When I found out that we would be building organic vegetable gardens in the rural community of La Bendicion de Dios in the westernmost district of El Salvador, to be honest the word ‘organic’ didn’t really jump out. I assumed that the main aim of our project was to build a sustainable source of varied nutrition for the people in the community, and most of all for women of ADESCOMFM, the womens’ organisation with whom we are working.

Back in England, the word ‘organic’ had always been lumped in with ‘posh’ and ‘overpriced’ in a supermarket setting, and ‘hippy’ or ‘middle class’ in the context of farmer’s markets on a sunny Sunday morning, not that I’d ever really stopped to think about it. It’s a word that I saw a lot, but didn’t really register any more- sticking, as a student and in the first year of my career, to the cheapest tomatoes I could find and feeling extra triumphant if the veg covered in ‘reduced’ stickers that ended up in my basket happened to be organic, because it felt like even more of a bargain. 

Working in the community here, I’ve had my eyes truly opened to what ‘organic’ means, as a reality for a population of Salvadorans for whom intensive, commercial, cash crop farming is often the sole source of familial income. In an economy crippled by youth unemployment - where almost 50% of workers are “employed” in the “informal” sector, without contracts or job stability let alone healthcare benefits or pension provision, where 70 people emigrate northwards in search of work every day - any job, in theory, is a good one, and a way of putting food on the table. One of the few advantages of living in a rural community (albeit accessed only by a rutted dirt road, and with temperamental water supply from the communal tap) is the opportunity to work in agriculture- and even to have a little bit of space to grow-your-own in the back garden. 

The nostalgic idea of earning your daily bread in the tropical sunshine and living simply in a little village with chickens roaming free was completely shattered for me when we watched a video made by the ‘Guerreros Verdes’ (green warriors)- a Mexican pro-organic group, in the first full week that we spent in Bendicion.  The highly toxic pesticides and herbicides sprayed on all sorts of crops, not just tomatoes and sugar cane, but also the roses and carnations that you can get at 2-for-a-fiver, have drastic and permanent effects on the health of workers.  Working 10-hour shifts in greenhouses that reach over 35 degrees and would be better described as gas chambers, these people are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals that cause a variety of different maladies - Asthma, Parkinson’s, infertility, Bronchitis, and many Cancers. The pictures of malformed foetuses, children born without eyes, and the distress of families trying to understand this ‘punishment’ were more distressing than any of the films we considered watching for the Day of the Dead: the ironic “twist” at the end was when we looked out of Esmerelda’s back door and saw her father spraying the bushes in her garden with a bomba just like those we had been watching on the video in her living room. 

On the other side of the village, Graciela’s experience as a single mother earning $8 a week working in commercial agriculture (which is common experience in Bendicion - our National Volunteers are juggling the project with watching over their ripe maize and bean fields to avoid theft of the crop) provides an interesting insight into the real value of the project we are working on. She knows how to care for her crop and truly cares about the knowledge we are sharing in our workshops. By working with us to make organic bocashi fertilizer and M5 pesticide, she knows that in her garden, “we won’t have as many problems, because there are no toxins involved… you have to take so much care [with chemical pesticides] because the poison gets in through your pores. I’ll be able to water and harvest without being scared, because it’s not going to hurt me. And the other thing, we won’t have to wait 8 days [for the toxin to wear off] before we can touch and eat the produce”. At the back of my mind, the knowledge that these toxins take far longer than 8 days to completely decompose, the effects that they have in the water system, and the consequences of burning the containers in which they are sold, leads me to think that it’s not only the people here who should be worried about intensive pesticide use. 

Seven weeks into the project, the organic radishes that we planted in the first garden are big enough to harvest (we had some yesterday for lunch), and we’re looking forward to transplanting organic little onions, aubergines, onions, peppers and so forth from the seed trays we all planted, just as soon as the mini seedlings are strong enough. The M5 and bocashi have been distributed around the community, and we’ve improved some of the previous gardens too, adding rock borders to avoid rain damage to the beds. As we begin to focus our energies on other projects, fundraising to improve the Casa Comunal (village hall) and recording a documentary about ADESCOMFM, it’s great to see the community begin to reap the rewards of the hard work we’ve done together, knowing that the women involved know how to maintain their gardens into the future, improving the soil and, with luck, never choosing to spray again. 

Blog by: Sian Cooke

Photo: Interview with Graciela