NicaNotes: What We Learned about Agroecology from Nicaragua

By Rick Kohn

[Rick Kohn is a professor of Animal Science at the University of Maryland. His interests include evaluating and implementing methods to decrease adverse environmental effects from animal agriculture including effects on air and water resources and climate change. Rick worked in Nicaragua in 1987-1988 as an internationalist with the Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG).]

At the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture, we have developed a seminar course titled “Sustainable Agriculture and Environment in Nicaragua” offered every fall as well as a short travel-abroad experience to Nicaragua in the Winter term (first weeks of January). Last year, ten students and two faculty members from the University of Maryland visited Nicaragua on a trip hosted by the Friends of ATC, the international solidarity organization of the Association of Rural Workers (Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo) led by Erika Takeo, our host.

As part of a seminar course at the University of Maryland, students travel to Nicaragua to see firsthand how the country has confronted the challenges of hunger and poverty and achieved food self-sufficiency.

Why did we choose to study in Nicaragua?  Hunger, poverty, and illiteracy are major issues plaguing much of the world, and climate change is one of the greatest threats to humans on the planet. Nicaragua is setting an example for sustainable development that addresses all these issues.

Nicaragua has virtually eliminated hunger and attained 90% self-sufficiency in food production while also increasing food exports. Literacy has vastly improved, and the country offers free education from preschool through college and professional school. Additionally, life expectancy has increased, and infant mortality has been drastically reduced. Free basic healthcare is accessible to all. Nicaragua has improved its agricultural practices, promoting climate-resilient management such as water and soil management to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Interestingly, Nicaragua has achieved these impressive feats while decreasing its per capita greenhouse gas emissions, which were already only one-eighth as much as for the United States. Despite facing illegal US sanctions and interventions, Nicaragua’s economy continues to grow steadily across all major sectors.

Nicaragua’s achievements in sustainable development have been so remarkable that as a professor of Animal Science at the University of Maryland for the last 28 years, it would feel dishonest for me not to mention them while teaching about improving agricultural practices to reduce environmental impacts. My work involves teaching animal nutrition and management and advising government regulators and farmers on minimizing environmental harm from animal agriculture. My research has included finding ways to improve animal feeding and management to decrease nutrient losses from farms to estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay, as well as identifying methods to lower gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The statistics on Nicaragua are striking. Despite being a developing nation with labor-intensive agricultural production, the country has made noteworthy progress in addressing multiple objectives such as meeting human needs for food, education, and healthcare, reducing poverty, and improving the environment. Moreover, Nicaragua has managed to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change caused mostly by developed countries. Inspired by these achievements, I created a two-part course on Nicaraguan agriculture at the University of Maryland to examine Nicaragua’s efforts in this field, and to assess whether we could learn from their example.

Will Corporate Agriculture Save the Planet with a Second Green Revolution?

Producing more food to feed the hungry as world population grows could lead to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions because expanding croplands often means destroying carbon-sequestering grasslands and forests. Additionally, the impacts of climate change, such as droughts or hurricanes, can adversely affect agriculture and exacerbate hunger and poverty. To meet the nutritional requirements of an expanding global population, we must use our land resources more efficiently and with less environmental impact per unit of food produced. This approach will enable us to address hunger and poverty while minimizing our carbon footprint.

Developing countries are encouraged to make their agricultural processes more similar to ours.  But our system of agriculture was “developed” though genocide of native populations and slavery, as well as destruction of natural flora and fauna, and today is still driven by the corporate profit motive.  One can understand from looking at our history why some developing countries may not want to repeat this process of “development” through maximization of corporate profits.

Our system selects for the companies that are most profitable, and fortunately companies that make best use of their resources often are more competitive and survive resulting in an overall increase in efficiency.  At the same time, optimizing profitability sometimes promotes choices that impair the productivity of land or has negative environmental impact.

