In June of 2014 I travelled to Finca Bona Fide, a 43-acre tropical permaculture farm on Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua. The farm is nestled into the hillside in the small island town of Balgue. This jewel was almost hugging the base of Volcán Maderas with breathtaking views of the island’s Volcán Concepción. I spent countless time in the outdoor showers, staring down over the sweeping lake, then quickly running up to the tree top ledge to catch the brilliant sun set over Concepción! The island was filled with wildlife – birds, monkeys, bats, spiders of all kinds, wild mango trees, and more!
What attracted me to this haven, other than it’s sheer beauty and off the grid lifestyle? Permaculture! An added bonus: the non-profit aspect. Finca Bona Fide works with the local community to build gardens and more. Let’s be real, this visit was much more than volcano climbs, gorging on mangos, and watching sunsets. Days began with my personal 5:30 a.m. yoga with work beginning at 6:00 a.m. until near dark, with some breaks between.
The land was wild, nearly untamable. A perfect Permaculture project. Permaculture seeks to work with nature, the existing resources, energy sources, and contours of the land. And there were plenty of these. This was my first time working in a tropical system. It was impressive. What looked like a wild tangled forest turned out to be the fruit tree zone, where I harvested mass quantities of mangos of many varieties. This naturally led to mango jam with different flavors, some to consume and some to be sold.
Each day we would work alongside a full time staff member in the “system” or “zone” they oversaw. Work included tree planting, building swales, tending to the medicinal herb garden, feeding the worm compost, natural pest repellent, and chicken duty. My last week I worked alongside Nevis in the vegetable garden! The space was oddly unplanned, and an eye opener to how much I potentially over-plan systems I’ve worked in, from soil fertility schedules through crop rotation cycles through companion planting relationships. To each their own!
I learned some neat things from mango harvesting to dealing with a scorpion bite to the face (yep, that happened). Some of my most memorable tid-bits include:
- The Neem Tree: This fantastic tree originates in India and is said to be an elixir of life. It holds countless medicinal properties (some proven, others culturally passed down). Most of all, its little berry-like fruits make a highly effective pest repellent, once de-shelled and soaked in water for several days. We spent hours harvesting the ripened “berries” and de-shelling them. This tree grew all over the island, and locals paid it no heed. I wish the organization spent more time engaging the local community about the benefits of the neem trees all over the island. (Sadly many banana farmers, etc. on the island sprayed toxic chemicals on their plants. I stumbled upon countless bottles of pesticides thrown aside). Oh, and neem oil can be made to rub on chicken’s feet and ward of mites. Yep, that happened too.
- Off the grid: The farm was completely off the grid, energy-wise. We cooked over open fires and in a big cob oven. There were compost buckets dividing things between chickens, pigs, worms, the “normal” compost heap,etc. Any trash was shoved into tiny plastic water bottle to make eco-bricks. Solar panels fueled the device charging area (only open a few hours a day) and few lightbulbs only in the main kitchen, open-area. After dark it was all headlamps. The climate is warm enough that heat is never a problem. In fact all “buildings” were open, often with just a roof overhead, a wood floor, and some stakes holding them together. The water system was also superb. Grey water from the kitchen trickled into a watering system, which flowed downhill towards the trees and crops.
- Composting toilet = fertilizer: Composting toilets were divided into those for urine, mixed, and those for everything else. The urine was stored, eventually diluted, then used in a trickle-down-the-hill system to water trees, etc. The shit was broken down enough to fertilize the base of trees.
- Working with the community: Here I began to question the organization’s approach to community-led development. Speaking with the locals working at the farm, I learned many islanders thought the “permies” up the hill were weirdoes and farming all wrong. Many were not interested in learning about neem herbicide or anything more. To me this indicated a major lack of engagement. A “let those who are interested come, and those who are not stay” attitude. But engaging the community and working alongside them, not just introducing random projects is a key point that I think was missed. This became alarmingly clear when I heard about a struggling plan to build cobb ovens with locals. The local families who “bought in” continued to postpone the building and many with the ovens never used them. Why a cobb oven? Because it is a permaculture practice – natural building. But no one here used ovens. A pizza oven was of no importance to these people. Not because it couldn’t be, they just don’t usually use them, or really eat much bread at all…When I asked, “why cobb ovens?” I was told the prior community coordinator thought it was a fun permaculture project. This may sound harsh, but I am a critic.
- Zoning: Zoning is a basic permaculture principle, but one I love! This farm had it down. The fruits trees spilled down the hill, running further and further from the main living area. Right outside the living areas lay the culinary and medicinal herb areas, vegetable gardens, compost areas, and chickens (in a sensible order). It made so much sense! The areas needing more frequent attention were closer to the home and those needing less, were zoned further away. Oh, the beauty of design!
There is so much more to say! Future blogs may hi-light specific aspects of this farm. Needless to say it was a wonderful opportunity to share knowledge, learn, and put my permaculture principles to practice!