His eyes gaze over rows of abundant pineapples, sprouting with healthy leaves that are striped with vibrant reds and yellows. Directly to the left lies a barren farmland of dry soil and crunchy grass that Thomas Rodriguez is allowing to rest and recover.
For 12 years, Rodriguez has owned this vast land, which he says has too many acres to count, in La Candelaria, a rural farming community in the mountainous Coclé province of Panama. And just like the majority of farmers in Coclé, Rodriguez found it easiest to deforest his land, logging and then charring and burning any plant species that occupied what would become valuable space for crops.
“If you just look at my ancestors and past generations, they would always wait for the soil to dry out and then burn it,” said Rodriguez through a translator as he pointed to the unhealthy, red cracked soil on a recent Tuesday in March. He had been using the same agricultural methods that were introduced to Panamanian farmers by Spaniards in the early 1500s, which grew to include using copious chemicals, artificial pesticides and environmentally damaging techniques to grow his crops of yuca, plantains and oranges. “I still know a lot of people that do that,” he said as he surveyed his property, nestled among many other farmlands just 95 miles from the country’s capital, Panama City.
But today and for the last five years, Rodriguez has practiced what environmental conservationists call organic or sustainable farming, a philosophy that not only protects the country’s vulnerable rainforests, but also thousands of plants and animal species like jaguars, sloths and over 1,000 unique types of orchids that rely on its resources.
“The levels of biodiversity are much higher in Panama’s tropical forests compared to other forests around the world,” said Elliott Powell, the executive director of Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), a non-profit with a board of directors working remotely across the United States to give farmers like Rodriguez a sustainable alternative. “There are a lot of communities that are subsistent to agricultural farmers. There are also farmers that own thousands of acres and have a heavy reliance on agro-chemicals. A lot of that is so incredibly damaging to the environment and when consumed to human health.”
Family farming, in five phases
By the early 2000s, Panama had lost 30 percent of its forests due to human activities such as logging and slash-and-burn farming. This left only about 40 percent of the country populated by what’s called “primary forests,” those untouched by humans and consisting of several layers of forest canopy. These forests can take centuries to grow back once destroyed. But when the canopy is too thick, light cannot reach the forest floor to promote consistent plant growth. Non-organic farmers prefer these “secondary forests,” which are defined as those that have been disturbed at some point, for their lack of canopy and ability to shed more light on crops.
But this is not the only solution to harnessing sunlight for agriculture.
In 2015, SHI visited La Candelaria with the organization’s in-country field trainers and staff for phase one of their five-phased program to teach farmers a more sustainable form of agriculture. Based in Honduras, Belize and Panama, Central America’s most vulnerable countries facing environmental degradation, SHI provides practical, in-person training to farmers after a family selection process and planning session.
“We hire only local field trainers and staff in these countries where we work,” said Powell. “They understand the context and culture of the area, they’re trained agronomists, they know the technical components of organic agriculture.”
Field trainers will give farmers instructions on creating compost piles to eventually fertilize their unhealthy soil, introduce them to an array of nutritional crops and find alternatives to pesticides and herbicides such as black tarps, which can concentrate water, sunlight and the number of insects invading the crops.
Since 2010, SHI has raised over $11 million toward its sustainability initiatives.
The deal was, in the 2015 visit, as long as 30 families committed to a three-to-five-year program, SHI would provide training and tools, such as how to strengthen entrepreneurship through small business development, that would help farmers to overcome poverty, protect the environment and produce healthier crops.
“As a program, we really try to encourage families. They have to follow through with everything we teach them,” said Daysbeth Lopez through a translator. She’s a field trainer for SHI Panama who is working with the families in La Candelaria. “The families’ favorite thing to do is burning, so when I tell them not to do that, it’s a surprise.”
Thirty-three families from the La Candelaria community signed up.
“I’ve been taught to use better and different farming methods,” said Rodriguez, who graduated from the program on Feb. 7. Rather than clear a forest canopy to gather sunlight for his crops, Rodriguez now uses a thin, black tarp over his newly grown garlic, tomatoes and basil to concentrate the light, something he learned in phase two of training. He also uses compost piles to produce natural nutrients to feed the soil. “I’ve seen a lot of results from this program in terms of numbers and more and healthier crops.”
Now, Rodriguez also grows yuca, a versatile root vegetable native to South America, oranges and medicinal plants, among others. “Farming keeps me entertained, it’s a good de-stresser,” he said standing next to his favorite orange tree. “In five years, my reforested areas will turn into big lush trees with yellow flowers.”
Bringing organic knowledge to the farms
Two and a half hours west of bustling Panama City and right off the Pan-American highway is Penonomé, the capital of the Coclé province and the home of SHI Panama’s field office. The one-story pink building with collages of Panamanian farm landscapes serves the eight in-country staff from SHI. Every day, the field trainers will drive up to 45 minutes in SHI-branded trucks to visit their assigned communities and the 149 families participating in Panama.