We have vast tracks of land across multiple states being put into the same monoculture crops. Those crops are shipped around the country and processed. Part of grains are used for biofuel and parts for human and animal foods. The nutrient cycles are broken, causing excess nutrient loss to the environment in some regions. At the same time, fossil fuels and mining make chemical fertilizers to replace nutrients removed from other regions. The application of new nitrogen fertilizers accelerates the production of nitrous oxides, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Pesticides and genetic engineering eliminate foods for wildlife.  Soil carbon decreases for many crops, putting more greenhouse gas in the air and decreasing the capacity of the soils to hold on to water and other nutrients. Still, the US has sustained this system for decades, and I think it is likely more stable than some people believe. In other countries with different topography and climate, however, these same practices are expanding deserts. For examples look at deforestation of the Amazon and the expansion of the Sahara Desert.

People still go hungry in the US. Many agricultural workers make terrible wages for back-breaking labor. Diet-related illnesses are prevalent and overprocessed foods contribute to it. US life expectancy has fallen as rates of suicide, drug addiction, and violence are all trending upwards. Many people go without health insurance.  Poverty continues to be a significant problem in the “richest” country on earth.

Is the economic model we are using really something that developing nations should be trying to copy?  Developed countries emit many multiples more greenhouse gas per capita than developing countries.  Imagine how much greenhouse gas emissions will increase if all the world’s developing countries were recreated in the image of the developed ones. The alternative of keeping poverty and hunger as the status quo is also not acceptable.  Therefore, the example Nicaragua provides needs to be studied very carefully.

Irrespective of what system we choose for ourselves to obtain food, Nicaragua is a sovereign country, and they have the right to set their own course in development, and not copy the path taken by the US if they don’t want to.  However, large corporations survive by growing: by finding new markets and a larger work force.

Nicaragua is setting out on its own path.

When Nicaraguans were forced to follow our “advice” in the past, either from the mid 1800s through Somoza or during the neoliberal period from 1990 to 2007, their economies sometimes become more “efficient” by US standards while income disparities increased, people went hungry, illiteracy skyrocketed, land and water became more polluted.

It is common for people to become overwhelmed and depressed thinking about these issues, which makes you want to turn away and ignore them.  That’s why the inspiration and hope that we get from Nicaragua is so important – because in Nicaragua we have a case where all these issues are addressed, and the people who live there are thriving while emitting an eighth as much GHG per person as in the US.

People often say Nicaragua is the third poorest country in the hemisphere (or previously the second poorest) based on the per capita GDP.  But the GDP is the totality of the economic activity, it is not a measure of whether people’s basic needs are met.  When you consider that Nicaragua has the second lowest poverty rate in Latin America, and even the poor have access to good quality basic healthcare, food, and free education through professional school, you might say Nicaragua is one of the least poor countries in the hemisphere.

Today after 500 years of colonialism and intervention in Nicaragua by the Spanish and then the US, Nicaragua clearly lacks the infrastructure needed for robust economic activity comparable to a developed country.  However, because of the choices they’ve made in recent years, their economic activity is targeted toward meeting the needs of the entire population instead of only serving the interests of the wealthiest Nicaraguans and foreign corporations. And this means that instead of targeting their economy on weapons of war, security and surveillance, and consumerism, they have focused on healthcare, education, infrastructure like roads, electricity, potable water, hospitals, and parks. And we could see first-hand what that is like.

How has Nicaragua been able to accomplish so much?

As we traveled around Nicaragua, we could see viable agricultural production everywhere. We listened to farmers, agricultural and environmental experts, and leaders. We tasted luscious fruits and vegetables and savory dishes. We learned specific techniques to manage soils and animals, including many techniques passed down through generations from ancestors. Native American populations taught the European about their traditional agricultural methods and how they had domesticated many of the food crops everyone now consumes (e.g. maize, potatoes, beans, squash, tomatoes and avocados), but the Europeans weren’t the best of students over the generations.  The Native American ancestors knew to prevent erosion by planting rows perpendicular to the slopes and using contour ditches or terraces to prevent water runoff from eroding soils.  They cropped legumes like beans with corn to use the nitrogen-fixing ability of the legume crop to enrich the soils for the corn. They incorporated trees throughout the landscapes, trapping carbon, retaining soils, providing shade.

But beyond the techniques on the farm, I was especially interested in learning how Nicaraguans today transferred the knowledge from farm to farm though organizations like the ATC. We met with the excellent teachers working with the ATC as well as university faculty, and jointly participated in workshops on agroecology, nutrition, and pasture walks.  In the US corporate-driven agricultural system, most technology is developed and transferred from the top down, whereas in Nicaragua the organizations representing farm workers and small farm owners themselves set priorities for research (what to try) and technology transfer to best address their own needs.

