SEVEN TREES FOR ANOTHER PARADISE
Ecological awareness is growing in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America.
Nothing has such silent and profound influence in our lives
as the environment surrounding us,
protecting our existence or assaulting it.
Concern about our eroded soils
the cutting down of our forests or poisoning of our rivers
is beginning to be shared by many
and is even turning into a priority.
More and more of us are meeting each other
in the search for alternative productive techologies,
respectful of the air, water and life of vegetable and animal beings and of ourselves, human beings.
Walking the paths of this search,
we see that almost everything is there for us to discover.
The vast wealth of Mother Nature's treasures
remain hidden from us still, but they are there, waiting.
They hold the appropriate answers
to the development questions that have challenged us.
Trees are one of these inexhaustable founts of answers
that life holds out to us to untangle.
Thousands of trees we still don't even know about
and thousands more we have yet to use
carry within them solutions that we need now.
Tempate, jícaro, marango, mangrove, neem, bamboo, eucalyptus
are only a few of these ecological treasures.
They have now been born in Nicaragua and have adapted to our soils.
envío, the magazine of the Central American University (UCA)
has been painting their portraits in recent months,
making their "debut" to society,
so we will lift our eyes to them in dealing with our problems
and in their shade strengthen our conviction
that our best ally for sustainable development is Mother Nature.
On the occasion of the Central American Ecological Summit
(Managua, October 1994), all of them are presented here.
They are seven trees for another paradise
that we Central Americans have the divine mandate
to create in the here and now.
MANGROVE SWAMPS: THE SEA'S KINDERGARTEN
They get a lot of bad press—they're not good for much except breeding mosquitos and thus, malaria and other illnesses. But the truth is that mangrove swamps are the kindergarten of the seas, a protected place for young marine life.
A mangrove swamp is a practical lesson in tolerance and pluralism, an ecosystem in which realities so different as to appear unreconcilable—like earth and water, fresh and salt water—all come together to dialogue, to help each other out and to fertilize. The few vegetable species that have been able to adapt to the hostile, highly saline environment of the mangrove swamp offer a home to innumerable animal, primarily aquatic, species. The result is a teeming abundance of life, a place where many species from land, water, air and the trees all find their home during times that are key to their development.
A Fragile and Special EcosystemMangrove swamps can be found all along the protected tropical and subtropical coasts of the world, particularly at the mouths of rivers. A very special kind of vegetation develops in these areas. It must survive in a highly saline environment, even though there are also large amounts of fresh water. Such vegetation must be able to grow in soil that is always moist and muddy, oftentimes underwater a number of hours each day, or for months of the year.
The mangrove ecosystem is extremely fragile. It is very easy to break the balance reached by life, the brackish water and all the various other factors that come together in exuberant harmony to maintain development in its territory. This becomes even more true when there is significant human pressure on these systems.
On both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Nicaragua, ocean and fresh water frequently mix in the correct proportion to produce the rich miracle we know as the mangrove swamp. But in the populated Pacific coast area, the mangroves still remaining are a mere shadow of the vast swamps seen in the past. Pollution, indiscriminate deforestation and the belief that the best thing to do with mangrove swamps is dry them out to make them into something more "productive" has perhaps led to the definitive end of huge areas of this natural treasure.
Crisis in Cotton,One of the most extensive mangrove regions conserved along Nicaragua's Pacific Coast is found in the Royal Estuary, which empties into the Gulf of Fonseca in the northern part of the department of Chinandega, very near the Honduras border.
Crisis in Mangroves
Chinandega's ecological, economic and social history is complex. For many years, the department was one huge garden, where farmers with practical, if not theoretically understood, criteria of sustainability grew a diversified range of products. Until cotton fever hit.
The big cotton growers in the region displaced the forests of fruit trees that had offered such rich shade to Chinandega's soil. They also displaced part of the peasant population, which was relocated in Nueva Guinea, an unsettled region in the southern central part of Nicaragua. The excuse used by the politicians was that it was to save the peasants' lives, since the Consiguina volcano had just erupted rather spectacularly. But the real reason was to promote cotton cultivation.
Cotton was an ecological catastrophe for Chinandega as a whole, but it did not affect the mangroves swamps. Most of the population who stayed in the area found jobs on the big cotton plantations, leaving the mangroves to grow in peace.
As the years went by, however, cotton prices began to fall on the world market and growers started losing interest in the crop. That's when the trouble began. The crisis in cotton production led to a parallel crisis for the mangrove swamps. Masses of jobless people spread out over the swamps seeking, in the cutting of firewood, a way to ensure their economic survival. More destruction has been done to the mangroves in the current government's four years in office—marked by massive unemployment, particularly in the northwestern departments of León and Chinandega—than in the last 40 years combined.
Today, firewood peddlers are finally beginning to realize that if the swamps are wiped out, the only way of life left to them will be gone as well. So they have begun to organize to protect the mangroves from both themselves and others. Because the poor on the coast are not the only ones interested in these swamps. The rich back in the city dream of transforming them into vast shrimp farms. And it is from them that the mangroves really must be most jealously protected, because the destructive capacity of one rich man wielding a huge Caterpillar is far greater than that of a hundred poor people armed with machetes.
A Mere Handful Of Hardy AdaptersNicaragua's mangrove swamps have their own characteristics, which differ between the two coastlines. On the Atlantic, a tree popularly known as the red mangrove or, simply, mangrove is virtually the only vegetation. It belongs to the Rhiphoraceae family and its botanical name is Rhizophone mangle. Although this species is also found in abundance along the Pacific coast, the evolution of these areas has been more complex so other species also adapted to salt water are found there in abundance.
"The red mangrove is a pioneer," says botanist Alfredo Grijalva, head of the Central American University's herbarium in Managua. "It is the vegetable species found nearest to salt water, where no others are able to survive. From there, it moves out to colonize other territory, retaining sediments to create a soil where, subsequently, other vegetable species can take root and prosper."
It is to this bold red mangrove that the ecosystem owes its most interesting characteristics: its mobility, its tendency to grow, its ability to convert itself into a dike that holds its own against the sea's crashing waves.
Another tree, the angelín, is found in the second, more inland strata, on somewhat more solid ground that does not necessarily flood with every tide. This tree, whose botanical name is Laguncularia racemosa, is also found in the Atlantic coast mangrove swamps.
Two other species are found in the third strata: the white curumo, or salt tree (Avicennia germinans), and the black curumo (Avicennia bicolor). A fourth vegetable species, which establishes a border between the flood plains and those considered terra firma, is the buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus).
That's about it. Fewer than 10 vegetable species in the Pacific mangrove swamps, which are richer and more varied than the ones in the Atlantic.
The Mangrove Tree: Mangrove trees have adapted to their difficult medium in multiple ways. A system of roots extended outward and down like inverted umbrella spokes at different levels up their trunks prevent the sea from uprooting them from the soft, muddy soil. The interlaced roots of neighboring trees make up a vegetable network that holds the soil in place and ensures that each tree helps the other fend off the ravages of the sea. To facilitate oxygenization, respiration and improved gaseous interchange, these roots have small exposed rhizomes that peek out from the muddy soil like so many small fingers.
A Marvelous Adapter
The soil where the mangroves grow is like a muddy sponge, which gives way to any weight, opening up then closing around the foot of anyone trying to walk on it. And it oozes water: as one's extended foot sinks down into the porous mud, the water level rises in the hole where the other foot is already sunk. Those who walk among the mangroves as part of their work warn that one should stay close to the trees' roots, because that's where the soil is most compact. But there's no danger that the adventurous walker will end up trapped in the mud. It is not like the deadly quicksand traps. It's more like nature is having a bit of fun, playing at not letting anyone who dares venture into mangrove territory move forward or get back out easily.
Thanks to the work of the mangroves, this gelatinous soil continues to consolidate and to encroach, little by litter, on the sea, creating new habitats and expanding existing ones, to the benefit of humans who will one day populate these soils, by then dried and desalinated.
Mangrove trees, which can grow more than 60 feet tall, are viviparous. They don't risk letting their seeds fall on vulnerable soil where the tides could take them out to high sea and ruin any chance at germination. The seeds grow in the tree's branches until they form what the peasants call "the little candle", known to scientists as rhizophores. This little candle is a masterful work of that brilliant engineer, nature. The heavy and light elements that form it are distributed in such a way that when, once mature, it falls into the mud, it is planted. It only has to begin to put down roots. Put another way, mangroves are born on their feet.
The Red Mangrove's TreasuresThe whole mangrove is a treasure; everything can be well used. This is particularly true with the red mangrove, whose wood is excellent for cooking and can also be used to make vegetable-based charcoal.
For many years, firewood from mangrove trees was in relatively small demand. It was only used by families living near the swamps and by some professional firewood gatherers who cut it to sell in the city. In those days, the firewood gatherers had a very wasteful custom, particularly since the red mangrove does not sprout again—when cut down, it dies. They cut the tree down just above the top ring of exposed roots, using only the best part of the trunk, and leaving the many broad roots to nature. But those roots are very good for making charcoal and can also be put to good use in construction.
For many years, the young red mangrove saplings were used as cradles to support the banana trees in the region's huge plantations. This practice, which can be considered a veritable arboricide of the young plants for repopulation, was prohibited in the 1980s and is no longer used.
Until it was replaced by chemical substitutes, tannin extracted from the red mangrove's bark was long used to cure and tan leather. Stripping the bark off of trees for so many years without thinking twice it has left the mangrove swamps full of white skeletons that rise up from the mud and water like ghosts.
When the growing need for firewood and jobs legalized the cutting of these skeletons, it was found that the barkless trees had become so hard that it was virtually impossible to cut them with a machete or ax. Thus, the use of chainsaws was authorized—essentially decreeing the death of the mangrove swamp.
The red mangrove has the best wood, but is also the weakest species in evolutionary terms. It is the most fragile, the easiest to kill and the hardest to reproduce. And with the red mangrove goes the whole swamp. When these trees are cut down in blocks, their space is quickly filled by other species, which leave no room for the mangrove to reproduce. The other species don't have the ability to create new territory and, as with so many other things, those who do not advance are forced to retreat.
People of the ÑangaNobody lives in a mangrove swamp. Its spongy soil and intermittent flooding—linked to the movement of the tides—make it uninhabitable for human beings. But many people live off the mangrove swamp, which they call not by its formal masculine name in Spanish—manglar—but by the feminine ñanga. It's the same as with sailors, who speak of the sea as feminine, never masculine. The people of the ñanga go in and out of it, just as if it were a job, making a living off of the swamp's most visible products. There are also so many other, not so visible, by-products that all of us, to one extent or another, live off the mangroves. In this sense, we are all people of the ñanga.
Beginning a number of years ago, the Danish Development Authority (DANIDA) has been advising people who live off the ñanga, teaching them how to keep this ecosystem—their environment and livelihood—both alive and vigorous. The DANIDA-MANGROVE project identifies those trees that not only can be cut, but should be cut. Among them are those attacked by termites, which destroy the trunk from the inside, leaving it hollow, and those too old and tall, which damage the growth of other trees by not letting through sufficient sunlight.
To facilitate its work with the firewood cutters, the project helps them organize into cooperatives where they receive technical training on how to properly manage the trees. They learn how to recognize a sick tree and a healthy one, which ones to cut and how to cut them, and how to make the best possible use of each cutting.
José Hernández is part of a firewood cutters' cooperative that works according to the DANIDA-MANGROVE orientations. In his case, one cannot say, as in stories, "Every morning, José Hernández takes his ax and marches off to the forest to cut firewood..." Because in the ñanga, the sea and its tides, not a clock or the sun, marks the time.
To go deep into the ñanga, Juan and his partners have to wait for high tide, then paddle their long dugout canoes through the estuary's labyrinth of water and mangrove branches until finding the trees that are to be cut. Then they wait for low tide to begin work. Cutting the trees and hauling them onto the canoe must be done at low tide, and one sinks constantly into the mud. When enough trees have been cut, there's another wait for the tide to rise again so they can return to the sawmill, where the huge trunks are pared down to marketable size.
This whole process requires several tides. The tree fellers take advantage of high tide to sleep, whatever hour that happens to be, and work at low tide. After three or four days of this, they are ready to go back out of the ñanga, leaving behind clouds of mosquitoes and many other dangers. It is a backbreaking and poorly paid way to make a living. Walking through the mangroves without having to hold anything, or do any work, is hard enough. What must it be like to try and cut wood under these conditions? In any case, the work keeps people eating every day, and, in today's neoliberal Nicaragua, that's more than some people do.
José Hernández holds that neither he nor any of the 19 other cooperative members cut healthy trees. "It's not in our interest, because if we cut all the trees, we'll have nothing left later." All the firewood cut by José and the others, which is now filling an enormous tractor trailer, has one thing in common: it has been eaten away by termites.
"Before, yes," he confesses, "we destroyed everything. Any tree was good enough for us. But now we're more careful. We're aware of what's going on now. The project has explained things to us, they've given us workshops. So now we only cut sick trees."
