Saving the lake and food safety in Nicaragua

Saving the lake and food safety in Nicaragua

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On this world food safety day, get to know more about this collective effort in Nicaragua, which has united actors who do not generally work together in the country to conserve a lake. A big endeavour by itself, but one that might also improve the safety of the production of the country's main vegetables for consumption.

Bismarck Gutiérrez is a 30-year-old farmer from the community of El Mojón in Jinotega. His farm, located high in the mountains surrounding Lake Apanás, can only be accessed by four-wheel-drive vehicles.

"This lake used to have a good water inflow. I remember my dad saying, 'it's filling up with water up to the top' and it really was water. Now it fills up, but not with water, but with a lot of mud and dirt," regrets Bismarck, who can see the artificial lake from his farm.

In 2016, Rikolto was looking for institutions interested in rescuing Lake Apanás. Private companies, various environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), producers, universities, the indigenous community, and state institutions joined to create a multi-stakeholder platform called MASLAGO.

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Bismarck is starting to apply agricultural practices on his farm that reduce the environmental impact on the lake.

His farm is one of the model farms of the MASLAGO group. Alongside Bismarck is Darwan Rizo, technical advisor to one of the local farmer organisations, Coomsepoda. "We want these farms to serve as a learning experience, as a mirror for other neighbouring farms to adopt these practices," says Darwan.

At dawn, in another part of the Apanás basin, Claudia González gives instructions to her workers for her lettuce and beetroot plantation. She is the only woman on her farm today. In her routine, being the only woman is common. She is the president of the farmer organisation Coosmprojin, which has 72 members, of which only 15 are women. Coosmprojin is part of MASLAGO.

For the photograph, Claudia nonchalantly digs up a beet from the field while explaining that she has a separate storing room for used agrochemical containers, which are then collected by the cooperative so that they do not end up in the lake.

On her farm, they carry out soil and water analyses and keep a record of each product to improve quality, although she says that not everyone carries out these practices.

Agrochemicals, from problem to solution

The research centre CIRA provided a study on the agrochemicals present in the vegetables marketed in the country, which come mainly from around Lake Apanás.

The results surprised MASLAGO members and raised the alarm to continue studying and conserving the watershed.

"The results show that more than 40% of the samples analysed have pesticide residue concentrations above the Codex Alimentarius and European Union standards," explained Joseph Díaz.

CIRA collected samples of lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, bell peppers and carrots from the country's main markets and supermarkets, as well as from Apanás' horticultural cooperatives, to determine pesticide residues. They used a method derived from the AOAC (Association of Official Analytical Chemists) and determined the presence of residues of at least 22 pesticides.

"The results show that more than 40% of the samples analysed have pesticide residue concentrations above the Codex Alimentarius and European Union standards," explained Joseph Díaz, CIRA research professor and member of the Organic Contaminants Laboratory group that carried out the study.

"According to the results we found that the cabbage, lettuce and tomato samples are the ones with the highest concentration of pesticide residues and the greatest variability of pesticides overall," says Díaz.

600,000 containers turned into recycled furniture

One of the actors that joined MASLAGO's efforts was the Nicaraguan Association of Formulators and Distributors of Agrochemicals (ANIFODA), which brings together 20 agrochemical marketing companies in Nicaragua. Even though many might see them as part of the problem, one of their recycling campaigns has become a flagship event for the communities and MASLAGO.

"We promote in the field the message that producers should not burn the containers, should not throw them into the rivers or lakes, but that they are returned after triple washing to the collection centres we have at the national level ", says Flor de María Rivas, executive secretary of ANIFODA.

The agrochemical distributors that are part of ANIFODA have invested 90% of their actions in environmental conservation through talks and training for their buyers and producers so that they can handle the containers carefully and prevent them from contaminating the waters of Lake Apanás.

"Once we recover these containers, we render them unusable, recycle them and convert them, for example, into plastic wood to make recycled furniture," says Rivas.

According to ANIFODA, in the recycling campaigns, they have managed to recover 6.6 million containers. In 2019 alone, they collected 150,000 units of empty agrochemical containers nationwide, an action that MASLAGO and its member organisations joined.

Promoting smart agriculture

Agustín Moreira is the director of the Observatory of Natural Phenomena (OFENA) and a member of MASLAGO, although most Nicaraguans know him as a meteorologist who warns about weather conditions on Facebook.

For the past three years, he has been teaching cocoa, coffee and vegetable farmers how to use the information generated by weather stations to protect their crops from the adversities of climate change.

"We are creating climate outlooks that are sent to producers so they can capture 15 days' worth of data, such as the daily information they receive through weather forecasts and early warning systems for decision-making," says Moreira, who helped set up three weather stations in MASLAGO's member cooperatives.

Moreira admits that it was complex at first, but now at least 180 producers benefit from this climate information that he disseminates through social networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

"Like all learning at the beginning it is difficult, and even more so when we talk about the technology to move from traditional agriculture to smart agriculture. There is resistance, but that resistance diminishes when the farmer starts to see positive results," says Agustin.

"What farmers do with this information is to see if they can apply a product or not if they can do the agricultural work. It's not only the use of the product, but it has to do with everything from the moment of preparing the land to the moment of planting," says Ana Herrera, a young member of the Coosmprojin cooperative, which is in charge of collecting the data from the weather station.

MASLAGO intends to create technological brochures with information relevant to some of the key crops in the area, and thus document the variables of the territory along with the optimal conditions that the crops need to develop favourably and that are easy for producers to understand.

MASLAGO's intervention on the ground is just beginning to show results and has directly and indirectly involved at least 3,000 people in the first years of implementation.

The 24 km2 micro-watershed that today serves as a focal point to centralise their actions can serve as a guide for other sites that present similar problems to Lake Apanás, although the biggest challenge, for now, is to involve more actors and to have regulations or incentives for more sustainable production.

Guillermo Gutiérrez, current coordinator of the Integrated Landscape Management Project through MASLAGO by Rikolto, maintains that this work is long-term, and the results will depend on the awareness of current and future actors who join this Sustainable Landscape platform.

"This depends on the awareness of people and institutions. One can improve a farm in some way, even reforest. But if that reforestation does not go through the mind, through people's conscience, then it will not be sustainable."

Guillermo Gutierrez Project Coordinator at Rikolto

MASLAGO members are betting on these first steps to build a model territory that, they believe, could reflect a significant change in the next 25 years. They are currently working on a five-year strategic plan that will allow the organisations to obtain the necessary funds to continue promoting actions such as these. For now, they can testify to the synergies and awareness coming out of moving towards a common, of which they are sure that it can be replicated in other landscapes around the world.

For more information about the project contact:

Guillermo Gutierrez
Guillermo Gutierrez
Asesor estratégico del Programa Sistemas Alimentarios Sostenibles en Ciudades | Centroamérica

Collaboration | Writer: Jorge Hurtado - Consultant | Photography: Inti Ocón | Web version: Selene Casanova - Rikolto Communicator for Latin America |