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

Pine trees for Pine Ridge
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!

Notes from the Field: Quixayá and the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute

Quixayá is a true paradise in the heart of Guatemala.
Quixayá is a true paradise in the heart of Guatemala.

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

After a couple of hours of driving, the lowland cane fields gave way to rolling hills of more extensive monoculture in the form of rubber plantations that envelope the highway on all sides. After a few slight detours through bustling towns, we began a slow ascent back into the extraordinary coffee country that begins near the foot of Volcano Atitlán in the highlands of Guatemala’s Sierra Madre mountain range. With the change in topography and scenery came a surprise pit stop for lunch in the indigenous community of Quixayá, just south of San Lucas Tolimán.

As our group of 15 Work Tour guests exited the vans to stretch and take stock of the new surroundings we followed our guide, Ramiro Tzunun, towards the edge of the small town. From a strategic perch we took stock of our bearings – we now stood on the precipice of a cliff overlooking a lush river valley. Ramiro informed us that this was, in fact, a unique and special place – a collective and familial agriculture and aquaculture system divided into three unique zones: a valley floor and riverbank sector devoted primarily to watercress, tilapia and shellfish; a mid-level sector with flatter plots used primarily for impressive companion planting of corn, coffee and bananas; and, finally the higher reaches of the valley that marks the transition zone to the mountainous forest, primarily devoted to agroforestry and woodfuel.

Companion planting of corn, coffee and bananas in Quixayá.
Companion planting of corn, coffee and bananas in Quixayá.

In 2010, Hurricane Agatha swept through the river valley and caused widespread destruction to the community´s main economic lifeline, but since then there have been impressive rebuilding and development of terraced ponds designed for tilapia and watercress production. The community is mostly self-sufficient and autonomous, content to carve out a living from their special place on the earth. In fact, the community has received very little foreign NGO or state assistance, but guidance from the Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture (IMAP) has been particularly important and Ramiro is one of their co-founders. He bases his approach to development on the farmer-to-farmer methodology as well as ancestral knowledge and the overall Mayan cosmovision.

Following our hike down the ridge and through the river valley, we stopped at a bucolic dining spot that also functions as a gathering place for workshops and educational events for the few groups that are fortunate enough to visit. Lunch consisted of the local tilapia and watercress, accompanied by broccoli, carrots, peppers, and potatoes – all harvested directly from the fertile valley. Many of our Work Tour guests were positively impacted and moved by the beauty and the special energy of this valley, a strong testament to the power of human potential when combined with solid permaculture design and Mayan cultural philosophy.

Sharing and learning about new cultures was an important experience for everyone involved.
Sharing and learning about new cultures was a life-changing experience for everyone on the Guatemala Work Tour.

The permaculture and Mayan elements are a powerful part of IMAP´s mission, which is “to empower communities towards self-sustainability through permaculture education, Mayan ancestral knowledge and conservation of native seeds.” Upon the completion of our Quixayá visit we ventured up through more mountains heavily dotted with coffee production before arriving at the idyllic lakeside location of IMAP´s main center just outside of San Lucas Tolimán. Once settled in, our group received an informative introduction into the history and mission of the center and its work in surrounding communities along with a more holistic discussion on the Mayan cosmovision on agriculture, water, and ecosystems.

This single day was short compared to the more extensive time in our focus community, but the overall impact was deep and helped our group to understand alternate approaches to development and environmental management. Additionally, it provided crucial perspective on the indigenous approaches to agriculture and permaculture and their relationship to overall community development. The Mesoamerican Institute is conducting profoundly important work in Guatemala and our relationship with them is only in the preliminary stages, but we certainly look forward to continuing our collaboration in the future to continue the process of positive community development in Guatemala and Central America as a whole.

Notes from the Field: Guatemala’s Forest Guardians

Cultural exchange unites children from Guatemala with TWP supporters from the US.
Cultural exchange united children from Guatemala with Trees, Water & People supporters from the U.S. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

Earlier this month, Trees, Water & People (TWP) staff led a Work Tour to several locations in Guatemala, primarily in the southern region of the country. The focal point of this trip was a 4-day working visit to the rural community of La Bendición, located in the department of Escuintla. A total of 18 participants embarked on the special journey to gain an in-depth view into one of the key areas of TWP´s international focus: the agroforestry communities of Guatemala.

