Mark Cullen's Blog

Blogs from Mark Cullen, SHARE’s Honorary Patron

Mark says: “I am a great fan of the work that S.H.A.R.E. does in Central and South America.  This organization has an impact on a tremendous number of lives, increases the benefits through the “pass-on” principle, and isn’t burdened with large administration costs.”

I’m most impressed with the hand-up not hand-out approach S.H.A.R.E. takes.  The supporters of S.H.A.R.E. help others to help themselves, and then to help others in turn.”

Thank you Mark for your donation to SHARE from book sales and your ongoing support for SHARE’s work!

Mark Cullen is Canada’s best loved gardening expert, a prolific writer on gardening and a recipient in 2003 of the Queens Jubilee medal.  A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each of Mark’s book titled The Canadian Garden Primer: an Organic Approach is donated to S.H.A.R.E. Agricultural Foundation.


Mark and daughter Heather on Belize awareness tour. Mark visited many project sites in Brazil. Mark, in El Salvador, with a SHARE literacy student, who is also a gardener.

Mark Cullen's Blogs from Brazil

Mark joined Bob Thomas, SHARE project manager for South America on part of the yearly monitoring trip to view SHARE projects in Brazil. This was Mark’s third trip to view projects having travelled to Belize and El Salvador with Les Frayne, project manager for Central America.

I have traded dry winter air for summertime humidity - Mark Cullen

I am reporting this week from the other side of the world. No, not Asia - think south. It is summer in Brazil. I am reminded of this with each key stroke on my computer key board. My fingers stick to it every time that I touch it. I have traded dry Canadian winter air for summertime humidity. Minus 20 degrees in southern Ontario for plus 30 in Bahia. Cold snow for warm sunshine, insects and bird song. I threw the insects part in so that you would not be totally envious. The mosquitoes exist in copious quantities and love to suck blood as much as the Canadian varieties do. But this is not a complaint - I came here on my own volition and so far have no regrets.

I have only been here for a couple of days and it has been quiet in the small resort city of Ilheus. The flights down here are such that one has to take the time to find a quiet place where you can read, relax, enjoy a beer and sleep until real time catches up with you. It is a tough job. I slept for 12 hours the first night here.

Looking at a map we are about as far south of the equator as El Salvador and Guatemala are north of it.

My situation will change very quickly, as I travel into the interior with a monitoring group of four people with SHARE Agriculture Foundation, a Canadian not-for-profit (n.g.o.) that supports subsistence farmers in parts of Central and South America. These are people who lack the resources to get on their feet - to feed their families, start a farm and begin the building process that we tend to take for granted in a wealthy country like Canada.

Truth is, there are few government lead or private 'safety nets' here to assist an individual in starting up a micro enterprise, be it a farm or a small business of some other kind. The purchase of their first cow, a sewing machine, to learn to read or the means to dig a water well are generally not there for the average low wage earner. Often 'low wage earners' translate into 'no wage earners' and therein lies a big problem.

When the 'next generation' sees their parents struggling to get by: barely making ends meet, the tendency is for the youngsters to seek out a steady source of income in urban areas. Off to the big cities they go looking for some financial stability and perhaps some excitement too.

One of our hosts, a Canadian by the name of Betty Szilassy, (U. of Guelph Grad, OAC and SHARE project facilitator ) who has been working down here for over 28 years with the Mennonite Central Committee, tells me that the average Brazilian lives to just over 60 years old. 'Why?' I ask, as they seem to eat well (tons of fruits and vegetables) and they look to be in pretty good health.

'In the cities there are so many young people killed each year that it drives down the average life expectancy', was the answer. Funny how statistics can hide some interesting facts. So you can see that there is plenty of work for organizations like SHARE to do in this country: if you view the world as a global village, which surely you must, just as surely as we live in the twenty first century.

That is the goal of SHARE then: to help people to get a start in life who would not otherwise have the opportunity to do so. As they like to say, SHARE provides a 'hand up, not a hand out'. I like to put it this way: SHARE provides a material start to people who lack the means to get onto their feet otherwise.

