Agros Blog

A Final Blog Post From Sean

Dear Agros Supporters, Partners, and Family,

After five incredible years as Director of Communications at Agros, the time has come to move on to new employment opportunities. I carry with me a profound sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to walk alongside so many extraordinary families throughout Central America and Mexico; families who have graced us with their vulnerable and heroic stories of Desire. Suffering. Resiliency. And Hope.

We have all witnessed time and again how the stories of people who live and struggle in the developing world are simplistically reduced to caricatures of either pity or glorification.  This is particularly true when those stories are told for fundraising purposes.  On the one hand, pity is emphasized because of the enormous suffering these people have experienced.  On the other hand, they are over-romanticized and glorified as the most incredible people on earth due to their resiliency, hope, and generosity.

I do not mean to be cynical—at all.  I recognize that in many ways, these two emotional poles represent truth.  And as Director of Communications, Agros families have certainly given me cause to highlight both their suffering and resiliency.

But I also recognize that the deeper truths of any human story—as well as the truth of the Agros story–lie somewhere in the middle; in the narrative regions that speak to the fact that every human life is filled with complexity, wonder, conflict, and desire. And the tagline “ending rural poverty” can never be reduced to a single story, image, or video clip.

Over the years, Agros has learned that poverty is most comprehensively defined and understood through the concept of broken relationships.  For the rural poor, all of the essential connections and relationships that make up a healthy society have broken down: relationships with local municipalities; economic, education, and health institutions; the environment; cultural identity; and even family relationships break down as parents (and all too often, children) are forced to migrate in search of work just to survive.

Agros responds with a holistic development model built on the belief that these families have the capacity themselves to work their way out of poverty and build back these broken relationships—if given the opportunity to develop what is needed most:  farmable land, economic enterprise, and, most importantly, human dignity.

Another way of saying this is that for Agros, ending poverty is not just a phrase, a marketing slogan, or a speech to be given over a fundraising dinner.  “Ending rural poverty” IS the relationships our staff have with Tomasa, Diego, Teresa, Noemi, Mateo, Serbando, and countless other Agros families.

There are no easy fixes, no magic bullet, and no single intervention that will make generations of suffering go away.  And yet, after 27 years of faithful, hard work throughout Central America, Agros has stayed true to its original promise of empowering entire communities to work their way free from generations of poverty.  In Agros villages, I have heard families say again and again, “In our suffering and poverty, we were forgotten, abandoned, left to die.  But then Agros came.  And Agros has kept their promise.  We are not the same as before.  We have hope and our children have a new future.”

In Agros villages, hope has taken the place of despair—for generations to come.

I think this is best summed up by the words of an Agros villager in El Edén, Nicaragua when I asked him to describe what Agros means to him personally.  Without pausing, he said, “To me, Agros is a mirror.  A mirror in which we’ve been able to see our face; we have seen that we have dignity and that we matter.

I leave Agros with clarity: It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to serve the families in Agros villages by sharing with you their stories of dignity and desire.  I have also been forever changed by witnessing the life-giving generosity of so many Agros donors.  And I think of the Agros staff and board as family.  Thank you—mil gracias—to each of you. I remain your most ardent advocate.

Yours in Land, Hope, and Life,

- Sean

Navigating complexity

If you’ve had opportunity to get to know Agros and our work of empowering entire rural villages to work their way out of poverty, you’ll have heard us talk about the complex, long-term focus and impact of this work.

Following is an excerpt from an interview of Ben Ramalingam, author of the blog (and forthcoming book) Aid on the Edge of Chaos.  Interviewed by Dennis Whittle, Ben explains the nature of navigating the complex human systems inherent in poverty alleviating interventions.

International aid has been built on a very particular way of looking at the world, and this continues to dog its efforts. As a senior USAID colleague put it, because of our urgency to end poverty, we act as if development is a construction, a matter of planning and engineering, rather the complex and often opaque set of interactions that we know it to be.

…The whole system disguises rather than navigates complexity, and it does so at various levels – in developing countries and within the aid system. This maintains a series of collective illusions and overly simplistic assumptions about the nature of systems, about the nature of change, and about the nature of human actors.

So the end result of all of this is that poverty, vulnerability, disease are all treated as if are simple puzzles. Aid, and aid agencies are then presented as the missing pieces to complete the puzzle. This not only gives aid a greater importance than perhaps it is due, but it also misrepresents the nature of the problems we face, and the also presents aid flow as very simple.

Instead of engaging with complexity, it is dismissed, or relegated to an afterthought, and the tools and techniques we employ make it easy for us to do this. We treat complex things as if they were merely complicated.

(For complex systems) there is no mathematical model which can say, if X is the situation then do Y. Sustainability, healthy communities, raising families have all been given as examples of such complex systems and processes. Peacebuilding would be another, women’s empowerment, natural resource management, capacity building initiatives, innovation systems, the list goes on and on. Complexity science pulls back the curtain on these processes and it can force you to think about the world you live in in a different way.”

As a learning organization, Agros strives to “think of the world a different way” such that real, lasting transformation can take place for an entire community rising out of multiple generations of systemic poverty. Yes it takes funding, resources, partnerships, a proven model; this is precisely why the Agros approach to poverty alleviation is holistic, integrated, and can only work when village members themselves are the main actors and navigators of their own future.  A future that is undergirded, however, by a web of initial funding, credit, partnerships, and trabajo, trabjo, y mas trabajo!

