Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Dead Wheat Chronicles - Part 3: Food

There are people in the world so hungry
that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
~Mahatma Ghandi

I balance atop a shaky steel beam high above solid ground as the hot tropical sun beats down, punishing my skin. Wobbly screws rebel against my efforts to secure the clear plastic to the roof of the newly constructed greenhouse frame of Dead Wheat's pilot aquaponics project. Sweat drips from my face onto the translucent plastic and runs down to where my hand nervously grips the steel. Drilling the self-tapping screws through steel requires a certain balanced pressure that is difficult to achieve, especially when one's mind is preoccupied with gravity's unfortunate consequences. Though I am intensely focused on my task, a screw slips, and I plunge the blunt end of the hex head drill bit into my work companion's index finger.

"You didn't want that finger, did you?" I ask with a semi-serious face.

"No, not at all," he replies with a grin and then peels the excess skin away with his teeth.

"Sorry, man," I say with a hard sigh trying to hold back my frustration. "This is irritating," I add. He raises his eyebrows in agreement while examining the damage to his finger. I suppose he has more reason to be frustrated.

I look out across the verdant landscape dotted with large gray boulders and admire the bright blue sky and rolling mountains of Chiriquí province in western Panama. A slight sense of déjà vu sets in as the situation and the frustration remind me of another greenhouse I worked on in the mountains of Ecuador. Though the causes of my frustration were somewhat different then, the lessons are nonetheless the same. I remind myself that my minor struggle is part of a much larger effort that could positively affect the lives of many struggling people here in Panama. When put in perspective, troublesome self-drilling screws and a bit of sweat do not seem so significant.

Working on the roof of the greenhouse

Aquaponics is Dead Wheat's answer for a contextually appropriate solution to the basic human need of food security, specifically here in Panama where the organization is based. The technology, however, is applicable around the world. It is not a new idea but rather an application of ancient techniques revitalized with modern materials or methods. Read more about Dead Wheat's food security program here.

The basic idea of aquaponics is an enclosed ecosystem for cultivating plants and aquatic animals, in this case Tilapia fish. The system is symbiotic, self-sufficient and preserves water through recirculation. Aquaponic systems include a tank to raise fish and grow beds filled with gravel rather than soil to grow vegetables, cereals, legumes, etc. The fish feed upon naturally occurring algae in the water while the plants derive their nutrients from the fish waste and filter the water before it returns to the fish tank. A wide range of nutritional needs, including protein from fish and vitamins from various vegetables, can be provided by these systems.

The Dead Wheat aquaponics project is a long time in the making, and is still only in its beginning stages. The pilot project on the Bliss property has already experienced a serious setback in January of this year. The greenhouse enclosing the grow beds and fish tank was complete, and the system was nearly ready to receive fish and seed. The strong winds, sometimes sustained hurricane strength, that accompany the transitional months between rainy season and dry season here in the highlands of Chiriquí province were too strong for the bamboo structure of the greenhouse.

The winds caused a complete failure of the bamboo structure.

Steve Bliss of Dead Wheat works to disassemble the fallen structure.

Clearing the debris from the concrete grow beds.

These setbacks, though devastating to finances and morale, are important learning opportunities. For this climate and its strong winds, bamboo is not a sustainable construction material. The new design implements steel structural support, plastic mesh to allow air flow, and a curved roof extending to the ground to deflect strong winds. Once Dead Wheat has the pilot project up and running, they will be better suited to implement scaled-down versions in communities that have expressed interest. Regarding the project's evolving design Dead Wheat comments, "As we continue moving forward, and as our understanding evolves, we have no doubt that our prototype design will require yet more adjustments." Completion of the new structure is only a few weeks away.

Construction underway on the new steel frame.

In the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca of Panama where Dead Wheat primarily works, the indigenous population faces a growing problem with food security. One study estimates that over half of indigenous children are malnourished! As Steve Bliss of Dead Wheat describes his early experience in the comarca, "When food commodity prices rose in 2008 [the Ngöbe] people went without. I was struck with all the issues: lack of water, lack of food grown locally due to poor soil, people making less than enough to eat when we experience a commodity spike and the bondage to poverty [that] brings."

