Monthly Archives: March 2012

Just sitting around knitting (and changing the world).

I hate meetings. In fact, I’ve pretty much developed a career around avoiding them. So I was somewhat dismayed when my introduction to Heifer Peru came in the form of a women’s meeting in Puno – a city about 14,000 feet above sea level in the south Central Highlands near beautiful Lake Titicaca.

The view outside...

Luckily, this meeting was like no women’s networking session I’d ever attended. For one thing, everyone had the same hairdo. The room was a sea of long black braids, topped by outrageously insouciant hats, tilted just so.

The view inside...

Instead of power pantsuits and hire-me heels, these women were decked out in abundantly colorful, multi-tiered skirts, intricately embroidered vests and spangled blazers. And while listening intently, almost every woman was simultaneously knitting or crocheting– hence getting a lot accomplished. I loved it!

The softest alpaca goods -- so beautiful!

The women were there to celebrate Heifer’s FEED project, in existence for 4 years with a mission to improve food security, nutrition and income, and encourage women in eight Puno rural communities to produce and collectively sell their handicrafts.

Like many of Heifer Peru’s projects, the FEED program is aligned with a local organization called APACHETA, The Center of Andean Development (obviously, Peruvians are as acronym-crazed as we are). While Heifer guides, funds and monitors APACHETA’s activities with 700 Peruvian women and their families, the leader of that organization is Cleida Incacutipa, a formidable 6-foot tall woman who used to work for Heifer but is now boots-on-the-ground in APACHETA’s drive to improve the lives of Puno women in ways both simple and complex.

Candida Canaza & the incomparable Cleida Incacutipa

The “simple” part is giving women the animals and the trainings to improve their families’ nutrition and income – teaching them how to grow more potatoes, breed the animals for income, and produce more high-quality handicrafts. More complex is developing leadership capabilities in these women farmers, training them to advocate for themselves in their households, neighborhoods, and local governments. To say Cleida has a gift for this kind of work is an understatement: she knows every woman’s name and personal history, she’s hugely dedicated, and she believes passionately in their capacity to achieve.

Three local leaders: Lidia Quiroz, Felipina Apaza & Elisabeth Ticona ...power to spare!

In a world where women are often not allowed to attend or speak in their local village meetings (not to mention their own households), Heifer’s gender equity sessions represent nothing less than a quiet revolution. From dealing with domestic violence to organizing a Congress of Female Farmers to running for local office, these women graduates of the gender workshops are taking the empowerment ball and running with it – especially the three fabulous rabble-rousers I sat down and talked to, while their friends were busy displaying their award-winning handicrafts on hilariously Caucasian manikins.

The women spoke again and again of the life-altering discovery that “I have a voice.” Once they truly embraced that, it was natural to begin to ask for things for themselves: workshops and looms to improve their community handicrafts, municipal help to support their entrepreneurial efforts, and always, in the Heifer way, offering to share knowledge and decision-making with other women to lift them up, too.

“In the past we were asleep,” says impish Felipina. “And then we woke up. We are new women now.” 

At the end of the long afternoon, I woke up to the shopping opportunities at hand, bought some beautiful hats, and got hugged about a million times around the neck. It was just about my favorite meeting ever.

Categories: Heifer International, Peru, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Bienvenidos a Peru!

Heading across Lake Titicaca

First, a bit of a disclaimer: this is your unapologetically turistica introduction to the beautiful land of Peru!

Right now I don’t quite have the perspective or internet bandwidth to post about all the deeply moving stories I’ve experienced so far in this amazing country. So I’m just going to give you the view from 15,000 feet .. which is approximately how high I am today in Pasco City, the highest city in Peru. (And yes, that is the sound of my heart pounding, trying to pump oxygen to my brain.)

Peru is severely beautiful .. with miles of ocean shoreline and the Andes (sierra) and the jungle (selva). It’s bordered by Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile and is packed with silver, gold, copper and zinc – making it well-nigh irresistible to mining interests that never saw a mountain they didn’t want to level.

Although the country’s economy has improved dramatically over the past decade, the indigenous people in the Highlands (where Heifer does most of its work) are still overwhelmingly poor, ferociously independent, and definitely know how to rock a hat.  

In the center of Marcopata, we saw a statue that pretty much captures the Highland spirit. The bull represents the Spaniards who colonized Peru. The condor tied to its back is the indigenous people, who claw and fight to be released from bondage – literally drawing blood.

These proud descendants of the Inca Empire are going to need every shred of that irrepressible spirit today to resist the triple threat of mining companies, urbanization, and climate change. Almost one-third of the country’s 30 million inhabitants now lives in Lima, yet you know it must kill something inside these proud people to leave their mountains and ancient traditions to descend to the arid pull of the city.

Heifer’s projects are mostly in the high central plateau, where it is developing programs that support the Highlanders’ traditional pursuits of raising alpaca and llama, growing potatoes, and making handicrafts – working with communities to make these pursuits economically viable, entrepreneurial, and sustainable.