Restoring lives and land in the aftermath of war

November 6th marked the ninth annual UN International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Realizing that this is a rather long title for an international ‘day’, and that this may seem like an obscure connection for Agros to make, it does in fact present an opportunity to highlight several important aspects of our work.

Agros was founded in 1982, in the midst of a violent and decades-old civil war whose epicenter was located in a region of Guatemala called the “Ixil Triangle”.  During this 36-year civil war, more than 200,000  lives were claimed, hundreds of villages destroyed, and more than one million people forced to flee their homes (any refugees fled to Chiapas, Mexico–where Agros currently has six villages in development).

More than 80% of the victims in the war were indigenous Mayans.  The atrocities that took place during this time are unimaginable and overwhelming. Even long after the violence ended, the land and the people were left ravaged, desolate, and in the words of many Ixil people…”we were forgotten.”

Conventional wisdom might dictate that starting a development organization in the middle of a civil war might not be the most advisable; yet Agros’ history is one of responding to enormous need felt by people who are among the most remote, impoverished people in our world.  The Agros response is to alleviate poverty by providing rural people with what is most essential: secure ownership of their own, farmable land; sustainable economic development; and holistic community support.

This connection we make to this UN sponsored international day is in the consideration of “damage to the environment in times of armed conflict that impair ecosystems and natural resources long after the conflict has ceased“.  Our work to connect rural people to their own land has necessarily involved empowering rural families to rebuild and restore land and villages destroyed by civil conflict.

Virtually all of the Agros villages located in the Ixil region of Guatemala were founded in the midst (or aftermath) of this violence.  Today, these families are learning to thrive; hope has been and is continuing to be restored.

To learn more about these villagers–in their own words–and to see what it means for them to have the opportunity to rebuild their lives and land, please see the video “Restoring Lives” in the Agros video gallery.

Damages from Tropical Storm Matthew

Last weekend, Tropical Storm Matthew passed across Central America and southern Mexico affecting all of the countries where Agros works. The storm brought torrential rains, flooding, and crop damage. The impact of the storm was exacerbated by the fact that the region had previously experienced 6 weeks of constant, heavy rain that left much of the land fully saturated. By the time Tropical Storm Matthew arrived, conditions were set for significant rain damage.

We have been in close communication with all Agros Country Directors as they have evaluated the storm’s impact and formulated plans to reinvest and support the communities through this time.

The initial damage estimates are:

Mexico:
Basic grain crops damaged in three communities: San Pedrito, Santa Fe Ajké, & Espinal Buena Vista.

Honduras:
Basic grain crops damaged in all four communities and plantain crops showing delayed growth development.

Communities affected: Brisas del Volcán, Nuevo Amanecer, Bella Vista, &La Piedra de Horeb.

El Salvador:
Basic grain crops damaged in two communities: San Diego de Tenango and La Esperanza.

Nicaragua:
Basic grain crops damaged in all seven of the affected communities; coffee & plantain crop damage in four communities; the greatest damage is in Luz de Mañana–four families are currently staying with family members in the city of Rivas until the flooding subsides. There was also housing and latrine damage in the community of Nueva Esperanza.

Communities affected: El Edén, San José, Nueva Esperanza, Futuro del Mañana, San Marcos de Belen, Luz del Mañana, & Norwich.

Guatemala:
No reported damages.

The most significant damage occurred in Nicaragua, particularly with the corn and bean crops, which were to serve as a primary food source for future months.

In Honduras and El Salvador, the Country Directors and their staff are working with the local authorities to access available local resources to help the communities replant.

Agros International’s priorities are to make certain that essential food security remains in all villages; that income generation continues; and to ensure access to needed healthcare and housing repairs as necessary. Agros International has emergency funds that will be leveraged towards this effort; local authorities are making resources available; and Agros will be launching an appeal to raise an additional $16,500 to cover the unexpected losses.

World Humanitarian Day

Today is World Humanitarian Day and we would like to draw your attention to this remarkable video as we also celebrate our international staff for all they do. While this video is not directly about Agros staff members, it nevertheless celebrates individuals across the world who work tirelessly for a better world.

Agros International serves in 5 countries throughout Central America. Each in-country office is staffed with people who are passionate about ending rural poverty; passionate about seeing transformation take place in real lives.

Every day there are dedicated in-country staff who rise before the sun and head out to work in Agros-supported rural villages. The villagers eagerly await their arrival; the staff are seen as true partners in this journey out of poverty.

Our community development staff and agricultural technicians provide villagers with the training and resources they need to pull themselves out of poverty. The community development workers help villagers strengthen leadership and entrepreneurial skills as well as promote greater gender equality and opportunity. The agricultural technicians work tirelessly with farmers on applying new and improved farming methods for the crops the villagers grow for consumption and income generation. Without such dedicated staff, Agros would not be able to provide the rural poor with the opportunity and support they need to break the cycle of poverty.

Please join us in giving thanks to our in-country staff from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua for all they do!

Job Opening at Agros – Direct Marketing Manager

This is to announce a new job opening at Agros.  A general description follows below, and you can read more on our Careers page, including instructions on how to apply.

POSITION:  Direct Marketing Manager

The Agros Direct Marketing Manager will plan, manage, and grow all aspects of Agros’ General Donor segment. This segment, as defined by Agros, is made up of donors who make annual gifts to Agros –one time or cumulative–of $5,000 or less.

