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A letter from Doug Orbaker in Nicaragua

February 2013

“Can you show me how to do some of those things?”

Antonio's neighbors stood on the road in front of his parcel of land and laughed at him when he started working with the Council of Evangelical Churches in Nicaragua (CEPAD).  Antonio Hernandez lives in the community of Santa Maria, near San Francisco Libre, Nicaragua, just about the worst land for growing a crop that I have ever seen!  The soil is so sandy that after a rain it can be muddy in the morning and dry with dust flying by afternoon, making it impossible to maintain humidity in the soil.  The sandy soil seems to contain no nutrients at all and it is so arid that very little grows there except scrubby little stalks of poor quality corn, a little dry grass where a few cattle graze, and some cactus.  No one tries to grow fruit or vegetables in that area; they just won't produce a good crop.

Antonio explains the work he has done on drainage, while the CEPAD technician watches.

But working with CEPAD agricultural technician Salvador Lopez, Antonio was determined to change that.  He worked hard, clearing a small parcel of land from the brush that was on it.  He carefully chopped up everything so that it could either be composted or spread on the soil to prevent evaporation of what precious little moisture there was.  He carried manure in buckets from other farms where the owners didn't bother to collect it.  He carefully laid out contour lines to prevent further erosion, digging ditches to move what little water may fall into the places where he needed it.  

It was a lot of hard work and his neighbors thought he was crazy.  They told him he was crazy to work so hard, that this land will never produce a decent crop, that he was going to have to buy a lot of chemical fertilizers to get anything to grow, that they weren't going to wear themselves out in such a crazy way.  Antonio kept working in the harsh sun.

That was three years ago.  The first crop Antonio got was pretty slim, but he continued to work, to develop the land, to think of ways to harvest and conserve water.  The good earth that God has given us began to do its work.  As we take care of it, God's world takes care of us.  At the end of the last growing season Antonio had plantains to sell, along with mango, squash, and beans.  His family was eating a more nutritious balanced diet, and he had produce left over to sell.  That was when it happened—one of the same neighbors who had laughed at him came to ask, “Can you show me how to do some of those things?”

Farming is never easy work, wherever it is, but it is particularly difficult in areas like this where the soil is so poor and has been played out by growing the same crops over and over.  The harsh Nicaraguan sun doesn't help either.  It is a bit of an act of faith to put so much work into a small piece of land, in hopes of receiving back a decent crop to feed the family and to sell.  It is that faith that God's love has given us a good and fruitful world that keeps people like Antonio working.

CEPAD is currently working in 43 little communities like Santa Maria in various parts of Nicaragua, from the dry areas of San Francisco Libre to the humid land carved out of the jungle in Nueva Guinea.  Each of these communities has a couple of people like Antonio.   We call them the “Community Agriculture Promoters,” and they receive training from CEPAD along with some seeds and plants.  The only conditions CEPAD puts on them is that they apply the techniques that they learn on their own land, teach others in the community how to do the same, and share the seeds that their plants produce with any of their neighbors who will do the same things.  There are 86 of these Promoters, each of them training 5 or more others in their communities.   

The program looks a little different in different communities.  But even as the terrain and the types of crops vary, some things remain the same.  In every area the Promoters have the same commitment to hard work, both on their own land and in helping their neighbors.  They all have the same commitment to improving the nutritional variety of the foods their families eat.  They share the same desire for a crop that they can both eat and sell to buy other necessities.  They share the same faith that God's wondrously fruitful earth needs to be cared for so that it will care for all of us, and they share the desire to help others in their communities have the same benefits.

In most of the communities there are skeptics, people who believe that they can't really grow a good crop without agrochemicals, and people who don't see the need to broaden their diet beyond rice, beans, and corn tortillas.  Most of them aren't as skeptical as Antonio's neighbors, but every now and then somebody who has been a real skeptic asks one of the promoters, “Can you show me how to do some of those things?”  Those are the moments when the program is working at its best, when the neighbors see the results and come on their own to ask.

In the hunger of rural Nicaragua it is a small step.  But in 43 communities, 86 promoters and their families are eating more and have more to sell.  Hundreds of others are learning from their neighbors, and sharing their learning again and again.  The quality of some of the poorest land is slowly beginning to improve, and sometimes somebody new asks, “Can you show me how to do that?”

This is the work of CEPAD, and of many other organizations around the world that work in partnership with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  I thank all of you whose gifts make it possible for me to be here sharing in this work.  

Doug Orbaker

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 22
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