A Teacher’s Education: From Halifax  Food Activism to the Biosphere of Northern Nicaragua by Sophie Watson

With crazy beads around his neck, a navy blue T-shirt and a yellow and orange sarong, Canadian co-operant David Ast blends in well with the thick greens of the lush vegetation surrounding him. Ast is eating popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast, listening to Lauryn Hill, and playfully stroking Minou, the kitten who mews non-stop. Ast has learned a few things since his arrival in Managua in 1997: he is fluent in Spanish, is a pretty fine salsa dancer, has survived muggings, and is generally street-wise when navigating his way around Nicaragua. Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Ast went to university in Halifax. Following his graduation with an MA in International Development, Ast worked as a sessional instructor at St. Mary’s University and then travelled to the Gambia on a two-month contract. In March 1997 he left for Nicaragua where he worked for two-and-a-half years on a CUSO gig. In late 1999 I met David Ast in his backyard, sitting in his rocking chair under an overly fertile lime tree, and between mouthfuls of popcorn he told me of his experiences in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

GIG #1: AS0CODE The Association of Central American Campesino (Small Farmer) Organizations for Co-operation and Development

Ast’s first CUSO placement was with ASOCODE, a Central American umbrella organization that is composed of seven different national campesino offices in each country from Belize to Panama. These seven offices represent each country’s multiple campesino organizations who all work towards agricultural policy development. In this large-size web, Ast worked in the Managua-based regional office, setting up a documentation centre for ASOCODE’s publications and documents—to streamline their information infrastructure.

In addition to the documentation centre work, Ast and his colleagues studied how free trade has made an impact on food security within Central America—a fundamental issue in a global marketplace where the bottom-line is a profitable industry, not a healthy citizenry. Food security is the belief that people should have access and right to a sustainable, healthy and nutritious diet. Ast studied concepts of food security in university and also worked with The Unidentified Food Organization in Halifax that deals in food reclamation; collecting vegetarian food from restaurants, bakeries and farmers’ markets and then distributing it to members of the community who have little or no resources. The results of Ast’s and his colleagues’ research on food security in Nicaragua and Central America led to policy development proposals that ASOCODE was to present to local and central governments as well as to donor organizations.

“The socio-economic and cultural impacts are incredible because you have a culture that has been producing rice, beans and corn for centuries and then there’s a shift in what is being produced and a shift in what is being consumed. Since this increased opening of markets occurred, the greatest augmentation in imports in Nicaragua have been in wheat. This trend jeopardizes both food and nutritional security as more and more Nicaraguans begin to switch from eating corn tortillas to eating white Bimbo bread,” Ast concludes. (Bimbo bread’s packaging and flavour are painfully similar to Wonderbread)


In order to explain his gig, Ast, in enthused teacher-mode, hands flailing, briefed me on the context and background of the current situation in Central America (CA) vis-à-vis the free trade scene.

“1990 was a hallmark year in CA with the initiative for peace in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador—the Sandinistas were voted out of power in Nicaragua, and the peace processes began in Guatemala and El Salvador to end their long-standing civil wars. People believed that the 1990s would signal a new decade of hope for the region. Central America would finally be able to break free from the cycle of poverty, war, and of hardship.” Ast and ASOCODE’s research revealed no such improvement in the hardship spoke of the cycle. Instead, they found that from 1990 to 1996—the statistics they were using when Ast was hired—Central America had become in fact less self-sufficient in basic food production. The better times forecast proved not only false for Central American farmers but for the food security of millions of people.


Ast explained that in the 90s there was a more extreme push for free trade within the Americas, opening up borders and frontiers to foreign investments, to foreign goods. This global agenda culminated in 94 with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) round in Uruguay. GATT is an international policy-formulating body revolving around issues of international commerce that, in effect, created the World Trade Organization (WTO). For the first time, agriculture was included within the discussions. Governments, by default, were forced to cut subsidies that they were previously providing to agriculture within their own countries for basic food production. Ast footnotes to explain: “the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, are referred to by many as the ‘unholy trinity’ because they’re all part of the Bretton Woods System that was developed after WW2. Their basic assumption is that governments should cut public spending and promote free-market business principles.” The driving philosophy behind the neo-liberal agenda of the big players is that through the opening of markets and increased competition, every country has a comparative advantage, especially in agriculture.


In 1994, the markets opened for agriculture. Nicaragua is traditionally a consumer of rice, beans and corn, but comparatively Nicaragua can not produce these crops as efficiently as the States can for example. So the theory was that Nicaragua would be better off producing agricultural products in which it has a comparative advantage, like pineapple, coffee, cantaloupes, broccoli—crops that are more conducive to growth in the tropics—and selling them on the world market. Ast points out: “It is directly antithetical to food security because a country loses its sovereignty, loses the right to produce what it needs to feed its own population.”

