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.

Building Climate Resilience in Cuba

Visiting with Cuban friends
Visiting with Cuban friends in 2009 – all smiles in a harsh reality.

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

In two weeks, I’ll board a plane in Miami that will take me to an island on which not many living U.S. citizens have set foot. The United States’ relationship with Cuba has been strained (at best) since Fidel Castro wrested power from military dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. This was the same year that Bob Dylan graduated from High School, Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood by President Eisenhower, and the first color photograph of earth was transmitted from space.

Now, 56 years and 10 U.S. presidents later, we still hold an ideological, geopolitical grudge with a neighbor that’s closer to our mainland than either of the two states added to our country in 1959. On December 17, 2014, President Obama took momentous steps to thaw U.S. relations with Cuba, by easing some restrictions on travel and trade with the island nation. This is a significant step in starting a new conversation between our two populations to examine how each of us lives, what we value individually and as societies, and where there is common ground on which we could begin building a common future.

The threat climate change poses to agricultural communities is one such platform that doesn’t discriminate by political ideology, language, or history, and one conversation where all perspectives need to be heard. Trees, Water & People intends to take part in this important conversation with Cuba, and will take our first step by attending the Tenth Convention on Sustainable Development and Environment in Havana from July 2 – 6 2015. There we will meet with colleagues from Cuba’s Institute for Agroforestry Research (INAF) and the Cuban Association of Forestry and Agriculture Technicians (ACTAF) to discuss current challenges in the rural areas of the country, and where TWP’s experience in Agroforestry and rural development could potentially contribute to a solution.

cuban chicken
(Photo by Sebastian Africano)

Rural communities in Cuba live in similar conditions as their Caribbean and Central American neighbors, with salty and silty soils, a volatile tropical climate, and difficulty accessing water. As such, there exist great opportunities for exchange and learning in agriculture, soil remediation, and forestry. Cubans have much to teach, having lived through “The Special Period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that time, Cuban people survived through solidarity and ingenuity, having to devise ways to produce the majority of their own food without the benefit of petro-chemical and technological inputs. The lessons learned during these challenging times, and while living under 50 years of a brutal U.S. economic embargo, make Cuba a staunch ally in facing the adversity that will come with climate change.

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Havana, Cuba (Photo by Sebastian Africano)

Behind the curtain of U.S./Cuba relations there is a Latin American nation of over 11 million people whose reality is only known to us by the tidbits of popular culture that sneak into the mainstream. These people, while having lived a different history than the majority of their neighbors, still face the same challenges and have the same aspirations of most communities in Latin America – keeping their families fed and healthy, leading productive and purposeful lives, and creating opportunities for their children. Just as we support other Latin American communities struggling with issues relating to rural vulnerability, we seek to work with the Cuban people to create a collaborative future around resilience, reconciliation, and climate change readiness in the tropics.

Check in with TWP regularly for updates on our first exploratory trip to Cuba, and to support building climate resilience in the Americas! Also, feel free to contact me at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org or at (970)484-3678 ext.16 with any questions.

Project Update: The Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate Takes Shape

Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

 The Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate (NICFEC) is well on its way to becoming a reality. Over the past month, Trees, Water & People (TWP) and our partner, Proleña, have made considerable progress with a Nicaraguan architect, creating the master plan for the center. The plan will be finished and transferred to blueprints by the end of June 2015, at which point we will be ready to break ground. Once we begin building, we’d like to maintain the momentum to have the site operational and receiving guests by mid-2016.

Your donations will help make this a reality!

Once the dorms, classrooms, and workshops are constructed, we will begin the process of sizing and designing solar energy systems to power the site. We have a number of colleagues in the solar industry around the world who are committed to helping us with this challenge, and we are even considering designing a course around the installation. Also, as construction advances, planting of our various agroforestry plots will begin, demonstrating different combinations of crops and productive trees that can increase resilience on a rural farm.

Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy and Climate
Meeting with partners are the site of the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate near La Paz Centro.