The other principle that SHARE stands for is the 'pass-on' principle. "We will provide the means for you to feed yourself and your family and to generate some income so that you can build a life for yourself on the condition that you share the dividends with a neighbour or neighbouring village that is also in need of a start." A cow has a calf and it is given away to help get someone else off on a start. It is a hand shake deal, but one that works pretty well because SHARE comes back each year to monitor progress on each project.

This is paramount to 'teaching someone to fish, rather than giving them a fish'. You get the idea. This is an idea that is so simple that you wonder why it is not practiced by every n.g.o. in the business. However, there is a caveat. The organization has to monitor the 'projects' that it invests in or risk that the two principles for which it stands do not get implemented or compromised. Most people and organizations like the connection to SHARE and tend to pull at their end of the rope to make sure that the relationship remains strong.

That is why I am in Brazil. I am following one of our fearless leaders, Canadian farmer/banker/philanthropist Bob Thomas around for a couple of weeks as he checks in with his many contacts that he has established over his 18 years of 'monitoring' here in South America. He will not only make sure that the projects are being carried out as per the plan but he is sniffing around in search of new projects for next year and years beyond.

You might think that there would be a line-up of people with their plan at the ready, asking for a share of the SHARE largess. Not so. Most of the folks that most need the help that SHARE provides are not sophisticated enough to either have a plan nor do they have the connections that bring them to the table. It behooves SHARE to seek these people out through a network of people and organizations that it has nurtured for over 30 years. It is a process that never stops.

This exercise plays out in other countries as well, every winter (our winter) in Central and South America.

Tomorrow we 'hit the road' and travel 6 hours to God knows where - the headwaters of a river, judging by the map that Bob showed me. There we will begin our work in earnest. I say that like I am doing some of the work which I am not. Unless listening, asking stupid questions and generally testing the patience of the other 3 - Bob, Betty and our interpreter Eliziana Vieira de Araujo. I am merely an observer. I am here to see what I can learn firsthand about our work in this part of the world.

I will be reporting back to you at this blog site with updates, when I can get near an internet source. Meantime I am plugging away on my laptop, sticky keys and all.

I'll keep in touch.

Keep your knees dirty and thawed out.

P.S. It may interest you to know that most of the work that SHARE is doing is supported by C.I.D.A. the Canadian International Development Agency. This is the agency that represents the Canadian Federal governments' support of developing countries. For every dollar that we raise from private sources three more are added to the coffers from C.I.D.A. Not a bad return for your charitable buck, if you ask me!!

More Stories to SHARE - Mark Cullen

We are on the move. From the interior of Brazil where we looked over some pretty exciting micro credit farming projects to the north we fly as the geography of this country is not unlike that of Canada from the point of view of mass... it is larger than continental USA to give you an idea. So a trip to the north is a 5 hour flight. We are going to meet up with two catholic sisters. Sister Clarice Garvey and Mona Kelly are meeting us to take us on a tour of SHARE supported farming projects. Sister Mona received the Order of Canada for her work with intercity children in Brazil. She would kill me for telling you that as she is very low key about it but hey, someone has to toot that horn for her!! A couple of great Canadians doing great international development work in a great country.

Did you ask about the weather? Well, imagine humidity that is so thick that you are actually wetter when you get out of the shower than when you were in it.

Back to our work here. The original Sponge Bob, our fearless Canadian host and chief monitor of SHARE projects in this part of the world is very pleased with the work that SHARE partners are doing. Every year he comes down here to check it out and to sniff out new opportunities to help small farmers get a financial grip: to use the traction provided by a hand up (not a hand out) from SHARE.

Our Brazil projects are advancing very nicely, according to this guru of giving. Seems that Brazilian subsistence farmers are moving, however slowly, up the ladder of developing countries. Perhaps they are on the second or third rung now. Which brings the ever adventurous Bob Thomas to the next frontier of N.G.O. work on behalf of generous and hopeful Canadians - Bolivia. Like 18 years of cutting his teeth in the back roads (sorry, there are no roads where this guy goes, I forgot!) of Brazil was not enough. He has heard reliable rumours that there are farming communities in Bolivia that could use the unique kind of hands on help that SHARE provides and he is going there in March to check it out.

