By Tracy L. Barnett
SUCHITOTO, El Salvador – A gentle breeze ruffles the thatched roof of the hilltop shelter here at the Permaculture Institute. An electric-blue morpho butterfly flits past, a sharp accent against the muted blue of Volcano Guazapa in the background. An incongruously peaceful backdrop for the violence, massacres, scorched earth and forced evacuation that razed this region less than two decades ago.
That mountain, the hideout for guerilla forces for miles around, was bombed daily and burned repeatedly; the town of Suchitoto itself became a battlefield. Hundred of tons of artillery, white phosphorus and napalm rained down on the once lush jungles of these lands, drying up even the springs where people once retrieved their water.
But the Earth has a way of healing herself, and her inhabitants, and this land and the people who work it are living proof of that reality.
The Permaculture Institute of El Salvador or IPES (pronounced EE-Pace), for its Spanish acronym, has staked its claim on a stony, hilly hectare in this region. In part because of the strong community organizations that formed before the war, Suchitoto has proven fertile ground for a new approach to community development pioneered by peasant farmers, ex-combatants and a British permaculturist with a stubborn streak.
Karen Inwood was a community development specialist looking for a different approach when she met Juan Rojas, a former Salvadoran dissident forced to flee his country at the height of the civil war. Rojas, by a twist of fate, had ended up in Australia, where he met Bill Mollison, founder of an innovative new system of ecological design known as permaculture.
Rojas was excited by the idea of the system as an approach to rebuilding his country after the war, and returned in 1993 after the peace accords were signed to see what he could do. Realizing that permacultural principles have much in common with ancestral agricultural practices, he began in the heavily impacted department of Morazan, which is also where the largest concentration of indigenous Salvadorans still live. He began working with local farmers to learn their traditional practices. Utilizing the farmer-to-farmer method, he began working to disseminate these ideas along with permaculture principles, and later began working with leaders in the departments of La Libertad and his native Sonsonate.
The first Mesoamerican permaculture design course was held in Perquín, Morazan, in 1998 with the participation of campesinos from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Guatemala. These first Mesoamerican permaculturists went on to form the base for what later became IPES in El Salvador and IMAP in Guatemala, among others.
In 2000 he made a trip to England to attend an Ecovillage Training Course at the Findhorn Foundation and Karen, whom he met there, was intrigued with his project.
She headed to El Salvador to help him build the Permaculture Institute, and arrived to find a country in desperate need for the lessons in self-sufficiency and sustainability that Juan and others were working to spread.
“I’d always thought of ecovillages as an alternative lifestyle for those with the resources to buy land and move out to the country and do their thing,” she says. “My interest was to use permaculture for social change rather than as a lifestyle choice, and I came to EL Salvador to do just that.”
Permaculture, as Inwood explains it, can be applied in everything from agriculture to architecture to community design. Its main application here, at the moment, is in teaching sustainable agriculture and living practices to the subsistence farmers that struggle at the edge of survival throughout the Salvadoran countryside. In practice, it can mean the difference between malnutrition and misery, and a life of good health, dignity and autonomy. And in an era of climate change, when this tiny and densely populated Central American nation has been named among the world’s most vulnerable, food security is on everyone’s lips, and permaculture seems to be taking on a new and bigger life.
After a decade working in the obscurity of this rugged countryside, with a bare minimum of financial support, mostly from individual donors and foundations in England, Inwood is beginning to see the group’s efforts bear fruit. More than 1,000 families have adopted permaculture practices on their land and are growing organic produce for self-consumption and for sale. A team of promotores, or farmers turned permaculture teachers, is using the farmer-to-farmer method, working through the regional ecological networks, spreading permaculture principles throughout the villages.
And this rugged, typically hilly and not particularly fertile parcel has been converted into an educational center and demonstration site for the dissemination of a new approach to rural life here in El Salvador, an approach that promises to lift its practitioners out of poverty and into self-sufficiency, in harmony with each other and with nature.
