Agros Blog

Immigration and Nueva Esperanza

52,000 children.

According to stories in The New York Times and The Economist, more than 52,000 minors from Central America have been detained in a dangerous, desperate attempt to enter the US. The count is 52,000 since October, and 9,000 of those last month alone – a heartbreaking record. Compared to the 15,700 children detained in the prior year, authorities predict that this number will balloon to an unprecedented 240,000 by year’s end.

Alone, without parents, some are as young as five. Their mothers have sewn phone numbers of family members living in the US into their clothing.

These numbers startle, but let’s not allow statistics to sanitize the dialog. This is about children encountering a real-life chamber of horrors including rape, kidnapping and death.  We know how many have been detained, but we don’t know how many didn’t last long enough.

It is almost impossible for me to relate to this incredible tragedy.  I get anxious letting my seventeen-year-old son drive alone at night, even with his cell phone fully charged in case of an emergency.  I cannot imagine being so desperate as to send my child on a 1300 mile trek with barely enough food and water to last a couple of days.

Popular media has lost sight of the children, opting to focus on the political consequences for republicans or democrats instead of the heart-wrenching humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.

It reminds me of the Scribes and Pharisees arguing about violating the Sabbath instead of, as Jesus did, healing a person in need.  As I write, thousands of children are landing at the border of this country, famished, frightened and literally dying for some small act of kindness.  Do we really care how this will affect the next election?  Are we really that calloused a nation?

This tragedy demands immediate action to help these children, but it also demands a long term solution to the root causes of the problem.  These children risk their lives to come to this country because they live in extreme poverty with none of the opportunities we have in this country to make a living.   I just returned from a week in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, visiting two of our communities.  In Nueva Esperanza, Julio and his wife, Santa, hosted us in the home they now own after working tirelessly to pay off their land loan.  Their daughter Hazel (12) walks more than an hour one way every day to go to school, overjoyed with the opportunity to learn.

I noticed the entire family could not stop smiling and when I asked Julio why, he told me he how his life has changed. He told me how Agros had given he and his wife, Santa, the opportunity to be successful and he seized it.  With land and technical assistance for Agros coupled with his hard work he and Santa pushed hard to use the proceeds from every coffee harvest to pay off their land. “With our land loan paid, everything we make now comes to my family. I cannot imagine being anywhere else.”

We have a choice: debate policies and politics or force ourselves to look into the faces of these children piling up at our border. If we truly want to permanently solve this immigration crisis, then we must use our resources to bring hope and opportunity to desperately poor families where they live.

Julio and Santa are among thousands who have seized the opportunity to rise above poverty. Given the chance to work their own land in their own country among a community of neighbors, Julio and Santa would never send Hazel any farther than the community school.

Family by family and community by community, Agros has permanently broken the cycle of extreme poverty.  With your help we can stem the tide of this human misery.

Will you join me?

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!

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/.

Sachs’ Six Tenets to Reduce Poverty

Jeffrey Sachs: SSIR In a recent interview with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jeffrey Sachs, distinguished economist and professor, renowned author, and Director of the Earth Institute, outlines why he believes ’sustainable development is humanity’s most pressing challenge’ and ‘lifting billions of people out of poverty is the first order of business.’

To that end, Sachs identifies six areas he deems crucial to ending extreme poverty:

  1. Agriculture
  2. Health
  3. Education
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Business development
  6. Environmental conservation

Sachs argues that we can ‘make tremendous headway against poverty, killer diseases, the lack of productivity of the rural poor, and so forth, through integrated systems-based and technology-based approaches in those six areas’—in other words, sustainable and holistic development.

We agree!  Agros’ holistic development model was devised specifically to address these areas identified by Sachs (and more) with sustainable solutions.

It all begins with helping the rural poor secure rights to quality land. After land has been secured, Agros works with the villagers on community development and implementation of sustainable, environmentally sound agricultural systems. Agros also equips the villagers to hone their skills to democratically govern their villages. And consistently threaded throughout the process are a combination of health and human development programs, as well as ongoing education and training as appropriate for the given stage of development.  Through this holistic approach to development, Agros has helped thousands of people pull themselves out of poverty by simultaneously supporting the very ecosystems they depend on for life-giving services.

When you support Agros’ work you can trust we are implementing solutions each and everyday that address these same six areas of need as outlined by Mr. Sachs.

