TWP in Cuba – Life after Fidel

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

30 November 2016

On November 25th, 2016, I was sitting on a farm outside of Cienfuegos, Cuba, drinking strong coffee under a tree and talking about Latin America’s past, present, and future with the directors of a rural theater company. Like many conversations here go, we compared other countries in the region, their trajectories, their hallmarks, and their deficiencies. Among the stories told was that of a friend of one of those at the table who had returned to Cuba almost 37 years after leaving as a political dissident, after having vowed not to return until Fidel Castro died. He had given up and decided that his love for the country was greater than his fear of what its government might do to him. Waiting for Fidel to die, I thought… and I said to the table, “so many people have been waiting for that moment.”

Later that night, I woke randomly at 3:57am EST, restless, and listened to people boisterously rolling out of a nearby nightclub. I couldn’t sleep – likely due to the late afternoon coffee – and decided to flip on the television in my room to see what the State was broadcasting at that time of night. All channels were static, except for two identical ones on which credits were rolling from a program that was ending. As soon as these ended, a newsflash came on with a visibly uncomfortable female newscaster sitting next to a photo of Fidel Castro. The audio was jammed, but my heart jumped at what I thought she might be saying. I flipped to the other station, where I heard for the first time that Fidel Castro had died. Immediately I jumped out of bed to see Raul Castro come on screen and repeat the news: “…hoy, 25 de Noviembre del 2016, a las 10:29 horas de la noche, falleció el Comandante en Jefe de la Revolución Cubana, Fidel Castro Ruz.” I immediately ran out into the courtyard to wake my colleague Lucas Wolf to share what I had just heard.

At 5:00am on November 26th, I could still hear people on the street who had clearly heard the news, and my mind raced at the significance of being in Cuba at this moment in history. The sun was an hour from coming up, and my first thoughts are how to get to Havana to bear witness to what would likely be one of the biggest public manifestations in this country’s history. I can only smile at the irony that earlier that same evening I realized that November 25th was the biggest embodiment of consumer culture in the capitalist world – Black Friday. It was as if one final ideological barb had been thrown at Cuba in an almost century-long battle for the soul of the hemisphere. Just like that, the world turned, and one of the most colossal and polemic figures in history was gone.

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The Cuban flag and the 26th of July Movement flag, which marks Fidel’s first rallying cry against the Batista government in 1953, fly high in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Several days later, now back in the U.S., I ponder the subtlety with which the country took Fidel’s passing. Flags fly at half-mast still today, and houses throughout Cienfuegos, and surely the country had both the Cuban flag and the 26th of July Movement flag draped on their windows and doors. During nine days of mourning, all cultural events and live entertainment had ceased, music in taxis was silenced, and alcohol sales were prohibited (mostly), leaving the city in a pleasant, meditative calm. But apart from the odd conversation on the street, people were relatively mum about the event unless we brought it up first, which generally led to a rich, reflective exchange.

We bagged our plans of traveling to Havana from Cienfuegos to avoid the throngs of Cubans and dozens of dignitaries from around the world that flew into Havana on Monday and Tuesday for funeral services. Mourners queued for hours in central plazas across the country to pay homage to their fallen leader, and to show their commitment to the “revolutionary values” listed in Fidel’s May 1, 2000 speech to the country. We walked to Cienfuegos’ main square in awe of the thousands of people with flowers in hand, waiting for their turn to sign Fidel’s funeral registers. For every person cheering in Miami’s streets on Friday night, there were thousands in Cuba showing, at the very least, respect for what they considered Fidel represented.  Fall where you may on the political spectrum, the impacts of Fidel’s ideological intransigence will be debated for centuries, as will the steps taken in the months and years after his death.

Paying respects to Castro in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Masses of Cuban people line up to pay their respects to fallen leader Fidel Castro in downtown Cienfuegos, Cuba

The mark Fidel Castro left on history is an unhealable wound for some, and for others a badge of honor, a national identity, and a living example of an alternate path. The Cuba I know is a place where people are cultured, talented, peaceful, loving, forward-thinking, and tough as nails. They have been through and sacrificed much to build a society and country of which most are proud, while openly recognizing its shortcomings. As Cuba crosses the chasm into a post-Castro mixed economy and an age of unprecedented information access, we have the choice of either continuing to isolate Cubans behind an artificial wall of outdated political fervor, or to lend them every bit of support we can to help protect the gains they have made while contributing to a more positive, prosperous, and inclusive future.