Following these experiences, Dead Wheat set about "to design a simple, cyclical, contextually appropriate system that is energy efficient, uses locally available natural resources and, once operational, is independent from outside inputs in order to assist communities that are currently in a state of food vulnerability transition to a state of food security."

This is the point where traditional thinking and Dead Wheat's methods typically diverge. Most contemporary social aid programs provide handouts so that a result is immediately seen. This focus on instant gratification often overlooks the fundamental problems in a community and undermines any real and sustainable attempts to remedy the situation. The handout becomes compulsory as more members of the community develop a dependency rather than working towards a long-term solution. Why invest precious time, energy and resources into growing rice if a well-intentioned social program provides free rice?

Dead Wheat's method is to allow communities the freedom to define their own needs by investing in "longer term relationship building in communities to hear needs expressed in the routine of their daily lives. With this we can build capacity in the areas expressed by creating opportunities to gain knowledge. The village can then be empowered to make change themselves." This approach, however, is not widely used because it requires extensive time and effort and provides no immediate tangible results.

We often fail to appreciate just how extremely complex the issues can be when it comes to food security (or any community development issue for that matter). There are innumerable social, economic, environmental and cultural considerations including current farming techniques, local soil quality, climate, availability and accessibility of equipment and fertilizers, availability of water, local community politics, social hierarchies, cultural preferences, and the list goes on. Sifting through all of it is an immense task for anyone, especially an outsider. Allowing the local community to navigate the majority of the issues, which they are most familiar with anyway, helps streamline the process, grants dignity to the community and ensures a higher success rate.

Appreciating the complex issues, however, is not the central problem. I think the First World lacks a fundamental understanding of Third World food security issues because we are surrounded by food in the First World. We never have to worry about food or work very hard to acquire it. It is pervasive in our society beyond the point of superfluity. We cannot grasp the concept because even the poorest in a country as wealthy as the United States does not have to go far to find sustenance.

Rather than recognizing that this overabundance is due to many environmental and economic factors heavily leaning in our favor, we tend to attribute the problem to the impoverished by labeling them as incapable of providing for themselves. The ignorant, yet nearly universal, solution is to save the poor with our excess. As long as this approach is taken when a population is not in crisis, or continued after a population has emerged from crisis, it will create dependency and deny the dignity of self-sufficiency to an already marginalized population.

Ngöbe at a summer school nutrition program in the comarca.
Photo courtesy of Stacy Wasmuth
Blue Candy Photography

I am often overwhelmed by the varying, often contradictory, goals and methods that exist in the field of humanitarian assistance. As I stand atop the aquaponics greenhouse, I contemplate how Dead Wheat's methods differ from other projects and organizations. I realize something that I had not quite fully understood at the project in Ecuador: hard work and good intentions in community development must be accompanied by a long-term commitment to the best interests of any given community and those interests must be defined by the community itself.

We seem to always want the quick-fix solution, and we apply this in our approach to humanitarian aid and community development work. Developing communities without creating dependencies or alienating the community is a tricky task that involves first understanding the community, then building upon their capacities so as to empower them to create their own change. The old adage applies: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Unfortunately, we fail to apply this wisdom in many aspects of life, and, in the context of community development, neglecting this can lead to reckless policies that put impoverished communities at further risk. Dead Wheat has realized this fallacy and works towards a truly sustainable, contextually appropriate solution for each problem.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Dead Wheat Chronicles - Part 2: Air

For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.
~Sanskrit Proverb

I squirm in my seat seeking a bit of relief for my long legs while packed in the back of a small pickup truck fitted with two simple benches and a roll cage covered in canvas. There are twenty three people inside or hanging off the truck bed, plus three in the cab, as we rattle down the road made of dirt, rocks and small boulders. I share leg room with an older Ngäbe man wearing a tan cowboy hat, a young mother adorned in a dress of brilliant light blue holding her infant daughter, and a boy's pet kitten enduring the ride inside a burlap sack underneath the bench in front of me.

Two hours from the Pan-American Highway the dirt road ends at the
Ngäbe village of Llano Ñopo, our home base for this trip. I am accompanied by Jenni Bliss of Dead Wheat and Barry Rodriguez of World Next Door. Dead Wheat has a small concrete house built at the edge of the village for housing long-term, on-site volunteers. We will sleep there and start hiking early in the morning through the mountains deep into the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca of Panama. We have no specific route planned out. All we have is the reluctant assistance of a local named Juan and the name of a village deep in the mountains: Trinchera.

