Organic Agriculture: A labor of Love
The Sandinista Revolution promoted without hesitation the Green Revolution, which since the 50s has been present in Nicaraguan agriculture, especially in the cotton boom, but without an ecological vision. Today, though still timidly, organic agriculture is reaching Nicaragua.
The green revolution, begun in the 1950s, was marketed at the time as the solution to all problems of hunger and production. Despite its pretensions of spectacularly increasing harvests through the massive use of fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds, irrigation, high mechanization levels and energy consumption, it turned out to be much less green than had been expected. Because of its soil abuse, it ended up more like a Yellow Revolution, virtually turning the lands it touched into deserts. But even with that history, the Sandinista revolution implemented it in the 1980s without a second thought.
It has been now been discovered, at incalculabel environmentals costs, that "conventional" agriculture, a product of the green revolution, is also bread for today and hunger for tomorrow. It is a hort-term solution that generates problems ever more difficult to resolve. In response, "sustainable" or "ecological" agriculture is being gradually, but determinedly, introduced around the world, including Nicaragua.
Scientific IlliteratesSustainable agriculture is a complex system aimed at improving nature's output as much as possible. In this sense, conventional agriculture and sustainable agriculture have the same goals. The difference is that, while conventional agriculture treats nature like a bull does a china shop, destroying without even beging aware of it, sustainable agriculture contemplates nature in all its diverse forms and interralationships, looking at what causes things to occur and at the effects of any intervention.
Put another way, conventional agriculture works in absolute ignorance, with illiterate concepts, although prestigious professionals and even internationally known universities promote it. Sustainable agriculture, on the other had, works with scientific criteria, even though the scientists are toothless peasants with calloused hands and leathery skin.
Memories of the FutureEcological agriculture began in Europe in the 1970s in reaction to the devastation of the green revolution. The formulation was based on trditional agricultural techniques, improved through truly scientific research and experimentation to obtain optimum yields without attacking the environment. It even tried to aid in the recovery of the environment, because that is the final objective of sustainable agriculture: rejuvenate this wrinkled old planet of ours.
The initiation of sustainable agriculture in Europe was rather complicated. Conventional agriculture had gradually taken over since the eighteenth century, and with the advent of the green revolution it reigned as the only owner and overseer. It was difficult to remember any other system.
But in our lands of Latin America, traditional agriculture is still passed on from father to son, as it has been since pre-Colombian times. Conventional agriculture is unknown in large areas of the continent. Traditional cultivation can be found just a few kilometers from any capital. Workers from large farms employing conventional agriculture use traditional methods on their small personal paracels. Indigenous peoples and poor peasants were and continue to be the privileged producers of the most progressive agriculture.
Those using conventional agriculture today are children and gradchildren of peasants who employed various forms of sustainable agriculture. When these people were young, they watched, at home or their grandparent's houses, the agricultural task that increased yield and respected nature. It was relatively easy to bring back that memory, to recofer from the amnesia produced by publicity, the banks and the city technicians who seemed to know everthing. But inertia had already affected the peasants. They are stubborn and difficult to convince, but reality is even more stubborn.
A Killer BusinessContrary to all the beautiful words designed to convince us, the objective of conventional agriculture is not to end hunger throughout the world. Proof of that can be found in the abundant yields that are annually burned or thrown into the sea to maintain prices. The objective of the green revolution is to make the rich richer at the expense of those who have nothing.
The mechanism is simple. A peasant asks for credit and the bank gives it, but on one condition; 60% of the loan must be used to buy agricultural inputs (fertilizer,pesticides, etc.); only 40% can be used to pay labor. And the only inputs that can be bought are those approved by the bank's technological team.
The peasant who requests the loan does not have the right to choose whether or not to use the inputs, nor how much to use. Neither can he choose among the different brands offered on the market. If he wants a loan he must accept the whole "technological package"; if he refuses, there is no money. Ned forces him to "freely" accept anything. the bank treats peasants the way the great haciendas dealt with enslaved peons, paying their salaries in certificates validad only at the hacienda's own commissary.
It is a lucrative business, because the input producer has a captive market that not only buys poison at the price the producer puts on it, but also pays interest for the privilege. Banks and fertilizer and agrochemical producers work together and often it is not clear whre one begins and the other ends.
In this way the farmer loses sovereignty over his farm. When this phenomenon extends to almost all the farms in a country is enslaved, because the agrochemicals are produced in developed countries or with formulas whose patents are owned in those countries. The poisonous chemicals thus generate a powerful flow of money from the impovershed South to the rich and predatory North.
What Does the Peasant Gain?The use of conventional inputs has serious political and economic consequences. But it also has ecological consequences.