Sea Life NurseryThe roots of the mangrove trees form a kind of network in which only very small species or the offspring of large species can live and move around. Mangrove trees constantly drop their old leaves and produce other new ones—this mass of vegetation falls into the stagnant, brackish water and rots there, undisturbed. The water rises and falls, but there are no waves. There would have to be a huge storm at sea for the water in the interior part of the mangroves to even ripple, because the trees closer to the sea act as a buffer.
For all these reasons, mangrove swamps are a magnificent place for many kinds of insects to lay their eggs. In fact, one of the worst charges made against the mangroves is that they end up being a mammoth hatchery of insects, many of which are a danger to human health. But the eggs and larvae of the insects are good feed for many aquatic species. The swamp water is like a highly nutritious soup for the marine species that live there in key stages of their infancy, when they most need to eat. The tangled roots also form a safe place: the infants of the species can eat abundantly with no risk of being eaten. The mangrove is thus the nursery, as it were, of the seas. For all practical purposes, the majority of the marine species, marketable or not, depend on the mangrove during some important stage of their life. Among such species are anchovies, groupers and catfish. And, of course, shrimp.
Harnessing the Shrimp CycleShrimp have a very short life cycle—they live scarcely a year and a half. During that time, they travel a long circular route from the high sea to the mangroves, where they live for some time, before returning to the ocean for mating. Each female lays between 500 and 1,000 eggs, already fertilized, and entrusts them to the sea. The tides drag the eggs away and when some 20-22 days have gone by, those that, with luck, have hatched into larvae and made it to the estuaries start searching for the most intricate places of the mangrove coves. Before getting there, the larvae are fairly autonomous and can feed off the microscopic algae—phytoplankton—and the tiny sea animals known as zooplankton.
In the estuary, the shrimp live for three months, which we can consider their infancy and adolescence. During this time they feed well enough to return at maturity to the sea. where they will live out their lives.
Shrimp farming uses this cycle for commercial ends. The larvae are captured in the estuaries and coves and taken to special tanks for fattening. But greed makes human beings myopic. To exploit shrimp farming to the maximum and reduce the costs of exploitation to a minimum, some people have destroyed large areas of mangroves to build the tanks. Shrimp farming, which depends directly on the mangroves, actually wipes them out in the search for a few quick dollars.
The pools can feasibly be installed in the salt flats immediately behind the mangroves, which are unable to produce anything. It means making the input channels and water piping a little longer, but anyone able to invest a million dollars in "planting" 100 hectares of shrimp—the minimum invested by the large shrimp companies—could just as easily spend a little more to maintain the mangroves, on which shrimp and dozens of other species depend. Scientific data show that more life is produced in the mangrove swamps than in all the world's ponds put together.
What happens is that many of those who "buy" a few acres of mangrove land feel as if they own it and thus have the right to do to what they like with the ecosystem. And the first thing that occurs to many is to cut the trees and dry the land—ostensibly for health reasons. The devastating effects then suffered with the loss of this space and life are felt first by fishermen, whose catch at high sea is drastically reduced. It also happens that those who buy a mangrove swamp, if they want banking credit to make it productive, must make "improvements" in order to get that credit. According to some off-base banking criteria, the first "improvement" demanded on land with trees, whether mangroves or not, is to chop those trees down. Only then does the loan money start to flow.
Emancipated Women Nicaragua's Pacific coast mangrove swamps are also the stage for a reality that wasn't exactly on the agenda: women's struggle for their emancipation.
In the Mangroves
It all began in 1987, when 35 women organized themselves into the "Lucrecia Lindo" cooperative to take up shrimp farming. From the beginning, these women saw respect for nature as important so they decided to install the fattening tank in the salt flats behind the mangroves.
Building those installations meant very hard work over a long period of time. But the greatest obstacle was not the work; it was their husbands and women who were not part of the project. Zoila González, a founder of that cooperative who will stay in it at any cost, has many bitter memories. "Since we had to go out to work when it was still dark, we'd go around to the women's houses to wake each other up, because if we didn't, many would stay fast asleep. And people from the village said, 'Oh, there go those—a curse word here—horny women. Where are they going, leaving their homes when it's not even light yet, if not for that? A woman should be in her home, she's got no business being out on the streets, particularly at night.' And it went on like that day after day."
Some men forced their wives to choose between them and the cooperative; most of those women resigned from the cooperative. Others, though they had courage to spare, lacked the physical strength to take on such hard work. There are currently 16 women in the cooperative, owners of their own lives and their futures. They speak confidently with bankers, discussing their criteria, and not letting a thing get by.
Nothing goes by them. In fact, they have even begun another project—raising iguanas, a species natural to the mangroves and one rapidly being decimated. The iguana has tender, flavorful meat, like chicken, and its eggs are prized as well and fetch a good price. The cooperative's iguana farm has three objectives: sell the meat and eggs; sell the docile, affectionate, easy-to-care for iguanas as pets; and send baby iguanas back out into the mangroves to repopulate.
Since the women of the "Lucrecia Lindo" cooperative all have a number of children, they are not satisfied with this income. So they are also planting fruit trees and vegetables next to the ponds, to diversify their family diet. DANIDA-MANGROVE workers provide technical assistance through training courses.
The evident success scored by these women has led to the organization of four other all-women cooperatives in the area. And the men, who constantly predicted disaster for those daring to defy established order, no longer dare say a word. In fact, a number of men who abandoned founding members of the "Lucrecia Lindo" cooperative to go off with other, less determined women, now watch as they, too, join a similar cooperative. Reality has left these men without a single argument.
Lots Still to Learn Very little is known about mangroves, and the few studies done come primarily from Southeast Asia, so are not necessarily pertinent to the Nicaraguan coasts. Applying the existing knowledge to the country's reality is difficult.
For the last two years, the DANIDA-MANGROVE project has been doing ongoing research on mangroves in the Royal Estuary, so that the knowledge gathered there can be applied to other areas in the country. Biologists Chester Conrado and Leonel Martínez and ecologist Silvia Palacios make up a team coordinated by engineer Ninoska Hurtado that is currently doing research indispensable to initiating scientific management of Nicaragua's mangroves.
"I'm not a big supporter of the romantic forest, or the romantic mangrove," says botanist Alfredo Grijalva. "I think they should be used to our benefit, but with certain criteria. We must understand what we're doing, and take care of our resources so they are renewed and will serve coming generations as well."
It is still unclear how long mangrove trees take to grow, how much time is needed to replenish them or how to restore them to areas where they have already disappeared. It is known that, where mangrove swamps still exist, they defend the coastline from damage by the sea. The mangrove trees' dense crowns break up the first blow from a tidal wave. The water still travels on to the more populated zones, but in a tamed, inoffensive form. In the United States, where vast extensions of mangroves have disappeared, enormous and very costly dikes have had to be constructed. And they don't always do their job as well as the mangrove, which was there for the asking.
Mangrove swamps have historically been "damned" areas, and the people living near them stereotyped as suspicious. Hollywood has done mangroves a disservice, portraying them only as the spooky hideout of villains, or the backdrop for a hair-raising speedboat chase. They are clearly much more complex—as is everything that is close to life itself.
BIODIESEL: THE MIRACLE OF A "USELESS" TREE
According to scientific data, "tempate" (Jatropha curcas L.) is an oleaginous bushy tree belonging to the Euforbiaceas family, which has more than 3,500 species grouped into 210 types.
But the less scientific and more concrete truth is that tempate is an apparently useless and fairly ugly tree. So useless and ugly that it was virtually wiped out in Nicaragua, because nobody took the trouble to plant it, or let it grow. It is used as live fencing only because its poisonous fruit scares off cattle and thus helps keep them in the pastures.
Tempate doesn't work as a shade tree, because in the summer, when the heat is at its worst, the leaves fall off. Nor is it appropriate for firewood, because it does not burn well. In a word, it's a tree that's not good for anything.
The News Came from AfricaThe hint of a possibility that the tree might be good for something came from an unusual place: Africa. There, tempate, a purely South American tree, arrived in Portuguese slave ships that trafficked with Brazil.
In the African countries of Cape Verde, Madagascar and Mali, the juice of the seed was used to produce an oil that could be used for cooking and for public lighting as well. The arrival of this information to Nicaragua and the good use to which it has been put could be considered an expression of the fruits borne by efficient South-South communication. Once the unexplored possibilities of tempate became known, a problem emerged: there were almost no tempate trees left in Nicaragua. Two women, engineers Maritza Sánchez and Josefina Romo, headed up the search for the lost tree.
"Very few were left, they were isolated and we had no way to know which had the best genetic characteristics to make diesel," explains Romo. "We had to resort to selecting the best and obtain the seed for replanting based on the phenotype." In other words, by sight. When they saw a tempate with elegant characteristics, they collected its seeds to begin an experimental plantation with two objectives: beginning the tests to get vegetable-based diesel and harvesting new seeds to expand the planting area.
Austria Lends a HandResearch about tempate has been underway for three years in the Division of Research and Technological Orientation of Nicaragua's National Engineering University (UNI), with financing from the Austrian government through the Sucher and Holzer firm.
Nikolaus J. Foidl, director of the Austrian project component, explains that in his country there is long experience in the preparation of vegetable oil-based fuel. For decades now, oil derivatives obtained from a seed known as colza have been used to power all heavy machinery in the country.
"Of the immense variety of plants on the planet, only 1.5% have been seriously studied," Foidl points out. "And of those, only 10% are really put to use. There is much work to be done. You can be sure that all humanity's needs have answers in plants, which are a renewable resource."
The TempateTempate is a tree with a third- world calling. It prefers marginal and eroded lands to grow on, lands that have been exhausted and no longer serve for agricultural activity. One variety brought from Cape Verde needs very little water to grow—200-500 mm. of precipitation annually is enough, although it can also take rains up to 2,000 mm. annually. In a word, tempate can grow where almost nothing else does and can get by in flood or drought conditions.
Its productivity is also like that of a poor person—it begins to produce in a profitable way one year after it's planted. Production increases yearly during the first five years and it stabilizes at that point for its 30-50 remaining years of life.
At the moment, a number of cooperatives located on the poor, clay soils of Telica, department of León, have begun to plant tempate to harvest the seed from which biodiesel is extracted. In this first agricultural cycle (1993-94), between 2,200 and 2,550 pounds are expected per acre in a 120 acre plantation. The entire harvest has already been sold to UNI's Tempate Project.
This year's crop created 80 jobs. But in the next cycle, the cooperatives plan to increase the planted area to as much as 2,300 acres, which would generate more than 1,200 new jobs. In Telica, 80% of the nearly 25,000 inhabitants are unemployed.
Everything Gets UsedThe tempate fruit is like a coffee-colored ping-pong ball. Inside, wrapped up in a parchment shell, are a number of seeds of the size, shape and appearance of an almond, though whiter. To get the almond out, the fruit has to be peeled. But since the tempate is a tree for the poor, the peel is also used. It is not thrown out, but is stored in a special tank where, through a natural process, it is transformed into biogas and liquid fertilizer.
With this first step, the almonds are obtained—still wrapped in their parchment husk. It is freed by drying the seeds in a special oven. From there, the seed goes to a mill where the almond is separated from that husk, which is sent back to the drying oven to be used as fuel, since nothing is wasted here.
Meanwhile, the seed is pressed and, with this step, two products are obtained. One is the juice of the seed, which is a vegetable oil that can be used for human consumption. The other is a cake, what is left of the seed after it has been pressed.
This cake, which contains some toxic components, is also very useful—once the dangerous elements are eliminated. It is transformed into an excellent and balanced cattle feed, with a protein content over 50%.
Nicaragua imports 10,000 tons of balanced cattle feed annually. If the tempate is adequately used, these imports could be reduced and eventually eliminated, with the subsequent savings in hard currency.
Modify the Motors Vegetable oil has been used as fuel since ancient times. Oil lamps illuminated the silent nights of antiquity and still burn in the shrines of Catholic temples. In more recent times, experiments have been carried out to use vegetable oil in fuel-injection diesel machinery. But after a number of attempts—in Brazil, Canada and Thailand—it was proven that oil, due to its high viscosity, molecular mass, high inflammatory point and formation of solid residues, poses serious difficulties to normal motors designed to run on diesel.
or the Oil?
Tempate oil presents the same problems as any other vegetable oil, and thus two alternatives were proposed: modify existing motors so they can function with vegetable oil, or modify the vegetable oil so it can make existing motors function. The first alternative is beyond Nicaragua's technological possibilities. Thus, the alternative of developing research along the lines of transforming the oil prevailed.
Chemistry IntervenesThere is a chemical process known as trans-esterification. It consists of converting an ester of one organic acid into another of lesser molecular mass. This process takes place through a reaction of alcoholization with methanol, ethanol, butanol and others. Stated this way, it would seem to be a very complicated process, but in reality it is a technology that can be implemented in Nicaragua without difficulties.
