Agros Blog

Gifts that give

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another example of gifts that keep giving are animal projects.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Father’s Enduring Example

Carlos Sarmiento has a special fondness and respect for his father, who raised him on his own after his mother left the family when he was very young.

As a child, Carlos remembers his father doing all that he could to provide for them.  That meant his father was away for long stretches day after day, having to walk two hours each way to a small plot of rented land he farmed for basic grains. Often that yielded very little, and there were nights they both went without food.  As he matured, Carlos joined his father and helped work the land. For Carlos, this was a special time when his father shared his life stories and wisdom—but there were still days that their combined efforts didn’t yield enough food to eat or cover the cost of renting the land.

At the age of 15 years old, with his father’s reluctant blessing, Carlos decided to leave his small town for the city of San Pedro de Sula in search of more stable work. But he and his wife Marina, and later their two children, continued to face many difficulties there. To provide for his new family, Carlos often worked 30 hours straight without rest—beginning at dawn, with a shovel and bucket in hand, Carlos collected trash across the city.  Like his father before him, he had little choice but to be apart from his family with very little reward or stability in return.

But after finding Agros and moving to the Honduran village of Bella Vista, Carlos has finally found the stability and security he’d always dreamed of for his growing and extended family: land, hope and life.

CarlosToday, Carlos has found a renewed confidence in himself and his ability to provide for his family. The family enjoys a home, latrine, potable water, farm animals and crops flush with coffee, bananas, beans and corn! Together, they also run a small grocery store—this provides more income and savings for the family, while also serving the needs of their community with basic items.

Carlos is proud of the work ethic his father imparted onto him, and knows the example he is now sharing with his own children will forever strengthen their resolve and break their generational poverty. This Father’s Day, help other fathers like Carlos achieve their potential by giving a gift with real meaning in honor of a man who made a difference in your life:

Visit the Agros One Seed Alternative Gift Catalog to see other ways you can recognize that special man in your life!

P.S.—Don’t forget, every dollar you donate to Agros by June 30—up to $100,000 in general giving—will be matched dollar for dollar in the matching gift opportunity!

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

My Dream?

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

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

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

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

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

Training Provides Opportunity for Local Economies

During times of global economic turmoil, providing access to training that empowers the poorest of this world becomes crucial. Through training and community education, people in Agros villages are able to start their own businesses and grow a robust local economy.

Benjamin and Catarina, a couple from the Agros Guatemala village ‘Cajixay’, have used their entrepreneurial spirit to start new businesses with the training they have received from Agros staff.  This training empowers them to develop new  income for their family.

benjamincatarina2.jpgBenjamin is the first man in three generations of his family to own land thanks to the support of Agros International. He and his wife Catarina have lived in Cajixay for all their lives, (except for a brief time during Guatemala’s civil war when they were forced from their village).  Even though Benjamin was the third generation to live in Cajixay, his family did not own its own land. As a boy, Benjamin would join his father at the large coastal farms working as a wage laborer.

Life on those farms was difficult,” he remembers, years later. “We always left Cajixay healthy and strong and returned home weak and sick.”

Today, Benjamin no longer has to live the life of a day laborer. Since Agros offered credit for land for his community 5 years ago, Benjamin has been cultivating his own land.

I, Benjamin, am the first man in my family in three generations to own land,” he humbly says.

benjamincatarina1.jpgTo help earn extra income, Catarina has involved herself in a weaving project with Agros where she is learning to improve the cost efficiency of her already excellent weaving skills.

But Benjamin and Catarina were not satisfied just to improve skills they already possessed. They wanted to learn more. So when it came time to build new, permanent houses in Cajixay, they saw an opportunity to broaden their skill sets. Rather than just watch the house being built, Catarina and Benjamin had the Agros staff teach them how to actually build these structures. Now Catarina and Benjamin are earning additional income by building homes for other families in the village!

Since then, they have also learned how to construct a new type of stove, which they are also being hired to build.  Slowly but surely, they are ensuring that each home in Cajixay has an improved stove.

benjamin-and-family.jpgWe are so grateful for our American brothers who have helped to make the work of Agros possible and who visit Cajixay. With all of the support and love we have received, we are able to move forward.

