Strengthening our “defenses” with “my Mom´s Green thumb”
René Mendoza Vidaurre, Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo with Anabel Cardoza, Glensis Carrasco, Selenia Cornejo, Adalis Orozco, Milson Cantarero and Jarithmar Gonzalez
COVID-19 is a cowardly virus that attacks the most vulnerable people whose immunological system is weak. Strengthening those “defenses” of people is imperative. This would be possible if each family had their own garden.
It seems simple. But it is not. Many times, aid organizations and governments have promoted gardens and farm diversification wanting families to “nourish themselves.” These projects last as long as the donation does. Why? How can families take up gardening? We write this article from our experience of wrestling with these questions in the communities.
Why have rural families quit planting gardens?
As the colonial and patriarchal capitalist institution of mono-cropping was imposed, backed by universities, credit, technical assistance and organizations established by external initiatives, crop diversity and biodiversity ended up cornered, and on the road to disappearing. The garden was swept up in that dynamic as well.
What is important with mono-cropping is money, that comes once a year with the harvest of that crop, and it is the man (husband or father) who is responsible for that monocrop in terms of markets for capital, the product itself, its agrochemicals and knowledge. Nothing is comparable to the monocrop: “I am not going to neglect my coffee by monitoring a squash plant”. Their rule is: “everything is bought with the coffee”, “our food is bought with the sugar cane money”. The women who used to work on diversified farms and were responsible for gardens, lost that space and were confined to the kitchen, while their menu of food said goodbye to soups and stews. At the same time, people ended up reproducing the idea of the elites: “There is no room for a garden”.
Seen in this way, it is funny to see governments and aid agencies promoting gardens, when they have backed mono-cropping over the last 200 years, as if peasant families did not have a memory. More than funny, we recognize their anti-peasant intentionality in their formula: they give away seeds of crops demanded by the market (carrots, lettuce, cabbage or tomatoes, mini-vegetables) as opposed to “weeds” (mint, oregano, rue, native garlic, medicinal plants) that are more for family and community consumption; they promote gardens in spaces separated from the home; done collectively, connected to a leader. All these elements are contrary to the peasant practice of gardens, which is why they are silently resisted by the peasantry.
In addition to deconstructing mono-cropping which undermines gardens, and the fact that its modern promoters follow ahistorical rules, we also identify beliefs and rules that are counter to peasant viability, but are reproduced by peasant people themselves. “I do not have room”, as if the garden required “additional space” to what is available. “With coffee I buy everything else”, when people live in debt for depending on one crop, and time and time again end up dividing up their land. “I am not a cow to be eating grasses”, rejecting vegetable foods that could strengthen their “defenses.”
How can women and their families recover their gardens?
Parallel to deconstructing, we dig into peasant memory. Our grandmothers and grandfathers still remember the gardens of their Mothers. What do they remember? They talk about “My Mom´s green thumb”. That is the garden, indigenous “chacra” in the Andean countries. This small area that exists along with the chickens, turkeys and pigs. What is this garden for? “To give flavor to food, aroma to drink, and medicine to the sick.” They were products that today, coming from the cities, are called “wild”: mint, rue, oregano, native garlic, chayote, squash, passion fruit, lemongrass, smilax, onions, peppers, chicory, wormseed, camphorweed, guava; many of them are used as medicine for parasites, treating fevers and anemia and hemorrhaging.
The more we dig into the memories of our grandmothers and grandfathers, the more practices emerge full of life. It was the women who mobilized the family labor force to take care of the garden. Plants like mint were on any tree trunk. Gardens were close to the house to grow under the eye of the women who cared for them from the kitchen. They were the product of family effort and neighborly exchanges; it was farming that was done by hand and using a mini-hoe. Its production, consumption and social relations were linked; the more diverse the garden a family had, the less debts they had, and less domestic violence was suffered in the home. Decisions were decentralized, women led the garden in a family where seed and fertilizer was obtained in the house itself and the community.
When we establish gardens, women leave their homes, walk around the yard, touch the plants, daughters and sons join in …and the husband. This practice clashes with that rule of “man as provider”, reduces pressure on men, helps the family increase their income, and return soups and stews to the menu, adds tea to the table and medicine to communities. Neighbors visit one another more, the exchange of products increases, their “defenses” are strengthened…
If the advantages are obvious, how can we recover and expand them?