In this process, a product is formed called Methylitic Ester of Tempate Oil (EMAT), which is essentially a combination of esters of the different greasy acids contained in oil. EMAT has combustion characteristics similar to diesel, but produces less residues. It is purer, which avoids environmental contamination.
Mistreated Mother EarthIn ancient times, when dinosaurs—so popular today—walked the earth, or perhaps even before, the earth's atmosphere had a high carbon content. So much carbon that life as we know it today would have been very difficult.
Planet Earth, as if preparing to draw to it in an embrace this animal species known as "homo sapiens" spent millions of years burying this excess carbon in the earth and converting it into hydrocarbons. But civilized man invented the automobile and the need for cheap liquid fuel. And, in less than 100 years, man has once again cast into the atmosphere an incalculable amount of the carbon that Mother Earth had so painstakingly hidden away.
Like a sorcerer's apprentice, man touched off the emission of carbon, ignoring the complex consequences of that action. This is one of the many advantages that vegetable-based fuel presents—it returns to the biosphere what the tree took away. It changes, but does not upset the balance and nature has more than enough mechanisms to redistribute elements in the best fashion.
Reviving the DesertTempate is a species that can be developed in soils that are leeched and virtually useless due to poor agricultural practices. Tempate grows in these soils and when the dry season comes, its leaves fall and turn into mulch, enriching the ravaged land. The roots of the tempate are not very deep, but even so they help retain rainwater and assist it in penetrating the subsoil through to the water table. Like all trees, it is beneficial to and helps balance the ecosystem. With its green leaves and through the process of photosynthesis, it contributes oxygen to the atmosphere and to the cleansing of increasingly abundant toxins and pollutants. Although it is a tree with many uses, tempate continues to be a tree. The soils exhausted by human lack of vision little by little recover their fertility and are very well used. And in the shade of the tempate, the streams that dried up due to a process of desertification will surely run again.
But there is still one more aspect to take into account. It is common to see images flickering across the television of marine birds agonizing with their feathers dripping with oil, consequence of another ecological disaster. These disasters would not happen if tempate was used, because there would be nothing to transport. The tree could be planted and the EMAT obtained in the same place where the fuel was to be consumed, a tremendous savings. And in the case that there would be any problems along the short distance in which the fuel would be transported, nature would only need one week to reabsorb and reincorporate the EMAT. Everything goes, nothing remains.
Cheaper DieselObtaining EMAT is very economical. The final price to the consumer could be less than the current price of conventional diesel and would have an additional advantage—it would save the precious hard currency that represents such a sacrifice for the country.
For now, tempate cultivation has only one experimental use: obtaining seed to extend planted areas. Studies show that, to satisfy the current national demand for diesel, it would be necessary to plant 400,000 acres with tempate. This area might seem immense, but not when one takes into account that tempate can be cultivated on lands of all types. In the Pacific region alone, Nicaragua has 3.7 million acres of marginal lands. In other words, even if, due to some unimaginable economic miracle, Nicaragua were to multiply its demand for diesel by 10, tempate would still be able to meet that demand by using marginal lands from just one area of the country. Added to all this must be the savings of foreign exchange for fuel, the obtaining of fertilizers and insecticides and, moreover, the production of glycerine as a result of the process of trans-esterification.
Thousands of JobsThe marginalized always survive on marginal lands. If marginal lands begin to have value, it would be normal for the marginal to be marginalized once again, thrown off their revalued lands and relocated on other, useless, lands.
In the case of Nicaraguan tempate an effort is being made to see that this typical situation not be repeated. The goal is to ensure that the cooperatives that cropped up on lands nobody else wanted remain there, planting, harvesting and processing tempate from beginning to end, so that the benefits stay in the hands of the eternally forgotten.
For now, that is happening. There is still little to be shared, but measures are being taken to avoid a situation where things fall apart once there is more to divide. At the moment, it is calculated that, in addition to the permanent jobs the plantations will require, thousands of seasonal jobs will be generated, jobs that could offer a minimum salary of some 16-18 córdobas a day, at the current value. Currently, the average salary in the temperate zones is 7 córdobas daily, and that only for those lucky enough to find work.
Nicaragua in the LeadNicaragua is the first country in the world where research on trans-esterification of tempate oil is taking place and thus the place where this research is most advanced. At this time, Nicaragua is developing state-of-the-art technology in the sphere of vegetable-based fuels, a technology of the future, since the world's petroleum supplies are drying up. Our small and underdeveloped country could even achieve the conditions necessary to export this technology. The machinery to obtain EMAT or biodiesel is already designed and under construction.
By 1996, EMAT could be used massively in the country's vehicles and heavy machinery, according to estimates by the scientists working to develop this technology. To do this, 1,000 hectares of tempate would have to be planted in the area's western region and a processing plant installed, in conjunction with the state petroleum company, PETRONIC.
The foreign exchange savings would be very important. In 1992, Nicaragua spent $20 million on gasoline imports, $43 million on a bunker for generating electricity and, for diesel—which could be replaced by EMAT—$33 million.
One last detail. What changes or adaptations would have to be made in cars and gas station diesel pumps to begin the distribution and consumption of EMAT or biodiesel? The answer is simple: none. Absolutely nothing would need to be changed.
THE SACRED JICARO TREE: AN ECONOMIC SOLUTION
As the old Mayan codes tell it, the jícaro tree grew out of the liberation of the people. Recent scientific research is finding that this tree offers economic responses that could help liberate our impoverished peasantry today.
Jícaro trees abound in Nicaragua's arid western zones—the dry tropics. With no encouragement from anyone, a jícaro seed will suddenly sprout and flourish in any old vacant lot or garden.
The tree itself is striking and unusual. Its ligneous trunk and thin, twisted branches rise up gracefully during the dry season. In the rainy season, it is covered with stiff little green leaves that shake gently in the wind. Year-round it is adorned with gourd-like, round or oval green balls called jícaras, which appear in the least expected places. They are not a fruit, but an excrescence, a swelling of the tree's woody parts.
These jícaras have a very hard shell and, inside, a dark purplish pulp, very spongy, where the seeds are embedded. To date, the seeds have only been used to prepare a beverage called horchata and some home remedies. Since time immemorial, those who live in the lands of the jícaro—or morro, as the tree is known in other Central American countries—have used the shell of the jícara to make bowls and scoops for household use. Simple or intricately etched glasses are made out of the oval jícaras, from which people drink horchata or the corn-based pinolillo.
Beautiful but PoorThe jícaro is a beautiful, but poor tree. Or, rather, it is impoverished, like the descendants of those pre-Colombian Mayans who worshipped it as sacred, and sang of it in the Popul Vuh. Like them, the jícaro has been uprooted from the good lands—now dedicated to more profitable crops—and relegated to marginal zones where there has been neither infrastructure of any type nor attention to the human beings eking out a living there.
The tree prefers the sandy, porous clay soils of the dry savannah, but it has been forced to adapt to the uniquely impossible lands in Nicaragua useful only for extensive cattle pasture. Beneath a few inches of topsoil in these areas lies a deep bed of solid clay that in the rainy season becomes slippery, but not porous, preventing water from filtering down to the roots that have managed to penetrate it. In the dry season this clay quickly hardens like a vast, baked brick, strangling the roots. Only the jícaro's strong, tough roots can easily withstand the dry season in this kind of soil. They remain intact while the land all around them dries up.
The roots go very deep, which allows the tree to deal with the tremendous variations suffered by this soil in which it grows. Since the roots can get to and absorb nutrients that few others can, the tree does not need artificial fertilizers or pesticides. It would seem that its long exodus to the planet's worst lands has virtually immunized the tree against all types of plagues.
Jícaro trees are the vegetable version of goats. They are strong and resistant, need very little to grow robust, and thrive in places and under conditions that would be virtually impossible for any other species. For these reasons, both the jícaro and the goat are seen through deprecating eyes: they are a tree and an animal for the "poor."
A Well-Studied TreeUnfortunately, the poor don't have the opportunity to investigate how much more these trees could give if they had the chance to develop in an optimal medium instead of being forced—like themselves—to subsist in such restricted conditions.
The jícaro tree has, however, been the subject of much research. The first studies in Central America regarding its possibilities date back to 1948, when the quality of its proteins caught the attention of a research group in El Salvador. Peasants had already observed that when cows ate jícara pulp, their milk was more flavorful, creamy and nutritional. That was the point of departure for the studies.
The most researched elements of the jícaro were the oil of its seed and the sugar in the pulp surrounding the jícara. A number of Central American countries worked along these lines, although it happened, as it often does, that each country worked alone, without sharing experiences or communicating with the others.
With a significant amount of this dispersed scientific literature in hand, a German named Karsten Jochim built a jícaro processing plant in 1983 to obtain ethanol and other products. But the results were not what he hoped for, so he gave up the project; the jícaro once again fell into oblivion.
Its Fruits Are ManyJochim's apparent failure did not dampen the enthusiasm of Nikolaus J. Foidl, who came to Nicaragua in 1989 at the head of an Austrian research team. His visit was the result of an agreement between his government, the Sucher and Holzer Company and Managua's National Engineering University (UNI).
Two years ago, the mixed team of Austrian and Nicaraguan researchers began experiments on the jícaro's potential, its practical uses and the economic investment required to make cultivating it profitable.
They discovered or corroborated a number of important things. Among them, that vegetable oil for human consumption can be obtained from the jícaro, as can ethanol, an alcohol for pharmaceutical uses or the production of spirits, vegetable-based charcoal, and both a flour and a pulp used in animal feed concentrate.
Villanueva of the JícarosVillanueva is a municipality in Chinandega, located near the Honduran border in the midst of a virtually endless stand of jícaro—or, to say it in a less idyllic-sounding way, in the midst of huge extensions of good-for-nothing land.
Villanueva's economically active population is officially 5,855 people, of whom 22.6% are totally unemployed. Another 21% are "seasonal" workers, which translates to absolute unemployment during a good part of the year combined with periods of work at salaries that do not allow them to save anything. Yet another 21% are self-employed, which really means they are under-employed, and survive only because they're too stubborn to die. Only 15.6% are full-time workers, but, considering Nicaragua's meager average wage—equivalent to $100 monthly in the urban areas and less in the countryside—they can't really consider themselves fortunate. The rest are agricultural cooperative members who grow little when they grow anything at all since they can't get financing—their lands are not even considered for credit, since they are so marginal.
As an inevitable consequence of the municipality's poverty, nobody is interested in investing there, least of all the government. A neoliberal government is not an institution of national responsibility, much less of social justice or charity. It only has caricature-like effects on society, accentuating its characteristics to the nth degree: it makes the poor even poorer, and the rich quite a lot richer.
Villanueva, already seriously poor, is becoming downright impoverished, with neither investment nor infrastructure, increasingly forgotten and abandoned. Lack of opportunity and hunger, paired with alcoholism—the brother of desperation—and crime, are taking hold of Villanueva with the grip of an epidemic.
As a survival mechanism, the boldest dedicate themselves to rustling cattle across the border to Honduras. Nicaragua's increasingly scarce cattle wealth is thus slipping out through Villanueva's poverty-torn pocket.
A Little Light Because of its extensive jícaro groves and the pressing need to find some solution to its many economic, social and human problems, Villanueva has been chosen by the Austrian-Nicaraguan team as the installation site for the first agroindustrial jícaro-processing plant. "...Without planting anything for now," explains Foidl. "We'll just use the trees that are spontaneously growing on municipal lands."
At the Tunnel's End
At the moment, the projections are to install only a small processing plant, with its corresponding equipment. The value of the installations is a little more than $500,000.
The plant will have a capacity to produce 33,000 gallons of ethanol annually, which is the same amount Nicaragua now imports every year. The price of a metric ton of ethanol on the international market is $2,000; the project will produce it at a cost of $900. Since the price of alcohol is state-regulated, work could go on in this area with assured profitability.
The pilot project will also produce 75 tons of crude edible oil to supply the country's processing plants. Those plants are having tremendous difficulties as a consequence of the cotton crisis, which has left them without their key raw material—cottonseed.
They are currently forced to import 80% of the country's cooking oil consumption a year, equal to 24,000 tons, so the oil that Villanueva's pilot project will produce will barely meet 0.4% of Nicaragua's annual demand. That may seem an insignificant quantity, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that oil is only one fruit of a project that is beginning with a minimal investment. More than anything, the Villanueva population can be assured of a market.
Protecting the ForestThe Jícaro tree's ligneous bark is an excellent raw material for vegetable-based charcoal. The country currently consumes some 20,500 metric tons of charcoal, equivalent to some 1,000 hectares of burned forest.
The Villanueva project will produce some 250 tons annually, thus avoiding the destruction of some 13 hectares of forest lands. This also might seem like very little, but it is a first, important step towards a desirable industrialization of the jícaro bark.
