From the Desk of Dennis Carr, Sustainable Development Editor

Canadian support plants seeds of success
high on a steep enriched Honduran hillside

How a program with Canadian roots helps small farmers pushed to the margins by agribiz

By Susan Hollis

Santo Benito Ramos of Lavireda recently perfected a variety of organic red bean that is resistant to fungus and insects. Photo: S. Hollis.
Santo Benito Ramos of Lavireda recently perfected a variety of organic red bean that is resistant to fungus and insects. (Photo: S. Hollis.)

The highway out of Tegucigalpa had been wiped out by a rockslide, so the cars flowed over a cattle path beaten into the hillside beside the rubble. For a moment there was order on the roads of Honduras. All it took was a natural hazard.

I was riding shotgun, bleary in the morning hour under a messy sky of clouds. My ride, Marvin Gomez, an agricultural expert born into a family of organic coffee farmers in rural Honduras, gunned his old red Ford over the bumpy bits, telling me how his degree in agriculture didn't mean much until he got out of the university labs in La Cieba. It was in the countryside, he said, where the application of agronomic knowledge became applicable. It was in the countryside where the lab-grown seed varieties like the ones he had studied were sold to broke, uneducated rural farmers to die in inhospitable soil.

"One of the principal problems that we have here is that the government of Honduras doesn't take care of small farmers. The government doesn't take care of the guys working up in the mountains," said Gomez, who works as a facilitator and regional manager for the Foundation for Participatory Research with Honduran Farmers, better known as FIPAH, a well-established food security program with Canadian roots.

"They put all their genetic research into the big guys," Gomez continued. "Our work is to increase the genetic base of corn and beans to grow in areas that don't have easy growing conditions."

Gomez understands that there is no minimum number of people needed for the "green revolution" idea to work. Here in the mountains of Honduras, the repatriation of small farmers with crops that thrive on their land is replacing a dependency on the super strains grown in mass quantities by large agribusinesses for profit. In cooperation with the farmers, FIPAH's agricultural experts are tinkering with local varieties of seeds to create options better suited to the marginal micro-zones that self-supporting farmers live on.

With attention growing on the small farming movement in British Columbia, I was curious to see if the program in Honduras was actually making a difference. My experience affirmed it was. Even an independent organic farmer from B.C. who had visited the same areas the year before voiced a pang of envy after seeing how beneficial FIPAH's support was for his Honduran peers.

A struggling nation

Fifty per cent of this country of seven million is agrarian — a huge number of people are trying to live off a shrinking land base far from major cities, so subsistence farming is a necessity and produce sales an occasional accidental luxury.

There are many reasons it's hard for the poor to get ahead: hunger and debt are inextricable, social services are nil outside city centres, and access to education is limited. Honduras has one of the highest rates of rural poverty in Central America.

Dependence on government-released seed stocks and a growing big agribusiness sector means most small farmers struggle to keep food on their plates year round. They farm on the worst land and are the most susceptible to severe shifts in weather.

The government agency assigned to improve the situation for small farmers closed in 1990, when the powers that be decided to allocate agricultural resources to major export operations that produce profitable crops like bananas, coffee, and pineapple. Those operations also occupy the most agriculturally viable, flat land in the country, leaving small farmers to scratch out a living on steep mountainsides where soil nutrients, like their ability to feed themselves, always heads downhill.

"A lot of the farmers that we work with are at about 1,000 plus meters above sea level," I later would be told by Dr. Sally Humphries, a University of Guelph professor who created FIPAH as a research project in the early 1990s. "So what the program has done is improved the farmers' varieties to try and increase the disease resistance and yield of the farmers own materials."

Gomez and I drove northeast, far from the teeming circus of the capital city and into the outlying mountains to see how small-scale farmers are coping under FIPAH.

Wending skyward, we passed pine forests and billowing capes of old man's beard. We carried on past buzzards and roadside donkeys, half-built houses disguised as piles of dusty brick. Apple trees the size of mature Garry oaks loomed like overblown fantasy characters. We crossed the Zinguizapa River and followed the road towards La Reda, a small farming community in the Vallecillo region where 12 farmers were waiting to meet us.

"We focus on organic production, using local production techniques that work to increase yield," continued Gomez. "We experiment with crops to see what improves production and the farmers decide varieties of crops could work in their land. It gives them back control over their health and their land while allowing them to look forward to the future."

A wealth of seed banks

Canadian support for FIPAH's participatory research approach is channeled through CIDA and USC Canada, a food security non-governmental organization that has supported the Honduran cause through its international Seeds of Survival program for the past decade.

The funding has led to the creation of 10 seed banks throughout the country. They house hundreds of staple crops seeds such as corn and bean, all of which were specifically bred by farmer researchers with varied elevated terrains and climates in mind.

The seed banks help farmers be less dependent — on government, on good weather, and on the external world with which typical encounters cause ruin.

"The government has always been interested in promoting export agriculture and manufacturing exports. That's how it sees the role of Honduras in the world. I don't think small scale farming enters into its vision of the future of Honduras," Humphries told me when I reached her on the phone in Ontario, her crisp British academic accent echoing over line. "The deposed president supposedly says, well he argues that he has a good relationship with Via Campensina and other organizations that do support small scale farming, but I personally haven't seen it on the ground during the time he's been president."

Roots of a program

FIPAH sprang from a pilot project conducted by agrarian researcher Jose Jimenez of Honduras, and Humphries, now an associate professor in Guelph's Department of Sociology and Anthropology whose interdisciplinary work focuses on rural and agricultural development in Latin America.

Over 80 farmer research teams have collaborated on the undertaking. The program works with a number of CIALs — community based agricultural research groups — that focus on information sharing and identifying what grows best in specific regions and conditions. Corn and beans, the two most important crops to Honduran farmers, come in an almost infinite number of varieties and finding what works best in different land conditions takes a lot of trial and error, something that cannot be easily exercised in a research lab.

