes, our relationships and our work.  Yakoke!

Notes from the Field: Bountiful Harvests and Finishing Touches

by Teague Walsh-Felz, Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center Intern

Sacred Earth Lodge

We are in the countdown phase of finishing the Sacred Earth Lodge. In just the few months that I’ve been working with Trees, Water & People and Lakota Solar Enterprises the building has completely transformed. The walls are up, the furniture is in and now we are only making the finishing touches to what will be an amazing center for learning and growth. Since my last update I’ve been busy with both the garden and the Lodge. Both are coming together amazingly.

Pine Ridge vegetable giveawayBecause I am the Garden Coordinator, I guess I’ll start with the changes at Solar Warrior Farm. It’s still producing more than 100 pounds of cucumber a week. Last week I set up a free giveaway in front of the Tribal Office in downtown Pine Ridge. I had a lot of conversations with many different people about growing food and introduced quite a few to lemon cucumbers. Along with another giveaway earlier in the week, we handed out roughly 150 to 200 pounds of produce in one week.

The peppers have started to harvest and the corn is coming down in the next two weeks. Some of the corn is infected with corn smut. It is considered a disease throughout most of the United States but is eaten as a delicacy throughout Central America. I’ll have to try it. The squash is continuing to give a bountiful harvest and the tomatoes continue to be delicious and colorful. I recently transplanted some kale into a nice raised bed and I am crossing my fingers the first frost will not arrive too early.

Teague at Sacred Earth LodgeWe just put up the ceiling for the Sacred Earth Lodge. It was the biggest tarp I’ve ever seen and it really ties the entire building together. Lots of long days and a bit of blood and sweat have really created something amazing. We are putting the finishing touches on the lodge. I was on the roof painting another layer of sealant with Jeff as the septic tank was being delivered. The trees that were planted just a few weeks ago are staying healthy, and the plumbing is being hooked up. I’m looking forward to the opening, and the next projects that are already being planned.