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Building healthier communities from the ground up

Angel Cruz ’08 didn’t always love dirt.

Her original plan was to become a medical doctor. After coming to Furman, she discovered a new interest in sustainability science and along the way, a new zest for learning.

“A liberal arts education was great for me,” said Cruz, now a Ph.D. student in North Carolina State University’s Department of Crop Science. “I was surrounded by motivated people who helped me identify both my interests and my strengths and assisted me in reaching my goals.”

One of her mentors, Associate Professor of Philosophy David Gandolfo, Ph.D., suggested she look into an internship with an NGO through the Furman Advantage program. During the summer before her senior year at Furman, Cruz worked as an agroecological intern and assisted with youth programs in rural El Salvador.

With no electricity and no running water and the nearest town a two-hour walk away, Cruz experienced a bit of culture shock.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Cruz. “Still, it was a life-changing experience.”

She was “adopted” by David and Margarita Flores, the parents of nine other children, and was welcomed by many other families in the community.

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A farmer shows Cruz how she has diversified her farm by growing cabbage.

“For me to eat dinner with them meant that someone else may not be eating that night; and for me to stay the night meant that someone was giving up her bed for the night,” said Cruz. “It was humbling and beautiful and unlike anything I had experienced before.”

Cruz began working on ways to return to El Salvador.

Shortly before graduating from Furman cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Cruz was awarded a $35,000 Compton Mentor Fellowship from the Compton Foundation of California that allowed her to spend 21 months in El Salvador on one of the first projects to approach sustainable agriculture within a community instead of with a single farm.

Cruz arrived in Los Naranjos, a community of about 50 impoverished families, ready to work in partnership with FUNDAHMER, a non-profit grassroots development organization. But her original plan to help the subsistence farming community plant an organic certified cash crop changed.

“Vegetables are not part of their diets (due in part to their high cost) and few people knew how to grow them. However, the people wanted to learn to grow good food for their families and to take care of their land in the process,” she explained.

With the support of many volunteers, Cruz began the work of planting a community garden.

“In that first month of work, I saw the power of community and the pure brute force of Salvadorans,” she said. “The available land had not been planted in 20-plus years, and it was reforested and on a steep hillside. Our only tools were our hands, machetes, pick-axes and shovels.”

Hiking long distances into the mountains, residents found logs to terrace the garden and carried them back to town on their backs. They ended up with 12 beds of vegetables, including tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cabbage and radishes.

“Mostly I just spent time living among and accompanying the Salvadoran people in their struggle for a more just and dignified life,” said Cruz. “I taught them what I knew and they taught me what they knew.”

One of her proudest accomplishments on that trip was the formation of an official Youth Committee of Los Naranjos with a group of young people from the community. They coordinated community clean-up projects, planned special celebrations for the village and invited people to do workshops on environmental issues, human rights and other topics that interested the group.

Cruz returned to the United States in 2010 to complete a six-month internship with Ecology Action, a non-profit organization in California with the goal of teaching people worldwide to better feed themselves while building and preserving the soil and conserving resources.

She then began her work as a soil ecology and food systems researcher at North Carolina State University. Cruz earned her master’s degree in crop science in 2013 and plans to graduate with her Ph.D. in agroecology the spring of 2017.

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Cruz and co-workers at a Latin American Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Mexico.

Now nine years after her initial visit, Cruz has been able to continue her work in El Salvador, most recently thanks to a Fulbright Award and a U.S. Borlaug Global Food Security Fellowship.

In countries like El Salvador with high food insecurity rates, soil conservation and sustainable production techniques could possibly improve bean and corn yields for poor rural families, said Cruz. However, little research has shown how to adapt sustainable practices to the needs of those families, something she wanted to evaluate.

One of the villages where Angel worked was El Rucio, home to about 50 families and only accessible via a cable across the river.

“It was the people of El Rucio, one of the poorest and most isolated villages in the country, that taught me to not only study soil, but love soil,” said Cruz. “I began to understand on a deeper level why the future of our civilization depends on the health of our soils.”

Cruz said she became an “instant convert” after hearing success stories from Honduras, where farmers greatly increased yields and soil quality by planting velvet bean in the fields after their corn crops were harvested.

In communities like El Rucio in the highlands of El Salvador, she was able to utilize manures as a fertilizer and soil builder. Simple techniques, such as mulching, creating drainage ditches and planting crops closer together, can go a long way in improving farms’ effectiveness.

“In most areas, simple techniques, such as planting a bean to add more nitrogen to the soil will also decrease erosion and increase water retention, thus improving the productivity of soil at a low cost,” she said.

Farming techniques and soil health were topics on the minds of a number of villagers, some of whom walked more than two hours one way to participate in a soil management workshop held by Cruz and her local host, Don Natividad.

As part of her Ph.D. research, she is continuing her work with the University of El Salvador and several local NGOs to show that peoples’ livelihoods depend on soil.

“People need to be convinced that improving soil quality and conservation for small farmers can improve food production and thus food security for the entire country with a grassroots and cost-effective strategy,” she wrote in a feature for N.C. State’s website.

For Cruz, El Salvador will continue to be a place she plans to visit as much as possible.

“I once heard someone say, ‘Find where your greatest desires meet the world’s greatest needs,’” said Cruz. “I believe I have found both in the villages of El Salvador.”

 

 

Last updated August 5, 2022
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director