Agros Blog

Celebrating the Culmination of Two Years of Work with the World Bank in Chiapas, Mexico

Snapshot 2012-01-06 00-52-07After being recognized for our innovative work relieving rural poverty, I am excited to share that Agros has wrapped up a very successful two-year collaboration with the World Bank.  In 2008, Agros was selected along with 100 other winners from a pool of over 1,800 applicants to receive $200,000 from the World Bank Development Marketplace Competition – a competitive grant program that identifies and funds innovative, early-stage projects with high potential for development impact – to implement our project proposal.

Our project, “Land Ownership for the Rural Poor in Mexico,” was designed to purchase land for two rural farming communities in Mexico, and has since resulted – with support from other generous partnerships and foundations – in the formation of Santa Fe Ajké and Nueva Ilusión.  Not only was this a big step for our Mexico office, but it was also a huge achievement for Agros: our innovative model was recognized by a prestigious institution, and we benefited from the expertise and support of the World Bank staff that came alongside us for this project.

Through our partnership with the World Bank, Agros was able to expand to a new region in Chiapas, Mexico—the Guatemala border region in Comitán.  Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico, and Comitán is infamous for ethnic and economic persecution of the vast number of Guatemalan refugees who fled there during the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

While visiting Comitán in 2007 in order to prepare for the establishment of Santa Fe Ajké, one man recounted to me the community’s 10-year struggle with the Mexican government to connect to a local water system. Instead of providing for the families’ basic need for water, politicians ignored the obvious urgent needs. Abandoned by both the Guatemalan and Mexican governments, one member said he felt as though the community was “not here nor there,” like citizens of neither country.

Thankfully, with the generous support of partners such as the World Bank, First Fruit Foundation, SG Foundation, and the individual networks that comprise the Santa Fe Ajké and Nueva Ilusión JWAV groups, several families from the group I visited in 2007 started the first Agros community in Comitán: Santa Fe Ajké.  From the beginning, the hard work of its community members has been evident in their motivation to continue despite two years of challenging weather, including drought and torrential rain.  For Nueva Ilusión it has been a long journey to find productive land at a reasonable price, but in June 2010 the land was finally purchased. These two communities have accomplished all of the goals set forth in the project agreement, including:

Santa Fe Ajké

  • Defined vision and values, plus a three year village development plan
  • Established seven distinct crops for food security and income generation
  • Built 20 houses and 20 latrines
  • Established a water distribution system
  • Received their promissory notes for their land loans

Nueva Ilusión

  • Defined their vision statement and new community name
  • Selected and purchased land
  • Defined vision and values, plus a three year village development plan
  • Established four distinct crops for food security, two which are sold for income generation
  • Built has 20 houses and 20 latrines

Looking ahead, Santa Fe and Nueva Ilusión still have critical steps to take that will create sustainable, long-term growth.  Though the work with the World Bank has ended, Agros will continue our work for several more years in each of these communities to ensure that they are on the path to land ownership and lasting success. You can follow these communities progress along their journey in the Village Updates by going to the Our Villages tab on our website. Thank you for your continued support!

Gifts that give

We’re approaching that special time of year when we give more of our time, energy and resources to the people and causes that mean most to us. Some take time to spend with friends and family to celebrate the holidays in different ways. At our holiday staff party, we all donated gifts to a homeless shelter for youth in our neighborhood. Our in-country staff in Central America and Mexico take a much-deserved rest from their busy schedules traveling between their home, office and Agros communities, often being away from their family for a week at a time.

Those living in Agros villages celebrate in many different ways as well—and many give gifts to one another in response to the blessings they’ve received over the year.  We’ve had many villagers take from the surpluses they have and offer it to even poorer, neighboring families.

Personally, I’m most impacted by the generosity of the Agros families not just during this holiday season, but throughout their daily lives, even as they are fighting their way out of the cycle of poverty one day at a time.

Three generations in GuatemalaFor example, this calendar year, a long-standing activity in Guatemala villages, Women’s Community Banking, received funding to expand to four additional countries. These lending groups are sustainable in the long-term and are designed to increase access to small loans in the community and neighboring areas.