One of the major outcomes of Ast and ASOCODE’s research showed that this trend towards more Central American small farmers no longer producing beans, rice, and corn and instead producing non-traditional agro-exports for sale on the world market was having a dramatically negative impact. Virtually almost all tropical countries are told to follow this comparative advantage theory. With everybody producing the same exports, inevitably a glut arises on the world market. The flaw of the comparative advantage equation is revealed by this glut that sees the prices for these ‘advantageous’ exports decrease on the world market while the prices for those basic grains that feed the people, increase. “The socio-economic and cultural impacts are incredible because you have a culture that has been producing rice, beans and corn for centuries and then there’s a shift in what is being produced and a shift in what is being consumed. Since this increased opening of markets occurred, the greatest augmentation in imports in Nicaragua have been in wheat. This trend jeopardizes both food and nutritional security as more and more Nicaraguans begin to switch from eating corn tortillas to eating white Bimbo bread,” Ast concludes. (Bimbo bread’s packaging and flavour are painfully similar to Wonderbread)


For the six remaining months of Ast’s two-year CUSO contract—plus his six-month contract extension—Ast went to work with the Humboldt Centre, a Nicaraguan non-governmental organization working on environmental advocacy and local community development. The initial plan was that Ast would join a technical team that was working with Mayangna communities, in the north of Nicaragua within an indigenous territory called Mayangna Sauni Bu (MSB) which is also home to part of BOSAWAS, an 8000-square-kilometer UNESCO-declared bisophere reserve. The Humboldt Centre’s technical team was part of a pilot project designed to promote local community development in providing training and working with communities to assess their own needs and to elaborate their own local projects.


“Just as I was about to enter into work with the Humboldt Centre, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America. Overnight the focus for almost every non-governmental organization, social movement, union, that exists in Nicaragua, including the Humboldt Centre, became on meeting the immediate needs of the emergency crisis brought on by Mitch.” The Humboldt Centre focused its emergency response team to the Mayangna communities along the Rìo Bocay it was already working with, as well as the Miskito communities along the Rìo Coco within another indigenous territory called Miskito Indian Tasbaika Kum (MITK) where 19 communities were ravaged because of the rain that Mitch precipitated.

Ast and the Humboldt team worked with the local indigenous association (ADEPCIMISUJIN), that represents both territories, on assessing needs and working out the logistics of how they would purchase, transport, and distribute the necessities. From November 1998 until May 1999, Ast and the three-member team went once a month for 1-2 weeks with vast supplies of goods and materials.

“The first time we went up, two weeks after the hurricane, it was incredible to see the amount of destruction that was occasioned by the flooding—going along the river and looking 20 meters up on either side and seeing nothing but mud, houses just literally destroyed, and big trees uprooted and sticking ass-end up. Fortunately, the river had risen during the day, so people were able to get to higher ground. We went to some of these refuge areas where entire communities were under the rain and mud on the top of a hill for seven days, without any food or with whatever food they could grab. There was no attention given to these communities by the government whatsoever.”

Ast worked with these indigenous communities and ADEPCIMISUJIN on short-term needs such as food assistance and the provision of agricultural materials, seed and tools. Then Ast and his colleagues worked with the indigenous association on improving their means for transportation and communication because the communities are very isolated—the first one on the Rìo Coco is eight hours by boat down river from the last community where the road comes to. “And we’re talking about eight hours along a river that’s quite violent at times and difficult to navigate,” Ast tells me. Ast and crew arranged for the repair of the association’s broken motors and communication radios.

Emotionally it was intense. “Here I am catapulted out of Managua, I’m on this boat and we’re going down this incredibly dangerous river two weeks after the hurricane, seeing this destruction—it was quite a slap in the face—and then to speak with these people and find out about their experiences, what they’d gone through. Working with these people on trying to mitigate this crisis was an incredible experience.”

During this time, Ast’s team was also involved in assessing more long-term needs for the reconstruction efforts. Their assessment found that in between the emergency and the reconstruction phases the need for looking at food security issues remained strong. Though agricultural supplies and materials had been provided for regenerating agricultural production in the emergency phase, the reconstruction phase required support beyond just providing the seed and tools. Ast and crew elaborated two projects that sought to prevent the destruction of the newly-planted crops. The whole ecosystem had changed as a result of the hurricane—the fields that were planted along the riverbank before Mitch were completely destroyed by the flood. The river rose 20 meters and a violent flood took all the fertile land away. Ast explained that after the hurricane, the indigenous people were planting on land that had never been planted before and that was not apt for bean production.

The change in the ecosystem had the further negative impact of causing a serious insect plague that was attacking the bean crops. Ast’s team hoped to be able to prevent the loss of that crop and developed a project using alternative pest-management with Neem pesticide. Neem is produced in Nicaragua by a number of local co-operatives who use the Neem tree—the flowers and seeds that the tree produces—to develop this natural pesticide. Ast’s team purchased it from local producers, took it up to the indigenous communities, and worked with them in the training of its use to support and assure that there would be a harvest.


