In Eastern El Salvador, campesinos are cultivating a self-image to encourage rural youth to remain in rural areas. With help from Caritas, they have adjusted the cultivation methods to their soils and traditions - Marvin Antonio Garcia Otero, the deputy director of Caritas of the Diocese of San Miguel believes this is the best way to prevent rural exodus and criminality. An interview by Tilman Wörtz.
Marvin Antonio Garcia Otero himself grew up on a finca near San Miguel in eastern El Salvador. He still manages it today, but he also had the opportunity to study agronomy and to contribute and develop his knowledge in San Miguel as deputy director of Caritas. The Caritas team has 21 members (8 of which are women). We are part of the Diocese of San Miguel and work with a total of 1250 families in three communities. We particularly focus on the topic of “supporting the youth”. This includes a house for young migrants from other Latin American countries who are seeking refuge and can have their rights as migrants protected. Even internally displaced people who are fleeing violence find shelter with us. The violence mainly comes from gangs. We pursue an “integral approach” in order to protect both young people and adults alike from risks. The Diocese wants to boost these people’s resilience against these risks, which include not only violence, but also droughts.
El Salvador has the third highest murder rate in the world and many people are fleeing north. These are difficult conditions for developing agriculture in a country.
Let’s not forget the increasing droughts. We used to be able to sow seeds twice a year, in May and August, as this was the rainy season. However, climate change has created a new hot season in June and July and makes the first harvest uncertain. With the growing problems, we have understood how all of these aspects are linked.
What is the link between climate change and increasing criminality?
Droughts, pollution and criminality are the result of an economic system that encourages destruction. Our vision focuses on ecological agriculture that begins with cultivating ourselves, beginning with learning new cultivation methods. We have also been organising courses since 2006 in which we discuss a wider political and social vision.
Are young people interested in this?
We are first concentrating on leaders among the young people who then encourage the others. Particularly young people are open to new ideas. We first need to restore their self-esteem. In El Salvador, parents like to warn their children: "Te va a tocar vida de campesino!”, which means: “You’ll end up a farmer!” They want their children to do something different, something “better”. Being a farmer comes with a stigma. However, we want to tell young people: “The farmers from El Salvador produce 80 per cent of our food. You are of vital importance for this country!” And we can manage that without destroying our livelihoods.
What do you believe is key to sustainable agriculture?
Since the 60s, agronomy graduates fresh out of university have been propagating a “green revolution”: You need new seeds from abroad, fertilizer and tractors - then you will generate higher income. However, these agronomists have not taken into consideration the limitations the people here have to cope with.
What are these limitations?
The average campesino in our Diocese doesn’t even own one hectare of land. The soil is poor and is actually more suitable for trees and forests than agriculture. But that is the soil they have to work with. The “green revolution” experts recommended that the farmers grow maize for export. But to do so, they have to spend a lot of money on special seeds, weed killer and fertilizer. Too much money.
What do you do differently?
Of course, the seedlings have to be watered and we need enough bees in the region to pollinate them, which is why we are training young people as beekeepers. That is sustainable agriculture. Long-term development. Behind this is also the idea of a “human finca”.
On the same fields where maize used to be grown, papaya can also be planted - this fruit tree is much better suited to this type of soil. And beans or bananas grow around the papaya trees and some maize for private consumption. Ultimately, the farmers earn more with the papaya harvest, have to spend less on chemicals and have also grown food for themselves. Of course, the seedlings have to be watered and we need enough bees in the region to pollinate them, which is why we are training young people as beekeepers. That is sustainable agriculture. Long-term development. Behind this is also the idea of a “human finca”.
So cultivating people, not just fields?
Exactly! We are learning new cultivation methods together with the campesinos. I myself grew up on a finca. My grandparents grew a variety of fruits and vegetables. But my parents didn’t. Even though I was lucky to be able to study agronomy, I felt it was more important to listen to the farmers and rediscover and further develop old traditions. Today, we grow a lot more beans, radishes, mint, spring onions, blackberries and cashew nuts in the region. Instead of buying chemical herbicides and fertilizers, we collect moulds on rotting trees, bushes and foliage in the mountains. They can be recognised by the grey, white or yellow colour. We cultivate them in water and then spray the soil. These microorganisms protect the seeds. The roots of the beans loosen the earth and restore nitrate in the soil which is removed by other plants. Bean leaves also compete with weeds. This is how plants support each other. That is sustainable agriculture. It maintains our livelihoods instead of destroying them.
Does it also give young people a better life? After all, that is the whole point, isn’t it?
Of course, young people need money to buy a shirt, shoes or trousers. Or a mobile phone. I guarantee that there are young people living in the countryside who have a better one that I do. We are also tapping additional sources of income. We are teaching them how to burn and sell bricks that can create a more comfortable indoor climate than the usual corrugated iron roofs. Or we use tropical fruits to make sweets and jam.
How big is your team and how many families do you work with?
We have five agronomists, a civil engineer and a social worker in our team. And we work with 300 families in four communities. We work particularly closely with eight youth groups. They have a particular influence on their environment and the future of the project.
Feeling at home in the countryside surely requires more than a good harvest.
Every one of our meetings begins with a poem or a song. In our area, playing songs from during the civil war on a guitar or violin is popular. We keep the style alive and support talented composers who write new songs. The lyrics are about being one with the earth, about particular people or defending local crops. Once a year, we also organise a kind of harvest festival. It is not easy to get young people enthusiastic about these traditions. But we have to bring generations together if we want continue this work in the region.
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