Paradise Lost and Found on the Island of Ometepe

WhyHunger visits Project Bona Fide in Nicaragua

It’s the apex of the dry season on the Isla de Ometepe – an island of approximately 165 square miles which rises majestically out of Lake Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border. The island is host to two active volcanoes connected by a strip of land and, from an aerial view, resembles two melting ice cream cones carelessly dropped on the hot pavement. Until recently Ometepe was one of Nicaragua’s best kept secrets – an island paradise prophesied, according to some historians, by indigenous tribes who traveled from the north in search of a utopia that came to them in a vision. And despite the fact that low-budget tourists from around the world have begun to make the 4-hour trek from Managua to sun on the sea-like shores of Lake Nicaragua and climb through the cloud forests to the rim of the island’s active volcanos, Ometepe is suffering both economically and ecologically – no longer the prophesied paradise marked by insatiable abundance.

I’m visiting Ometepe to learn more about Project Bona Fide, a partner in WhyHunger’s www. with Hard Rock International. It is a month or more before the rainy season will bring with it renewed hope marked by an increasing greenness and fullness along the hillsides. For now food insecurity is at its highest: the fields are dry and barren, stored staples of rice and sorghum are dwindling, and fruit trees have only just begun to let loose some of their bounty. Nicaragua, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is the second poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean after Haiti. Two out of three people in the Nicaraguan countryside live on less than one dollar a day. In this context, Project Bona Fide stands out on this small island of 42,000 people as one grassroots effort blazing a trail to a new vision of paradise on Isla de Ometepe.

A 10-year old organization and 43-acre educational farm in the island community of Balgüe, Project Bona Fide was founded by American Michael Judd, an edible landscaper. His goal for the project was “reintroducing biodiversity to support rebuilding ecologies and economies that first feed and nurture the communities growing them.” Project Bona Fide’s long-term vision is to contribute to the community’s and region’s food sovereignty – or the right of the Nicaraguan people to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems and to not have to rely on the imports and exports derived from international market forces.

Project Bona Fide’s approach has three main components: First, demonstrate the possible. Second, learn from and educate the interested. And third, collaborate with the community.

Níspero fruit

Demonstrating the possible Chris Shanks, one of Project Bona Fide’s co-directors and a young “elder” of sorts within the Bona Fide crew, instructed us as we stood in a cacophonous and bustling Sunday morning market in Granada before boarding the ferry to Ometepe: “You can hold an entire food forest in the palm of your hands.” Thus began our rapid but thorough education in permaculture as an adaptive and agroecological approach to ending hunger. To illustrate his point, Chris led us through the market to select and taste literally handfuls of fruits, each with their particular flavor, history and use from the unfamiliar níspero, bread fruit, tamarind, jacote, mamoncillo, and jack fruit to the more familiar mango, coconut and passion fruit. We then crossed Lake Nicaragua and began our trek up the hillside and onto Project Bona Fide’s farm to witness the evolving food forest.

In the 20-minute walk from the town of Balgüe to the farm’s property line, Chris used the different landscapes we encountered to paint a picture of the impacts of short-sighted, chemical-intensive agricultural practices coupled with climate change. What was once a lush and diverse tropical forest has been mostly clear cut for single-crop farming. Rice and sorghum were planted on small plots up a hillside strewn with large rocks from the last volcanic eruption. No attempt had been made to work within the natural contours of the land, for instance, to create a terraced hillside. As a consequence, soil erosion – up to 2 inches per year – is common and last year’s drought led many farmers to abandon the harvest altogether because there was so little to show for their work. We crossed paths with horses, pigs and cows that had been left to forage since feed was expensive and in short supply. We passed women returning from their long daily trek to the top of the mountain to gather bananas to sell in the village, and men carrying heavy logs on their shoulders for lumber to build their homes or to make furniture.

Chris’ elder status is clearly a product of his experience in designing and implementing permaculture systems throughout Latin America but especially on Finca Bona Fide – Project Bona Fide’s farm — coupled with his almost compulsive need to educate. There are no short answers from Chris. One step across the property line onto Finca Bona Fide and the lessons became as thick as the foliage.

