Client:Growing a greener future, Interact Magazine Summer 2005
Date:October 03, 2013
This is an interview with Marvin Zavala about his work helping small-scale farmers in Honduras. The article appeared in Interact magazine, which goes out to supporters of the international development charity Progressio.
Marvin Zavala knew from an early age that he wanted to work on the land. Born in Nicaragua into a family of campesinos (peasant farmers), his earliest memories are of helping his father in the fields.
When he was 13 years old, a pivotal moment occurred. ‘I was spraying an insecticide called Malathion in the fields to try and control a plague that had taken hold of our beans,’ he remembers. ‘I had the pump strapped to my back but, all of a sudden, I started to feel dizzy and sick. I was ill for days afterwards.’
At that time – the 1980s – the Sandinistas wanted a boom in agriculture and Nicaragua became, as Marvin puts it, ‘a champion in the use of insecticides and other agro-chemicals’. Chemicals were either free or very cheap, and the same strong insecticides were handed out to small-scale farmers as to larger ones.
‘I had wanted to study to be an agronomist, but after the experience with Malathion I decided I didn’t want to do that if I had to use chemicals,’ he says. He trained as a vet, but slowly but surely he felt his heart return to agricultural work. He abandoned his veterinary career and went to the new Campesino University of Nicaragua to study organic farming. His interest in farming was reignited.
Marvin became a member of CIIR/ICD partner organisation UNAG (the national union of agriculturalists and cattle farmers) and convinced his father and uncles to follow suit. A job offer at UNAG led Marvin to his next project – working with women, giving them financial advice linked to their agricultural work.
In 1994, Marvin started work as a promoter of sustainable agriculture with different communities – still with UNAG. Through this work he met a CIIR/ICD development worker and became her counterpart.
But in 1998, life for everyone was turned upside down when Hurricane Mitch tore through Central America, destroying everything in its path. Marvin took a job in Honduras distributing emergency food aid under the World Food Programme (WFP). ‘However, I realised that it wasn’t my vision,’ he says. ‘I had come to teach people how to produce their own food, not give it out.’
With funds from the WFP and bags full of initiative, Marvin set about buying seeds and tools to put his vision into practice. The experience led him to apply for a job as a CIIR/ICD development worker with partner Coatlahl (Cooperativa Agroforestal Colón, Atlántida, Honduras Limitada), a cooperative of communities and small- scale producers of tropical wood. Marvin’s role was to help introduce sustainable crop production as a way of reducing dependency on the forest.
As Marvin’s skills grew, so did his opportunities. At Coatlahl he was approached by Fupnabib (the Foundation for Pico Bonito National Park), which agreed to Marvin’s request for seeds in exchange for his time. The foundation would give Marvin 1,500 plantain seeds and he would hand them out to 60 farmers. Then, after a year, the farmers would give back twice as many. This methodology has developed and multiplied and given Marvin a very clear vision for the future – one that could be shared and developed, just like his seed programme.
‘Since I was young, I have believed that underdeveloped countries are used as a laboratory for developed countries and companies: for research, medicine, agriculture and the environment,’ he says. ‘So many experiments are carried out in this region, genetic modification being just one of them. If there isn’t a negative impact, the experiments are implemented in the developed countries. ‘In my opinion, if in this world we could implement alternative agricultural techniques we would guarantee food security, without putting at risk our natural resources. No one need go hungry again.’