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Aug 26, 2016

Gardens are Growing!

Children install micro-drip-irrigation system
Children install micro-drip-irrigation system

The School Garden Program is growing!

Between January and August 2016, SosteNica-EcoCentro's School Garden team added 40 new children to the already robust group of student gardeners in our project.   These recently added children attend one of two schools in the rural villages of  Bethany and Valley of Jesus in the Nagarote region.  We have resumed and strengthened activities in three other rural schools: Copaltepe, La Chilama and Silvio Mayorga that are already participating in our network of School Gardens. At present the program serves more than 270 multigrade elementary school children between the ages of 7 and 12

During the first half of 2016, we have initiated school reforestation projects, taught lessons pertaining to cleanliness and health, set up recycling projects, planted fruit trees and vegetable gardens, harvested from previously planted orchards and even played some fun games with the kids while doing so.

 Our classroom workshops include topics such as:

  • introduction to gardening;
  • life within the soil;
  • the methods and importance of crop rotation;
  • companion planting;
  • how to make your own organic fertilizer;
  • how to construct seed trays for seed starting;
  • double digging raised beds;
  • and living fence lines hedgerows.

In response to the very real threats of climate change, we have chosen to promote school reforestation. With the children, we planted 40 trees per school.  We planted varieties that produce nuts or fruit, as well as serving as a carbon sink for the environment. The reforestation efforts included teachers and parents, as well as the children.

Every year we confront the challenge of having adequate water for irrigation. Even when schools have a well or potable water systems, it is very difficult for children to water the beds and orchards by transporting buckets long distances. Thus, one important objective at each school is to establish micro-irrigation systems.

Another challenge at schools, as well as at rural homes, is the quality of water taken from the drinking wells.  Consuming untreated water directly from wells may impact children’s health and limit their learning.  We have received donations of three water filters that reduce the presence of bacteria, parasites, and other microorganisms in the water which allows for safe drinking.

As the rainy season resumes (Nicaragua has a two week dry spell, usually beginning around the end of July) children at all five schools are transplanting seedlings, as well as direct seeding other crops into their gardens to complete a second growing season and harvest cycle within the same year.  (New England schools would be jealous)

The Nicaraguan Ministry of Education (MINED) has been very supportive of teaching food production at the elementary school level.  Most importantly, the MINED permits teachers to count activities conducted within the garden as class hours.  They even give students grades and a certificate for their participation. 

Thanks to the positive reception and successes achieved with the first five schools served, the MINED has requested that we submit a plan for the coming year.

With your help, we can continue to expand this program. We would love to tell MINED that we had the support to include 5 more schools in the coming year, and welcome 75-100  more students into the project. We appreciate your further support for this campaign by giving either here or at our website: 

Transplanting seedlings in anticipation of rain!
Transplanting seedlings in anticipation of rain!
Aug 8, 2016

Ramon and Ada have a home

Ramon and Ada
Ramon and Ada's home

At long last, Ramon and Ada Sepulveda have a home.  Their's is an experimental sustainable home, designed by SosteNica and paid for by our generous donors.  Like so many experiments, it took longer to build, cost more than budgeted, and includes more features than originally anticipated.  All in all, they are happy with their new home and SosteNica learned a lot about sustainability, as well as about home construction in general.  Today, we are happy to share with you, and all of our supporters, some details of the final product.

The home was originally planned to enclose 387 square feet.  Proving the dictum "If you build it they will come" once the construction had begun, Ramon's mother-in-law and nephew elected to join them, to live in the house.  That decision made a larger (581 square feet) footprint advisable.  The loft space was also enlarged, pushing the final construction price up from $13,000 to $16,000.  Included in that final price was a fully functional composting toilet, as well as 107 square feet laundry area where the family will bathe, wash clothes, and do cleanup from cooking.  They call it the "wet zone."

