SHI works with farmers in Central America to implement sustainable farming practices that benefit both the people and the planet. Their programs in Belize, Honduras, and Panama are adaptable to suit each farmer’s needs and teach the critical skills needed to maximize crop production in an eco-friendly manner. SHI works to put an end to the connection between poverty and environmental degradation. Learn more about their program here!
What inspired you to found SHI?
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama in the early 90s. I lived in a rural community where I worked with the farmers and saw first hand the tropical deforestation. Farmers needed to burn down more forest every year to grow their crops, it wasn’t producing enough crops to sustain them, and it was causing environmental degradation. The farmers were open to alternatives that would allow them to increase growth and regrow on the same land every year instead of clearing more forest. When I came out of the Peace Corps, I wanted to work on providing farmers with the technology they need for regenerative agriculture. I was shocked that there was no organization doing that. I worked for a couple other nonprofits first and eventually started SHI. I used what I learned in the Peace Corps to guide the program. It’s a multi-year program so that the farmers can go through multiple growing cycles while learning along the way.
Tell me about your farmer training. How does empowering farmers help the environment?
The program has been the same for 25 years now, but has improved each year. We hire local trainers in each of the countries where we work. Each trainer works with a group of farming families. The average is 30 families per cohort. Our trainer visits the families every week or two over the course of 4 years. Trainers take them step by step through the program.We teach them agroecology practices, the benefits and challenges of different practices, and introduce them to new crops to grow. Each family builds a plan of what they want their farm to look like. That plan guides the rest of the program, it’s catered to what each family wants to achieve. Families grow food to help them have a better diet for themselves, to improve the environment, and to produce more crops. We integrate more crops and trees and vegetation as the program goes on. Business, marketing, and earning income is at the end of the program. The last months are spent preparing families for graduation so that they can continue building this on their own and share it with others.
How is your program different from traditional Central American farming practices?
At one time, the indigenous populations made room for crops by burning a small part of the forest and using the ash for soil nutrients. But, as the soil eroded and the nutrients were lost, productivity decreased. They then had to move on to burning a different part of the forest. As time has gone on, deforestation has left farmers with fewer options. Rain washes the top soil away and farmers have to clear and burn the same land because there isn’t as much forest anymore. We focus on ecological practices that work with nature. Historically, when there have been projects to help farmers produce more, it has been with chemical fertilizers. It’s easier to just hand out a bag of chemicals rather than working side by side with the farmers to slowly implement new, sustainable practices. Our approach is more complicated and time intensive, and it took a while for people to have a willingness to do that.
Why did you choose to focus on Central America and do you have plans to expand your scope?
We started in Central America because that’s where I was working when I started the organization. It was just me and a few others at the start, and we learned as we went. Now, there is a much more thoughtful and sustainable approach to choosing where we work. We want to reach a million farms by 2030, and part of that will likely involve working in new countries. I think the methodology we’ve developed, at least the core elements of it, could be applied anywhere in the global south and maybe beyond that. The details would have to be adapted to the local culture, geography, and climate. There would be a learning curve going to a new country and it would require great local partners, but we are open to it.