It’s 2am Sunday night and I’ve just prepared a yerba maté. Life is good right now, but it wasn’t this morning really. Round and round and round go the thoughts, always reaching out for something… a something all too often just beyond reach. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to write this entry, how to unravel the tangle that is what I am doing here, to tell it as it is, in all it’s majesty… there are so many fascinating moments that pass by me, how to capture them, and let them onto the page?
It’s 2am Sunday morning and I’m sipping yerba maté here in my apartment in La Ceiba. I’ve had a lovely weekend all said and done, including some of the things I like best about weekends. Walks and women. Ahh, freedom is lovely, and so is long dark curly hair!
Last weekend I travelled with the son of my landlord to Olanchito, a small agrarian town about two hours from here by bus. Having talked about our mutual interest in organic agriculture, Wendel had invited me to go there and check out his property. His is a family of cattle ranchers, but the younger generation is keen to branch out and away from that avenue and into the green streets of sustainable fruit and vegetable production. We’d gone out there to have a look at the land and see if I couldn’t make a few suggestions.
The trip was fabulous. It was the first time I’d driven east from La Ceiba and what a treat. Lush tropical valleys overflowing with greenery, distant mountain peaks, and rushing rivers. I felt inspired to see a land so well suited to abundant production, despite signs of poverty everywhere. That latter, is a mystery yet to be made clear.
We met his cousin Santiago and hopped in the box of his rusty red Toyota 4×4 to head out to the ranch, climbing up into the valley of the Rio Aguán. In short, their property was a dream. Rich black topsoil over a meter deep lay in bands, deposited over tens of thousands of years by the river; a forested hill collected water in two small permanent ponds at it’s base; a lower, moist and sparsely forested area; an upper drier area divided into pastures; a watchman, his wife, and their 7-child family. All the ingredients were there for a spectacular agricultural array.
On the contrary, in Cuero y Salado there is absolutely no soil at all. It’s pretty simple out there, you have sand or you have swamp. And oh, that’s where I seem to be stationed… with green intentions in mind and salty sand or swamp in hand…
Off in the distance, beyond a million singing insects, fireflies, boas, bright green frogs, and sleeping village folk, the sea beats her crashing rhythm to a waning gibbous moon. Here in the casona lays one soul, his body glistening with a near constant sheen of sweat and miracles…
At 31 years now, I begin to understand a few things about this game called sentience: that things come and go. Oh, the moments pass when with gritted teeth, it’s all I can do to bear the torture of a thousand pestering thoughts, ambitions, and desires… only to be met with such moments of serene beauty that all the torture in the world is worth it…
I arrived to Cuero y Salado alone yesterday. The others of our team had things to do in the city, and I had agreed to meet with several members of the community to discuss the community parcel I am designing, implementing, and mostly, inspiring. The trip itself was arduous. I had purchased four twelve foot 2x12s to fix a broken tractor cart here, so that we could use it to go and gather organic materials for the project: manure and leaves, and some fence posts from a miraculous tree called madreado that re-sprouts whence planted, forming a living fence that never needs replacing.
Nearly everything here presents a certain unique challenge. Imagine. Just when you think you can speak a language fairly well, you go to buy hardware and realize that you lack an entire clade of the tongue… that you don’t know how to ask for ½ inch bolts, washers, and nuts… well I know that know now! But moreover, to transport this wood to the refuge was significant in itself, without a truck to carry it to the train, and then to load it on the train and carry it into the reserve… so I had to do it by municipal buses, which are basically old US school buses.
But that was the easy part. I arrived at noon to such a searing heat that the entire village seemed to shimmer in the silence of bodies hidden from the inferno. I saw nobody, and felt so very alone. Some children called ‘Rayo!’ from unseen corners, and I lugged my burden of bag and food to the casita, to settle in for a day. Within, the thermometer registered 38 degrees! and I was nearly overcome then and there.
Exhausted from the living here in Honduras, and mostly from a late night of over-thinking things in my apartment in La Ceiba, the combination of heat and solitude knocked me down. I hadn’t eaten, and really the prospects were slim. Here in Cuero y Salado, food is not taken for granted. There is no store and there is no restaurant… well… there is, but you carry a face and name there… mostly, there is no anonymity. When I am not 100%, going out there to organize food seems a nearly unsurmountable task… and this afternoon was one of those… I felt like I was running at about 30%.
