Reviving Local Food, Farming and Economy

Gaia Ma
Tuesday, 14th January 2020

Gaia Ma explains how Ometepe Development Fund in Nicaragua has revived the growth and use of local ingredients, improving children's health, increasing the nutrition of meals, and reducing the dependence on exported goods. One of the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize finalists.

I came to Ometepe, Nicaragua, in search of sacred fertile soil. I had the vision to build an intentional community based on the principles of earth-care, people care, and fair share. I had been working on a permaculture project with Doug Bullock, of the Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead, who sent me to check out Ometepe. It was a breathtaking island formed by two volcanoes, one full of fire and one full of water. At the time, the land was so rich in agricultural production and abundant in tropical fruits that the island exported more than it imported.

When I first visited Ometepe, it was an off-the-beaten-track traveler destination that was already growing in popularity. I arrived excited but cautious. I had seen how international tourism had caused communities to become less regenerative and increasingly dependent on imported goods while devaluing their traditional lifestyle. I wanted to have a positive impact on the local economy and ecology and to work in partnership with the community on Ometepe. I wanted to create a regenerative ecosystem for sustainable tourism and earth-based living that served as a model for travelers and Nicaraguans alike, and I wanted Nicaraguans to share in and capitalize on the yield that such tourism brought.

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Isla de Ometepe - One active, fire filled volcano and one water filled dormant volcano, united together to create a magic fertile tropical paradise.

Collaborative Building  

From the beginning, we created a culture of connection. InanItah founders, visitors and volunteers worked side-by-side with Nicaraguans in the garden, in the kitchen, on the buildings, on the land. We taught local stoneworkers and masons natural building techniques, and together built the infrastructure of the eco-village that became InanItah from mud, straw, and stone. We collaborated to bring clean water to farms and families by building a multi-farm gravity-fed clean spring water system. We trained unemployed locals in professional massage therapy so that they could market themselves to tourists. We also provided micro-loans to support local agricultural projects. 

We went to radical ends to ensure we were working within the limits of our surroundings. We built without the use of concrete and manufactured roofing. We set a boundary not to use processed, industrial farmed or imported foods, choosing instead to keep our economic resources circulating in the island economy. Eventually, we grew to be more than 95% reliant on foods that actually grew on Ometepe. This set the stage for a fertile cross-pollination that laid the foundation for the Ometepe Development Fund Regenerative Food Security Program, as cooks from around the world came to share their local interpretations of regional dishes: Thai Green Papaya Salad, Caribbean Coconut rice, Middle Eastern Hummus, and West African Peanut Sauce. We hosted recipe sharing days where we showed the locals how to make whole grain bread while they taught us their traditional sweet bread recipe.

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Volunteer and local Buildings join together to raise the InanItah Kitchen loft. © Erika Logie

Turning Problems Into Solutions

As I predicted was possible, a drastic, rapid increase in tourism threw the ecosystem out of balance. In this case, we saw the desire to market to tourists spur an increase of imported and processed foods on the island and a decrease in food production. The demands of a consumer lifestyle followed the tourists, and the tastes and desires of local Nicaraguans quickly started to change. They began to prefer the quick, easy, corporate branded foods that they witnessed tourists buying. By the time the political crisis hit in 2018, Ometepe had become dependent on exports. After the crisis, tourism came to a halt, food supply chains were cut off from the island, and people went hungry as food prices soared. 

Just as a forest fire cleanses and brings light to the forest floor, this crisis brought light back into our foundational principles.

I saw an opportunity to create a local food initiative that would feed needy children, generate wealth for farmers, and provide locals with culinary skills that would enable them to meet their families' nutritional needs. The key challenge and objective was to educate and empower families so that they can sustain themselves on nutritionally rich and locally grown foods. Many imported foods are nutritionally deficient, but their consumption as dietary staples has become ingrained, particularly over the past two decades. We wanted to inspire locals to value and capitalize on the incredibly rich agricultural resources already at their disposal, which they had become blind to due to their dependence on food exports and their colonial diet of beans, rice, and imported flour and sugar. 

