Saturday, January 14, 2006

Hola desde El Salvador #6

Querida familia y amigos,

Shame on me! How did the last 6 months get away from me without writing to you all? I guess to answer that one, I’ll just quote Calvin and Hobbes – “The days are just packed!”

At any rate, I wanted to wish you all a belated Happy New Year and give you an update on what I’ve been doing in the last half year for anyone who’s interested.

Anyway, this could get kind of long, so feel free to scan and read sections of interest. Here goes…

I) Planting and Harvesting

I continue to learn the traditional Salvadoran agricultural cycle, which has finally come full circle. In my last email back in July we’d planted corn and beans on the rocky land with a chuso in May and fertilized them in June and July. In late August the corn finished maturing and we folded down the stalks to allow the corn to dry, then planted a second crop of beans in between the rows of corn. The fun part came with the threshing in November. Once the bean plants have dried out, we went to the fields and pulled them up, then piled the crisp plants with their full pods on a big tarp. Then we hit the piles (taller than me!) with big sticks, which causes the pods to burst open and the beans to fall to the tarp below. When the threshing is over, you can sweep the chaff off the top and pour the heavier beans into sacs to carry home.

Threshing beans

I certainly enjoyed learning the agricultural tasks, for the farmers, this was a difficult year. Invierno (winter, or the rainy season) blew in with cold, heavy rains associated with Hurricane Adrian in May, ruining any beans that were already planted. Then, 8 days of nonstop, torrential rains from Hurricane Stan in early October soaked the bean fields and made perfect conditions for fungi to destroy the crop. Most probably harvested just enough beans to store and eat for the year, but many farmers lost over half of their crop – which is just devastating. A family’s stock of beans is its buffer against insecurity. Thanks to the inflow of subsidized corn from the United States and Europe, farmers can’t even recoup their investment selling their corn, but there’s at least some hope of turning a profit with beans. When a need arises or someone falls ill, families will sell an arroba (25 lbs.) of beans in the pueblo in order to pay for it, and farmers also depend on the sale of surplus beans to purchase seeds and fertilizer for the following crop. This year, my neighbors Lidia and Melvin confided, there will be no extra beans to sell, no source of income. But the sacs I helped them gather will probably be enough for us to eat for the year, and for that, we are grateful.

II) A quick update on last year’s projects and ongoing projects:

-- Home Vegetable Gardens, Fruit Trees, and Forest Trees (oh my!)
The home vegetable gardens had modest success, mostly by the women who were most faithful in attending the trainings and as such took the best care of their gardens. Lidia and I harvested tomatoes and carrots; Tita harvested very tasty, tender sweet peppers; and Bitia improved her daughter’s nutrition with Vitamin A-rich carrots and even generated a little income selling her surplus tomatoes to neighbors. Although we had problems with pests and with the seeds simply not adapting well to the climate, I think that the women learned important skills, such as composting and garden planning, that will be important as we continue to learn how to grow vegetables in El Amatón. Next year, we plan to continue our efforts working with organic home vegetable gardens. We plan to seek out a local seed source, even if we can’t find open-pollinated seeds, to ensure that the seeds will be of varieties appropriate for the local climate. I’ve also contacted an organization that specializes in organic vegetables, and they have agreed to help provide additional training in natural pest control to help prevent some of the losses we faced this year. The fruit trees planted around people’s homes and the multiple-use trees planted on farmer’s lands as living fences, barriers against soil erosion, and mini-forests for soil conservation and firewood are all looking good. I’m confident that I’ll have a good excuse to visit El Amatón in about three years -- to eat the oranges from the trees we planted!