So I swayed in the intense heat and realizing I was totally bagged, and had an hour before the scheduled meeting, I opted to take a brief siesta instead of eat. I was already drenched in sweat and not a whisper of a breeze appeared to blow away but a mere degree of the 38 that were rendering me useless. So I slept a half hour, then reluctantly, already feeling dismayed, rose and ploughed my way through the blaze, to the meeting place.
At least this was to be a major advancement in the project here. The week before had been momentous, and I was finally beginning to feel confident that things would work out the way I’d envisioned them. Among many things that our group is doing here, the one that grabs me the most, and with which I am mostly involved, is the community parcel. Cuero y Salado has an interesting history… well, it has an interesting present too, but the current relies on the past, as does the future, weaving a tapestry of relationships that at times is very challenging to grasp and work with.
Over the last centuries, the area became a major fruit producing region, and little by little I begin to understand it. Fruit barons and their slaves felled forest to plant a variety of things, among them, monocultures of coconut, African palm, pineapple, and sugar cane. Gradually, various companies took control over this or that section, until one, Standard Fruit, now known as Dole, became master of all. The company cut and cleared vast areas of land, included most of the area now contained within the refuge. Due to the inundated nature of the land here (it’s a mangrove swamp after all) waterways and canals were dredged as the easiest way to transport produce, and the central mustering area became Salado Barra, the small village where we live. Indeed it is in the Casona, an ex-Standard Fruit house, that I stay when I am here. From here, the train carried fruit to markets and ports.
When slavery was abolished, the workers received the right to choose livelihoods, and of those that chose to remain, most became families reliant on fishing. Today, there remain scattered throughout the reserve, about 200 families, of which most still sustain themselves on either fishing, or the paltry salaries offered by scarce work with Dole. Agriculture has never a major part of life here… nor fresh fruit and vegetables a significant part of the diet.
Eventually, WWF gained control of the land and protected it as a biological refuge, given that many areas of mangrove had regrown and much native forest still remained. And of this, management was eventually passed over to La Fundación Cuero y Salado (FUCSA), an NGO funded mostly by the European Union (and unfortunately largely ineffective at protecting nature nor people). At this point enter Falls Brook Centre.
Two years ago FBC’s Jean Arnold came here on a trip to look for potential projects. She already had various things going on all over Central America and in Honduras, and Cuero y Salado caught her interest. She was intrigued by the challenging conditions of the area: a vast biodiversity to protect and restore, communities spread throughout the refuge that live off the natural resources and often damage them, a corrupt national government, international involvement and funding, an inept managing NGO, drug traffic within, military involvement, poverty, tourism potential, scientific potential, natural beauty, etc… needless to say, there was the potential for much interesting work here.
So. My arrival here coincided with her visit to the refuge, and with a visit from the world-renown Dr. Ranil, founder of a land management-restoration tree-based agriculture called Analog Forestry. The system provides a fascinating tool to restore forest cover, while at the same time including human benefits too. Indeed in this day and age, restoration projects that don’t benefit people will nearly always fail because people are nearly everywhere and must become part of the solution.
Although the management has it’s complexities, the idea is fairly straightforward to grasp. Basically, a designer finds a neighbouring site to the one he wants to restore that demonstrates an ecosystem as close to natural for the area as possible. Using a formula, he takes a ‘snapshot’ of the architecture of the native forest, observing that major biological groups represented, focusing on plants. He then moves to his restoration area, and takes another snapshot of what exists there. Comparing the two in what is known as a gap analysis, the designer then fills the gaps in the restoration site with species that mimic, or are ‘analogous’ to the native forest, but he selects species that have human values too, and that meet the conditions of the site. In this way, the structure and function of the restoration site will eventually closely represent that of the native forest, but people will be involved too, to care for it and make a living of it. It’s a win-win: forest cover is restored and people live in harmony with it.
