Much with Little: A Central American Journey with Sustainable Harvest International By Scott Vlaun
I’m standing on a hillside so steep that I feel if I stumble in the loose soil, I’ll tumble down to the bottom.
The heat is oppressive. We’re all soaked with sweat after an hour and a half drive on a rutted dirt track and another couple of hours of hiking through the hills to visit these remote farms tucked away on steep, marginal land in north central Honduras. The scene before me is familiar. A farmer stands proudly in his field, showing us the progress he has made since he started working with Sustainable Harvest International (SHI).
The crop diversity, soil erosion barriers, seedling nursery, and hand-dug aquaculture ponds full of fish and rice plants (or “ricipicicultura” as they call it here) are signatures of SHI’s low-tech approach to small-scale sustainable development. Florence Reed, the founder and president of SHI, listens intently and surveys the scene proudly, while Bruce Manuum, SHI’s field coordinator, assesses the situation, taking notes and making suggestions. Along with us is Jorge Rodriguez, an SHI extensionist, who has guided and assisted Ignacio “Nacho” Castro to develop his farm for the last three years.
As I have seen repeatedly, the conversation evolves from the successes of the project to the dreams of the farmer. “If only we had a well, an irrigation pump, or a way to get our produce to market…then we might actually be able to make some money, send our kids to school, put a metal roof on the house, or buy medicines for the old ones.” The list goes on. The needs are so great here; the poverty wrenching. As the conversation shifts, so does the expression on Ms. Reed’s face.
Pride turns to frustration as she is compelled to tell yet another poor farmer that there are no funds available. “Things are ‘tough’ in the U.S. right now,” she says, “contributions are down, SHI might need to cut back its programs.” I hear her say “lo siento” (I’m sorry) for what seems like the thousandth time.
Florence Reed started Sustainable Harvest International in 1997 after a stint in the Peace Corps in Panama and four years of working with other non-profit organizations that were doing development work in Central America. In both of these cases, while there was an emphasis on restoring or preserving the environment, she could perceive a greater need. What was missing from many approaches to aiding the people in these impoverished countries was a long-term approach to creating sustainability, especially in agriculture. Creating sustainable systems is at the core of SHI’s work.
By most standards, Central America is an ecological and social disaster. The great rainforests were logged for their exotic hardwoods. Much of what was left has been cut for firewood for cooking or simply burned in place. For decades “slash and burn” agriculture has been the norm here as the rural poor have struggled to support a growing population. As the prime agricultural lands in the valleys are mostly taken up by multi-national agribusiness, growing for export to the north, the poor are either forced into the already overwhelmed and often dangerous cities or retreat further into the countryside, clearing more land to eke out a few crops on the poor rainforest soils before moving on.
The result has been massive deforestation and desertification as more people try to survive off a dwindling resource. In Honduras and Nicaragua, the tragedy of this environmental devastation was made painfully clear by Hurricane Mitch in 1997 when thousands died and hundreds of thousands more were left homeless in the wake of massive landslides and flooding, greatly exacerbated by the lack of trees to absorb water and root systems to bind the soil.
Traveling to some of the most remote areas in Central America with Florence and Bruce, and meeting some of the more than 600 families that receive technical assistance from SHI, it becomes clear that the work they are doing here is confronting the ecological disaster head-on. By their own estimates their extension agents have facilitated the planting of close to a million trees and the conversion of several thousand acres to sustainable agricultural practices, saving an estimated 40,000 acres from the onslaught of slash and burn agriculture. By providing help to restore the ecology and institute sustainable agricultural practices in rural areas, SHI is also helping to relieve the poverty driven, social crisis as well.
In Nicaragua, we journey by “panga” (a small open boat with outboard motor) for five hours up the swollen and muddy Rio Kukra, starting out in Bluefields, a bustling outpost on the Caribbean coast. While Bruce and Flo’ catch up on the most recent news with Marvin Gonzales and Dinis Morales, the two SHI extensionists who are our guides, I marvel at the surrounding landscape (and the numerous logs that we narrowly miss). The lush, verdant wetlands along the banks are filled with colorful flowers and numerous birds but soon give way to patches of cleared land with grazing cattle and small settlements of a handful of crude but beautiful, thatched roof, pole-built dwellings. Wherever we see the clear-cuts and cows, we also see precious soil flowing into the river in the form of “cafe con leche” colored mud. Bruce is quick to point out that SHI discourages cattle production as much as possible in these tropical areas, but given the dire circumstances, it’s easy to see how these settlers, mostly relocated refugees from the “Contra” war of the eighties, might opt for the easiest way to generate cash, even if they know it will destroy the land in the long run.