With the experience gained in this pilot project, it will be possible in the future to have all vegetable-based charcoal come from jícaro bark. This would significantly protect Nicaragua's forests. Since most of the wood cut to make charcoal is used domestically, the Austrian-Nicaraguan team is also working to improve the efficiency of cooking stoves, so they use less charcoal.
The charcoal obtained from jícaro bark does not look like the charcoal housewives now use, so they might reject it. To thwart this possibility, the charcoal will be pressed in a special machine so it takes on the same form and color as what is already used in many kitchens throughout the country.
As for the flour and concentrate cakes used for cattle feed, the market is ready-made. Nicaragua is a cattle-ranching country that today must import both these products. Even Villanueva is a cattle-ranching zone that needs them.
To get all these products so indispensable to the national economy, the new project will use barely half of the 7,000 hectares of seemingly valueless jícaro forest that extend the length and breadth of Villanueva.
In a couple of years, when the project begins to function, it will need some of the water and electricity now coming into the municipality, but not too much (only 5% of its electricity and 11% of its water). The public water utility pumps water to only 16% of Villanueva's houses; wells supply the rest. The potential problems that could come with project installation are thus few and will surely be resolved quickly.
Jobs and TaxesAmong the positive results, the first will be the generation of jobs. Not too many full-time ones, since the processing plant will only need 11 or 12 people year round at first, but it will need 500 harvesters for four months every year. And they are the best four months, between January, the end of the crop harvest, and May, when the land must be prepared for the next planting cycle. In other words, the months of greatest desperation and hunger in the countryside.
Each harvester will make about $200. It's not much, an average of about $50 monthly. But in Nicaragua, where the whole family usually works in a given harvest, it would work out to about $600 over the four months, which would put a bit of bread on the table. For families that have the bleakest of horizons today, even that is hard to come by.
The plant will also pay taxes to the municipality. At the moment, it is calculated that those taxes will be at least $10,000 annually, which could be invested in the improvements so needed by the community.
Where there is nothing, nobody invests. But if something already exists that is producing and functions successfully, it acts as an incentive to other investments and projects. The project's positive results should oblige the government to make investments that will benefit those who have historically been excluded.
To start with, it will be important to improve the roads in the area, because the project is designed to buy the jícaras at the processing plant, so reasonably accessible roads will be needed to transport them there. The products will also have to get from the plant to their various markets. All of this activity will strengthen transportation services and improve the road networks, with the corresponding indirect advantages.
To guarantee that the project has as many beneficial results as possible and that the benefits stay in the area, the project will by implemented and developed by cooperatives.
Much Still to be Done"All of this can be achieved with a small plant that takes advantage of only half of the jícaros in only one municipality, without attempting to improve them or plant anything," says Foidl. "But now the real work begins—to obtain better jícaros, with optimum density and fruits increasingly appropriate to our aims."
Growing in the wild, as they do today, tree density is between 20 and 240 trees per hectare. The quantity of jícaras per tree ranges between 5 and 600 a year, with an average of 60. Tree sizes range tremendously as well, which could mean that scientifically controlled genetic improvement would translate into trees producing many more jícaras than the current average, and larger ones, with a higher protein, sugar and oil content.
The jícaro's green gourds are its greatest wealth. Their production begins when the tree is between four and five years old and peaks, in the case of wild jícaros, at between eight and twelve years. Foidl's team has proposed to develop research aimed at obtaining a jícaro tree that can live in densities greater than 400 trees per hectare, and has a per-tree production of 200 jícaras weighing an average 350-380 grams.
Cane or Jícaro Ethanol?With this kind of average yield, industrial production of ethanol could begin. Ethanol is a clean fuel that could replace gasoline. There are motors today that were designed to use ethanol and many vehicles that use these motors. The only problem is that if the motor currently uses gasoline, it would have to be changed.
Sugar cane is an important source for ethanol production. With 100 kg. of sugar cane, seven liters of ethanol can be obtained, whereas 100 kg. of jícaro pulp can produce only six liters. But there are many problems with using sugar cane for ethanol production, not the least of which is the cost of cultivation. Sugar cane needs mechanization, and thus fuel, as well as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer. Jícaro needs none of that. It grows on its own, without anybody worrying much about it.
Sugar cane also needs fairly good soils, which over time are eroded and degraded. The jícaro grows in any soil and, little by little, the land is enriched and improved through the leaves that fall and serve as natural fertilizer. Cane only produces sugar and its derivatives and ethanol, and nothing else can grow on the land at the same time. Jícaro produces oil, ethanol, charcoal and livestock concentrate, and its lace-like shade lets sunlight pass down to the ground, allowing for cattle pasturing at the same time.
Everything is UsedTransforming the jícaras into the different products takes place in distinct stages, which try to make maximum use of the raw material and leave the smallest possible amount of waste. The first step is in a triturator with three exit ports—one for the pulp, one for the seeds and one for the shell.
The pulp undergoes a fermentation and distillation process that culminates in the production of alcohol and a product called "vinaza," which is used as cattle feed.
The seeds, after being dried, are stored in silos until they are put through a press. That process makes the feed cakes for cattle and an oil highly mixed with flour. A filtering press then extracts the crude edible oil from the flour. Once separated, the flour is also used for animal feed.
The shell goes to a carbonizer, which turns it into charcoal. During this process, inflammable gasses are released, which are used for alcohol distillation. Thus, no other fuel is needed for the operations necessary to transform the different parts of the jícara.
The Most Important ElementBecause this tree lets sunlight through and allows for the growth of pasture during the rainy season, the jícaro combines well with extensive cattle-ranching. Traditionally, the jícaro, tree of the poor, has been linked to raising "skinny cows."
The jícaro zones, and Villanueva in particular, are the areas where, in the best of times, the national cattle herd is reproduced and expanded. Now, the small cattle ranchers in these miserable zones carry on their shoulders the tremendous burden of replacing the cattle that have been lost to death, slaughter and cattle rustling since the beginning of the war. Without their valuable contribution, Nicaragua would no longer have cattle.
But they are poor ranchers, raising "skinny cows." They can produce calves, but can't turn them into big steers. When the animals' appetites become voracious in the last stage of infancy, these small breeders simply do not have enough to feed them. So they sell them off. Otherwise the animals would just die of hunger. And they sell them at disadvantageous prices since an animal weighing under 200 kg. has no commercial value. This is the moment when the large cattle rancher appears—the one who never sees a calf born on his land—and buys the animal for a song. It may have no commercial value, but the most difficult, expensive and dangerous stage of its development has passed, the time of high mortality, vaccinations, the sleepless nights with a sick animal. The big ranchers, who want nothing to do with this stage, then fatten the animals on their extensive pasture and finally sell them for beef on the international market at a handsome profit.
Although the jícaro produces an emerald-colored feed inside the jícaras that is excellent for fattening cattle, the small breeders can't gather enough gourds, split them open and get the substance in sufficient quantities to really satisfy their calves. And that's where another aspect of the project comes in. Processing the jícaro makes this high-quality feed available to these breeders at precisely the time when no pasture is available. Thus they could fatten their calves and sell them at higher prices, and truly enjoy the fruit of their efforts.
Both the risks and the benefits would thus be democratized. The risks, because if the large ranchers wanted to sell beet, they would have to raise the calves, with all the corresponding losses. And the benefits, because the small breeders would get all the fruits of their efforts. That—sharing both risks and benefits equitably—is also democracy.
THE MARANGO MAKES MAGIC IN WATER
It can grow to a height of 15 meters, it offers both shade and beauty, its flowers are whitish-yellow and its seeds are able to work the wonder of purifying the drinking water in any household or in the water systems of the largest cities.
Current industry and technology would seem to have the conditions to confront all problems and satisfy all needs. But their responses and solutions sometimes create even more serious problems. At that point, the eyes of the high-karat scientists turn to plants, those simple plants that grow so silently and tenaciously, and discover in them the true solutions.
This is what has taken place with the treatment to make water potable. In the developed countries, an aluminum sulphate process is used, but there is a known but so far little studied relation between the aluminum and the terrible sickness known as Alzheimer's disease. Nature has an alternative response: a slender and graceful tree known as the "marango" (moringa olifera) can solve the same problem in less time, at less cost and with fewer health risks. Its seeds are a magic wand that can clean up water.
Chinese Women Knew ItThe marango tree originally comes from the very heart of Asia. It grows in the sub-Himalayan regions, between 600 and 700 meters above sea level. During the British occupation of India and neighboring countries, the marango was scattered throughout the world in the knapsacks of His Majesty's soldiers. Its beauty, the charm of its blossoms and its rapid growth quickly made this tree a much-prized decoration in British gardens.
The marango had long been known in China, where it sparked the interest of women. Forced to give their children water from the sandy currents of the Yangtze, the women had discovered that the seeds of the beautiful tree providing shade for their homes possessed the ability to drag the contaminants in a recipient of water down to the bottom and insure that the mud would not rise again to the top. The water itself was transformed into clear and clean liquid.
The women also discovered that, to obtain this effect, it was necessary to stir up the water with the marango seeds. They did it their way: they rubbed the seeds into dust against the rough surface of the clay recipients where water is stored. Naturally, the Chinese women acquired this knowledge over years, observing and sharing experiences, commenting among themselves, through the trial and error process that has made science advance to the point of reaching the miracles that so amaze us today.
If Fairies ExistedThe marango made it to the Sudan in the military backpacks of countless British soldiers. That was where Samia Al Azharia Jahn found it. She is one of the people who knows the most about the marango in the world, having dedicated more than 20 years of her life to studying the tree in eight countries in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.
If this were a tale, Samia Al Azharia Jahn would be the fairy godmother of the world's marangos, their spiritual protector—a godmother getting on in years, plump and graying, full of vitality and energy, with deep gray eyes and long rebellious hair tied up in an untidy bun.
But this is not a fairy tale and, in fact, Samia Al Azharia Jahn is a wide-ranging scientist, with post-graduate studies in chemistry, biology, medicine, genetics, botany and physiology. She studied in her native Germany—despite her Arabic-sounding name, she is absolutely German—and in Sweden as well. After carrying out various high-level biological research projects, she responded to the call of Africa that many northern Europeans have heard in their lifetimes. She went to the Sudan and Egypt, where she taught at the universities in Khartoum and Cairo.
Her investigative spirit led her to try and reach a deeper understanding of these country's legends, traditions and customs. Taking advantage of being in an Arab country, where women have almost no public interaction with men, she was able to enter prohibited arenas, reserved only for women, where the true treasures of a deep culture, of a collective soul, are kept.
As a result of this effort, she published a book on traditions and legends of the Sudan, a country with a rich tradition of voodoo and other religious rites, maintained by women and children. It was during her studies that Samia Al Azharia Jahn found the marango.
The Waters of the Nile Both the Sudan and Egypt are cut through by the Nile, that great river that transforms desert into oasis. But the Nile has surprising variations in its flow. From December to July, its waters are reasonably clean, but when they rise they become turbulent, dragging with them mud, plants and everything they find in their way. The river becomes dirty, cloudy, the color of a poor grade of chocolate. Just looking at the water is enough to take anyone's thirst away. But since there is no other water, people must drink it, even at the risk of contracting serious diseases.
The Egyptian and Sudanese women noted that along the Nile's shores is a clay that, mixed with the cloudy water, cleans it up. Several hours after mixing in this clay, the water ends up crystal clear, just like a mountain stream. The "miraculous" clay, however, has with some drawbacks. It is very scarce, is found only in certain places and is not easily marketed. Additionally, it is a non-renewable resource: when it's gone, that's it.
The Sudanese women—who have the same problem as their Egyptian sisters—had observed that the marango seeds had the same property as this miraculous clay. And it had a number of advantages over the clay: the tree can grow in the yard of any house, offers great shade and assures that, as long as there are seeds, there will be clean water.
In addition, the clay had to be measured out according to the water's muddiness, and great care had to be taken to add just the right amount. It's much easier with the seeds: even if too many are put in, the water uses just the amount necessary, making errors impossible.
A Fairy GodmotherIn her search for traditions, stories and customs of the population living along the shores of the Nile, Samia Al Azharia Jahn spoke with the women who passed down their ancestral customs from generation to generation. These Muslim women did not see her as a threat, but as someone with whom they could speak, someone who would be surprised by things that all the neighborhood women already knew. Samia took her young son with her, which made it easier to enter into the homes of the women. A woman, particularly a poor woman, will always sympathize with another woman whose child is thirsty, and will generously offer hospitality and a glass of water.
With a Microscope
For a European woman, educated to fear viruses and bacteria, that water often had a rather threatening aspect. Yet, in some homes, Samia was offered perfectly clear water and began to wonder about the process that water underwent. That's how she came to know about the clay and the marango. A laboratory analysis showed that the clay used for centuries by Egyptian and Sudanese women to purify the water was simply bentonite, a clear-colored clay made essentially of montmorillonite, a philosilicate of aluminum, magnesium and sodium originating in the transformation of volcanic ash. Montmorillonite has a number of industrial uses in developed countries; it is used to purify fuel, wines and other commercial liquid products.
