Before moving to South America over a year and a half ago, we spent time at ECHO in Florida for training and hands-on experience, preparing for life in this new country. One bit of counsel from several missionaries and development workers was to spend the first year doing mostly nothing but learning to know the people and their ways. It is tempting to start with big plans and ideas, trying to do something great right away, often ending in failure and poor relationships. We tried to follow this advice and spent the first year visiting many people and learning how they do things, from agriculture to cooking, from building houses to making a living, and many other things.
We hoped to buy property for our new homestead within several months of arriving, but God had different plans. Nothing worked out, no matter how hard we tried to find a place suitable and in our budget. We temporarily gave up and determined to focus our attention on people and helping to maintain and improve the grounds here at SIFAT’s boarding house where we are still living.
One day last year we had a local national family over for lunch, and out of the blue the father mentioned a property his friend was trying to sell. His friend needed money for a debt, so he was asking for the actual land value rather than an inflated price, as many were doing. The title was free and clear, an impossible hurdle with many properties.
When we looked at the property it felt like home, similar to when we bought our central Florida property several years ago. A few trusted friends scouted out with us the 24 hectares (60 acres) and found lots of useable lumber, and a few creeks and springs. It was mostly thick jungle backing up to a huge national reserve and mountain range, sloping gradually down to the road, and about 20 minutes from town by motorcycle. Near the front were a few acres already cleared with established pasture. The location seemed perfect, and soon the purchase was made and we owned land!
Looking back we are so glad we could not buy property right away because our perspective of where we wanted to live really changed within that first year. We would have made some big mistakes if we had jumped in and gotten started too soon.
Since the price of the land was about half of what we had budgeted, we used the remaining money to hire help in clearing the land. Someone introduced us to the Tabo family who was looking for work. Bartolome and Nancy have 10 grown children, mostly married with families. Their extended family lost everything in a fire resulting from a land war on the frontier over a year ago. They since moved to our town to start over again. Most of them are followers of Jesus like we are, and they are so grateful for any work we give them and have become good friends. About seven of the men came with machetes and by hand cleared all the underbrush on five hectares (12 acres) of thick jungle. That enabled us to go in and plan our new homestead.
After underbrushing, there were many trees to cut down to clear sites for the house, barn, greenhouse, and most of all, our chaco. A chaco is a small field cleared to grow crops, usually by hand. Our first chaco is about one acre in size, with plans to expand it in future years. Since there are good lumber trees on our property we decided to use them as much as possible rather than buying lumber. Juan and Sandro are two men from the Tabo family who have hand cut most of our lumber by hand with chainsaws.
We spent many hours working hard to clear land and stack cut lumber before the rainy season started in December. In November we started planting fruit trees and other food crops in earnest to take advantage of the wet months to get them off to a good start.
In August and September we kept our promise to go back to the States to visit family and friends that we had not seen for a year. It was encouraging to connect with everyone again, and to make a little money to defray travel expenses. Returning to our little town here, we felt like we had come home; a confirmation we are where God wants us right now.
On our return we entered a new phase of life here. Our first year was filled with every social event possible, even making some of our own so we could connect with people. We established good friendships and got a decent handle on how things work and how to communicate with those around us. Now we have less time and energy for social life, which has been an adjustment. We have two cows to milk every day and our focus is on developing our new property and some streams of income.
There are some activities that we have kept priority. One is the bi-monthly hymn sings we host at our house, and another is an outreach night at the town plaza twice each month, where we gather with other Believers to pray, pass out Scripture booklets, and sing or play hymns, then often share a Gospel message. Our Sunday trips out to the little country church are less frequent, partly because during rainy season the road is worse and harder to travel, and partly because some local Believers asked to start holding house fellowship meetings a few times each month in our home. We still rub shoulders with lots of people on a daily basis, but spending time away from home or our property has lessened.
The past seven months have been full of hard work on our new homestead; building fence around the future pasture, digging swales and making our lane useable, and planting many fruit trees such as cacao (chocolate), citrus, papaya, mango, banana, plantain, starfruit, coffee, coconut, açaí, and other more exotic fruits. We set up the greenhouse that we shipped in our container, the same one we had on our Florida homestead. We stacked and covered lots of lumber that the men cut so it could dry properly, waiting for future construction. We made fodder beds and planted many of the same nutrient dense edible perennials we had in Florida, including chaya, moringa, katuk, mulberry, cranberry hibiscus, okra, and nacidero.
