Monthly Archives: January 2012

Head in the clouds.

My first day visiting Heifer projects in Guatemala, we got high. Specifically, we drove up, up and up to the highlands of Alta Verapaz and into the cloud forest– which is the last refuge of Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal, as well as hundreds of other bird species that are quickly disappearing from the earth.

Quetzal photo by Knut Eisermann.

Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get high enough to go to the 50+ villages past the end of the road that are served by Proeval Raxmu, Heifer’s partner project in Alta Verapaz, because, before I came, the folks were told, “A woman is coming from the North and she can’t walk.”

Hmmm – for the record, I can walk and love to – but I suspect the Heifer folks weren’t sure I was up for a 5-hour jaunt into the cloud forest. (I totally was.) But what I saw in Chicoj Village was more than enough to make me wish I could have spent days there.

Once it's gone, it's gone.

Despite the breathtaking beauty of the area, Alta Verapaz has a poverty rate of about 79%, and chronic malnutrition that affects about 52% of the poor farmers who live here. Deforestation of the cloud forest is happening at one of the highest rates in Latin America and is directly related to poverty. Trying to eke out a living on incredibly steep slopes at high altitude, farmers desperate for rich forest soil and firewood cut down the trees, burn off the rich forest mulch, and plant corn which further depletes the soil. What’s at risk is not just bird populations (Guatemala is home to about 700 bird species and millions of migratory birds from North America), but also life-giving water, since cutting down the trees also reduces rainfall. And that leads to fewer crops and less food.In response, this Heifer-supported program works to educate and motivate local farmers to farm more productively, grow more nutritious food, and protect their own forest. It’s a big, daunting job, but Proeval is totally up for it. Six years ago, they began working with 3 families in 1 village– and today they have passed along to more than 450 families the gift of turkeys, rabbits and sheep; red worms (for composting); fruit trees; forage crops (to feed the animals) and most importantly – campesino to campesino trainings in how to farm abundantly without damaging the cloud forest.

Going to a Proeval community meeting in Chicoj Village to see the project first-hand was like attending a big, wordy love-in. We met in Pedro’s simple, beautiful home where everybody–and I mean everybody–  had the chance to talk about what the project means to him or her.

Pedro's home, site of our community meeting.

Rudy, the veritable Johnny Appleseed of Raxmu, has been helping local farmers to plant some 800 plum, nectarine, peach and apple orchards for a dozen years and is a tireless promoter of the nutritional and income-producing capacity of fruit trees. He’s carried the stakes of trees on his back for 5 hours to give to farmers in the remote villages, taught them how to graft, compost and use bees to pollinate the trees, and never stopped singing the praises of fruit.

Efraim, a biological monitor whose job entails getting up at 4:30 a.m. to hear, see and count birds in the cloud forest, lives a two-hour walk high up in the mountains with his beautiful wife Rosaria and 3 little girls. He  told us how happy he was to be chosen as one of 3 trained monitors out of 30 applicants — while his wife explained he was gifted because he gave his heart to the forest. Efraim has trained intensively, can identify over 250 birds by sight, and has worked with some of the world’s foremost ornithologists who come to Guatemala and rely on his research. Because I come from a family of birdwatchers (and am singularly oblivious when it comes to finding a single bird in a tree) I was in awe of his cool, calm demeanor and obvious talent for the work.

Robert & Tara, tireless principals of Proeval (she is from Holland and he is American), spoke in Q’eqchi’, Spanish and English of the methods they’re passing on: using living and dead barriers to prevent erosion on the steep hillsides; combining animal manure & red worms to build a beautiful compost instead of using expensive, damaging chemicals; conserving water and soil; keeping animals healthy, hygienic and fertile; and growing a nutritious blend of crops that will better feed both the children and animals of Chicoj Village.

Flowers grown in living barriers to erosion can also be sold for income.

