This post was contributed by Angel Cruz:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I naively asked Enrique as we stood in the shade of the two trees that served as a soccer goal in Los Naranjos. He looked at me, puzzled, with no response. It took me almost the entirety of my two years in El Salvador to understand the complexity of the situation of Salvadoran rural youth. From 2008-2010, I moved to El Salvador to work in Los Naranjos, a rural community made up of subsistence farmers displaced from the twelve-year civil war, funded heavily by the US government. The village had no basic amenities such as transportation, potable water, electricity, health clinics, or public schooling, and everyone lived on less than $1/day. Yet, despite poverty, illiteracy, and oppression, the community was organized and committed to creating a more just and sustainable future.
I worked with FUNDAHMER, a Salvadoran NGO, while in college, and after graduating I moved there permanently after raising funding to start a pilot project for community educational gardens in rural cooperatives. After six months of planning, FUNDAHMER, community leaders, and I created a design. The garden would serve as an organic growing school for the community and neighboring villages, as well as a pilot project for FUNDAHMER. Our hope was to alleviate some of the nutritional, environmental, and economic challenges voiced by the village. Each family would implement the skills learned in the garden on their own land. Any harvest surplus would be sold at market for supplemental income. The garden was community led, with participating families making decisions communally. For the first year, I facilitated planning, workshops, and community meetings; in addition to documenting the process. The community volunteered long hours to terrace a mountainside by hand. Villagers and many neighboring campesinos attended organic farming workshops that I organized. These gatherings catalyzed conversations about farming as well as GMO seeds, soil erosion and political corruption.
The youth became the leaders in the garden. At first, it was frustrating because they weren’t as “efficient” as adults, often losing seeds, plants, or materials. But I soon realized how revolutionary it was that kids wanted to come work. Once the youth started working together in the garden, they started spending more time together so I encouraged starting an official “Youth Committee of Los Naranjos.” The Committee and I planned a community fiesta, hosted county officials for political discussions, invited agronomists for a food security workshop, and recycled community waste for the first time. In evaluations, community elders voiced that the most significant impact of the garden was the youth involvement. Saul, a youth from Los Naranjos, exemplifies the long-term impacts on the village youth and the potential for empowering rural youth around the world. Saul, the youngest of twelve children, will be the first in the village to attend college, and he plans to study organic agriculture. Currently, the Youth Committee is becoming more organized. They have elected a committee president and made many plans for the coming year, including managing the community garden.
Because of this pilot project, FUNDAHMER is not only facilitating other school, community, and family gardens, but also working specifically with rural youth. They are developing education programs and connecting to national youth networks. Through these programs, the youth will gain a voice and develop pride in their agrarian background.
Now, I don’t think about the pounds of produce harvested or count the money earned. I remember the teenagers, working together to plant cabbage, swimming in the river, cleaning up garbage, and saving quarters to join a national youth movement. I hope that Enrique will continue working in the garden, and one day even have an answer for what he wants to be when he grows up.
So, you may wonder what that story has to do with agroecology and food security. The story I shared about some of my experiences in El Salvador, is one example of an agroecological solution that increased food security in the village of Los Naranjos. Agroecology is the integrative study of the ecology of the entire food system, bringing together the ecological, economic and social components (Francis et al. 2003). The methods and technology promoted by agroecologists should be adapted to local environmental and socioeconomic conditions. My experiences in El Salvador are part of what motivated me to return to my home in the Appalachian mountains and go to graduate school to better understand the link between agroecology and food security.
Francis, C., et al. “Agroecology: The Ecology of Food Systems.” Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 22.3 (2003): 99-118. Web.
Angel Cruz is a master’s candidate at North Carolina State University and is a graduate research assistant with the Appalachian Foodshed Project