For example, here are just a few items from Agros’ One Seed Alternative Gift Catalog that support development in those six areas of critical need:

  1. Agriculture: One Acre of Seed
  2. Health: Village Health Promoter Training
  3. Education: Women’s Economic Initiatives Training
  4. Infrastructure: A House (Startup Housing)
  5. Business development: Business Training
  6. Environmental conservation: Planting a Dozen Trees

Learn more about Agros’ holistic development model and how it supports these critical areas of need, our commitment to sustainability, and how you can get involved and make a difference!

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.

2010 is the Year of International Biodiversity

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has named 2010 the year of International Biodiversity, with this year’s theme specifically recognizing the importance of the triad: Biodiversity, Development, and Poverty Alleviation on May 22nd.

According to the IFAD, biodiversity is the sum of all existing species, their interactions and the ecosystems they form. It is also the basis for agriculture, and together, they are both crucial in maintaining and improving food security.  IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze notes that this year’s biodiversity focus “is a timely opportunity to remind the world of how agricultural biodiversity can improve productivity and nutrition, enhance livelihoods, respond to environmental challenges and deliver food security. Indeed, biodiversity is a vital tool for rural development and poverty reduction.”

Agros shares the belief that biodiversity is crucial for maintaining sustainable agricultural systems and healthy communities. Working closely with farmers, Agros agronomists work to provide the resources and skills-based training necessary to create dynamic agricultural systems that can support families economically and provide them with access to healthy food.

The surrounding environment also benefits from the use of these techniques as they minimize the use of pesticides and herbicides and promote soil restoration. Farmers in Agros villages also receive technical assistance and resources for the implementation of reforestation projects.

Agros is committed to helping farmers balance the importance of maintaining a high level of biodiversity within the economic needs of farmers. This year you can help support Central American and Mexican farmers’ efforts to increase biodiversity by supporting the work of Agros.

Learn more about the pillars behind IFAD’s 2010 Year of International Biodiversity and the International Day of Biological Diversity.

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.

Changemaker – Agros International

Global Washington, a broad-based membership association that promotes and supports the international development sector in the state of Washington, recently featured Sean Dimond, Agros Communication Director, and the work of Agros in their monthly ‘Changemaker’ feature.

You can read the article at the Global Washington site, or read below:


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Sean Dimond is a talented and compassionate man who has lived through past life-threatening circumstances to tell a story of beauty and compassion about a world where human dignity is more powerful than war and extreme poverty.

As the Director of Communications for Agros International, Sean has applied his diverse background in communications, philosophy, and media-arts to connect the people of the developed world with those suffering in the developing world.

“Agros not only teaches the poor how to fish, but also enables them to own the pond.”

Throughout Central America, rural people have suffered from decades of armed conflict and extreme poverty. Many of these families have been forgotten and left for dead. In most of the developing world, and in Central America specifically, the rural poor depend on land for basic survival. If rural families are able to access their own farmable land, this can create a foundation for food, a secure home, and a path of progress. This is where Seattle-based Agros International comes into the picture.

Agros’ development approach takes into account that while single interventions (such as microcredit or vaccines) are important, in order to sustainably alleviate poverty it is critical to take a holistic approach, or as Agros calls it, “360 Development.”

Agros is focused on the long-term alleviation of poverty for entire rural communities by extending long-term loans to purchase farmland, and then partnering with families in applying sustainable agricultural and community development practices. The goal is to empower families to create, develop, and own a thriving, sustainable village.

In summary, Agros does not reduce the causes or solutions of poverty to just the individual, but instead works to alleviate poverty horizontally across an entire community, and vertically so this impact affects future generations.

Rather than build programs based on merely “fixing problems”, Agros seeks to invest in the dreams and values of poor, believing that they have the essential dignity and capacity to work their own way out of poverty.

“Rural poverty is not a statistic. It is a face, a family, a community. And if you first listen and then seek to enable the dreams of the poor themselves, you will be amazed by what they can accomplish,” Sean says.

Sean seems to be destined for international communications. His grandfather was Cherokee Indian and through his legacy Sean developed a passion for rural indigenous people. Having lived in 8 states and 22 cities, and with many opportunities to travel internationally, Sean has a keen sense of inter-connectedness in the world. What’s more, he was influenced by the arts and good communicators and developed a skill for communicating through media. The specific platform for his media skills would end up being decided by fate.

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“These families don’t need charity handouts, they need opportunity”

Previous to his work at Agros, Sean owned a creative media firm called “untamed.be” that provided media and marketing communication services to Fortune 500 companies and international NGOs. His success took a turn for the worse when he was later diagnosed with cancer and was forced to close his business. As he struggled through cancer treatment, he continued to pursue one of his passions—music composition. Agros heard about him and hired him to write a score of music for their first promotional video. Sean said that even though this request came during a hard time, he could not say no, “Agros was simply one of a kind.”

