The Importance of Fertilizer, Part 3

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A man signs a receipt to indicate that he has received his fertilizer. He uses a fingerprint in lieu of a signature because he cannot read or write.

[This is part 3 of a series on the importance of fertilizer for rural, impoverished farming communities in El Salvador. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.]

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
-Matthew 13:33

Nothing is sustainable here. Not even life is sustainable here. 
-Blanca, 25-year veteran of the Pastoral Team of Berlín

Fertilizer still does not seem like a stable, long-term solution for Berlín-area farmers.

According to our human understandings of sustainability, fertilizer projects seem like an unsustainable long-term solution because they do not change the systems of farming or of food sustainability and sovereignty in El Salvador. And according to our American understandings of development and progress, fertilizer does not seem like a “successful” venture: it does not produce much more wealth, more jobs, or significant economic changes in a community.

However, God’s idea of what constitutes sustainable solutions, of success, simply does not match ours. For God, the only thing that is truly sustainable is God’s Kingdom: the imperfectly-immanent-but-still-present places and situations in our own world where God’s reality breaks into ours. In our work, these are the places and situations where people are truly humanized and empowered to make their own decisions and where we help make those decisions possible—which tells them that we recognize their humanity, their struggle, their lives.

This is what God sees as sustainable. This is what will be preserved at the End of All Things, when God removes from the world all that is not love, not peace, not hope, not of God. This is what will remain when all else is gone: real relationships, real unity, and real love. This is God’s idea of sustainability.

Jesus did not overthrow the Roman Empire or Israel’s religious establishment. He did not change the oppressive social systems of his time—at least not in his short 33 years on earth. His solution was to be present with us in this messy world and in doing so, teach us how to build the Kingdom of God, the New Creation, inside the shell of the old world.

Is the Kingdom of God sustainable? Of course it isn’t, at least not in a traditional, capitalistic sense. It is not meant to survive in the same way that a business survives: by profits triumphing over expenses and producing some tangible or measurable good, whether that good be a pair of socks or a web browser. It is a gentle, fragile, living thing that is so much more than inputs and outputs. And of course it cannot survive without nurturing, without being held gently in our hands, planted and watered gingerly, kneaded constantly. Our work on it is never done. It continues our required engagement, love, participation, patience, and attention—and that is the point.

This work is slow—have you ever watched plants grow or bread rise?—but Jesus teaches us that the seeds are in the field and the leaven is in the dough. We are called to water and knead in faithfulness. The systems will change, in time. We will work to change those systems when and where we can, though we at OSP certainly do not have the power or political clout to change them on our own. In the meantime, we must strive to preserve the seed of Eternal Life that we find in these communities—and that means preserving both their physical lives and the organization that allows them to build a better future for themselves. Fertilizer projects are an important part of this work.

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Community members help families to unload their fertilizer from the delivery truck. Some of these bags weigh more than 200 pounds.

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Families that have access to a wheelbarrow, a horse, a car, or an oxcart use those methods to get their fertilizer to their house. Those that do not (or who live relatively close by, in some cases) carry their fertilizer home on their backs. Yes, all 100-200 pounds of it.

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The Importance of Fertilizer, Part 2

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The delivery truck prepares to leave the agricultural supplies shop in Mercedes Umaña where we purchase our fertilizer.

Won’t giving people fertilizer increase dependence? 

The farmers here will always be dependent on fertilizer, or at the very least they will be dependent on fertilizer until all the systems of land ownership and farming in El Salvador change. This will not happen anytime soon.

However, receiving fertilizer from a partner church will keep them from being too dependent on predatory lenders who they might need to borrow from to purchase fertilizer. It will keep them from being so dependent on the changing climate, because increasing their yield will give them a “cushion” should most of their crop fail due to excessive rain or drought.

Furthermore, many farmers in the USA receive different kinds of government aid and assistance, and even those that do not are often covered by crop insurance or have other protections. We are simply offering the Salvadoran farmers we love a similar kind of protection. We are not giving them food, we are enabling them to grow food for themselves and their families.

To borrow from a common expression, we are neither giving them fish nor teaching them to fish—we are simply giving them the bait, which they simply cannot afford on their own.

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The delivery truck arrives in the community with the fertilizer.

Aren’t these fertilizers unsafe for farmers?