'How do you know where to go in Bolivia Bob?' I ask naively. He responds with one eyebrow raised, 'I have a few contacts that have a few contacts. The Mennonite Central Committee for one, has lots of projects down there that need our help. In all I have about 8 people that want to see me on various projects, representing different potential partners.'

Slowly, slowly I am getting the picture.

You don't just wade into a country with a wallet of cash waving high, offering to help those who don't happen to enjoy the lifestyle of the average Canadian. Instead you ask questions, listen intently, and ask more questions. Think through your response and when you are ready you offer to help people to help themselves using resources that we, Canadians, have at our disposal. And they smile broadly because they are proud of what they have. Where they live. They don't want what we have in Canada. But they are human and want a reliable source of sustenance and a few frills like a roof, some hand tools and a future that will someday tempt the next generation to see the rural/small farm and the lifestyle that comes with it as something worth aspiring to.

I am learning that there is no substitute for an education - even a grade six education - and access to basic health care. That is what we have that they would like to also have. Beyond that, Canada and all developed countries in the world for that matter- are not the envy of the people that we work with here. But we are great friends.

Perhaps that is why, as we said goodbye to our partners of the Syndicato of Agriculture in the dry and dusty streets of Santa Luz, there was more than one tear shed.

Tomorrow it is off to Fortaleza, a week with the two sisters. And more stories.

Keep your knees dirty,

Stories from Brazil - Mark Cullen

It is day 7 now of our monitoring trip in Brazil, where we have driven 700 km into the interior to meet the farmers who have participated in the micro-enterprise programs offered to them through the local representatives of SHARE Agricultural Foundation in Canada. Yesterday was 40 degrees C which may sound pretty good to my Canadian friends back home who are suffering through some big time snow fall and low temperatures- especially my daughter Heather who is in Ottawa working for the National Capital Commission without a car to get her to work. So she relies on walking while the public transit mess sorts itself out. Yea, to be sure she would enjoy a little tropical heat right now.

However I am not sure that any farmer who has enjoyed some measure of prosperity in Canada would want to change places with the farmers in this region of Brazil. We are in Santa Luz, an arid, low energy kind of place where you are lucky to find the internet and when you do, it is dial up - remember that? Which is the only reason that I am not sending you pictures.

My host is Bob Thomas, a Canadian. I call him the original Sponge Bob because he takes in information like a sponge. He has been monitoring SHARE projects in Brazil for 18 years and has forgotten more than any of us will know about the whole business down here.

We were driving into the country yesterday - driving far too far from my spoiled point of view - when I said to Bob "Well, this is where the rubber meets the road for SHARE eh Bob?" and he said, "Yes, but there is no road." as we bumped along the wash board and rock.

Meet Maria Odete. She lives about 1 hour from Santa Luz on a farm that is surrounded by cactus and dry loving trees. She borrowed $500 Canadian dollars from the SHARE micro credit program, which she was required to repay in 2 years, plus 2 percent interest. There was some paper to sign and off she went - building a chicken house, fence for a chicken run, and 2 months worth of feed, the raw material to make the feeders and watering devices and 100 young broiler chicks. She did it - paid the whole thing off on time. Now she has the infrastructure for more chickens: she grows her own chicken feed, sequesters rain water in her hand made cistern and generally makes a living here doing what she knows, understands and has a passion about.

The story gets repeated time and again. And never, during the 4 year existence of the program, has a farmer defaulted or been late paying down their loan.

More stories to come.

From Nova Terra, Ceara State, Brazil - Mark Cullen

'I don't have a new path. What I do have is a new way of walking.' Bentinho, Brazilian poet and social reformer.

I am on the home stretch of my journey around the Brazilian outback, traveling with our fearless leader -and I do not use the term lightly here - Bob Thomas. This guy is a great Canadian, really. He has traveled all over Brazil looking for legitimate opportunities to assist the landless people of this country for 18 years. This year alone he will spend over 3 months in South America traveling on behalf of SHARE asking questions, listening intently, working on his Portuguese language skills and building relationships that will lead to a better life for many rural, landless Brazilians. He does this on a volunteer basis.

Today's story centres on the city of Fortaleza, a 'tourist' spot on the sea side with wide beaches and oodles of high-rise hotels and condos in the most popular tourist areas.

