25 October 2010, Pantasma/Rome - In one of Nicaragua's most fertile valleys, malnutrition is rife. The EU and FAO target this high-potential area as part of their efforts to help small-scale farmers increase their yields.
"Land has been our primary asset," says Ramiro Rizo, a farmer from Pantasma. "It is thanks to the land that we survive." But survival has not been always easy in this northern Nicaraguan town, located on one of the frontlines of the civil war that ravaged the country in the 1980s.
"You could hardly work," Rizo recalls. Many of his family members fled. The valley of Pantasma, named after the river that flows through it, once considered Central America's bread basket, turned into a wasteland.
Although the war is long ago, and Nicaragua has known stability since, not all the scars have healed. Recent shocks, such as high food prices in 2007-2008 and a drought in 2009, have put increasing strain on the livelihood of many.
According to Carlos Villagra, an official of Pantasma's city council, almost one out of five persons in town is chronically underfed.
Paradoxically, Nicaragua combines a steady growth of GDP and declining undernourishment with persisting poverty in the country-side. Data from the National Development Information Institute (INIDE) show that extreme rural poverty increased from 27,4% to 30,5% between 2001 and 2005.
Since 2009, FAO with € 3 million from the Food Facility, the EU's € 1 billion response to unacceptable levels of hunger in the world, helps organisations of small-scale farmers boost the productivity of staple crops, like beans, maize and rice.
Areas with a high agricultural potential, such as the valley of Pantasma, are especially targeted. Here, FAO is working with four local cooperatives, representing some 550 farmers owning around 650 manzanas (455 hectares). Ramiro Rizo belongs to Los Limones, the biggest cooperative with almost 300 associated farmers.
During the ‘apante' planting season of late last year, each farmer received 80 libras (37 kg) of quality bean seeds, as well as 2 quintales (91 kg) of fertiliser. Yields were double that of the national average, says Offman Salinas, FAO's project supervisor for northern Nicaragua.
Today, the farmers receive training in agricultural techniques, part of a programme that deals with issues such as pest control, crop rotation and storage. Capacity building is one solution, says Salinas: "Reducing poverty starts with education."
Another solution is sustainability. Farmers' associations have established a ‘revolving fund': they manage a stock of grains replenished from the members' harvest. Some associations have started to sell their surplus crops jointly.
Sitting on the porch of his ranch overlooking the valley, Ramiro Rizo recounts how after the war his family started coming back. Now they're reunited again. "Everything grows here," he says. According to him, it is all about land. "If you have nowhere to sow, you have no harvest. That's where poverty is."