|Farmers selling organic produce at the Belize Organic Fair and Forum.
|Luisa Putul was the 2014 female Farmer of the Year, announced at the organic fair.
First of Its Kind in Central America!
By Michele Christle
Photos by Brendan Keegan
It’s impossible not to be inspired when visiting the Common Ground Country Fair. The produce, the animals, the people, the workshops – there’s something for everyone. That’s what Nana Mensah found in 2007 when he attended Common Ground.
Mensah was visiting from Belize, a Central American country with a population of about 332,000 and an area about the size of Massachusetts. As country director of Sustainable Harvest International (SHI)-Belize, he was in Maine visiting the nonprofit organization’s U.S. headquarters in Ellsworth. Founded in 1997, SHI provides farming families in Central America with the training and tools to preserve tropical forests while overcoming poverty.
Mensah and the SHI-Belize staff work with hundreds of farming families throughout southern Belize. Local field trainers take participants through a five-phase intensive training program. After five years, families are empowered with organic and sustainable farming practices, healthy diets, increased income, environmental awareness and leadership skills.
Walking around the Common Ground Country Fair, Mensah saw how a similar event could benefit Belize.
“I said to myself, why can’t we do this in Belize?” Mensah says.
Fast-forward seven years.
October 2014 marked the sixth annual SHI-Belize Organic Fair and Forum, held for two days at the Punta Gorda Central Park. Corn, cassava, yams, plump plantains, bright green cilantro, aromatic culantro, a variety of beans, zesty limes, rich peanuts, robust onions, and peppers lined the stalls of the fair. Over the course of four hours, 13 SHI-Belize participant families sold more than $1,191 Belizean or $600 U.S. of produce. (The mean annual income in Belize is about $8,800 U.S., but The World Factbook, at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bh.html, says this figure masks a huge income disparity between rich and poor.)
|Julian Makin, 2014 male Farmer of the Year, and his family.
|Culantro, garlic and ginger at the SHI-Belize Organic Fair.
|The staff of SHI-Belize.
Mensah and his colleagues at SHI-Belize staffed a booth distributing brochures and advice on organic agriculture practices. The booth also displayed technologies SHI often incorporates into its work with families, such as solar composting latrines, mobile chicken coops, solar dryers, compost and natural pesticides. SHI-Belize staff sold products such as compost, organic insecticides and herbicides, medicinal tea, coffee, sorrel and T-shirts that generated more than $300 U.S. to go back into their training programs.
The SHI-Belize Organic Fair and Forum serves several purposes. Like the Common Ground Country Fair, it provides a forum to share knowledge and to recognize the families who work hard with Sustainable Harvest International. It also connects local farmers with new markets, including locals, ex-pats and resort owners. Staff at SHI-Belize teach public workshops during the event on various aspects of organic farming. This year they were also joined by Ya’axche Conservation Trust, the Belize Ministry of Agriculture and the Belize national coordinator for organic agriculture. Creating a new set of heroes in the community, the SHI farmers of the year were announced in three categories (male, female and youth).
Mensah fondly recalls last year, when a farmer who won stood up to accept his award.
“Look at me,” Mensah remembers him saying; “Go organic! Listen to SHI and you’ll look good like me!”
The man spoke with a sense of humor – fair attendees dress in their finest, and he did look quite smart. He also looked happy: Through what he’s learning with SHI, he’s able to provide nutritious food and sustainable income for his family. He’s able to diversify his diet and improve his health. The glimmer in his eyes said it all.
Through working with SHI, participant families and the land around them change. They no longer rely on slash-and-burn agriculture methods but learn sustainable techniques that provide lasting nutritional and economic benefits.
This year, several hundred people attended the SHI Belize Organic Fair and Forum – Punta Gorda locals, Mayan villagers, members of the Mennonite communities, representatives of Belizean farmers co-ops and NGOs, tourists and students. In upcoming years, Mensah hopes for an even bigger turnout, with more farmers, locals and international visitors participating.
Similar to the Common Ground Country Fair that initially inspired it, the SHI-Belize Organic Fair gives more people the opportunity to taste organic foods and encourages them to go organic with their shopping list. In turn, this encourages farmers who want to confirm that a market does, indeed, exist for their goods. Together, farmers and consumers in Belize are creating a more sustainable food chain and they have (in part) the Common Ground Country Fair to thank!
The 2015 SHI-Belize Organic Fair and Forum will take place on October 30-31, 2015.