Permaculture in El Salvador

The Permaculture Institute of El Salvador (IPES) was founded in 2002, by a small group of farmers concerned about the destruction of their environment and way of life (Permacultura America Latina). Juan Rojas, a Salvadoran political and trade union activist, as well as a key figure in the solidarity movement, was the instigator of the organisation. Keen to revive the country’s agricultural potential after the war, he introduced the concept of permacultural design, which he learnt whilst exiled in Australia.

IPES is a grassroots organisation whose members are small-scale farmers. They use the ‘campesino a campesino’ approach to teach methods of ecological agriculture and sustainable living (Permaculture America Latina). “Our prime focus is on sustainable farming for family food production” (Karen Inwood, 31/07/10). In its infancy, IPES worked directly with self-selected communities, simply teaching them to farm in a more natural way. Karen Inwood, the British director, believes the organisation has developed in such a way that IPES will no longer go into communities directly, as it is for the best that heads of municipalities teach their peoples themselves. Once the community leaders, who become ‘promoters’, have learnt the necessary skills, it is more effective that they pass on their knowledge to create a sub-system of leaders, and therefore the permaculture network is built up with minimal intervention from the primary institute. The heads of communities acquire permacultural knowledge to share in their respective districts via the design course run by IPES.

Many people have lost the concept that they are able to solve their own problems and a dependence on aid from NGOs has evolved in places (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10). What makes IPES’ work different is that “the promoters are taught on the basis that they have a commitment to educate others, and with this methodology, it truly becomes a process within their community that doesn’t need outsiders to be part of.” (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10)

There are eight employees receiving a small salary at IPES, thus the institute relies heavily on its 25 voluntary staff. Together the team have just revised the curriculum of the design course and are currently writing a book to accompany it. The year long course is run for two or three days each month in the municipalities of the course attendants. The programme begins with an overview of El Salvador’s agricultural history, including how the land has changed and why. Participants are then introduced to the fundamental principles of permaculture: relying on natural resources, everything being interrelated and interactive, and every design attribute having more than one practicality and function (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10). “We open their hearts to the concept of a link with Mother Earth, and this also develops naturally as the course progresses” (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10). Groups of students then start designing a particular plot of land on paper. The designs are then put into practice, whilst learning techniques such as improving soil fertility, natural pest control and seed selection. The final module relates to permaculture in everyday life and how to enlighten others of its benefits. “Everything learnt on the course can be replicated without outside help, resources or technology” (Karen Inwood, 30/07/10).

Global Permaculture. (accessed 09/08/2010).
Permacultura America Latina (PAL), IPES, (accessed 09/08/2010).
Karen Inwood (30 July 2010) in interview specifically for this book. Suchitoto, El Salvador.

IFAD’s conclusions from evidence of organic farming in Central America

In its 2003 report entitled ‘The Adoption of Organic Agriculture Among Small Farmers in Latin America and The Caribbean’, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) drew the following conclusions and lessons.

The shift to organic production had positive impacts on the incomes of small farmers in all the case studies.

Small farmers dominated organic production in all the countries in which the case studies were located.

The organic models of production have also been associated with positive effects on the health of producers and workers and on the environment.

Most successful organic producers own their land, and small farmers with unstable land tenure … have been unable to produce organic products.

The most successful organic producers have been those who were already applying a production system characterised by technologies not based on chemical inputs.

Exporters and marketing firms recognise that the buyers of organic products in industrialised countries are becoming increasingly more demanding in terms of quality.

Groups of small farmers could be hurt significantly if only one group member or a few group members do not comply with the organic methods of production.

Organic production in all the cases studied has developed in spite of the limited availability of formal sources of on-farm credit.

Shifting to organic production has not required significant on-farm investments.

The transitional period – the first two or three years after farmers start to produce organically – has been the most difficult period for organic producers in terms of financial needs.

The most important off-farm investments required by organic production are similar to the ones required by conventional production, including packing and storage facilities. … They have usually been carried out by farmer associations and marketing firms.

Projects working with small producers should focus on strengthening associations that will play a major role in the marketing of production, the dissemination of organic technologies … and the monitoring of their members’ compliance with organic methods of production.

The marketing of organic products through farmer associations that have established direct contact with buyers has been key in helping small farmers obtain better prices.

Contract farming schemes involving processing and marketing firms have facilitated the marketing of the production of small farmers and given them access to extension services.

Small farmers have a relatively weak position in negotiations with firms because they have limited information and are poorly organised.

The domestic market for organic products in developing countries show good growth prospects.

NGOs have played the most influential role in the emergence of organic agriculture, usually by promoting alternative models of production among indigenous farmers that are based on the use of local resources rather than on the purchase of external inputs.

The principles behind the practice of fair trade in agricultural products

floThe following description is taken from a Fairtrade Foundation leaflet entitled ‘What is Fairtrade?’

Many farmers and workers in developing countries struggle to provide for their families. Poor market access and unfair trade rules often mean that the price they get for their crop does not cover the cost of production. They face the global challenges of food price rises and climate change too.

You will find this label, the FAIRTRADE Mark, on thousands of products from coffee to fresh fruit, as a guarantee of a better deal for people and planet.

