Fruitless Land

Posted Dec 17, 2009 by 3 Comments

“These people shouldn’t be starving.”

That thought has run through my head many times while living in Llano Ñopo.  Here is a community of farmers with access to land, plenty of rainfall and generations of experience living in the mountainous Panamanian countryside.

These people shouldn’t be starving.  And yet they are…

The Ngöbe people (pronounced Noh-bay) are not lazy.  They work hard.  Yet because of a lack of agricultural education, an ever increasing population and unreliable water sources due to deforestation, they struggle to eke out a living from soil that has long since been drained of its nutrients.

My host Bernardo harvesting rice.

My host Bernardo harvesting rice.

As families continue to grow and expand, farming techniques that have worked for hundreds of years are now becoming unsustainable.  Now that every square inch of land is claimed, the same four acres that used to feed one or two people now have to feed entire families.

Dead Wheat International Foundation has stepped in to bring change to this broken system, but there are many factors working against them.

Ineffective Traditions

A path between two of Bernardo's fields.  This is the foliage he needs to cut down by hand each year!

A path between two of Bernardo's fields. This is the foliage he needs to cut down by hand each year!

First of all, there are the long-held farming traditions among the Ngöbe people.

For hundreds of years, the primary method of farming here has been what is often referred to as “slash and burn.”  Farmers rotate from year to year between three or four fields, working on one while letting the others become overgrown.  At the beginning of planting season, they cut down the growth on one field, burn away the foliage and plant crops on the newly cleared ground.

While the “slash and burn” technique works effectively when there is an abundance of workable land, it becomes increasingly ineffective as populations grow.  As more and more people have to live on less and less land, fields are rotated much more often, reducing the amount of naturally available nutrients in the soil.

On top of all of that, “slash and burn” is incredibly labor-intensive.  When my host, Bernardo, took me with him to harvest rice, I was shocked to see how overgrown his other fields were.  I got tired just thinking about the week of back-breaking work it would take to cut it all down by hand.

A Lack of Education

The second major obstacle to overcome is a lack of education about proper farming methods.

Two Ngöbe children.  It breaks my heart to see so many distended bellies here.

Two Ngöbe children. It breaks my heart to see so many distended bellies here.

When it comes time to plant new seeds each year, farmers use the antiquated technique of scattering their seeds across the ground.  Many seeds are wasted as they fall on rocks, paths or among other, stronger plants.

Because of the high risk of crop failure, Bernardo actually scatters several different types of seeds.  Each year he plants corn, beans and rice in the same field.  This helps when a pest attacks one of the plants, but with three different crops vying for the same plot of land, none of them will grow to their full potential.

Without knowing any other options, however, Bernardo and farmers like him will continue these methods.

No Knowledge of Nutrients

The third significant problem is that the Ngöbe have very little working knowledge of the science behind nutrients in the soil.  Without realizing the long-term consequences of their actions, many farmers have essentially “sucked the earth dry” by over-planting.  Each year, their crops give smaller and smaller yields, and their families must make do with even less food on the table.

As I harvested rice with Bernardo, I was disheartened to see how puny the rice stalks were.  Every stalk I cut would eventually end up being less than a fork-full of rice.  And after an hour spent harvesting with three other people, we had only collected about five pounds.

Compared to rice harvests in countries where soil is understood, we brought in a fraction of what could have grown.

These problems, when combined with widespread deforestation, create a cycle of poverty that is extremely difficult to break.

As with this mortar and pestle used to separate rice kernels from their husks, the Ngöbe continue to use centuries-old farming techniques.

As with this mortar and pestle used to separate rice kernels from their husks, the Ngöbe continue to use centuries-old farming techniques.

An Advocate Steps In

Thankfully, organizations like Dead Wheat exist to help these farmers work towards a more sustainable future.

By discovering the true needs of a community and supporting individuals and groups in each village that are already taking initiative, Dead Wheat hopes to reverse the trend of malnutrition without reverting to handouts.

While many aid organizations inadvertently promote dependence among the poor, Dead Wheat’s goal is independence.  Instead of taking over and treating subsistence farmers as helpless peasants, they educate and equip those farmers to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

My host's wife, Nidia, looking out over the countryside on the way to harvest rice (Click the photo to see a larger version of the panorama!).

