Lessons from the Tropics - Part 2 of 3
Guest post by Lindsay Wilson, reposted from her Trout Lily Farm blog.
So, here begins our time in Tranquilla and with lots of amazing families doing the best they can with what they have. And, with Panama being the top country in Central America with the fastest growing disparities between the rich and the poor, organizations like SHI (that has been around for 30 years or so) are indispensable! SHI has a very thoughtful and methodical five-phase approach in their partnership with local families that are moving to self-sufficiency (in the quickly changing landscape of their country!). Most of the families we visited were in the first phase of this process.
Considering that the theme for Panama has been thus (well, since the Spanish settled there 500 years ago) — clear the land, raise cattle, and more recently mine the land for everything it is worth — there was definitely more pasture and deforested land then we expected. Where there’s cattle, there’s big money. So, the story goes that only the five wealthiest families of Panama own the land and raise cattle on it (bye-bye jungle and natural habitats!). And, the recent blockade by the Nogbe is in response to that third step in total annihilation of a ‘place’ — mining. Of course, the past history and stories of Panama are riddled with the ghosts of gold mining. However, ‘they’ are coming back for more.
To me, this is why efforts like SHI are important. They get people out of the cowboy mythology of the Spanish and back in touch with ways to steward their own self-sufficiency with the land. (There is even a ‘national park’ in Panama, along the East-coast, near Venao, that is a monument to what cattle raising does to the tropics — yes, you guessed it, the only desert in Panama — and, now a national park).
Our first family stop was at the home of Magdalia’s (who cooks SO DIVINE by the way), where we used the SHI super-tropical compost, sifted dirt, and ash to plant balo seeds in for the community (balo is a nitrogen-fixing plant):
The next day, we spent some time prepping some garden beds at our host family’s house. Basically, they needed two beds prepped and a hard-pan field nourished with some ground-breaking roots and Nitrogen. So, we harvested N-fixing macoona seeds nearby and planted them into the hard-pan area, watered the are, and covered it with dried banana leaves (to hold the moisture in as we were doing this during their dry season).
We also prepped the garden beds. One bed, we did the standard way (chicken poop, tilling and such). The other bed, we got a little more creative. We added the chicken poop and chopped fresh banana leaves (Nitrogen and organic matter). Then, we watered it thoroughly and covered it with dried banana leaves in hopes that the soil would attract beneficial microorganisms and other beings of the soil so that the soil could develop more structure. Phillip really took off with this project and designed a beautiful bed with water catchment on the edges and all. Planting in this plot would be ready in a month or so.
SHI also took us further out into the rural area, almost to El Valle, to visit another participating family. We took a bumpy bus ride down a gravel road and got off…well…at what felt like the middle of nowhere. Then, we crossed the road and Daysbeth darted into the forest and down a path, disappearing. We followed… After crossing a stream and hiking up a steep hill, we found ourselves at a homestead that made raspadura (cane sugar) for market. Raphael (the grandfather) was 80 years old and had been making the sugar for 40 years. That day we watched Raphael make raspadura, we transplanted culantro (an herb that smells/tastes like cilantro), made coconut oil and cocada (coconut desert). A little history…sugar cane (canya) found its way to Central America via the Spanish — it is what I refer to as a colonizer’s crop.
Side note on Panama’s awesome elders: Raphael was one of our favorite Panamanian abuelos (grandfathers). He said that he hadn’t gone to a doctor for 70 years. At age 70, he actually had a medical problem and went to the doctors for help. They gave him medicine and he said that the medicine made things worse. He then said that he thinks that the doctors are not trying to help people heal and get better. Phillip and I looked at each other and nodded…Raphael, we hear ya.
Now begins a photo illustration of our time with coconuts. I was surprised to find out that is difficult if not impossible to find coconut oil for sale in Panama. Very few people still make coconut oil because they simply purchase refined vegetable oil or palm oil from the store. Similar to India and Thailand, I assumed that this tropical, coconut-loving place would also have the oil as it is such a life-affirming, nourishing oil to cook with. So, we made coconut oil at this farm and cocada (sweet coconut dessert) from the left over coconut shreds (from making coconut oil)...
Stay turned next week for Part 3 in this series!
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