This is part 2 of an 8-part story sequence featuring Joaquín Reyes and his family. For two years, Sustainable Harvest International Field Trainer Mariano Navarro has worked with the Reyes, who are just about to enter the third phase of our program. To learn more about our phases and methodology, click here. Otherwise, read on!
We’ve arrived at Joaquín’s farm and are sitting next to Joaquín on a log bench. His feet are planted far apart on the earth, his elbows resting on his legs. He wears a watch on his left wrist (which we don’t see him look at during our whole visit) and a straw hat on his head (which we never see him take off). His hair and beard are long and gray, with wisps of white at the ends. His eyes are alert but gentle. His hands are capable and seasoned and there’s dirt under his fingernails. A machete in a worn leather sheath hangs off his left shoulder like an extra limb. The deftness of his handling of it is impressive, to say the least.
Joaquín never finished elementary school but he’s about to school us on the Green Revolution, theology, and make us question our very existence here on the planet, next to him on this log.
Some development organizations would have you believe that everything depends on them and that that is a good thing. That’s not how we see things. We recognize that we are part of a network of individuals and organizations that are working together towards sustainability. And, given Joaquín’s wisdom, it’s impossible that we could have taught Joaquín everything he knows about sustainability within just two years of working with him. Joaquín is a student of the world and has been listening, learning, and experimenting with sustainable agriculture since the early 1990’s.
LET’S GO BACK IN TIME
Joaquín was raised by his grandfather—his own father wasn’t around. Interestingly enough, unlike most other farmers in the area, his grandfather never used agrochemicals. He did, however, practice slash-and-burn farming and mostly grew corn—fairly typical practices for that generation. Synthetic agrochemicals only became popular in Latin America after the 1960’s. With a slight smile, Joaquín notes that despite the challenge of not having a father present, it may have been to his advantage, as his own father probably would have raised him to use synthetic agrochemicals.
When Joaquín’s grandfather passed away in 1994, Joaquín inherited his land.
“What would your grandfather think if he saw the way you’re farming it now?” we ask.
Joaquín looks out at the farm and chuckles. His laugh, like his voice, is quiet, gentle, and slightly wheezy.
“He’d laugh,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. He’d laugh because Joaquín’s farm looks nothing like it did back in the early 1990’s. It’s a patchwork of greens, yellows, browns, and reds— Joaquín grows over 100 different crops (perennials and annuals). It’s lined with barriers of rocks and other materials to prevent erosion and runoff. It’s diverse. Joaquín been working to reforest the hillside around the farm, too, both as a buffer to his own farm, and to prevent erosion, sequester carbon, and create wildlife habitat. He makes his own organic compost.
Most importantly? The farm now has a modern security guard and talisman, too.
SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE
In Joaquín’s 57 years, he’s been exposed to different agricultural strategies and theories. He’s a devoted student of theology and an avid critic of the Green Revolution.
Joaquín started working with us just over two years ago, but he’s been experimenting with sustainable farming since the late 90’s, after attending a workshop on soil conservation and A-frame contours put on by the Catholic Church. While some of the farmers we partner with have never experimented with sustainable farming before they start working with us, others, like Joaquín, have some experience under their belts. The training and tools we offer are catered to each individual family and community.
The principles of our organization are what initially intrigued Joaquín to partner with us. His commitment to the health of his children and his interest in furthering his soil conservation knowledge sealed the deal.
“I felt like we were speaking the same language,” Joaquín says.
What other language would we be speaking? Well, there’s the language of the Green Revolution, for one—an initiative that’s credited with saving over a billion people from starvation, involving the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, and distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to farmers.
As a subsistence farmer, Joaquín fully grasps the importance of increasing yields. The problem, he counters, is that “The Green Revolution was so focused on increasing yields that they never thought about what would happen next.”
Sure, saving over a billion people from starvation is good, but there are larger impacts to consider (e.g., economic dependency, inequality, water pollution, soil degradation, poor human health, migration, loss of biodiversity, poverty traps, debts, carbon emissions, fossil fuel dependency, etc.). While the Green Revolution may have saved many people in the 1960’s, studies show that just as many people may have been adversely affected in later years, and some of the negative environmental, social, economic, and cultural consequences will take decades or even centuries to recover.