The Ometepe Development Fund’s Kitchen is a food initiative that nourishes the people, the economy, and the earth.

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Ladies from the women’s co-operative practicing making yucca bread. © Caitlin Riley

An Integrated System Design

What is unique about this initiative is that it works to shift demand in order to affect supply, which will ultimately increase biodiversity and result in a more regenerative economy for Ometepe. We are doing this through culinary innovation. 

This innovation was inspired by the decade of creativity that occurred in InanItah’s kitchen, as community members and travelers from around the world collaborated with Nicaraguans on original recipes that used local ingredients, drew upon the embodied culinary wisdom of local cooks and were aligned with the ethical limitations of Ometepe food production. Today our recipes create nutritious substitutes for foods that children, in particular, crave, such as sweets. We make Black Bean Brownies with locally grown black beans, bananas, cacao, and eggs instead of imported white flour, white sugar, and cacao powder. We serve bread made from locally grown yucca rather than white flour. The 200 children enrolled in the program benefit directly by receiving meals, prepared by local women, that contain vitamins and minerals missing from the local oily, starchy diet. And, we see many children inspired to stay open-minded, try new things, and enjoy foods they previously considered inedible.

Because we are now broadening the culinary landscape, we are increasing demand for crops that were otherwise considered insignificant or inedible. Slowly we see green papaya replacing cabbage in traditional local salads, tamales filled with perennial greens, and coconut used in rice and local custard dishes. The result is less wasted food and more biodiversity, which is apparent in the former rice fields now interplanted with papaya and root vegetables. 

This gradual evolution in local eating habits positively impacts the local economy by decreasing reliance on imported produce. As a result, money circulates within the local economy instead of 'leaking' out. Each pound (dollar) provided by donors to our food security program feeds children, puts money into local farmers’ hands and empowers families to eat more nutritiously for less money. 

This program encourages a move away from annual agriculture towards a more integrated system of farming using permaculture principles. Our programs encourage perennial planting, which supports the maintenance and replenishing of essential topsoils, which are critical for the longevity of food production on the island. 

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Neighbors lining up to receive much needed meals during the political crisis. © Caitlin Riley

Obtaining a Yield

Our programs nurture self-reliance through education, participation, and inspiration. We bring the Ometepe community together to work collaboratively towards the common goals of self-sustainability and self-sufficiency. Together Kenji Nakagawa, the Community Center Guardian, and supportive volunteers have turned a baron lot into a productive garden with fertile, juicy, nutrient-dense soil. Local children find joy and reward in learning about the new foods they are eating. They also witness the results of caring for the soil and the plants, which heals the wound of shame they feel around their ‘Campesino’ roots.

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Farmers bringing rice and beans down from the fields.

Program participants are harvesting inspirational ideas to create win-win scenarios. The vendors at the Ometepe Mercadito have begun using creative recipes to capitalize on the niche market of health-minded travelers who value the increase in nutritional options. Some women from the recipe sharing days have come up with the idea to create a co-operative local foods restaurant to generate additional income for themselves and the local farmers. Supporting this vision is a key program objective going forward. 

Today, the Nicaraguan political situation has calmed, and business has returned to normal. Tourism is on the rise once again, bringing with it the benefit of economic resources and the challenge of integrating new people and potentially rapid changes into the ecosystem. It’s clear to me that many of the program participants and their peers are more aware of the challenges of rapid economic growth and now appreciate the benefits of limiting imported foods and buying local. More importantly, I see that local residents are becoming more empowered critical thinkers, asking the tough questions and looking for creative solutions. Together we, the foreigners and residents of Ometepe, are poised to make more regenerative decisions both personally and professionally, as we ride the waves of a globalizing society together.

Ometepe Development Fund (www.facebook.com/OmetepeRegenerativeFood) was one of the 20 finalists for the 2019 Permaculture Magazine Prize.

Useful links

Permaculture Magazine Prize 2019

Rob Greenfield: 365 days of growing and foraging my own food, drinks and medicine

Bioremediation and regeneration in oil-damaged Ecuador

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