Me harvesting tomatoes in my garden (left);
Rosa standing by a maquilishuat tree she planted
as part of a living fence (right)

-- Water Project:
The water project is, well, languishing, along with the community as dry season sets in once more. The engineers FINALLY turned in the technical folder in August (after promising it would be done March 1). The Water Committee and I busied ourselves, first going through a lot of trouble to get title to the land where the water storage tank will be built. Once we had that, we began preparing funding proposals for our portion of the project: the water storage tank, chlorination system, and distribution tubing, about $20,000 (the Mayor promised to fund the pump, electricity, and supply tubing). Unfortunately, almost all of our proposals have been turned down. The North Sacramento Rotary Club actually came to visit the community, but they only have about $1000 in their account for international projects and haven’t been able to garner support from other clubs. The non-government organizations we contacted (CARE, Project Concern International, and Catholic Relief Services) couldn’t help us, because USAID stopped funding all water system infrastructure projects in Central America, and these NGOs got most of their funds from USAID. The Salvadoran Red Cross was looking hopeful, but recently informed me that they are overwhelmed with reconstruction from Hurricane Stan and won’t be able to help us economically (I did beg some technical assistance out of them). We also got turned down by the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives and the Swiss Organization for Cooperation and Development. So as far as the funding goes, we are back to square one.

And that’s the least of our worries. There’s a lot of loose ends that the Mayor didn’t concern himself with tying up when he drilled the well, supposedly with the intention of eventually providing water to El Amatón (although I don’t think this project would be in motion if we hadn’t gone and solicited the technical folder). We have gone through a lot of trouble trying to get the well donated to the community (can you believe the Mayor paid something like $10,000 to drill a well and he didn’t even know who owned the land?) but there is a lot of politics that is making me doubt that we will able to get title. In short, it’s under the jurisdiction of one of the ministries of the central government, which is dominated by the right wing ARENA party, and they are not about to facilitate a project that will make our mayor – of the left wing FMLN party – look good, especially right before municipal elections in March. And this really scares me, because if we can’t get the well, that basically means we would have to start all over: find a new water source, scrap the current technical folder and all the funding proposals we’ve done, and somewhere find the funds to drill ANOTHER well (this time on land owned by the community) and solicit ANOTHER technical folder (which could take approximately forever), etc., etc. The Mayor also never bothered to test the water in the well to make sure that it wasn’t contaminated, which he should have done when it was drilled. Now it’s going to be a lot harder (and really expensive) to get an uncontaminated sample and test it, and he is not disposed to help us at all. I get the feeling that the Mayor really wants this project to happen, but not for the good of the community. He just wants to do something really visible and put his name on a big sign, and doesn’t really care if there is invisible contamination in the streams of water flowing from the faucets.

The bottom line: I’d really appreciate your prayers on the water project. People in the community are losing hope that their most basic need – sufficient and clean water -- will ever be satisfied, and I’m at a loss to know what to do. The Mayor and his cadre of engineers clearly are not taking responsibility to ensure that the project is done well, I’m certainly no technical expert in water and sanitation systems, the government ministries we’re dealing with are so impenetrable, and I don’t see any hope of funding at this point even if we could get the donation of the well. But we’ll keep fighting.

-- School Construction:
A happier story! Thanks to the donations of my family, friends, and especially members of my church, we received enough funds to construct the two new classrooms that the school needs to expand its offerings through 9th grade. Construction began in late October, with parent volunteers happily providing all the unskilled labor.

A big highlight of the classroom construction was in mid-November, when 5 members of my church plus my Dad came to work alongside community members to build the classrooms. Our main task was moving 4,000 bricks from the site where they had been unloaded from the truck up to the construction site, 3 bricks at a time (at first we got the idea of using a wheelbarrow, but then that was appropriated for moving sand to mix the cement for the foundation and securing the bricks). We were there when Armando, the mason, laid the first brick. Thinking of the learning that would take place inside those walls, it was an emotional moment. Throughout the whole week, Greg, Phil, Nancy, Sharon, Laura, and of course my Dad Fred were awesome, working alongside the parents to mixing concrete, pour the foundation, and pass bricks to the masons when they began to construct the walls. I am almost positive that my Dad and Phil also garnered the distinction of being the first males EVER to wash clothes in our river (although they are cheaters – they didn’t turn the shirts inside out to wash the inside too!).

WPC Mission Trip: Dad and Sharon carry bricks (left);
the whole group in front of the growing walls (right)

Dad and Phil washing their clothes in the river

At this point, the brick walls of the school are finished and the lamina roof is secured. The work still left to be done includes placement of doors and mesh windows, laying floor tiles, siding the walls with cement, and painting the walls. The classrooms should be finished several weeks after school opens for the children to use!