So when Joaquín talks about us speaking the same “language” he’s talking about a shared philosophy and approach. We don’t hand out genetically modified seeds or create dependencies on synthetic fertilizers that rely on fossil fuels for production. Our language, or philosophy, is about building on traditional knowledge with systems that are truly sustainable—for the people and the planet. This “language” is exactly what Joaquín would hope for a partner organization like us to speak, because it’s a language that he’s fully fluent in.
WEEDS DON’T EXIST
For example, as we were walking up to Joaquín’s farm, he stopped for a moment to talk about the way the path was cleared. We’ve mentioned that Joaquín carries a machete in a leather sheath over his shoulder at all times. That’s how he clears the path when it becomes overgrown. That’s what people used to always do.
Recently, Joaquín’s right leg started bothering him after walking on the path. He postulates that the problem was a chemical burn from weed killer, which people are starting to use more and more frequently, even in public places (which he acknowledges as a violation of his rights). Though he was able to use a combination of herbs to treat his leg, he hasn’t been able to stop people using products like glyphosate in public places.
“In the bible, it says that God created man, right? But then man created weed killer. Not God, but man. Weed killer is not a natural concept. I don’t believe in weeds. Every plant has a purpose—you just have to find out what it is.”
Joaquín doesn’t dwell on the negative, however. Instead, he focuses on the vast repository of medicinal herbs that grow in the area and what an important resource they are to anyone who knows how to use them.
“Look at where we are,” Joaquín says, “There’s no pharmacy here in Piedras Gordas, there are only plants. On my land, I grow 100 different species and 95 of them have medicinal uses.” He points out orange leaf (good for treating stress, diarrhea, and colon inflammations) and cilantro (a culinary herb packed full of vitamins) among the many medicinal plants on his farm.
YOU CAN’T EAT MONEY
Life is a series of choices. A farmer not only has to choose what agricultural techniques she might use, she also needs to decide how much to store, how much to sell, and to whom.
For example, Joaquín could sell his cocoyams to Riba Smith, a high-end grocery store in Panama City for $1.25/lb. That’s significantly more than he could charge his neighbors ($.35 to $.45/lb.). Here, in Piedras Gordas, organic produce doesn’t fetch a higher price.
“For one thing, they’re my neighbors. For another, it would be unfair,” says Joaquín. No one would buy his cocoyams if he sold them for a higher price—he’d be undersold immediately.
In the past, he has sold his produce to Riba Smith. Currently, however, with the drought, his family doesn’t have enough produce to sell or share.
“Sure, if we sold it, we’d have money, but then we wouldn’t have enough food to eat ourselves. You can’t eat money,” says Joaquín.
Given the drought and other factors, sometimes farming alone is not enough. Sometimes, you do need capital. In more difficult times Joaquín and his wife, Urita, send their son, Eliaquim, to the capital to work. This is a common solution for many rural Panamanian families. (More about Eliaquim in an upcoming story!)
SHOWING NOT TELLING
Is Joaquín the only person in all of Panama that practices sustainable farming? No. Is Joaquín the only person in all of Piedras Gordas that practices sustainable farming? No—we currently work with 20 other families in Piedras Gordas. With the help of a Peace Corps Volunteer in the area, we have a big vegetable garden project at the local school. There are other farmers in Piedras Gordas implementing sustainable farming practices, too. Nevertheless, it’s far from the norm and because of this, Joaquín’s family stands out.
“What do your neighbors say about the way your family farms?” we ask.
“It’s best when my neighbors just see what I’m able to do because I have something to show them, not just tell them. They see the various soil conservation methods I use—dead barriers, contours, compost, cover crops, mulch and they see what I’m able to produce. If they can see what I’m doing, they’re more likely ask questions and try these methods out themselves.”
IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Joaquín’s the first to admit that what he’s doing takes amazing patience. He also knows that the benefits won’t be felt for many years to come and that it’s worth it.
“The work we’re doing together is very important,” he notes. The training and support his family is receiving from participating in our program allows them to get even deeper into sustainable practices, both at home and on the farm.
Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring Urita Navarro, Joaquín’s wife!