After his cancer treatment Sean decided not to go back to his firm, but instead decided to look for work with an international NGO. It was truly serendipitous that at the same time Agros began to look for a Communications Director.

Since the start of his full-time employment with Agros four years ago, Sean has worked to create new fundraising platforms, increase partner engagement, and expand Agros’ visibility through multiple channels. Serving on Agros’ Executive Leadership Team, Sean believes good communications must be driven by an organizations’ strategic plan. With this in mind, he has been able to build a strong communication system for Agros that would tell stories words alone could not accomplish.

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“Agros has helped us see our face”

Sean recalls one of his first experiences abroad with Agros: in the mountains of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, in the village of El Eden. It was there during a video interview that he asked a villager to describe Agros in just one word. This villager said, “I would describe Agros as a mirror. Agros has helped us to see our face; they have helped us see that we have dignity. They have helped us to see that we matter.” Sean says it is encounters like this that get him out of bed every morning, focused to help these people help themselves.

“You do a disservice when you oversimplify the complexity of global poverty”

Sean believes that “we live in a unique time in human history—the struggles we face globally have a great deal to do with questions of sustainability, whether it is about food or the environment or basic security–and in an increasingly inter-connected world I feel the work of Agros is especially important.”

Sean asserts that the unique, sustainable solutions such as those practiced by Agros are critical for this global challenge. In addition, he does not think of other organizations in the global development sector as competitors. Agros is one important contributor within the global development field, but so are other organizations in their own way. Sean sees his primary competitor as “ ‘the apathy and resignation’ that exists in the general culture; the sense that nothing will ever change”. Sean believes that lasting change to complex problems is possible, “because here at Agros I get the privilege of seeing it happen every day.”

Furthermore, Sean also believes that connecting with other organizations is critical in this work, and that only by doing so can we learn from each other. It is for this reason that Sean really values Global Washington’s ability to convene the development sector in Washington State, and is excited for Global WA to reach their full potential.

For more information about Agros and how its dedicated people are working to make a difference in the world visit:  http://www.agros.org/

Submitted by Luke Mohr for Global Washington

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.

A National Shame

Pedro, a college student starting his last year of studies in Agronomy, is from the Agros village of La Esperanza. Next year, he will be the first college graduate from his community and his family could not be more proud. Unfortunately, many children who grow up in rural communities in Guatemala do not have the same opportunities or support that Pedro received growing up in an Agros village.

A recent article from The Economist, A National Shame, examines the extreme social, economic and political inequality in Guatemala. In certain indigenous areas of rural Guatemala, chronic malnutrition affects over 80% of children. Malnutrition results in stunted growth and learning difficulties for children, greatly compromising their potential future productivity.

“A National Shame” describes how the government’s failure to provide basic services to rural indigenous populations has resulted in severe underdevelopment: two-thirds of rural Guatemalans live in poverty.  These people were” totally abandoned in the mountains with no infrastructure, no education, no health,” says Rafael Espada, the vice-president of Guatemala. If the government continues to fail to provide good schools and health care for the majority of people, the article concludes, malnutrition will continue.

In Guatemala, Agros works with indigenous communities to help families achieve food security, obtain access to essential services, and start productive agricultural businesses that enable the entire community to overcome extreme poverty.  As rural families in Guatemala build thriving communities, they are able impact both neighboring villages and their regional economy.

We are directly challenging the despair so many feel when faced with constant hunger and extreme poverty.  Working in one of the most impoverished regions in the world, Agros is bringing practical, long-term, sustainable solutions to thousands who were once desperately hungry, and without hope.

Interview at Wandering Educators

Wandering EducatorsI was recently interviewed by Wandering Educators, a “global community of educators, sharing travel experiences”.  They are a fascinating group, and their publisher, Dr. Jessie Voigts, took great care in learning about Agros and sharing our mission with their community.

You can read the interview at their site with photos and video, or here is the text below:


WE: One of the most important things that we in international education can do to change the world is to help others. Because we travel, live, and learn around the world, we have a unique chance to be change agents for those who need it. I have been so very impressed with one organization, Agros International, that is working on ending extreme rural poverty.We’ve featured Agros International here on WanderingEducators before, as part of a story about SalaamGarage, which leads adventures that collaborate with International NGOs with the goal to cause change through creating and sharing intentional content.  I was so very impressed with Agros International that I contacted Sean Dimond, Director of Marketing and Communications at Agros. He was happy to share all that Agros is doing with our readers, and I was fascinated at this extraordinary project. We were lucky enough to sit down with Sean and talk about poverty, international development, and more.