As for the marango, Samia found that its seeds needed minimal treatment to produce the desired effect. They only had to be crushed with a mortar, preferably wooden, until they were reduced to dust, which was then mixed with water. To cleanse the water, the pulverized seeds or the clays had to be mixed with the water over a period of time.
From MicroparticulatesHow does the water become purified? The cleansing results from the electrical charges established between the muddy particulates suspended in the water and the pulverized particulates of clay or marango seed. The electrical currents gather the suspended particulates around the seed particulates. After a while, what began as many microscopic particulates suspended in the water due to their lack of weight, turns into thick and increasingly large macroparticulates, eventually pulled to the bottom by the force of gravity.
The marango does not guarantee that the water ends up completely free of pathogenic germs. It is cleaned, but not totally purified. But drastically reducing the number of suspended particulates also reduces the quantity of microorganisms. And those that remain are trapped among the thick macroparticulates that sink to the bottom of the recipient. Although the water is not absolutely pure, it does become drinkable.
The marango is so far only used at the household level, but it could also be used to clean up drinking water on a large scale, in sizeable cities. All that needs to be done is put more seeds in the water. The correct proportion is two groups of pulverized seeds per liter of totally muddy water. And the marango doesn't alter the water's taste.
Deadly AluminumIn all countries, piped water is treated to purify it and make it drinkable before it reaches the consumers. In most cities in the developed world, aluminum sulphate is used to this end. When little was known about its possible secondary effects, the assumption was that water was drinkable at 200 micrograms of aluminum sulphate per liter. It was noted that the aluminum sulphate led to some intestinal problems in particularly sensitive people, but that fact was not considered very important, as there were few cases.
However, with Alzheimer's disease beginning to affect growing percentages of people 55 and older, and medical research finding unexpected links between the illness and the aluminum, health authorities limited the quantity of aluminum sulphate in drinking water to 50 micrograms per liter. But with this dosage, the water becomes less drinkable, once again posing a health threat. International health authorities now face a serious dilemma. At this point, the best and safest solution would be crushed marango seeds.
Alzheimer's disease primarily affects citizens of the developed countries, largely because life expectancy in the underdeveloped countries does not generally reach the age at which the symptoms tend to become severe. The use of the marango does not guarantee the disappearance of Alzheimer's, but does eliminate one of the potential causes of its proliferation.
Also for Sewage The marango not only cleans water for drinking; it can also clean sewage so that rivers, lakes and the sea do not become sewers. With the marango, drainage outlets could become new artificial tributaries that contribute a greater and cleaner flow of water into the rivers.
The procedure is simple. It is just a question of building oxidation and sedimentation lagoons into which the sewage waters of the population centers would run. There the water would be treated with the marango seeds, and the garbage in the water would sink to the bottom of the lagoons. When enough residue is stored, the lake would be emptied out and the sediment dried, processed and pressed into cakes to be used as protein-rich cattle feed or organic fertilizer.
Since city water also contains sizeable quantities of non-organic elements, it would also be necessary to apply species of algae that can transform almost all of them into innocuous products.
Heavy metals, abundant in the wastes from large industrial centers and key sources of water contamination, can also be treated and absorbed by plants. It has been shown, for example, that a certain water lily (Scirpus lacustris) uses at least four dangerous heavy metals, including strontium and cobalt, in its metabolic processes. Rapid multiplication of these lilies generates its own problems, as seen, for example, in the artificial lake at Apanás, Jinotega, but these are compensated for by the fact that the plant serves as excellent raw material for producing biogas.
Undoubtedly, other harmful products found in sewage outlets could also receive adequate treatment with plants whose properties have yet to be fully studied.
Marango in Lake XolotlánIn the case of Lake Xolotlán (also known as Lake Managua), correct treatment of Managua's sewage outlets means the difference between life and death. For centuries, the lake has been suffering a process of dessication, accelerated in recent decades by poor agricultural practices and deforestation. The lake depends on the rivers that empty into it to maintain its levels, but it now gets virtually no water from rivers, since the major ones in the area have dried up. Only the Río Viejo from Matagalpa contributes a trickle, and it is full of agrochemicals.
The only constant and abundant flows feeding into Xolotlán today are from Managua's sewers. And the water they empty into the lake is dirty and contaminated. The lake water is thus getting dirtier and dirtier, putting the capital's livability at risk.
What would happen if the water emptying into the lake were clean, free of garbage or toxic contaminants? It is possible, not only in Xolotlán, but in all rivers and lakes of our country and the entire world—by applying these renewable resources: the marango, algaes, water lilies and others. All these plants could easily be used by countries in the South, since they are produced in the South, where investigations into their use are also taking place.
In Nicaragua's case, a biomass project is currently underway at the National Engineering University. In May 1994, Professor Samia Al Azharia Jahn was invited to spend several weeks at the university, sharing her vast knowledge regarding the marango.
Refining Cooking OilThe dust of the marango seed is not used only for cleaning dirty water, whatever its origin and destination. It can also refine oil and, with the resulting sediment, produce a paste that can be used as cattle feed.
One of the most serious problems in producing edible oil is precisely the problem of refining. Due to its viscosity, the oil has the ability to keep large quantities of particulates suspended. These particulates are what quickly make oil rancid.
All procedures used to refine oil are expensive, complicated and difficult to manage. They rely on imported technologies that underdeveloped countries must pay for with precious hard cash. Only one easy and inexpensive method can be carried out nationally: sprinkle a little marango seed into the unrefined oil and wait a few hours. When the time's up, a layer of thick high-protein sediment will have formed on the inside of the container. That can be used as animal feed, while the oil for human consumption is clear and clean, with neither strange odors or tastes.
The marango's purifying powers are superior to industrial refining methods. It is so strong that putting seed powder into officially refined cooking oil sold in any supermarket yields a considerable sediment of substances that should not be there.
Cloning Its Growth Hormone?When pressed, marango seeds—the size of a bean and found inside a pod—also produce an oil usable for human consumption. The resulting cake of residues is excellent cattle feed. In addition, the tree's leaves are very good in salads, while the roots also provide a protein-rich, tasty food.
The marango grows well in sandy soils, and is found in both tropical and subtropical lands. It also grows extremely rapidly. In less than a year, the seed becomes a lush tree some eight meters high, providing both flowers and seeds. In Nicaragua, its pretty yellow flowers, infused with honey, are used as a cough remedy.
The velocity of the tree's growth has led some scientists to believe that it contains some particularly active growth hormones that could be applied to other crops. The avocado, for example, grows relatively slowly in the tropics. If the marango's growth hormones could be isolated and used to genetically speed the growth of avocados, it could have important economic consequences for agriculture. A similar process could be used with precious woods, such as the beautiful and internationally sought-after mahogany, whose development normally takes decades.
The marango is part of the moringacea family, made up of 14 species, all of which have the same rapid growth feature. Only seven of the species have been studied. Perhaps they all harbor valuable treasures. Samia Al Azharia Jahn has devoted the most time to discovering and understanding the secrets of this vegetable family. Today she may well be found in some remote corner of the planet, anywhere the magic wand and whitish-yellow flowers of the marango beckon.
"NIM": NATURE'S OWN INSECTICIDE
When the Green Revolution, with its aggressive and short-term agricultural production methods, spread throughout the world, it promoted a negative concept of insects. Peasants who work the land daily with their own hands, however, knew that not all insects are bad. In reality, only 5% of them damage plants by eating them. The rest are beneficial or innocuous. In the long run, all insects, even the damaging ones, are beneficial when they die, because they fertilize the earth.
But the technicians, who learned everything they knew about the land in libraries, laboratories or experimental plots, imposed their criteria. And the Green Revolution advanced, accompanied by huge quantities of insecticides and pesticides, which even today, despite their poisonous effects, are still a succulent business for 10 chemical transnationals.
Poison, Destruction,Chemical insecticides are a calamity in various ways. They reduce the whole insect population, both damaging and innocuous, in drastic measure. Those who build up a resistance to their effects—for some reason, only the damaging 5%—become stronger and more voracious. With their new strength and their competitors killed off, they multiply much more quickly than is normal in the species.
Still More Poison
Years and years of indiscriminate chemical use has created a vicious circle; the insecticides must have stronger and stronger concentrations of poison to overcome the resistance of the insects, which, in turn, adapt, resist more and become even more destructive.
Agriculture obviously needs mechanisms to control damaging insects. The ideal would be a selective insecticide that only affects those that eat the crops. It would be even better if that insecticide could work in a way that would not damage the crops, but could fertilize the soil. And best of all would be if that insecticide were not also harmful to human beings, domestic animals, plants and fruits, air and water.
No laboratory has achieved this. But Nature herself has created, for those human beings that treat her so badly, a tree that provides an insecticide fulfilling all of these demands with no negative effects: the neem.
From India to NicaraguaThe neem tree, phonetically spelled nim in Nicaragua, grows 16 to 20 feet in height, with small bright green leaves and conically-shaped yellow fruit clusters that bloom through the foliage. It could be an ornamental plant in any garden because of its beauty and uniqueness.
It comes from India, its scientific name is Azadirachta indica A. Jus and it belongs to the Meliáceas family. As with almost all trees originally from India that are now found around the world, the nim's geographical extension is thanks to the mobility of the soldiers that maintained the British empire.
The nim did not find its way to Nicaragua through military means, however. In 1975, a group of British researchers planted small experimental plots to study the tree's adaptability to our climate. They abandoned the project in 1979, after the revolutionary triumph, but the then new Institute of Natural and Environmental Resources (IRENA), immediately took it over.
The experiments continued and the conclusion was reached that the nim could effectively adapt to Nicaragua. It survives droughts, helps control soil erosion, offers good shade, and is capable of creating a fresh and green microclimate in particularly dry and arid zones. When its leaves fall, they decompose and help the most starved soils recover minerals. It has good quality wood that can be used for furniture when old trees are cut down to make space for younger ones. The branches can also be used for firewood during the annual thinning process.
A Three-Pronged AttackThe nim is a complete insecticide. The active substance is present in the whole tree, but is concentrated in the seeds. The nim's insecticide is very complex and acts simultaneously in three directions against damaging crop-eating insects.
As a repellent, the nim serves to drive away certain insects. But this is not its most important function.
The nim is also a phagodeterrent: it arrests the growth of damaging insects. Insects eat plants treated by the nim insecticide, and even appear to find them more appetizing. But at a certain point in their digestive process, the insects, still at the voracious larva stage, begin to eat less and less, until they stop eating and die, before reaching sexual maturity. The damage caused to the crops by what the insects did eat can be viewed as an investment to reduce the pest population in future generations.
The third and most interesting form of the insecticide's actions is its attack on the damaging insect's hormonal system. The insect develops perfectly throughout all of its stages, apparently unaffected. The problems begin with breeding. It simply cannot. Small physical malformations prevent it; a wing that did not grow correctly, a longer or shorter leg, lack of sexual appetite, sterility. With no breeding, there are no baby insects, and the damaging insect population is reduced from generation to generation.
The nim's active ingredient is azadirachtina, whose chemical composition is so complex that the most sophisticated chemical laboratories have not been able to synthetically produce it, although research has been going on for a number of years.
Homemade InsecticideMore and more Nicaraguan peasants are planting nim trees in their yards to protect their crops. Caring for the nim is not complicated. The tree is not very demanding and accommodates to almost any circumstance, although it should be planted in a nursery. It has one characteristic that must be noted; it is a species that rapidly occupies all available space.
The nim grows rapidly. In its third year the first fruits can be used for cottage production of the insecticide. The task is simple: 13 lbs. of cleaned and dry seeds are ground, wrapped in a clean cloth and put in water. Twelve hours later, the cloth is tightly pressed to release as much of the substance as possible. In another container, 10 grams of bar soap for clothes (not detergent) are dissolved, then added to the extract. Enough water is then added to make 100 liters. Ready to fumigate. Naturally, the quantities vary depending on the area that will be fumigated.
The World's FirstThe success of nim insecticide on small farms, where the farmers themselves make the product, was the source of the idea to produce it in large quantities of standard quality for commercial presentation. The Nim Insecticide Production Cooperative (COPINIM) was founded in Managua in 1987, with 12 members.
It is one thing to manage a dozen nim trees in one's backyard to fumigate small farms, and another to develop an industrial plant, even if of modest proportions. And there was no previous experience of a nim factory-nursery to draw on.
The members of COPINIM faced the challenges and new problems with energy. Seven years after the first plantings, the nim forest, which needs no irrigation, extends for 70 hectares and annually produces between 20 and 25 kilos of fruit per tree in two harvests, which begin when the tree is three years old and stabilize at seven.
The nim has only two natural enemies. Locusts like to eat the young leaves, which do not have enough insecticide to kill such a large insect. Large ants called "zompopos" carry the leaves to their nests for fermentation, together with other leaves, which serves as their food. Since they do not eat the leaves, they do not get poisoned. Mechanical procedures are used to chase away both pests or make it more difficult for them to access the tree.