Which means that more children can grow up with a future in the countryside they love, and preserve the land and traditions that are under siege. 

I can’t wait to share those stories… just as soon as I can breathe properly again. It’s gonna be epic!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Hunger, Peru, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

My admittedly tardy International Women’s Day Post! (Haiti Version 2.0)

I completely missed International Women’s Day on March 8th this year, and I’m feeling a little guilty about that. So I’m going to do one post at the end of each one of my trips, comprised of photos of the beautiful women I met in that country.

The women of Haiti were a constant source of inspiration to me: strong, brave, incredibly hard-working, and courageous in ways I cannot fathom. And despite their hard lives, full of joy.

But to be honest, I’m blown away by the women in every country I visit. On this planet there are 650 million smallholder farmers who produce 70% of all the food we eat. And the majority of those farmers are women.

When we help women farmers, we’re simply being smart –because with tools, training and technology, they will do what women always do: they’ll feed us, take care of us, and provide.

If I loved Heifer International for nothing else, it would be for its tireless, inventive, and unwavering commitment to empowering women farmers around the world to grow more, earn more, learn more, and achieve security for themselves and their families.

I’m seriously tickled pink to be a tiny part of this important work, and I can’t believe that I have the privilege of introducing you to these remarkable women (and there’s a story behind each one of these photos).

Happy International Women’s Day!! (let’s pretend it’s today).

And yes, I am in Peru now, and to prove it, here’s a little taste of things to come (it’s a female so it fits the theme).

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Haiti, Heifer International, Peru, Women | Tags: , , , , , , | 26 Comments

A rough draft of my last day in Haiti…

My last day in the countryside of Haiti was one of the best, because I spent the whole day in the company of Ewaldy. (Well, to be honest, the start of the day was a bit rocky when we had to use a twisted wire hanger & a wad of Ewaldy’s bubblegum to pry open the car door after I cleverly locked the keys in the Heifer truck.)

Ewaldy Estil is the Northern Regional Coordinator and has been working for Heifer International since June 2000. As he puts it, it’s not a job, it’s his life mission. When he’s not running Heifer projects (and even when he is) he belts out gospel and reggae music (you should hear his awesome original “Passing on the Gift” song!) and despite the fact that he travels nonstop and keeps ridiculously long hours, he never stops smiling.

Ewaldy and I were driving from the town of Hinche in the Central Plateau up to Cap Haitien through some beautiful farmland, on the way to the small town of Milot where I was going to watch a Heifer training session in action.

Paul Dieudem, Heifer trainer

When we drove into Milot, the men of the village were under a tree listening to Paul Dieulem, a farmer from nearby DonDon that Heifer has trained and hired to take Milot farmers through the arduous process of turning a team of 2 cows into draft animals. It’s a 20-day course that covers everything from raising forage crops for feed to making yokes; learning to tie the animals together; teaching the animals to move in tandem and follow commands; training them to carry a load by dragging a big log behind them; and perfecting the strenuous work of plowing with that team. (I felt like I was re-reading Little House on the Prairie!)

At the end of 20 days, each farmer will have a team of cattle that can do the work of 20 men –and part of the income they raise plowing other people’s fields will repay the cost of the cattle (about $1000 per cow) to pass on the gift to other farmers in the community. I watched them practice yoking, and I can tell you, it’s no small endeavor to tie two 800-pound animals together! When one farmer asked why they had to repay the gift of cows, Ewaldy had a spirited conversation about Heifer’s philosophy of no free hand-outs & community responsibility that had the whole group laughing and arguing and shouting the other farmer down. (I was secretly waiting for Ewaldy to break into song.)

Heifer has also been working in Milot to train women in food processing, so they can earn an income making jelly and liqueurs from the passion fruit, grapefruit and sour oranges that grow in abundance here. At first I was slightly shocked that making liqueur would qualify as an enterprise, until I remembered that Denver’s favorite mayor and now Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper started as a microbrewer of artisanal beer, so I’m thinking this is just the first step on the road to women taking political office in Haiti!

Madame Laurent Pauline has been one of the most successful small entrepreneurs, and she now sells about 30 small bottles of liqueur every week for 50 Haitian gourds (@$1.22) apiece. (Passion fruit is the most popular flavor because it’s considered a bit of an aphrodisiac, as Pauline laughingly relates.) This income helps her send her five children to school, while her husband is learning to work with the draft animals to earn more money.

Nothing left for me!

Twenty women of Milot were trained by Heifer and have built a network of licensed food processors who are planning to establish a revolving fund for micro-loans to help other women get the trainings and start their own businesses. I’m sure that there is a lot of potential for growth as Pauline definitely has the gift of salesmanship and plans to make her own labels, expand her line to include coffee & cacao liqueurs, and sell, sell, sell. I was dying to taste her product, but as it was Carnaval celebration week, she was plumb sold-out. (By the way, Haitians do not drink frequently, and at the size and potency of the bottles Pauline sells, there’s not much chance of serious inebriation.)