Very few rural women have access to even the smallest loans from banks or MFIs due to their lack of collateral. Through Women’s Community Banking, however, women serve as collateral for each other—if one woman defaults on her loan, it’s up to the others to cover her payment. Each woman contributes to a joint savings account which is eventually grown to provide loans to individuals outside of the Community Bank. In this way, the Community Banks are gifts that keep giving—each woman’s financial success and responsibility makes a positive impact on her family and the entire region that the bank grows to serve.

TdV09-Slideshow-49Since January, women’s Community Banks increased from 23 banks of 400 women in Guatemala to 31 banks in Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, involving over 500 women. More than $135,000 has been distributed in loans in the last 12-month period.

Another example of gifts that keep giving are animal projects.

293O3600Animals represent a long-term investment for the rural family. 88% of Agros families own animals to sustain their livelihood. Animals provide food, income diversity and security and labor-saving work in the families’ fields. Many Agros communities receive rabbits, cows, sheep or goats, along with training in animal husbandry techniques with the expectation that the first offspring will be passed on to another neighboring family.

By passing on the blessing of animals, more families have been able to access this gift of health and economic security that animals provide.

There are so many ways that Agros’ work in Central America and Mexico multiplies and continues to give after a first initial investment. Beyond Women’s Community Banking and passing on the blessing of animals, the families we serve teach us what gift giving really looks like and how powerful it can be.

You, too, can give the gift that keeps giving! And with every dollar matched now through December 31st, your impact is doubled!

· Women’s Small Business Loan
· Women’s Economic Initiative Training
· Raise a Cow
· Flock of Chicks
· Give a Goat
· Tend an Animal Menagerie

Agros + SalaamGarage = Social Change

I recently had the exciting opportunity to travel to Guatemala with an amazing partnering organization called SalaamGarage.  SalaamGarage is a digital storytelling, citizen journalism organization that partners with international NGOs and local non-profits. Participants (amateur and professional photographers, writers, videographers, etc.) connect with international NGOs, like Agros, to create and share independent media projects that raise awareness and cause positive change in their online and offline social communities.

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SalaamGarage group with pea farmers in La Esperanza—photo credits: Patrick Lennox Wright

We started our journey with the six photographers from across the US in Antigua, Guatemala to get our bearings and introduce some to Central America for the first time.  From there, we drove six hours to the Ixil region where several of our Agros Guatemala villages are located.  We spent three amazing days visiting the inspiring families in Belén, La Esperanza and Cajixay, learning more about their history during the armed conflict and their journey afterwards with Agros, sharing food and exchanging smiles for the camera.

As the Agros trip leader and translator, I had the privilege of seeing Agros through the new eyes and lenses of these visiting photojournalists and facilitating a very special conversation across different cultures.  Several times, I was asked by a member of the group to translate something like, Please let her know that I’m changed forever.  From our meeting, I am going to seriously rethink how I live my life.

Amanda Koster, founder of SalaamGarage shared, I’ve done a lot of traveling around the world and have worked with a lot of NGOs.  Agros is the most effective and holistic development organization I’ve seen so far, with a powerful emphasis and successful model for long term self empowerment and sustainability.  This was the most amazing trip so far we’ve taken with SalaamGarage.

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Ana weaving a huipil for her daughter’s high school graduation ceremony

After interviews with 18 families in three villages, including time with La Esperanza pea farmers who are exporting to England through a secure regional contract, the elementary school students in Belén who told us their dreams to be teachers, farmers, police officers and lawyers, leaders of the women-run community bank in Cajixay, and a fabulous meal of homemade boxboles made and shared together with men, women and children on our last day, we came home both exhausted and exhilarated.  I know that the stories and images of these courageous, hard-working people will not be forgotten, but shared with diverse networks through the group’s multi-media projects.  Stories like Ana’s, who in La Esperanza proudly weaves each day in an Agros textile project to make enough money to send her daughter Petronila to high school.  A few weeks ago, we saw her working on the most beautiful weaving of all, the one Petronila will wear at her graduation ceremony coming up in November.

The SalaamGarage photographers have returned full of energy and passion and ideas to share stories like Ana’s. Keep in touch with their work and SalaamGarage on Facebook and Twitter.  You can share the Agros story to help cause social change, too.  Check out how at http://onevillage.agros.org/.

