Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Organic cotton harvest in Nicaragua

Organic cotton is being harvested here in Nicaragua as I write this! Last week I went out into the fields to film the beginning of the harvest with our Cuban agronomist Raúl Machín, Bená Burda, the president of Maggie’s Organics (principal buyer for the organic fiber) and Margaret Larson, who is making a film about our organic cotton production chain – the first ever to be certified in Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits.

Seeing the cotton in the fields is a remarkable experience considering that three years ago there was no cotton being grown in Nicaragua at all. Historically, cotton was always one Nicaragua’s top two exports; right up there with coffee. It was so prominent that folks here joke that the cotton plant with its fluffy white bolls was the Nicaraguan Christmas tree. But the cotton was grown in monoculture, i.e. cotton fields as far as the eye could see. The problem with that is that any natural pests – in this case the boll weevil – view those large contiguous fields as one great big banquet. In order to combat the boll weevil, the big agricultural companies farming cotton used chemical pesticides. There are many problems with using pesticides: ground water contamination, air and soil pollution, and health problems for field workers among others. But from a strictly economic standpoint, pesticide use is costly – not only the cost of the pesticide to start with, but it also creates a snowball effect: the boll weevil becomes resistant to the pesticide, and so more has to be applied. By the time that cotton really began to decline in Nicaragua at the end of the 1980s, there were some farmers who were putting as many as 50 applications of pesticides on their cotton crop in one season. Not only is that expensive, but the boll weevil had become such a problem that the risk of losing a significant part of the crop to the pest was high. At the same time that cotton farming was becoming really expensive and risky, international cotton prices fell, and it was suddenly no longer economically viable to plant cotton in Nicaragua. Until now…

Why is planting cotton different now? We’re planting organic cotton and growing on a small-scale; in no more than 35 contiguous acre plots (most farmers are planting 2 to 5 acres of cotton). All of the cotton is either certified organic or produced without use of chemicals. Farmers rotate their crops annually– with peanuts, sesame, sorghum, oats and white beans to fix the nitrogen in the soil. By our rules of production, no trees are cut down to plant this cotton, and no food crops are taken out of production for this cash crop. Workers (mostly co-op members) are treated fairly, receive a fair wage and the cooperatives invest back into their communities.

With this background, we hope you can see the significance of organic cotton growing in the fields of Nicaragua…and the cotton that is being harvested now will be the first fiber that Genesis uses to spin organic cotton yarn; after such a long struggle to get into production! It’s a small victory – this year, our third year of organic cotton production, will yield a small harvest of just 60,000 lbs. due to lack of rain – but this year’s small victory will encourage more farmers to plant organic cotton next year, and our sustainable production chain will grow. Over at the Genesis co-op they’re celebrating this renewal and the hope of the new year by decorating an organic cotton plant with is fluffy white bolls to fit the season: Feliz Navidad and Happy Harvesting! – Becca

Thanks to Bená Burda and Margaret Larson for the photos

Monday, December 7, 2009

Celebrating today Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Today and tomorrow Nicaragua is celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It's such a beautiful tradition and so important to Nicaragua that we thought we'd re-publish an earlier blog on the subject.

During the month of December the people of Nicaragua are celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, called Purísima, which is by far the largest holiday in the country. The celebrations are loudest on the 7th of December during the Gritería,or Shouting, which is a bit like Christmas caroling and Trick-or-Treating rolled into one. Families show their gratitude for miracles that the Virgin Mary has granted them by setting up altars to the Virgin in front of their houses. Neighbors come to the altars, sing traditional songs to the Virgin, and then are given gifts – they go from altar to altar, often filling sacks with their bounty.

I am always so humbled by this extreme show of generosity, often the poorest neighborhoods give the most – and most practical – gifts. Families save all year to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary. Throughout the year they buy as they can: woven rattles,wooden noisemakers, plastic containers, soap, bowls, buckets. In early December days are spent in preparation: making chicha (a sweet corn drink the color of Pepto Bismal), ginger candy, nacatamales and cookies; buying sugar cane, nancite fruits, oranges and firecrackers. On the 8th of December a table is put out in front of the house and covered with a cloth. On the table goes a polished statue, or a gold-framed picture of the Virgin Mary hovering with celestial angels. Around the image white baby’s breath flowers are arranged with candles, tinsel, balloons, and the whole altar, sometimes quite elaborate, is framed in palm fronds. Sacks of gifts are hauled out and placed near the altar, along with buckets of chicha-filled bags, fresh nacatamales and fruit – many times whole rooms of the house have been occupied by these gifts. By evening, the men of the families are ready: at 6 o’clock on the dot, they light the mortar launchers and fireworks pierce the air at once, all over the country. It sounds like a war zone. Then mariachi and brass bands start up, and groups of families weave through the streets carrying sacks, stopping at each altar to shout “¿Quién causa tanta alegría? ¡La concepción de María!” “Who causes so much joy? The conception of Mary!” ¡Que viva María! ¡Que viva!

Then each group, paused before the altar, sings traditional Purísima songs to the image of the Virgin Mary, as the family with the altar begins to pass out gifts. Those who have received good fortune and even miracles show their gratitude to the Virgin Mary through their generosity to Her people. It seems to me an entirely appropriate way of showing thanks – by giving with wild abandon to all those who show up on our doorsteps. -- Becca