It’s a rustic and simple site, with structures built mostly from natural materials found on the land, and with a vast diversity of crops worked by a simple yet passionate team of campesinos.
Other projects in the remote department of Morazan, one of the poorest regions of the country and one of the hardest hit by the war, have taken off and are blossoming; municipal governments are lending their support, and several hundred families are now practicing permaculture, with a team of promoters there beginning to branch out even further into the countryside.
Now, after years of trying to meet with and work with other community development organizations in the region and being repeatedly ignored, regional leaders are beginning to seek out the advice and input of IPES.
And most recently, representatives of the new leftist government of Mauricio Funes have expressed interest in applying permaculture principles to a national food security program aimed at strengthening the role of the family farm.
Inwood isn’t sure what has caused the sudden surge of interest, but speculates it has to do with the recent crises brought on by climate change: crops are failing due to intense flooding, followed by drought. A huge part of Central America’s bean crop has failed, and the price of what remains has gone sky-high; the price of the family basket has risen 300 percent in September and October.
Ironically, just at the moment when IPES has begun to break the ice with government agencies, and just as the group’s services are being widely sought, its funding sources have declined precipitously. The drop in the price of the pound has taken a toll, just as the financial crisis has left funders with less to share.
At the same time, the Funes government inherited the traditional patronage system of agricultural assistance, in which $33 million in agricultural “packages” consisting of hybrid seeds and agrochemicals are distributed throughout the country.
In the first year of its administration, before the young government had a chance to organize an alternative, the agricultural packages went out in the traditional way and there was an outcry among those who weren’t on the receiving end. The government realized the old system wasn’t working, and is now looking for new alternatives, Karen said. Permaculture is one of those alternatives.
“We’re excited but at the same time, it’s challenging,” she confesses, her expressive blue eyes widening. Those blue eyes, together with her gentle, sweet manner and her British-accented Spanish, have worked their magic with more than one hard-hearted bureaucrat, I imagined, watching her present her ideas to a pair of authorities from the United Nations Development Fund. The pair left impressed with what they saw, and were scheduled to attend another meeting with IPES the following week.
Contrasting with Karen’s feminine, British touch are the passionate and very Salvadoran approach of Agustin “Maclobio” Duran and Alejandro Martínez, two former Salvadoran guerillas who took the design course and ended up converts to the permaculture cause. Both see permaculture as a means to achieve the same goals they strove for in the revolution: a dignified life for their families.
After the war, an army of nongovernmental organizations descended on El Salvador, each with a different proposal for solving the country’s deeply entrenched problems. Like others from IPES, Agustin is critical of their approach. None that he has seen were ultimately viable, he said, and some were even deceptive; together, they left communities with a dependency mentality and in some ways, worse off than they were before.
“From what I’ve seen since the war and in fact in my whole life, permaculture is what convinces me the most; it’s a more integral proposal,” said Augustin. “Of course it requires a lot of sacrifice, but if we were able to withstand all the risks and hardships of the war, we can do this, too.”
For Alejandro, the shift to this form of agriculture is urgently necessary, not just individually but at the community level.
“If we continue with the same agricultural practices we’ve inherited, we are going to suffer a great famine,” he said. “If we can spread the ideas of permaculture, we can all live well, and have a better system to pass on to the future generations.”
Agustin nodded his agreement. “That’s the challenge we face,” he said. “If we can successfully transmit these ideas, in 20 years things will be very different here, and maybe we can shift a little the destructive direction we’re headed in. We already have the effects of climate change upon us – but from this battle trench of IPES, we can minimize the impact, the consequences that we have already been suffering.
“We as campesinos, people who don’t have economic power, want to show the world that relying on solutions and alternatives so simple as learning from what surrounds us in nature, we can have multiple solutions to great problems, and we can solve them. It’s just a question of education and consciousness.”