Together with Heifer International and the project participants, Proeval Raxmu’s mission is to use a double passing-on-of-gifts (each beneficiary family gives at least twice what they have received in animals, forage crops, and trainings to 2 other families) to restore ecological, environmental and human harmony to the people of this region. In fact, the Q’eqchi’ word “Raxmu” means fresh and cloudy weather, indicating a change to come. I felt the distinct winds of change in that room, in the palpable community solidarity and dignity of the families that surrounded me — and I felt their hope for the future. It was nothing short of intoxicating.

In the next two years, Heifer will give 800 Atla Verapaz families 6,700 rabbits, 4,364 turkeys and 360 super-cute sheep.

(And next post, I’ll get to the amazing Alta Verapaz WOMEN involved!)

Categories: Animals, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 178 Comments

Hola, amigos …Aqui estoy!

Wish you were here, too!

Guatemala is a beautiful country – incredibly mountainous, over 60% indigenous, and poor in everything but spirit.In the past three days, I’ve seen Heifer projects working to stop deforestation of the rainforest, find better ways of growing maize for these “people of the corn,” and seen the transformative power of animals in a community.

But since I’m working like a true Heifer person (or like the campesinos they work for), I’m on the road at 7 am and not back until about 10 p.m., and I haven’t had time to stop and write.Today I’m going to the countryside outside Huehuetenango, and spending the night with a family in a seed bank project… yippee!I’ll be writing my stories this weekend in the lake area of Atitlan.  Until then, here’s a small photographic taste of Guatemala.¡Buen apetito!

Categories: Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Welcome to Guatemala!!

Travel is so exciting!

Can you see the P.M. mistake in this picture? Me neither.

For instance, this first trip of my Heifer 12 x 12 blog project started off the night before I left when (at 2 a.m. as I was still watering plants and folding laundry), I switched my husband’s i-phone alarm from 6 am to 6:40 so I could get a few more minutes of sleep. And then, when we woke up at 7:40 completely alarm-free , we had lots of exciting words between us before we even left for the airport for our 9:50 flight!

Exciting roads!

When we arrived in Guatemala City, we were met by the lovely Heifer Guatemala team of Vivian (who handles all logistics & communications and speaks beautiful English) and Byron, the country projects manager, who is an engaging, adorable guy and an admittedly cautious driver… which he proved on a 4-hour drive to Coban, a city in the mountains 120 miles from the airport.

Along the beautiful drive through Guatemala’s mountainous backbone, we stopped at an overlook behind a bar, so I could take a photo, and as I was snapping this very shot …

.. an overserved patron stepped out behind me and wasted copious amounts of hard-earned Gallo beer on the pavement about 2 inches from my feet. Precious memories…

And when we finally stopped for lunch in a classy restaurant, from across the crowded room I found myself mesmerized by the gaze of a small, dark stranger –and that was really exciting.

I’m telling you, this inaugural trip is starting off just beautifully … can’t wait to tell you about the cloud forest, campesinos and compost we encountered yesterday!! Stay tuned…

Categories: Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 28 Comments

A few tender words about pigs…

I don’t know jack about raising animals – and I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, it can be said (and yes, dozens of people have said, in various terms of disparagement) that I am not an animal person at all.

You're serving WHAT for dinner?

But the great thing about visiting a Heifer International project is that you learn a boatload about animal husbandry, even if you don’t want to. And while that still may not make you feel swoony about cows, pigs, chickens and goats, it certainly gives you new respect for them. It also makes you realize how utterly removed that we westerners are from any and all sources of our food, despite our utter dependence on animals for life itself. In the developing world, you see on a daily basis how important animals are to communities and how closely people live with their animals. The symbiotic relationship between man and beast is tangible and immediate: we simply can’t live without each other.

Jocelyn gazing at her beautiful pig.

But let’s get back to the pork…In Uganda, pigs are valued for their meat, their manure, and their ability to produce other pigs – and lots of them. The mommy pig is a sow; the daddy pig is a boar – and piglets can become parents at an astonishing six months of age. Pretty much as soon as they’re weaned, they’re ready to roll. The gestation period for a pig is apparently as precise as a Rolex –and their litters are huge: a sow will often produce 10-15 piglets in one furrow. And they’ll produce at least five farrows in a lifetime. That’s some serious fertility.Almost as precious as piglets is pig poop …which can be used to fertilize banana plants, maize, coffee, potatoes, cassava, and all kinds of fruit trees. When you’re raising everything you eat, and there are no stores in the event you run out of Hot Pockets, a better crop isn’t just a luxury, it’s a lifeline. And poop makes a huge difference.