We parked above two small plots of land carved into the mountainside, startling a calf back to a small herd chewing cud behind a fence. I'm introduced to the shy farmers; most have driven between four to six hours to be there. Ana Maria Flores, the local CIAL secretary, handed out lemonade, sweet and floral. A lemon tree sitting chilly in the pasture below was heavy with porous-looking yellow-skinned fruit the size of soccer balls. Everything here is hewn by hand from land.

Under a blue tarp that deflects a sharp rainstorm, we began the meeting with a prayer. Or rather, they prayed and I watched. Bowed heads, black hair, and weathered hands clutching wide-brimmed hats. They prayed for the rain and the soil, the sun and tomorrow's uncertain future.

Stories of progress

One by one, the farmers recapped their individual stories. Most have little formal education, with the average grade level hovering around third. Each has struggled with poverty. Each wants something more for their children. Every single one of them champions the progress they've made since becoming involved in FIPAH.

Juan Pedro Heriera is a FIPAH coordinator from Yoro, where he and his neighbours spent five years perfecting two varieties of organic, fungal-resistant corn.

"We have doubled our corn production and because of this we were able to start an office and buy two acres of land and have extra money," he said. "I've been able to improve my house and send my kids to school. I was able to go back to school and finish myself."

Heriera is also involved with FIPAH's radio program in Yoro, which promotes the use of anti-genetically modified crops. He spoke with the passion of a British Columbian talking logging or liberals. "We teach the people about GM crops, we don't want those crops near our communities."

Cognizant of the limitations facing the rural poor, FIPAH also helps coordinate opportunities for members to finish school and learn carpentry and other trades. Youth and women are heavily involved in all aspects, with the latter accounting for close to 50 per cent of the program's membership.

"Before, women didn't have any say in agriculture. Now they're active in many projects," said Hilda Mencia, CIAL's Women in Action coordinator and treasurer. "Now we have a say in what goes on in our farming communities. The men received us well. Women are good farmers because we are motivated and hard working and organized. We are leaders."

The youth project has drawn 600 members, and is focused on providing work opportunities, education, and training within their communities to preserve the agricultural tradition. In the past year 40 kids finished studies in the trades and three are heading to rural Norway on an exchange.

Adapting to climate change

After a lunch of handmade tortillas, chicken and beans we walked, chickens, puppies and children flitting ahead of us on the mud trails connecting the fields. Gomez pointed to a chicken coop, another FIPAH initiative aimed at the concentrated collection of fertilizer for difficult soil conditions where nutrients are often washed out in torrential rains.

Climate change is a newish part of the pastoral lexicon here, and though drought and flooding has occurred in the past, the farmers say that today there is a lot more of it. With that in mind they grow with specific goals and diversify crops to succeed in drought or flood. As of this year they had 23 varieties of beans and almost the same number of corn preserved in the four local seed banks used by 60 farmers in the area. A decade ago they had only a handful.

"First we had too much rain, then when we planted beans we had a drought, so we started paying more attention to climate change and started a project to create groups of varieties to grow in the dry season and in low-fertilized soil," said Santo Benito Ramos, a CIAL member from Lavireda who also grows avocado, pineapple, papaya, coffee, Victoria oranges, mandarins, and cucumber on his land. His farm is advancing at a rate that FIPAH staff like Gomez are glad to see. Once the land is producing enough of the staple crops, they expand to fruits and veggies to better round out nutrition. After that they can move into secondary and tertiary levels of farming, which includes growing crops for sale, planting trees for firewood, hardwood, and oxygen production, and expanding their livestock herds.

Measures of success

There are certain markers Humphries and FIPAH regulators look for in a successful farming operation — notably that the families have enough to eat in the dry summer months between June and September.

"If people have enough food for the year, then that's an improvement. If they don't have enough food then their health declines and they become indebted so they're trying to pay it off the following year — it's just a compound problem of poverty breaking in its wake," she said. "So when you see people starting to have savings, you know that they have basically broken the cycle, and that is something that has happened."

Self-reliance is endemic to small scale farming worldwide. British Columbia's independent agricultural movement has made great strides thanks to those invested wholeheartedly in it — namely small producers like Patrick Steiner of Sorrento's Stellar Seeds. He's used to going it alone and relies on farmers' markets as informal information-sharing networks. He met a number of USC Canada-sponsored farmers a few years back at an international organic farming conference, and says the difficulties facing small farmers tend towards the syncretic — whether in the first or third world, they have a hard time making ends meet.

Steiner traveled to Honduras during the winter of 2008, and was astonished by the support being offered through non-governmental means. 
"I'm often jealous, as a farmer and a seed grower, of some of the resources some of these farmers have access to, that they have organizations like FIPAH because we don't actually have anything like that in Canada," he said over the phone. "Our own agricultural system is really geared to supporting large-scale agricultural producers. I think we do have a lot to learn. If more scientists and academics and more farmers saw what was going on in Honduras I think they'd appreciate it and say, 'Why don't we have more of this going on here?' and we might move towards developing that. There is not a lot of support given to small-scale agriculture here in Canada. It's too bad."

B.C. and Honduras may share few characteristics, but their small-scale farmers face similar hurdles. As we learn more about our food sources, the idea of what is healthy is evolving rapidly and to our benefit. Biological diversification and conservation are key to our wellness and it is by looking to our neighbours, not our government, that we are finding ways to protect what lies ahead.

"This is the mentality that we need to have for the best health of our people and future generations," continued Ramos, crumbling a clump of rich black soil through his fingers. "It's important to share the knowledge that has been shared with me."

October 15, 2009 — Return to cover.