“Fight to improve your lives”

The full participation and involvement of the people we serve is fundamental to the mission of Agros. Paola, a 19-year-old woman from Cajixay, Guatemala, has worked as an Agros promoter since 2006. Her passion to improve the lives of the poor has helped many women in Guatemala. She is currently studying Social Work at the University of Santa Cruz.

paola1.jpg“Agros began to work with Cajixay in 2002, and I have seen many changes since then, both in the lives of my family and in the whole community. My family has its own house for the first time!”

In November 2006, Agros offered Paola a job as a promoter of the textiles and weaving project. “I teach women how to improve their products and how to sell them more effectively. I work with all the Agros villages in the area, including Cajixay. It is a privilege to help the women in my own community. I am even teaching my mother!”

With the money that she earns, Paola pays for her studies at the university. “I work Monday through Friday for Agros, and I attend classes on Saturdays in Santa Cruz del Quiché. Saturdays are long days; I leave my house at 4 in the morning and return at about 10 at night, but it is worth the effort.”

paola2.jpgPaola is studying social work, and her dream is to continue helping the people in her community and in all of Guatemala. “I love my work!” she says.

Paola’s deep conviction to help the poor are reflected in these words, “I want to urge all you who read this – fight to improve your lives. And if you don’t have your own struggles, fight to improve other people’s lives.”

“Agros has given me hope and a life of opportunity”

The story of Agros is written by people who dare to overcome their limitations with hope and hard work.  These are people who, when given encouragement and opportunity, stand up with strength and hope that their dreams can be fulfilled even after poverty has worn their hearts away. 

This is the story of Mario, a leader of the Agros village Brisas del Volcán in Honduras.

mario1.jpgFor most of his life Mario rented land to grow corn and beans to feed his family. Making less than three dollars a day, he struggled to provide for all their needs. “I was constantly in debt at the local market, so any money I made during the week was already spent.” Whenever his family ran out of food, Mario would go into the mountains in search of bananas or roots to eat. “We had to make sacrifices because we didn’t have any money.”

One day Rosa, Mario’s wife, heard about Agros and after meeting with the Agros staff, she and Mario began to search land for their community. “We approached landowners, but they didn’t believe that we could afford to buy our own land, so they would chastise us, calling us ‘dirt-eaters,’ and dismiss us.

But Mario and Rosa would not give up. In 2006, they organized a group of families and started Brisas del Volcán. “We were so happy when we started this village. We began by producing the coffee that was already growing in the fields and then we learned new ways to improve the production of basic grains.”

Agros has also given them financial and technical support for sustainable agriculture. “This is helping us succeed and pay for our land.”

Two years into this journey, Mario’s village is producing organic coffee, raising cattle, and diversifying their crops.

Living in Brisas del Volcán has transformed our lives. Owning land has improved our relationship with God and with people. I was even able to provide for my daughter’s education, who graduated with a technical degree in management. I have food to eat, I’ve paid off my debts and I have money in my pocket to pay for our everyday needs. I see a whole new realm of possibility for my life, and I realize that I am capable of reaching my goals. Working with Agros has given me hope and a life of opportunity for my family.”

A Legacy of Hard Work

008-nicolas-grandkids.jpg In the 1800’s a K’iche Mayan man left his home in Quetzaltenango in search of a new life.  Don Pablo Itzep Utuy settled in the beautiful region of Ixil, Guatemala in a little village then called Asich.  There the mist clings to the green hills and the soil is rich for planting.  Ten families were living in the village at the time and they welcomed him into their community.

The village of Asich grew, as did the family of Don Pablo. When he passed away, Don Pablo left his portion of the land to his son, Don Nicolás. Don Nicolás continued to live on the land with his family until the year 1981 when the unrest and violence that had been spreading through Guatemala for twenty years finally reached the Ixil.  It was a time of terror for everyone.  Throughout the Ixil over 200,000 men, women, and children were killed in a literal genocide.  Entire villages were destroyed, forcing families into exile and despair.  Don Nicolás, his family, nearby neighbors — they all abandoned their houses and moved away together, hoping for safety in numbers.