Of all the insects, fungi and microorganisms that inhabit the topsoil, 90% are beneficial, or at least innocuous. Only 10% damage agriculture. Agrochemicals, however, are unaware of these subtleties. They take everything with them. Another inconvenience is that the good microorganisms and insects die, while the damaging ones mutate, adpt and become ever more resistant and aggressive, making it necessary to constantly increase the pesticide level. It is spiral that will only end when the earth, totally exhausted, becomes a useless wasteland.
Agrochemicals also travel through the air and remain active for a long time. Carried by the rains, they contaminate rivers and seas. They also penetrate into the earth, poisoning the groundwater. They even have a more immediate and dramatic effect: they poison human beings. A minor error in the handling of these chemicals can cost lives. There are no weapons more lethal. Conventional arms are surrounded by security mechanisms to avoid fatal accidents, but chemicals are not. A few instructions, a drawing of a skull and crossbones, and that's it. The majority of agrochemicals used in the South are illegal in the North because of their high toixicity and danger.
Nicragua and the Green RevolutionThe green revolution hit Nicaragua in the 1950s through cotton. The United States needed extensive cotton production to supply its textile industry, and Chinandega's fertile land appeared ideal. The fruit trees and diversified agricultural production were cleared to make room for cotton, transforming the rich land into a desert through deforestation, fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals.
The peasant owners of the small but productive farms of that region were kicked off and forced to the Nueva Guinea agricultural frontier. The eruption of the San Cristóbal volcano contributed to the task; the foreign interests did not force the people off to plant cotton, but to "save" their lives.
The cotton "boom thus wrought two ecological disasters: it turned León and Chinandega into wastelands and pushed the agricultural frontier into the tropical rainforest. Other products were cultivated in the Pacific in addition to cotton: bananas, sugar cane and export cattle, the latter with their corresponding extensive pastures. For 25 years there was nothing else.
Nothing changed with the triumph of the Sandinista revolution. The FSLN, with little ecological awareness, implemented more of the same green revolution, without reflecting on the existing disastrous experiences.
The coffee renovation project the revolution implemented in Carazo aimed to "mechanize and modernize" cultivation, but actually served to destroy the flora and fauna of 11,000 hectares, provoking climatic changes and drying up the rivers. Similar situations accurred with vegetable cultivation in the Victoria de Julio sugar refinery in the Sébaco valley, and in all the other places where huge mechanized agroindustrial projects were initiated. These projects, which came to be known as "white elephants," are now paralyzed.
During the revolution, the state bank paradoned the debts of the peasants, because agricultural loans are not repayable within the logic of the green revolution. Production continued to be only for export.
Neoliberalism arrived within this contxt. The neoliberals added another disaster to the exporting and destructive logic of the green revolution; the bank would not lend to medium or small producers and would never condone debts. The hard neoliberal reality, where there are no solutions, has opened the eyes of many pesanats. Only ecological agriculture will allow them to survive, eat, produce and save money. Neoliberalis is a "crooked line" on which peasants are learning to write straight again.
A Democratic ExperienceThe José Elías Díazk cooperative lies some 40 kilometers south of Managua, near Masatepe. It was founded by 14 mumbers at the beginning of 1986, and now includes almost 100 people. The farm covers some 50 acres historically dedicated to coffe production.
When those first 14 members arrived, they found the land in very band condition. Many ears of conventional agriculture had impoverished the land, which had been abandoned. The coffee plants had gotten too old, and the farm had become pasture land. The new owners had also taken on a debt and promised to pay it.
The energetic producers started to work under these condicions, following the norms of conventional agriculture. "But when we finished the harvest we saw that we were left with almost nothing, because the bank took everything," explained Santos Humberto García, one of the members. "So the next year we decided to do it all ourselves, without buying inputs."
The 14 cooperative members are peasants with great experience especially in coffee production. They began to fertilize the coffe plants as they had seen their grandfathers do many years before; chicken droppings and rice shells fermented together. And the coffee plants responded.
Soon afterwards the cooperative made connections with the Nicaraguan Enrionmentalist Movement (MAN), which has an agriculture and environment program dedicated to sustainable agriculture. The MAN professionals began to meet with the cooperative members to help make their traditional farm sustainable. Sustainable agriculture does not just mean not using agrochemicals. It is a complex process with a complex philosophy, which a city person who measures time in minutes can't understand very well. But the result is very understandable for a pesant who measures time and life by harvests.
The Farm's Design"What was there could not be totally destroyed to begin at the beginning according to the ideals of sustainable agriculture," explains MAN technician Silvio Cepeda. "And now, even though the crops are worked with sustainable agriculture criteria, the farm's design still does not totally respond to the sustainable model. The transformation takes place slowly because, if not, the cooperative members would face economic crisis for many years."
The philosophy of sustainable agriculture contemplates all aspects, including social ones. Decisions are made democratically, among peasants and advisers, without ideas being imposed. "I also learn from the farms I visit to offer advice," assured Cepeda. "We have no idea how much wisdom and science is accumulated in each peasant."