Roberto Mayrena and Chris Shanks of Project Bona Fide, Nicaragua

Permaculture is the philosophy and practice that defines Project Bona Fide. In the simplest terms, permaculture is the design of agricultural ecosystems that examine and follow nature’s patterns. Chris elaborated to speak about the importance of multi-season research and trials rooted not only in the local ecology but in the local cultural and historical context. Above all, Chris said, permaculture involves farming in the “fourth dimension of time” — that is, choosing crops and a pattern of planting them based on their capacity for long-term resilience in the face of climate change. One of the key functions of Finca Bona Fide, Chris said, is “to hold these methods of resiliency in trust,” preserving the knowledge while the methods are learned in practice throughout the community. Project Bona Fide is implementing and providing training in a variety of very specific food-producing methods that address issues of persistent hunger with strong economic potential, including alley cropping, grey water use and water management (“slow it,” “store it,” “spread it”), bio-char soil amendment, agro-forestry (combining fruit trees with field crops), and integrating livestock such as chickens and pigs.

The concept and practice Chris introduced us to that most deeply resonates with my romantic sensibilities is the “guild.” I’ve always wanted to be a part of a guild – a group of artisans working together in the same community, practicing the same craft. In permaculture terms, a guild is a grouping of plants, animals, insects, and other natural components that work together to help ensure their survival. Permaculturists rarely speak of planting gardens or crops; rather, they “build guilds.” In describing the plants, trees and crops we encountered on the farm, Chris spoke primarily of the function of each and its contribution to the synergy within the guild (food producing, nitrogen fixing, cover cropping, pest control, water catchment, among other functions).

It was truly inspiring to witness the evolution of Finca Bona Fide into an abundant life-giving food forest – it was an oasis, dramatized, no doubt, by our visit during the dry season. The size of the plant nursery alone was astounding and oozed of the potential for transforming the entire island into self-sustaining food-secure communities.

Learning from and educating the interested The 43 acres of the farm are sustained primarily by young volunteers from every corner of the world who often arrive with little more than a curiosity about permaculture or agroforestry and, sometimes, a specific skill to offer, such as carpentry, welding, animal husbandry, cooking or organizing. Mitch Haddad, Chris’ co-director for the past four years, is largely responsible for organizing these diverse interests and skills into guilds of people, maximizing the opportunity for education and the promotion of permaculture, and – importantly — the labor force necessary to maintain the on-farm trials and research, and the future of Project Bona Fide as a center for education and a catalyst for community development.

Mitch struck me as a deeply passionate person, greeting everyone and everything with great enthusiasm and open arms. His long, wiry black hair which was often pulled back in a ponytail that he proudly refused to groom or cut, seemed to have Samson-like powers, fueling his charm and ability to instantly establish rapport. “Mitchito!” the locals called out as he greeted each of them with a warm hug. It was easy to become fast friends with Mitch and understand how his personality, skill set, knowledge and role in Project Bona Fide so perfectly complemented that of Chris. In a sense, they make up their own functional guild.

Mitch Haddad and Marina Menocal of Project Bona Fide, Nicaragua

Project Bona Fide is one of the largest employers on the island. Chris and Mitch do not draw a salary and have established a permaculture consulting business that keeps Chris traveling, while Mitch holds down the fort in Balgüe. The income is used to supplement donations and grants that support the farm’s infrastructural needs, pay local staff – and provide Chris and Mitch with a very simple lifestyle. They sleep in homes on the farm that they built from natural materials – thatched roofs, local timber, composting toilets – with one modern convenience: electricity, which recently came to the island.