Lopez, who received her bachelor’s degree in agriculture business administration, has been a field trainer in Panama with SHI for 13 years. She provides one-on-one training to each of the 33 families in La Candelaria every week, for the duration of the three- or five-year program.
“The biggest challenge is showing these communities what organic farming is,” said Lopez, as the SHI truck produced clouds of murky dust on rugged dirt roads. After a 30-minute drive with towering lush mountains visible from all windows, Lopez arrived to the small farming village for her routine check-ins. “In rural lands like these, they often use chemicals, so it’s hard to break those habits. For generations they’ve been taught what they’ve been doing.”
A traditional agricultural method is to “slash-and-burn” the land. By cutting and burning plants, farmers can conveniently and quickly produce a layer of ash that is rich in nutrients and will serve as a three- to five-year land plot for crops.
Yuca, corn, rice and beans are often mono-cultivated with this method, meaning they are the only crop that is produced on the land plot after the slash-and-burn method. These crops are profitable and valuable to farmers who want to sell to a larger grocery market.
“Once these crops were finished and since [farmers] had a lot of farmland, they would use new areas because they thought the area was useless and lacked nutrients,” said Lopez. “It was cheaper but it brought so much long-term damage that they didn’t know at the time.”
Due to the elevated territories in Panama’s mountainous regions, abandoned farmlands succumbed to erosion and the soil would waste away.
“It came to the point where people could not farm near their house,” said Lopez. “Families would walk up to an hour away to go to different areas because the soil was so infertile.”
As part of the farmers’ training, they are introduced to composting, an organic method that takes fruit or vegetable waste and breaks down its leftover nutrients into the soil.
“We encourage our farmers to do rotational farming,” she said, explaining that in the next farming cycle, Rodriguez will switch out his harvested corn crops with beans. “The decomposing crops from the past cycle adds nutrients to the soil.”
Interrupting generations of methods
“My family comes from an area called Azuro, a central province in Panama, where the Spaniards concentrated back in colonial times,” said Ciro Jaen, sitting among the trees of the Mamoní Valley Preserve, a 12,900-acre land conservancy two hours outside of Panama City. “They came with their knowledge of how to do farming, which is cut, slash, burn and let the grass grow, then put cows in it to grow, then sell that cow to the butcher.”
While Jaen currently works for Panama’s tourism industry, his first job started when he was 13-years-old – helping his uncle harvest rice and his grandfather harvest corn.
In the 1930s, Jaen’s grandfather started to deforest his land in the Azuro area, but not with the idea of destroying the environment but because this was the only method he knew. “Still today, the areas where he worked are deforested,” said Jaen. “You can see its effects on the vast riverbeds that are getting flooded during big rains because there are no trees to hold the riverbed during the rainy season.”
Unlike the farmers who sign up to be part of SHI’s organic initiative and provide healthier crops to their families and communities, those like Jaen’s grandfather and uncle are often working for the Panamanian government. Jaen’s uncle grows rice, a major cash crop in the country, that is purchased by the government and brought to government-approved silos to sell to the people.
“Panama is a small place, so how many people are willing to go organic in a country where no one talks about that besides who you see on social media?” said Jaen, referencing the lack of organic produce in the supermarkets, which are also more expensive, and the social media influencers who highlight their organic lifestyles. “If you are going to be purchasing something or growing something to a market that is very small in the sense of business, it doesn’t make sense to change all of your methods.”
Jaen said his uncle, who uses Miracle Grow and other pesticides to kill the weeds that damage his rice crops, understands the damaging effects of his methods. “I put him in contact with a person that used to be in the business of organic fertilizers,” Jaen said. But his uncle had no interest. “It’s about numbers,” he said, “it’s not about organic or not organic.”
SHI’s mission is to break that barrier and give farmers the knowledge and techniques they already have in their backyard to farm organically, such as a growing compost pile on Rodriguez’s land heaped with rich black organic material. Since it started in 1997, the organization has already planted 4 million trees along with its participants, restoring 16,000 acres of forest that had been destroyed and creating a new generation of organic farmers who understand the value of preserving the land and the vegetation native to it.
But the progress is still slow. “Massive industrial agricultural companies, ever expanding cattle ranching, large levels of deforestation, bug chemical companies that are producing pesticides and fertilizers, those are tough things that we are always going up against,” said Powell. “Our effort is to just show that there is an alternative and to be that really great, solid alternative.”
At the completion of his training, Rodriguez has learned to let nothing go to waste. When materials fall from the trees, for example, he knows now to add it to his compost pile to boost its nutritional value.
“By looking at the tree’s progress, you realize that organic materials are useful,” said Rodriguez, holding out his guandu beans, with the land he is reforesting serving as a beautiful backdrop to his tanned, rugged frame. “You can tell they are healthy,” he said, pausing to crack open the hull to show its cocoa-colored contents, “because they are getting taller and the soil is more tender.”