WE: Tell us about Agros International.

SD: Today, literally half of the people on our planet live on $2.50 per day or less.  The vast majority of those families live in rural areas, dependent on farmable land for income, security, and survival.  A significant majority of those families do not have ownership or a secure stake in the land they depend on.

In our hemisphere, the poorest countries are in Central America, where approximately 65% of the population lives in extreme poverty.  The majority of these families live in rural areas, and are landless.  Landlessness is one of the most important indicators of extreme, rural poverty.

Agros exists to empower rural, poor families throughout Central America and Mexico to literally work their way out of extreme poverty, with dignity.  We do this by providing communities with long-term credit for land purchase, holistic community development, and agricultural business training.  By partnering with Agros, families are able to start, develop, and eventually own a thriving, economically sustainable village.

In a nutshell, Agros exists to end rural poverty in this region – one village at a time.  With almost 40 village projects across five countries, the work of Agros is enabling thousands of men, women, and children to work and achieve the dream of a future free of crushing, long-term, extreme poverty.

WE:  What was the genesis of Agros?

SD: In 1982 Skip Li, a local Seattle attorney, was attending a conference and he heard a speaker casually mention a news article from the morning paper.  The article was about the millions of dollars the United States was spending on covert military activity in the civil wars raging throughout Central America. This speaker made the comment that if you used that money to buy land for the rural poor, the wars might cease.

Skip couldn’t sleep that night. A few months later he was on a plane, flying into Guatemala. Skip was the son of a Chinese diplomat and had spent time growing up in both Colombia and Guatemala, witnessing extreme poverty in these countries on a daily basis.

The burning question that caused Skip to fly into a raging Guatemalan civil war was this — could you buy land privately and loan it to small communities of landless farmers until they secured the resources to purchase it?  Could this be an effective means to ending poverty?  That question launched Agros into existence.

Twenty-five years later, Agros has helped thousand of people across Central America and Mexico start and own economically sustainable villages.  Rural families beat down by war, natural disaster, lack of access to basic services, racism, and extreme poverty are today building new lives for themselves.

Landless families are not only able to achieve the dream of having their own land to call home, to use as a means for food security, to create thriving agricultural businesses — they are also developing assets that they can pass down to future generations.

The exciting thing is that this transformation occurs because the people we work with have the ability to do it themselves — they simply need the support and training to make it happen.  In this way, Agros is not merely providing a hand-out, but a hand-up.  We not only teach people “how to fish”, but we enable them to also own the pond.

WE: So much of international development work seems ineffectual, or top-heavy. How is Agros working to be different?

SD: Argos addresses the root, systemic causes of poverty.  We also use a somewhat unique definition of poverty — we define poverty as “broken relationships”.  And I do not mean this in a Hallmark greeting card sense.

For the rural poor, all of the fundamental connections that make up a sustainable way of life are damaged or destroyed.  Families are broken apart through migration; relationships with local municipalities are often broken; complex environmental and cultural systems break down; on and on… so many of the critical relationships that determine the health of a community are destroyed by extreme poverty.

Further, the causes and solutions to extreme poverty cannot be effectively reduced to just the individual or family level.  Instead, economic, cultural, social and personal factors all play into establishing generational cycles of poverty that extend across communities.

Agros has learned over the years that restoring all of the aspects that make up a healthy community is required to ensure economic sustainability.  A holistic understanding of people leads us to a holistic understanding of human transformation. There is much more to alleviating poverty than technological change, increased income, or the improvement of merely material well-being.

For Agros, we’ve learned that if you really want to get at the root issues of poverty in a way that makes a lasting difference — a difference that offers new hope and opportunity for generations to come — you’ve got to approach these issues holistically.

A holistic model of development requires a connection between the various parts of the whole. In other words, we work to create a context where rural families themselves are, over time, empowered to restore the various relationships that break down in extreme poverty.

We do this by using a participatory, values-based approach.  When we work with a new group of families, rather than do a traditional ‘needs assessment’, we start with the assumption that their needs are self-evident, and a more powerful place to start is by having the families identify and name their assets, their values, their dreams.

Living in extreme poverty has for many destroyed the basic human ability to dream of a new and better future.  We want families to dream again, and not only to dream… but to be empowered to make those dreams reality.

