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Nicaragua: What we learned about agroecology

Originally published: Internationalist 360° on May 13, 2023 by Rick Kohn (more by Internationalist 360°) (Posted May 15, 2023)

As part of a seminar course at the University of Maryland, students travel to Nicaragua to see firsthand how the country has confronted the challenges of hunger and poverty and achieved food self-sufficiency.

At the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture, we have developed a seminar course titled “Sustainable Agriculture and Environment in Nicaragua” offered every fall as well as a short travel-abroad experience to Nicaragua in the Winter term (first weeks of January). Last year, ten students and two faculty members from the University of Maryland visited Nicaragua on a trip hosted by the Friends of ATC, the international solidarity organization of the Association of Rural Workers (Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo) led by Erika Takeo, our host.

Why did we choose to study in Nicaragua? Hunger, poverty, and illiteracy are major issues plaguing much of the world, and climate change is one of the greatest threats to humans on the planet. Nicaragua is setting an example for sustainable development that addresses all these issues.

Nicaragua has virtually eliminated hunger and attained 90% self-sufficiency in food production while also increasing food exports. Literacy has vastly improved, and the country offers free education from preschool through college and professional school. Additionally, life expectancy has increased, and infant mortality has been drastically reduced. Free basic healthcare is accessible to all. Nicaragua has improved its agricultural practices, promoting climate-resilient management such as water and soil management to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Interestingly, Nicaragua has achieved these impressive feats while decreasing its per capita greenhouse gas emissions, which were already only one-eighth as much as for the United States. Despite facing illegal U.S. sanctions and interventions, Nicaragua’s economy continues to grow steadily across all major sectors.

Nicaragua’s achievements in sustainable development have been so remarkable that as a professor of Animal Science at the University of Maryland for the last 28 years, it would feel dishonest for me not to mention them while teaching about improving agricultural practices to reduce environmental impacts. My work involves teaching animal nutrition and management and advising government regulators and farmers on minimizing environmental harm from animal agriculture. My research has included finding ways to improve animal feeding and management to decrease nutrient losses from farms to estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay, as well as identifying methods to lower gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The statistics on Nicaragua are striking. Despite being a developing nation with labor-intensive agricultural production, the country has made noteworthy progress in addressing multiple objectives such as meeting human needs for food, education, and healthcare, reducing poverty, and improving the environment. Moreover, Nicaragua has managed to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change caused mostly by developed countries. Inspired by these achievements, I created a two-part course on Nicaraguan agriculture at the University of Maryland to examine Nicaragua’s efforts in this field, and to assess whether we could learn from their example.

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Producing more food to feed the hungry as world population grows could lead to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions because expanding croplands often means destroying carbon-sequestering grasslands and forests. Additionally, the impacts of climate change, such as droughts or hurricanes, can adversely affect agriculture and exacerbate hunger and poverty. To meet the nutritional requirements of an expanding global population, we must use our land resources more efficiently and with less environmental impact per unit of food produced. This approach will enable us to address hunger and poverty while minimizing our carbon footprint.

Developing countries are encouraged to make their agricultural processes more similar to ours. But our system of agriculture was “developed” though genocide of native populations and slavery, as well as destruction of natural flora and fauna, and today is still driven by the corporate profit motive. One can understand from looking at our history why some developing countries may not want to repeat this process of “development” through maximization of corporate profits.

Our system selects for the companies that are most profitable, and fortunately companies that make best use of their resources often are more competitive and survive resulting in an overall increase in efficiency. At the same time, optimizing profitability sometimes promotes choices that impair the productivity of land or has negative environmental impact.

We have vast tracks of land across multiple states being put into the same monoculture crops. Those crops are shipped around the country and processed. Part of grains are used for biofuel and parts for human and animal foods. The nutrient cycles are broken, causing excess nutrient loss to the environment in some regions. At the same time, fossil fuels and mining make chemical fertilizers to replace nutrients removed from other regions. The application of new nitrogen fertilizers accelerates the production of nitrous oxides, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Pesticides and genetic engineering eliminate foods for wildlife. Soil carbon decreases for many crops, putting more greenhouse gas in the air and decreasing the capacity of the soils to hold on to water and other nutrients. Still, the U.S. has sustained this system for decades, and I think it is likely more stable than some people believe. In other countries with different topography and climate, however, these same practices are expanding deserts. For examples look at deforestation of the Amazon and the expansion of the Sahara Desert.

People still go hungry in the U.S. Many agricultural workers make terrible wages for back-breaking labor. Diet-related illnesses are prevalent and overprocessed foods contribute to it. U.S. life expectancy has fallen as rates of suicide, drug addiction, and violence are all trending upwards. Many people go without health insurance. Poverty continues to be a significant problem in the “richest” country on earth.

Is the economic model we are using really something that developing nations should be trying to copy? Developed countries emit many multiples more greenhouse gas per capita than developing countries. Imagine how much greenhouse gas emissions will increase if all the world’s developing countries were recreated in the image of the developed ones. The alternative of keeping poverty and hunger as the status quo is also not acceptable. Therefore, the example Nicaragua provides needs to be studied very carefully.

Irrespective of what system we choose for ourselves to obtain food, Nicaragua is a sovereign country, and they have the right to set their own course in development, and not copy the path taken by the U.S. if they don’t want to. However, large corporations survive by growing: by finding new markets and a larger work force.

Nicaragua is setting out on its own path

When Nicaraguans were forced to follow our “advice” in the past, either from the mid 1800s through Somoza or during the neoliberal period from 1990 to 2007, their economies sometimes become more “efficient” by U.S. standards while income disparities increased, people went hungry, illiteracy skyrocketed, land and water became more polluted.