This is a future that I believe in, and one I hope you’ll support as Trees, Water & People extends its hands to some of the most remarkable people in the hemisphere.

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Notes from the Field: Summer Update from Tribal Lands

Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE) and Trees, Water & People (TWP) are continuing our efforts to help Native American communities move towards energy independence. This week we are conducting a solar air heater workshop and installing ten solar air heating systems for the Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe in northeast South Dakota. The training is teaching twelve tribal members about the uses of solar energy and how to install the energy saving solar heating systems. These solar heaters push the number of total systems the LSE/TWP team has built and installed for tribal families to more than 1,000 systems. Additionally, the vast majority of these systems made at the LSE manufacturing facility at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

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Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe members installing a solar air heater during a training with Lakota Solar Enterprises and Trees, Water & People.

 

It is also the first major installation of our new Off-Grid Solar Heaters, which now operate solely on solar power! Heat is provided even if the grid goes off, as it is apt to do all across Native American Reservations. After this training is completed, the tribe has discussed getting 21 more systems and will use their trained workforce to get them installed.

Next, LSE will be taking down the old defunct wind turbine tower at the Kili Radio Station on Pine Ridge. Friends will install a new 10 kW Bergey wind turbine there in September, and a bit later Henry and the LSE crew will install another 6 kW solar electric array. A few years ago LSE installed a 5 kW solar electric array there, as well as one of their solar air heaters. Together, this should reduce the Radio stationed huge electric and heating bills by more than half.

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Henry Red Cloud (left) leads a solar panel installation training at the Kili Radio Station in 2013.

Training and demonstrations like these are possible because of you, our supporters! Your contribution helps build job skills for Native Americans while also reducing CO2 emissions. Please donate today to keep programs like these going into the future.

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Notes from the Field: BioNica Workshop on Best Agroecology Practices for Dry Areas

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

The agricultural extension training center at the National Agrarian University, just outside of Tipitapa, was the setting for an important workshop last week: Agroecological Best Practices for Dry Areas. With an invitation in hand, I attended at the behest of our friends at BioNica and the Association for Regional Development of Agroecology (ADAR). Campesinos (farmers) and workers arrived from all over Nicaragua to take part in this two-day workshop on biointensive and agroecological approaches to soil conservation and management, and rainwater harvest and storage. With El Niño´s drought impacts continuing to complicate and challenge rural livelihoods up and down Central America´s dry corridor, the timing of the workshop was ideal.

One of the presenters, Gustavo of Mastape, discussed some of the improvements and innovations in rainwater harvesting technology that he has applied to his own finca (farm). The presentation included historical and anthropological examples of rainwater harvesting from the Romans, highland communities in Yemen, and the Mayans. An updated version of a famous Mayan invention, the Chultun, a cistern that is buried underground to provide either irrigation or drinking water in times of drought, exists on his finca.

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Lucas Wolf of TWP, along with his classmates, learning about utilizing rainwater for growing crops.

However, the cisterns can be costly to construct and install. Luckily we had a knowledgeable presenter, Carlos Rodriguez, who works with a local campesino organization. He led two different groups in the construction of a much more affordable small water tank that can save water for use during the dry season. Water storage and rainwater harvesting are critical survival and adaptation methods for campesinos in the dry regions. In addition to the storage tank, participants learned about the intricacies and advantages of drip irrigation systems.

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Workshop participants learn how to build and inexpensive cistern.

ADAR, the Association for Regional Development of Agroecology, is an organization that complements BioNica´s objectives and activities of increasing the scope and reach of biointensive agricultural classes and workshops for campesinos and organizations in Nicaragua.

In total, over 40 farmers took part in this workshop. Through participation in these events and collaboration with these organizations, we are building upon our base of potential strategic partners for the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate (NICFEC), while also honing possible ideas and concepts for our own workshops and activities in the La Paz Centro region.

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Class is in session!

Please consider a donation to Trees, Water & People to create educational workshops, such as this one, for the new NICFEC!

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Notes from the Field: Putting Down Roots in El Salvador

Llenado de bolsa y ordenado en su respectiva era

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

January through April is typically the dry season in Central America, and the time that we ramp up our tree nursery activities to prepare seedlings for the arrival of the all-important May rains.  Our partners at Àrboles y Agua para el Pueblo (AAP) in El Salvador have stuck to this cycle for almost two decades, helping to grow and plant for than 664,000 trees.