My host's wife, Nidia, looking out over the countryside on the way to harvest rice (Click the photo to see a larger version of the panorama!).

Aquaponics

Currently, Dead Wheat is exploring the potential benefits of an aquaponics program in the Comarca (the region where the Ngöbe live).

The “grow beds” for Dead Wheat's prototype aquaponics project, only weeks away from completion.

The “grow beds” for Dead Wheat's prototype aquaponics project, only weeks away from completion.

Aquaponics is a brilliant system that has been used in some parts of the world for thousands of years. Essentially, it entails the creation of a small, closed ecosystem which provides fish, nutritious vegetables, and sometimes even chickens and eggs, with almost zero external inputs.

Let me explain.  It starts with a tank full of tilapia fish.  They are amazingly adaptable, and can feed on the algae which forms naturally in Panama’s wet climate.  As food, tilapia are nutritious and plentiful.

The fish eat, live and reproduce in the tank, their waste fills the water with nutrients that plants need to survive.  This water is then pumped into long, flat “grow beds,” filled with everything from beans to corn to rice.  The nutrient-rich water feeds the vegetables, then flows back into the tilapia tank to begin the process once more.

When Dead Wheat teaches Ngöbe farmers in the Comarca how to set up and run their own aquaponics systems, they will be able to have a consistent, ongoing source of nutritious food.  Meanwhile, the nutrient-poor soil in their fields will finally be allowed to rest and recover.

Even though many aid organizations have given up on the Ngöbe or taken over completely (assuming they are incapable of helping themselves), Dead Wheat maintains hope. Hope that these beautiful people can once again prosper.  Hope that children can once again have full bellies.  Hope that the land can once again be fertile…

These people shouldn’t be starving.  And someday soon, they won’t be.

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Next Steps
    • Want to get involved in Dead Wheat's aquaponics project? Click here to contribute to the cause.
    • Consider spending one to three months helping Dead Wheat build their first aquaponics project in Llano Ñopo. Click here to find out more about how you can volunteer.
    • Pray for the work of Dead Wheat and the situation of the Ngöbe people. Pray that doors would be opened for their generations-old farming methods to change.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Jim M said... 

    Reply

    December 18th, 2009 at 9:33 am  

    Very interesting Barry. A few questions. Where can we find aquaponics systems being used in a sustainable way supporting small or moderate populations as a food source. I am probably like many of your readers and have only read about this and observed it at Epcot (sadly). Second, having grown up on a small farm, I found myself wondering why the farmers you wrote about here have not been taught conventional farming techniques using relatively inexpensive fertilizers, and land/crop conservation methods, even with a modicum of communally shared small equipment (probably at a lower cost than the cost of an aquaponics ecosystem) one would expect to have fairly high yields from ground in that climate. Third, I would be interested to read another report on how deforestation is impacting the water supply. Keep up the great work in reporting on what you see. Your reference to seed in various soils was a small point in this report that I particularly enjoyed. Blessings my friend.

  2. Barry Rodriguez said... 

    Reply

    December 18th, 2009 at 9:50 am  

    Hey Jim! Great questions.

    As far as I know, aquaponics has NOT been implemented very much in the developing world. At least, not in Panama. Dead Wheat is exploring new territory in the Comarca with this project.

    The reason they haven’t been taught proper farming methods is just that… well, they haven’t been taught. There is very VERY little government intervention in the Comarca. The general attitude seems to be “Oh, they’ve been fine for hundreds of years, they’ll stay fine…” Also, aid groups have been largely focused on other issues such as providing potable water (Peace Corps) and healthcare (Red Cross).

    As far as the cost of the aquaponics system, the photo you see is, according to Steve, a “Cadillac” system. Dead Wheat is pursuing VERY inexpensive versions using thin plastic sheeting for the tanks and grow beds, as well as solar or human-powered water pumps.

    If this is something of interest to you, I’d encourage you to contact Dead Wheat yourself. I know that they love making connections with other thoughtful innovators! http://deadwheat.com/contact/

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Barry Rodriguez said... 

    Reply

    January 5th, 2010 at 8:27 am  

    UPDATE: To see a video of the current progress with Dead Wheat’s flagship aquaponics project, click here: http://deadwheat.com/el-frances-aquaponics-progress-report

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