By Ralph Kurtenbach, Special to ASSIST News Service
SHELL, ECUADOR (ANS – October 13, 2017) — Townsfolk and dignitaries gathered recently on a one-time rocky patch of weeds for an event to mark a mission agency’s newest endeavor — a greenhouse.
The ceremony in Shell, Ecuador, marked for Reach Beyond that began in the country nearly 86 years ago, its first greenhouse. Agriculture has not been a major thrust for the agency that has focused on such things as radio and television broadcasting and operating two hospitals, medical clinics and accredited schools in nursing and communications (some of these outreaches have since closed).
However, 180 people came to the celebration on Friday, Sept. 8, listening to speeches, sampling roasted cacao (cocoa) beans and touring rows of small trees. Later they all enjoyed a noon meal together in the shade.
Addressing the crowd, Reach Beyond Community Development Director Wim de Groen did the unthinkable, holding up a potted cacao plant and then taking a scissors and cutting its stem. To set the scene for this shock, he had described how the harvest from certain plants would be predictable—avocados from an avocado tree and not from strawberry plants, for example. Then with a snip of the scissors as people laughed nervously, de Groen explained the science and beauty of grafting. This illustration led smoothly to a spiritual parallel.
“I have to cut that and put a new plant onto it so that it can produce a different product,” de Groen explained. “So too it is with our lives. By the fall in Adam we are born in sin, and our fruits are never perfect. Even though we try to produce good fruits, we have that evil inside of us. But we have hope because Christ died on the cross for our sins.”
De Groen and Reach Beyond Community Development staff worker Eric Fogg view the greenhouse as a means of reaching people with the gospel. In the Amazon rain forest east of Shell, Reach Beyond has helped with various clean water projects while opening evangelism opportunities.
The two men hope to see the mission’s conversation with these communities extended by introducing the greenhouse ministry. Fogg offered that “plants offer an amazing opportunity to link spiritual principles — of adoption [for example] with grafting.” Another example is the need for water and the grower’s dependence upon God for water.
“The lessons in the Bible are very, very numerous,” Fogg said. Additionally, it is hoped that current garden practices (slash-and-burn methods with little variance of crops) will be improved with better systems.
“Our desire is that we can see changes in people’s hearts—changes on the inside,” added de Groen. “Although we hope we help a number of communities with planting projects, we want to see the fruits of a change from within.”
Even with spiritual instruction leading the project’s stated goals, other benefits are anticipated, according to Fogg. “It’s going to take about two years for the long-term plants [cacao and orange plants] to produce fruit, but the short-term plants [potatoes and yucca] cycle every three or four months.” He foresees that jungle residents will enjoy a broader diet of foods, and in the long term participating communities will profit from more cash crops such as oranges and cacao.
The new greenhouse outreach came in response to a failed agricultural program by Ecuador’s government which flew in thousands of cacao trees to remote jungle villages to help boost people’s incomes. Well-intentioned, the effort was not accompanied by training on keeping plants alive amid the region’s drenching rains, according to Fogg.
“In our community development mindset, we saw a niche that we could fill and do some training,” de Groen said. “We can help the people learn how to take care of the plants, and we can help educate them on how to grow the plants better and faster.”
Using property adjacent to Reach Beyond’s former Hospital Vozandes-Shell, the mission erected a 10,000-square-meter (2.5-acre) greenhouse earlier this year. It is now home to over 20,000 cacao plants along with 2,000 orange trees plus a variety of vegetables.
Staff members will provide weekly training to villagers on how to grow the trees. Distribution of the plants to remote areas is expected to begin in January. As the trees mature, they are better able to tolerate the torrential downpours in the rainforest.
“The government loves what we are doing,” de Groen added. “We get government officials visiting our greenhouse to see how we do it. It’s a great opportunity to work with them.”
The West African nations of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Ghana produce almost half of the world’s cocoa. As demand for more flavorful cocoa has risen, however, Ecuador has emerged as the principal exporter of fine cocoa beans, according to the BBC.
Ecuador, with an estimated 200,000 people in the cocoa business, surpassed Brazil in 2015 in leading Latin America in cacao production. Currently five coastal provinces (Guayas, Los Ríos, Manabí, Esmeraldas and El Oro) account for the majority of Ecuador’s cacao production.
“As the plants (cacao and orange trees) aren’t quite large enough to be placed in community just yet,” Fogg recounted after the greenhouse inauguration, “we hope that by the very early part of next year the communities will be able to start coming here. That will allow the spiritual [lessons] and the plants to start being linked.”
“At the moment,” continued Fogg, “we’ve inaugurated what we’ll call the construction [phase] and all the tools necessary to make the process a ministry. And the ministry has yet to begin.”
Reach Beyond Latin America Region Director Dan Shedd said that the greenhouse would put into people’s hands a reminder that “we need to take care of what we sow in our lives” and that “God wants us to grow more and more into the image of Christ.”
Note: Heidi Salzman, who organized the greenhouse event, Hermann Schirmacher and Harold Goerzen, also contributed to this story.
Photo captions: 1) Set to cut the ribbon to inaugurate a greenhouse (l-r) Wim de Groen, Dan Shedd, Marco Adrian (Pastaza province engineer), Jessie Engelmann (Pastaza province president), Hermann Schirmacher. 2) Dan Shedd, agronomist Ovidio Gomez and Hermann Schirmacher discuss a multi-grafted three that grows several varieties of oranges. 3) Greenhouse in Ecuador Growing Plants for Use in Jungle Gardens. 3) Community Development Director Wim de Groen. 4) After the inauguration ceremony, people toured the greenhouse and a nearby field of small orange trees. 5) Ralph at the microphone.
About the writer: Ralph Kurtenbach, a missionary journalist, works with Reach Beyond, where he has been an English-language newscaster and program host on the international shortwave radio station, HCJB The Voice of the Andes. He now blogs at www.calloftheandes.wordpress.com and helps to mentor Latinos who want to join in taking the gospel to other parts of the world. He may be found on LinkedIn and his e-mail is: email@example.com.
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