The story below was written for the Ecology Action Newsletter about the time I spent in El Salvador:
Growing our Future…
When John started our first class with the particular quote, “The purpose of farming is not to grow crops, but to cultivate people,” (Fuokoka) I knew I was in the right place. These words resonated deeply with my own personal philosophy and experiences. I recently moved back to the US after almost two years in El Salvador in order to do this six-month internship with Ecology Action. My experiences in El Salvador taught me how gardening can grow people and communities.
In mid 2008, I arrived in Los Naranjos, a rural community of impoverished subsistence farmers who were re-located after the Salvadoran civil war (1980-1992). The village has no basic amenities such as transportation, potable water, electricity, health clinics, or public schooling. However, despite poverty, illiteracy, and oppression the village and community is well organized and exemplifies the country’s struggle for a more just and sustainable future.
Before moving to the community, I had the opportunity of attending a Basic Level GROW BIOINTENSIVE workshop that ECOPOL was doing in San Salvador. Despite being slightly overwhelmed (as my Spanish was quite poor at the time and I was the only “gringa” in attendance…and this was only my first week in the country), I left knowing that GROW BIOINTENSIVE could change the world and I had to start a Biointensive garden. Unfortunately, I had just moved to a new country and didn’t even have a place to live, much less a plan to do Biointensive work. Thus, I kept the workshop and ideas in the back of my mind as I moved to Los Naranjos. Once in the village, I spent my first several months focusing on getting to know the community and the reality they face in order to better understand the community needs and dynamics, as well as doing a little research on successful sustainable agriculture projects going on around the country.
The original plan for me was to facilitate the process of identifying and starting an organic certified cash crop for the community. However, after several months of interviewing, visiting, observing, and more, we realized this was not a realistic short-term goal or true need and desire of the community (sometimes it takes a while to realize the simple things). We also realized that a real need and desire of the community was a community garden (and of course a perfect opportunity to try out Biointensive!). In Los Naranjos it is not obvious that people are malnourished, but once you get to know the community, you realize most women are anemic and teachers frequently complain that children cannot focus in class because of improper nutrition. Vegetables are not part of their diet (due in part to their high cost) and few people knew how to grow them. However, the people wanted to learn how to grow good food for their families and how to better take care of the Earth in the process.
The goal for the community garden was that it serve as a school for the community, and the skills learned would be put to use in each family’s individual garden, and the harvest from the community garden would eventually be sold at the market for supplemental income.
Once the decision was made to start a community garden, we hit the road running. We decided to plant half an acre (which was way too much to start with we later learned). In that first month of work, I can say I saw the power of community and the pure brute force of Salvadorans. The land that was available had not been planted in 20+ years and was basically reforested and was on a steep hillside. Our only tools were our hands, machetes, pick-axes, and shovels. We worked 3-4 days a week, working 5 plus hours a day, and working with everything in us (keep in mind this was all volunteer labor – everyone working had another job or their own land to be taking care of in addition). We went into the mountains, hiking long distances, to find logs to help form the terraces and then carried them back on our backs. I always accompanied and tried to help, but I quickly learned that I don’t last long in the Salvadoran heat. Eventually we did terrace the whole hillside and complete 12 beautiful long beds ranging from 30 to 100 feet long and 4.5 feet wide, all dug 2 feet down. Everyone helped all the way through the process. To be a part of the work with everyone present, laughing, arguing, sweating and working together was an inspiring experience.
On our first planting day, we made flats of tomato, green pepper, onion, and cabbage, and then planted 2 small beds of radishes. The plant list was short that first month because it was extremely difficult to find local, open-pollinated, non-GMO seeds. El Salvador has lost most of the traditional farming knowledge, and few people have seeds saved .
As expected there were lots of surprises in those first months, and I was often shedding tears of both joy and frustration. One especially beautiful and unexpected impact of the garden was what happened with the youth (ages 11-17) of Los Naranjos. It quickly became obvious that the youth wanted to come help out and that some of the most excited workers were the youth. They were accustomed to manual labor and often spent all their “free time” working in the cornfields, often alone or good distances from other workers. However, in the garden, there were always several of us working together and the youth tended to all come on the same days. At first I would get frustrated because with all the youth there we weren’t as “efficient” and would often lose a few seeds or plants. But I soon realized how revolutionary this was – the kids wanted to come plant and be a part of the garden. On off days they would stop by my house and ask when we were going to work! Instead of getting frustrated, I started to embrace it. They were closer to my age than all the adults so it became quite fun. All of us out there, telling jokes, digging, laughing, and enjoying the garden together. After working for a few hours we would often head down to the river for a quick swim to cool off. They were not generally allowed to go to the river alone, but with me and all of us together, the parents couldn’t refuse us anything. In fact, once the youth started working together in the garden, they started doing a lot of things together, we even started an official “Youth Committee” in Los Naranjos. A group of youth committed to working together to organize and improve their community and the reality they lived. We planned special celebrations in the community (like for Mothers and Fathers Day), did community clean-up, invited people to do workshops on human rights, environmental issues, politics, and anything else that interested the group. We even raised money and took a fieldtrip to a water park (most of the group had never been swimming in a pool before). Now the Youth Committee is still going, they have a President and whole leadership team and many plans for the coming year. Plus, the youth have decided to take a leadership role in the garden. Right before I left, I went to a national GROW BIOINTENSIVE training workshop with a 12-year-old boy that the community voted to send as their representative. The group spends at least one morning or afternoon working together in the garden and consistently participates in workshops or other garden activities.
When I first went to El Salvador, I had no idea I would be working with youth, but a lot can happen in the garden.