Many years of hardship passed before Don Nicolás and those who fled with him were finally able to return to their land.  Upon returning after the war, the land land was given a new name. They called it “San Nicolás” after Don Nicolás himself, and the area became its own village. There was not much to return to, however. Many of the houses had been burned to the ground. Very little was left. They began to rebuild their homes, but huddled them together under order of the Guatemalan military. This was so  the soldiers could keep a close watch on the village families. The military also implemented civilian patrol groups, requiring the men to carry weapons and “protect” the people from guerrilla soldiers and the “rebels” living in the mountains. Life both during and after the war was very hard. The people were poor and resources were scarce.

In the 1990’s the war finally and officially ended and military soldiers relinquished their control over San Nicolás. Little by little the people worked to rebuild their community. In the year 2000 Don Nicolás purchased more land, adding to his family’s holdings.

In 2004 the partnership between Agros and San Nicolás officially began.  Agros purchased a plot of land for cultivation not too far from San Nicolás and the families are  working towards paying for the land — one day they’ll own it outright.  With the help of Agros the people have also learned to diversify their crops. They now plant a variety of fruits and vegetables. This is the third year that San Nicolás is cultivating peas, actually exporting them to other countries.  This pea project enables the families to pay back their land loans, buy cows or other animals, or start up other small businesses.

With Agros’ help the families of San Nicolás have gained access to potable water and have created a running water system, as well as now having efficient cook stoves and and composting latrines.  This all contributes to the communities health and well-being.

Today, Don Nicolás is 88 years old. His dream is to live to see 100, and like his father before him, leave behind a home and legacy for the next generation.  Don Nicolás is a living example of ‘Land, Hope, and Life’ becoming real.

Empowerment

Partnership with Agros means more than loans and projects. At Agros we define poverty as ‘broken relationships’, and for the rural poor you can measure this. Relationships are broken as men and young boys leave their families and work for months in coffee or sugar plantations, or when mothers migrate to other countries seeking jobs… relationships break down for the poor when economic, health, education, environmental, cultural structures all break down.

Our development model is focused on restoring broken relationships, in ways that can be measured. We do this not by offering charity, but by empowering families to work their own way out of poverty. Attitudes and outlooks are transformed as opportunities are offered and families steadily create new realities of hope, organization and participation. Here is how Andrés, from the Agros village ‘Espinal Buenavista’ explains it:

andres1.jpgAndrés is an indigenous Tsotsil from Bochil, a municipality of Los Altos in Chiapas, Mexico, and when he moved to the Agros community ‘Espinal Buenavista’ he dedicated himself to working the land and using micro loans (enterprise loans) offered by Agros to raise livestock, particularly pigs.

“Agros has always been honest with us, stating very clearly from the beginning that they are not a charity; they provide us with loans and training.  The truth is they have followed through on this with us.”

Andres and many others in Espinal Buenavista are being given an opportunity to use their skills to help their families escape poverty. Though his community has worked with other organizations, no other NGO or governmental organization has provided the scope of opportunity that Agros has. “We feel a strong, trusting relationship with Agros – with the field staff, directors, and partners. Agros is a flexible organization, the first that has made it easy for us to use long term loans and community organization to improve our lives.”

andres.jpgAndrés concludes, “Our community is now open to building relationships with people outside of Espinal Buenavista – this is new for us. We are united, and everyone participates and enjoys coming together for meetings. In this way, we are organized and the families are truly happy… we are content.”

On Struggle and Gratitude

Distress and struggle are circumstances we all face during our lifetime. For some of us this looks like illness, life transition, or the loss of a loved one. For many others, these struggles are related to the uncertainty of having food on the table, a place to work, the loss of home, or the daily impossibility of living with simple dignity because its been stripped away.

Whatever the degree of our struggle, we all can relate to the relief that comes with tangible opportunity to overcome desperation. This is the story of José Ángel and his journey to fulfill his dream.

joseangelportraitthumb1.jpg“We used to live in a community called Pancasan, on a little plot of land that belonged to my mother. However, four siblings plus our wives and children shared this place, so I decided to look for a piece of land where I could settle my family. When I began my search it was hard to find a loan to buy a plot of land. That is how I ran into people who told me about Agros. I thought it was a great opportunity and Agros staff visited me and invited me to a meeting where they explained their development model to us. I thought it was a good process so I signed up for the project. Nine months later, with the support of service teams who visited us from the US, we began building a well for drinking water. It was a beautiful and unforgettable experience.

joseangel.jpgAfter the well was finished, we began building our homes. Although a difficult endeavor, it was an extraordinary experience, and we continued persevering, motivated by the hope of finally having a beautiful and decent home!