Balancing strategy and execution, s/he will bring strategic oversight and management of this segment, working to develop and increase overall giving through channel management and marketing expertise. This encompasses among others, expertise in:

• General donor fundraising
• Developing and implementing effective donor acquisition and retention strategies
• Direct mail and online giving engagement

The Direct Marketing Manager will implement a long-term strategy to grow this segment in conjunction with the Agros International 3-year Strategic Plan. The Direct Marketing Manager will directly oversee the management of all direct mail, online and monthly giving programs, and work closely in all aspects of resource development to create, market and support multi-faceted fundraising campaigns.

Additionally, the Direct Marketing Manager will also help in the writing and creative production of associated online & collateral material for this segment.

Go here to read more.

What a Thing to Witness

The following was written by Zach Eskenazi during his time in Honduras:

I have been working for Agros as a work-study student for over a year now. I have read and written many inspiring stories about the Agros villagers and the Agros in-country staff. A recent academic project has brought me to the Agros villages of Honduras, and I’ve learned that it’s one thing to read and write about the changes Agros brings about in the lives of the people we serve… and it is quite another to see these changes in action.

While it may not be possible for all of us to witness Agros in action first-hand, follow me as I take you through some of the events I have witnessed during my time in Agros villages:

My workspace in the Agros village of Brisas del Volcan was in the communal house, a place where the villagers gather and hold meetings. The communal house is also where one adult villager teaches others how to read and write.

zach_brisas3Picture this, a petite woman and her husband used to have to work on land they didn’t own to scrape enough money together to feed their growing children. Because of the low pay, both husband and wife had to work long hours with very little time to do much else. After finding Agros and their own land, she no longer has to work daily in the fields with her husband. She is trying her hand at other income generating projects. And because she can read and write she sets aside two hours every afternoon to tutor other adults. One of her students boasted to me that she can now read at a third grade level. This is amazing!

zach_brisas1On another day in Brisas del Volcan, I was invited to a meeting of the leadership committee. During this meeting, the villagers met with two people interested in buying some of their plantain crop. The village leadership as a group entered into negations with these buyers with confidence. The villagers were eager to sell the literal fruits of their labor but made sure not be taken advantage of. The meeting ended with a fair offer being made to the villagers for a portion of their plantain harvest. The villagers learned a lot from this interaction and are embolden to continue their plantain project. Before working with Agros, an experience like this was barely dreamed of! Now, the best dreams of these families are coming true.

zach_brisas2At the end of the week the village Community Bank Committee met. This is made up of 12 women who have each received a loan from Agros for an income-generating project. Some of the women chose small animal husbandry projects while others are trying their hand at baked goods. One thing is for certain, they are confident that their income generating projects will have long-term benefits and will meet their families’ needs.

This was what was going on in Brisas just during one week. Imagine the things these villagers will achieve as they continue on the path to sustainable growth and development.

Also, you can be a part of the story of transformation in Brisas del Volcan by sponsoring this village through the Agros One Village program, where for as little as $15/month you can help these families continue to reach their dreams of a future free of poverty and hopelessness.

Press Release: One Village Online Sponsorship Program

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 28, 2010

Seattle-based non-profit launches one-of-a-kind online village sponsorship program

Utilizing cutting-edge technology, the Agros One Village program provides unparalleled access to sponsor Central American villages on their journey out of extreme poverty.

Agros International is proud to introduce a new online multimedia experience and monthly sponsorship program called One Village. This program leverages unique online technology in order to connect supporters to rural families in Central America. For as little as $15 a month, sponsors can make a difference in the lives of rural families working together as a village community to overcome poverty.

Agros is a Seattle-based non-profit organization that works with poor, landless farmers in Central America and Mexico. Through a unique, holistic development model, Agros extends loans to purchase farmland and then partners and trains farmers for 7-10 years in applying sustainable agricultural practices, all with the goal of enabling these families to create, develop, and eventually own a sustainable village. Agros has started 40 village projects across five countries.

Through the One Village website, donors are able to sponsor an actual rural village in Central America, and then follow that community online through first-hand stories, compelling photos, videos, panoramic photography, and project updates detailing village progress.

We’ve learned at Agros that donors want to do more than just write a check to a worthy cause; they want to see the difference their donations make in real lives. Today, we are excited to invite people to the One Village website where they can experience and support a Central American village in an incredible journey out of extreme poverty,” shares Sean Dimond, Agros Communications Director.

In order to build this remarkable virtual experience, Agros International partnered with CrashShop, a Seattle-based interactive media studio specializing in innovative websites, to help develop the online technology. The One Village website is a first of its kind, integrating the WordPress Content Management System with Adobe’s Flash platform. “We believe in Agros’ work, and are thrilled to play a part in helping more people experience and sponsor Agros villages. It’s a privilege to help restore hope and dignity to the world’s poor through the One Village website,” says Michael Redmond, Founder & President of CrashShop.

To learn more about the Agros One Village experience, visit http://onevillage.agros.org/.

Announcing One Village!

onevillageheaderWe’re so excited to share with you One Village—a unique opportunity to sponsor and walk with a rural village of Central America in a hope-filled journey out of poverty.

Using the power of multimedia, Agros International has created a truly one-of-a-kind online experience where—for as little as $15/month—you can sponsor and follow an actual village as they create new lives for themselves and their children.

For Agros villages, this steady stream of reliable support will help ensure that the development goals of the village can be met.  For sponsoring donors, the unique access via an online platform to the people and projects that comprise a given village is the closest one can get to actually being in a village short of traveling there. Through this journey, you’ll hear the voices of villagers and ambient sounds; you’ll see the beauty behind both the successes and ongoing challenges that the villagers face.