Pickers and SelectorsThe first and most important of the nim's two yearly harvests comes in the June-August period. The second, which is not as reliable, and must be watched for so as not to miss it, is between December and January.
During the harvest, above all the first one, the processing plant shifts gears because of increased labor demands. The picking brigades collect the ripe fruit as well as those that have reached their full growth but are not yet quite mature. They also trim any branches that are taller than three meters, to make sure the tree's fruits are always reachable and to improve production the following year. The nim forest thereby produces a good supply of firewood that benefits both the tree and those who use it, since the tree grows better when trimmed.
The selection teams at the plant separate the ripe seeds from the unripe. This temporary employment gives jobs to between 25 and 80 workers, depending on the harvest. The work is very delicate, and only women do it. The unripe fruits are put in special areas, with good ventilation and shade, until they are fully ripe, which generally takes a week.
The first step of the industrial process itself consists of washing the fruits. During the first harvests, for lack of a better machine, the COPINIM members washed the fruits in laundry machines on the gentlest cycle. But the work went much too slowly given the size of the harvest, so local engineers developed a specific machine for this task that can wash up to five tons daily.
The machine separates the pulp from the seed, taking care that the seed is thoroughly cleaned. The pulp is composted into organic fertilizer to be used in fertilizing the nim trees. It is not just any fertilizer; nim-based fertilizer carries the insecticide with it, and is especially effective against damaging insects that live in the soil and eat plant roots, such as nematodes.
Once separated from the pulp, the seed is put in the sun for three or four hours for pre-drying. Later, in a shady spot—the insecticide substance is sensitive to heat—the drying is continued for 20 days or more, depending on humidity levels in the seed and the environment.
The Industrial InsecticideWhen the seed contains less than 9% humidity, it is ready to have the insecticide extracted. A modified coffee thresher is used to de-shell the seed. The shell is then ground into a powder that serves as the base of the nim insecticide in certain dry applications and strengthens its action.
Three different products are obtained from the totally clean seed. The ground seed, commercially known as Nim-20, is dissolved in water. Nim oil, which comes from pressing the seed, is used in its pure form in a medicinal skin soap, and mixed with emulsions is the CE-80 insecticide, which is also dissolved and applied in small drops. This product is the only nim derivative with any level of toxicity because of the emulsifying ingredients that must be added to it to be used in agriculture, but its danger to human beings cannot be compared with that of any other commercial insecticide. Finally, there is Nim-25, which comes from grinding the pressed seed that remains after extracting the oil. This product can be applied dry or dissolved in water, depending on the crop and the objective. It is recommended to mix it with the ground shell, although sand or sawdust can also be used.
All three products perform the three actions of the nim insecticide; they all repel, stunt the insect's growth and affect reproductivity. The emulsifiable nim sticks better to the insects' respiratory orifices, which provokes asphyxiation. Because of sensitivity to the sun's heat, the three substances should be applied to crops early in the morning or at dusk. When the farms are very large and the insecticide must be applied with airplanes, adequate complements to nim must be designed.
The industrialized nim has shown itself to be an excellent insecticide on small and medium farms and plantations. A lower quantity is needed than conventional insecticides, the applications are spaced farther apart, and the fruits, vegetables and other products harvested can be consumed with no danger, because it is not toxic to human beings. Good prices and high demand for these organically produced products make the nim insecticide even more attractive to agroexporters.
The COPINIM members offer the insecticide products at favorable prices, without seeking excessive earnings. Their goals are not profit, but rather a dignified life that respects nature.
"We want to offer Nicaragua's peasants a solution to the pest problems that is favorable both to the crops and to their pockets," explained Manuel Moraga. "We produce to sell at favorable prices. And we also buy nim seeds from those who have some trees on their farms and have excess production."
Due to the shortage of money in rural areas, they frequently use the barter system; they pay for seeds that are brought to the plant with developed insecticide.
Nicaragua:Nicaragua is at the forefront of nim development, opening the way, accumulating experiences. These experiences provide it with the ability to sell technology.
First of the First
COPINIM has the most advanced plant that exists today for treating nim seeds and producing insecticide. Its technology and industrial development are constantly being perfected through the design and fabrication of new and better machinery.
Research continues with support and financing from Germany's UNVERTAILEN Foundation, Bread for the World, also from Germany, and Land of the Future, from Sweden. The quality of the COPINIM product, with none of the publicity or dirty dealings of "captive markets" that the contaminating transnational companies so love, has made nim so famous throughout Nicaragua that demand now outstrips supply. Its fame has extended beyond national borders and requests are coming from far away, with tempting offers in dollars.
But the members of this unique cooperative do not listen to that siren call. "The first priority is to satisfy national demand and free our country from the use of poisonous insecticides," says Moraga. "Once we've resolved our own problems, we can trade the surplus internationally. But not now, because if they buy our entire production, we would have to return to poisonous insecticides. We're willing to share our technology with others, but the first task is to solve the problems at home."
Gringos Want to Patent NimBoth Nicaraguans and Indians are alert. For years, northern transnationals have been "patenting" plants and animals whose properties interest them for experiments and business.
The patent mechanism is the most recent chapter in the story of the South's pillage by the North. It works likes this: a foreign biologist comes to a peasant community in a poor country. The peasants share with the outsider all of the ancestral knowledge about the properties of a plant or an animal that they have gathered over generations. When the visitor returns home, he expresses his appreciation to the host country by patenting the plant or animal and all the information he learned from others. Once the patent is set, no one else can do research on the plant or animal or use it bio-technologically without paying "author's rights" to the patentor. The world market has effective legal and trade mechanisms to guarantee the security of the patent.
This is beginning to occur with the nim. For generations, India used the nim as an insecticide. Now, the W.R. Grace company, a US firm, has patented a modified version of the insecticide, and is promoting it in the United States as "organic insecticide."
The grassroots movement in India has initiated a campaign to contest W.R. Grace's right to the product patent. Among other actions, more than half a million farmers protested in Bangalore on October 3, 1993, demanding protection for "sovereignty over our seeds," and "communal property rights."
A Suspense StoryWe will finish with a typical story. Once upon a time a cooperative called San Gabriel, near La Paz Centro, Nicaragua, was dedicated to sesame and soy production. One fateful day in 1992 the peasants discovered that their crops had been attacked by a plague known as the "chinche de mancha," or "stained bug." They decided to apply the nim insecticide with the help of engineer René Marín, at that time a member of the cooperative and now working in CIPRES, a nongovernmental organization that also promotes nim.
After many years of working according to the dictates of conventional agriculture, the peasants were accustomed to seeing the ground covered with dead insects the day after applying a chemical insecticide. This did not happen with the nim. When the peasants went to see their crops the next day, they found the bugs hopping from leaf to leaf, full of energy.
As the days passed, there were more bugs with more energy. "We were desperate," remembers René Marín. "This plague is considered very dangerous to crops when one bug is seen for every lineal meter. We had up to ten."
Only one thing that kept the peasants from forgetting their recent ecological awareness and returning to conventional agriculture was that they had no money for chemical insecticides. The decisive reason for choosing nim had been that it was less expensive. And that was why they stayed with it.
Until harvest time. They collected the sesame and the soy and took them to be sold, calculating that, if they were lucky, only half the crop would be damaged. Normally, with a harvest produced by conventional means, a good harvest includes 15% damaged crops. So the peasants were shocked when they were told that only 13% of their crops were damaged.
What had happened? The nim had acted like a product "made by nature." It respected life, all life; that of the bugs and that of the crops. The bugs continued to live, but did less damage. That was the secret, together with the fact that fewer would reproduce.
"I would recommend that, together with the nim insecticide, large doses of tranquilizers are given to the peasants, at least the first time," jokingly suggested René Marín. He is convinced that nim is one answer, but based on his experiences it is not the only one.
All insects are capable of developing effective defenses against any insecticide in the course of a few generations. It is thus necessary to continue looking for new, more and better ways to protect the crops, including crop rotation, alternating plants in the same plots so one will defend the other, biological pest control, and using nim and other natural insecticides still to be researched. All procedures should focus on protecting the crops, but without altering the delicate balance of life. All life—plants, animals and human beings—are called to live together harmoniously on this marvelous blue planet.
EUCALYPTUS: THE BLESSINGS OF A DAMNED TREE
Is it good to plant eucalyptus? Is it bad? Or does it depend on each specific case?
Andrea Ortiz has a look not often seen among the Nicaraguan peasantry. There is no fear in her eyes, none of that air of a beaten dog that so many women here seem to have. "Look," she explains, "I have seven children and you can't imagine what I've had to do to give them a chance. Before, I washed clothes for other people, I did anything I could think of, sometimes I had to leave my children alone all day long. But now, I just wash for my own house."
The difference between "before" and "now" is about five acres of communal land planted with eucalyptus. Each small plot of this miniforest is held individually. By exploiting her share, Andrea Ortiz can make $100 a month. That might not seem like much money, but with this fixed salary, along with the meat and eggs from a few chickens and perhaps a pig or two, Andrea can guarantee a fairly decent subsistence. The eucalyptus trees spell the difference between total ruin and peace of mind. If this is the fruit of the eucalyptus, then blessed be this very controversial tree.
Poor Soils and Peasants Without HopeIn the northwestern region of Nicaragua, the León and Chinandega plains extend out from the base of the Maribios volcanic range, seriously eroded and contaminated by 30 years of cotton mono-cropping. The range has also historically suffered deforestation as well as the consequences of volcanic eruptions. Almost nothing can grow in these soils anymore.
But 464 heads of peasant households in the community of Posoltega, 60% of the residents of this very desertified zone, organized to plant over 100 acres of eucalyptus. Since then, different associations related to the cultivation, use and oversight of eucalyptus have become involved with the project.
The grassroots organization that has emerged around the eucalyptus has among its objectives protecting trees from both thieves out for firewood and fire, long-time enemy of the eucalyptus. To prevent both threats, five control towers have been built where, day and night, someone takes care of this forest that belongs to everyone. Those who live in and around Posoltega have had the wisdom, on advice from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), to plant eucalyptus in such a way that the plantation is one whole, even though each parcel is private property. This way, it is easier to band together and protect everyone's livelihood.
The unity that has sprung up around this common patrimony and guarantee of subsistence has facilitated the emergence of new and small projects that help to improve living standards. These include both family and community gardens, basic grain plots and the raising of chickens, pigs and cows. The surplus is sold by the Posoltegans in the neighboring city of León, Nicaragua's second largest city.
These peasants, who were formerly small cotton growers, felt that their future opportunities were closed off with the drop in cotton prices on the international market and the dramatic degradation of the quality of their lands resulting from prolonged and heavy use of agrochemicals. Today, the eucalyptus represents hope for them. They see in this tree a dignified way to assure survival.
Guaranty of Security and LifeA group of women from the Posoltega area is hard at work on a small plot of land. They are doing volunteer work, preparing a nursery of pochote (Bombacopsis quinata). The pochote is in danger of disappearing due to the demand for its wood, used to construct quality furniture. Although the women all grow eucalyptus, they are also interested in the pochote.
Angela Velázquez owns over three acres of eucalyptus. Although mother and grandmother to a family of 30, she still has time to donate to the nursery. "The thing is that pochote is prettier than eucalyptus for furniture and I want to have furniture in my house made out of this wood," she explains. But the pochote takes more than 35 years before it can be harvested. Wouldn't it be better to make the furniture with eucalyptus? "Well, I guess I'll get a chair made with eucalyptus wood, and sit in it to wait for the pochote to grow!", she says, laughing.
Nilvia Guido, much younger than Angela, has one child and owns under an acre of eucalyptus. This small parcel puts her in charge of her own future. "If my husband up and leaves me for another woman, I have the means to defend myself and my child," she says with assurance. The peasants of Posoltega, like those in other zones reforested with eucalyptus, have learned to love this tree, to care for it and respect it as someone respects that upon which their life, food and future depend.
Thank You, EucalyptusFor many years, the Nicaraguan peasantry, as in many other places in Latin America, has been conditioned to hate the eucalyptus tree. They saw it as an obstacle to the plow and thus, their harvests—something that made it difficult to expand the lands used for cattle ranching. The trees had to be eliminated to facilitate human effort and the production of wealth and well-being. Only with the destruction of vast areas of forested land were many people finally able to understand how much the forests are really worth. But by the time that realization had been made, the soil was so impoverished that the few things able to grow in it grew so slowly that they were not a real alternative.
But there is a solution. Some trees are able to live in almost any environment, able to stand the most adverse of circumstances and also able to grow quickly—so quickly that they are, potentially, a real alternative. Among these trees are the more than 600 varieties of eucalyptus that exist throughout the world.
And to the eucalyptus we must add one aspect that is key to the future of Nicaragua as a country: the recovery of a forest culture among the peasantry. For that reason alone, it is worth it to plant eucalyptus.