We moved to our homes in June of 2001, and until this day I cannot fathom that I have a house when I see it. It seems that it is not mine, because even when I always dreamed of a well-built and beautiful house I could not imagine the possibility of owning it because I come from a very difficult economic situation. I am grateful to God -who used Agros – to make the dream of my life come true.

My life has changed, my mindset has been transformed — my situation has been improved. I’m grateful and very hopeful. Thanks be to God, and thanks to Agros!

joseangelhouse.jpgMy name is José Ángel and Modesta is my wife. We have four children and we have a great vision for the future of our community.”

Challenging Despair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 Miles and Keeping Faith

felipe1.jpgEvery sacrifice has its rewards…” says Felipe as he tells the story of how he came to realize the dream of owning a home for his family and improving their lives.

Felipe’s journey began in 1998, when he moved his family to Costa Rica seeking to obtain a job that would allow them to earn enough money to own a house. However, because he was from Nicaragua he was treated like a foreigner in a strange land, and he was subjected to unfair wages and constant discrimination.

As Felipe recalls, “They treated us very badly; we would not receive a fair salary because we didn’t have the appropriate work permits. I went to Costa Rica with great hope, asking for nothing more than an opportunity to work and go back to my homeland and to my family having something to offer; yet I went back with empty hands… I was sad, but I said to myself — Felipe, do not give up on your dreams.”

Once he was back in Nicaragua, Felipe heard about the possibility of joining the new Agros village development project in San Marcos de Belén. This was his hope and dream! To be given the opportunity to work for his own land.

Felipe shares, “I’ve always prayed with my wife and kids, and we would ask to the Lord not to forget us. I have always been faithful and I knew that with hard work and faith in God, we’d one day get a house – and land.

When we started getting organized for the new village. I prayed to the Lord and said ‘I will fight hard for this opportunity, but you are the one who has the last word on this’, because I saw that there were so many families in need…

I had to walk 25 miles back and forward to San Marcos de Belén, because I didn’t have the money to pay for the bus; my income was hardly enough to provide food for my children. It was a big sacrifice – it took me 7 hours to walk to the first Agros meetings; It was hard, I was assaulted a few times because it was dark by the time we were done with the meetings. I used to walk on dark roads without having eaten, because I seldom had food to eat, I’d first make sure that my wife and kids would have enough to eat. My wife, she always supported me, and of the little food we had, she would always wait for me until I came home late at night with food she cooked or saved from her own plate. But these hardships did not stop me and now that I look back, I thank God for the strength he gave me…

Now I remember all of that like beautiful memories, because those difficulties helped me accomplish what we have now. Before I had just hope, eagerness to struggle, and my family, but also immense poverty, suffering, and a hard life. Now I have my family living happily in their own home, I have land to work, and in a few years, I’ll be able to pay off the land. Now I have a community that supports me; I have neighbors and I live among friends. I’m grateful to Agros because now I can read, I know how to sign my name, maybe not very well, but I’ll get better at writing in the same way my life has gotten better. This is all a blessing from God”.

Musical Bridges

The following is a story written by Tania, our Human Development Coordinator in El Salvador.
“Huracán Mitch” in Tenango, El Salvador

hurricanes3.jpgThree guitars and one bass, all of them crafted by Viviano, come alive in the hands of their skilled players. Setting up the beat, “The Hurricanes” begin the show.

The band members, Angel, José Luis, Viviano and Arturo, they all share an immense love for the land, the community, and music. A few years ago they decided to put together this band in San Diego Tenango, Cuscatlan.

“We wanted to start this band because we felt that it was important for the community to welcome our friends from overseas, to participate in the parties and, who knows, to become known abroad and maybe to be famous one day!” comments José Luis, featuring a big smile while proudly telling the origins of his band.