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Elementary school in Belén—photo credits: Patrick Lennox Wright

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Agros Guatemala staff taking a turn with the big lenses! photo credits: Sam Lee

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Photo Credit: Sam Lee

Agros is Latin & Greek for “Land”

Nic Reforest for CC Blog_plantasdejenizero_sanmarcosAgros is Latin and Greek for “land.”  Though “being green” has become very trendy in the last decade, since Agros began 25 years ago land and environmental stewardship has always been a cornerstone and guiding principle for how we work.  From the first piece of land that was purchased in 1986, Agros knows the immeasurable value of productive, fertile land, especially in the lives of rural farmers in Central America and Mexico, today and for the generations to come.

While approximately 80% of the rural poor depend on agriculture for their livelihood, most live on marginal land, where water is scarce and land is over-worked by cash crops and stripped of nutrients by extreme weather conditions such as drought and hurricanes.

Dependence on agriculture, poor management of natural resources and population pressures have led to serious environmental degradation and diminished opportunities for rural farmers to make a living.

Just to paint a picture of how serious this is, currently over 50% of Nicaragua’s energy is from firewood, dramatically contributing to the deforestation of the landscape.  With this loss of trees, underground water sources are drying up, rapidly leading to desertification, and plant and animal species are disappearing as well.  Economic losses include the decline in eco-tourism to these forests, various types of forest industries, as well as a decline in soil fertility essential for farmers.

Nic Reforest for CC Blog_siembradelvivero_futuroTo counter these trends, Agros works with farming families to teach sustainable agricultural practices as well as environmental conservation methods, like replacing slash-and-burn with organic compost produced on the farm and reforestation of the land.

This year, families in Agros Nicaragua communities are finishing the second special reforestation project supported by the generous support of the Weyerhauser Foundation.  Through these reforestation projects, dozens of communities in the Matagalpa and Rivas regions of Nicaragua have planted thousands of trees on hundreds of acres of land since 2007.  Here are just a few of the achievements that these families have made through these projects:

  • 30 benefitting communities, including Agros and neighboring villages, making a significant impact on the entire region
  • 425 families participated, approximately 3,000 men women and children contributing to a greener future
  • 70,245 trees and plants reforested 304 acres, including fruit trees, various forest trees and native plants
  • 22 greenhouses built to continue reforestation after the initial project
  • Strategic partnerships established with local governments and NGOs to provide funding to expand the project
  • Families equipped with forest management skills, including how to plan, budget and report on the project, how to plant and care for the trees, prevent forest fires and damage by cattle, build greenhouses to produce new trees for neighboring communities, and protect water sources and soil at risk for erosion
  • Increased understanding of the ecological and economical importance of healthy, thriving forests
  • Long-term improved soil fertility, stabilization of underground water sources, microenvironments and climates, decreased desertification

The Agros Family—A Reflection on Sergio, Diego and Teresa’s visit from Mexico and Guatemala

Diego and TeresaLast week we were privileged to have three guests with us here in our Seattle office, joining us for our annual fundraising event, Tierras de Vida.  Visiting were Sergio Sanchez, our Agros Mexico Director, Diego Bernal, Productive Projects Coordinator in Cotzal, Guatemala, and Teresa Sanchez, Agros villager and staff, who currently works as a Productive Projects Promoter in the Ixil region of Guatemala.

It has been a pleasure hosting Sergio, Diego and Teresa here in the Rainy City as they met with partners, shared their stories at Tierras de Vida and elsewhere, and reminded us of the vastness of the Agros family of villagers, partners, staff, volunteers and so many others.

At first glance, many see Agros as a team of 17 hard-working staff here in the Seattle office.  What is sometimes harder to see is that the Agros family is much bigger.  In the five countries in which we work, Agros utilizes the skills, experiences and wisdom of over 60 staff native to the regions in which they serve.

Agros is fortunate to count on the cultural sensitivity, local knowledge and understanding found in our in-country staff, and Sergio, Diego and Teresa are no exception.  Combined, they have decades of experience in participatory rural development and indigenous populations, which they apply to empower hundreds of families across Central America and Mexico to find effective solutions that break the cycle of poverty.

This week, Sergio, Diego and Teresa began their journey back home to Mexico and Guatemala, bringing back with them stories and best wishes from all of those that were touched by their visit.  We will miss them for their generosity as they shared about the beauty and the suffering experienced in their countries, for their grace as they spoke honestly and from the heart before nearly 400 people Saturday night, and for their gratitude as they gave thanks for all the lives and communities that have been transformed by the Agros Model.