Even though the sustainable design is not totally in place, firewood trees can already be seen stcattered among the coffee bushes; they give the necessary shade and provice kindling for cooking. Banana plants provide both shade and fruit. Leguminous trees than fix nitrogen to the soil are also planted and offer organic material that contributes to the soil's fertility. Weeds are controlled with ground cover like the ARachis Pintoi (parennial peanuts) and the Cannavalia sp, which, in addition to preventing weed growth, produces nodules in its roots that also fix nitrogen. The insects are run off by small but strategically located coarse plants. Coffee plants that are too old are not pulled up; they are trimmed back to a certain height so they will grow again. This way, Mother Earth saves the necessary nutrients needed to produce the roots and part of the trunk and only has to feed the new growth, from which a new harvest will begin the very next year.
"We're designing a plan in coordination with the cooperative members so that the farm will be operated totally under sustainable agriculture criteria. Every small change leads us closer to that ideal," says Arnulfo López, another MAN technician.
Every plant is a chemical laboratory and a pharmacy able to produce all it needs to survive and cure itself of ills, but plants of the same species are rarely seen bunched together in nature. This is because such a concentration attracts parasites and enemy microorganisms, which can reproduce and turn into a plague. In nature, two of the same species are separated by a different plant, which serves as a natural barrier to harmful organisms.
The design of the ecological farm tries to reproduce the same scheme in the crops. It also takes into account soil composition, solar light, the rains, and economic and social factors. Everything.
One more detail: one plant consumes what another produces. It is thus helpful to have different species on the same plot, so the plants themselves will help feed and defend each other. They also defend the peasants because diversified production-putting the eggs in different baskets--provides more economic security. The farm produces different things and the peasants are always able to sell something in the market.
Everything Is UsedSustainable farms do not produce waste, they produce fertilizer. It is a diametrically apposed vision to conventional agriculture. The leaves, the wastes, the dung are incorporated in the earth directly or mixed with ash or lime and mulched. Coffee pulp, which otherwise provokes so many environmental problems, is gathered from the collection centers and dug back into the soil, enriching it. Walking among the coffee plants at the José Elías Díaz farm, your feet sink softly in a smooth and loose soil. Even though the dry season now lasts several months, the earth's humidity is protected by the thick layer of fallen coffen leaves. Without doubt, the roots of the trees find easy paths in this soil as well as all the necessary nutrients.
"Look, this land was as hard as stone," remembers Justo Velásquez, second in charge of cooperative production. "Now it is very soft, you can see." While he talks, he passes his machete easily through various inches of the soil. You couldn't do thes before. The machete bent."
The farm needs chicken dung for fertlizer,but ther are still no chickens. For now the members have to get the droppings from a nearby chicken farm, but they plan to invest in their own chicken coops which, in addition to producing fertilizer, will give eggs and meat for self-consumption and the surplus can be sold as another source of income. The philosophy of sustainable agriculture proposes that the farm be as independent as possible, that it feed itself and be free and sovereign.
Does It Earn or Lose Money?When coffee production began in Nicaragua during the times of Zelaya, coffee plants were set some 2.7 meters apart, in any direction, which gave a density of some 500 plants per acre, depending on soil inclination.
The bushes developed in broad spaces, had branches full of fruit, and each bush had an active life of 18-20 years. The borbón variety was the most commonly planted because of its long life and exquisite flavor. On conventional plantations and some farms today, up to 2,500 bushes are planted on one acre. The soil can't sustain this density; it needs ever greater quantities of fertilizer to produce less.
On the old plantations the bush grew too much, making the haverst difficult. Currently bushes are constantly pruned, resolving this problem. It is true that more coffee at peak harvest is obtained with conventional agriculture, but the investment of time and money to obtain that harvest is so huge that it eats much of the earnings. In conventional crops, a bush can have a high yield one year but, if the plantation is not treated with fertilizers and pesticides (bought with hard dcurrency), it will have to be cut that same year. "That is what happens with the caturra variety, which was designed in the laboratory for conventional farming," explains Silvio Cepeda. "It gives an enormous harvest the fifth year, but afterwards it doesn't give anything. The tree has to be pulled up and the plot retreated. Do you know how much it costs to renovate an acre using conventional methods? almost $1,000! With sustainable agriculture it costs less than $300."
"And there's another thing," adds the MAN technician. "The chemicals used for renovation through conventional methods are all imported, paid for in hard currency that we don't have. And the little bit we do have we need for other things. With organic agriculture everything is produced in Nicaragua: the seed, the fertilizer, everything."
In terms of profits or losses things are even more complex. The organic coffee farms never produce huge harvests, but they maintain a stable production level orver years and the average harvest is greater.