As you follow the progress of your sponsored One Village online, you’ll come to know the people more intimately through stories told in their own words, compelling photos, videos, and project updates.  And in addition, you’ll receive a quarterly update from your sponsored One Village via email!

1 – You Know About the Devastating Problem
Almost half the world lives on less than $2.50/day. More than a billion people go to bed hungry. Most of the world’s extreme poor live in rural areas and are landless.

2 – You Know That Agros Has An Effective Solution
Agros empowers entire rural villages to work their own way out of poverty by providing access to farmable land, long-term credit, and agricultural business training.

3Now… You Can Directly Help One Village Break Free from Poverty!

The need is great…the Agros solution works… and the One Village experience is a truly unique opportunity for you to directly help end rural povertyOne Village at a time.

EXPLORE the unique experience of One Village!

CHOOSE to be part of the journey!

SPONSOR One Village today!

Press Release: Agros’ 40th Village – Nueva Illusion

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 15, 2010

Seattle-based non-profit announces 40th village
New village enables 25 Guatemalan refugee families in Chiapas, Mexico to break the cycle of poverty through land ownership

SEATTLE, WA–Twenty-five hardworking, yet landless and impoverished families are getting an extraordinary opportunity to escape poverty—to own 175 acres of productive agricultural land so important to their livelihoods, and to build a thriving, sustainable community of their own.

Nueva Ilusión, meaning “New Dream,” is the latest and 40th village project launched and supported by Agros International, a Seattle-based nonprofit enabling the world’s rural poor to attain land ownership and break the cycle of poverty through a holistic and sustainable approach to village development.

Villagers in Nueva Ilusión—like the families in the 39 Agros-sponsored villages that have preceded them—will access the land critical to their survival and hopes for a better future through long-term loans from Agros. This land will be used to generate sustainable income to support their families, pay back the loans, and create a secure future. Agros —committed to ending the cycle of poverty in all its forms — will provide support every step of the way as families define a community vision, develop local leadership, and launch a strategic development plan that includes housing, irrigation, agricultural business training, micro-enterprise loans, and education and health programs. “There are no other organizations like Agros that we know of that use long-term credit for land ownership, combined with holistic development, to empower rural families to work their own way out of extreme poverty,” says Laurie Werner, Agros Director of Program.

Since 1982, over 9,000 poorest of the world’s poor have gained land, hope, and transformed lives in Agros-supported villages throughout El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico. The Agros village model has caught on among villagers and supporters in recent years, with the number of Agros villages doubling from 20 to 40 within the past six years.

Agros has also won recognition for providing “lasting solutions to poverty” from an alliance of the World Bank, the UNDP, and the Inter-American Foundation.

Press Release: Trapichitos Land Titles

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 19, 2010

Seattle-based non-profit enables land for 59 indigenous Guatemalan families
After three decades, refugee survivors of Guatemala armed conflict of 1980s return to their land as rightful owners

SEATTLE, WA–Fifty-nine indigenous Mayan Guatemalan families received titles to their land in early April, twenty-nine years after fleeing from violence incited by the civil war that ravaged rural areas 1960-1996.

These families, living in the village of Trapichitos in rural Quiché, Guatemala, including nearly 250 men, women and children, partnered with Seattle-based non-profit Agros International in 2000. Agros is a non-profit that enables the world’s rural poor to attain land ownership and break the cycle of poverty through a holistic and sustainable approach to village development.

Villagers in Trapichitos—like the families in the other 39 Agros-sponsored villages throughout Central America and Mexico—have spent the past ten years defining a community vision, developing local leadership and implementing a strategic plan that includes housing, irrigation, agricultural business training, micro-enterprise loans, and education and health programs. Agros purchases the land and through long-term support, training and access to credit, families are able to repay the land loan. “Land ownership is critical to ensure vulnerable families are empowered to have a means to work themselves out of poverty,” says Director of Program Laurie Werner. “The Trapichitos families now hold titles to their property, a security and asset they can pass on to ensure a sustainable future for the next generation.”

Since 1982, over 9,000 of the world’s poorest have gained land, hope, and transformed lives in Agros-supported villages throughout El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico. The Agros village model has caught on among villagers and supporters in recent years, with the number of Agros villages doubling from 20 to 40 within the past six years. To date, 210 families, about 1,370 people, have become proud land owners through Agros.

Agros has also won recognition for providing “lasting solutions to poverty” from an alliance of the World Bank, the UNDP, and the Inter-American Foundation, and is also a winner of the 2008 World Bank Global Marketplace Competition.

To read personal reflections about Trapichitos, read this blog post from David Carlson, Agros Donor Relations National Director.

IFAD President and Land

A call for increased access to land to help alleviate poverty among the world’s rural poor was made last week by the president of the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), Kanayo F. Nwanze, as he opened the annual World Bank Conference on Land Policy and Administration.

Similar to Agros, IFAD believes access to land and productive resources plays a critical role in poverty reduction. In his opening remarks, Nwanze emphasized the need to create policies that increase access to land and secure rights to land for the millions of smallholders across the globe. Access to land is essential for economic growth and poverty reduction.

IFAD recognizes that while this is a complex issue affecting many regions, there are in fact solutions to ensure that smallholders have access to the land they need.

Here at Agros, we are working hard to implement one such proven solution.