There are some brave souls here that waded into a situation over 20 years ago and have never left. Canadian Catholic nuns who are forever out of uniform: they prefer it that way. Sister Clarice Garvey is from Quebec and Sister Mona Kelly is from Fredericton. But they both call Brazil their home.

Outside of the popular tourist sites is a tough, gang-dominated area where these two sisters have chosen to reside. In a city of 4 million people, there is a lot of need. Street kids down here live under bridges and trees. They come out at night - usually around midnight - looking for food and any form of income that works for them. You can imagine what that leads to. The sisters have a habit of meeting these kids on their own turf. They give them food, guide them to resources that can help and support them. And they do whatever they can to get the kids off of the street.

Mona told me of one family of 3 kids aged 5, 7 and 11 years that were on the streets due to an 'unacceptable situation with their father'. They had nowhere to go and nothing to eat. The sisters found them food, a place to live that was safe from their abusive father and kept in touch with them to make sure that they would land on their feet, best that they could. This is typical of the stuff that they do. 'All in a day’s work' says Mona. She holds Canada's highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada, for her work here and in Kenya. Any wonder.

When the Americans left Fortaleza after the Second World War they abandoned their barracks and an air strip. It was vacant land until homeless people started to squat there. The sisters saw an opportunity to acquire the property legally, and through various means were able to do so after a struggle of several years. The result is a small city within the city, with sewers, electricity and water.

Here, over 5,000 families now live full time in homes made of bricks and mortar. When they finally received permission from the government to own and build on the abandoned property they partitioned off 12 foot lots. Mona asked them why they took such small portions of land. The answer? 'We cannot believe that we can own a property any larger than this!' Dream big, is Mona's answer to that.

All of this has little to do with SHARE except for two things.

One, Sister Clarice has traveled with us for the entire week, providing directions in both a geographical sense and a spiritual one. She has connected us with people on the Assentamentos (landless people who have received legal title to their farm land) who can benefit greatly from the resources offered by generous Canadians through SHARE Agricultural foundation. She has helped us to keep our sense of humour even when the sun was going down on both the day and some of our best intentions. She gave us confidence to push forward and to drive down yet another dusty road.

The second reason why the story about the street kids and the new city within a city is important is this: One of our missions at SHARE is to keep the next generation on the land. It is when they leave the country and go to the city that they so often get into drugs, prostitution and the like. It is a dead end for most who venture there.

Yesterday we met with 4 young guys out in the country who want to start an apiary; Bee keeping on a commercial scale. They have a running start already and are looking to SHARE to help finance the building of a separator and storage facility. They are looking for $500 Canadian to put the entire project together. Their ages are 20, 21, 22 and 24 years old.

I find myself thinking that I would like every young Canadian to come down here and see how ambitious these guys are: guys who have almost nothing to start with including gainful employment.

Final word to Sister Clarice, 'I know exactly where we are going; I just don't know where we are.
Our efforts to help some people help themselves is slow work.
You offer a hand up and not a hand out one farmer at a time.
I have learned to take the process one experience at a time.
And I am looking forward to coming home.
Thank you for reading this blog over the last couple of weeks.
Next week, pictures of the trip and some gardening advice that will knock your socks off.

Keep your knees dirty,

Stories from Brazil - Mark Cullen

It has been an exciting few days in Brazil. We travel about 300 to 400 km a day at the average speed of 50 km per hour over roads that are a bit iffy. Most cottage roads that I have been on are in better condition. We are traveling on roads and mud and through puddles not because Brazil has poor highways but because of where we are going. The Encamamentos that need the support of SHARE are not exactly located on prime real estate. For the most part an Encampamento is a legal 'encampment' of people who have nowhere else to live. Not that long ago they lived at the side of the road, illegally. How they acquire legal title to marginal farm land is a long story that I will share at another time. Let's just say that they have worked long and hard for what they have - which may not look like much to you and me but they are happy. What we are doing is providing some resources in the form of money, a water well, some livestock etc. that will help them to get a firm grip on the bottom rung of the ladder to 'development' in other words, we want to make sure that they have the tools to do the job - the job of eking a living off of the land.