The home had originally been designed to include solar electricity, but the elevated construction costs made it necessary for them to connect to the grid instead, at least for now.  They did embrace other eco-techs however, including a 5,000 litre rainwater capture system.  The final window count grew from a planned 32 square feet to a generous 172 square feet.  376 square feet of floor space is covered in ceramic tile.

Important lessons learned by SosteNica in the process include:

  • stay in constant communication with the future home owners;
  • make sure that the eaves are large enough to protect earth walls from hard rainfall
  • quality control before and during construction is easier than error remedy after completion

Perhaps the biggest take aways were three:

  1. Nicaragua, and every other country in the world, needs to take sustainability (green) issues into consideration when planning housing, whether for wealthy or for low-income families.
  2. SosteNica, while committed to modeling sustainable solutions for housing, is best built for extending credit, rather than overseeing the actual construction of affordable housing.  
  3. The single most important factor contributing to a shortage of affordable housing is the market alone cannot produce a quality product that a low income family can afford.  A non-profit like SosteNica does not have the resources required to subsidize the difference between "cost of construction" and "ability to pay”.

We are very grateful to all of our generous supporters who contributed to this effort.  The donated funds not only enabled the construction of an experimental model home for one family.  More importantly, the made possible a laboratory for design and experimentation that will serve for many projects in the future.

May 31, 2016

Why do we do this work?

Fanny pumps water by hand
Fanny pumps water by hand

A few years ago, SosteNica conducted a survey of participants in our project promoting family gardens.  From that survey we learned that one of the most common reasons for crop failure was “destruction by children or pets”. Families in Nicaragua live several generations in one house, with a small yard.  Having little area to play can result in small feet damaging tender plants.  Whenever our team stops by to check on gardens, they always make sure to involve the youngest family members so they learn to understand and respect the plants. But not all kids have that opportunity at home – so school gardens are another place where they can learn to value gardening.

So, we hired Fanny Mercado, a graduate of the UNAN Agroecology program to direct SosteNica‘s school garden program, helping six local schools create and take care of educational gardens. 

When Fanny visits the schools weekday mornings, a few students are selected to work with her in the garden, so that they get to integrate into the work. Sometimes, if there is an activity that is appropriate for all the children, the teacher will invite Fanny into the classroom. The students are always excited to see Fanny, and understand the opportunity to work in the garden with her is a prized experience.

The drought right now at the end of the dry season is very serious. Even though the students take on the chore of watering the gardens twice a day, the gardens in full sun, have very low germination rates. At some schools, there are only artisanal wells and no water pressure, so the children draw water by hand and walk it to the garden to water. Now is the time to start seeds in the shade – tomatoes, beets, peppers, onions – so that they can be transplanted in a few weeks when the rains start.

The elementary school in the village of Silvio Mayorga is in the middle of a group of houses. Barbed wire fences don’t keep chickens from the surrounding families out of the schoolyard. Just outside the chain link fence surrounding the garden, the dirt is filled with the marks of chicken feet scratching and digging for bugs or sprouted seeds. Before there was a fence, we learned the hard way.  Students planted squash seeds in the garden. Then, a few days later, a neighbor’s pig escaped and spent a lovely evening digging himself a cool spot to spend the night in the damp soil of the garden. This time we waited until the fence was built to plant any seeds.

At the school in the village of Valle de Jesús a boy recently ran out to greet Fanny and SosteNica Board member Rachel Lindsay. “What are we going to plant! I want to plant seeds!” But the fence there was not finished yet. A group of parents had come to put posts up, but the wire fence was still lacking. He was disappointed.  Before they left Fanny pulled out her seed packets and gave him a few watermelon seeds to plant at his house. Whether they sprout or not, it’s great to see such enthusiasm here for gardening.

This is what our School Garden program teaches – enthusiasm, love of life, eagerness to plant the next seed.  Yes, we are supporting food security for current and future generations.  But more importantly, we teach, in the words of poet Mary Oliver “ how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”

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