Land ownership is a cornerstone of the Agros Development Model.  We help rural farmers access suitable land by providing them with capital needed to purchase the land, and then we partner with them for upwards of seven years as the community develops leadership, pathways to healthcare & education, and sustainable income through agricultural businesses.

Agros’ model is holistic.  Families are learning new farming techniques that focus on organic solutions to increase crop yields and reduce pests and weeds, as well as learning new techniques for raising small animals, which ultimately provide much needed supplemental nutrition and income. Together, these families are learning education, teamwork, and technical know-how are what it takes to create a community where everyone can thrive. And by ensuring that every current generation in an Agros village benefits from technical training and support, the Agros development model is meeting the urgent need to invest in young farmers to ensure food security and village continuity over time.

Through this model Agros has been successful in providing new hope to thousands of families throughout Central America and Chiapas, Mexico.  Agros, like IFAD, is committed to seeking out innovative solutions to rural poverty alleviation.

Click here to read the remarkable opening remarks from the IFAD President.

The changes are incredible

The following was written by Ann Edwards, an Agros supporter and member of a Journey With a Village partnership with the Agros village Brisas del Volcán.  Ann recently travelled to Brisas del Volcán, and reflects on the incredible changes she’s seen in the village over the last four years.

One of the benefits of traveling to Latin America as part of an Agros Service Team is the long plane ride home. Before life as we know it consumes us, we have time to reflect, ponder and listen. While the geographical distance between us increases, the relationship and love that we share with our village friends stays constant. And the lessons that we have learned continue to reshape our thoughts and actions as we resume our lives.

Such was my experience in mid-March when I traveled to Honduras with a group of 12 to visit the village Las Brisas del Volcán. While I have had the pleasure of visiting on two other occasions, each trip reveals the things that are constant and the things that have changed. The constant for me is always the warmth and friendliness of the people. We are met with smiles, hugs and kisses, primarily from the women and children. This trip, there was a noticeable difference with the men, as they too came forward and greeted us with affection.

Each trip begins with a tour of the property and the changes I have seen over the past 4 years are incredible. The land is very hilly, rocky and difficult to cultivate but the jungle slopes of several years ago have been replaced with acres of plantains and revitalized coffee plants. The men are so very proud of their land and what their hard, back-breaking work has provided for their families and their futures. We spent the rest of the week sharing a variety of activities, sometimes with just the women or children and sometimes “helping” the men in the fields.

While the agricultural changes were truly amazing, the most impressive changes for me were the changes I saw in the people. For the first time, I saw men holding and playing with their children; grandpas helping their young grandsons with the craft projects. The children were able to sit attentively, listening to the lesson and waiting for their turn, so different from the chaos we encountered on the first trip. All of the children are now able to attend school as their parents can afford uniforms. The younger women are stepping up to leadership roles and shared their ideas for micro loan projects from making and selling tamales to raising pigs.

This is now a community of men, women and children who have land to work, enough to eat, and a sense of hope because they have experienced the transformation that previously had only been a far off dream.

I was also impressed with the Agros staff that spent the week with us in the village. We were well hosted by Joel, the country director, who communicated his thorough understanding of the economic needs of the community in order to be self sustaining. Jose Lino is not just an experienced agronomist but he is a delightfully friendly gentleman who has won the respect and trust of the men. And Nohemy has been so effective in teaching and encouraging the relational changes that were so evident. All of the staff seem to have found a good balance between providing instruction and assistance and then letting the community make their own decisions and changes.

And now that I’m home…. I think about my friends in Honduras, knowing a little of how they spend their days. I can pray for them specifically by name and by need. We are all so much more alike than we are different and my greatest frustration is my inability to communicate on a deeper level. So, I keep studying my Spanish and look forward to the day when there will be no language barrier!

If You Won the Lottery …

Journey with a Village (JWAV) is an Agros International program that builds partnerships between rural villages in developing countries and businesses, churches, individuals and community groups that are committed to their support.  Members of the JWAV program are given the opportunity to visit the village they are supporting as part of an Agros “service team” trip.

Terry McNichols is part of an Agros JWAV program and just recently returned from a service team trip to El Salvador. Terry maintains a blog called “Grace and Gravity” and wrote about the recent trip to El Salvador. This was Terry’s fourth trip to this village and this time around was able to ask a group of women in the village what they would do if they “won the lottery“.

Here is what the women in the village had to say:

Monday, February 8, 2010

If You Won the Lottery….

By Terry McNichols

I wonder what you would answer if I were to ask you what you would do it you won the lottery.  What would you buy first?  Second?  Then what?  What would your other family members say they would choose?  On our trip to El Salvador, we invited the women of the community to come to a “conversation circle” and told them they could ask us anything and we would ask them questions.  Everyone was allowed to pass if they didn’t want to answer.  This would not have worked if we had tried this on one of our earlier visits to this community.  But by the time we had visited 3 or 4 times, we thought it was worth a try.

We were surprised at the turnout of women, old and young.  We kept adding chairs and enlarging our circle.  We asked them several questions and they asked us a few, such as how old we are and what we (women) do.  The women in this community haven’t had much to look forward to in the past other than having babies and working all the time,  and they were very interested in what we do in the world.  We were saddened to hear later that they really had a lot of questions they would have liked to ask us, but were shy.  Maybe by the next visit they will have gotten up the nerve to actually ask us.  They got a laugh out of our insistence that we really do look a lot better than we do when we come to visit!  They all are clean and neat and we are all in our REI zippable pants, work shirts, sweat running down our faces, hair straggly, no makeup.  We aren’t used to the heat and have a hard time keeping our “looks” intact!  It was fun to show them a couple of pictures of ourselves actually looking nicer!

