Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Growing Food and Friendship

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Growing Food and Friendship

Article excerpt

In January 2005, my associate, Martha Luz Atkinson, and I set out for the village of El Remate, in the Peten region of Guatemala, to introduce a program of nutrition education, intensive gardening, and micro-enterprise. Called the Women's Self-Reliance Program (WSRP), it offers impoverished women tools that can help them develop self-reliance and lift them out of poverty. We had no idea of what to expect; all that we brought with us were our aspirations for the program and some packets of vegetable seeds. Little did we know that the seeds we would plant would grow not only wholesome vegetables for their dinner tables but also friendship and solidarity among the women of El Remate.

As Juana Melendez, the president of what has become El Grupo Femenino de El Remate, says, "Before, we knew each other as neighbors. We would say 'Hi' when we passed each other on the road. But now we are friends. We work together and help each other when there is a need."

The WSRP was conceived and developed in response to a question posed by a woman in India. Its parent organization, Global Coalition for Peace, was promoting a program called Mother-to-Mother for Peace and Nonviolence. Mother-to-Mother creates partnerships among women all over the world for the purpose of supporting each other in the decision to raise their children in the ways of nonviolence. The woman from India, who was working with a group of Muslim mothers in that country, responded enthusiastically to the program but asked, "How can we ask these mothers to work at teaching their children nonviolence when they can't even feed them?"

Global Coalition for Peace was invited to bring the WSRP to El Remate by Anne Lossing, director of Project Ix-Carman, whose main goal is to preserve the Guatemalan rain forest, ecology, resources, and culture. El Remate is a village of approximately three hundred families, known for its woodcrafts. It sits on the eastern shore of Lake Peten Itza, next to the main road that goes to the most popular tourist sites in the region, among them Tikal, Yaxha, Uaxactun, Nakum, Motul, and Ceibal. Most of the families are involved in woodcarving, making everything from key chains to six foot statues of Maya gods. The crafts are sold at small local shops, in regional hotels, and at some of the ancient Maya sites. However, the market is flooded with woodcarvings, and many of the smallest producers, like these women, who have nothing but the most rudimentary tools to work with, find it hard to maintain a market for their wares. Lossing has been living and working in El Remate for twelve years and, with her intimate knowledge of the challenges the women face, felt that WSRP was just what they needed.

Our research revealed that there are tens of millions of mothers all over the world who are living with the horror of not being able to adequately feed their children. While there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of relief programs, hunger is a powerful enemy. We decided to become an ally in the war against hunger by offering women tools that would enable them to rely on their own potential to fight the battle themselves. Intensive gardening requires a minimum of land, water, and labor and can be done anywhere in the world. As the core of our program, it gives women a sustainable way of providing wholesome food to their families.

An intensive garden is, quite simply, one in which the most produce possible is grown in a given space. Instead of long rows of vegetables and herbs, intensive gardens are usually three to four feet square. A garden can consist of one such square or many, depending upon the needs of the gardener and her family. It has been demonstrated that this process will produce five times the amount that can be grown on the same surface using standard gardening methods.

Intensive gardening is done on raised beds. The soil is double-dug, meaning that the top twelve inches of soil is removed from the bed, a spade or spading fork is inserted into the next ten to twelve inches of soil at six-to-eight-inch intervals, and the fork is wiggled around to break up the compacted soil. …

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