The name “Hurricanes” came up as a joke to make reference to the enthusiasm and excitement that this band inspires in the crowd when they play their songs, mostly northern “corridos” and worship songs, or “coritos” as they are called in Central and South America.

hurricanes1.jpgRecently, an Agros “Journey With a Village” team from University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in Seattle visited the community to share, support, and work alongside the families in the village.

As part of the welcoming celebration, The Hurricanes received the UPC volunteers with cheerful songs, to show the gratitude of the community towards their new visitors. Soon after the volunteers entered the celebration, one of their members, Mitchell or “Mitch”, grabbed his own guitar and without saying a word got up on the stage and started playing along with the band trying to follow the chords.

From that moment on, and during the whole stay of the UPC serving team, The Hurricanes had a fifth member, and among the jokes and laughs from the community, they were re-named as “Hurricane Mitch”.

hurricanes2.jpg

The experience of musical exchange and integration was enriching for the band as well as for the volunteers, and demonstrated in a very simple and compelling way that no matter language, age, or social condition, we all can share a moment of communion and receive more than what we give away – a theme that continues to resonate in so many ways in all of our Agros villages.

Emerging Leaders in Nuevo San Miguel, Mexico

veronica1.jpgVeronica is a 27-year-old indigenous woman from Nuevo San Miguel, Mexico. She is the mother of 5 children and the wife of Juan. Veronica has been working with Agros since the very beginning of 2004, and her family has received several enterprise loans from Agros to fund different initiatives such as a small weaving business and an irrigation system. Juan and Veronica also received a loan from Agros to start a nixtamal mill to make tortillas, which allows Juan to be closer to his family.

Veronica has developed great weaving skills, and she is very excited working with other women in the productive projects facilitated by Agros. While Veronica hardly speaks any Spanish, she manages to share her weaving skills with other women, and has also created space in her backyard to start a collective bird-breeding project with the rest of the women. This bird farm will provide eggs and meat for local consumption and trade.

veronica.jpgVeronica’s fellow workers describe her as a quiet and analytic woman who is eager and able to share her knowledge with everyone. For them, Veronica is an example of empowerment and participation.

Veronica comments:

I am very proud of being the mother of my children — I have beautiful children.  I’ve learned to support myself working with my own hands; surely Agros has supported me.  It is because of Agros that I have made it through.  Thank God that there is an organization like Agros that teaches us to work and not to wait.”

“It Appeared Impossible, But I Was Able to Do It.”

Aduana Dos, Nicaragua, Plantain and Irrigation Project Story

aduanados9021.jpg“It is hard to believe that I was actually able to repay my loan,” says Don Agustín, 41-year old husband to Señora Rosa, 37, and father of five. He shakes his head in wonder as he recalls the results of his first plantain harvest from the parcel of land he received through Agros International Nicaragua.

Don Agustín is an inspiration to many in the village of Aduana Dos, an Agros village located 40 kilometers from the capital city of Managua. Hopeful to obtain a piece of his own land on which he could live and work, Don Agustín attended an Agros meeting in 2003 after friends encouraged him to begin a new phase in life. He heard from Agros that it was possible to leave poverty behind, and achieve the dream of land ownership.

After several meetings with the Agros staff, Don Agustín realized an important truth: Corn and beans are good for making tortillas and bean dishes on a daily basis, but are not sufficient to grow financially and move forward as a family.

ad10-version-2.jpgThe Agros team began working with Don Agustín and the other farmers of Aduana Dos, strategizing on planting new crops. They quickly decided that the plantain, a popular product in the local market, would be a great option. “But how will this work if we have no experience planting plantains? And the debt that goes along with all this? It’s impossible!” Don Agustín thought. Though the plantain had proved itself as a profitable crop in the markets and was shown to have several market advantages in recent agricultural studies, Don Agustín thought he should give the idea some thought, so he asked for some time before making his final decision to move forward.

The time came for Don Agustín to make his decision as to whether or not he would cultivate plantains on his parcel, or to just continue with the familiar crops of beans and corn. Though he had never felt as anxious about any other decision, he decided to move forward in faith. He assumed a loan of $547 to sow 750 seeds on an area of 0.6 acres. He and the rest of the villagers installed an irrigation system and acquired the necessary materials. The conditions on the loan stated that repayment was to be made within two years.