We will miss them, but we are encouraged by their visit and touched by how, despite the differences in our cultures, countries and customs, we are always united in a shared purpose.

As Juan from San José, Nicaragua put it so well in this video shown at Tierras de Vida, the Agros family is just that—we are “amor” for one another.

My Dream?

PetronilaMy dream?  To give my children the education I never had.”  I’m sitting with Petronila, a sturdy woman with a tender but determined posture in the Agros community “Trapichitos” in the highlands of Quiché, Guatemala.  As she tells me about her life before Agros, the war and suffering in her country, she recalls how hard life was. “We suffered. There were no houses. No land to work or produce.” In addition to the physical suffering, being an indigenous woman kept her from learning to how to read or write, resulting in years of shameful discrimination — a legacy that she is now committed to preventing in the lives of her four young daughters.

Petronila 2Around the side of Petronila’s home is a raised compost bin where hundreds of little worms break down organic matter, like kitchen scraps and yard waste, into rich compost that she can apply to her crops. “My motivation for all of my projects is my children. I don’t want them to have to suffer like my husband Cristobal and I did.  Every project we do is so they can continue going to school.“  She proudly opens the lid of her bin and shows us the rich, dark compost that symbolizes life for her entire family.  Compost that not only nourishes her crops, but her family’s needs for nutritious food, bountiful crops that provide income, and a full education for their children.

JacintaPetronila isn’t the only one who values education.  Petronila, who has participated in the women’s Agros Community Bank for the last eight years to support her projects in chickens, textiles, vegetables and coffee, has instilled enterprising spirits and a vision for the future in each of her young daughters as well.  When I ask one of the girls her name, she takes my notebook to not only tell me her name, but show me how to write it.  “J-A-C-I-N-T-A,” she spells deliberately and proudly.  Petronila is gleaming.  I ask each child what they would like to be when they grow up. “A nurse!” Jacinta quickly responds. “I want to cure all the sick people in my community.“  It’s obvious that this little girl not only has a vision, but a strong purpose at a young age.

Our time is wrapping up, but there’s more Petronila wants to tell us. As we walk away from the worm bin, she cuts me a gift of sugar cane for the road and shares, “Our life is different than it was before. We are seeing changes in our daily lives because of Agros. I am very happy with Agros’ work in Trapichitos since there’s a beginning and an end to their time with us, we know that we are the ones directing the projects that bring us life.

And it’s true, in a few months Petronila will begin selling the worms given to her by Agros to other families, passing on the rich compost that the worms provide as well as the blessing of training that she has received from Agros. Petronila will use all of this to positively impact yet another family’s journey towards land, hope, and life.

Challenging Despair

War, poverty, systemic injustice… these are forces that work to steal the dignity and hope of so many. Here at Agros, it is our mission and passion to challenge the hopelessness and despair that exists for so many. This following is a story about a group of families in Mexico striving for land, hope, and life. They have a unique story, and yet nevertheless also represent the thousands upon thousands of families across Central America and Mexico who face the same struggle — people who are skillful, hard working, with hope and faith in abundance… and yet who lack fertile land and tangible opportunities.

lospinos.jpgThe readiness of the group was felt throughout the room. Anticipation and hope mixed with desperation from previous dead-end after dead-end. The number of women, children and men that traveled to meet together at the end of a hard workday… the posture of each perched forward on the hardwood benches their own hands had constructed… the questions speaking to their hunger for change and fear of yet another false hope… it all spoke loudly of not only their history of marginalization and poverty, but also their desire for dignity and hope.

These twenty-five Guatemalan refugees were naturalized in Mexico after over twenty years of living on the outskirts of society. They gathered to meet with Agros to discuss the needs and hopes of their families. Currently, they are living on land that is entirely too small to support a healthy community and sustainable growth. “We’re going around in circles on this land,” says one woman in the front row. Even so, most have extensive experience in worm-composting, non-traditional crops, livestock, and other skills passed on from their ancestors. They simply do not have the land needed to grow the most basic crops to feed their families.

Racism and neglect are other issues this group faces, highlighted in their 10-year struggle with the Mexican government to connect their community to a local water system. One frustrated man recalls politicians’ visits — where packages of campaign materials were dropped off in their community while obvious, urgent needs are ignored. Abandoned by both the Guatemalan and Mexican governments, they feel like citizens of “not here nor there.”

lospinos1.jpgDespite the struggle, these families have not given up. As part of a network of over 50 neighboring communities, they are united in their vision for a better future and are meeting together regularly to organize their search for land and opportunity.

