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Canadians Get Their Hands Dirty to Fight Global Hunger
Posted on: 10/13/2009 11:10
By Julienne Gage
You can do a lot of things to fight world hunger from Canada, but one thing it’s difficult to do is obtain hands-on food production strategies that fit some of the world’s hungriest southern climates. Given this reality, a number of socially conscious Canadians have flown south to Florida. There, between the balmy tourist beaches and the exotic wetlands lies ECHO, a 50-acre farm that trains international aid workers in effective, low-cost strategies for growing food and beefing up nutrition.
“In order for ECHO to be effective as a demonstration tool for missionaries and development workers going abroad, it must be set in a tropical climate, something Canada doesn’t have,” explains David Prins, a Lacombe, Alberta native who is spending the year as an intern at ECHO. “From an agriculturalist’s perspective, ECHO is a gold mine. There are literally hundreds of species of plants, and almost as many systems for cultivating those plants in to learn about.”
Founded in 1973 as a Christian nonprofit organization aimed at enhancing food production in Haiti, ECHO now networks with 3,000 organizations in 180 different countries by providing on-site training through conferences, internships, and short term studies, a 300-variety seed bank, and literature on agricultural best practices. Thanks to heavy funding from churches and philanthropists, ECHO is able to provide these services free of charge, and it will provide them to anyone regardless of religious affiliation. In fact, a 2008 grant to translate ECHO materials to Spanish and French caused hits on ECHO’s website to jump from 3,000 to 72,000 per month.
Still, ECHO’s Canadian collaborators say nothing beats getting down and dirty on the ECHO farm itself, and that’s not just because of the myriad of tools available for technical training, says ECHO Intern Terri Lynn Paulson of Saskatchewan.
“The interns (and visitors) come from all over the world, and so you get many perspectives on life from our different backgrounds, experiences, and upbringings. At the same time, we are all here at ECHO because we have similar passions that somehow relate to agriculture, development, and missions. It creates a venue for a lot of great discussions,” Paulson says.
Apart from the yearlong, stipended internship, interested parties may attend ECHO’s four-day training session at the Fort Myers headquarters in December or a similar conference at its satellite campus in Chang Mai, Thailand in September. ECHO is also willing to help students organize accredited university field studies that utilize both the farm and the online resources.
Neither Paulson nor Prins know exactly where they’ll go after ECHO, but they say they’ll likely follow their predecessors by joining an international mission or relief organization.
In fact, that’s what last year’s intern Heidi Renkema is about to do. She’s currently fundraising throughout churches in southwestern Ontario for a two-year mission project in Cameroon. If she can raise the $40,000 required to do it, she’ll join the Christian development organization World Team to help the semi-nomadic Baka people develop a sustainable livelihood on the edge of a rainforest by turning an already existing orchard into a fruit tree business. Because of increased logging and urbanization, the Baka are being forced to abandon their wandering ways.
“They must adapt in some way or another,” explains Renkema. “The people are quite familiar with fruit and gathering in the jungle, so working with fruit provides a natural bridge to their traditional way of life.”
ECHO was instrumental in helping Renkema know what trees—fruit and other- can provide long-term nutrition. For example, the farm has experimented with planting various kinds of avocados, which grow during different seasons. Planted alongside each other, these trees can provide year-round vitamins and protein, not to mention profit. Meanwhile, pulp found in the pods of the tamarind tree are an excellent source of calcium, iron, and Vitamins C and B, and its crushed seeds can cure dysentery.
But few trees are as astounding as the moringa, says Renkema. This subtropical tree is so hardy it can grow in just about any hot climate. Once dried, its leaves can be ground into powder and added to bread dough or porridge. ECHO staff say three tablespoons of moringa power have 27 percent protein, more calcium than half a liter of milk, more potassium than nine bananas, more Vitamin A than carrots, and more iron than spinach.
“If every family grew a couple of moringa trees and regularly ate the right amount of leaves, immature pods or leaf powder, it would make a serious difference in preventing malnutrition in so many places,” says Renkema.
But what really intrigues Renkema and her colleagues is ECHO’s ingenuity. “Nothing is wasted,” she says.
In fact, the farm puts its understudies in the mindset of adaptability by providing only those tools that would be readily available in poor communities. Spare tires and carpets serve as potting beds for rooftop gardens; old newspapers can be used as mulch over crops; tubes hooked up to a barrel full of cow manure can fuel a bio-gas cooking stove; and one bucket of water can quench the thirst of 50-foot rows of vegetables by placing it up on a tripod, attaching long perforated tubes through its bottom, and letting gravity do its own sprinkling. Finally, less means more with the system of rice intensification ECHO has modeled from other development studies. By planting rice seedlings in small clumps dispersed throughout a field, farmers can irrigate with minimal water rather than flood their fields. For farmers in Cambodia, the technique has resulted in 50 to 100 percent increases in yields.
Still, Angela Boss of Vancouver, B.C. points out, it’s not just the growing of food that’s important, it’s the security of it. After serving several years at ECHO as an intern and staff member, Boss and her husband joined a mission project through the Evangelical Covenant Church in Central African Republic. While there, she helped establish a five-acre garden for women whose children were interned for malnutrition at the Gamboula Hospital. The program’s goal was to help these mothers see what resources they could cultivate for alleviating their children’s hunger. It was one of several projects that opened her eyes to the social and political complexities the Third World.
Boss is now enrolled in a master’s program in Human Security and Peacebuilding at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. She hopes it will give her a better understanding of growing food under tough political circumstances, such as refugee camps.
That goal certainly reflects ECHO’s latest endeavors. In September several staff members will head to Mauritania to help a group of 30-year refugees from Western Sahara plant moringa trees.
And when you don’t have enough trees to plant?
“Teaching grafting is a skill I learned at ECHO, and it’s always fun to teach it overseas,” notes Boss. “One of the best moments was watching someone I trained train others.”
Working with an innovative training program such as ECHO is also helping participants to change the way they approach their own faith.
“As North American believers we tend to put things in categories. ‘Now we are going to talk about the Bible, now we are going to talk about composting, etc.," says Paulson. “It has definitely given me a new perspective on how we can live out our Christian faith in both word and action, not just in preaching, but in holistic teaching and conversation.”
Julienne Gage is a writer and producer based in Washington, D.C.