By the time we reached Cap Haitien that night, I was eager to sleep in a real hotel (our Hinche hotel had left a bit to be desired) and to release Ewaldy from the chore of driving me around so he could get back to his wife and two little children. I was flying back to Port-au-Prince the next day, and then heading home to Atlanta, and I was feeling sad to be leaving Haiti.

All these beautiful people and places – how could I stop wondering what would happen to them?

Micheraina from Maniche is on my mind...

Then I realized that they were in good hands with Ewaldy and crew. And I would be coming back (I will, no matter what!). And that as much as I’ve loved Haiti, I’ll probably love Peru just as dearly. (I’m leaving tonight!)

So.. the journey continues. I hope you’ll come along!

The oddly placed bathroom cabinet in one of the more interesting hotels we stayed in... always an adventure!

Categories: Haiti, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

A fishful of dollars.

Every last tilapia is precious.

Valentin Abe

What you don’t know about tilapia could fill a hatchery. Trust me on this.

When I went to Valentin Abe’s new, solar-powered, mega-cool Caribbean Harvest hatchery in the Central Plateau of Haiti, I was taking notes as fast as my fat little digits could write, and I still only got half of everything this awesome guy from the Ivory Coast (and Fulbright scholar at Auburn University… and one of Time‘s 100 most influential people in the world) told us about how farm fishing can transform the lives of the poor.

Brooders brooding.

Tilapia farming starts with a bunch of brooders (doesn’t everything??) – whose genetic lineage can be traced back to the Nile. With oxygen pumped through the water that is sourced from the nearby river (filtered and cleansed), the brooders can breed at 4 months and will reproduce every six weeks (as long as you remove the baby fish so the mommies aren’t distracted).  The female lays her eggs, the male fertilizes them, then mom incubates the eggs in her mouth (up to 2000 of them) for 4 days, then releases them, although they are still transparent and can’t be seen.

Little ones (tens of thousands of 'em)

Tilapia like togetherness: 600/cubic meter.

At 7 days of age, however, the babies become visible and instinctively head for the sides of the tank – where they can be removed with a fine mesh net in the cool of the early morning or late afternoon. The babies will then be transferred to separate tanks that hold 20,000 fish each, where they are fed, oxygenated and grown to 1/2″ long in about a month. At this point, the “fingerlings” are transferred in oxygenated plastic bags to nearby Lake Peligre where they are kept in cages owned by individual fishermen who will feed them three times a day for about 4 months.

When these babies get to be a pound apiece, each fishermen can sell his crop of 2000 tilapia for $2.40/pound (with $1.10 of that going to  expenses) — for a profit of about $2500 per harvest. And that, my friend, is the beautiful rainbow at the end of this long tilapia road.  It’s why Clinton Global Initiative has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hatchery, Partners in Health is ordering all the tilapia for its brand-new hospital in Mirebalais from Caribbean Harvest farmers, Solar Electric Light Fund has installed the beautifully reliable, sophisticated solar system, and Heifer International is donating the $450 cages to Peligre fishermen.

Beautiful Lake Peligre

Because once this operation gets up and running (it just came on line last month), it has the potential to produce 40,000 fingerlings a month —  which would be a game-changer for the poor communities around Lake Peligre and the surrounding Central Plateau.Despite the fact that this is an island, Haitians eat only 4.4 pounds of fish a year (contrasted to the global average of 35 pounds) and the country imports $26 million of cod annually from Taiwan. The beauty of farming tilapia locally is that while it improves the protein-starved diet of Haitians, it also provides an income to farmers and fisherman living around the lake — and supports the schools in villages like Sylguerre that we were lucky enough to visit with Valentin Abe to see the school and witness tilapia farming in action.

The schoolchildren were all waiting for us to dock ..over there.

Quick ... over here!

We can beat that stupid boat...

And we're all over here now .. Welcome!

Around the lake, 8 destitute schools with no government support are struggling to survive –with the help of Partners in Health and two teachers leading the Community Action for Education and Development around Lake Peligre(ACEDLP). Tilapia farming is an idea that can be scaled up quickly, produce sustainable profits, and enable the people to support their schools and get their children a good education.

"Now I don't have to choose which of my children I send to school."

The plan is for each fisherman to receive one free gift of 2000 tilapia fingerlings from Caribbean Harvest (and its sponsors) and a cage from Heifer International. After harvest, he will reinvest part of his proceeds in another crop of fingerlings, and then on the third harvest, put aside money to pass along the gift of a new cage to another farmer (Valentin estimates each farmer can harvest 3 crops of tilapia a year.)

There are still some kinks to be worked out: Abe found that 1/2″ tilapia babies survive better than the 2″ older ones during transfer, and the farmers have to perfect their feeding and distribution to prevent the fingerlings from perishing and get them to market while they’re fresh. But the potential is totally there for a sea change in the fishing industry of Haiti … with the beautiful Lake Peligre children on the line.

I’m in!

Categories: Haiti, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

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