We also realize that there is no magic bullet or single answer to alleviating poverty.  This is tough, difficult work.  Many people here in North America are familiar with the devastating poverty statistics that exist – but you cannot reduce these issues to mere numbers.  We’re talking about real people who are complex and multi-faceted and full of enormous potential.

WE:  How can a sustainable approach work with so many different cultural actors? Are there intercultural differences that you need to take into consideration with each project?

SD: Absolutely.  We have a highly effective, five-component development model, but we realize that this model needs to be contextualized within a given community dynamic.  We do not have a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach.  At the end of the day, our work is only successful if the families themselves are able to create a better life for themselves.  We’ll provide the access to long-term credit, support, training, basic infrastructure, encouragement… but the families have to do the work themselves, and they each have to bring their concerns, hopes, and unique context to the process.

Further, we work with a culturally diverse array of families.  We work with indigenous Mayan communities in the highlands of Guatemala; rural “campesinos” in Nicaragua; refugee communities in Chiapas, Mexico; and so on.  In each case, a holistic approach creates the setting where the unique values, dreams, and aspirations of each family are taken into account.

WE:  How can people help Agros?

SD: In this difficult, global economic downturn it is the extreme poor who suffer the most.  When facing hard economic times, instead of reducing the gasoline, or college education, or food budgets — rural poor families go hungry.  They simply don’t have budgets to cut. Living on the extreme
margins of society leaves these families incredibly vulnerable, particularly in a time of such historic economic downturn.

So to be perfectly frank, what we need is continued financial support.  Please consider a one-time gift, or perhaps a monthly gift, to support and empower rural, poor families to work their way out of poverty.

WE: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

SD: Just my gratitude.  We are, I believe, at a critical time in human history.  The global connections that exist between nations are such that our ability to collectively invest in sustainable solutions to some of the most dire problems on the planet are more important than ever before.  The challenges of resource consumption, the environment, food security, disease, extreme poverty — these challenges must be met by unique and lasting solutions…not by quick fixes and temporary approaches.  The work of Agros International is, I believe, one important voice in this larger conversation.  Further, the families in Central America and Mexico who are learning to dream again have an even more important voice in this conversation, and I’m grateful for being able to share a bit of what we are accomplishing together.

Thank you for allowing us the privilege of sharing this life transforming work.

WE: Thank you, Sean, for sharing Agros International with us. It is incredible, life-changing, important work – and so very inspiring.

Agros in the Seattle Times

The following is a joint op-ed article published yesterday (10/08/08) in the Seattle Times.  This was written by Tim Hanstad of the Rural Development Institute, Greg Rake of Agros International, and Marty Kooistra of Habitat for Humanity.

You can read the published op-ed at the Seattle Times website by clicking here.

Seattle groups work to secure land, shelter rights

By Tim Hanstad, Greg Rake and Marty Kooistra

Special to The Times

Many of us in the U.S. don’t think much about the relationship between land ownership and poverty. But for the 1.4 billion people on our planet who survive on less than $1 a day, land is the most important asset they could have. It is the crucial source of shelter, food, income and security. And for the poorest in the United States, land and homeownership remains the unfulfilled American dream. This past Monday’s World Habitat Day is an opportunity to call attention to the universal need for secure land rights and shelter.

For Padma, a woman living in rural India, becoming a landowner transformed her life. Like many women in developing countries, Padma did not have legal rights to property. She worked as a day laborer, when work was available, earning 18 cents a day. Her children, who came to the fields with her, ate only one meal of rice gruel a day, not enough to provide them with the vital micronutrients they needed to thrive. They squatted in poor shelter, with poor sanitation and the threat of disease, and were prone to exploitation.

Today, Padma is a landowner. She earns $5 a day with the flower business she started on her small plot of land. The income allowed her to build a home, grow plenty of food and send her children to school, giving them a future full of possibility. With help from RDI, a Seattle-based nonprofit that helps governments provide secure land rights for the poor, the government of India is now giving the same “micro-land ownership” opportunities to millions of families like Padma’s, providing shelter, food security and economic prosperity at little cost.

Padma’s story is not uncommon. In the Ixil region of Guatemala, landless rural residents spend days marching to the coast to work on plantations. In return, they are offered “rights” to plant corn and beans on land that is only marginally productive, leading to malnutrition and hunger. This migration means that families are either separated or, more often than not, everyone who can must go to work. As a result, few children attend school.

