Thursday, March 27, 2014

Visting the Center for Ecological Agriculture

On the second day of our week learning about the work of Mano a Mano we drove in our trusty bus just to the outskirts to Cochabamba to the Center for Ecological Agriculture (CEA). My green suitcase, holding the grinder, also made the trip. But it had collected all the seeds that everyone had brought along as well a six oil filters for airplanes, also brought along in suitcases by trip colleagues.

(I did find two notes from TSA that someone had inspected my suitcase with the grinder. That surely didn't surprise me! And in Santa Cruz, the suitcase inspectors became alarmed about the oil filters. When assured that the filters were new and didn't contain any petroleum products, everything was fine.)

This is the newest effort of Mano a Mano. If I had to sum up the work of CEA in a few words I would say it's about saving every drop of water and every bit of nutrients that the soil has for reuse.

I was truly amazed at what has been accomplished in just one year, particularly when you realize it started with this:

What is shown above? The soil! Having been raised the black gold soil of Iowa this type of soil really amazed me! The soil here is full of clay which sheds water rather than retains water.

And as a reminder about how dry this area is, here's what I found growing along the fence.

Now one year later the CEA has a large building, used for classes and other activities.

I took this picture primarily as a reminder that the roof is constructed to rain water and then have it go down a drain spout for collection and eventual flow in a holding pond elsewhere on the property.

As a reminder, too, this is a climate in which rain falls primarily during the three months of summer and then no rain or other precipitation for the next nine months, so it is critical to save, store, and reuse every drop of water.

Corn (maize) is an important product for food in Bolivia so of course it is part of the demonstration crops.

A crop new of me is fava beans.

Sunflowers are for the oil.

I shared that the green center from the sunflower is often found in the produce markets in Poland during the summer. Now my job is find an example of this during my summer stay in Poland. And speaking of Central Europe foods, beets were an unexpected find in Bolivia.

 The CEA is also starting a fruit orchard.

The trees are only one year old, so quite small yet. Interspersed with the rows of trees are rows of legume plants. These grab nitrogen out of air and bring nutrients into the soil. Secondly, the roots of these plants help to aerate the soil and make it retain water better.

In the photo above we are learning about placing compost around each tree to conserve soil moisture -- yes, perhaps not a new idea where some of the blog readers live, but a practice not found in Bolivia. Soda bottles have some holes punched in them to provide drip irrigation. And a wisp of sheep wool is placed around the tree stem to prevent ants from crawling up the tree trunk and eating all the tree leaves.
Two interesting features at CEA about reuse are the compost toilet and the biodigester.

The compost toilet is here for two reasons. The first is to demonstrate that it doesn't stink! Secondly, it is here to demonstrate how to make it work. This particular type has two toilets -- one for liquid human waste and one of solid human waste.

The liquid human waste flows into a system that also includes the gray water from dish washing and laundry. It moves through a sedimentation tank where fats for example from food waste and soaps rise to the top. The cleaner liquid then flows into another tank where it additionally cleaned.

The biodigester is for animal waste. The CEA has chickens, guinea pigs -- not as pets, remember this is a food source in South America, sheep, and cow. I feel like I forgetting something, but the point again is not raising animals, but rather having just enough for demonstration.

The demonstration also is that animal pens can be kept clean and the waste used. Up in a village I saw sheep standing in manure. When I see something such as this that doesn't make sense to me, I try to remember that in another culture it must make sense, and that I simply don't understand what was the original or perhaps even the current reason. However, it is not healthy for animals to live like this and the point of the CEA is to demonstrate other ways of doing things, and ways of doing things are economically feasible within the context of rural Bolivian agriculture.

And perhaps here is perhaps a good place to mention a mission of Mano a Mano -- developing the capacity of Bolivians to help Bolivians. The agronomists who work at CEA are Bolivian, not Americans telling Bolivians what to do.

Now back to biodigester:

The biodigester is the area covered with the black net. One of byproducts of this process is methane. The methane can be harvested and used in a burner for cooking or in lamps for light. If this sounds wild, please remember that in many mountain villages there is not electricity. Secondly, if the methane can be used as a cooking fuel than other organic matter can be left in the soil to add nutrients back to it.

In the CEA building there were three busy with the process of making peanut butter.

They are manipulating the peanuts over mesh wire to remove the brown film found on each peanut. They are also inspecting the peanuts to remove any that look damaged or suspect for some reason.

During the lunch time some of us were privileged to meet these workers. It turns out they are food science students from San Simon University. One of them is doing her thesis on peanut butter, so being involved in this initial production of peanut butter was heaven made for her. She explained that people in different countries have different tastes in peanut butter. She reasoned that people in Bolivia like sweet things -- a surprise to me since over the whole week I never had anything that was really sweet-- and so she formulated a peanut butter that contains just a bit of honey. Indeed it is very good!

This discussion led we Americans to talking about taking peanut butter sandwiches in our lunch bags to school. Another of the students said, "That sounds gross. This is lunch."

Rice, fava beans, beets, and chicken. This lunch has a bit of yellow cast because we were eating under a yellow picnic shelter.

During the afternoon we walked next door to Nuevo Mundo (New World).Nuevo Mundo is the Mano a Mano organization that constructs roads and reservoirs. Presently a building is being constructed for the repair and maintenance of the heavy equipment associated with this work.

One of the cost saving measures used by Mano a Mano is cross training of workers. Here the man welding structures one day might be doing some transmission work on a road graders another day.

We returned to our hotel for short rest and then went for a visit to the Democracy Center located in Cochabamba. Getting taxis during rush hour was indeed a cultural experience!

We finished the day by walking about 10 minutes to restaurant called Tuesdays. I had a barbequed chicken sandwich, which seemed as improbable as the night I had a pulled pork sandwich in Pecs, Hungary! But both were good! 

Now I have written two posts about the work of Mano a Mano. This organization is totally supported by donations and other fundraising efforts. If you find yourself willing to donate, please click here. Even what one would spend weekly on coffee breaks can be used for very good purposes.Such donations would be tax deductible for U.S. residents.

And I do put my volunteer hours and money where "my mouth" is too.

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