One answer that made us sad was the question “What do you do for fun?”  They talked about a Patron Saints Festival in February.  But “what do you do for fun in a normal week?”  The answer?  “Nothing.  We work all the time except when you come to visit!”  They really couldn’t come up with the concept of “free time.”

But the big question was reworded from the lottery to “What would you do if you had a whole lot of money all at once?”  After a long pause, one of the braver women said, “I would buy enough food for my children and family.”  Another said “I would pay off our land.”  “What else?” we asked.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.

I am ashamed of our wealth at times like this.  These families lost 30% of their beans and 70% of their corn crop in Hurricane Ida.  These are their main food crops.  We raised money to help Agros make sure they have food supplies until their crops recover.

I do recognize that there are many in our own country who also do not have enough to eat.  But most of us would have an entire “wish list” of things that we would name were we asked the lottery question!  And enough food for our families wouldn’t even make the list!

Here are a few photos from the trip:

gracegrav1

gracegrav2

Family from Terry

Agros 2009 Volunteers of the Year

At Agros we depend on volunteers to help our office run smoothly and help ensure we are achieving our mission of ending rural poverty in Central America and Mexico. Over this past year we have had many wonderful and capable volunteers. These folks have come from varying backgrounds and all have offered us so much. This year we would like to honor three  volunteers for providing Agros with outstanding service.

Jenna PhotoJenna Swalin began volunteering with Agros in February of 2009. She first learned about Agros while researching different NGOs in the Seattle area and was impressed by the Agros development model and the strength of the Marketing and Communications Department. In the Communications Department, she worked on expanding Agros’ presence on social networking channels and helped with the development and production of other communications pieces including the newsletters and blog entries. When asked what she enjoyed most about her work at Agros Jenna responded, “There are so many amazing and inspirational stories of change, of families that have transformed their lives through working with Agros. Having the opportunity to learn those stories and to convey them to the public was a blessing.” Jenna has just recently returned from Argentina and is looking for work similar to what she has done for Agros.

Alex PhotoAlex Richey learned about Agros through a family member and after some research, he found that by volunteering at Agros he would be able to learn more about Latin American culture and help those who are living in poverty. Alex began volunteering at our reception desk in September of 2009. He also helped the Development staff with various tasks. He most enjoyed helping with preparations for the Tierras de Vida fundraiser. When asked what his greatest reward from working with Agros was, he responded, “The people I met. Agros is a collection of innovative, brilliant people, and the company demonstrates what individuals can do to alleviate poverty in Central America.” Alex is currently teaching math to young people in Honduras, and his Agros experience reminds him how much he as an individual can help those that are less fortunate.

Arun PhotoArun Thomas learned about Agros through an enthusiastic presentation of an Agros Journey with a Village (JWAV) trip during a short-term mission introduction at University Presbyterian that he and his wife attended in 2001. In the fall of 2003, Arun and his wife had the opportunity to go on a service team trip to La Esperanza in Guatemala. They enjoyed the experience so much they returned to La Esperanza 6 times within in the following 4 years.  As a result of Arun’s extensive experience with Agros Service Teams and given his background with computers, he volunteered to develop and manage TeamAgros.net, the website/database Agros uses to manage all individual traveler and team specific information.  Arun also participated as a “Champion” for the Agros village of San Diego Tenango in El Salvador and he helped build relationships with that village which he felt was a little more difficult due to the different dynamics between Agros and the villagers. Arun appreciates the long-term sustainable approach Agros takes to development. Arun shares, “The relationships with the villagers and other team members are what keep us going. I am reminded every time that God is at work in peoples lives, whatever their circumstances are; and that he wants us to encourage one another–I feel the villagers encourage us to be more thankful for what we have materially and to exhort us to hope for what we can have relationally with God and with each other.”

Thank you  Jenna, Alex, and Arun… and to all Agros volunteers working to serve the poor with such passion and generosity.

Agros Featured in CATALYST Design Magazine

blog_catalystCATALYST Strategic Design Review has just published their most recent edition, and included is a beautiful layout and article on Agros.

The article includes a case study, chart, map, and in-depth articulation of Agros’ work to help rural poor communities create their own sustainable economies.

From their website, “CATALYST articles and posts emphasize the value of applying the creative design process to the solution of complex challenges.

We all know that systemic, generational poverty has multiple causes.  Alleviating poverty in any region is hard, complex work.  From the magazine’s editorial perspective, strategic design is achieved (in any discipline) when sustainable systems are put in place that solve multiple problems.  This article is an attempt to show how Agros’ development model embodies the principles of a sustainable, holistic, and strategic solution to poverty.

There are two versions of the article, one that includes the full layout and design, and the other in simple text:

READ THE RICH-TEXT VERSIONREAD THE PLAIN TEXT VERSION

Crisis in the Rural Economy of Mexico

A recent article from Yahoo News México highlights a profound crisis in México’s rural economy. Farmers in rural México have seen their purchasing power decrease by 44 percent. This has affected their ability to buy basic goods such as food, clothing, and medicine. This decrease in purchasing power has caused many in rural communities to migrate to the cities in search of higher paying jobs. The Mexican government has tried to improve the situation in rural areas by issuing families monthly allowances, but this unfortunately has not helped improve the situation.