This week, the AAP team is in the process of prepping 40,000 bags of soil and collecting seeds from over 20 tree species for our 2016 reforestation work. Some of the species we will plant in 2016 are Cedro salvadoreño, Memble, Jacaranda, Chaquirrio, Eucalipto, Cortéz negro, Marañón japones, Naranjo, Cacao, and Balsamo.

What’s different about this year’s operation is the nursery’s new location, a plot of land purchased and owned by AAP, located in El Porvenir, El Salvador. The land was bought at the end of 2015 after renting small plots of land since 2003. This is a game changer!

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Don Jorge has been an integral part of the AAP team since 2007.

The idea of owning a piece of land has been a dream for AAP’s Executive Director, Armando Hernandez Juarez, for as long as he has been working for the organization. With a permanent site to develop, we are now able to invest the time and energy necessary into outfitting the site with a more permanent and definitive presence and identity.  As the nursery infrastructure is time sensitive, we are focusing on that first – leveling the land, propping up locally harvested bamboo posts, and hanging the recycled shade cloth that our Nursery Manager, Don Jorge Ochoa, cares for so dutifully year after year.

Instalación de Zarán en el nuevo Vivero

Deforestation is one of the most serious environmental problems facing El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. Logging, agriculture, and the use of fuelwood for cooking has led to increased risk of erosion and mudslides, which have claimed thousands of lives in recent years. In addition, poor land management, soil erosion, and shifting weather patterns have left much of the countryside unsuitable for cultivating food.

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Community members are an important part of our reforestation efforts in El Salvador, helping to plant and care for trees.

Our reforestation work has never been more critical in El Salvador, and AAP is on the front lines, working tirelessly to restore the country’s watersheds, forests, and soil health, giving hope to rural farmers and their families. The next steps are where we could use your help, as we are looking to invest in irrigation equipment, new tools, and a proper storage shed. If you would like to support our reforestation efforts in El Salvador, please visit www.treeswaterpeople.org to make a donation or email Sebastian Africano, TWP’s International Director, at Sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org to learn more.

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Notes from the Field: La Finca Humana

soil and life

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

In rural Honduras, two consecutive years of agricultural hardship have driven vulnerable rural communities to the brink of insolvency. As crop yields and income drop due to volatile weather patterns and a coffee disease that wiped out half of Central America’s 2014 harvest, proponents of conventional agriculture prescribe more chemical inputs, genetically modified seeds, and machinery. None of the above are feasible or sustainable options for poor rural families who can scarcely feed their families.

This year, the rains that irrigate corn and beans have been delayed again, and news reports claim that millions are in danger of food shortages – the time is now to shift the agricultural paradigm.

Trees, Water & People and our partners propose a different path forward: agroforestry, crop diversification, soil remediation, and farmer-to-farmer education. Working with Centro Educativo de Agricultura Sostenible (CEASO), we will support the following work in 2016 and 2017:

  • Agroforestry training curriculum comprised of seven modules to 200 farmers in 10 communities in the Department of Comayagua, Honduras, over a two year period. Coursework will be offered at community centers and at participants’ farms.
  • Between modules, each group will visit local farms that have implemented the Finca Humana approach, including CEASO’s demonstration center and campus, to observe mature agroforestry systems and test several appropriate rural technologies.
  • Establish tree nurseries in each of the 10 communities, where tree species (avocado, mango, citrus, guanábana, bananas, papaya, fuel trees, and native hardwoods) will be raised for integration into the agricultural landscapes of the trainees.

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CEASO refers to their holistic development approach as La Finca Humana, roughly translated as “The Human Estate.” This approach puts family at the center of a successful farm and helps build resilience in every aspect of a rural family’s life, including food production, agroforestry (integrating trees into agricultural systems), waste management, pest management, water storage, soil quality, animal husbandry, energy use, agricultural economics, and gender equity.

In a region that is extremely vulnerable to climate change, La Finca Humana gives farmers and their families the tools and knowledge needed to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Families should not only survive, but thrive. We hope you will join us in supporting the important work of CEASO and the communities they support. To learn more please contact Sebastian Africano, TWP’s International Director, at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org.

Notes from the Field: Partnering for Sustainable Agriculture in Honduras

Honduran boys

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant National Director

In the small community of El Socorro, located just ten minutes north of Siguatepeque, Honduras, there is an impressive institution focused on sustainable agriculture. The Center for Teaching and Learning of Sustainable Agriculture (Centro Educativo de Agricultura Sostenible – CEASO) is a critical organization working to build local and regional consciousness.

