By Austin Bailey, World Ark editor
Photos by Lacey West, World Ark contributor

MATAGALPA, Nicaragua — Paulina Martinez is quick to snatch up her wood and leather swatter to shoo away any curious dogs or clumsy chicks that amble too close to the porch, threatening to disturb her prized quiet time. Rules are different, though, for the bees and wasps nesting in the porch eaves. Stinging insects don’t bother the mistress of this house at all and are free to zoom in and out unmolested. Industrious pollinators are welcome guests in this hardbaked region of Nicaragua. Martinez draws honeybees to her yard with rows of white wooden hives, and they reward her hospitality with a year-round supply of honey.

Paulina Martinez
Paulina Martinez harvests honey.

Martinez is part of a Heifer supported project in Nicaragua’s Dry Corridor that’s helping farming families adapt as hotter weather, sparser rainfall and depleted soil render the land less fruitful. She’s one of more than 700 members of The Federation of Women Producers of the Field, a cooperative that formed to maximize production for farmers living in the department of Matagalpa.

“The water tables are so low that they couldn’t easily access water for irrigation. They had to do something else,” said Erick Antonio Matamoros, a technician with the Agricultural Federation of Cooperatives of Rural Women Producers in Nicaragua. Known locally as FEMUPROCAN, Matamoros’ group teams up with Heifer to help women farmers in the region. Children here have always climbed trees to scoop wild honey from bees’ nests. And honey is doled out as a remedy for sore throats and stomach aches. But bee farming is just now catching on. “People used to not pay attention to beekeeping,” Martinez said. “Now, they realize it makes money.”

And money is particularly hard to come by in this poor and arid region. Nicaragua’s strip of the Dry Corridor runs north and south near the Pacific coast, but its proximity to so much water belies desert-like conditions. El Niño weather patterns brought acute drought to the already parched region in recent years, and average temperatures inched up. A scrim of dust coats everything as the forests and fields wait for rain. Still, flowering trees muster on, providing the raw ingredients for honey and allowing the bees here to work year-round.

Heifer International is working with 11,000 farming families in Nicaragua and with 3,000 families in the Dry Corridor, helping them pivot to new agricultural practices and crops that can take the heat. In addition to honey, Heifer International is helping farmers by supplying drought-tolerant seeds, fungusresistant coffee plants, chickens, pigs and loans that farmers are using to build irrigation systems or start small businesses.

Martinez and her family continue to coax what they can from the increasingly barren fields, and she runs a bakery out of her home. The proceeds from honey hives ensure Martinez and other beekeepers make up for the crops lost to drought.

A Woman's Touch

Not all of Heifer’s work in Nicaragua revolves around honeybees, but it does all revolve around women. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America, and high rates of domestic violence and teen pregnancy plague women here, especially far out in rural areas where social progress comes more slowly. Women’s workloads are heavy, with children, housework, cooking and gardening all traditionally falling in their domain.

The strain is easing a little for women in Genizaros, a hidden community in northwestern Nicaragua, since they’ve enlisted their husbands and sons to help. The Heifer project here cleverly grants livestock and training only to women, leaving men with no choice but to take on some of their wives’ workloads if they want the family to benefit.

Mariana Trujillo Calderon
Mariana Trujillo Calderon harvests cashews.

Despite his initial misgivings, it’s turning out to be a fine system for Diego Manuel Rocha Hernández, father of six and husband of Mariana Trujillo Calderon. He admits he didn’t like it when his wife first started dashing off to trainings, raising pigs and chickens and bringing in the bulk of the family’s income.

“I felt like I was removed from my leadership,” Rocha said. He went along with his wife’s decision to join the Heifer project, though, because he saw few other opportunities. His own farming efforts on the family’s land failed more often than they succeeded lately, and he was hopeful that Trujillo might be on to something. “Sometimes she has better ideas than me,” he admitted. If Trujillo could grow food and make money, Rocha knew he wouldn’t have to leave the family anymore to travel to Costa Rica for months at a time to work as a farm laborer.