Heifer trainings teach farmers how to compost in six trenches: plant and food scraps are turned over and moved from one trench to the other over the course of weeks, until the sixth one produces beautiful composted soil, ready to be mixed with manure & used as fertilizer.

Now that's some fine pig-chow!

To produce this glorious rot, pigs eat banana peels, napia grass, elephant grass, food scraps and peels. The farmers must learn to plant and grow the food the pigs need to eat – which is another Heifer training. And farmers need to carefully cross-breed the pigs, so the pig stock remains strong and there isn’t an issue of in-breeding. The Heifer extension workers carefully chart the breeding and bring in boars from surrounding communities to protect the genetic integrity of the animals.

Beautiful pig-pen

It’s a complicated thing, raising pigs. Particularly when you have to do every single part of it yourself: build the shed, raise the plants to feed the animal, breed it, milk it, sell it, slaughter it, and use its poop to grow more food for your family (and for your animals).

Bringing home the bacon is both remarkably complex and utterly essential.

Even to my eyes, a pig is a beautiful thing.

Categories: Animals, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Travel, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

African Gothic

Because I can’t WAIT to get started on this blog, even though my first official trip isn’t until January 22 when I leave for Guatemala, I’m writing this post from my Heifer Trial Run in Uganda, in November 2011…which was amazing!

Augustine and Anna Turyamyomwe are part of the same Heifer International Kinkizi Piggery Project as Ruth, whom I wrote about in the last post. Augustine is tall and dignified, with perfect posture, a serious mien, and a dazzling smile. Anna is rather shy, but with a penetrating gaze when she talks.

Anna and her daughter Kenema Berina

Like most families in Uganda, Augustine and Anna have lots of children: 3 boys and 3 girls. Before the Heifer piggery project, they had a plot of land but it was barren, and they never seemed to be able to get ahead of their immediate needs of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. Paying their children’s school fees (about $250/year per child) was a daunting hurdle every year.

Neat as a pin: the latrine, animal sheds and utility rack!

But in the Heifer trainings, they learned some lessons that would change their life. They constructed the sheds necessary to keep their pigs robust and reproducing like .. well, rabbits. They learned to dig a pit latrine far from the house and to grow bananas and nutritious crops like napia grass, that would keep their pigs in the pink of health. And of course, the pigs’ manure could be used to fertilize coffee, beans, and pawpaws that would also be sold for income.

Once the door of possibility opened for Augustine & Anna, they added their own ingenuity, creativity and drive. From raising pigs, coffee and fruit, they branched out to bees. Augustine invented a clever bamboo beehive that he used to coax even more honey out of his hive – and then produced dozens more to sell in the village.

Augustine & Anna's house (new wing is on the left)... see the bees painted on the wall above the bamboo hives!

With the money he and Anna have earned from their pigs, bees, coffee, and bananas, the family is sending all the children to school, and their oldest to university. Augustine was able to bring his mother to live with the family and give her a bed of her own. And they’ve also been able to make a dream come true and build a second wing on their house.In the sitting room, as he and Anna are proud to relate, every member of the family has a place to sit.  They even have a radio (their second most prized possession, besides the Bible).

Sitting in the new sitting room (with the Bible and radio).

“The new wing of our house comes from the Heifer piglets,” says Anna, as George, the Heifer extension worker, and I follow Ugandan protocol and gravely sign our names into the Guest Book that every home, no matter how humble, possesses.I think of my name living on in that simple paper notebook, with its lined columns and beautiful formality. I think of Augustine and Anna sitting proudly in their plain wooden chairs, listening to the radio in this room with their children. And it makes me happy beyond expression that I was here, and I got to sign my name.

Categories: Animals, Heifer International, Poverty, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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