Last year, five of these young people graduated from a Guatemalan university. This was possible only because their parents purchased land through another Seattle-based nonprofit, Agros International. With the land, the parents no longer had to migrate and the children were able to go to school. Four of the five graduates were daughters, and all have moved back to their villages to give back to their communities.

The work of these Seattle-based organizations demonstrates the many benefits secure land tenure provides: food security, women’s status, economic development and sustainable housing. Secure land rights give people a reason to invest in their land, improving agricultural production and environmental stewardship. It also reduces urban migration and creates political stability.

These struggles for a secure place to live aren’t isolated to developing countries – they happen right here in Seattle. For a family of refugees from Ethiopia, their recent escape to the U.S. was a dream come true. But the only apartment they could afford in Seattle was cramped and infested by ants. The house was filled with mold, and the plumbing and electricity did not work so the family lacked heat. When they applied for help from Habitat for Humanity, they were initially turned down.

Although Habitat for Humanity strives to serve as many families as possible, it is a constant challenge to secure enough land in Seattle for all needy families. Fortunately, the city of Seattle donated property and the family now lives in a simple home with a 30-year, affordable mortgage.

In the Sept. 29 issue of Newsweek, one week before World Habitat Day, editor Fareed Zakaria described land rights as one of the five most important things that can help solve our world’s problems. The efforts of local organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, RDI, Agros, World Vision and others demonstrates Seattle’s role as a global leader in innovative solutions to some of our world’s greatest issues, and shows the power of land rights and shelter in creating a safer, more secure world.

Tim Hanstad is president and CEO of the Rural Development Institute (RDI); Greg Rake is president of Agros International; Marty Kooistra is CEO of the Seattle/South King County Habitat for Humanity.

My Christmas Gift

The following is a translation of an article written by Agros Guatemala Board Member Humberto Preti and published in the Guatemalan newspaper ‘Prensa Libre’:

Barillas01“Last week the Agros Guatemala directors went to visit the communities that Agros supports in Barillas, Huehuetenango. After traveling through the beautiful peaks of Los Cuchumantes, we arrived (over torturous, difficult roads) at our destination and were surprised to see the inhabitants of these communities truly involved and working with a spirit of betterment. The men and women there are developing an aptitude for entrepreneurship.

It’s clear just how important the organization’s support has been for them. They are working hard by themselves, taking initiative and participating in projects that go above and beyond the aid that they have been given. Pascual particularly impressed us. In spite of his lack of education, he was able to build a drier for his coffee, which he made entirely by himself by copying the drawings that he saw in a manual. There are other community members developing their own businesses and implementing projects as well, some on their own and others in a communal fashion. The communal projects include a tilapia tank for raising fish, important buildings for the community such as schools, and sewing rooms to keep the machines in (some of which were acquired through loans).

Barillas02Agros has been providing women with loans in the form of a community-run bank, which they have already taken to the next level by receiving training to be able to process their own loans. It’s admirable to see that no one has been defaulting on the loans ‘ve received and that some women are already moving on to their third loan.

It was our turn during the visit to one of the communities to give the land titles to everyone there who had repaid their land loans (in the Agros Guatemala village “El Edén”). Since the Agros model isn’t about giving everything away for free, it generates hard work and commitment among the villagers. This desire to improve is visible in the Canjobal communities as much as it is in the Ixil triangle – the importance that they are giving to their children’s education, their desire to get trained in different skills. These things have been made possible with the help of Guatemalan organizations such as INTECAP (a training program developed by the Industry Council of Guatemala) and ANACAFE (Guatemalan Association of Coffee Growers), as well as other organizations like Agros International, Generalitat Valenciana (Spanish Municipal Organization), USAID (US Agency for International Development) and other international organizations that have dedicated themselves to helping the poor by investing in productive projects.

In some communities where there are water resources, the families are already thinking of building their own hydroelectric system. Although there are already electricity networks in nearby, the villagers are not able to pay the excessive charges due to our dependence on hydrocarbons.

Barillas03We then went to see La Providencia, the new farm that benefits one hundred families, and saw how there exists in each family member a desire to begin work on various projects and the construction of their homes. Nobody was thinking about the past, or about vengeance; their minds were on the future and in the wellbeing of their families in spite of having been among the communities most affected by the useless armed conflict that had plunged them into misery for many years. They are making gigantic steps. The families are already receiving information about birth control and are accepting it with interest.

The satisfaction of seeing these groups that are moving ahead, with clear visions, was my Christmas gift.

