June marks the gentle start of summer in the northern hemisphere, but in the more southern latitudes, particularly in Central America, June brings brutal summer heat. Despite that heat, construction workers are toiling, sweating, and laboring on the dormitory — our first major construction project on the site of the Nicaragua Center for Forests, Energy, and Climate (NICFEC).
In addition to the dormitory, a trench and pipeline are under construction from its base to a biofilter tank near the edge of the property. This biofilter, or residual water treatment system, will process and treat graywater from the dormitory and other buildings so that we can recycle the water for our agroforestry nursery, and clonal tree garden. Two thousand bricks have already arrived on site to construct the walls of the main building, with another 4,000 set to come later. The full dormitory project is on time and within budget and should be completed before the contractual deadline (and the arrival of the rains!).
Recently, we visited the NICFEC site with friends from the women’s cooperative, Artists for Soup, based out of La Paz Centro. This dynamic group has received training from our friends at BioNica and the Asociación para el Desarrollo Agroecológico Regional (ADAR) in the arts of biointensive smallholder agriculture, designed to increase food sovereignty and nutritional values in underserved communities. Elioena Arauz, the women’s cooperative leader, and her team will soon dig and plant 12 biointensive beds on the NICFEC site and contribute to our goals of sustainability, food sovereignty, women’s empowerment, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.
At the end of May, our first organized tour of NICFEC and its surroundings will take place with a special group of Trees, Water & People donors, board members, staff, and a few new TWP friends. This group will get a behind-the-scenes look at our progress to date and meet with Proleña board members, architects, and construction specialists shaping the NICFEC vision. Upon the conclusion of this trip, we will move forward with agroforestry and landscaping plans as well as the development of our clonal tree garden.
We would love our supporters to take a trip with us to Nicaragua and visit NICFEC upon its completion. Please stay tuned for future travel opportunities by signing up for our email list!
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.
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.
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.
Please consider a donation to Trees, Water & People to create educational workshops, such as this one, for the new NICFEC!
A new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) calls attention to the devastating effects of El Niño in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. El Niño refers to the “large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific (NOAA, 2016).”
El Niño Wreaks Havoc on Central America
The presence of El Niño has caused prolonged drought in Central America that is expected to last through at least March of 2016. Crop failure, especially in the “dry corridors” of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, has already affected 4.2 million people in the sub-region.
As with many climate-related events, the poorest households are most affected. Food insecurity and malnutrition are the biggest challenges facing these countries and are expected to last through the next harvest in August 2016. Guatemala and Honduras have gone as far as to declare a state of emergency. The governments of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are providing support to farmers by distributing seeds and water pumps.
Most farmers in the region, particularly subsistence or small-scale campesino (rural farmer) operations, rely predominantly on natural rainfall for their crops, and these recent weather patterns, caused by El Niño and increasing climate volatility, have exacerbated food insecurity and overall instability in the rural areas of Central America. We are not even halfway through the summer season here, with full bore temperatures (and corresponding dryness) reaching its peak in the months of March and April.
Eco-Friendly Agriculture in a Changing Climate
One of the key takeaways from the campesinos that I work with and visited on my last regional tour in October is that increased variability creates significant uncertainty around the arrival of the first rains in May. Many farmers are unsure about when, what, and how much they should plant for the season. These conversations played over and over again as I traveled from El Salvador to Guatemala, and then from Honduras back to Nicaragua.
According to Gerardo Santos, a field coordinator for Centro Educativo de Agricultura Sostenible (CEASO), “These fluctuations and changing climate dynamics are wreaking havoc in the most vulnerable areas and increasingly encroaching upon the majority of the country. Without the stability and predictability of the rains, campesinos are really in a difficult spot; they are in a struggle for survival.”
To assist these farmers, Trees, Water & People supports programs in sustainable agriculture, like those of our newest partner, CEASO in Honduras. A shifting paradigm in agriculture emphasizes climate mitigation and adaptation strategies like better soil management, conservation, rainwater harvesting, enhanced water storage capacity, agroforestry, crop diversification, and better and more resistant local seeds.
We believe that a more diverse, holistic approach to farming will protect campesino families in the long run, ensuring rural communities have access to food and other natural resources in a rapidly changing climate.
Doña Teresa´s eyes lit up as she approached the Proleña booth during an alternative energy and technology fair in Jinotega, northern Nicaragua, this past Thursday. As she circled around the Megaecofogón cookstove there was a noticeable spring in her step. We soon realized that she was pegged as the main recipient of a stove and install during our Jinotega visit. Juan, the stove technician and I drove the truck over to her house, just a few quick blocks from the gas station where the fair continued in our absence.
There were some doubts about how to fit the stove down a narrow and dark hallway that led into the kitchen area, but after several attempts and adjustments, we popped the stove through. The megaecofogón is quite mega, weighing in at about 150 pounds when full of pumice, as this one was.
The rest of the install went on without issues and you could immediately grasp how urgent the need for the new cookstove is for Teresa. She is the primary breadwinner for her family of four adults and three grandchildren. She´s a single mother who has already put two kids through school using proceeds from her burgeoning tortilla business.
The kitchen area was black as can be, with stained walls and smoke filtering in and out of the kitchen area in a sweltering, choking swirl. Deep black stains lined the walls and soot fell by the inches as we cleaned off the ceiling area where we would eventually perforate the roof for the chimney ducts. Her previous stove was 40% the size of the megaecofogón. The pumice level had melted and the chimney had been rusted away for over a year.
As Doña Teresa elegantly stated, ¨This is dirty, difficult, and tough work. No one likes this job and no one wants to do it, but I´ve been able to make a living and create a better life for my children and their children through this labor and the growth of my small business. With the improved stove, I´ll be able to expand from about 600 tortillas per day up to 1,000 per day and maybe more. I also know how important this stove is for my health and the health of my family. We will be better off without all the smoke and soot in the kitchen area.”
She beamed with pride as she laid out some of her current clients and their requests about the possibility of increased production. Like any good businesswoman, Teresa has her current clients identified and happy, but she is looking to increase her supply now that demand has been established and growing.
The future is bright for Doña Teresa and her family thanks to the stove provided by Proleña, in collaboration with Casa Pellas foundation and INTUR, the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute. The next time I´m in Jinotega, I will be stopping by Doña Teresa´s house for some fresh tortillas, coffee and cuajada. I look forward to seeing her smiling face and bright eyes again.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.