We also learned about laws to promote equitable and efficient development, like the Agroecology Law, or the Zero Hunger Law.  These laws provide incentives and education for small farmers, create markets to sell foods, provide plants or chickens to start small-scale farm enterprises, and provide low interest loans. For example, programs have introduced less-common commodities like dragon fruit and tilapia farming.

Moreover, we learned about their philosophy, and their democratic, people-centered approach to making decisions and implementing change.  Nicaragua has a mixed economy including both large corporations and small farmers. The small farmers and farm workers are organized into groups that enable them to learn about government policies and have input, unlike the US system in which policies are largely written by the largest companies in the industry.  In Nicaragua, decisions are made to address the multifaceted needs of society—reduce poverty and hunger, obtain food sovereignty, good working conditions, protect the environment—for all the stakeholders. This approach infringes on the potential for a few companies to take complete control. The idea that peasant farmers have valid ideas is hard concept for corporate experts to comprehend, let alone embrace.  And yet the results are impossible to deny.

Nicaragua is a small country compared to the size of multinational corporations, but it still poses a tremendous threat.  Their approach is demonstrably working to fight hunger and poverty and decrease greenhouse gases while adapting to climate change.  None of that would seem like it should present a problem for the United States.  However, they have achieved these results while also becoming food sovereign and without fully embracing agribusiness corporations that hope to monopolize the business of food production.  This means Nicaragua poses the threat of a good example to the rest of Latin America and the world.  Thus, overthrowing the Nicaraguan government is a priority, and in the meantime, a propaganda war is used to justify aggression against Nicaragua and to mask the success they have had.

The predominant approach to development foisted on most of the developing world is to force cuts in spending on social programs, privatize public resources, and incentivize low-income sweatshops for foreign export. Although feeding the poor may sound nice, we are told it would cause economic collapse over time.  Instead, the neoliberal model of development through exploitation is used despite the lack of significant progress.  The contrasting positive results from Nicaragua are indeed a threat to the arguments for continuing “development” through exploitation, or in other words, Nicaragua threatens the world order.

If you are a University of Maryland student, I want to invite you to take our class at UMD. If you do not attend UMD, it is possible to take the seminar course online and participate in the study-abroad course in the first two weeks of January and get transfer credits.  I want to acknowledge the ATC for helping organize the fall semester course, and for hosting the study abroad course.  The ATC offers many programs both online and in person so consider being a part of an ATC delegation or internship.  I encourage everyone to travel to Nicaragua to see for yourself what it’s like to live and thrive in a sustainable way.

By Nan McCurdy

Nicaragua Prioritizes Clean Energy
When the Sandinista National Liberation Front regained the presidency in 2007 they turned around the situation of thousands of people who lacked electricity service. The challenge was to greatly expand national energy coverage which reached only 54% of households in early 2007. For the Minister of Energy and Mines, Salvador Mansell, it was timely to consider electrification as a human right. “All social and economic development requires an initial advance in the energy sector because it is the platform that allows the installation of various infrastructures, such as water pumping, hospitals and industries,” he said. Nicaragua began expanding electricity coverage prioritizing the use of renewable sources to become one of the few countries in the region that in the last 16 years changed the energy matrix. “We wanted to support our plan with studies of the Matagalpa River basin for hydroelectric projects. Geothermal energy, which is the most expensive, was also studied and wind studies were carried out to see the wind potential,” he stated. Wind energy was installed by the government, for the first time in the country’s history, as in the 1980’s when geothermal energy was first launched. From 2008 to 2009 the first wind generation plants were installed in the department of Rivas. Now Nicaragua has renewable sources that include solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass. In 2006 the use of clean energy was around 26%, but in 2021 it reached more than 70%. In the first quarter of 2023 it has reached almost 80%.