The Nicaraguan government is currently involved in a regional project that is supported by the World Bank, called the Biological Corridor. The Corridor will stretch throughout the Caribbean coast of Central America. The project is being bankrolled by the World Bank and is supposed to promote conservation and protection of natural resources in indigenous communities. Ast is skeptical: “First of all, it comes from the World Bank, so there’s a lot of dubious issues involved. Secondly, the Nicaraguan government, for political and economic motives, now wants to legalize indigenous land, but not the indigenous territories. If only the land is legalized, then it’s easier for individuals within the communities to be forced to sell that land because it belongs to just those local communities.” The indigenous association feel their entire territory should be legalized and recognized as an indigenous territory, within Nicaragua. Irony prevails as these are some of the very same communities who were ignored by the government after the hurricane; now the government is forced to acknowledge them and engage in negotiations. Ast’s team also developed a plan to work on getting legal assistance for ADEPCIMISUJIN in its struggle for their historic territorial claim.


Ast asserts that Canadian development workers are able to be both mediators and messengers. A key role of returning Canadians is to work on development education amongst the Canadian public. The first world is where policies are determined in trade and economics that have serious structural impact in countries like Nicaragua. Ast is passionate in emphasizing the idea that: “Doing development education is not only saying that ‘oh there’s poverty and hardship in Nicaragua, and we should support organizations that are working to change that like the Humboldt Centre,’ but we also need to focus on the fact that there is a Canadian company that’s creating problems in Nicaragua. We then need to discuss the role of Canadians in trying to stop that.”

There is a Canadian mining company in the buffer zone of the BOSAWAS biosphere, on the edge of these indigenous territories where Ast was working, that is contaminating the water sheds and river systems that flow into the biosphere reserve. The indigenous people who live along the riverbanks, use the river for fishing, washing, and drinking. “There is an incredible amount of marginalization and oppression in the world today because of globalization but in the same space there’s also an incredible amount of opportunities that are opened because of globalization for organizations both in the south and the north to work together,” Ast offers optimistically. From June to September 1999, Ast worked on an environmental advocacy campaign concerned with the effects of this mining company within the buffer zone of the biosphere reserve. The Humboldt Centre has been struggling to get information out, lobby the government, get studies done, and fight against the company. Ast’s role was to take the information collected by his co-workers in the Humboldt Centre, and channel it to solidarity organizations in Canada and the US so as to organize activist strategy and campaigns. They successfully enacted public awareness campaigns around the issues of Greenstone’s environmental, social and cultural impacts in Nicaragua. “Greenstone is the company name—it’s known in Nicaragua as Hemco but that is just a corporation game to throw people off their trail,” Ast explains.

Greenstone has been operating in Bonanza, Nicaragua, for five years. Their business is open-pit gold mining. It is a highly damaging process in terms of its environmental impact because the land is stripped away and then cyanide is used to separate the gold from the rock—cyanide is highly toxic.


Ast’s plan for his future is to become a high school educator. He says he believes he can use the experiences he’s gained, not only in Nicaragua over the last two-and-a-half years, but also that he gained working in the Gambia and Ghana. In September 2001, Ast will go to OISE at the University of Toronto to study social studies issues with a global, anti-racist, cross-cultural focus. “When I was in high school, there was this social studies teacher…. At the time, I thought he was just talking shit, but later on, within a few years, I realized that this dude actually had a huge impact upon me. And I hope that with my energy and experiences, I too can have a positive impact.”


Ast told me that some of his most potent memories of his time in Nicaragua were when he was up north within the indigenous communities. “There were some nights when I would just sit out by the river with this huge canopy of stars overhead, thinking of the next day’s tasks. One night I was just sitting down when someone came up and started talking about the stars. Dimas, a Miskito man, pointed to a constellation and asked me ‘how do you call that in Spanish?’ ‘Well I think in Spanish it’s called this, what is it in Miskito?’ And he’d tell me and I’d try to remember the name for that constellation in Miskito. To have that chance for personal connection beyond all the work and the struggle for change makes it incredibly worthwhile.”

Before he left Nicaragua, Ast helped to facilitate the succession of his job; based on Ast’s proposal, CUSO hired another Canadian co-operant to continue the work he was involved in with environmental advocacy and indigenous community development at the Humboldt Centre. After a big jaunt as far as the salt deserts of Bolivia, Ast recently returned to Canada to prepare for his official training as a high school teacher, hoping he will be able to jazz up his students into caring and thinking about the world and working for a more equal and just place to live for all peoples.

For more information on the Humboldt Centre, please visit http://www.humboldt.org.

This article was produced with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It was published in 2000 in The Ambassador newsletter of The Council of World Affairs.

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