Late yesterday we visited a group of 28 families that have been waiting for legal title to some land for 6 years. The government has, it would seem, the very best of intentions. However the wheels of progress in Brazil move slowly.

This Encampamento was out of food, except for some rice. They needed plastic sheets to provide protection from the rain that is coming very soon... it was a long and very sad story. As the sun set over Nova Terra we came to the conclusion that the only short term solution was for the 7 of us to dig into our pockets and reach for the cash that we could afford to give them on the spot. We left them with $500 - enough to feed the entire group until the end of March and to acquire the rolls of plastic that they need so desperately to cover their cardboard shacks. They are a proud people and do not ask for much - before they would accept the cash from our representative, Sister Clarice, they made it clear that their first request was for a representative of the church and the local agricultural syndicate to come with them to the local government authorities. It seems that they were not being listened to - a common lament in this land according to Sister Clarice.

It has not all been hard work and difficulties... we were treated to a demonstration of Capoeira. It was a dance called the 'lament of the slaves' of which there were over 4 million who received their freedom in 1880 - some years after the American slaves received theirs. This dance was accompanied by music unique to the region... a one string guitar sort of arrangement, a tall drum and two tambourines. I have it on video and will try to download it when I get home for you to see. It was a powerful performance, one which resulted in an emotional response from us foreigners. It is an odd thing for a Canadian to witness such a strong expression of national history. It reminds me that we compare our Canadian-ness with the Americans and use the differences as a measure of who we are.

How wrong is that?

I head home late this week and am looking forward to a warm shower, getting caught up on Canadian news and getting a few hugs from the ones that I love.

Stay tuned - I will be in touch soon including news that will keep you on the horticultural track.

Obagama: thank you for reading.

Recife, Brazil - Mark Cullen

I am feeling kind of sorry for myself.

My flight that was supposed to leave for home today from Recife, Brazil was cancelled due to some mechanical problems with the plane. Apparently the plane was not safe to fly. Well the good news is that I will hopefully be flying in a safe plane tomorrow. In the mean time American Airlines is putting me up in a mighty fine hotel that even has a bath. The first one that I have seen since coming to Brazil over 2 weeks ago. Rain is coming down in sheets: another first since I arrived. And the temperature outside is not so hot that one would sweat just stepping out of doors.

When I research Recife, Brazil, I learn that it is referred to as the 'Venice' of this country.

All of that said, I just want to be home.

I have been down here in Brazil for long enough, looking over the projects that SHARE Agriculture Foundation have put in place over the years. I am done. This is it. I have work to do at home and a wife and family that I want to kiss and hug.

I am finished with Brazil for now.

But today I had did not have a choice. After sitting on the plane for 3 hours the pilot announced over the p.a. that the aircraft was just not suitable for flying from a safety point of view. I arrived here at 8 am. It was 5 pm when I finally got in a taxi for the hotel. We all shuffled off, through the customs one more time, out to stand in line again only this time to pick up our vouchers for a hotel and meal. Then we all shuffled over to this hotel ? a fine one, as I mentioned.

Which brings me to the point of having a choice, or rather, not having a choice.

My new friend Sister Clarice Garvey, a Canadian who has stick handled the way around a lot of projects this past week as our interpreter and guide, likes to tell this story:

She was in Canada about a year ago giving talks to groups of school children about her work in Brazil. She talks a lot about the people who have no land, no future and have never enjoyed the privilege of land ownership. She loves to tell her stories. One day, after she had done just that, a young boy who was sitting directly in front of her, resting his chin in his hands concluded with this remark, "so what you are saying is that they have no choices."

"Why, yes." answered Clarice.

It is one of Clarice’s favourite stories because it tells all of us the truth about the situation that over 6 million people find themselves in down here.

The Landless people or 'Encampamentos' simply have no choice but to wait. Some have been waiting on the same land, without a home for over 6 years. It is a hand to mouth existence that the average Canadian cannot relate to, unless they themselves have at one time been homeless.

In the mean time the rain comes. The first time in over 2 weeks that I have been here. I am enjoying just watching it fall from the sky in the light of the street lights.

I am reminded just how precious it is…. Water! The essence of life.

I think about our abundance of fresh water back home and realize that we take that for granted too.