Despite being a new and experimental crop in the region, the farmers demonstrated dedication and care throughout the entire process of weeding, removing leaves, fertilizing, irrigating and facilitating the first production cycle. Sure enough, the plantains were an enormous success! The harvest was extremely well received in the market and provided a solid income for the participating families.

aduanados655-version-2.jpgThe first thing Juan Agustín did with his profits was to repay the debt of his loan — a year early! Don Agustín had not believed that he was capable of such an incredible accomplishment in his life! He always remembers the difficult times when the struggled with the production cycles of corn and beans.

Today, Don Agustín is emotional as he shares about the results of this project. He now plans to make more payments on his land loan and his house with the profits from the sale of the next harvest of plantains.

Don Agustín shares how the following elements are what have made this project successful:

• The acquisition of the necessary technical knowledge to operate cultivation and to obtain expected results,
• The acquisition of economic resources necessary for the purchase of material and equipment for irrigation systems,
• The development of training and ability to market his products, and
• The farmer’s marketing of 0.6 acres of plantains valued at $2,000, taking account for irrigation costs.

picture-1.jpgDon Agustín has a new optimism and confidence in life. He has a new faith in the future and is eager to listen to further proposals and recommendations from the Agros team. Today Don Agustín considers himself as having made a huge step closer toward the vision he and Agros share for the future of Aduana Dos. It is their dream to achieve lasting economic sustainability, and to truly harness and develop all of their God-given potential.

In the words of Don Agustín,

I’ve now learned that nothing is impossible.”

Working Together in El Salvador

Here are two stories from El Salvador about the power of community collaboration and service:

El Milagro, El Salvador

el-milagrosustainability61-version-2.jpgThrough productive initiatives that will allow villagers to generate more income, Agros El Salvador is working hard to empower collaborative work in the communities. In the village of El Milagro, 8 farmers decided to engage in a collective effort to cultivate 4,000 golden pineapple plants. This enterprise involves the equal distribution of tasks, responsibilities, expenses, and profits, as well as the technical training gained through the planting of new crops in the area. The members of this project feel that they can achieve greater possibilities of success in the growth and commercialization of crops if they work together.

La Esperanza, El Salvador

la-esperanzaland36-version-2.jpgDon Balbino lives in the community of La Esperanza and serves as the coordinator of the community producers. Through the years in this position, he has gained the respect and validation as a community leader not only in La Esperanza, but also in the neighboring community of San Diego.
Because of his active participation, experience, and dedication, Don Balbino has been able to support and train the less experienced families through orientation and collaboration in farm activities. He has become a great support for the Agros El Salvador staff. Don Balbino has demonstrated a selfless spirit of service towards his neighbors, taking on the training of 3 farmers from non-Agros villages who are interested in growing new crops of tomatoes and sweet chili. Don Balbino is an example of selflessness and servant hood – in other words, he is a true leader.

One family in Nicaragua – A Life of Opportunity

Agros Family of José Angel Villalobo and Modesta Magadalena Chávez
Futuro del Mañana, Nicaragua

Carpentry in Futuro, NicraraguaThe family of José Ángel Villalobos, 44, and his wife Modesta Magdalena Chávez Chávez, 44, is an exemplary case of overcoming the grips of poverty. This young and entrepreneurial couple, including their four hard-working sons, has earned the trust and admiration of many through their creative solutions, service towards those less fortunate and commitment to repaying their land loans.

Five years ago, the idea to hand-craft rustic wooden beds for his family dawned upon José. Seeing the natural beauty and excellence of his work, neighbors became interested in purchasing his beds — beginning a new commercial opportunity for José. Ever since, José and his family have been seeking to build upon their skills and expand to other hand-made wood products. José’s oldest son Roberto enrolled in a nearby carpentry workshop where he learned to refine his designs and how to use industrial equipment. Following the workshop, Roberto shared what he learned with his father and brothers. As they perfected their techniques, their family income began to increase, improving their overall quality of life.