Electricity coverage increased beginning in 2007 and currently the country registers 99.29% coverage and the government expects to close 2023 with 99.4% electrification of homes nationwide. Mansell recalled that in 2006 there were average blackouts of 14 hours a day due to lack of electricity generation, since the installed capacity was not enough to meet the country’s demand. This also affected people’s water supply since electricity is needed to pump water. “For this first semester US$46 million is earmarked for new electrification and rehabilitation of existing networks, while for the second semester, we have US$54 million,” he said. “The transmission networks [in 2006] were only 1,600 kilometers, today we have about 30,000 kilometers for the supply of energy.” The Sandinista government’s commitment to the nation’s development and its determination to eliminate poverty has made it possible for more than three million people to get electricity service since 2007. (Radio La Primerisima, 8 May 2023)

Successful Campaign Administers 2,300,000 Vaccines
During the National Vaccination Campaign for the prevention of multiple diseases that concluded April 30, medical brigades, mobile clinics, and the 19 Local Health Systems administered some 2,300,000 vaccines, registering 107.2% overcompliance of the projected goal. Health Minister, Martha Reyes explained that “between April 11th and the 30th, 2,291,284 doses of vaccines for prevention of multiple diseases were administered to two-month-old infants all the way to senior citizens, as well as 1,340,556 doses of Mebendazole for parasites and 721,131 doses of vitamins A to children between one and six years old.” (Nicaragua News, 3 May 2023)

San Juan del Sur Sewage System Expansion Completed
ENACAL did the final testing of the expansion and improvement of the sanitation system of San Juan del Sur. The Nicaraguan Water and Sewage Company installed 12 kilometers of pipelines, household connections, electromechanical works, three pumping stations and 289 manholes, improving the service to 18,000 families. US$2.6 million was invested by the government and the Inter-American Development Bank. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 8 May 2023)

26 Million Trees to Be Planted in Reforestation Campaign
The planting of 26 million forest and fruit trees in green areas, parks, protected areas, forests, schools and producers’ farms will be carried out from May to December during the second stage of the “Green, I love you Green” National Reforestation Campaign. Currently there are some 3,500 community nurseries established in which families work growing plants within the framework of the campaign. The campaign began this month and will be developed with the participation of organized communities in all municipalities. Government institutions, the Guardabarranco Environmental Movement, organized communities and universities will also visit 95,000 families to promote and strengthen environmental education and will train 50,000 producers in the installation of forest and fruit tree production systems in association with different crops and animals. The launch will take place May 10, in homage to the General of Free Men and Women, Augusto C. Sandino, whose birthday is May 18. See photos: (Radio La Primerisima, 6 May 2023)

China Donates Wheat and Urea
The Peoples Republic of China donated 1,332 metric tons of wheat and 2,250 tons of urea to Nicaragua last week. The Chinese Ambassador in Managua Chen Xi stated that “the donation seeks to strengthen agricultural production, complement the food supply chain, and support social initiatives such as Zero Hunger, Home Vegetable Gardens, School Lunches, Food Production Bonuses, and the Family Support Plan that the Government is implementing to guarantee food security among the most vulnerable sectors of the population.” (Nicaragua News, 5 May 2023)

Advances of the Healthy Schools Plan
The Ministry of Health reported on advances of the “National Healthy Schools Plan” that the government is implementing in schools throughout the country. Between January 23 and May 04 this year, 144,888 tests to detect speech impediments were administered; 211,334 hearing acuity tests were carried out; 271,898 visual acuity measurements were taken, and 7,825 dental care appointments were conducted. Likewise, 53,120 doses of vaccines against COVID-19 were applied and 210,050 personal hygiene workshops were organized. The National Healthy School Plan being carried out during the 2023 academic year seeks to strengthen the health of 1.8 million students, guaranteeing the integral development of the children. (Nicaragua News, 8 May 2023)

More than 52,000 Women Will be Assisted with Health Fairs
The Ministry of Health will hold 21 mega health fairs to provide attention to 52,500 women from all over the country. Women with high-risk pregnancies will be seen and breast and cervical cancer detection will be carried out. Medical attention will also be offered to knee, hip, foot, spine, shoulder and neck problems, tumors, numbness, frequent headaches, among others. Natural medicine services and complementary therapies will also be available. (Radio La Primerisima, 9 May 2023)