From Australia to the WorldAll existing varieties of eucalyptus come originally from the continent of Australia, from its islands to the north and west or from Tasmania. Dozens of local varieties are found only on one tiny island, and nowhere else in the world.
The eucalyptus first left its natural environment around 1766 on the ships of British Captain James Cook. Some 20 years later, the tree was described and baptized with its current name by the French botanist L'Heriter.
During the 19th century, the eucalyptus was increasingly studied and experiments were undertaken to acclimate it to areas outside its native zones. This was done with an eye towards taking advantage of its most intriguing characteristic: the speed with which it can grow and produce firewood and lumber. Under optimum conditions, certain varieties of eucalyptus can grow up to 5 meters per year.
Since the tree left Australia, it has spread throughout the world. Today, more than 80 countries have planted eucalyptus—ranging in areas from a few experimental hectares up to more than a million hectares in Brazil, half a million in India and more than 400,000 in Spain. In those last three countries, where most of the eucalyptus trees outside their native zones are found, flourishing lumber and paper industries are based on the eucalyptus forests.
A Bad Rap: It Drains WaterMaybe it is precisely due to this universal success of the eucalyptus that so many contrary opinions have emerged regarding it. A number of theories hold that the eucalyptus is a dangerous tree, capable of generating many negative and few positive things, a damned tree. If all these theories were true, Australia, covered with vast eucalyptus forests, would be a dead continent. But, far from that, it is a sanctuary where many species, unique to that environment, have been preserved and thrive.
It is said that the eucalyptus tree absorbs water and dries up land, because it needs so much water in order to grow so fast. This is a half-truth. It is true that the eucalyptus absorbs a lot of water, like all plants do, but it also uses water more efficiently than other species. The acacia—another rapid-growth tree—needs a third more water to produce the same amount of wood. But nobody speaks ill of the acacia.
The eucalyptus is also accused of making more difficult the passage of rainwater towards the phreatic or underground level. This is true. But it is also true that any plant species, large or small, absorbs some rainwater as it makes it way down to the groundwater level. The only way to assure that all rainwater descends to the phreatic level would be to not let anything grow at all—a not particularly appealing solution.
The eucalyptus consumes less rainwater than it appears to at first, because it has the ability to close up its leaves in such a way that, during droughts, its evaporation-transpiration process is dramatically reduced. When it does not rain and the other trees turn yellow and parched, the eucalyptus stays green—not because it has enormous reserves of water hoarded away, but because it shuts off the stomas—something like the pores on human skin—on its leaves, and doesn't allow the water to escape through them. In other words, the eucalyptus doesn't "sweat."
As proof of the fact that the eucalyptus uses lots of water, its enemies point to the fact that this tree is used to dry swamps. The eucalyptus certainly has a powerful root system to support its height—a soaring 40 meters, on the average. Its roots rarely go beyond 20 meters deep, but they have a very special characteristic. They grow turning downward, drilling through the earth like a corkscrew.
But this is not always bad. Among the many hundreds of varieties of eucalyptus, there are some whose roots are especially strong, and thus capable of eventually drilling through very hard rocks. Sometimes they can even get through that layer of impermeable rock that will not allow rainwater to pass. If they can perforate those rocks, little by little the surface water trickles towards the groundwater through fissures opened up by the roots. It will reappear in some other place, in the form of a spring or well. The eucalyptus doesn't suck swamps dry, but rather unclogs their drains. For many decades now, eucalyptus trees have been planted in swampy areas and the water is still there.
More Bad Press:Another accusation leveled at the eucalyptus tree is that it ruins the soil. This is another one of those half-truths surrounding the eucalyptus, and has to do with the lack of forest culture throughout the world.
It Ruins the Soil
The eucalyptus is a crop for economic use, not something just to spruce up the scenery. All tree and plant species extract nutrients from the soil and if they are planted and harvested, the soil will be poorer for that. This happens both with forests and with cornfields. The difference is that in cornfields some type of fertilizer is used.
The misfortune of the eucalyptus is that when planted in closed formation it has the appearance of a forest, and not everybody understands that a forest also needs to nourish itself. But the eucalyptus economizes to the maximum the nutrients it needs for its development, because it can sprout new shoots. When cut down for lumber, the eucalyptus tree produces new shoots, among which the plantation owner has to choose the one most appropriate to his/her ends and cut the rest. This selection is generally made after two years, and means, for the plantation's owner, an interesting input of firewood or lumber for stakes.
The shoot chosen begins to grow again and, in a period varying from 5 to 25 years—depending on the use to which it will be put—it is ready to harvest again. Thus, the eucalyptus "saves" the land all those nutrients needed to produce its complex root system and its stump is not cut. Lumber can be extracted from the same stump for up to 100 years, with no need to reforest.
The roots of the eucalyptus go deep down into the earth and can absorb nutrients no other species even reaches. Thus, this tree is not competing with other plants. Those nutrients in the deepest reaches of the earth do not benefit any species, precisely because of the depth at which they are found. But the eucalyptus can bring them up to the surface to transform them, among other things, into its own leaves. Once dry, they fall to the ground and fertilize it.
Firewood in your own BackyardThe eucalyptus is a species that has been used massively for a relatively short time—100 years—compared to far longer histories of oak, beech or mahogany, for example. Nonetheless it has many uses indeed.
The first is that it produces good firewood. This is very important in a country like Nicaragua, where more than 55% of the energy consumed is estimated to come from wood burning—around a million metric tons annually. To date, all that wood has come from natural forests, more mistreated and reduced by the day. Eucalyptus groves could gradually replace the firewood now being extracted from natural forests. "The eucalyptus trees can protect the natural forest," says Ben Chang, the main adviser of the Dutch-financed FAO mission that is dedicated to reforesting large areas of Nicaragua with eucalyptus trees.
A number of Nicaraguan peasant families are already planting eucalyptus trees with the aim of having firewood to harvest. They plant the trees close to their houses, where they can easily keep an eye on them.
Paper, Posts, BoxesThe eucalyptus can also be used for construction. Its trunk, straight and upright, is a natural beam. It can serve as a post for fences or a tie for rails—assuming that trains will one day make a comeback in Nicaragua. It can be used as a telephone post. It can also be used in mining and for wooden shipping crates, particularly for nontraditional export products.
Naturally, it can also be used for making furniture, although it must be taken into account that, given its rapid growth and slender form, there is a lot of tension within the wood. That can be a real problem with furniture, creating cracks that make the furniture unserviceable. If one wants to make furniture with eucalyptus, it is important to make sure the tree has time to settle and consolidate itself. That means waiting the full 25 years. That's a long time, although still less than required by other species.
"The big problem with the eucalyptus tree in Nicaragua is that there is still relatively scant production," says Ben Chang. "If there were a supply of 20,000 tons annually, a pulp factory could be installed to make paper, frames or parquet, products that still are in much demand internationally and bring good prices. This would give jobs to many Nicaraguans and generate a great deal of wealth."
Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic UsesMany other things can be done with eucalyptus. The trees are covered with aromatic flowers that attract honey-producing bees. The trees pollenate almost exclusively through insects and eucalyptus honey has a characteristic flavor in great demand on the international market.
In Nicaragua and throughout the world, eucalyptus leaves are used to treat colds and coughs. But few people know that they are also effective in the treatment of diabetes. Seven eucalyptus leaves boiled in a liter of water, then drunk in three portions for breakfast, lunch and dinner cures the so-called incurable diabetes in good time.
If there were sufficient eucalyptus production, Nicaragua could install a processing plant to extract from the leaves their essential oils, which have medicinal effects and can be used in the pharmaceutical industry as well as in making perfumes. In countries with significant industrial infrastructure, the eucalyptus can be transformed into vegetable-based charcoal for the preparation of steel and cement.
WindbreaksThe eucalyptus tree arrived in Nicaragua some 50 years ago, but didn't make much of a splash. It wasn't until the 1980s that it began to be massively used to make windbreaks to control the erosion on the vast cotton plains in Nicaragua's northwest region.
When the wind hits these walls of trees—several kilometers long—it loses force and can't lift much soil off the top layers, or damage the crops. The windbreaks helped tremendously in León and Chinandega, whose populations had long suffered serious respiratory problems from the dust storms caused by the wind sweeping across the cotton plantations. During the 1980s, many scientists from throughout the world came to Nicaragua to study this use of the eucalyptus and see how it could be applied in other parts of the world.
With the precipitous decline in cotton prices, unemployed workers and peasants from this region turned again to the eucalpytus, machetes in hand—and found a survival alternative. "The eucalyptus trees safeguarded the few remaining native forests in these areas," Chang points out. "Why not continue in an organized fashion to plant entire forests specifically for firewood? Or for other things as well. Lumber is a product whose price has never fallen on the international markets."
The Ants Killed ThemPeter Devereux is an Australian ecologist who has worked in Nicaragua since 1988, under the auspices of the Augusto César Sandino Foundation (FACS). When he came to Nicaragua for the first time, he was surprised by the enormous mistrust that the eucalpytus tree sparked among those Nicaraguans concerned about the environment and conservation. It was comparable only to that caused in Australia by our beloved and respected pine, which there is considered an exotic and "suspicious" species. This reality forced him to reflect and brought him ultimately to several conclusions. "I am a great fan of the eucalyptus," he declares, "although I think that, to the degree possible, it is better to reforest with native species."
He talks about an experience—taking part in a reforestation project in a huge area near Pueblo Nuevo, in the northeastern department of Estelí. They were reforesting with eucalyptus and a native species, the mandagual (Casealpinia velutina), also a very rapid-growth tree. Shortly after the trees were planted, the eucalyptus trees were all dead, devoured by ants, yet the mandagual trees continued to flourish, even in the midst of it all.
There is a very simple explanation for this phenonmenon. For thousands of years, the mandagual has developed its defenses against the ants, while the eucalpytus never had to, off in its native environment of Australia. Thus the ants here finished the eucalyptus trees off fairly quickly.
Without a doubt, the ideal solution would be to reforest with native species, preferably from the same area as the plot to be reforested and with an economic yield high enough to represent a real alternative for the area's population. But many areas in Nicaragua and other countries are desperate for some economic solution, and with their natural forests either gone or on the brink of disappearing. These extensive zones could be reforested with eucalyptus, as long as the conditions are appropriate.
The eucalyptus is a tree, a creation of nature, a living thing. And every living thing is good, although it can be poorly used by human beings. But that is not the eucalyptus' problem.
In many areas, native forests have been decimated to plant eucalyptus trees and this grave error has, in part, sparked the bad reputation that the tree currently has among environmentalists. Undoubtedly, wiping out forests to plant eucalyptus trees is anti-ecological. But on land where nothing grows and where only the eucalyptus tree is able to thrive, why not use this resource that nature offers us?
THE THOUSAND AND ONE USES OF BAMBOO
The world demand for wood for both construction and the manufacture of cellulose, paper, resins, charcoal and a thousand other uses climbs daily. The demand is so high that forests can no longer regenerate without help. Even in the few countries with an effective reforestation policy, expectations are small. Trees seem to be losing the battle.
To resolve such a serious problem, which also affects human beings, a substitute must be found for wood, one that could be used massively without damaging the environment. This material exists, is known and has been used by humanity for thousands of years already. It's bamboo.
Although its size and appearance leads one to think of it as a tree, it isn't. It's a woody grass, fast-growing and spontaneously cultivated. Bamboo differs from the majority of grasses in its size and life span. It can grow over 100 feet in height and 45-60 centimeters in diameter, and can live up to a century. As for the rest—the way it is born, the way it lives and grows—it's like any other gramineous plant. And just like rice, wheat, barley or our sacred maize, it dies when it flowers and bears fruit.
When one speaks of bamboo, the first image that comes to mind is a tropical forest inhabited by ferocious animals and human beings who adapt to the steamy heat by wearing very little. But some varieties of bamboo are native to zones so cold that they can survive several months of the year buried in snow, like those in northern Japan, or those growing in the Andes, 4,000 meters above sea level. Bamboo is native to all continents except Europe, where not only are there no bamboo forests, but attempts to acclimate them have had limited success or been outright failures.
The South Sea Islands have extensive bamboo forests, and Africa also has a native strain. In the Americas, bamboo forests extend from the southern United States to northern Argentina.
Asia is where bamboo began to be used, over 6,000 years ago. Since then, Asians have been experimenting with uses and possibilities. They have found more than 500 applications: human and animal food, construction, furniture, clothing, jewelry and medicines, to say nothing of various industrial and even aeronautical uses.
It Flowers, then DiesAlthough human beings have used bamboo for millennia, they still know little about this plant, which has succeeded in hiding many of its intimate secrets from the scrutiny of observers and scientists. For example, it is not known for sure how many genera and species of bamboo exist in the world, although it is estimated that there are more than 50 genera and somewhere between 600 and double that number of species. It is imperative to know the characteristics of the flower and fruit of a vegetable to precisely define its genus and species. But bamboo can go up to a century or more without flowering, and thus, without giving fruit. Many people have lived long lives in a landscape full of bamboo, and died without ever seeing even one flower.
