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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Indigenous Permaculture: Creating Space for Others in Our World

Shannon Francis
Instructor Shannon Francis facilitated a 3-day workshop about Indigenous permaculture and food sovereignty.

by Jamie Folsom, National Director

We’ve just concluded our first food sovereignty workshop at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Students participated in hands-on projects around the Solar Warrior Farm – renewed the compost bins, created a long-row of sheet mulching that will be a great home for seedlings next spring, and made some wonderful food to share. But meanwhile, we also talked about those bigger issues of community organizing, advocating on the national level across tribes, starting shared garden spaces in cities, and integrating solar technologies into the farm. These discussions were why we titled this event “More Than Food: An Indigenous Food Sovereignty Workshop.”

Students learned about food sov from growing to cooking local.
Students learned about food sovereignty from growing to cooking local, organic foods.

Shannon Francis (Hopi/Dineh) facilitated our three days together, walking us through not only contemporary permaculture, but permaculture that begins with the values and principles of our ancestors, brought forward to today’s world.

One lesson I took away from the workshop was how to create spaces that allow us to grow food we need for our families that also allow, welcome, make use of, and feed other animals and plants. Besides putting up fences to keep our food safe from larger animals, we can also create areas where animals – butterflies, turtles, rabbits, elk, etc. – are also fed and housed. We can take another look at “weeds” and see them as the medicines, the indicators of soil health, the food for us and others. They are related to us, and we are related to them.

Care for the land and the land will care for us.
Care for the land and the land will care for us.

This way of making a garden or farm comes directly from our traditions about thinking of others, sharing what we have, and providing for our community. I believe these values are the basis of the indigenous permaculture movement, and can take us from growing better food, to growing better relationships. Thank you, Shannon and all those who participated for bringing your knowledge and experience to this workshop!

Food for Thought: Food Security vs. Food Sovereignty

Solar Warrior Farm

by Jamie Folsom, National Director

Most of us know the story of teaching someone to fish. But the fight against hunger has shifted greatly in the last decade. We are telling a new story – a story about sharing skills and knowledge back and forth, respecting and valuing tradition, and recognizing a great opportunity when we see it.

The difference is in the language we use and what we mean when we say “sovereignty” versus “security.” When we hear “security” many of us think of a one-way interaction – I am giving food to you. It is the way government food subsidy programs have typically been designed, particularly in Tribal communities. The focus is often on access to food, no matter where that food came from or how it was produced.

Support Food Sovereignty on the Pine Ridge Reservation! VOTE for Solar Warrior Farm in the Gardens for Good contest.

Food sovereignty refers to people determining for themselves who, how and where food is produced for their families and communities. To do this, they must draw upon traditional strengths and ways of knowing, as well as integrate new technologies and new opportunities. This is powerful stuff not only for those communities, but for those who hope to help them.

This is no longer a one-way street, but a call to learn from young people, elders, warriors and mothers. Native people have been successfully producing, preparing, storing food in creative and effective ways for eons. Native people connect with that legacy, and so food sovereignty means more than just getting healthier food on the table. It is reclaiming traditions and teaching others because in the current era, we are all in jeopardy of losing control of the where-how-who of our basic food/water needs.

Trees, Water & People (TWP) fully supports the rights of Native communities to self-determination through food sovereignty. We changed the name of our program to reflect our commitment to the bigger picture and the realities of the families we work with. We’re not only giving or teaching people to fish, we are working together with them to find better ways to fish so we all benefit in the long run. Yakoke!

To learn more about TWP’s Food Sovereignty Program click here.