Agros defines poverty as ‘broken relationships’, and this can be seen in how families are often forced to live apart, with the men forced to work on plantations, or in other parts of the region. One wife and mother, left behind as her husband was forced to look for work elsewhere, shook with emotion, “Here, the women work even when their husbands are gone; we take on the men’s responsibilities. But it scares me to think about what will happen to us if we don’t find land to work.”

At the end of the meeting the families filed out with hope and determination in their eyes. Conversations will continue as the families and Agros staff continue to explore the possibilities of launching a new project together.

Virtually every Agros village starts this way… with conversations, relationship building, and desire. Because Agros is committed to long term transformation, the process takes time. However, after 33 projects in 5 countries, it is clear that a modest investment in these families will reap enormous rewards. Land, agricultural training, relationship… hard work, commitment, faith… the ingredients are there. It simply takes a willingness to challenge despair and hopelessness.

“Rosaberta, 59, La Esperanza”

Christina in the Agros officeWe have been blessed this year to have a new member of our Program staff here in the Seattle office, Christina Cummings. She is working as the Program Assistant and plays a vital role to helping the Agros program run smoothly. Christina traveled with me this last November to visit three of the countries where Agros works, and it was a joy to see her experience in the flesh what she had been helping to coordinate and write about from her computer in Seattle. Below is a story she wrote from this trip. We are very fortunate to have Christina as part of our team!

“I almost didn’t meet her at all. The visit was short and we only were able to see a few of the farmers before leaving for the next community. But upon loading into the cab of the pick-up, an older women in a flowered skirt and pink top slid into the back seat next to me. Her hair was wet as she had just bathed and I studied her wrinkled face. Her eyes we deeply set and knowing of many years of change.

The road into La Esperanza, an Agros community in El Salvador, is long, unpaved, crossed several times by water and extremely bumpy. Even though riding with us to the top of the road where it meets the main highway meant cutting her trip in half, I was astonished at the distance and conditions she would have to face on her two-and a-half hour return to the community. “What was she making this trip for?” I wondered.

We chatted about the weather and the rain that surprisingly had begun to fall this late in the season, but I knew there was much more to this aged woman than her meteorological commentaries. Would it seem rude or inappropriate or just plain strange to ask her about her life? How does one ever begin to draw closer to the life of a stranger? Hoping she would sense my loving intentions and genuine curiosity of her story, I began directly and simply, trying my best to use the most respectful tone, “What has life been like for you?”

My backseat buddy smiled to reveal her missing front teeth, so she must have not been as nervous about my question as I felt, and began with a description of her personality. “I love living with my friends and family, doing everything together. If someone doesn’t have something and I do, I give it to them. I love having good friends wherever I go- and I do,” she snuck in with a spark of pride. “I love leaving good memories everywhere I go. People have been so good to me, I am very well-liked. Just look at what I’m wearing- my friends gave me all of this,” she boasted while motioning to each article of clothing she wore.

I was intrigued by the excitement in her old face where I expected to find tiredness and burden so asked who taught her to be so generous. “My mother and my grandparents gave to everyone around them. We may be poor, but we have never been miserable.” Continuing with the riches of her life, she told me of the diamonds of her eye, her children, and here I learned that just six months previous, she had lost her only daughter to heart problems. The long journey she was making was to enflorecer her daughter’s grave in the church cemetery, a bittersweet tradition of painting the tombstones of loved ones in bright colors, leaving flowers and sweet cakes and celebrating the lives of those passed. In this moment of painful truth, the secret in her eyes and the lines of her face was made known and I felt that now we were connected.

I realized in this moment that there was so much more to this woman, so much history, so many stories yet to be uncovered. The rain stopped and we arrived to the cross roads where she would get out to continue on her journey. I asked if she could help me write her name and birthday in my journal, as to not forget this special woman. Rosaberta Andra Descobar, fifty-nine years old, she told me as I wrote. There were not adequate words to honor the life of joy and pain that she had so willingly shared with me, so we hugged goodbye and then watched each other go as the truck pulled away.

“All I want is to be a good person.”

Rosaberta, 59, La Esperanza

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