The various organic farms dedicated to coffee in Carazo have very hopeful results. Harvests have doubled and even tripled compared to when they were conventionally farmed. And if the harvest isn't that good, the peasants aren't ruined, because the farm is designed to produce different crops. If coffee fails one year, they sell citrus, or plantains, or firewood, or any other product. The peasants come out ahead. In any case, all the earnings are for them, not to pay unpayable debts to the bank.
Coffee produced organically also has better flavor and aroma than conventional coffee. The same is true of other agricultural products using organic farming.
Trading for AllNicaragua currently produces some 7,000 hundredweight of organic coffee for export. Alternative businesses transport it to Europe and the United States, where the demand for organically produced is growing yearly.
The market for organic products is not subject to the tremendous price variations that conventional coffee suffers. It may never reach the astronomical prices of convenrtional coffee's best years, but its market will also not drop. In these difficult times for coffee, organic coffee sells at between US$132 and $144 per hundredweight while the price for conventional coffee ranges between US$76 and $78 (March prices). Organic agriculture doesn't make miracles. It is for peaceful, serene people, not aggressive and greedy destroyers of the earth, human beings and the flora and fauna.
The different cooperatives producing organic coffee in NIcaragua have formed trade associations in order to make better profits. The José Elías Díaz cooperative is pat of the Organic Cooperative Enterprise of Nicaragua, which trades all the coffee it produces in the department of Carazo without intermediaries.
"The goals is for coffee farms that develop their productive activity with a focus on sustainable agriculture to profit not from the higher price they receive, but from the productive efficiency that cooperative members develop," explained MAN techinician Jaime Picado. "Another aspiration is to have ecological agriculture products for sale throughout Nicaragua so the population can eat better and understand that everyone wins with this type of agriculture: the producer, the consumer, the environment and Nicaragua."
The Peasants' Opinion"The only thing I have that is really mine and that I need for everything else is my life," said Marvin Rivas, president of the Leslie Dávila cooperaitve, located in the foothills of the Mombacho volcano that looms over Granada. "I need my life and this form of farming takes care of it," he concluded. He recalled cases of peasants killed or seriously ill as a result of agrochemical use.
Problems are not always the result of careless handling. He remembered the case of one young woman who sparayed her crops with a product called Counster, then carefully washed her hands and went to eat. At the second mouthful she fell over dead. A little bit of the product had gotten stuck under her fingernail. When she touched the food, she poisoned it and died instantly.
Slow death by contamination also occurs. Many of the pesticides used in conventional agriculture are disolved in an oily substance so they will stick better to the plant. When this is inhaled or penetrates the human body in some other way in non-lethal quantitites, it accumulates in the adipose tissue. Years later, the peasant dies of cancer at 40 years of age, or has children with serious congenital deformities, or becomes sterile, or suffers from one of many fatal illnesses--al without knowing why.
Sustainable agriculture also has other practical benefits. The José Elías Díaz cooperative has almost finished paying its weighty debt and is now proposing new investments such as the chicken farm.
The Pancasán cooperative at Mombacho did not take on existing debts, so after two years of sustainable agriculture it was able to build houses for 12 of its 14 members, buy a truck that serves both the farm and the community, and build a school (to which the Ministry of Education could not afford to send a teacher).
The Alejandro Mercado cooperative, which only recently began to use these methods, has still harvested little coffee due to the young age of its trees, but its memebers have each been able to buy a radio and a bicycle. They plan to build houses after the next harvest--which they expect to be very good.
The peasants are satisfied. They don't poison themselves, they have a better living standard, better health, and feel they are the owners of their land.
Their satisfaction does not make them selfish, though. The diferent cooperatives of the Organic Coffee Cooperatative Enterprise of Nicaragua agreed to donate US$2,800 to peasants on the Río Coco, which borders Honduras, to help them transform their crops to sustainable agriculture.
The ProblemSustainable agriculture is a meticulous agriculture. Each plant has to be constantly cared for and supervised. An organically cultivated farm is like a garden; you have to spoil it.
The productive plants and the ones that serve as barricades, or are used as sub-products or live fertilizers, all need daily care. They have to be protectd from pests and fumigated with a preparation of nim or papaya leaves, depending on the pest. One has to be aware of everything.
The agro-ecological farm does not operate like a factory or like a machine that needs a certain amount of primary materials but little ongoing attention. The agro-ecological farm is cared for with the passion of a lover who is aware of every detail. Aftrwards, nature gives the fruit of this labor of love.
So this is the problem. Love needs time and doesn't undestand rush. The agro-ecological farm therefore needs more labor. But, can this be considered a problem in a country with more than 60% of the workers unemployed and without hopes of finding any jobs?
The detractors of organic agriculture say that the difference between the two production methods is like the difference between traveling on a horse or in an airplane. Buth this is a very relative and false comparison. Unless they mean Pegasus, a magic horse with wings.