While issuing monthly allowances will help the rural poor of México in the short-term, it will do nothing to alleviate poverty in the long-term. If people are merely living hand-to-mouth through short term interventions, they will likely remain trapped and poor. Rural poor families need tangible opportunities–like credit, training, and community development support–to empower them to work their own way out of poverty.

This is where Agros comes in.  We work to end rural poverty by providing farmers and villagers with the necessary tools to build strong, functioning rural economies. With land loans, agricultural business training, a focus on empowering women, and holistic community support, we work to provide people with the tools to create jobs for themselves and break out of the cycle of poverty.

Agros works in Chiapas, México and the villages there have a very positive and successful relationship with Agros. Agros México utilizes a farmer-centric approach to sustainable rural development and the larger objetive is to help reverse the economic situation taking place throughout Chiapas.

Here in the US we can also all push for rural economic development policies that address the deep-rooted problems that cause inefficiencies in these markets and that ultimately subject millions to grinding poverty.

“Poor farmers are not a problem to be solved–they are the solution”

Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recently gave his first major public address on the topic of agriculture development at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa. Gates discussed the need for the development of agricultural systems that incorporate productivity gains and sustainability.

Gates finished his address with a call for a more farmer-centered and holistic approach to agricultural development, saying,Poor farmers are not a problem to be solved; they are the solution – the best answer for a world that is fighting hunger and poverty, and trying to feed a growing population. If farmers can get what they need to feed their families and sell their surplus, hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people can build themselves a better life.”

Not surprisingly, Gates highlighted Africa as a region in need of agriculture development. But another region in critical need of agriculture development is right here in our own backyard–México and Central America.   There are over 21 million people living in poverty throughout México and Central America.  The majority of these people are rural, landless farmers.  Landlessness and poverty are intrinsically linked.

Agros International agrees wholeheartedly with Gates that poor farmers are not a problem to be solved, but rather they are the solution. Agros is in the business of helping rural farming communities work themselves out of poverty. The Agros development model bridges the need for technological solutions with the need for true, local sustainability.

Land is a cornerstone of the Agros development model. Once rural families have access to land, Agros agronomists assist them with crop development techniques that take advantage of local conditions, markets, and necessary inputs. Agros works with community members to develop agriculture systems in the village that will be used long after Agros departs.

Not long thereafter, Agros village members become the teachers as they impart that same knowledge to other villages in the region, and to their children, who continue the practice of farming in a profoundly sustainable way.

Agros’ development model is proven. When leaders in the development field talk about the need to find technological yet sustainable solutions to agriculture development, we offer the Agros development model as an example of success.

Restoring Broken Relationships

Fair warning: this is long!  However this post is also an attempt to answer two fundamental question at the heart of everything we do:

“What is poverty… and… what is Agros doing to help?”

(Note: if you want the short answer, then watch this video!)

These are basic questions we hear all the time.  Whether it’s on Oprah or at a U2 concert, people hear the statistics, see the pictures, and may even weep at the stories of “the poor”, but with so many approaches and definitions and attempts to help, what does it mean to really end poverty?

The first questions that often come up are numeric in nature: “How many people are poor?”  “How much money do they make?”  “How much money are you asking me to give in order to help?”

Answers are of course numerous.

For example, in terms of the numbers and economic indicators, the World Bank estimates that approximately 3 billion people fall under the international poverty line of $2.50 a day.

In other words, according to the World Bank, almost half of the planet lives in poverty.

Think about that.  Half the planet.

(And in Central America specifically, where Agros works, more than 60% live in poverty.)

But what is poverty?

Poverty is a complex phenomenon, no doubt.  Income is an important component, but access to healthcare, education, employment, sanitation, and clean water also have a tremendous impact on quality of life.

Intangible factors–including discrimination, empowerment, community support, or having a sense of basic worth and dignity are hard to measure, but are all critical determinants of poverty.

At Agros, we have seen that poverty affects the whole person within entire communities.  It’s impossible to isolate single factors that affect just individuals. Therefore, our approach and definition of poverty is holistic.

Agros defines poverty as ‘broken relationships’. We use this definition to create a basis to understand and interact with the multiple dimensions of poverty.

What does this mean?

For the poor (and particularly the rural poor), all of the fundamental connections and relationships that make up a sustainable way of life are damaged or destroyed. This results in the destruction of access to basic community systems, opportunities, and material resources, but also the erosion and eradication of human dignity and worth.

When we define poverty as broken relationships, we’re not speaking in platitudes.

You can measure and quantify the systemic and pervasive effects of broken relationships through per capita poverty statistics including life expectancy, undernourishment, unemployment rates and literacy rates.

Further, the fundamental failures of local systems, infrastructure, and services are exacerbated when village-level relationships with local and national municipalities and institutions break down, resulting in little or no access to education, healthcare, credit, or sustainable employment opportunities.  The resulting desperation is an underlying cause of families being forced apart for months and years to work in urban areas, distant plantations, or immigrating to find work in other countries.

You can measure these broken relationships in the amount of time family members spend broken apart as one or more attempt to migrate for hard-to-find work.

If these broken relationships can be measured, what does this look like in human terms?

Imagine: that your husband and 13 year-old son spend four months of the year working on a coffee plantation hundreds of miles away for extremely low wages. You are left alone during these months, hungry and desperate to provide for the remaining children. You have no access to public services or clean water, and hunger is pervasive.

