Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guatemala # 10 Bowen, Neitzsche and Pigeonpeas

The charismatic young leader of Semilla Nueva, Curt Bowen, speaks with equal urgency about corn thrashing machines, liberation theology, open pollination, Frederich Neitzsche, American politics, microbial life in the soil and the cheapest way to feed yourself in Guatemala.  In a short life he has
been in and out of the commercial fertilizer business and the biofuels business in Central America and founded and run a significant new NGO, all while thinking about life’s great questions.  He is a philosophy major in dirty jeans and well worn boots, living simultaneously in the modern world and a deeply traditional society. 

During a stretch of the summer of 2013 Bowen was honored for his work by Arriana Huffington in New York City, toured farms and research stations in Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania, then came home to Guatemala in time to plant pigeonpeas, meet with the local club of Rotary International and, for the first time in six weeks, sleep in his own bed.

September finds him preparing for the visit to Guatemala of a potential major grant-giver while getting more seeds in the ground between rainstorms and heading back to Idaho to raise money and engage with his many advisors.  It looks to be a fine time to be Curt Bowen.

At 26 Bowen has already lived in Guatemala more than five years, starting with a typical build-something-for-the-poor project by students from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, then in and out of those two businesses and, for the past three years, honchoing Similla Nueva.  He is smart, good looking and well spoken but his particular strength seems to be intellectual and physical tenacity: following a question wherever it leads, learning, consolidating and keeping relentlessly on the move.  That’s why a philosophy major knows a very great deal about the chemistry, biology and financing of small-plot agriculture in Guatemala.

I’ve known Bowen and been on his board for a little over two years.  The first year he was like an organizational teenager, very bright and knowing but still growing into his body. I wondered how long SN could hold on; financing was tenuous.  The last year has been a wonder.  That he was among a score of young leaders picked out by Huffington’s organization is one thing, but that he was identified as one of leaders of those young leaders and their spokesman is another, and no accident.  On a Huffington panel of young people talking about their work, Bowen was the most grounded, the most convincing, from what I couldsee.  Something substantial happened in the last year, certainly to the organization but at the center of all this, to Bowen.

The SN web site has a video of Bowen speaking alone in a field for six minutes virtually without interruption about Semilla Nueva’s work.  This is entirely too long as these things are supposed to go. Yet it works because of its authenticity.

It would seem to be hard for bright young people to leave the comforts of the United States or Europe and drop into the life of five acre farms, 95 degree weather and another language.  Yet going back more than 50 years to Accion International's founding, I’ve watched special people do this naturally and without great fanfare or self-importance time and again. 

I wrote in my last post about the admirable Anne Barkett, SN’s nutrition specialist.  I could equally have written about Kristin Lacy who is Bowen’s sidekick and organizational genius in Guatemala.  I’m sure I could do the same for the original co-founders who have moved on. 

Curt Bowen and Kristin Lacy at lunch after a morning of planting pigeonpeas.

Until a few months ago, SN has a single small Jeep-like vehicle to get over rough roads, all other transportation being by “chicken bus.”  SN somehow kept four or five people and all the work in the field going on less than $40,000 a year for two years, with some of the support coming from family.  Bowen made the top salary at $500 a month or so.

At least three things happened which have turned the tide in roughly the last 18 months:

First, Rotary came to the rescue, particularly the remarkable way Rotary International triples local club’s contributions.  When Bowen first sought funding from them, it seemed the least likely and most labor-intensive way to pay the bills.  He could have lost the whole thing, it seemed to me, had he failed to clear the final hurdle in what became $60,000 a year from Rotary, a near-doubling of the budget.  But he did and Rotary did it.  The organization than banished polio around the world, Rotary, has scored again.

Second, Boise’s Steve Hodges, a low-key guy who started and sold four successful start-ups, came to Guatemala, slept on the ground and got his hands dirty and ended up buying land for SN’s new research and training center.  It may be just eight acres but it is up and running and already hooked into the world’s research network for tropical agriculture which will be important to improving farm income all over the country.  All this since February.

Third, Bowen was named the winner of the Mr. Whitman Award, a one-time grant of $25,000 given to an outstanding graduate of Whitman College.

Those are big financial victories.  Behind them is a Bowen’s growing maturity and settling in.  

In the next three years, Semilla Nueva can make real progress on the greatest challenge to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in Guatemala: the productivity of very small farms.  By 2015 it could bring Guatemala into the world pigeonpea market, potentially worth tens of millions of dollars a year.  This one crop could jump income 25-30 percent on small farms, the threshold for “farmer to farmer” innovation to take hold widely.  That will be the subject of our next post on Guatemala.




Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Guatemala #9: Anne Barkett, A Champion for Guatemalan Women

The week of August 20, 2013, was Anne Barkett’s goodbye tour of the villages and families with whom she has lived on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala for the last 18 months.  She is full of good cheer and is replacing herself with Jennifer Erito, a Guatemalan, which is a great step.  Nonetheless, deciding to leave has been hard for Anne who has become something of a champion of Guatemalan women.

Anne is the blond on the back row, center left, on her last day in one of the villages.

When she graduated from Seattle Pacific University, Barkett bought a one-way ticket to Argentina.  A job on a farm proved to be a disaster; she lived in an ashram for a time; worked in an orphanage, all in Argentina; and took a job as a nanny in London, thinking she might be finished with Latin America.  “But I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says, and soon was
working with the Mennonites at Tzacani in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala.  There she lived with a Kekchi family, learned Q’iche, one of the Mayan languages, and became a nutrition specialist. 
Since February, 2012, Barkett has been the food security specialist for Semilla Nueva, spending most nights in the homes of small farm families and her days teaching nutrition in the coast’s often 95 degree weather.  Guatemalan children have the worst nutrition in the Western Hemisphere, she often writes.  To correct this she and Semilla Nueva have promoted the planting and eating of three foods not regularly seen in the Guatemala diet:  

          l. Quality Protein Maize or QPM corn.  It is much more nutritious than traditionally-planted corn: rich in calcium, iron, vitamin A and protein.  Her recipes emphasize eating it in the young or elote stage.

          2. Chaya, or tree spinach.  Chaya is a tall shrub which is native to Guatemala and was eaten in earlier times but then fell out of common use.  Now it is being actively cultivated and made part of everyday recipes.

          3. Pigeonpeas.  This is Semilla Nueva’s new crop, the first few hundred pounds having been grown last year.  It has all the nutritional value of peas and beans and can be planted together with corn and sesame, plus its nitrogen-fixing properties improve the soil for future years.  Called gandul in Guatemala, it is a staple in India where it has been cultivated for 4,000 years and is now grown in east Africa.

          Anne has developed a large, attractive recipe book blending these three crops with traditional ingredients.

          On the day Julia and I tag along, we visited a family notable for owning the neighborhood molino.  A molino is a high-pitched machine that grinds corn in a hurry, replacing the ancient stone-against-stone system
that goes back to ancient times.  For about 12 cents, anyone in the neighborhood can use it at any hour of the day.

          Today’s recipes are for recado and sopa de arroz.  The recado is made by roasting garlic, sesame and pumpkin seeds and is prepared with tomatoes.  Raisins, chili and chocolate can be added and all this can be rolled into tortillas or served in a bowl. The soup is prepared with tomatoes, red peppers, onion and carrots.  Today's main course has been prepared with a generous portion of pigeonpea or gandul. 

          Corn was the staple of the Aztec and Inca civilizations and remains so today in Central America.  Corn is ground into a dough called masa.  Making a round, flat tortilla out of a handful of masa is not a simple matter, as I learned.

          Guatemala is a classic gender stereotype society.  We saw no women in the fields.  Men appear in eating areas to eat.  I was challenged to make a tortilla and the women thought it was hilarious.  Men never do this.  Mine turned out looking more like amoebas than tortillas. 

Pigeonpeas or gandul being made into dough the traditional way.

Above, Julia tries rolling corn and pigeonpeas using what looks like a cylindrical rolling pin of lava on a base of the same material--the instrument tens of millions have use to make tortillas for thousands of years.  They are cooked quickly on a griddle, the same way in household after household.

          As the morning rolls on, women roll in with their children, there is much laughter and joking and before long lunch is served. 

Anne tells one woman, Margarita, that with all the good food she is now eating her soon-to-be- born baby will come out good and strong. “Yes,” she replies, “and maybe it will come out white too.”  Guatemalans believe babies are influences by whom their mother hangs out with, or even looks at, prior to birth. 

          Anne announces her departure and introduces Jennifer, an attractive, animated and delightful woman who will replace her and who speaks briefly. 

A woman named Dina responds for the group:  “We thank God for Anne and for her sharing so much with us.  We thank Semilla Nueva for teaching us about gandul and chaya.  May God bless everyone for being here.”

Barkett has been writing a blog for some time from Guatemala and it reveals a crusading side not evident in two days of driving and visiting with her.  The blog tells of her life in Guatemala, an admirable and loving life.  It also expresses a keen outrage at the treatment of Guatemalan women.  Physical abuse, which she has seen in the homes she has lived in, is common.  Sexual assault, which she experienced three times in a two day period, is common.  The killing of women, feminicide, goes unpunished an astonishing 98 percent of the time in Guatemala, she writes. 

The sexual and gender-role revolution does seem to have passed Guatemala by.  For all its turmoil and tradition, India is making progress more rapidly than Guatemala.  Korea, another country I've studied in the last year, has a female president and is catching up quickly.  Can Guatemala prosper when it effectively neglects “half the sky?”