Once we reach our destination, a riverside settlement of maybe 500 people called La Aurora, we set up camp a mile or so from the river in a vacant building where the local government houses the occasional visitor, including the SHI extensionists when they come to do their field work. It is a crude affair with no electricity or running water, the norm for this and the surrounding settlements where the occasional light at night is always accompanied by the drone of a generator. Having no such luxury, we are happy for the candles, flashlights and bedding that we brought along.
In the following days we visit over a dozen farms, once spending the better part of the day on horseback in the driving rain as our borrowed “steeds” (Bruce got a mule) slogged through the belly-deep mud. What we see on the participants’ farms was a sharp contrast to the trampled grazing lands and mono-crops that we saw along the river and trail. Although the Kukra River is a relatively new work area for SHI, the results of Denis and Marvin’s work is remarkable.
At the farm of Juan Moody we find relief from the sweltering heat under a canopy of young mahogany and cedar trees as we mingle among his coffee bushes and young cacao trees. (Chocolate comes from cacao.) Out in the sunny area, young banana and plantain trees intermingle with a broad range of organic annual vegetables mixed with “fertilizer beans,” which are fast growing , nitrogen fixing legumes. His carefully protected nursery is full of foot-tall seedlings of various hardwoods.
Mr. Moody is one of the first farmers to work with SHI in this area and the relative maturity of his plantings reflects that. But at the other farms we visit, there is also much to appreciate. Everywhere we go we see clusters of seedling bags provided by SHI with various tree species in different stages of development, awaiting transplanting. We also see compost piles, thickly mulched fields complete with living erosion-control barriers of Pineapple and Madre de Cacao to conserve soil, simple compost tea makers and ingenious vermicomposters carved from a single log and placed on stilts to keep critters out. Everywhere we see a diversity of crops including corn, rice, citrus, cassava, plantain, gandul (a staple legume) and various annual vegetables. While all these farmers receive technical assistance from SHI extensionists, each has clearly developed his or her own strategies to fit their particular situation . Both Dinis and Marvin say that for every family or community they are working with there are numerous others requesting assistance who they have to turn away.
Fortunately, Nicaraguans are generally an industrious people, and are initiating many independent projects as news about these sustainable practices spreads. One community we visit is developing an organic demonstration garden to grow vegetables for themselves and to show others how to grow organic produce to supplement their vitamin deficient, staple diet of rice, corn, and beans. Like most groups working on agricultural issues in the communities we visited, they request a meeting with SHI. Bruce and Flo are glad to oblige. After proudly showing us their newly constructed chicken coops and garden plots and explaining their plans as they tour us around the land, we move inside where the conversation, as usual, turned to funding (or lack thereof). Their nascent operation is impressive, and although they achieved a lot on their own, they have projects that need modest funding. One that strikes a cord for me is for a seed-storage bin. The group has started a seed bank for the soil-building “fertilizer beans.” They give a supply of the seed to anyone who wants them, as long as the recipients agree to return twice as much at the end of the season, thus quickly building the group’s stocks. The problem is that they have no way to safely store the seed. Again, I can see the anguish on Ms. Reed’s face as she has to refuse funding for yet another deserving project.
In Belize, the situation is somewhat different than in Honduras and Nicaragua. The fact that English is the common language and the country hosts a bustling tourist industry means that some growers were able to access resources such as Organic Gardening Magazine and the teachings of Robert Rodale, long before they penetrated the region’s Spanish speaking countries. So while the need for technical assistance in the countryside is still great, especially within the indigenous communities descended from the ancient Maya, there is a base of knowledge about organic methods and an economy to build markets for organic produce.
One of our first stops in Belize is to the home of Burton Callis who calls himself the “Organic Preacher.” He serves us an amazing lunch of chicken, vegetable and root crops, followed by fresh fruit and a special cake made with dates, all organically produced right there at his home and on his small farm which is a short bike ride down the road. Along with the food comes a “sermon” about the benefits of the organic way and the problems of marketing his citrus in the face of giant export-driven, chemical-intensive monocultures that occupy much of the open land in this small country. It is obvious that this man is a valuable and willing resource for the work that SHI is undertaking.
