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.

Where I Am and Where I've Been