Under Fairtrade, farmers receive:

Agreed stable and sustainable prices
An extra payment (a ‘premium’) to invest in their community

As part of the agreement, farmer groups must be democratically organised and meet environmental standards. These include careful use of chemicals, looking after soil and water sources and respecting nature.

Who is behind Fairtrade?

The Fairtrade Foundation is the independent non-profit organisation in the UK that licenses use of the FAIRTRADE Mark on products in the UK in accordance with internationally agreed Fairtrade standards. We also raise awareness of Fairtrade and trade justice issues in schools, businesses, faith groups and local communities. The Foundation is part of an international network of organisations that are members of the standards setting, certification and producer support body Fairtrade International (FLO). You can find out more about FLO’s work at

(Reproduction of the FAIRTRADE Mark by kind permission of the Fairtrade Foundation.)

For further work on fair trade production of tropical crops, the reader is referred to the interviews with Didier Leitón Valverde and Nela Perle, both of which are in the Costa Rica section of the Interviews page.

Sugar cane production and the CKDnT epidemic

In May 2016, ENCA members Esma Helvacioglu and Martin Mowforth, spent a day as guests of the organisation PASE (Profesionales para la Auditoria Social y Empresarial / Professionals for Social and Business Auditing), a non-profit organisation formed in 2003 that is dedicated to the promotion of labour and human rights in the agricultural and textile industries of Nicaragua. Their work has alerted many people to the epidemic of chronic kidney disease suffered particularly by workers in the sugar cane fields. The following report uses much of PASE’s education and awareness-raising material along with various impressions gained by Esma and Martin during their visit.

As we sip our tea, coffee, lemonade, juices and numerous other sugary drinks, it is quite possible that most of us have no idea that there is a global epidemic of chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) amongst sugar cane workers around the world. In particular this is affecting cane workers in the Indian sub-continent and in Central America, especially El Salvador and Nicaragua. Sugar, one of Nicaragua’s most lucrative crops, feeds our insatiable sweet tooth. It is harvested by workers who labour under intense heat for poverty-level wages. They are also dying in epidemic numbers.

Researchers have linked poor labour conditions to the epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) sweeping across Central America. One of the populations most acutely affected by the epidemic is sugar cane cutters in western Nicaragua, although the same disease is noted in plantation workers in the Indian sub-continent and in El Salvador.

The lack of treatment options and resulting medical complications mean that a CKDnT diagnosis in Nicaragua is likely to lead to a slow and painful death. In the past ten years, 46% of male deaths in Chichigalpa, the most affected town, were caused by CKDnT. The epidemic devastates not only the lives of the sugar cane workers, but also the well-being of their families and entire communities.


Social security can mean life or death for a family

When cane cutters become sick, they are fired from their jobs and illegally denied social security benefits and compensation for their occupational illness, leaving their families with no income and forcing their children out of school and into labour. Nicaragua has few dialysis machines available for treatment and, despite its laws regarding labour conditions of work, there is precious little enforcement of these laws. Obtaining social security benefits in the poverty stricken rural sugar cane communities of Nicaragua can literally mean the difference between survival and death.

In response to this situation, a non-profit organisation has opened up an office in the city of Chinandega, located between the two biggest sugar producers in Nicaragua. Professionals for Social and Business Auditing (Profesionales para la Auditoria Social y Empresarial), or PASE, was formed in 2003 and is dedicated to the promotion of labour and human rights in the agricultural and textile industries of Nicaragua. PASE provides free legal aid to workers regarding their and their families’ rights to social security and other labour rights.

In the last twelve months, PASE has published a manual on social security rights for agricultural workers in understandable language and conducted training workshops of community and union leaders across western Nicaragua. It also holds training workshops on alternative skills for employment for current and former cane cutters.

For the future PASE aims to:

  • become a permanent resource for agricultural workers;
  • expand its services beyond social security assistance;
  • provide more workshops to workers and their leaders;
  • publish and distribute more copies of their manual with a view to reaching the most rural and vulnerable communities;
  • directly aid widows and orphans of deceased cane workers affected by CKDnT;
  • publish a policy paper providing concrete recommendations to government and industry on how to address the effects of CKDnT;
  • engage with the international community to identify practical solutions to this epidemic;
  • produce a short video clip explaining CKDnT and workers’ rights in an easily accessible way that workers will understand.

During their visit to PASE, Esma and Martin visited the Monte Rosa sugar cane processing plant where they spoke with union leaders and workers about the conditions of work, CKDnT and the effects of aerial spraying of pesticides. They briefly visited a newly built school located right next to the sugar cane fields which are sprayed by air. They also visited two clinics where they spoke with a doctor about the kidney disease epidemic and with other medical workers. At La Isla Community Centre they recorded an interview with all the workers at the Centre who run workshops in alternative means of income generation and give assistance in informing cane workers about their social security rights.


  • PASE (March 2016) ‘Project Proposal: PASE Legal Services Office’
  • PASE (October 2015) ‘Seguridad Social: Manual para Trabajadores Agrícolas y sus Familiares’
  • Comité Nacional de Productores de Azúcar (undated) ‘Azúcar de Nicaragua: Endulzando el Mundo’

Donations to the work of PASE can be made through the following link:–2