During our visit, we watched the construction of an outdoor kitchen for use by those living on the farm, under the guidance of Don David, an older campesino from Ometepe. A renaissance man of sorts and one of the staff paid by Project Bona Fide, Don David could build just about anything from just about any materials. He was busy working and consulting with a French carpenter who had arrived to volunteer. The kitchen cabinets were carefully crafted from local timber and the large sinks would rely on spring fed water and return grey water to the farm; with its view of the volcano and Lake Nicaragua, the kitchen looked like it could appear on the cover of an upscale design magazine. It was both beautiful and functional. Don David was teaching several volunteers about construction with found (rebar) and natural materials (clay and grasses). Three local women who were hired to prepare lunch every day for the volunteers and staff – the cooks who will soon preside over the new kitchen – were working with volunteers to prep the meal. The women grilled small sunfish caught in Lake Nicaragua over an open fire, made beans, rice and plantains, and juice from local fruits. New to them were salads at every meal with greens grown on the farm, accompanied by dried fruit from a passive solar dehydrator. Fresh greens are not a regular part of the local diet, nor is food preservation but, as a part of its co-learning approach, Project Bona Fide is working to introduce them. Other paid staff from the community of Balgüe included a few young men who worked on establishing plant guilds and harvesting, and a young woman responsible for tending the farm’s thousands of seedlings. In all, Project Bona Fide employs 30 people from the local community who bring existing skills, cultivate new capacities and educate those who come to learn.

Collaborating with the community

In addition to employing, learning from and educating local community members, Project Bona Fide collaborates on off-farm and community-driven projects. In part with funds from the Imagine Campaign, Project Bona Fide has partnered with local families and local leaders – such as Roberto Mayrena and Marina Menocal — to establish Mano Amiga and Café Infantil – a community center and a child nutrition program. Mano Amiga – now managed by Don Roberto – is a beautiful natural building in the center of Balgüe housing a library and a women’s sewing cooperative, in addition to a permaculture garden and playground. Next door, Café Infantil, run by the bubbly and efficient Marina, has a kitchen where a rotation of local mothers prepares breakfast daily for up to 70 children under the age of 12. Most of the children live in families without fathers, generally equated in this strongly macho society with persistent poverty and malnutrition. Children arrive at Café Infantil in their school uniforms and read or are read to while awaiting breakfast. On the day we visited, the meal was a generous bowl of fresh local fruit and a large cup of milk. Before dashing off to school, the kids take their toothbrush – stored in a cubby with their name on it – and brush their teeth. I watched as several children poured the cup of water they had used to brush their teeth on seedlings that were awaiting planting. The principles of grey water already in use among these five- to eight-year-olds!

A decade after its founding, and with its demonstration farm well-established and employing local residents, Project Bona Fide is now focusing on community outreach efforts. The annual Seed Exchange event took place in April, where hundreds of people from communities around Ometepe gathered to eat, talk, exchange seeds for planting in their kitchen gardens, and participate in workshops that introduce new (or forgotten) species that will bear fruit and contribute to family food security. Leading up to the exchange, Donna – a volunteer organizer from Mexico – gathered ideas from the community about new collaborative projects, such as establishing gardens at local schools, starting a community market, and bringing children and teachers to the farm for “garden-based” learning of all kinds of subjects.

Project Bona Fide’s next big push – essentially what it has been building towards for a decade – is working directly with farmers to support them in establishing diversified farms, or food forests, on their own plots of land. Those who are poised to take on this challenge are the young local men and women who have been working at Finca Bona Fide. After contributing to the building of Project Bona Fide’s 43-acre permaculture farm, they are beginning the transformation of their own plots from a single crop/slash-and-burn method to one that is rooted in the principles of agroecology and its promise of resilience. It’s not only a challenge for these farmers; it’s a risk.

Project Bona Fide will provide support to these trailblazers to mitigate the risks. The transitioning farmers will receive a form of farmer insurance which will include seedlings and other materials, training and on-going support for the three years needed to realize the full benefits of the established farm and food forest, and – as necessary – the cash to make up the difference between what the farmers are able to make from sales of their products during this intensive learning phase and the income they would have made had they grown rice or sorghum. In return, these farmers will pass on seedlings and training to new farmers and pay back the “insurance fund” so the next phase of farmers – all of whom live hand-to-mouth, season-to-season – will be encouraged to adopt new practices that ultimately, farmer-by-farmer, will transform Ometepe into the life-giving island their ancestors foretold.

Alison Cohen