Nicaragua: Working the Land, Sowing Hope

Indiana Montoya and Yorlis Luna

Nicaragua is a rural country of people who strive to advance  thanks to the knowledge and sweat of farmers – men, women, young people and children – who devote their lives to producing food for the whole population. Food, the basis of our political sovereignty, is sown, looked after and harvested in rural and semi urban areas.

The Ministry of Education (MINED) has promoted the setting up of gardens in both primary and secondary schools throughout the country. The purpose of the gardens is to strengthen the culture of Nicaragua as a largely rural country, to recognise the peasantry, and to motivate children and young people in agricultural production and innovations to maximise the use of the land.

In addition, what they produce in school gardens contributes to school meals that are provided in all schools throughout the country. These meals consist of rice, beans, and maize: the parents of children and young people are responsible for preparing the food and providing other food to complement it.

These school gardens are the result of the work of MINED in co-ordination with other state institutions and the communities themselves.

In the case of the experience we are going to tell you about, there are two gardens set up in rural schools by university students and teachers, and parents from the community.

In Los Copeles and San Miguelito in the municipality of Juigalpa, department of Chontales, the school garden project started when  teachers in rural schools became  concerned about how to improve school meals, the unused land in the area, and how disconnected the children were from the countryside. This coincided with the Ministry of Education’s programme to create school gardens.

They looked for support from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua – Multidisciplinary Regional Faculty FAREM – Chontales. Teachers and agroecology students from the university helped to set up the gardens as part of their agronomy studies in 2020.

The San Miguelito community school operates from Monday to Friday  offering preschool and  multigrade elementary school from 1st to 6th grade. At the weekend multi grade and high school classes are offered  to 69 students from 14 to 20 years old from campesino/a families. The Los Copeles community school is only for the youngest children, since it is the upper part of the area.

This is a dry zone of Nicaragua, characterised by small and medium scale cattle ranching based on extensive grazing and traditional agriculture of basic grains. Many peasant families have had land since the agrarian reform [programme of the Sandinista government in the 1980s], however, they still live in poverty caused by multiple factors, including the strong focus on the monoculture of cattle ranching.

There is a popular saying that goes  “seeing is believing”. This is what this experience was like: concerns, sadness, uncertainties, but also encouragement, dreams and willpower. Only the combination of these disparate energies has made the creation of the two community gardens possible.

The gardens have been a true sharing of knowledge between young people from the countryside and the town, a significant learning experience for all. The gardens have become the classroom and a living laboratory for both students and teachers of the agroecology class.

“This process lifted my spirits in the midst of so many difficulties. Initially we didn’t know what to do. [However] after this activity I feel very motivated to continue supporting my community and committed to the garden at the small school in  Los Copeles, to ensure it continues to function well and efficiently…through this process I gained a lot of experience, it was beautiful.

It is so necessary to bring together efforts to minimise migration from the countryside, and [reduce] poverty through training children and young people who are the ones who will produce food in the future and to work together with their families” (Henry Rosales Matus, young producer from the municipality of Juigalpa, 3rd year agronomy student and community leader).

The setting up and development of the gardens has been led mainly by women and young people. Through their strength and mutual support  both men and women have been able to progress.

All this has been a challenge, learning together, adjusting the times and methods to define the virtual and physical activities… to take advantage of the physical moments, to discuss things from the heart and to realise the dream of the gardens.

The main lessons will not be told by us but by the protagonists of this story, we will begin with the children who at different times expressed joy and happiness, a natural emotion that children express when they discover something new.

“Personally I did not know about agroecology until we took part in the class, I thought it was only organic farming, although it is true that agroecology seeks to produce in a sustainable way and in a way that least harms the ecosystems, now I understand that agroecology is not only a technique, but a philosophy and a way of life” (Luisa Castro).

“At the beginning it was hard for me to talk to the young people in the community, I felt very anxious and afraid, but then the experience became more rewarding. I am starting to make changes at home, reusing [things] and growing  aromatic herbs, vegetables and fruits, I hope to be able to help my neighbourhood and family with this garden.” (Judith González).