In 2005 José’s family was presented with the opportunity to take a loan through Agros to acquire carpentry machinery and move into a more competitive market. The family decided to take the risk to expand their infrastructure with a loan, and with these new tools, José and his sons increased the quality and design of their work, again improving their economic circumstances, but to a much greater degree. With this advancement, the family has been able to not only repay loans on the machinery, but make payments on their land and improve the production of their basic grains and small livestock as well.

Despite the success of their enterprise, the insecurity of decreasing demand for wood products still exists for José’s family, as expressed by one of his sons, “Every day it’s harder to find wood to use. So we need to go to school so that in case we are forced to look for another type of work, we can have a job in another field.”

Fortunately, José and Modesta know the importance of education. Envisioning a better life for their sons, José and Modesta were led to invest their own lives in their children’s education. Their sacrifice is paying back as all four are currently attending or have completed higher level studies.

Daniel de los Santos is now in his third year of college studying Agriculture Engineering and José Ismael is in his fourth year. Douglas and Roberto Enrique, having passed their final exams, recently graduated from high school.

Modesta, although not extensively involved in the carpentry business, has made a lasting impression through her leadership skills and sacrifice. Serving on the community’s development committee as Treasurer and caring for the sick and elderly through the church she leads with her husband. Through these roles, as well as her concern for the well-being of her family, have returned to her the trust and admiration from the entire community.

Together, Modesta and José, along with their four sons, form a strong family that has brought their community and many others hope that they too, can experience a life of opportunity.

Serbando

Many of you who are a part of the larger Agros family have either met or heard of Serbando, from the Agros Village “La Esperanza”, in Guatemala. I’ve had the privilege of spending several days with Serbando over the last year, interviewing him on video, taking walks, sharing stories. I do not know anyone who has come away from a conversation with Serbando unchanged. He has a capacity to see and speak of unnoticed insights and truths, with deep compassion. The following interview with Serbando was taken and translated by Brian and Jeannette Prosser.

Serbando“My name is Serbando. I was born in a village called Jua, near Chajul. My dad had land there where he cultivated coffee and sugar cane. My brothers and I worked alongside him in the fields. Things were pretty good, until the war came in 1982. Then we had to abandon everything and run for our lives. We escaped with only the clothes on our backs, leaving behind our house, dishes, tools, clothes, and our animals. The coffee was ripe for harvest, but we had to leave it all.

We went to stay with my grandma in Sotzil, and there struggled to survive. We could not go home to Jua because the guerillas had destroyed the bridge which was the only access into the village. We passed the time in Sotzil in deep poverty; struggling just to have food and clothing. We could not even go out walking because the guerrillas were always roaming about. My dad had a tiny store where he sold goods like sugar, salt, and soap. We lived off those earnings.

Soon we received word that they were going to burn Sotzil too. My older brother arrived and said, “If you want to stay alive, you have to leave right away and come to the plantation with me.” So, we gathered what little we had and headed for a plantation named The Pearl. Those were the most difficult months of the war. It was not safe for people to gather together, and all the time we saw dead bodies left along the roadsides or next to their houses. It was during this sad time that both of my younger brothers died from something we call “susto.” Basically, they were literally stricken with fear, their bodies swelled, and they died. We were full of grief and despair, but the war marched coldly on. Then we received the horrible news that the army had assassinated my mother’s parents. After shooting them all, the army surrounded the house and lit it on fire with five bodies inside; my grandparents, my uncle and aunt, and their five year old little boy.

My family eventually moved back to Sotzil, and in 1989 I left to join the army. I was stationed in Santa Cruz del Quiché and that is where I met my wife, Ana. We got married and in 1994 I left the army. We moved to Ana’s hometown of San Juan Cotzal, where we lived with her parents. I tried to find work, but I did not really have a skill or an education. Once the war arrived, no one thought about the future. It was enough to focus on trying to survive just that day, so I did not go to school when I was young. This made it really hard to find a good job. I ended up working as a mason’s helper, but I only made 10 Quetzales ($1.20) a day. I’m not sure how we survived, but thank God we did —- with hunger pangs, that’s for sure. Later we found a house to rent apart from Ana’s family.

