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Column: On a reservation in Nicaragua, ‘biointensive’ gardening yields bumper crop of results

  • Courtesy of Judith Nichols

  • Elioena Aráuz, Artists for Soup's program director, teaches new women gardeners withthe Matagalpa landscape behind her. (Courtesy of Judith Nichols)

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, June 15, 2019

In a time when kids around the world are leaving their classrooms and going out into the streets to urge their governments to tackle climate change, mainly grim news has been coming out of Nicaragua.

By U.N. measures, it’s the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. And for the past year, it’s been torn by political conflict, sending thousands of citizens, including many young people, across the border into Costa Rica to flee violence and persecution.

But a 1,000-family reservation of Matagalpan Indians in Corozo, Nicaragua, has begun to grow gardens that diversify their diet and strengthen their local economy while sequestering the carbon that feeds climate change.

These accomplishments, increasingly visible in Corozo, have been happening elsewhere in Nicaragua too.

When I traveled around Nicaragua in the 1980s, the revolution had fostered lots of hope. It slowly faded.

These hope-filled stories about Corozo now come from my daughter, Judith Nichols.

In 2014 she founded a nonprofit, Artists for Soup, to address growing hunger and malnutrition in Nicaragua. Artists for Soup has found lots of help for Corozo from local women, other nonprofits, Nicaraguan and U.S. college interns, public school teachers, community groups, churches, local Nicaraguan government officials, artists and foundations.

Just recently, for example, the New England BioLabs Foundation provided money for fencing, seed boxes, organic fertilizer, rain barrels, watering cans, wheelbarrows and other gardening tools that make these gardens possible.

The drought and pest-resistant gardens grown in Corozo depend on deep garden bed excavation, large amounts of compost, companion planting and strategic use of pollinators.

This method is difficult at the outset because of the initial, one-time deep excavation in rocky soil. But the results include biodiversity and increased yields, as well as resistance to pests and diminished release of carbon.

When women who have adopted this demanding method of growing vegetables for their families are asked what led them to try it, they invariably speak of a young woman, Elioena Aráuz. Raised in Corozo, Aráuz has become una maestra (a teacher) of the “biointensive” gardening method.

Asked what led her to focus on gardening, Aráuz explains in Spanish: “I was 7 or 8 years old when I started helping my dad plant beans, rice, corn, yucca. This was on our farm in Corozo. Sometimes I did not want to go to school because I only wanted to plant. I had my own garden.”

Aráuz’s sister Alyeriz adds: “In the community, they called Elioena “Huertita” (Little Gardener), because she was always out in the field and because she did not like to cook.”

With the help of scholarships and money earned from selling beans she grew, Aráuz began to study agriculture, and she apprenticed with an organization, Campesino a Campesino, a Latin American grassroots movement of farmers who promote sustainable agriculture. She was invited from there to a workshop offered by another organization, BioNica, where she learned about biointensive gardening.

In two years, Aráuz has helped 43 families in Corozo develop biointensive gardens. In addition, she holds workshops for visiting groups, teaches gardening in the schools, and supports small business enterprises such as bakeries and doll-making.

She often mentions that her own garden, which she started in 2015 with three beds, has become an important teacher.

It has grown to 44 beds and become a demonstration garden, where visitors from other parts of Nicaragua come on buses to walk through the rows and talk with local family gardeners, learning the biointensive methods.

Corozo community members have begun to share strategies such as seed saving to increase food security and there are now biointensive gardens in schools, churches, and a community center. Gardening in Corozo has become a catalyst for change beyond the reservation.

Such hope-filled stories coming out of Nicaragua are inspiring. Not only is the country politically unstable, but the land itself is often unstable because of years of slash and burn agriculture, agribusiness and deforestation, all contributing to climate change, food shortages and the kind of forced migration that sends people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico to the United States.

But that insistently hopeful Vermonter Bill McKibben, who began to warn us about climate change in 1989, wouldn’t be surprised by these stories.

Faced with a U.S. president and an administration seemingly bent on catastrophic environmental policies of several kinds, he said some time ago that much of the important work would have to take place at the grassroots level.

Increasingly, products of that work are evident in Corozo, Nicaragua.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached by email at Nichols@Denison.edu. For more information about the nonprofit organization Artists for Soup, visit artistsforsoup.org.