Restoring Paradise on Nicaragua’s Island of Ometepe
This is a guest post from WhyHunger’s Senior Director of Programs, Alison Cohen
It’s the apex of the dry season on the Isla de Ometepe – a land mass of approximately 165 square miles which rises majestically out of Lake Nicaragua, not too far from the border with Costa Rica. Until recently Ometepe was one of Nicaragua’s best kept secrets – an island paradise as prophesied, according to some historians, by indigenous tribes who traveled from the north to this Eden-like utopia that came to them in a vision.
But despite the fact that tourists from around the world have begun to make the 4-hour trek from Managua to sun on the sea-like shores of Lake Nicaragua and climb through the cloud forests to the rim of the island’s active volcanos, Ometepe is suffering economically and ecologically – no longer the prophesied paradise marked by insatiable abundance.
It is a month or more before the rainy season will bring with it renewed hope marked by an increasing greenness and fullness along the hillsides. For now, food insecurity is at its highest. The fields are dry and barren, stored staples of rice and sorghum are dwindling and fruit trees have just begun to let loose some of their bounty.
Nicaragua, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean after Haiti, and a country in which poverty is above all a rural phenomenon; two out of three people in the country-side live on less than one dollar a day.
Short-sighted, chemical-intensive agricultural practices coupled with climate change have devastated the agricultural sustainability of the island. What was once a lush and diverse tropical forest has been mostly clear cut for single-crop farming.
Now, rice and sorghum are planted on small plots up a hillside, with no attempt at working within the natural contours of the land to create a terraced hillside and the large rocks that were strewn throughout the fields since the last volcanic eruption.
Soil erosion – up to 2 inches per year – is commonplace, and last year’s drought led many farmers to abandon harvest when there was so little to show for their work. Even during the rainy season, farmers are no longer providing the fresh, nourishing meals they once were.
Project Bona Fide, a partner in WhyHunger’s Imagine There’s No Hunger campaign with Yoko Ono Lennon and Hard Rock International, stands out on this small island of 42,000 people as one grassroots effort blazing a trail to a new vision of paradise on Isla de Ometepe. A 10-year old organization and 43-acre educational farm, Finca Bona Fide, was founded in the island community of Balgue by an edible landscaper from the United States with the long-term goal of “reintroducing biodiversity to support rebuilding ecologies and economies that first feed and nurture the communities growing them.”
Project Bona Fide’s ultimate vision is to contribute to the community’s and region’s food sovereignty, or the right of the Nicaraguan people to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems and to not have to rely on the imports and exports derived from international market forces. The goal is to work with farmers through an apprenticeship program — complete with hands on training, on-going support and a form of “farmer insurance” — to establish more diversified farms, or “food forests,” on their own plots of land rooted in the principles of agroecology and its promise of resilience.
Project Bonafide demonstrates the possible. Chris Shanks, one of Project Bona Fide’s co-directors, uses permaculture as an adaptive and agro-ecological approach to ending hunger. In the simplest terms, permaculture is the design of agricultural ecosystems that examine and follow nature’s patterns. Chris believes, permaculture involves farming in the “fourth dimension of time” — that is, choosing crops and a pattern of planting them based on their capacity for long-term resilience in the face of climate change. One of the key functions of Project Bona Fide, according to Chris, is “to hold these methods of resiliency in trust,” while learning, training and spreading the crops throughout the community.
Project Bona Fide is implementing and providing training in a variety of very specific food-producing methods that address issues of long-term food insecurity with strong economic potential. These issues include: alley cropping; grey water use and water management (“slow it,” “store it,” “spread it”); bio-char soil amendment; agro-forestry (combining fruit trees with field crops); integrating livestock such as chickens and pigs; and the concept of the “guild,” or a grouping of plants, animals, insects and other natural components that work together to help ensure their survival.
The 43 acres that makes up the farm are sustained primarily by young volunteers who arrive from every corner of the world, often with little more than a curiosity in permaculture or agroforestry and sometimes with a specific skill such as carpentry, welding, animal husbandry, cooking or organizing. There are no paid international staff, though it is one of the largest employers on the island. The directors do not draw a salary. They use the income from their consulting projects outside of the country and some grants and donations, to support the farm’s infrastructural needs, pay local staff and maintain a very simple lifestyle. In all, Project Bona Fide employs 30 people from the local community who bring existing skills, cultivate new capacities and educate those who come to learn. Teachers are learners; learners are teachers.
In addition to employing, learning from and educating local community members, Project Bona Fide collaborates on projects that take place off-farm and in the community. In part with funds from the Imagine There’s No Hunger Campaign, Project Bona Fide has partnered with families in the community to establish Mano Amiga and Café Infantil, a community center and a child nutrition program, respectively. Mano Amiga is a beautiful natural building in the center of Balgue and houses a library and a women’s sewing cooperative in addition to a permaculture garden and playground. Café Infantil uses a building adjacent to Mano Amiga that has a kitchen where breakfast is prepared by mothers in the community for up to 70 children a day under the age of 12, most of whom live in families without fathers, generally equated in this strongly machismo society with persistent poverty and malnutrition.
Photo Credit: Eric Molina