There are indeed some agrochemicals used in Central America that we need to be concerned about. Many people have written to us about concerns regarding the epidemic of “Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Origin” in this region, and whether the fertilizers that farmers use here have been linked with higher instances of disease. We can assure you that most of the agrochemicals used in Central America that scientists are concerned about associated with sugarcane and cotton farming—and most of them are pesticides and herbicides, not fertilizers. Most Berlín-area farmers do not use these chemicals, both because they know the dangers and because they are costly. Neither the pre-emergent nor the post-emergent fertilizer that we provide to communities has been directly linked with higher rates of chronic kidney disease, and the post-emergent fertilizer that most of them use has few negative long-term effects on the environment, either.

It would indeed be ideal if these farmers did not have to use chemical fertilizers, and especially ideal if they did not have to apply them by hand. But being poor always means having to make calculated risks, and the communities that we work with feel that not being able to eat has both short-term and long-term consequences that outweigh the potential risks of using fertilizer. Who are we to make this difficult choice for them? It’s their lives and the lives of their children that are at risk, not our lives.

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The Directiva of the community discusses how to take the fertilizer off the truck and give it to each member family as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Why not use organic fertilizer? 

Expense. Organic fertilizers must be formulated to provide plants with proper nutrition, which often involves having to purchase plants, honey, or other organic compounds to make said fertilizer. These ingredients are not easily available to these farmers and are often just as expensive—if not more expensive—than chemical fertilizer. Farmers also need to use triple or quadruple the amount of organic fertilizer as chemical fertilizer to achieve the same effect on their crop yield.

Time. A farmer cannot simply switch from using chemical fertilizer to organic fertilizer and expect to grow food immediately. Chemical fertilizers, while increasing a farmer’s yield dramatically, also strip the soil of the natural vitamins, minerals, and bacteria that allows anything to grow in it naturally. It takes at least 3-4 years (and as many as 7-8 years) for the soil to be restored to a natural balance through the application of organic fertilizers. During these years of transition, the soil yields almost nothing. Since people cannot afford to not eat for years at a time, farmers have no choice but to continue using chemical fertilizers.

Land access. People in most Berlín-area communities do not own their own farmland—they rent it. Because the price to rent land changes (and usually rises) from year to year, they are often forced to switch fields every few years to find a field that they can afford to farm. They cannot afford to spend 3-8 years transitioning rented land to organic farmland only to be forced to leave that land if they can no longer afford to rent it. In order for organic farming to be practical in these communities, people would have to own enough land for them slowly transition (plot-by-plot) their fields to a more organic system.

This all seems hopeless.

It certainly is not hopeless. As farmers receive more training from the Pastoral House and other institutions, they are learning to minimize their use of chemical fertilizers. Most have learned how to handle these chemicals as safely as possible given their circumstances. Fewer and fewer farmers are using the dangerous pesticides and herbicides that may be associated with kidney disease and other conditions. Things are indeed changing.

However, experts tell us that farming in this part of El Salvador will always require some chemical fertilizer because the soil is so depleted from centuries of overuse. This is especially true as farmers are confronted with the effects of global climate change. We all long for the day when these farmers can use less of this fertilizer. But for now, they simply cannot eat without it.

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The Importance of Fertilizer, Part I

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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.

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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.

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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.

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#RomeroBeato

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The altar the Pastoral Team built to honor the immanent beatification of Monseñor Oscar A. Romero.

Friends, a great and wonderful thing happened in the world today: the date for Romero’s beatification ceremony has been announced: May 23rd, 2015. It will take place in the Salvador del Mundo Plaza in San Salvador.

We are overwhelmed with joy that this Salvadoran bishop, who gave his life for the work of the Kingdom of God in the world and peace in his own country, has finally been formally recognized as the martyr, prophet, and beato that he is. The older members of the Pastoral Team have been waiting for this day for 35 years, ever since Monseñor Romero was assassinated by the member of a death squad on March 24th, 1980 while celebrating Mass. His life, witness, and words have inspired everyone on the Pastoral Team to work for more justice, love, and solidarity in El Salvador and elsewhere.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Vatican’s process for recognizing someone as a Roman Catholic saint, beatification is the last step in the process before canonization, or the formal proclamation of a deceased person’s sainthood. In English, a beatified person holds the title of Blessed. In Spanish, the formal title is Beato.

In Monseñor Romero’ case, a miracle will need to be attributed to his intercession with God in Heaven for him to receive the title of Saint; in other words, he must (miraculously) intervene with God on behalf of someone who specifically asks him for help. But in the meantime, we are incredibly happy that we can now refer to him as Blessed Oscar A. Romero.

We have shared so many elated thoughts throughout the day, but I asked Jesús, longtime member of the Pastoral Team, to share his feelings about today’s announcement with all of you.