 As climate change rears its ugly head in the tropics, families already living in extreme vulnerability will have to adapt their approaches to be able to survive in rural areas. This means changing the rate at which they consume natural resources, and diversifying their crops and planting schedules to withstand volatile weather patterns. TWP’s NICFEC will be a resource for these farmers and their communities, providing them with a suite of technologies, proven methods, tree seedlings, and curriculum that will support them in this transition.

Thank you for supporting this effort – we look forward to keeping you informed as the Center takes shape and gets closer to opening its doors!

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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!

Community-Based Development in Action: Reforestation in El Salvador

tree nursery El Salvador
Don Jorge Ochoa has worked at the El Porvenir nursery since 2007, helping to grow nearly 630,000 trees.

community_based_developmentTrees, Water & People’s Community-Based Development Model is based on the philosophy that the best way to help those most in need is to involve them directly in the design and implementation of local environmental and economic development initiatives. This creates ownership, involvement, and financial sustainability well into the future. Our proven development model of training and execution, coupled with an enterprise approach, engages and inspires local residents to preserve their precious natural resources.

Our Reforestation Program in El Salvador is a great example of this Community-Based Development Model in action:

identify_community_needsEl Salvador is the second most deforested country in Latin America after Haiti. Nearly 85 percent of its forest cover has disappeared since the 1960s. Less than 6,000 hectares are classified as primary forest. Deforestation in El Salvador has had serious environmental, social, and economic impacts. Today over 50 percent of El Salvador is not even suitable for food cultivation, and much of the country is plagued with severe soil erosion (Mongabay, 2015).

partner_with_local_organizations In 2001, we formed a partnership with environmental conservation leaders in El Salvador, who created Arboles y Agua para El Pueblo (AAP) to address natural resource issues within the country. The organization is led by Armando Hernandez and his dedicated staff who work tirelessly to protect the precious natural resources of El Salvador.

El Salvador tree nursery
Members of the AAP staff at our 30,000-tree nursery in El Porvenir.

design_and_implement_projects (1)The AAP staff addresses El Salvador’s natural resource issues through reforestation, producing over 28 hardwood and fruit tree species in their nurseries. Local community members, governments, and farmers use these trees for food, firewood, and shade. In addition, AAP and TWP work together to build clean cookstoves that reduce deforestation and deadly household air pollution. Community-led conservation projects create jobs for local people as well purpose and meaning in life. Don Jorge Alberto Dorado Ochoa, an AAP staff member since 2007, found his work at the tree nursery to be healing during his battle with cancer. “I feel strongly that my dedication to the nursery and the work of TWP gave me strength and health.”

evaluate_and_monitor_projectsAAP reports to TWP on a monthly basis to ensure projects are running smoothly and efficiently. Our International Program staff visit the projects several times a year to monitor progress. At the end of each year, we work together to evaluate successes, challenges, and plan for future needs.

To learn more about Trees, Water & People please visit www.treeswaterpeople.org. Our grassroots conservation efforts depend on friends and donors investing in our work. We hope you will join our community today!

Building the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate

Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate

Climate change affects us all. Around the world, communities are already suffering from its drastic local impacts, such as increased natural disasters, destructive weather patterns, and reduced crop yields. It’s time to take action.

Trees, Water & People is working with our long-time partner in Nicaragua, Proleña, to establish the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy, & Climate near La Paz Centro, about an hour northwest of Managua.

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Proleña and TWP are working together to develop the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate.

Working with our dedicated partner organization Proleña, we have already grown more than 3.7 million trees in Nicaragua. The new Center will not only grow and plant more seedlings, we will also provide hands-on demonstration plots to show how local people can integrate growing trees and growing food crops together in the new era of a changing climate.

We will also use the Center to continue to build and distribute our clean cookstoves to reduce firewood use and deforestation. To date, we have built and distributed more than 64,000 fuel-efficient stoves that also eliminate the toxic smoke that causes millions of women and children to get sick or die every year.

The new Center is ultimately about resilience – learning how to survive and even thrive despite a harsh new climate reality. To do that, we must provide a place where educators and students come to teach, work, and learn about the real impacts of climate change, what can be done about them, and how we can and will adapt.

2015 Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy & Climate timeline

For questions about the new Center please contact Sebastian Africano, International Director, at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org.