The inside of the agricultural supplies shop where we purchase our fertilizer.
As some of you know, March-April is a busy time of year for the Pastoral Team of Berlín because we are making lots of fertilizer deliveries to partner communities!
Many churches and individuals have asked us questions regarding our reasons for providing fertilizer to the impoverished communities of Berlín, so for the next week or two I will be providing some important information on why fertilizer is so important for the subsistence farmers here.
Why should we consider providing fertilizer to our community?
The Pastoral Team of Berlín feels that there are three principal reasons to provide fertilizer to communities here.
Perhaps most obviously, fertilizer is a material and financial good. Without fertilizer, families have trouble growing enough food to feed their families. One farmer tells me that with fertilizer, he can harvest about 340 pounds of corn in a year. Without fertilizer, he is lucky to harvest 80-100 pounds. Fertilizer makes an enormous difference in how much a family is able to eat. When families eat better, they stay healthier and spend less money on medicine. When children eat better, they do better in school, which in turn creates more opportunities for them as they grow older.
Because farmers can harvest almost nothing without fertilizer, most families that do not receive fertilizer from their partner church are still going to purchase it. However, since fertilizer is so expensive, they often have to choose between purchasing it or purchasing all the other things that a family needs: medicines, school supplies, food other than the beans and corn that they grow, clothing, the water bill, the electricity bill, and many other things besides. By purchasing a bag of fertilizer, you free up some of their hard-earned income for other necessities.
Alternatively, farmers who cannot afford fertilizer may borrow money at high interest rates to purchase fertilizer, hoping for a good yield that will allow them to pay that money back. If they cannot pay the loan back and the lender will not pardon them, they risk losing what little property or possessions that they have. Others pay back their interest in corn. If they have a bad harvest, they often end up giving most of their corn to the organization they borrowed from, leaving them with little to eat.
Families that grow more corn also often have corn left over to sell at the end of the year. This means that they have more money to purchase everything their family needs that is not corn and beans. Buying a bag of fertilizer has a positive effect on the entire economy of a community, allowing everyone to have more purchasing power. It helps families to help themselves. Farming is hard work whether a farmer uses fertilizer or not, but we can help their hard work bear more fruit.
The hardworking gentlemen from the shop help one another to lift these 100-200 lb. bags of fertilizer onto their backs so that they can load it into the delivery truck.
Fertilizer is also an organizational good. Poverty is not so much a lack of resources as it is the lack of power that makes it impossible to acquire those resources. By trusting these communities and their leaders to determine their own priorities and helping them to achieve these priorities, we give them more power over their own future than they have ever had before.
This is no small thing. For over 500 years, decisions about the lives of the Salvadoran poor—where they can live, whether they have enough food to eat or water to drink, what kind of jobs and education and opportunities have been available to them—have all been made by people more powerful than them without their consent. When the Directiva—the democratically-elected community board—and people in the community work together to request an important need such as fertilizer, the community and Directiva feel empowered to democratically decide for themselves what their needs are, organize themselves to ask for those needs, and then acquire them. They have never had that kind of power, agency, or decision-making authority in their own world before.
Giving communities fertilizer helps give power and credence to the community organization and build trust between the community and its Directiva, as well as trust and power between the partner church and the community.
Some of these bags weigh over 200 lb., and some communities require over 100 bags each!
Last but not least, fertilizer is a spiritual good—both for us and for the Salvadorans. The rural, impoverished farmers of El Salvador have been largely abandoned by their government, aid organizations, NGOs, and even their own churches. They often feel that no one in the world cares whether they have water, have food, have an education, or have a functioning roof—in other words, that no one cares whether they live or die or what kinds of conditions that they are living or dying in. As Christians, we care called to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and clothe the naked (Matthew 25). When we give families fertilizer, we do just that—by helping them to feed, care for, and clothe themselves.
But giving fertilizer to the families of our partner community is also a spiritual good for us. At Our Sister Parish, our way of practicing mission has its basis in solidarity: believing that each community knows and understands its needs and priorities better than we (as people from the “developed world”) ever could, and it is our calling to support them in determining those needs and priorities for themselves. Even when a community asks for something that we feel we would not necessarily prioritize under the same circumstances, we submit ourselves to their wisdom and experience out of a desire to “do mission” from the needs and desires of the people—not from our own needs and desires.
Listening to the needs and priorities of the poor—including their need for fertilizer—liberates them from some of the worry about providing food for their family. It also liberates us from our flawed self-understanding that we understand the world of the poor better than they understand it themselves.