By Dana Drugmand
Much of the Central American landscape is covered in lush tropical forests, but subsistence farmers have been reluctantly chopping them down. Faced with no other alternative, these poor, rural farmers practice slash-and-burn agriculture and are living in a cycle of poverty and environmental degradation. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) Rural Poverty Portal, half of Central America’s population lives below the poverty line, and in rural areas two out of every three people are poor.
Florence Reed (right), President and Founder of Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), plants leucaena, a type of tropical evergreen tree, with Ermita in Belize. (Photo credit: Sustainable Harvest International)
But one organization is already having a huge impact in this region. Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) works to reduce deforestation and improve rural livelihoods in Central America by providing farming families with training about sustainable farming practices, including soil conservation, intercropping, and worm composting. The mission of SHI is “to provide farming families in Central America with the training and tools to preserve our planet’s tropical forests while overcoming poverty.” Volunteers and field trainers work directly with families and communities in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.
“What really inspired me to start SHI was my stint with the Peace Corps in Panama,” says Florence Reed, who founded Sustainable Harvest International in 2007. “Being involved in the Peace Corps helped me to see the human side of the story. If we’re ever going to be successful in conserving the world’s forests, local people have to be at the center of these efforts.”
During her time with the Peace Corps, Reed observed first-hand the slash-and-burn agriculture and deforestation taking place. She realized that farmers did not want to burn down the forest, they wanted alternatives. Unfortunately, they lacked the technical assistance to implement sustainable farming practices.
After returning home from the Peace Corps, Reed decided to start her own organization that provides training in sustainable agriculture to rural farmers in the tropics. “SHI started out very small and has been growing little by little,” Reed said. She started SHI working out of a spare office in her parent’s house. Now it is an international nonprofit organization, with 50 people working in Central America and a fulltime staff of 10 in the U.S. “Collectively we’ve now worked with 2,100 families in Central America and planted over 3 million trees,” said Reed. SHI has also converted 15,000 acres of degraded land to sustainable farming use. These 15,000 acres represents 75,000 acres of forest that won’t be slashed and burned, because the farmers can keep growing on that same land year after year.
As a result of SHI’s work, families in Central America have seen improvements in both their diets and their incomes. By learning to grow organic vegetables and more diversified crops, farming families now have a more nutritious diet. And farmers aren’t just growing enough to eat; they also have a surplus to sell at local markets. According to Reed, farmers in SHI’s program have seen their income go up by as much as 900 percent.
The best indicator of SHI’s success, however, may be the testimony from people whose lives have been changed for the better since working with the project. Reed recalled the story of Briseida, a woman living in Panama who was having a hard time feeding her children. Briseida had previously used slash-and-burn agriculture, but with training from SHI she was able to grow vegetables and rice without destroying the surrounding forest. Her vegetable garden and rice paddies produced enough food to feed her children, and boosted her income. Because of these improvements, Briseida now feels important, both as a provider for her children and as a citizen of the planet. “Working with SHI has made me feel like a woman of importance – I have morale and greater self esteem and most importantly the life of my family and community has changed for the better,” says Briseida
Sustainable Harvest International hires field trainers to work directly with farmers in Central America. “The families work with us for five years and are provided with a menu of sustainable farming techniques and crops they can grow, and they select the techniques and crops that will work best for them,” Reed explained. Common sustainable agriculture techniques that SHI teaches include how to produce worm compost, planting cover crops, soil conservation practices such as erosion barriers and terracing, using mulch, integrated pest management (IPM), crop rotation, and intercropping.
SHI offers about 15 trips per year for volunteers to Central America through its Smaller World Tours. The trips, which are approximately one week each, take volunteers to SHI sites in Panama, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua where they help out with projects that directly benefit the local communities. “We welcome people getting involved,” Reed said.
Dana Drugmand is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.