PEACE in Action

Growing our Future

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Working for International Peace
Growing our Future

When John Jeavons, the Director of Ecology Action, started our first class with the particular quote, "The purpose of farming is not to grow crops, but to cultivate people," (Fukuoka) I knew I was in the right place. These words resonated deeply with my own personal philosophy and experiences.

I had recently moved back to the US after almost two years in El Salvador in order to attend this six-month internship with Ecology Action. My experiences in El Salvador taught me how gardening can grow people and communities.

In mid-2008, I arrived in Los Naranjos, a rural community of impoverished subsistence farmers who were re-located after the Salvadoran civil war (1980-1992). The village has no basic amenities such as transportation, potable water, electricity, health clinics, or public schooling. Despite poverty, illiteracy, and oppression the village and community is well organized and exemplifies the country's struggle for a more just and sustainable future.

Before moving to the community, I had the opportunity of attending a Basic Level GROW BIOINTENSIVE workshop that ECOPOL (Ecológia y Poblacíon) was doing in San Salvador. The experience was overwhelming; because my Spanish was quite poor at the time, I was the only "gringa" in attendance, and this was only my first week in the country). Yet, I left knowing that GROW BIOINTENSIVE could change the world, and I had to start a Biointensive garden.

Unfortunately, I had just moved to a new country and didn't even have a place to live, much less a plan to do Biointensive work. Thus, I kept the workshop and ideas in the back of my mind as I moved to Los Naranjos.  Once in the village, I spent my first several months focusing on getting to know the community and the reality they face in order to better understand the community needs and dynamics. I also did research on, and visited, successful sustainable agriculture projects around the country.

The original plan for me was to facilitate the process of identifying and starting an organic certified cash crop for the community. However, after months of interviewing, visiting, observing, and more, we realized this was not a realistic short-term goal or a true need and desire of the community. We also realized that a real need and desire of the community was a community garden — a perfect opportunity to try out Biointensive!.

In Los Naranjos it was not obvious that people are malnourished, but once you got to know the community, you realized most women were anemic and teachers frequently complained that children could not focus in class because of improper nutrition. Vegetables are not part of their diet (due in part to their high cost) and few people knew how to grow them. However, the people wanted to learn to grow good food for their families and to take care of their land in the process.

The goal for the community garden was that it serve as a school for the community, and the skills learned would be put to use in each family's individual garden. The harvest from the community garden would eventually be sold at the market for supplemental income.

Once the decision was made to start a community garden, we hit the road running. We decided to plant half an acre — which we learned was way too much to start with. In that first month of work, I can say I saw the power of community and the pure brute force of Salvadorans. The available land had not been planted in 20+ years, and it was reforested and on a steep hillside. Our only tools were our hands, machetes, pick-axes, and shovels.

We worked 3-4 days a week, working 5 plus hours a day, and working with everything in us (keep in mind this was all volunteer labor — everyone working had another job or their own land to be taking care of in addition).  We went into the mountains, hiking long distances, to find logs to help form the terraces and then carried them back on our backs. I always accompanied and tried to help, but I quickly learned that I don't last long in the Salvadoran heat. Eventually we did terrace the whole hillside and complete 12 beautiful long beds ranging from 30 to 100 feet long and 4.5 feet wide, all dug 2 feet down. Everyone helped all the way through the process. To be a part of the work with everyone present, laughing, arguing, sweating and working together was an inspiring experience.

On our first planting day, we made flats of tomato, green pepper, onion, and cabbage, and then planted 2 small beds of radishes. The plant list was short that first month as it was very difficult to find local, open-pollinated, non-GMO seeds. El Salvador has lost most of the traditional farming knowledge, and few people have seeds saved. As expected there were lots of surprises in those first months, and I was often shedding tears of both joy and frustration.

One especially beautiful and unexpected impact of the garden was what happened with the youth (ages 11-17) of Los Naranjos. It quickly became obvious that the youth wanted to come help out and that some of the most excited workers were the youth. They were accustomed to manual labor and often spent all their "free time" working in the cornfields — frequently they were alone or a good distance from other workers. However, in the garden, there were always several of us working together and the youth tended to all come on the same days.

At first I would get frustrated because, with all the youth there, we weren't as "efficient/" and would often lose a few seeds or plants. But I soon realized how revolutionary this was — the kids wanted to come plant and be a part of the garden. On off days they would stop by my house and ask when we were going to work!

Instead of being frustrated, I embraced the situation. They were closer to my age than all the adults so it became quite fun. All of us out there, telling jokes, digging, laughing, and enjoying the garden together. After working for a few hours we would often head down to the river for a quick swim to cool off. They were not generally allowed to go to the river alone, but with me and all of us together, the parents didn't refuse.

Once the youth started working together in the garden, they started doing a lot of things together, we even started an official "Youth Committee of Los Naranjos" with a group of youth committed to working together to improve their community. We planned special celebrations in the community (like for Mothers and Fathers Day), did community clean-up, invited people to do workshops on human rights, environmental issues, politics, and anything else that interested the group. We even raised money and took a fieldtrip to a water park—most of the group had never been swimming in a pool before.

The Youth Committee is still going; they have a President and a leadership team and many plans for the coming year. The youth have taken a leadership role in the garden. Before I left, I went to a national GROW BIOINTENSIVE training workshop with a 12-year-old boy that the community voted to send as their representative. The youth group spends at least one morning or afternoon working together in the garden and they regularly participate in workshops or other garden activities.

When I first went to El Salvador, I had no idea I would be working with youth, but a lot can happen in the garden.

{Angel Cruz, a native of North Carolina, is a 2008 graduate of Furman Univ. She will soon complete her internship at EcologyAction farm in California; its website is: ( ). Angel blogs at BioIntensiveLife. }
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