“Thank you for believing in us, for motivating us, at the beginning I was very nervous, I will try to learn more about this science…the most incredible thing was to feel that we can do it.” (Karyher Duarte).

“For me it was beautiful  and important what we did, in the middle of the pandemic we were able to work with responsibility and love with the children in the school garden…even though they are children they have many dreams and initiative to cultivate in their land, one girl already has onions and other crops planted at home that started from what she learned in the garden, I was struck by the interest of the children and their parents.” (Alba Arroliga).

“To have lived this experience was very interesting, we all worked together, with joy and hope. At the beginning I was afraid, I thought and was sure that I would not participate because of some family problems caused by the pandemic that we are facing today, however, I ignored negative comments. The first day of work felt complicated, we did not manage to talk to the young people in the community, but then we managed to organise ourselves and socialise, it was fun…! The other days were fantastic, because we were all more confident and we were able to move forward. Like everyone else, we made some mistakes, for example the seedbed was left unprotected, we had to set it up again. For me the realisation of this garden has been very important because it has allowed me to grow personally and professionally. In this beautiful productive experience we were able to learn and teach as well as identify the benefits offered by the school garden to the student community based on agroecological principles” (Danieska Morales Suárez).

“It was an unforgettable experience not only for me, but also for the primary school children that we worked with, it was an incredible group because they have been learning how to work the land since they were little.” (Stalin López).

One of the parents stated: “it is beautiful everything that is being done, the good thing is to plant what is available, it is going very well, the children and young people have everything great, they have planted onions, beans and their little things, everything is beautiful.

Indiana Montoya was one of the teachers:  “For university teachers it has been an enriching process because we threw ourselves into the unknown regardless, criticism, fear of failure… rather we saw it as a challenge in which knowledge, friendship and relationships with students of all years primary, secondary, university have been strengthened.”

“This is a great thing, as community teachers we are happy, I feel supported, accompanied by the community, the children are very active.” (Maribel Hurtado).

The activities included: repairing the school’s perimeter fence, planting elequeme, black wood and jocote seedlings, fencing off an area to protect it from chickens and animals, cleaning and preparing the soil, finding seeds of all kinds – plantain, yucca, malanga, sweet potato, beans, vegetables, medicinal plants and fruit trees – organising irrigation and looking after crops.

The community gardens are the agroecological seeds for the future, seeds sown in the fertile soil that is the mind, imagination and dreams of these children and young people, they are not only the future, they are the present and in their little hands full of soil is the future of the community and agroecology.

This experience demonstrates that school gardens producing a diversity of crops, designed from the pedagogy of love and tenderness among people, at all levels, at all ages, with people from both the countryside and the city, are a pedagogical tool that with collective action generates small and big changes, so necessary in the world in which we live.

In spite of the COVID in these past two years, “we have been able to create and maintain the garden, motivate the students and give each other psychological and practical support. The young people of the city and the university students were aware that the communities do not stop, they move forward, struggle and work day by day and that we, in our spaces, must be better and be up to the challenges that life places on us.

There is a lot of motivation from the mothers of families and children to make their own gardens”, some seeds were shared such as plantain and yucca, students and teachers are organizing themselves for the ongoing accompaniment of the gardens and to continue exchanging seeds. The challenge is great and continues: to continue strengthening the community organisation through the school gardens.

The experiences in the school gardens in this area of Nicaragua have taught us that the solutions to poverty go through multiple processes. Agrarian reform is fundamental but not enough: real investment in the countryside is needed, but [this must happen] hand in hand with collective learning processes that help historically excluded and marginalised families to gain confidence, to overcome internalised fears, to forge fairer and more loving family relationships and to believe in themselves.

These processes are not easy, they need patience, trust and time. But, above all, processes from within the community and on a personal level, focused on the use of local resources and supported by the involvement of multiple actors. Processes that help change people who change things, to change realities with their mind and heart.

This is how Nicaragua, small but enormous, continues to take concrete actions towards diversification of crops and the involvement of young people.

As you read this and the afternoon falls, the gardens in many school grounds are sprouting green in all the municipalities of the country.

School gardens grow, flourish and inspire, motivate, excite and engage.