Okay, so that wasn’t so quick. Sorry …

III) What’s next:

-- Chickens!
In addition to planning an improved organic home vegetable gardens project, the Agriculture Committee’s latest adventure is a project to raise improved breeds of chickens for egg production. Most women in the community already raise some chickens, but right now the chickens run around wild, eat whatever weeds they can find (or people’s gardens, if they are not fenced), and make their nests in random places that are often discovered by hungry dogs. As such, egg production is low to begin with and a lot is lost to egg predation.

We began working to improve chicken health and production with vaccination campaigns (I can vaccinate chickens against viruela! And Manuel promised to teach me to give the triple vaccine against avian cholera in the next campaign!). Out of that grew the idea of a more comprehensive program to improve the raising of chickens using “agroecological” (environmentally friendly) techniques. I’ve already gone with the members of my Vaccination Committee to visit an existing project in another community to get ideas for our project, and they are really excited. Basically, what we want to do is bring improved races of chickens which lay many more eggs than the inbred strains currently in the community, and build enclosures and chicken coops to facilitate better care of the chickens and prevent loss of eggs to mischevious dogs. We also want to plant a special soil-enriching pasture and teach people about vermicomposting (raising worms for the chickens to eat on fruit and vegetable scraps – with the added benefit that the worms produce a really rich fertilizer). Ultimately, the project should improve children’s nutrition by providing eggs and provide a source of income for participating families when they sell surplus eggs in the community. I also like this project because it provides the women (the ones who traditionally raise chickens) with an opportunity to develop leadership skills and contribute to their family’s sustenance.

-- Health Committee:
We’ve been working with the organization Trees, Water, People (Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo) to solicit a donation of materials for an improved stoves project. Cooking on open fires uses a lot of firewood and produces a lot of respiratory health problems because of the smoke. But the Aprovecho Research Center (an appropriate-technology organization) in Oregon developed an improved stove that includes an iron plancha atop an enclosed flame. There’s room for just a little firewood, and the rest of the stove is filled with cascajo, a material that retains and distributes the heat. If they are maintained properly, the stoves save up to 75% of the firewood that one would use cooking with an open fire. It also produces less smoke and has a chimney to funnel it out of the kitchen so that the women can breathe a little easier. AND they are super fun to build (we did one in training) – at one point, you have to make a mud mixture held together with this thick molasses stuff, and it’s mixed by taking off your shoes and “dancing” in the glop!

We’re also trying to scale up a Trash Management project that we started in the school to the entire community … separating organic from inorganic trash, composting the organic, recycling the cans and plastic bottles (I got the bus driver to say he’ll take them to Chalchuapa to sell if we collect them in the school), and burying the rest of the inorganic trash in a semi-sanitary home-made landfill, with clay at the bottom to prevent contamination of sub-terranean water. I think this one’s gonna be tough … there has never been a trash collection, so people are pretty used to just throwing their trash wherever …

-- School Tree Nursery and Ecological Library:
We were able to solicit the funds for an Environmental Education project that includes a school tree nursery and Ecological Library. I’ve done a lot of planning in the last couple months with Manuel (the agronomist), the teachers, and the Water and Agriculture committees to plan a tree nursery, where we’ll produce trees to reforest community water sources. We’ll start the trees in February, transplant them into bags in March, and then out in the field in June, when the rains come to help them get established. The Ecological Library is being constructed along with the school classrooms, and some of the older students from the Literary-Ecological Club have already helped begin classifying the new books. The teachers and I selected a combination of fiction books with nature themes (to read with the kids in the Saturday club) and non-fiction books on plants, animals, ecology, etc. (to be used in school projects). We’ve spent a couple Saturdays classifying the books, placing spine labels and pockets with check-out cards, and making a card catalog. I’m hoping that the library will get kids excited about both reading and the environment and provide inspiration for more activities of the Literary-Ecological Club … at the very least, it will give my now-tattered copy of El Lorax a rest! (If you’ll remember from my last email, that was one of the few kid’s books in Spanish that I have and was getting pretty worn out from repeated readings. The kids just LOVE books!)

Okay, I think this has gone on long enough! I’m going to despedirse (say good-bye). Please, if you get a chance, do drop a note to let me know what you have been up to.

¡Próspero Año Nuevo a todos! (Happy New Year to all!)


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