Get up early in the morning before the family awakens. Collect the firewood. Light the stove. Grind the corn that you prepared the night before and start making the pile of tortillas that will accompany your family’s meals throughout the day. The fire is burning, the beans are cooking… and the smoke is filling the kitchen, as well as your lungs…
Most of us don’t think too much before we light up our stoves in preparation for cooking a meal. Yet, unfortunately, this daily activity which nourishes our bodies and brings families and communities together, can also severely impact the health of rural women in the Global South. The quantity of smoke they’re breathing and the amount of time they spend in their kitchens adds up over the course of a lifetime. In fact, respiratory illnesses are one of the most common maladies that afflict the rural poor in Central America.
It’s not just the health of women that suffers through this manner of cooking, however. As you can see from the photos above, it also takes a lot of firewood to keep temperatures hot. The constant gathering of ever more firewood is not only an exhaustive chore, but is also one of the primary causes of deforestation in the countryside. Ultimately deforestation causes a host of other environmental problems, such as soil erosion, decreased rainfall and water yields, as well as loss of wildlife habitat. We now know that the rapid rate at which we’re destroying our forests is contributing to global climate change and more severe and more frequent natural disasters.
But in Boaco, Nicaragua, the Tierra Nueva Union of Co-operatives is changing all this. “We have to reduce our firewood consumption. The biggest drain on the forest is the need for firewood, so we’re going to help our members acquire new fuel-efficient stoves that will eliminate the need to cut down so much wood,” explains Pedro Rojas, president of Tierra Nueva.
Two years ago Equal Exchange and our Interfaith partner, Presbyterian U.S.A., funded a small reforestation, environmental protection, and food security project created by the Tierra Nueva Union of Co-operatives. This organic, Fair Trade coffee and honey co-operative has a long-standing partnership with Equal Exchange. After a visit several years ago, when we repeatedly heard from the farmers how proud they were of their efforts to protect their fragile eco-systems and saw how committed their president, Pedro Rojas, was in taking measures to conserve their natural resources, Equal Exchange and Presbyterian U.S.A. decided it was time to do our part as well. And so, the project, “Planting Trees for Life in Nicaragua” was born and funded.
This past month, Dana Welch from our Minnesota office, and I visited Tierra Nueva to see how they were doing, visit with the farmers, and learn how the project was progressing. We had a great visit and we were very pleased with the results. More importantly, so are the farmers!
Less time in the kitchen, smoke in the lungs, and destruction of the forest
Altogether, 70 families located in three communities, San Buenaventura, Las Mercedes and Filas Verdes, have benefitted from the project. Sixteen families received new fuel-efficient stoves which not only require less firewood, but diminish cooking time, and channel the smoke out of the house through the use of chimneys. The women say they can’t believe how different they feel without the constant smoke in the air.
Most families chose to construct the standard size stove, as shown below next to Jessenia and Ezekial. Their mother Celia Davila Medina is a member of the Fuente de Oro (Fountain of Gold) Co-operative.
Of course, if you’re Maria Theresa Mendoza Martinez (shown below with Agueda Ordeñana, Project Coordinator at Tierra Nueva), who proudly cooks delicious organic meals for many of the visitors who come to Filas Verdes… well , you don’t want just any fuel-efficient stove… you’re going to dream up a large, 3-burner… or you’ll pass the whole day in the kitchen just to feed those delegations of Equal Exchange staff, food co-op partners, or Presbyterian friends!
I asked Maria Theresa how she was spending her newly acquired “free” time and she told me that she decided to join the co-operative as a member in her own right. (Previously, only her husband Jacobo Cisneros was a legal member.) In addition, Maria Theresa is participating in a women’s leadership development program and has just graduated from the first set of trainings in micro-enterprise development. She’s considering running a community nursery where other members can purchase young coffee seedlings – but that idea will be further developed in the second phase of the program.
Speaking of nurseries and coffee seedlings…
Through the “Planting Trees for Life” project, Tierra Nueva established 44 nurseries, in which over 200,000 coffee seedlings were cultivated and distributed to the Tierra Fertil (Fertile Earth) and Fuente de Oro co-op members to help them renovate their farms. Below, on the left, is a coffee nursery. On the right, Marvin Tonico Polanco, Fuente de Oro co-op member, is showing us his beautifully cared for coffee farm complete with new coffee trees.
Marvin’s farm was the organic certifiers dream! Rows of live plant barriers (below), dead barriers (logs and brush) and the use of terracing, protect the soil from erosion. You can see how the barriers also help keep a cover of leaves and other materials which decompose adding nutrients to the soil. The coffee is planted in a row below with plenty of shade above.
Shade for your coffee, fruit in your diet, and some extra change in your pocket
The third part of the project enabled co-op members to receive a total of 5,000 citrus trees (oranges, lemons, and mandarins) to provide additional shade for the coffee and fruit for the families’ consumption. The fruit is also sold in the local market, providing extra income for the families. Below, Karen Ortiz (Tierra Fertil Co-op) shows off a newly planted lemon tree and one already bearing fruit.
Below, her father Ramón, picks some oranges for us and Agueda offers to carry them back to town.
After a full day visiting two communities and five farms, we headed back to Boaco pleased that the project was such a success and that the participants were enthused and eager to continue the project for a second year.
This year, they would like to construct an additional 22 fuel-efficient stoves, reforest 50 hectares of land with 160,000 more coffee trees, 10,000 shade trees (citrus and timber), and 10,000 cacao trees to benefit 80 more families in three co-operatives. The project also contemplates the construction of 30 worm composting tanks to expedite the process of organic fertilizer production for their farms.
Maria Theresa’s son, Jacobo Jr., asked us if we’d like a sneak preview:
Well, we’re convinced. The sustainable farming practices of small-scale coffee growers is certainly conserving our fragile natural resources and protecting local eco-systems. We see the proof on every visit. And if the farmers are protecting our environment, and providing us with delicious high quality, organic coffee at the same time, it seems like the least we can do is consume consciously and support their efforts. Wouldn’t you agree?
For more information about other ways to support small scale farmers, our food system, and the planet, visit our blog at www.SmallFarmersBigChange.coop.
Remember that as part of our campaign in support of Small Farmers, Equal Exchange is donating 20 cents/package for every 12 oz. package of Organic Love Buzz purchased, into our Small Farmer Green Planet Fund. The Fund supports projects in Nicaragua, Mexico, Colombia and South Africa.
Donations are also welcome! You can write a tax-deductible check to Grassroots International and send it to Equal Exchange, 50 United Drive, West Bridgewater, MA 02379 (Be sure to write SFGP Fund on the check) or make a credit card donation by clicking the SFGP logo on the sidebar of the blog.