Trees, Water & People (TWP) is looking to support and partner with CEASO to help local campesinos (farmers) improve and diversify their plots, helping to conserve and manage an increasingly critical protected area – Reserva de la Cordillera de Montecillos – that serves as a key watershed for the growing cities of Comayagua and Siguatepeque. There are plans to move Tegucigalpa´s international airport to the current air base (Palmerola) that has long served as a joint Honduras–U.S. operation since the conflicts of the 1980s. That airport move, along with the advanced work on turning the Tegucigalpa-San Pedro Sula highway into one of the best in Central America, will gradually increase development pressures in the central highlands region of the Cordillera de Montecillos Natural Reserve. Thus, our discussions on potential projects and proposals are timely as the region faces a quickly changing landscape and an ever-expanding agricultural frontier.

San José de Pané along the Cordillera de Montecillos in central Honduras
San José de Pané along the Cordillera de Montecillos in central Honduras

Like many areas of Honduras, the mountainous regions surrounding Siguatepeque are dominated by coffee. However, heavy dependence and reliance on coffee as a single cash crop is exceptionally risky. The coffee rust plague has caused significant damage, prices have been unpredictable and volatile, a small percentage of overall coffee value goes to producers, and climate change is impacting crop productivity. Not to mention the key fact that coffee does not turn into nutritious food for campesinos and their families. In some of the rural areas where we traveled around the mountain pueblo of San José de Pané, families are resorting to purchasing their corn and beans instead of producing it, due to reliance on coffee as the principal crop. CEASO works to ensure that these campesinos learn how to not only diversify their lands with other crops, but also conserve and protect their soil health and increase yields via ecological and organic methods.

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Traveling with staff from CEASO

Perhaps the best part of CEASO is that it´s a friendly, welcoming, family-run operation. They took me in for the better part of five days and showed me the true meaning of warmth and hospitality. The father and founder, René Santos, works with his wife Doña Wilma and several of their children and friends to run a Sustainable Agriculture Technical School for local children. They started with just nine students and they are now up to 50, with more interest every year. It´s an impressive operation and they have received regional and national accolades.

These are the types of small and very well-run operations that we seek to partner with as they are professional, experienced, dedicated, and passionate, living and breathing sustainable agriculture as well as agroforestry. With the seeds of hope and optimism that are planted by small entities like CEASO, especially those that are focused on changing attitudes and behaviors towards more sustainable development and coexistence with protected areas, we can work to ensure a brighter future for Hondurans living in these rural, neglected areas of Latin America.

For questions or comments about our work in Honduras please feel free to email me at lucas@treeswaterpeople.org.

Notes from the Field: 10,000 Trees for the Pine Ridge Reservation

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10,000 pine trees ready for planting on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

by Megan Maiolo-Heath, Marketing Manager

Over the 125 years that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has managed the Pine Ridge Reservation, they have provided almost zero management of the tribe’s forest resources. As a result, the pine forest has shrunk considerably and in many places there are no longer enough trees to guarantee sustainability of the forest. Through discussions with Oglala Lakota leadership and representatives of several local Pine Ridge organizations, serious concerns have been expressed about the condition and viability of the remaining forests.

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TWP staff look out over the reforestation area on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Due to our long history and success growing and planting tree seedlings around the world, we were asked to develop a tree planting project on the Pine Ridge Reservation. This new endeavor aims to replant the legendary pine ridges, while also engaging Native American youth in the restoration efforts.

To initiate this effort, we established a partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service, who used seeds from South Dakota to grow 10,000 ponderosa pine seedlings in their greenhouses. Over the winter, we worked with our local partners at Pine Ridge to identify and select specific tribal lands for our first reforestation project (about 17.5 acres in total). We also worked with these partners to recruit young members of the tribe who will work with us on this project.

pine seedlings Pine Ridge Reservation

A few weeks back, we moved the seedlings from the Colorado State Forest Service tree nursery in Fort Collins to our greenhouse at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. This was a long journey for the small seedlings, but they all made it safe and sound!

This past weekend, we had a group of volunteers join us to begin planting the 10,000 trees. The rains cleared long enough for 3,300 seedlings to get planted – the start of an important reforestation program for the Oglala Lakota Tribe! In the coming weeks, tribal members will finish planting the remaining pine trees, participating directly in the conservation and management of their local forests. More updates to come as these little trees mature and become an integral part of the Pine Ridge ecosystem!