Perhaps it's better that way because the entire bamboo outcropping dies after producing its fruit. That's because the whole forest, even though it may extend over a hundred miles, is all one root system, like any grass. And when its original source dries out and dies, it all dries out and dies.
In Asia, the flowering of the bamboo is considered a sign of prolonged misfortune and famine. And not without reason: after blooming and dying, bamboo requires some 10 to 12 years to regenerate, and these years are very difficult for populations that live in, off of and with bamboo.
Not Sown from SeedBamboo is not easily or frequently reproduced from seeds, since it rarely produces them. It is done from the subterranean rhizomes. The bamboo roots, full of these small buds, extend out beneath the soil, and every so often send up a new shoot. The roots of some species are thick and short, which causes the shoots to grow grouped together, in very compact clusters. Or they are long and thin, and advance long distances below the surface. This is very important information when defining what kind of bamboo is best for each use.
From time immemorial, the different cultures that have lived off of bamboo learned how to cultivate it. It is not difficult to plant, and the method is similar in all species. A meter-long cutting of a young bamboo shoot, with a bud on at least one of its nodes, is buried in the ground at a slant, with one end peaking through the dirt. It is a good idea to plant it with the first rains, and make sure it gets abundant water until it is well rooted.
When the new shoot breaks through the ground, it comes with its full bore; it will never get any thicker. That makes it easy to know what each stalk will be used for, well ahead of time, even though it may take years to get tall enough to be ready for its destiny.
Bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in all of nature. A new shoot grows an average 8-15 centimeters a day in its natural environment. In experimental cultivations under optimal conditions, it can grow more than a meter a day. No other species, even other grasses, can approach this record.
At this speed, the shoot reaches its maximum height in an average of three months. From then on, the stalk begins its long maturation process, which can take from three to six years, depending on the species and on the use that will be made of it. During this time, the stalk—which is relatively soft at first—goes through a structural transformation known as lignification, in which it becomes woody.
It Must Be Cut at SunsetAt approximately six years, the bamboo gets as hard as it will ever get. That is the time to harvest it, because old age sets in rapidly after that, which could affect the health and even the existence of the whole outcropping, should it flower and die.
Once it has rooted, bamboo generally required very little care. But care must be lavished on it at harvest time if one wants healthy stalks, appropriate for their different uses, and hopes to maintain the health of the whole forest.
Given bamboo's growth system, the stalks ready for cutting are at the center of the outcropping. Cutters must move around that area, among the firm, tall trunks, selectively harvesting only the mature ones. An experienced cutter easily recognizes trunks that are ready by the quantity, consistency and form of their leaves and branches. Unlike trees, which get more branches the older they get, bamboo gets balder as the years pass.
A mix of custom, superstition or mystery—which science has been unable to debunk due to lack of information—counsels that the bamboo stalks to be used in construction or furniture should be cut three or four days after a full moon. It is also recommended that they be cut in late afternoon, a few hours after the sun has crossed the zenith, when the sap has begun its return to the roots.
The characteristics of bamboo wood require cutting it at 30-50 centimeters above the ground and with a fine-tooth power saw or very sharp machete to avoid splintering it. If the wood is to be used in carpentry or construction, it is recommended that it be left to cure for a week, propped up at an angle against a rock so ants don't attack it.
Bamboo stalks are very light, making it easy to haul the cut trunks out of the forest depths. Two or three men are enough for the stalks of the thickest species, and one can carry those of other varieties. Heavy tractors or tow trucks are neither needed nor recommended, since they chew up the smaller vegetable life and could even run over a newly-budding rhizome, appointed to extend the outcropping further. Nor are enormous investments in access roads necessary, since these roads only serve to damage the root extensions. In sum, the extraction of such valuable wood is both cheap and easy.
Appropriately harvested, bamboo can produce new stalks each year without need of reforesting, and without exhausting the forest. It can provide an entire century of constant extraction.
You Can Have Your BambooOne of the great challenges of cultivating bamboo is keeping the cattle a respectful distance from its leaves. The bark and leaves of bamboo make appetizing and protein-rich forage for cattle, goats and sheep, but animals tramping through the outcropping can do a lot of damage. In countries with a long tradition of cultivating and using bamboo, ranchers prune the leaves without damaging the stalk, and give them to their cattle elsewhere.
And Eat It, Too
Human beings can also eat bamboo. The new shoots that have just pushed through the soil are tender and edible. As with asparagus, it is necessary to keep building up the soil around them, or they become fibrous and lose their quality.
After the shoot first emerges, it should be continually covered with dirt for about 10-15 days, until it reaches a height of some 30 centimeters. Then it can be cut. It is then boiled for a long time, like beans. It is as tasty as potatoes, and much more nutritious.
The international demand for canned bamboo shoots has expanded at the same speed that Japan and the "Asian tigers" has moved into the world economy, which suggests a bright future for this nontraditional product.
Medicines, Charcoal, Cloth, Paper...Bamboo is used in many products that we are not even aware of. Rayon, so in vogue in recent years for bold fashions with great sweeps of fabric, is made with bamboo fiber. During World War II the use of woven bamboo panels was experimented with in airplane construction. Components obtained from bamboo are used in cosmetics to keep skin and hair beautiful. The pharmaceutical industry has discovered that certain substances extracted from bamboo have anti-carcinogenic effects. Charcoal made from bamboo has more advantages than any other charcoal in making electric batteries. And, on a more historic note, the carbon filaments that Edison used in his experiments to create an incandescent light bulb were made from bamboo.
Among bamboo's thousand and one uses, one is particularly key: paper manufacturing. Each year, thousands of acres of forest are sacrificed to make paper. Often these forests are never replaced. Sometimes this is because it is impossible: human beings don't know how to imitate the complexity and variety of a natural forest. Other times, the shortsighted criteria of the exploiting-defoliating lumber companies do not include investing in reforestation. On still other occasions, the decision is made to use the tree-razed forest lands for theoretically more profitable ends: extensive cattle grazing or frontier agriculture, or suburbanized small-town sprawl. One way or another, our planet is rapidly turning into a desert.
Bamboo is an alternative. Its advantage over a forest is that it can be managed over unlimited periods without much difficulty. In addition, bamboo fiber is much better than wood or any other fiber for paper manufacturing. A fiber's utility is calculated on the basis of its length-thickness ratio. The longer and thinner the fiber, the better the paper produced. Precise calculations already exist about how much bamboo is needed to produce paper: a hectare of bamboo outcroppings produces approximately a ton of paper pulp.
Elegant and Inexpensive HousingVirtually the only houses made of bamboo that come to mind in many parts of the world are the fragile huts in which the natives in Tarzan movies lived. One sweep of a lion's paw or a strong gust of wind, and the hut was no more.
It was necessary for the martial arts movies protagonized by Asians to break onto the scene for us to be able to admire the elegant, three-story mansions constructed of pure bamboo, in which the wealthy in those economically powerful countries live. Bamboo housing, which in the Americas is considered a manifestation of poverty bordering on indigence, is in the Asian countries a sign of opulence.
Bamboo has multiple uses in construction, from exterior rafters and walls, to interior partitions, water pipes and roofing tiles. Anything can be built with bamboo: the inside walls with braided bamboo; the exterior ones with fatter trunks; piping with the finer ones; roof tiles with split bamboo. Bamboo can be plastered over to give it greater consistency, and the final appearance would be that of any house raised with conventional materials.
Bamboo has several advantages. Its flexibility makes it anti-seismic, as experience has shown. In Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, the only homes to withstand the 1991 earthquake were made of bamboo. Before that, Costa Ricans viewed bamboo houses with mistrust, but, since then, their interest has been growing significantly.
Yet another advantage: bamboo houses isolate their inhabitants from cold, heat and noise, because of the air chambers in the bamboo trunks. Bamboo is also used to make prefabricated panels, which are more resistant and flexible as well as lighter than conventional ones. They are very advisable in guabe zones, because a house with bamboo walls is very unlikely to come down in an earthquake, now matter how strong. And should it happen, the lightness of the materials will avoid loss of lives.
Perhaps the most decisive advantage is its cost. To look presentable, conventional construction in Nicaragua requires an investment of between US$250 and $350 per square meter. To achieve the same finished look, bamboo only requires $75-100.
Visionary Nicaraguans Believe in BambooBamboo has a bad press in Nicaragua. Housing of cane or bamboo is fine for the humble house of the indigenous multitudes, or for the patio construction of a rustic bar. But no one "decent" would live in one of "those." In Monimbó, an indigenous neighborhood of Masaya, houses were traditionally built of cane. When the Sandinista government decided to financing new housing there in the first years of the revolution, the first thing the local population insisted on was that the new houses not be made of bamboo. They would only accept concrete.
The Nicaraguan population's resistance to bamboo was such that some successful research being developed by the Ministry of Housing and Human Settlements had to be shelved and was later forgotten. Only one visionary, expelled time and again for his ability to think with his own head, continued working with bamboo on a farm in Matagalpa that was free of prejudice.
Alan Bolt, the creative and crazy visionary, together with the other creative and crazy members of the theater troupe Nixtayolero, planted bamboo, bought bamboo, experimented with bamboo, built with bamboo and energetically withstood the ridiculing of all those know-it-alls who opposed bamboo. When Alan got a chance to continue his professional development in Chile and went off to that country, the bamboo stayed in the hands of the Association for the Promotion of Bamboo and Local Materials, made up of several of his old theater mates. Among them is Iván Castellón, a man as tall and thin as a bamboo rod and in love with the plant.
A History of Efforts and RidiculeThe association has had a difficult life. Supported by the mayor, a woman, its members found a spot in the indigenous town of Catarina to demonstrate bamboo's excellent construction properties. In 1990 they built a kiosk of bamboo in the town's main square, where they sold drinks. It had a covered patio to protect customers from the rain and sun. They proposed to put up bamboo constructions all over the park, with children's games, rest areas and other details, turning the area into an enchanted space.
One municipal councilor opposed the project from the outset. "I give them six months before that whole hut falls down around them," he repeated to anyone who would listen. Since it was still standing after six months, he extended his deadline.
Four years passed and the kiosk didn't fall down, but then, for one political reason or other, the councilor became mayor. His first act of government was to pull down the kiosk and replace it with a lean-to made of leftover sheets of zinc, all in the name of progress. Meanwhile, the association's spacious and elegantly designed headquarters, with its multiple levels, staircases, windows, storage rooms and every last piece of furniture made entirely of bamboo, is still standing.
"A whole house and all its furnishings can be made of pure bamboo," says Iván Castellón. "The whole house, the furniture, the plates, the spoons, even the knives and glasses. Only the pots and pans and anything else that has to be in direct contact with fire would have to be of metal. All the rest could be of bamboo, and at better prices."
Nicaragua Needs BambooAccording to conservative estimates, Nicaragua has a housing deficit of half a million units. This means that at least 2.5 million Nicaraguans—over half the population—live in someone else's house and/or in overcrowded conditions. Building that many houses would mean the almost inevitable destruction of the forests still standing. Or it would mean using bamboo.
Bamboo is not unknown in the country. When the banana transnationals came to the country, they already knew that the land where a particular type of bamboo grew extensively was good for growing bananas. They didn't hesitate in razing the bamboo. It was hard, because outcroppings of bamboo are hard to eliminate. Not even fire gets rid of them completely. They may look gone, but a few new shoots always appear when the rains come.
There are still enormous extensions of bamboo in Chinandega, where entire communities live from it. But technology is so scant that it doesn't help them escape from their poverty. "In Nicaragua," says Castellón, "bamboo is seen as a sign of poverty, or of exoticism. This mentality must be changed, because bamboo could solve a number of problems for Nicaragua and many other countries." With this criterion, his association has already organized several courses to train artisans to manage and work with bamboo.
Castellón believes that bamboo should be planted massively, particularly in places like Carazo, where several rivers have recently dried up due to the chaotic management—or non-management—of the forests. Some varieties of bamboo attract rain and enrich the topsoil.
A Symbol of PersistanceWhen the poisonous vapors finally dissipated over Hiroshima, after the atomic bomb was dropped there in 1945, the brigades that ventured into the epicenter found only death and destruction. Everything had been wiped out, nothing remained. But there, in the middle of the crater of death, firmly stood a stalk of bamboo. It was totally burned, lifeless, but it stood erect, like a proud symbol of hope.
Bamboo is an extraordinarily resistent vegetable. Nicaragua has an almost unlimited potential for its cultivation, since bamboo likes hilly terrain. The nude slopes of the deforested mountains could well turn into bamboo groves to resolve some of Nicaragua's many huge problems, such as housing. Why not?
A bamboo promotion policy is needed, with ample information about its possibilities, the quantity and quality of solutions that it could contribute to the country's daily life, so that its use will be generalized. Nothing prevents this being done, other than deeply-rooted cultural prejudices. Let's hope that the roots of these prejudices are less persistent than those of the age-old bamboo.