Imagine: You stumble into a dirt-floor shack after a day of back-wrenching labor. Your work for the day has earned you less than a dollar to feed a family of four children.  You depend on agriculture for your survival and livelihood, but do not own land of your own, so are forced to rent a small parcel of hard, dry land to eke out a meager crop of corn and beans. You go to sleep at night listening to your children crying themselves to sleep with hunger.  The despair is crushing.

Imagine: A barefoot child walks for miles to collect water and firewood for the family. She has never been to school, never owned a book, never been taught to write her name. If she becomes ill, access to medical care is non-existent or limited. There is nothing in her future but more of the same – hopelessness created by the cycle of extreme poverty.

At Agros we see firsthand the impact of broken relationships within extreme poverty.  But most importantly, we also see that these relationships can be restored.

We’ve learned, however, that in seeking to truly eradicate poverty you cannot reduce the solutions  to just the individual or even family level.  To create true, lasting transformation it is critical to address how the causes of extreme poverty stretch across communities and destroy entire generations.

Because poverty affects the whole person within the community, the solution must be holistic. Single interventions to poverty alleviation can have a significant impact, but they are often limited in scope, sustainability, and long-term impact.
You can treat a symptom, but it’s better to find a lasting, sustainable cure.

Given all of the above, the basic question that drives everything we do at Agros is this:  what does is take for an entire community to lift themselves out of poverty?

This is the internal question we ask ourselves in response to the more basic question of “how can you help?”

Our answer is in five parts.  Five components, really.

The Agros development model is designed to restore the multiple broken connections between individuals and their communities, empowering them to build back both economic prosperity and human dignity.  We do this through a unique, integrated, holistic model that encompasses five core components:

Community Organization
Help families define a vision for a new community and develop the local leadership required to create a self-sustaining, thriving community.

Land Ownership
Work with families to identify and purchase agricultural land on credit and use their payments to purchase land for other new communities.

Community Education & Training
Create opportunities for adequate healthcare, education, adult literacy and spiritual growth.

Housing & Infrastructure
Implement community and individual construction projects such as houses, schools, irrigation systems, latrines, infrastructure and community centers.

Sustainable Economic Growth
Develop agricultural production and support income-generating activities through microenterprise loans and technical training.

These five components form an integrated approach that we call 360° development. The components are based on this notion of enabling communities to restore for themselves the basic relationships that make up a healthy, thriving, sustainable community.

Economic considerations are key–income, business development, loans and credit:  But looking holistically–empowering women, establishing a community leadership structure, literacy, family planning, access to healthcare, and most importantly–restoring basic human dignity… these are all important parts of the whole process.

And you’ll notice that while these are issues that people in “developed” nations strive to answer, they are nevertheless human issues and must be addressed in even the most remote, rural, impoverished village.

And while we take a holistic, community-based approach, we believe that every life has worth, and every family matters. And rather than base our work exclusively on an assessment of needs, our approach seeks to build on the values, dreams, and resources of the families themselves.

You see, at the heart of all of this, we do not believe the poor are a problem to be solved.  We believe that have what it takes to list themselves out of poverty.

So we don’t work with a village community by imposing a “development program” based on top-down, theoretical solutions. Instead, we work through a participatory, values-based planning process that results in a master plan being created by the community themselves.  This plan will encompass the five components of the Agros model, but the specifics of implementation will be created by the families themselves.

And it takes time.  There is no easy solution to generations of extreme poverty.  However, by empowering villagers to identify, enhance, and grow their own capacity for achievement, social, environmental, and economic sustainability for everyone in the village is ensured.

An Agros village is highly organized, socially supportive, commercially competitive and environmentally sound.  As families thrive under new conditions of stability and security, they are able to develop agricultural businesses; develop and own assets; establish new pathways to education and healthcare; and forge partnerships with other organizations and government municipalities.

All of these integrated benefits and experiences result in the transformation of a community, and are passed on to the next generation.

After living in so many generations of poverty characterized by a fundamental degradation of human dignity, as families are given the necessary training, support, and capital to build a better future, not only is poverty alleviated, but basic human dignity is restored for everyone involved.

Want to see what this looks like? Watch this video!

Agros is in the business of poverty eradication for the long-term. We do not believe in simple, easy ‘fixes’ to complex problems. Our model provides a framework in which communities are capable of indefinitely maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society.

The vision and impact of Agros’ work is designed to end rural poverty across entire rural villages and through multiple generations.  And with 40 village projects across five countries, this is happening… one village at a time!

Hurricane Ida in El Salvador

As many of you know, Hurricane Ida hit El Salvador late Saturday, Nov. 7, fed by 145-kilometer-per-hour winds and causing heavy flooding. The Category 1 hurricane left over 130 dead and thousands displaced.

We are saddened to report that our four Agros El Salvador communities have all been impacted, as follows:

San Diego de Tenango: The road is inaccessible, a portion of their crops have been lost, homes have been damaged, and families’ health have been impacted.

Nuevo Renacer: Roofs are leaking and floors have turned to mud. There is considerable erosion to the access road and a loss in basic grains and vegetables.

La Esperanza: Severe erosion to the road as well as significant loss of basic grains has been reported.

El Milagro: A large portion of the families’ basic grains were lost.

We are in daily contact with our El Salvador staff, and plans are underway to help these villages recover and rebuild. We will keep all partners posted as this process continues.

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Agros International | Land Hope Life Ending Rural Poverty Through Land Loans, Community Training, And Empowerment.