Serbando’s FamilyThen one day I overheard someone saying that Agros was looking for people to integrate into a village. I wanted to be a part of that, so I went to the office to find out how I could become involved. In the year 2000, we officially began La Esperanza, and the new community members elected me president. Building La Esperanza was a slow process, but today it is a beautiful place. My family now has our own home, which I am constantly expanding on and improving. During the building process, Agros recognized my masonry skills and asked me to help teach others in the village how to properly build their homes. Later my work with Agros expanded into other building projects throughout the Ixil. Then in January 2007, Agros hired me as a fulltime employee. I am now a promoter for basic infrastructure and I am working on the creation of a large development center for Agros.

One of most beautiful things about Agros is how they care about the whole person. They do not want us to just have houses to live in and land where we can grow food. They care about who we are as people — physically, mentally and spiritually. I am very thankful for the role that Agros has and is playing in my life. I am very blessed and happy. My life has not been easy, but I know that God has been with me through it all. For that, I am very thankful!”

Catarina

Brian and Jeannette Prosser are a volunteer couple working for Agros in the Ixil region of Guatemala. Their year long volunteer project has been focused on documenting stories and personal histories of Agros villagers throughout the Ixil. We’ll be posting a variety of these over the next months. Here is a first story:

Catarina“My name is Catarina. I was born in San Juan Cotzal during the 1940’s, but I grew up in Santa Avelina. As a little girl, I only went to school for two years. When I knew the alphabet and could write my name, my mother told me that I could not study anymore. It was time for me to work. All of my life I have felt sad that my mother didn’t give me the opportunity to continue my studies. I have felt like this is a disadvantage in my life; that maybe I do not know very much or that I am not as smart as others because I only went to school for two years.When I was ten years old my parents sent me to work on the coffee plantation with my father and three brothers. Life on the coffee plantation was very hard. The only good thing about it is that I learned to speak some Spanish. When people were speaking in Spanish, I would pay close attention and listen to what they were saying. That is how I taught myself to speak the language. But I suffered a lot living and working on the coffee plantation. I thought I found an escape from that life when I met Nicolás. He was eighteen at the time, and I was only fourteen, but we got married. Maybe I suffered even more as his wife. We were only married two years and then I left him. He drank all of the time and he beat me. So I took our baby girl, Griselda, and went back to live with my parents.

When I was eighteen, I fell in love and married a man named Gabriel. Oh, those were wonderful years! Gabriel was so good to me. He never drank, never hit me, and he cared for Griselda like she was his own child. We were married over seventeen years, and we had six more children together. We lived in the village of Cajixay.

Then in 1980 violence broke out in the Ixil. One day, I was in San Juan Cotzal taking care of my mother who was sick. Gabriel was at home with our kids. Early in the morning guerilla soldiers arrived at our house. They killed Gabriel. Our children watched it happen. Soon after all of Cajixay was destroyed. They burnt it to the ground and left us with nothing. In order to survive, I took my younger children and went to the coffee plantation. There I would work for several months at a time, earning all of the money that I could. On pay day, I would come back to the Ixil and give the money to Griselda and her husband, who were working to rebuild a home for us. I never returned to live in Cajixay, but stayed in San Juan Cotzal, and went to work on the coffee plantation every several months.

The 1980’s were really hard years for me. I lost my husband, I lost my home, and I lost two of my little boys —one to the measles and another in a horse accident. But God was always watching out for me. In 1989, I married for the third time. Pedro and I have been together ever since. He has helped me to survive.

Now we live in the Agros village of Belén. I am so thankful to be here! We have a home, a place to grow our food, and a little bit of forested land where we can gather firewood. (Before we had to buy firewood.) Agros has helped us a lot and I am very grateful. Probably, the best thing I have received from Agros is learning how to work the land: how to plant, cultivate and reap a harvest. Pedro and I are working as part of the pea project. With the money I earn, I am helping to pay for my grandson’s studies at the university. Today, I am proud to say that all twenty-two of my grandchildren are receiving an education. That has been a dream of mine, something that I was denied as a child. It makes me so happy to see all of my grandchildren studying, and I hope someday when I am even more old and gray that they will all take care of me. I praise God for all the blessings in my life—- for my family, my home and that we now have the things we need. I am very blessed and happy.”

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