The essentials of fighting rural poverty

Lennart Bage, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), recently published an article on the essential elements needed to fight poverty in a lasting, sustainable way. His findings both affirm and dovetail with our own development model here at Agros, where we have also found that alleviating rural poverty requires an integrated, holistic, and sustainable approach.

Here are a few quotes from his article, and a link to the entire piece:

Investments in agriculture can transform economies and pay high dividends in terms of quality of life and dignity for poor rural people.

Many of those left behind are rural people – the small farmers, landless workers, herders, fisherfolk and artisans who depend on agriculture and related activities to survive. Seventy-five per cent of the world’s extremely poor people live in the rural areas of developing countries – over 800 million women, children and men. One-quarter have no secure access to land. In many areas, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate number of the rural poor, and in all areas women are the most vulnerable and marginalised.

Agricultural investments drive economic growth
Investments in agriculture can transform economies and pay high dividends in terms of quality of life and dignity for poor rural people. They can drive broader economic growth, setting the stage for long-term sustainable development. Indeed, investments in agriculture are more effective in raising people out of poverty than investments in any other sector.

…these solutions must be rooted in the aspirations and priorities of poor people themselves… poor rural people tell us that secure access to land, water and other natural resources is one of their highest priorities. In fact, studies show that inequitable distribution and lack of access to land are often the driving forces behind poverty and hunger, as well as the roots of armed conflict and civil war.”

Click here to read more of President Bage’s excellent article.

“Seattle group helping the poor buy land…”

I’m writing from Nicaragua and have just read the article published in yesterday’s (March 6) Seattle PI. Many thanks to PI reporter Tom Paulson – he did an exceptional job working to understand and write about what Agros is doing to end poverty not only in Nicaragua, but all throughout Central America.  Click here for a direct link, or read below:

Seattle group helping the poor buy land in Nicaragua
280-acre “El Eden” supports 29 families

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

By TOM PAULSON
P-I REPORTER

EDITOR’S NOTE: For decades, Seattle and the Northwest have had connections with Nicaragua in health care, economic development and political activism. During the civil war in the 1980s, many in Seattle and the Northwest became involved in the Sandinista-Contra struggle.

Some assistance projects and relationships created by those turbulent times have persisted. Meanwhile, newer bridges between the Northwest and Nicaragua are being built.

The Seattle P-I recently visited a handful of projects that represent the Northwest’s continuing connection to the poorest nation in Central America.

NEAR MATAGALPA, Nicaragua — The inequitable ownership of land has been at the root of many of Nicaragua’s conflicts. Today, a little-known organization started by a Seattle attorney and community activist is working to reduce this inequity by helping the poorest of the poor buy land in these lush green hills.

“We are planting maracuya (passion fruit) as part of our plan to diversify crops,” said farmer Leandro Hernandez, speaking with obvious pride while walking across a few acres of land to which he and his campesino family one day hope to hold title.

The land, for now, is owned by a Seattle non-profit organization called Agros International. Created in 1982 by Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li, a Seattle attorney, Agros bought this land for $170,000 and is selling it back to poor families who agree to make it productive.

Across the field, higher up on a hillside, Hernandez pointed to rows of tomato and jalapeno plants, as well as to the water tank they had built for irrigation. Elsewhere in this new 280-acre community, dubbed El Eden, that he and 29 other poor families recently have settled are crops of corn, avocado, beans, plantains, watermelon and coffee, some of which is headed for Camano Island Coffee Roasters.

“We will wait until the rains come, in May, to plant some of them,” Hernandez said, explaining that the idea is to always have some produce to sell in the market, no matter what the season.

This is the first piece of land he — or anyone in his family — has ever owned and he is determined to make it a success.

“Before this, I had to rent a place for my family to live and work at a factory (farm) where I was paid 50 cordobas (less than $3) a day,” he said.

With this land from Agros, he said, he makes only a little bit more money every day selling his produce. But he doesn’t have to pay rent or buy food, so he is able to save money.

“I can send my children to school now,” Hernandez said.

He and the other families in El Eden farm and live off the land as a sort of loan from Agros. Each family is required to pay Agros an average of $300 every year toward the purchase of the land. In less than a decade, if all goes well, the land will be theirs.

“We want to show them that they can take care of themselves and make progress on their own initiative, rather than to expect charity,” said Kira Lopez, a financial manager at the Agros office in Managua.

“We have been working with this community for about 16 months,” said Mario Gaitan, an agronomist and executive director of the Agros programs in Nicaragua. Gaitan and his colleagues help the farmers develop a master agricultural plan aimed at making the best use of the soil, water resources and local market demand.

