Artists for Soup Resists Climate Change in Nicaragua

One of the most challenging hurdles in the way of resisting climate change is the elusive nature of its virtual invisibility. In Nicaragua and around the world, deforestation, toxins spread by war and industrial agriculture, oil spills, and species extinction all happen out of sight, often preventing the large-scale grassroots activism we might find with other crises.

How can climate change become something we see? Elioena Aráuz and Alyeriz Aráuz Zeledón are sisters who work with Artists for Soup, a nonprofit working to strengthen local food security and nutrition in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is one of the top 10 countries most affected by the severe cycles of drought and flooding that damage soil fertility. In their work, the sisters point to growing hunger and malnutrition in Nicaragua as evidence of climate change’s impact.

Aráuz and Zeledón work with community groups and families to develop biointensive food production and reforestation methods that build sustainable food production, improve nutrition, address climate change, and strengthen local economies. As family and school groups make gains in sustainability on the 1000-family Indigenous reservation in El Corozo, near the city of Matagalpa, the sisters hope their home community will become a model for change throughout Nicaragua.

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Elioena Aráuz teaches biointensive gardening in a school garden.

In the summer of 2017, graduate students from the University of Texas examined Elioena Aráuz’s work with family and school garden development in La Paz Centro, Leon, and El Quilombo. The students found that Aráuz’s efforts had already improved nutrition in these parts of Nicaragua.  Back home in El Corozo, Aráuz is often waved in as she walks along the road and invited to visit the gardens and eat with families. She puts it this way: “Before the gardens, you would never have seen a cabbage in the house. Now children are eating peppers and carrots! People are very happy to be able to grow food for their tables.”

This emphasis on local food production became even more important in the spring of 2018, when widespread repression and violence in Nicaragua have resulted in food shortages.  

The environmental restoration that results from Aráuz’s science-based agroecological approach to gardening makes her a popular speaker. She has given invited talks to the National Congress in Managua and to visiting biointensive gardeners from around the world at Nicaraguan conferences. Aráuz hosts small local and international workshops at the demonstration garden she started on her parents’ farm in El Corozo in 2014. This demonstration site has become a learning center for families and school communities interested in biointensive gardening, slow drip irrigation, solar ovens, and high efficiency stove use. This year, Echo and John Jeavons with Ecology Action both held small conferences about increasing dietary diversity and nutrition at the demonstration garden site.

Aráuz sisters with John Jeavons of Eco Action at the Demonstation garden in Corozo, Nicaragua
Zeledón (left) and Aráuz (right) with John Jeavons (of Ecology for Action).

Artists for Soup has invested in the demonstration gardens and meeting spaces, making possible workshops that bring together international and local groups. Bringing people to share science-based information and local knowledge may be part of what makes Aráuz’s approach successful. And as local community members share and develop strategies for building dietary diversity, composting, and seed saving, it becomes clear that the solution for hunger and environmental destruction is right under our feet in spaces where communities learn from each other.

Aráuz’s sister, Alyeriz Aráuz Zeledón,  remembers fondly the trees that grew around them during their childhoods. “I have many memories of long walks under the shade of the trees and over the river where I could find guava, orange, or mango trees,” she says. But as the community has grown, people have cut down the trees for fuel and lumber, damaging the water table, the Calico River, and the air quality.

Zeledójoined Artists for Soup as a consultant after working for six years in Nicaragua with indigenous and Afro-descent communities on collective rights and education. With a grant from the Pollination Project and support from Artists for Soup, she has begun a reforestation project in El Corozo.

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Alyeriz Aráuz Zeledón conducts impact evaluation interviews with family garden participants.

During summer of 2018, more than 100 members of the El Corozo community planted 1,000 trees near the city’s water source and began removing trash from the Calico River as part of a new recycling initiative. The nearby community of San Dionisio participated in the river clean-up and reforestation efforts; in return, the Corozo community will help with a larger river clean-up and reforestation initiative in their region. “My teacher at the school in El Corozo,” Zeledón said, “told me she had wanted to do a river clean up for over ten years but couldn’t figure out how to motivate the students to do it.  She was elated when students, older siblings and parents all showed up to help.” It’s clear that both sisters inspire people to feel their potential as participants in a movement to turn the reservation into a flourishing place that encourages others.

In addition to 1,000 native tree seedlings and reforestation materials, the Pollination Project and Artists for Soup have provided 380 fruit trees for 48 families, including biointensive family garden participants. These trees have all been planted in the first stage of what will become an ongoing effort to re-green the reservation.

Zeledón also coordinates making and distributing seed balls to throw in deforested areas as part of a youth initiative to engage teens in projects that resist climate change. Zeledón adapted this seed ball initiative as an inexpensive and simple way to start reforestation in large areas after reading about the transformative work of an organization called Seed Balls of Kenya.

Jacques Leslie sums up the science behind the work of Aráuz and Zeledón in a New York Times article titled “Soil Power: The Dirty Way to a Green Planet.” He turns around the grim prophecy that the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago was the beginning of the end of the Earth by making the case for carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation as a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. He writes, “Instead of overcoming nature, [carbon sequestration] reinforces it, promoting the propagation of plant life to return carbon to the soil that was there in the first place — until destructive agricultural practices prompted its release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

If subsistence farmers using regenerative agriculture methods are more likely to resist climate change than massive, expensive geoengineering projects ever will, Aráuz and Zeledón are showing families and schools in Nicaragua how to animate others in precipitating a restoration process while growing good food locally and planting trees.

About Judith Nichols and William Nichols

Judith Nichols began writing poems about Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 1987 while living in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Returning to Central American many times in the years that followed, she published Blood Moon, Bright Stars in 2016 after becoming Executive Director of Artists for Soup, a non-profit organization that partners with Nicaraguan women who use agroecology and art to help communities strengthen food security, nutrition, care for the earth, and the local economy.                              William Nichols first visited Nicaragua in 1987, after visiting Judith in Costa Rica. His published essays focus on autobiography, poverty, violence, criminal justice, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, African American literature, Native American oral traditions, nuclear technology, ecology, and college social life. His most recent book is Finding Fox Creek: An Oregon Pilgrimage (2015)