Women’s Police Station Opens in a Morrito Community
In the community of Jesús María, in the municipality of Morrito, department of Río San Juan, a Women’s Police Station was inaugurated on May 9 to attend cases of violence in the area. Commissioner General Johana Plata, head of women’s police stations nationwide, said that this new space will provide quality care and timely follow-up to complaints. She specified that this is the 216th women’s police station in the country, and will provide assistance to some 3,000 women citizens of this municipality. (Radio La Primerisima, 9 May 2023)

Nicaragua: Second Most Open in Trade Growth in the Region
The Mexican Agency “Latinometrics” that specializes in data analysis and insights about Latin American startups, markets, and trends, published a ranking of the countries in Latin America with the most growth in trade openness based on statistics from the World Bank. The report states that with a growth of 160% in trade openness as of 2021, Nicaragua is second in market openness in the region, surpassed only by Mexico with 300% growth. (Nicaragua News, 3 May 2023)

Exports on the Rise in 2023
Exports maintained a positive trend as of April of this year, registering growth in value (5.3%), volume (4.4%) and price (0.9%) with respect to the same period in 2022. According to a report from the Export Processing Center (CETREX), shipments of merchandise from January 1 to April 30 reached a value of US$1.485 billion with year-on-year growth of US$75.36 million. In 2022, during this same period, US$1.41 billion was exported. The 20 main exports make up 86.28% of the total. Raw gold, coffee, beef, and sugar cane account for 66% of that. Other leading products are peanuts, morolique cheese, beverages, alcoholic liquids, vinegar, fish, mozzarella cheese, lobster, processed cigars, tobacco, marine shrimp and processed coffee. The exported products went to 99 countries. Gold, coffee, beef, sugar, moralique cheese, beans, and lobster, among others, were exported to the US for a value of US$660.08 million. Bovine meat, peanuts, edible offal and viscera were exported to Mexico for US$60.46 million; Products with a value of US$50.68 million dollars were exported to Canada; US$150.25 million to El Salvador; US$79.76 to Costa Rica; US$40.45 million to Guatemala and US$33.45 million to Honduras, among other nations. Exports also went to Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Romania. Exports to the People’s Republic of China, Japan and South Korea are also registered. (Radio la Primerisima, 10 May 2023)

Unemployment Down
The Institute for Information on Development Information published its Monthly Employment Survey Report corresponding to March 2023. The report states that the unemployment rate was 3.2%, a 0.6% reduction compared with March 2022. The underemployment rate was 36.6%, 3.3% less than March of last year. (Nicaragua News, 8 May 2023)

National Assembly Approves the Creation of a New Nicaraguan Red Cross
The National Assembly on May 10 unanimously repealed Decree 357, by which the Nicaraguan Red Cross Association was created in 1958. At the same time the Assembly approved as its legal successor a new Nicaraguan Red Cross that will operate as an entity attached to the Ministry of Health. According to the explanatory memorandum presented by the legislators, the Red Cross Association, as a non-profit organization, transgressed the laws of the country, as it acted against its regulatory framework of impartiality and neutrality in the events of 2018 that resulted in a failed coup d’état. “The Nicaraguan Red Cross Association is governed by the fundamental principles of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, among which are included: humanity, impartiality, and neutrality. In the acts that took place in 2018 that worked against the peace and stability of the nation, some affiliates of this association acted against these principles and its constitutive act and statutes, and the association itself transgressed the laws of the country by disregarding and even supporting this action of its affiliates,” says the explanatory memorandum. It is also noted that the Red Cross failed to comply with its duties and obligations as a non-profit organization by not submitting financial statements, by a lack of verification of the identity of its donors and by failing to update information in the registry of the Ministry of the Interior.

The explanatory memorandum emphasizes that, since 2007, the Ministry of Health has the competencies and regulations, technical and institutional capacities to take charge of a new Nicaraguan Red Cross. It goes on to say that “the Nicaraguan Red Cross [will be] a decentralized entity attached to the Ministry of Health, which will continue to comply with the international legal framework based on the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its Additional Protocols to which Nicaragua is a state party, as well as the fundamental principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement approved at the Vienna Conference of 1965.” The new law states that all the assets of the Nicaraguan Red Cross National Association will become property of the state and will be administered by the Nicaraguan Red Cross. (19Digital, 10 May 2023)