If we recover our memory of “my Mom´s green thumb” and we light our interior fire to do gardens, the steps to follow are: obtain seed and plants, which in part are found dispersed in the community itself; the plants can include ginger, garlic, onions, cilantro, chicory, oregano, lemongrass, mint, peppers, tomatoes, celery, beets, cabbage, squash, cucumbers, rue, basil, wormseed, camphorweed, guava, smilax…
On establishing the gardens, people see different uses for it: “Before we were disorderly, chicory growing in the pastures, now with the garden it is more orderly, they are all in one place; previously we cleaned mangos on our pants, now we wash them with water.” Hygiene and the garden go hand in hand.
As we harvest, we can enjoy teas, soups, stews and salads, use them as medicine. This strengthens health, helps to appreciate what we have, and we are making ideas enter through the tongue. We recommend the book of Jaime Wheelock (1998, La comida Nicaraguense), it is a book that summarizes indigenous food, Spanish food, and the confluence of both.
Few rules are needed. Which ones? That women take on the leadership of the garden and that the entire family collaborate with the garden. That the cooperative, the community store, the school or the church offer seed or plants to be paid for by the harvest, following the principle of “help those who help themselves” (Law of talents, Matt 25). If a family prepares the soil, they are provided seed for 5 crops; if they plant those 5 crops, they are provided another 5. The evolution of each garden is observed by the family, and it is the leader, her daughter or son, who records the data on that evolution – by crop, behavior, health of the plant… The organization or institution that accompanies them, helps them to analyze that data and consequently to innovate in their gardens, diet and health.
To multiply gardens, organizations or institutions can create a prize for the best garden every 3 months. As the gardens become realities, they will catalyze new initiatives: people who want to set up nurseries, dry fruit and bananas, people who buy products to sell them in the neighboring communities, community stores that sell small amounts of seed (retail), community technical advisers; healers; community celebrations; product exchanges….
Are there risks that the gardens will not work?
Assuming that we overcome the anti-peasant practices that we identified in the projects, there are also risks in gardens worked by families. Chickens can dig up and eat the plants, pigs can have a party in the garden, some birds tend to call in their communities to wipe out gardens…In the face of this risk, each family takes measures: protecting the garden with barbed wire, using banana leaves to form a fence, placing a doll with a red rag to frighten off the birds, putting wire and cone on the pigs…The entire family observes each difficulty and achievement, innovates in intense discussions to overcome these difficulties, studying more and more their own data…
A second risk is that the men take control over the garden, the risk here is like with the projects that look for “the head of the family”, and where he is guided by custom that has become law: work with machete, some days of the month, imposition of “women in the kitchen and taking care of the children” and only work on crops to be sold. One measure that can be taken is to work every day in the garden, and over time attract the other members of the family, in this way the person who is in the house every day ends up assuming shared leadership. A second measure is that the youth discover how boring the mono-cropping system is, where you only have to weed, fertilize and harvest, while the garden is a space for intensive, fun group therapy, open to innovation based on recording and analyzing information, and it is very participatory. A third measure is being open to men also trying their hand at cooking; it is not just the fact that men want to experiment, women also have to encourage them to do so; on this topic the article of Sergio Ramírez is enlightening (“El diablo en la cocina”, in El Faro, https://elfaro.net/es/202002/columnas/24037/El-diablo-en-la-cocina.htm‘P) it captures the assumptions/beliefs that keep men from going into the kitchen.
Do the gardens have an impact on changes in rural organizations?
Organizations tend to dance to the music of mono-cropping. Their membership tends to be mostly male, their structure more hierarchical, dependent on the market as its patron. The peasant garden, not promoted by market forces, can help them to change, because of the diversity of the crops, the demand to innovate in small areas, and the fact that families do not go into debt. Organizations can reorganize themselves to process and sell surplus products from the garden, they can provide technical accompaniment services, they can decentralize their decisions, they can get closer to working by hand, hoe farming or garden farming.
Organizations, hand in hand with women, can change for the good of humanity. For example, a peasant community store should have “a peasant face”: selling products from outside and also peasant products, hanging a bunch of plantains and bananas in the window, selling cooked palm fruit, potted plants, cassava, bunches of peppermint, eggs, baked goods. More than just a business, vegetables, and a garden, behind those products is the recreation of indigenous and peasant culture.
Here is the beginning of one of the alternative paths to colonial and patriarchal capitalism. A peasant path, organized, de-centralized, and with organizations that respond to these realities, more democratic and closer to the people. “My Mom´s green thumb” is capable of mobilizing vivid determination.