This Earth Day, April 22, it feels hard to do much celebrating, what with the United States government gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, denying climate change and threatening to reduce foreign aid, much of it designed to help people adapt to a changing climate.
But then I think about Santos Padilla and Santos López, two farmers I met while travelling in Nicaragua during the drought brought on by El Nino.
During the trip, it was hard to find a good news story. Everywhere we went we saw patchy, dried-up fields. But then our truck stopped at the farm of Padilla and López, in the community of Cacao in the northwest part of the country. I stepped out into what looked like an oasis, five acres of lush, green vegetation.
Like every other farmer I met on the trip, Padilla and López told me about how years of rising temperatures and less predictable rains were creating production challenges. The El Nino drought was only making an already difficult situation worse.
And yet, something special was happening on their farm.
Three things stood out to me.
The first is that the couple had benefitted from extension services. For the previous seven years, nutritionists from a local organization called Soynica had been visiting the farm, sharing information on improved planting and soil conservation techniques, as well as en-couraging the couple to grow fruit trees and vegetables.
They had also been making and applying a natural insecticide, something they had heard about on the radio.
Farm extension workers offer a link to knowledge of best practices. And inevitably, that knowledge is passed on, from farmer to farmer. When I arrived at the farm a small group of young people were gathered around López, listening as he passed on some of what he had learned.
The second unique feature of Padilla and López’s farm was the diversity of crops. They had previously grown only corn and beans, and sometimes sorghum. Now they grow a long list of fruits and vegetables, complemented by livestock.
I counted 28 different kinds of fruit, vegetables, herbs, and beans that the family grows, on top of dedicating some of their land to forests and their three cows, four goats and 15 chickens.
The result? “We buy only rice,” López said. The rest of the family’s food is grown on the farm.
Third, Padilla and López were equal partners on the farm — in labour and decision making. I’ve visited lots of farms, in countries around the world, and inevitably, it is the man who will answer questions. The woman will hang back, or defer to her husband.
Women make up almost half of the global agricultural labour force, but have shockingly little access to land, inputs, finance, labour, and livestock, in comparison to their male counterparts.
Studies have shown that with equal access to resources, female farmers could increase their yields by 20 to 30 percent. On top of being unjust, this situation is a clear missed opportunity to reduce the number of hungry in the world and expand economic opportunities for all.
So it was refreshing to meet Padilla and López, an exception to the troubling norm. Without true partnership, it’s doubtful their farm would be the productive oasis it was.
This year, it can be hard to feel optimistic on Earth Day, but we can celebrate farmers like Padilla and López.
Stephanie McDonald is a senior policy advisor at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.