After lunch, on the way to his farm we stop by the local elementary school, one of the dozens that SHI extensionists support. Burton teaches the students here how to grow fresh food for themselves and their families. We see a lot of “callaloo,” a popular leafy green for cooking that looked to me like Amaranth, as well as beans, tomatoes, other vegetables, and papaya trees loaded with ripening fruit. The headmaster tells us about the enthusiasm of the children and how many have started gardens at home. The biggest problem, he informs us, is harvesting the food before someone else “helps themselves” to it. Given the fact that many here go to bed hungry, he is not surprised.
Burton’s ten acre farm is an oasis of diversity with mixed orchards of citrus, papaya and banana as well dozens of other crops including squash, melons, beans, cabbage, corn and leafy greens. His soil is rich, dark, and deep. It seems like whatever will grow here, Burton grows. He is fortunate to have a reliable water source running through his land. Irrigation is a problem for many of the small farms and gardens we visit in Belize, where monsoon rains can be followed by prolonged drought. There is much talk about ponds, wells and solar pumps. While SHI has no money for such projects, they hope to work with a group from Colorado called Engineers Without Borders which takes on this type of work in developing countries.
Unfortunately, even highly skilled growers like Burton still struggle in Belize. There is no premium paid for organic food here and no way to cost-effectively get his quality produce to “enlightened” markets.
In the small Mayan communities near the Guatemalan border, they haven’t developed as refined a polyculture as Burton Callis, but we see many productive gardens with cabbages, tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables as well as the beginnings of some more permanent plantings. While these vegetable plots are important supplements to an often vitamin deficient diet, most impressive to me are some of community based projects.
One group of nine families in the village of San Jose has banded together to grow a crop of Habanero peppers for Marie Sharp, the famous Belizian hot-sauce bottler. We are lucky enough to be there just as the six-acre crop is ripe and ready for harvest. The families are out early to beat the heat and harvest about twenty large sacks of the spicy red fruits. In the afternoon, after lugging the hefty loads for close to a mile to one member’s home in the village, all the tops are removed and the damaged and unripe fruit culled out. The excitement is palpable as a borrowed truck comes to pick up the over 700 pounds of fruit. Their first cash crop is on its way to market! This is cause for serious celebration. We later calculate that each family would receive about thirty dollars for their toil.
A group of ambitious students at a nearby high school, we learn, had fared much better. Under the guidance of an SHI extensionist, they converted their modest school garden into a burgeoning market farm, raising the almost unimaginable sum of close to 10,000 dollars for the school by tapping into the lucrative resort market in the north of the country. Impressive work, even by U.S. standards.
Everywhere I visit with Sustainable Harvest International, the story is essentially the same. Families and communities are vastly improving their lives with a small amount of technical assistance and a lot of ambition. Once degraded land is again becoming productive and sustainable. Forests are regenerating and streams are again running clear. What this tiny organization accomplishes each year is truly remarkable, and they do it on a budget of less than it costs to build a luxury vacation home or drop a “smart bomb” in the desert.
I ask Florence if she had hopes to expand the work of SHI. “In every country where we work we get tons of requests from surrounding communities,” she says. “They see what we’re doing, and they present letters or petitions. Then word spreads to other parts of the country and we get requests from there. Through the internet, we get a lot of requests from local organizations in other countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Mozambique, Thailand, Nigeria…all over…several a month I’d say. The hardest part of the job for me is seeing the real need and the desire of people to work and make things better for themselves and for the environment, then having to tell them ‘sorry the money’s not there’. And the money comes a lot slower than the requests.”
“But would this model still work at larger scale?” I ask. “Wouldn’t you run the risk of becoming top heavy and less efficient?”
By spinning off successful programs to become self sufficient, Florence explains, the organization can preserve the advantage of being very lean and efficient while taking the work to a global scale. They are currently doing just that with their Honduras program, which is essentially all Honduran run at this point. They are starting to do their own fundraising and hope to become an independent affiliate within two years.
“Ultimately, the long term goal that I’d like to see before I die,” Florence says as she laughs heartily (she’s only 34), “is to have SHI still be a relatively small organization, but basically function as a hub to facilitate the flow of information and resources amongst a global network of local affiliates.”
As I part ways with Florence and Bruce in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, I’m at once filled with hope that somehow her vision for a sustainable planet might one day become a reality. At the same time, I’m painfully aware that the tide is flowing fast the other way. It’s time to get back to work.
Scott Vlaun is a photographer, writer, and the editor of the Seed of Change eNewsletter. He can be contacted at [email protected]
To learn more about the work of Sustainable Harvest International, or help support their work, visit their website at Sustainable Harvest International
81 Newbury Neck Rd.
Surry, ME 04684
Planting Hope – Restoring Forests – Nourishing Communities