Just a month into my time in El Salvador, all I wanted was to close my eyes and sleep, but the conversation with Don Alfonso, my 65 year old, farmer by day, guard by night, father, grandfather, great grandfather, host and dear friend was hammering me with questions about why I – a gringa with a college education – would want to study soil.
It was still early in the evening. We had just begun the after dinner conversation while relaxing in hammocks. I was completely exhausted. My day started before 5am, after going to bed at midnight the night before. We worked all day at a soil management workshop then hiked to the river, played, soccer and hauled several buckets of water to the house for cooking and cleaning. Hence, I thought sleep was a well-deserved end to the day, but Don Alfonso was eager to tell me about his soil problems and ask for my opinion.
At the time, I was in Los Naranjos, a rural village in the La Libertad area of El Salvador. Yet, it was the people of Los Naranjos, a poor and marginalized cooperative that taught me to not only study soil, but love soil. I began to understand on a deeper level why the future of our civilization depends on the health of our soils.
In the United States, we talk about “feeding the world in 2050” using improved technology and efficient machines. How about feeding people today? Despite technological advances (including improved seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization) that have doubled global food production in the last 50 years, hunger and malnutrition are still widespread in many countries. In fact, food insecurity has actually increased in rural areas in some countries like El Salvador over the last few decades.
In most areas, simple techniques, such as planting a certain type of bean to add more nitrogen to the soil will also decrease erosion and increase water retention, thus improving productivity of the soil at a low cost. One prime example is how the farmers in Honduras have greatly increased yields and soil quality by simply planting velvet bean after the corn harvest. After hearing about these success stories in Honduras and other countries, I wanted to learn more about the specific struggles in El Salvador and the communities in La Libertad and Morazán. But I wanted to also learn the how and why of both the challenges and solutions, so I began my PhD in Agroecology at North Carolina State University while at the same time continuing my work with FUNDAHMER. I spent last summer gathering some baseline research data and helping out with the Escuela Campesina. My hope is to research and promote simple techniques in the communities to decrease erosion, improve soil quality and expand food production.
That is how I ended up sitting in a hammock in rural El Salvador, conversing with Don Alfonso about how to take better care of our precious soil and utilize the manure from his chickens as a fertilizer and soil builder.
Now, a year after those wonderful conversations with Don Alfonso, I am back in El Salvador. I hope to continue those conversations, not only with Don Alfonso, but many others so that together we can define some simple agricultural techniques to conserve soil and improve production, techniques that a few farmers will be willing to try out next year during Escuela Campesina.
Written by Angel Cruz: Fundahmer Volunteer and Fulbright Scholar