So. The first weeks here in Cuero y Salado were a buzz of activity and we went nearly non-stop. We call received training in Analog Forestry and as it was my first time with it, I learned a tonne. In many ways it resembles the work I was involved with in Brazil, with some variations, but in any case it is super neat stuff! We went like stink to make a few different designs, propose them to Dole, and involve the community at as many levels as was possible. In the end, a few concrete projects emerged, among them an arboretum, a mangrove restoration site, a household AF plot, and my little baby, the community parcel.
To enter the refuge one takes a train from La Union through a hodge-podge assemblage of ramshackle houses, through the ultra flooded patanal, through a massive Dole coconut monoculture and finally into Salado Barra. My first thoughts at seeing the monoculture were as always ‘Why don’t they plant more things here?’. And I would soon learn the answer.
The coconut plantation is a myth! All the trees have something known as yellow disease, and in the end, the fruit can’t even be sold!! Dole continues to tend to the trees and plant new ones to replace those that die for one reason only: possession is 9/10s of the law here. Dole has a semi-legal historical concession that gives them ‘ownership’ of the land on which they have crops growing. I suppose at some point this concession served to ‘develop’ the country, to give incentive for investment, but here? now? it’s shit!
In the end, nobody really has the right to be here, it is after all a world-respected nature reserve. But here they are, Dole, the giant multi-national, and a whole whack of very large families… they’re all here, and it is in this arena that we are working.
So there they are, all the little houses of the community that lives in the refuge… all pinned along what is the coconut plantation and the swamp. Poor fishermen, or poor Dole employees. But, this is not to say unhappy… quite to the contrary, it’s just that they would like to to learn to cultivate crops so they could feed themselves better, AND the land wants to be cared for!
It is something fascinating to chat with the various members of the community to gain some perspective over what is. If you happen to be the rich armed guardsman that trots around on your horse and patrols the plantation, maybe you’re happy to have a well-paying job with Dole, but, if you’re one of the dozens of others that lives between swamp and barbed wire and barbed wire and plantation, maybe not so much. Maybe even you’re more than a little pissed off that you can’t do anything with so much abundant land!
So, we made a proposal and we carried it right into the heart of the Dole office in La Ceiba, and we tactfully demanded an audience, which we received. And now, after much political cultivation, here we are and ready to plant our analog forests… in the salty sand.
In the salty sand.
Soil tests were conducted in the areas we are proposing to work and they results were dismal, in one manner of thinking at least. If I were to choose a worse spot to do agriculture on my own, I doubt I could find one, really. There is just about ZERO organic matter in the substrate here. I will call it substrate, because it isn’t soil, and it’s barely earth. It’s pure sand. What nutrients might once have existed here have long since been either burned away, or washed by the heavy rains that buffet the region in the humid season.
But in another manner of thinking, it’s a perfect place to work… laterally. Laterally because one of our main objectives here is to wrangle Dole into altering it’s horrendous toxic monoculture practices. As far as they’re concerned, the place is suitable for one thing and one thing only: coconuts. And that’s all they’re doing there. The thing is, much more is possible there, it just takes really brilliant organic agroforestry knowledge, and the help of the entire community.
Here, as in most permaculture approaches, the problem becomes the solution, if only one sees it that way. At the same time that cattle rearing in the refuge is wreaking havoc in several ways, mainly the destruction of habitat for ranch expansion, so thus do the cows furnish us with an essential input of nitrogenous organic material. In the same way that the continued mowing of the grassy areas amidst the coconut palms is impoverishing what’s left of the ecosystem, so thus does it furnish us with a lot of potential carbon. Carbon + nitrogen = kickass compost.
That the people from the community are incredibly poor and without land, and that they don’t have a history of agriculture also becomes part of the solution. For starters, they haven’t got anything to loose, and in fact have everything to gain from working with us. Since there isn’t a lot of work, they have time and desire to better their standard of living by cultivating fruits and vegetables, and their lack of agricultural knowledge may allow us to instil an organic holistic approach. Indeed, they’ve no money to buy agrochemicals anyways, so the available organic materials will serve as the base for our system.
So it’s been a process, and now I’m getting in with it. Last week, having helped Anuar with some of the other projects, I really started up. We hired a guy that lives here, but is not involved in the project because he doesn’t even have a house at all, and we went out to start raking up materials. In fact it was my birthday…