And he was right. The family’s fortunes improved almost immediately after a Heifer project began in their community in 2013, as Trujillo went to every training and planted every seed offered. Quiet, focused and steady, Trujillo embraced and maximized every resource. “We needed help, so much help at that time,” she said. “We have taken advantage of what they provided.”

As Trujillo began spending more time working with her fellow Heifer participants, she handed many of her chores over to her husband. He now washes dishes, irons clothes and feeds the animals, all jobs he never did before. “I taught him these things,” Trujillo said. “He was a good student.”

With the weight of her daily work lightened, Trujillo focused on climbing the ladder toward economic security. She sold eggs to buy more chickens. She sold chickens to buy pigs. She sold pigs to buy cows, and she sold milk to buy cement brick to build her family a larger, sturdier house. Trujillo shared tips and tricks with neighbors, who also thrived. The once-small women’s cooperative swelled to 300 members who pooled their money to buy land for a chicken farm. Built this spring, the farm houses chickens on mesh flooring to keep the birds cleaner and healthier. Their chickens feed a robust market and bring in steady profits.

Husbands and fathers who were initially skeptical about the project now embrace it for the simple reason that money is coming in, enough money to keep the men from having to hitch rides to El Salvador, Guatemala or Costa Rica for work.

“I feel good and thankful because we’re succeeding. We went from a hard situation to a better situation,” Rocha said.

Membership Perks

The heat and dust let up a bit on the climb to the Cantagallo community, and a weak breeze moves across the low mountains. People living in this section of the Cordillera Isabella mountains that curve close to the Honduran border get a break from the lowland heat, but not from the economic challenges plaguing Nicaraguan farmers in recent years.

The coffee-growing community of Cantagallo is slowly recovering.

The coffee trees that earned most of Cantagallo’s cash for decades succumbed to coffee rust in 2011, ruining two-thirds of the harvest. Known locally as la roya, coffee rust is a fungus that announces itself with yellow dots on the leaves and eventually consumes the entire tree, leaving only skeletal gray branches behind. The fungus spread through Central America in recent years, demolishing countless harvests and local economies.

“The families were in crisis,” said Agilla Gonzalez, president of the St. Geronimo farming cooperative. “They didn’t have food because there was no money to buy it. We were surviving on corn and beans.” Fathers, brothers and sons hitched rides down the mountain to work on tobacco farms a couple of hours away.

Heifer and partner organizations arrived in 2013, bringing rustresistant coffee trees to replace the lost groves. But that didn’t solve the problem. Coffee trees don’t begin producing until their third year, and hungry families in Cantagallo couldn’t wait that long.

Gilma Cordova Calderon’s family was one of the first to receive chickens from Heifer to help get them through the next few years. With her husband and two grown sons gone to look for work in the tobacco fields, she took on the chickens, selling eggs to buy sugar, oil, cheese and sour cream. The improved diet had an immediate effect on Cordova’s grandsons. “I could tell they had more energy and weren’t so listless,” she said. She sold enough eggs to buy pigs and also to install a rudimentary irrigation system to keep her gardens thriving. Soon, she will add bees to her menagerie.

Her plot of coffee trees stands waist-high, set between the naked trunks of the coffee trees ruined by la roya. Eventually the new trees will stand 7 feet tall. Because they use organic growing methods, Cordova and the other coffee farmers of Cantagallo will be able to sell their product at a higher price. She suspects the crops will be lucrative enough that she will be able to pay day laborers again to help her with the harvest, as she did before coffee rust wiped out her economic reserves.

The new trees are bushy and green, and already producing the rich red coffee cherries that have been the foundation of local economies for ages. But even if the harvest fails in the future, Cordova said she will be able to weather the setback with her chickens, pigs and bees, and that her grandsons will never have to scrimp by on only corn and beans again.