We want our new homestead to reflect the heart of God and His design, as a way to point others to Him and to honor Him as the Creator. Therefore we try to avoid destructive practices that destroy or tear down His creation, but as stewards we prefer methods that preserve and improve what He has entrusted to us. Contrary to popular practice, we have purposed to never use slash and burn methods to clear our chaco, or to till regularly or use chemicals unnecessarily.
Numerous well-meaning friends have told us emphatically that we must burn our chaco before planting, or it will be full of weeds and bugs, and plant growth will be stunted. It is common belief that burning increases crop yields and is the only way to effectively clear the land. While burning does kill bugs and weeds and is a relatively easy way to clear land, it also interrupts healthy microbes and balances in the soil, and actually encourages many weed seeds to germinate. It destroys the natural decaying ground cover that regulates soil moisture, temperature, and erosion. Burning often yields a good crop the first year, then less and less over the next few years, forcing campesinos (small-scale farmers) to cut down more trees to clear more land about every three years for a new chaco so they can start over again.
Thankfully development workers around the world have demonstrated that there are better alternatives to slash and burn. So we are quietly growing our chaco “sin fuego,” without fire. It means doing more hard work up front, but adding green mulches will encourage an increase in productivity each year with a gradual decrease in maintenance. The cleared jungle debris and logs were placed in huge piles to burn a little at a time, or to make into future hugelkulture beds (garden beds built with rotting wood).
The lovely blanket of dried decaying jungle leaves and debris in our chaco smothers weeds and keeps the soil moist and cool in the baking hot sun. This decaying matter protects the soil from erosion in heavy downpours, and is slowly building the soil. We can’t imagine how bare, hot, and dry our chaco soil would be with that natural blanket burned off.
Thanks to teaching from ECHO and other permaculture proponents, we are inter-planting various green mulches and manures with our fruit trees, such as velvet beans, lab lab beans, cow peas, pigeon peas, jack beans, and perennial peanut. These are nitrogen fixing legumes that build the soil nutrients and deter weeds with their thick vines. They also provide food and fodder for our family and animals.
Interestingly enough, God has blessed our trees and perennial plants, which have grown very rapidly the past seven months. Although we spend time once a month or so pulling weeds that sneak up, weeds and bugs have not been a major problem yet. We recently visited a friend who cleared and planted a new chaco last year using the slash and burn method, about the same time we cleared and planted ours. We noticed his trees were smaller than ours, and his weeds much thicker and higher. Other burned chacos we have visited were chock full of weeds too. So far the only benefit we’ve seen to burning is the ease and speed of initial clearing of land. But in the long run, it doesn’t seem worth it.
One crop we spent lots of time planting in the beginning is yucca, known in many countries as cassava. It is a starchy tuber used as a basic staple here, in addition to rice and plantains (large green or yellow bananas). We planted many rows of starts between our banana and other fruit trees back in November. Sure enough, soon there were rows of little green yucca shoots coming up all over our chaco. In our busyness we failed to notice that gradually the little shoots were disappearing, till suddenly we realized too late that something had gone very wrong. Asking several local campesinos for advice, we were told that they may have been eaten by leaf cutter ants, which is a big problem here. There was also evidence that small deer were rooting around and cleaned out some of it. Since we are not yet living on our property, it is difficult to determine the culprit.
Leaf cutter ants have attacked some of our citrus trees and taken a special liking to cranberry hibiscus, carrying off whole bushes full of leaves overnight. To deter them we learned from our Tabo friends to cut the tops and bottoms off two liter bottles and slip the center plastic part around the base of each small tree or bush, making it more difficult for the ants to reach the leaves. We are experimenting with other methods as well, but as long as we don’t live nearby it could be a losing battle.
We are tired of traveling back and forth from town to our property and not being present to protect our chaco. In April we started seriously building our little guest house to live in temporarily while building our bigger house and the rest of the homestead. This little cabin is at the edge of the jungle, near our chaco and a quick walk from the greenhouse and our future house and barn. It is a simple 15’ x 20’ two-room cabin with a tiny bathroom and a front porch. Each room has a loft, useful for storage and additional sleeping quarters. It will be a challenging adventure for our family of eight to live in this tiny house for a time, but we look forward to progressing more quickly on the rest of the homestead as soon as we can make this move.
I do hope to be back sooner than last time to share progress with the construction of this little guest house and other homestead projects.
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Note: My appreciation to Silver Oak for editing and critiquing this post.