“Before the Sandinistas, all the land in Nicaragua was owned by the big producers,” Gaitan said.

After the revolution toppled the dictator Anastasio Somoza (who alone owned a huge chunk of the country), Gaitan said, the Sandinistas seized much of the land to redistribute it among the people. They formed farming collectives, but didn’t give individuals ownership of land. There wasn’t much done with legal title transfer. Many of the poor who received the land weren’t trained sufficiently to take over the large farms.
The Sandinista plan largely imploded, leading to decay in the agricultural sector and increasing poverty. When conservatives regained power in 1990, their solution was to return the land to big landowners — which threw even more peasants deeper into poverty.

“Land reform was failing,” Li said.

When a friend and classmate from the University of Washington law school was killed in an El Salvador hotel while volunteering to work on land reform there, Li felt prompted to take up the cause.

“I didn’t want to get involved in the politics, but I wanted to do something,” said Li, who occasionally writes as a community columnist for the Seattle P-I editorial page.

After a visiting minister from Argentina spoke at his church suggesting individuals could buy land directly and give it to the poor, he started Agros to do that. Though its impetus was faith-based, Agros has no religious litmus test for deciding which families to help.

“We started in Guatemala and moved into Nicaragua in the mid-1990s,” Li said.

The organization has grown very quietly, he said, into a sizable operation that is expected to reach $4 million in income by June with 30 sponsored communities throughout Latin America.

Some of the coffee beans grown by Hernandez and his neighbors in this mountain village are already showing up in Seattle cups.

“I really like what Agros is doing,” said Jeff Ericson, owner of Camano Island Coffee Roasters. The company, which sells organic, shade-grown, freely traded beans, buys them from Agros-sponsored farmers in Nicaragua.

“This is not your typical charity at the trough,” Ericson said. “This is about creating sustainable businesses and communities.”

After examining Hernandez’ jalapeno crop and some coffee plants that had recently been whacked by a tornado, Gaitan wandered back down into the center of the village. Workers were struggling to irrigate a field of young plantains effectively as the water flowed too fast here, backed up there or headed in the wrong direction.

Gaitan grabbed a hoe, began digging and deftly demonstrated how a different configuration of the ditch path allowed for better, more efficient flow. He handed back the hoe and the men went to work.

“We can help here and there,” Gaitan said. “But it will be up to them for it to succeed.”

P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at 206-448-8318 or tompaulsonatseattlepidotcom.
© 1998-2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Courage, closure, and hope.

Throughout the world it is the poor who are the most vulnerable, and who suffer the most in the wake of natural disaster, famine, and war. There is a legacy of loss, suffering, and grief that continues to this day in the hearts of so many in Central America… people who lost children, parents, brothers and sisters in the civil wars that raged throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Many of these families and individuals now live in Agros villages, where they are given new opportunity and hope to rebuild the connections that were destroyed not that many years ago.

We are committed to helping villagers create a new legacy… of hope. And in the aftermath of what these extraordinary people have gone through, hope – real hope – is not easy or simple or cheap. Hope requires courage, and in Guatemala – the people themselves are leading the way in a tough, difficult path towards national closure. The following recent news article focuses on the people of the Ixil, a region in Guatemala that is central to several Agros villages.

Forensic experts look for remains of the 200,000 killed in 36-year civil war.
By N.C. Aizenman
The Washington Post

November 8, 2006
NEBAJ, Guatemala

Spurred by a surge of requests from victims’ families this year, dozens of forensic anthropologists have been fanning out across the countryside to search for remains of the 200,000 people — most of them Mayan Indian civilians — who were killed or abducted during the 36-year conflict.

Many were massacred by military forces and dumped into mass graves. Others were buried hurriedly in unmarked locations by relatives anxious to avoid rampaging troops.

About 40,000 victims disappeared after being seized by government operatives.

Nearly every day brings another grisly discovery: skulls of toddlers with gunshots to the head; corpses of young men whose necks are still looped with the garrotes used to strangle them.

Nearly every week brings another funeral crowded with weeping relatives.

In a cavernous, damp warehouse in the capital, Guatemala City, investigators wearing protective masks and surgical gloves comb through piles of mildewed documents from a recently discovered secret police
archive, hunting for clues to the fate of the disappeared.

The effort is not the first investigation of wartime atrocities since peace accords ended the conflict in 1996. But its scope and pace are unusual in a country where those responsible have enjoyed near impunity.

Read the rest of this entry »

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