Community Voices: Jorge Perez Talavera

Don Jorge
Jorge Perez Talavera stands proud next to 4,300 coffee seedlings at his tree nursery in Chachagua, Nicaragua.

by Megan Maiolo-Heath and Lucas Wolf

In the north central region of Nicaragua, 80% of families are dependent on coffee for their livelihoods. In the rural areas where farmers are scratching out a living – growing coffee and living off the land to feed their families – 68% of the population does not have access to electricity, one of the lowest electrification rates in Central America (IDB, 2010). The closer you get to the “last mile”, as we have done on a recent trip to the remote farming village of Chachagua , the more families you will find struggling to survive on only a few dollars per day.

TWP Assistant International Director, Lucas Wolf, and I had the pleasure of staying with a local family during our four days in the community as part of a trip with our local partners, buildOn and GivePower. Jorge Perez Talavera, his wife Damaris Godoy Garcia, and their 17 year old daughter, Ara Yorleniz Perez Godoy, welcomed us into their small home, which has no running water or electricity. At night, situated around their rudimentary stove, Damaris and Ara Yorleniz cooked us hot meals: rice, beans, and tortillas overflowing with Nicaraguan flavor and love. We spent a lot of this time laughing together, finding that Nicaraguan humor is fueled by sarcasm. My kind of humor! We also had the opportunity to discuss the harsh reality of life in the campo, living off the land and relying on family and community to survive.

The closest town to Chachagua is Murra, a rough, 2-hour drive by truck or motorbike. No buses drive this far back into the mountains, making agriculture a necessity for income generation and for feeding your family. Rows of coffee plants dot the hills, along with other crops like maize, beans, banana trees, squash varieties, and root vegetables.

Chachagua Nicaragua
Don Jorge’s tree nursery is situated next to the rinsing and drying facility, with fruit trees surrounding the area.

Down the hill from Jorge’s small adobe home sits his tree nursery, where he is currently growing 4,300 coffee seedlings and a variety of fruit trees. He uses organic methods to grow the coffee, such as mixing garlic and cayenne for use as a pesticide. During the coffee harvest, Damaris and Ara Yorleniz help Jorge pick the ripe, red coffee cherries by hand.

“All of us spend long days together to harvest the coffee. It’s very hard work and the whole family helps.”

For the subsistence farmers in this region, who depend on the land for their survival, climate change is not a far off threat that they casually discuss. Climate change is happening. Right now. There is no debate about how or if a changing climate will affect them, the question is how will they adapt and survive. I invite climate deniers to visit Chachagua and tell the families here that climate change is a hoax.

“We have noticed a big change in the weather and temperatures over the past six years. The rains come later now and it’s much warmer, which affects how our coffee grows.”

Nicaragua deforestation
Agriculture is a major contributor to deforestation in Central America, making access to agroforestry education critical to environmental and human health.

In Nicaragua, temperatures are rising, drought is the new norm (and flooding when it does eventually rain), and crop disease is devastating, especially to rural coffee farmers and landless farm workers. The nation consistently ranks in the top ten among the places most affected by climate change (Global Climate Risk Survey). Coffee is Nicaragua’s second largest agricultural export earner. In 2012-13 an outbreak of La Roya (coffee leaf rust), which spread to 37% of the crop, cost $60M in losses. Small farmers like Jorge, who have no extra money to purchase fertilizers, have been hit hard by La Roya. When their mature coffee plants die from the rust, new seedlings can be planted, but they take three years to produce coffee. And, when there is no coffee there is no money.

When we discuss ways that farmers like Jorge are adapting, everyone we talk to points to reforestation as a top priority for improving all aspects of the local environment. Even the highest levels of government in Nicaragua are supporting practices like crop diversification and shade grown coffee, which improves soil and watershed health while protecting farmers from crop failure. With more diversity, and less dependence on one crop, families can survive when diseases like La Roya hit.

Chachagua Nicaragua
The beautiful view from Don Jorge’s home in Chachagua, Nicaragua.

On our last morning with the family, we all gather around the kitchen fire drinking coffee. It’s been pouring rain all night, a welcome return of moisture after days of no rain (and it’s supposed to be the “rainy season” in Nicaragua). Damaris has prepared a chicken for us, an incredibly generous gesture for a family living at this level of poverty. Lucas takes this time to express our gratitude for their hospitality:

“We know it is a hard life out here. We recognize that and we want to support you in any way possible. To see a family that is so happy together and so welcoming to strangers like us has really touched our hearts. Thank you for letting us into your home.”

Jorge responds, with a smile, “No matter what, the most important thing in life really is happiness.”

Community Voices: Don Marcos

Guatemala civil war
Don Marcos defends his land and his people during the Guatemalan civil war.

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

“The hardest parts were the hunger…and the sleeplessness.” recounted Don Marcos, a septuagenarian survivor of the brutal civil wars in Guatemala that left over 200,000 (mostly indigenous campesinos) dead. Two spoonfuls of oats and a spoonful of sugar was all the food available for weeks at a time while protecting Mayan heritage and homeland from military persecution. Hundreds of thousands died, but many survived, only to face continued struggle to live a dignified life after “peace” was officially declared in Guatemala in 1996. Don Marcos tells us his story while holding his head in his hands under a photo taken of him in 1982, where he can be seen stoically gripping an automatic rifle with three other indigenous soldiers behind him, tasked with ensuring the survival of an ancient culture.

Today, Don Marcos is a community leader in El Tarral, one of the dozens of highland Mayan communities from Huehuetenango who have been displaced to southern coastal climates. His organization – the San Ildefonson Ixtahuacán Development Association – is one of the 36 indigenous groups under the umbrella of the Asociación de Forestería Comunitaria de Guatemala Ut’z Ché, Trees, Water & People’s partner in the country. We had the unique opportunity to build Don Marcos’ family a new cookstove as a training exercise for some younger members of his community – teaching a proven technology that reduces fuelwood use, improves family health and saves families money through its daily use.

It was a community effort to build Marco and Nati's new clean cookstove.
It was a community effort to build Marco and Nati’s new clean cookstove.

Ut’z Ché provides a voice to indigenous communities who seek to protect land and resource rights where they live – be it on ancestral lands or lands adopted post-displacement. As agro-forestry and forest conservation are two pillars in this process, clean cookstoves and solar lighting are a perfect compliment, improving sustainability, autonomy and health for communities that have been marginalized for centuries. As someone who has spent a decade working in rural Central America, I couldn’t be more inspired and energized to contribute, as the resilience and identity exhibited by Ut’z Che’s partners is extraordinary, and their will to thrive is as salient as their preserved languages, customs and traditions.

Don Marcos’ struggle is now for his children and grandchildren. While it’s miraculous that he’s here at all, he knows that he has little time left to leave a better future for his descendants. He was happy and proud to offer his house as a training ground for the group of young men in his community, who look to him as an elder and a teacher. His is the first of 60 cookstoves we plan to build in the community of El Tarral – projects made possible only by your donations and support. We thank you for helping us make life a little more hospitable for the millions of humble people that only seek the sustainable and dignified future they deserve.