My first trip into the comarca with Steve Bliss and Barry proved to be one of the most challenging, eye-opening, and uncomfortable experiences of my entire trip through South America. We worked on an aqueduct project for the village of Kuite on the Caribbean side of the comarca, and I found out just how difficult providing potable water to remote villages can be.

Our purpose on this trip is to gather demographic data
for distributing smokeless stove molds in some of the most remote areas of the Ngöbe-Buglé comarca. Dead Wheat's website explains the concept of the smokeless stove and why it is an appropriate and necessary solution for the indigenous population in the region. The main reason the stoves are needed is the chronic health issues from constant smoke-inhalation due to cooking on open fires inside closed huts. Steve Bliss explains in detail in one of his blog entries:
Most of the homes located in the rain forest regions of the world use three-rock open fire stoves to cook their food. Due to the rains, they typically do this in mostly enclosed rooms. These open fires create a lot of smoke, which is the problem. But smoke is simply the result of gases released from the wood fuel that are not consumed by the flames due to an inefficient, uncontrolled burn. This same smoke in the developed world is best known for creating creosote build up in chimneys which occasionally creates destructive fires. But in this context, this smoke creates chronic health problems when breathed in on a daily basis. Also, inefficient burning wastes potential wood energy which contributes to high rates of wood consumption and deforestation.

Traditional hut of the region -
notice the thick smoke seeping through the thatched roof
(Picture compliments of World Next Door)

A prototype of the smokeless stove in operation

The information we seek on our hike includes typical demographics such as population and number of houses in each village for distribution purposes, but we are also evaluating the interest level amongst the people for these smokeless stoves. As Steve Bliss explains,
"[when] introducing a new idea to the [indigenous], one is faced with over four hundred years of history that is deep seated. They don’t really notice the health need. They think that the health issues are normal."

After a simple dinner of tuna and crackers, we organize our packs for the hike and lie down on cots and air mattresses hoping not to be accompanied by six-legged creatures in the night.

We rise early in the morning, 4:00 AM, to eat breakfast before Juan comes to start the hike at 5:00 AM. Barry reports that he had indeed received several critters as bed-mates during the night. "Did you at least catch their names?" is my response. An early morning chuckle slowly rolls out of him and Jenni as we sip coffee waiting for Juan.

At 6:00 AM, which is about 5:00 AM Latin Time, Juan finally strolls up, and we head out with our headlamps lighting the path.

The first thirty minutes are more or less easy, flat hiking, and dawn starts to break as we begin our first steep ascent. Halfway up Jenni, Barry and I are already sucking wind. Fortunately we can use the magnificent sunrise peaking over the mountains in the distance as a reason to stop and breathe in the crisp morning air.

After about an hour of serious climbing, we enter the first town called Alto Ciénaga perched on a plateau overlooking valleys and rivers leading deeper into the comarca. We pass a few thatched-roof huts before coming to a small, square shack with an open window in front and topped with corrugated sheet metal. Our guide Juan says it is a shop if we would like to buy something to drink. Apparently they sell Coca-Cola along with a handful of other luxury items like batteries, Tang packets, and chewing gum. As we approach, the man who runs the shack steps up to the window with a curious but skeptical look.

"Yan-toro" I say to the shopkeeper, proud to know at least a greeting in the native Ngäbere language.

"Buenos días" he responds in Spanish. So much for cultural sensitivity.

The shopkeeper tells us that the village is comprised of eighty to ninety houses spread widely across the top of the mountain and extending down to the river below. There are between 500 and 700 people in the village, and they have no reliable potable water source.
Their only option is to hike down to the river and then carry the water an hour up the hill in buckets. Drinking Coca-Cola was preferable since it was sure to be uncontaminated. Few, if anyone, can afford the luxury all the time though, and I ponder the health implications of making the soft drink a staple in an already malnourished diet.

Jenni, Barry and I debate the feasibility of an aqueduct in the area. Seeing that the village is situated at the top of the mountain, it would be almost impossible to find a water source, i.e. a natural spring, that is at a higher elevation than the village. Aqueducts are gravity-fed, and pumping water is a difficult, expensive and unsustainable solution. How many trained engineers that can service and maintain a water pump are likely to be found in the village?