It is common for people to become overwhelmed and depressed thinking about these issues, which makes you want to turn away and ignore them. That’s why the inspiration and hope that we get from Nicaragua is so important—because in Nicaragua we have a case where all these issues are addressed, and the people who live there are thriving while emitting an eighth as much GHG per person as in the U.S.

People often say Nicaragua is the third poorest country in the hemisphere (or previously the second poorest) based on the per capita GDP. But the GDP is the totality of the economic activity, it is not a measure of whether people’s basic needs are met. When you consider that Nicaragua has the second lowest poverty rate in Latin America, and even the poor have access to good quality basic healthcare, food, and free education through professional school, you might say Nicaragua is one of the least poor countries in the hemisphere.

Today after 500 years of colonialism and intervention in Nicaragua by the Spanish and then the U.S., Nicaragua clearly lacks the infrastructure needed for robust economic activity comparable to a developed country. However, because of the choices they’ve made in recent years, their economic activity is targeted toward meeting the needs of the entire population instead of only serving the interests of the wealthiest Nicaraguans and foreign corporations. And this means that instead of targeting their economy on weapons of war, security and surveillance, and consumerism, they have focused on healthcare, education, infrastructure like roads, electricity, potable water, hospitals, and parks. And we could see first-hand what that is like.

How has Nicaragua been able to accomplish so much?

As we traveled around Nicaragua, we could see viable agricultural production everywhere. We listened to farmers, agricultural and environmental experts, and leaders. We tasted luscious fruits and vegetables and savory dishes. We learned specific techniques to manage soils and animals, including many techniques passed down through generations from ancestors. Native American populations taught the European about their traditional agricultural methods and how they had domesticated many of the food crops everyone now consumes (e.g. maize, potatoes, beans, squash, tomatoes and avocados), but the Europeans weren’t the best of students over the generations. The Native American ancestors knew to prevent erosion by planting rows perpendicular to the slopes and using contour ditches or terraces to prevent water runoff from eroding soils. They cropped legumes like beans with corn to use the nitrogen-fixing ability of the legume crop to enrich the soils for the corn. They incorporated trees throughout the landscapes, trapping carbon, retaining soils, providing shade.

But beyond the techniques on the farm, I was especially interested in learning how Nicaraguans today transferred the knowledge from farm to farm though organizations like the ATC. We met with the excellent teachers working with the ATC as well as university faculty, and jointly participated in workshops on agroecology, nutrition, and pasture walks. In the U.S. corporate-driven agricultural system, most technology is developed and transferred from the top down, whereas in Nicaragua the organizations representing farm workers and small farm owners themselves set priorities for research (what to try) and technology transfer to best address their own needs.

We also learned about laws to promote equitable and efficient development, like the Agroecology Law, or the Zero Hunger Law. These laws provide incentives and education for small farmers, create markets to sell foods, provide plants or chickens to start small-scale farm enterprises, and provide low interest loans. For example, programs have introduced less-common commodities like dragon fruit and tilapia farming.

Moreover, we learned about their philosophy, and their democratic, people-centered approach to making decisions and implementing change. Nicaragua has a mixed economy including both large corporations and small farmers. The small farmers and farm workers are organized into groups that enable them to learn about government policies and have input, unlike the U.S. system in which policies are largely written by the largest companies in the industry. In Nicaragua, decisions are made to address the multifaceted needs of society—reduce poverty and hunger, obtain food sovereignty, good working conditions, protect the environment—for all the stakeholders. This approach infringes on the potential for a few companies to take complete control. The idea that peasant farmers have valid ideas is hard concept for corporate experts to comprehend, let alone embrace. And yet the results are impossible to deny.

Nicaragua is a small country compared to the size of multinational corporations, but it still poses a tremendous threat. Their approach is demonstrably working to fight hunger and poverty and decrease greenhouse gases while adapting to climate change. None of that would seem like it should present a problem for the United States. However, they have achieved these results while also becoming food sovereign and without fully embracing agribusiness corporations that hope to monopolize the business of food production. This means Nicaragua poses the threat of a good example to the rest of Latin America and the world. Thus, overthrowing the Nicaraguan government is a priority, and in the meantime, a propaganda war is used to justify aggression against Nicaragua and to mask the success they have had.

The predominant approach to development foisted on most of the developing world is to force cuts in spending on social programs, privatize public resources, and incentivize low-income sweatshops for foreign export. Although feeding the poor may sound nice, we are told it would cause economic collapse over time. Instead, the neoliberal model of development through exploitation is used despite the lack of significant progress. The contrasting positive results from Nicaragua are indeed a threat to the arguments for continuing “development” through exploitation, or in other words, Nicaragua threatens the world order.

If you are a University of Maryland student, I want to invite you to take our class at UMD. If you do not attend UMD, it is possible to take the seminar course online and participate in the study-abroad course in the first two weeks of January and get transfer credits. I want to acknowledge the ATC for helping organize the fall semester course, and for hosting the study abroad course. The ATC offers many programs both online and in person so consider being a part of an ATC delegation or internship. I encourage everyone to travel to Nicaragua to see for yourself what it’s like to live and thrive in a sustainable way.

Rick Kohn is a professor of Animal Science at the University of Maryland. His interests include evaluating and implementing methods to decrease adverse environmental effects from animal agriculture including effects on air and water resources and climate change. Rick worked in Nicaragua in 1987-1988 as an internationalist with the Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG).

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