The temperature went from warm to scalding as the morning clouds dissipated. Streams of sweat rolled down our arms and backs as we dug into the clay soil. Large quantities of sunscreen and water held off the sunstroke. It was the best morning of our vacation.
Two days into a trip I led with my project SEE Turtles to explore El Salvador’s culture and nature with EcoViva, a US-based development organization, our group of residents from Portland, Ore., and Evergreen University students took a short bus ride to a local farm for a volunteer work project. We had heard from EcoViva fellow Aaron Voit that agriculture was a major area of focus of local organizations, and here was our chance to get our hands dirty.
Our host for the day was Victor Velasquez, a technician with Asociacion Mangle (EcoViva’s sister organization), who works with their sustainable agriculture program. He showed us how we would be adding a sweet-smelling type of compost called “Bokashi” to saplings of mango and nispero trees as a substitute for the chemical fertilizers commonly used in the area. Working through the morning, our group managed to complete the process with dozens of saplings, saving the farmer days worth of work. There’s no better way to understand a person’s situation than by walking in their shoes. By the end of the morning, our respect for the farmers of El Salvador had reached epic proportions.
After lunch and a siesta, we continued our lesson in organic farming, Salvadoran-style, by processing a batch of the compost. Bokashi is a Japanese composting technique that uses fermentation to break down organic material. Mangle has developed their own recipe using discarded resources commonly available in this area such as sugar cane waste, rice husks and cow manure.
To jumpstart the microbes that break down these materials, a mixture of yeast and molasses is added, and the piles turned. This compost is one small part of Mangle’s Diversified Production program. The compost, of which more than 50,000 pounds were distributed last year to farms around the region, helps to restore soil after years of overuse to its condition before the war when most of the land was cotton and sugarcane plantations.
El Salvador in the past wholly embraced the concepts of the “green revolution,” importing huge quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and converting thousands of acres to monocultures of cash crops like cotton and sugarcane. The benefits of these techniques helped to dramatically increase production for the few wealthy families who owned the farms, but the costs were borne by the farm workers and animals that were exposed to the toxic chemicals.
Even today, many of the so-called “dirty dozen” of the most toxic pesticides that are banned in many countries, including DDT, are still used in El Salvador. The impact of these chemicals can be seen in the extremely high rates of liver disease found in the region and groundwater that remains polluted after many years of use.
Before the green revolution, many Salvadorans survived by subsistence farming, growing many varieties of plants to feed their families. But since the end of the war in the 1990s, many farmers here now grow just a few crops, primarily corn, which has affected nutrition. Mangle has made crop diversification a major focus of its work to help reduce the risk of crop failure due to pests or weather and improve diets. Their seed bank provides a variety of crops for local farmers, developed specifically for local soils and climate.
I spent one early morning checking out Mangle’s organic demonstration farm that grows dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables. The centerpiece of the farm was a water pump, powered by one of the largest solar arrays in rural El Salvador. While there, I met Juan Luna, the engaging and intelligent leader of the Diversified Production Program.
Juan told me about one of Mangle’s biggest successes, taking on agrochemical giant Monsanto whose corn seeds the government of El Salvador was handing out to farmers across the country. While touted as a program to help reduce hunger, the reality is that the use of these seeds locked farmers into purchasing expensive chemical inputs and new seeds every year, as the yield quickly dropped after first planting. Mangle, in partnership with other organizations, convinced the government to cancel the contract and now works with the government to produce and distribute native seeds grown by local farmers that produce high yields for years with little or no chemicals.
Mangle and its partners do much more than just distribute seeds and compost. Their technical support program has helped to train hundreds of farmers in sustainable agriculture techniques, they provide loans to help farmers transition to organic, their organic demonstration farm grows dozens of varieties of food, and new markets help local producers earn more income. To help combat the liver disease, they convinced the government to build a brand new hospital in Ciudad Romero focused on this pervasive problem. Even local schools are getting involved; one school in Romero is growing a garden funded by the government as part of a pilot program to provide more healthy school lunches.
At the end of our week, our group got to sample one of the most delicious products of Asociacion Mangle’s work: cashews. The nuts are grown, processed and roasted by a cooperative of 16 women and are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Do the organic techniques improve the taste of the food? Who knows, but supporting grassroots efforts to improve El Salvador’s food system definitely helps one enjoy its bounty.
Photos provided by Brad Nahill