We discuss the smokeless stoves, and the shopkeeper seems to think the idea would be accepted by the people in the village. Much of the land has already been cleared of trees, and finding sufficient firewood is a challenge.

Jenni and I ordering a Gatorade at the drive-thru... No, not really
Discussing the smokeless stoves with the shopkeeper

Alto Ciénaga we descend to the river, make the precarious crossing over slippery rocks and rushing water, and begin another hour and a half ascent straight up the next mountain.

Around midday we arrive in Llano Venado and eat lunch while resting under the shade of some trees bordering a vacant school.
The locals who live adjacent to the school tell us that there is no teacher, and therefore the school is not operational at the moment. The good news, however, is they do have an aqueduct that supplies potable water to the twenty six families in the community as well as the school, which serves students from other nearby villages.

Our smokeless stove idea is received with a bit of interest, though I imagine it is difficult to envision without seeing one in operation.

We continue on the hike with our guide walking way ahead of us unconditioned gringos. We keep having to pause for water and breath breaks every 15 minutes. I start to think that we are the ones who need water and air security rather than the indigenous.

Barry and I begin to struggle with knee cramps on one of the particularly long hills. We are carrying tarps and tents along with cans of tuna, water and other provisions adding a lot of weight. A young man leading a donkey passes us, and we ask how far to Trinchera. His eyes flash wide as he exhales heavily and turns to look back the way he came exclaiming, "Muy lejos!" Very far? How could it still be very far? We have been walking for nearly seven hours at this point, and our understanding was that Trinchera was an eight hour hike from
Llano Ñopo.

"How far from here?" I ask the man, knowing their time is not like our rigid clock-time and one hour could be more like three or four.

"Oh, about another half day or more. Maybe eight or nine hours," he replies. "We're doomed!!" flashes through my mind before I thank him and continue trudging up the hill.

Within two hours we reach a another village called Guayabal.
We stand on the trail overlooking Guayabal for several minutes to catch our breath and discuss our plan. Meanwhile a local man wearing khaki slacks and a red button-up shirt walks up from the community and introduces himself. His name is Isabel, and he is in charge of administrative issues for three communities in the area totaling around 3000 people. Isabel informs us that Trinchera is yet another eight hours or so away. So much for our original eight hour total estimate that we received before starting the hike. Slight miscommunication.

Isabel treats us with a healthy suspicion as we describe our work and ask for demographics, jotting down his responses
in our notebook. Jenni and I later discuss how strange it must be for these indigenous people to have a few ratty and worn out gringos walk into their town asking how many people live there and in how many houses. Suspicion seems to me a minimal response.

We discuss the smokeless stoves, and Isabel seems very interested in the prospect. He says he would be willing to oversee the production and distribution process for the three communities. Contacts like these are exactly what we want. By providing a stove mold to the communities, we allow the people to help themselves. It is a holistic approach to the problem that restores dignity to people that have long been marginalized and told that they have no value. Steve explains in greater detail in his blog entry that I quoted earlier:
There are many similar designs that are being mass produced in China and elsewhere, but they are only focusing on one aspect of the problem with little, if any, apparent consideration of the unintended effects of their good intentioned solutions. Let me explain.

Like many other groups, we work with the "Bottom billion" who are making around a dollar a day per family. They are unable to afford a manufactured stove, let alone its ongoing maintenance. And here's the dilemma. When good intentioned groups raise funds to buy mass-produced finished products for distribution, it meets [the indigenous people's] primary need, but fails to empower them with knowledge of the technology and the means to produce the technology so they can help themselves. Instead, it only serves to nurture a dependency on the outside world and destroys yet another layer of dignity. This has, and is, creating a culture of beggars.

Isabel also responds enthusiastically to an aquaponics project to supplement nutrition in the communities, even going so far as to request long term live-in volunteers. We are not in a position to take on this sort of project yet, but we are encouraged by his enthusiasm and initiative.

The three communities receive potable water from a large aqueduct, but after more discussion, Isabel admits that the tank is not working properly and walks us up to take a look.