The history of La Bendición is as complex and compelling as that of Guatemala as a whole. Currently, the community consists of three distinct ethnic groups from the western side of the country who fled their homes in search of a more stable and hospitable place to settle. They were promised a fertile area with well-equipped infrastructure, but instead found a challenging mountainside with high winds, limited water, and very poor road access.

Rough roads
Rough roads and a harsh climate make La Bendición a tough place to live and work. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

La Bendición has been a key part of our overall presence in Guatemala since Sebastian Africano, TWP´s International Director, first began to cultivate the relationship with local partner Utz Che’ over four years ago. La Bendición is one of over 40 communities represented by Utz Che´, an umbrella organization that provides legal services and critical advocacy to underserved, mostly indigenous, communities. This was the first Work Tour experience to this community and, by all accounts, a very successful endeavor. In the future, TWP hopes to be able to bring groups here at least once a year.

The flourishing community nursery now has 35,000 plants growing.
The flourishing community nursery now has 35,000 plants growing. Work tour participants had the pleasure of working with local youth to do some weeding. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

It is important to include a note of gratitude here to the participants of the work trip for their exceptional energy, engagement, patience and dedication to learning as much as possible about La Bendición, TWP´s work in the region and the reality of Guatemala.

“Outstanding cultural experience and wonderful people. You should continue to offer it and other similar trips. Nice mix of work and “tourist” activities. Thanks!” – 2015 Work Tour Participant

In terms of learning and engagement, the primary focus of the trip included:

  • Overview of community history and economic development realities and challenges
  • Agroforestry crops and production
  • Apiculture (bee keeping) best practices
  • Cultural and social exchange with community members

Some notable highlights were the tours of the honey production and beekeeping project, which included a visit to the colonies and sampling of the honey straight off the honeycomb.  We also enjoyed visiting the tree nursery and pineapple fields, which have expanded seven-fold in just the last couple of years, from an original total of 5,000 plants to over 35,000 total plants. The expansion of the pineapple project has grown to include the use of more organic methods with help from one of the community´s younger members, who studied organic agricultural practices at University before returning to share his expertise with fellow campesinos. This type of engagement from the youth is critical to insure the creation of economic opportunities that allow them to remain part of the community´s present and future development plans and resist the urges of immigration.

David (left) and myself on our cloud forest hike.
Community leader, David (left), and myself on our cloud forest hike. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

Perhaps the most striking observations about the history and struggle of La Bendición were broached on a group hike to the community’s water source, the imposing mountain that forms their scenic backdrop. David, one of the youth group leaders and a champion for agricultural and economic empowerment, highlighted the struggles to develop and work their land with less than ideal infrastructure and climate. Another challenge is the external interest groups, especially agribusiness and timber agents, who eye the exceptionally well preserved forest that forms the backbone of their watershed and agroforestry existence. The forest is made up of rare hard and softwoods and old growth trees that are critical to the ecosystem and habitat, but also a prized commodity for selective cutting by the timber industry.

The forest provides resources and bidoversity, such as honey bees, that are critical to survival.
The forest provides resources and bi0diversity, such as honey bee habitat, that are critical to survival. (Image by Jeff Lejann Abbott)

Through education and public awareness, David and his fellow community members remain committed and dedicated guardians of the forest. With hard work and perseverance, they have managed to improve their quality of life through the design and implementation of critical projects, like apiculture and pineapple production, as well as the installation of clean cookstoves, solar lighting systems, and improved water infrastructure.

Through these forest conservation and community development efforts, and continued support from TWP and Utz Che’ staff and donors, David and other local leaders hope to continue educating their community on the importance of the land and forest while working to improve livelihoods. Their is much hope and opportunity for a brighter future in La Bendición, and we hope you will join us in supporting these efforts!