35 years ago, the Salvadoran people mourned the death of our venerable archbishop Oscar Arnulfo. Today, we cry with joy and we celebrate the triumph of Monseñor Romero’s Easter. And this joy leads us to believe that today God has done justice, and has given payment to those who they killed because of hate. And that is the best justice that God has done. Even though here on earth the Salvadoran authorities, even though they are dividing our people to do justice for those that they brought to death. Oscar Arnulfo Romero has not died. He lives in the heart and the struggle of the Salvadoran people. The challenge that he gives us today is to follow his example to fight for justice based in truth. 

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The First Presbyterian Church of Newton Delegation

Hello, friends:

It has once again been far too long since I have written a blog post. Between a short visit to the USA, delegation visits, and another death in the Pastoral Team’s family, I have not had time to write this month.

I am sad to report that Blanca’s father, known affectionately by all as Papa Romulo, passed away on February 19th. I cut my visit to Iowa short and returned to El Salvador to accompany the Pastoral Team, their families, and their community of Alejandría in their time of grief. Que descanse en paz y resucite en gloria, Papa Romulo. You will be deeply missed.

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As we all know, however, there is always life, joy, and beauty even in the midst of loss. It was a great joy and pleasure to have representatives of First Presbyterian Church of Newton, IA visiting us this week. We visited many family homes, met with the Muñoces Directiva, and the delegation even gave a really fun and interesting digital camera workshop so that several community members (including the high school scholarship students) could learn how to take pictures of their own community and its families!

Many thanks to the visitors from FPC Newton, the Pastoral Team, and the Directiva and community of Muñoces for making this visit possible. Enjoy the pictures!

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The Directiva prepares to meet with the delegation.

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The delegation delivers the gift of two chairs to each member family. Here, a delegate poses with the community’s current president.

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The delegation visits the Muñoces community school to give the students an English lesson!

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The delegation presents photos to community families. Families love receiving photos taken on previous delegation visits.

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A delegate presents a digital camera workshop to the scholarship students of the community and two community leaders. They had a lot of fun learning how to take pictures!

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The delegates also learned how to make pupusas!

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The visit ended with a huge party (including piñatas). The digital camera workshop students took pictures of the event!

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The Heartland Presbyterian Delegation

We just finished up a four-day visit to the communities of Tablón Cerna and Tablón Centro with the delegates of Heartland Presbyterian Church. We held a lot of important meetings, visited many family homes, and learned a lot about the amazing things happening in these caseríos.

Many thanks to the delegates for taking a week of their time to visit us, the communities of Tablón Centro and Cerna for receiving us with such warmth, hospitality, and openness, and the Pastoral Team for all of their hard work!

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A delegate poses with members of the Pastoral Team–who may or may not have been incredibly excited about the Monseñor Romero announcement of the day before!

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Children at the school in Tablón Centro play with the jump ropes and other toys that the delegation gave them.

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The vice president of Tablón Centro addresses his community.

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The delegation visits homes to discuss the needs, hopes, and dreams of the communities’ families–and to take some pictures, of course.

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The delegation visited homes that had need of dignified toilets, including this family, who had their toilet collapse. 

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Delegates play with some of the children in Tablón Cerna.

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The delegates meet with the community of Tablón Cerna during their final afternoon with them. The community made juice for everyone in the community to drink!

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Monseñor Romero: Martyr

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When I have more time, I want to write about this announcement in more depth.

But the news is too big not to share.

On February 3rd, 2015, on the anniversary of his appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador, Papa Francisco formally recognized that Monseñor Romero was killed “in hatred of the faith” and proclaimed him to be a martyr. 

This means that there are no more official barriers to Monseñor Romero’s beatification. None. The date of the ceremony could be announced anytime–and we hope and pray that it will be announced soon. Maybe in time for the ceremony to take place on March 24th, 2015–the anniversary of what is now his officially recognized martyrdom?! I don’t want to jinx it, but we sure hope so. Most of this nation hopes so.

Keep hoping and praying that the beatification will be announced soon.

And just in case you’re reading this Papa Francisco… I just want to say please go through with this and please do it soon. This pueblo has waited long enough. And they’ve already planned a huge celebration in San Salvador to mark the 35th anniversary–beatifying him at that Mass would be no problem! Really! No extra trouble at all!

In hope and joy,

The Pastoral Team of Berlin and La Iglesia Popular de El Salvador [and a crazy Presbyterian pastor who lives with them]

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