Jenni, Isabel and I discuss the underwater tank's problem

A view of the large underground reservoir with a low water-level

Isabel explains that the water pressure is insufficient for providing ample water
to all 3000 people. Even at night when water-usage is low, the tank does not fill up. Our initial assessment is that there is a leak preventing water retention inside the tank. We admit to Isabel that we are not the experts on the issue, but we think that Steve would be able to easily find the problem and fix it with little hassle. He thanks us for looking.

That night, Isabel graciously allows us to stay in the concrete health post in the village for the night. We turn in when the sun goes down, around 6:30 PM, and allow our aching bodies to recover for the return hike to
Llano Ñopo. We will have to prepare a little better next time if we are going to make it all the way to Trinchera.

In the morning, we receive word that our guide Juan had left the night before. The reason is unclear, but we are nonetheless left to navigate our way out of the mountains on our own. Fortunately (for us, unfortunate for the people in general), the region has been heavily deforested for livestock and firewood, providing open visibility along the hike. From several points along the path, we can actually see
Llano Ñopo nestled in a valley far off in the distance.

View from the trail overlooking one of the region's valleys.
Picture compliments of World Next Door

Fighting cramps, dizziness and complete exhaustion from physical overexertion and dehydration, we arrive back in Llano Ñopo at dusk with only one wrong turn. Barry and I consider our prospects as back-country guides but quickly dismiss the idea after collapsing on the cement floor of the house upon our inglorious return. We had hiked in the heat of the tropical Panamanian sun over mountains and through streams for nine hours the first day and nine and a half back the following day. And now, we're done. Click here for a google map of the hike.

We celebrate our survival with heaping bowls of Ramen noodles with all their MSG flavor-enhancing splendor. We awake in the morning suffering from sustained nausea and fits of vomiting.

Due to our physical state, we miss our opportunity to catch the 8:00 AM truck back to the highway. At 9:30 AM, we stumble across the bridge and wait for the 10:00 AM truck.

While sitting on a ledge in the shade, I meet a young boy who tells me his name is
Elígio. He is eleven years old, and he had left his home in the mountains at 3:00 AM and walked eight hours to Llano Ñopo alone. He has no money and has had nothing to drink since he left home. I jump up from my nauseous stupor as if I were ready to run back to Guayabal, and I grab a water bottle and a juice box for my new friend. I hand him my last granola bar and tell him not to worry about the truck taxi fare. Surprisingly, Elígio's story is not uncommon.

At 1:00 PM a truck finally pulls up to take us back along the daunting dirt road to the highway. Jenni, Barry and I, all feeling and looking various degrees of awful, take deep breaths and climb into spots on the over-crowded, uncovered truck bed.

As we rumble down the rocky pockmarked road, I marvel at the amount of energy one must spend just to get around in this region. This trip, like my first with Dead Wheat, drove home the fact that operating in these remote regions coincides with extreme logistical challenges. For this reason, distributing stove molds and allowing the communities to produce the actual stoves themselves is a much more feasible solution, not to mention the positive element of empowering the people.

The sustainability of the design also adds to its attractiveness as a solution. Stoves can be fabricated using local clay resources or cement, and because the end users see how the stove was made, they are then better prepared to handle its ongoing maintenance. In the most remote areas, hauling a bag of cement to manufacture one or two stoves does not make any logistical sense, but using clay requires little more than a shovel and a few minutes of digging.

Furthermore, each stove mold can produce upwards of 250 stoves before wear-and-tear compromise its utility. At a cost of only $30 per stove mold, each stove produced costs only $0.12, which is a cost that is not passed on to the communities. The communities handle production and stove materials, nothing more. Family sizes average six to eight people meaning one stove mold impacts 1500 to 2000 people - all for only $30 (and perhaps a long hike). High-impact, low-cost, holistic solutions like these are vital to creating a lasting impact.

While our trip was physically debilitating, we are happy with the contacts we made and the overall positive response to the smokeless stove idea. In order for the technology to make a difference, the people must accept it and embrace it. They must also take an active roll in the implementation of the new technology so that it can be understood, retained, and seen as more than a handout worthy of neglect. This participation is as important as the stove itself.

"The greatest humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves..."
-Paolo Freire

To support Dead Wheat's smokeless stove initiative with a donation click here.

*Also, check out Barry's article about the issue on World Next Door's website.

Where I Am and Where I've Been