Sean Rawson :: Nicaragua
I have the privilege of already having a connection with the NGO I am working with for my IDIP internship. I'm spending my time at the Nicaragua office of a Seattle-based NGO called Agros International, and since I interned in the Seattle office over the summer, I already knew some of the staff and had a general idea of the work Agros does. I got to my internship first thing Monday morning, January 5th, and really hit the ground running. I met all the staff (there’s about 16 or 17 in the Nica office) and I was extgrateful that one of the directors from the Seattle office happened to be in town who I know from my internship up there over the summer. I would have been okay on my own, but she really helped me settle in and make me feel comfortable…anyhow, that afternoon, she, three of the Nicaraguan staff and I all left Managua to go visit three of the villages Agros works in. These three were all located in the northern coffee growing region of Matagalpa-beautiful countryside, it actually reminds me a little bit of my home state of Oregon in some ways. We visited the first village and saw the agricultural projects they have started there, as well as talking with some of the villagers about the latest developments there. We also saw a ‘composting latrine.’ It’s a latrine that has little if no odor, and the solid waste is dried out and then can be used as compost…pretty awesome I think! We went to another village that night where we slept in an old rickety house. These villages are generally made from land bought from old “fincas” or plantations, usually coffee in the Matagalpa region. This old house was like the old plantation house, and was kind of falling apart, but the villagers still use it as a community center. Anyway, we toured that village, San Jose, the next morning, and then made our last way to the final village of the tour later that day. The next day was made up of more village visits, but this time to the southern part of Nicaragua. We saw one village where Agros has been working for several years, and then another that is just in the beginning process. They haven’t actually found land to buy yet, so the Agros staff led an intriguing discussion about possible options for the community to look at. It’s actually a pretty daunting or overwhelming decision to make for these villagers if you think about it…these are people who have lived on little more than a few dollars a day (if that) and are all of a sudden considering making a major loan of thousands of dollars to buy land. The idea is that with the help of Agros, they will be able to develop it (in a sustainable way), eventually be able to pay off the land, and then finally own it themselves. Anyhow, it was incredible to watch these people struggle with the idea of taking on this huge commitment and watch the staff try to explain the process to them, how it would be a lot of hard work but that Agros would be with them along the way.
I’m going to be working on a variety of projects for Agros, but the main one will be a “systematization” of their model to put down on paper exactly what goes on in the process of forming and implementing a village. So that will call for plenty of village trips, which is great as far as I’m concerned! To tell the truth, I’m happy to get out of the heat and urban sprawl of Managua as much as I can. I didn’t realize before I came, but apparently I’m going to be here in just about the hottest time of the year. Their summer here is pretty much February through April, so I’ll be getting the worst of it near the end of my trip…part of the challenge I guess. Nevertheless, a good Seattle rainfall is going to feel great in late March J! My second week here in Nicaragua, I spent most of the time back up in Matagalpa (it’s about a three hour drive to the north of Managua). Monday was spent in the office preparing for a survey to give to the families, and we did that during the village visits Tuesday through Thursday. The survey is basically designed to find out how they came into contact with Agros, what the process of forming the village was like, and what their experiences are so far. We also did another census survey in the most recently established village, Nuevas Esperanzas (New Hope). Agros does this with each new village they start to know how many families there are, how many kids each family has, how many go to school, what kinds of crops they’re farming, what their housing is like, etc. They then do it two years down the road to compare and hopefully see improvements or find areas that need more work.
The highlight of the Matagalpa trip that week for me was a “taller” or a workshop that one of the Agros staff, Ernesto, did with the villagers in Nuevas Esperanzas. This one was designed for only the men in the village, and next week we’ll do one with the women, and also with the elected leadership council of the village. The focus was on decision making in each family, and I helped Ernesto set up an activity in which each of the men would vote on who makes a certain kind of decision, deciding between “señora” “señor” or “ambos” (both). They decisions included questions such as who chooses if the children in the family will go to school, who makes decisions about what crops to plant, and who makes decisions about taking out micro-credit loans. We made a box for them to vote in, put them under pictures of a señora, a señor and both together for those who couldn’t read, and had them all line up outside the community center room we were holding the workshop in. They each used a small rock to vote and came in individually to vote for one of the three choices. It was fascinating to watch them get totally immersed in the excitement of voting, and also intriguing to see how the votes resulted based on the category of decision-making. As far as I understand it, we will do the same thing with the women to see how that compares…pretty cool stuff if you ask me!
It’s hard to believe I’m finishing up my final week of my IDIP internship with Agros International in Nicaragua. What an inspirational, unforgettable, and thoroughly enjoyable experience! There have certainly been challenges, but all things considered I feel I have learned more and more every week. I’ve come to understand the work Agros does with the rural poor in Central America and Mexico, to learn about different approaches to development work, and to learn about myself-how I am challenged, what makes me uncomfortable, what inspires me and in what ways I want to extend this international development internship experience to other areas of my life and future goals.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to say that I have gotten out in the field to see the work Agros does each of the ten weeks I have been here. Generally, I’ve spent the early part of the week in the Agros office in the capital city of Managua, and mid-week I’ve been able to travel with the staff out to the villages where they work in the rural areas as they make routine visits to monitor projects and deliver necessary materials and technical assistance.
Several weeks back, I had the great opportunity to help with a Service Group of Agros donors who came from the Pacific Northwest to visit in the village of San Marcos de Belen-what a rewarding experience! I helped the Agros staff here with some logistical work prior to the visit, but mostly was just present in the village through the week and helped the group with some translating work. I quickly connected with the visiting group and was able to share my experiences of my time here and tell them about Agros villages in other parts of the country. Perhaps most meaningful to me, however, was simply spending such an extended amount of time in one village. I was able to see the relationships form between the group and the village families and watch it grow as the week passed, culminating in an emotional farewell at the end of the week. I myself was able to form strong relationships with the village families who invited the Agros staff and me into their homes throughout the duration of the week.
Besides helping Agros with projects such as hosting donors, the majority of my time has been spent working on a research project for Agros’ Nicaragua office. I was asked at the beginning of my internship to come up with a “systematization” of the development model Agros uses in Nicaragua. The staff here has a solid mental understanding of the how the model they use is employed, but they don’t have any form of written document detailing this process. This was seen as something that could be useful to them as they continue to grow in Nicaragua, as well as for the other countries in which Agros works to learn lessons from the experiences of the staff here. I went about doing this by creating a survey to administer to families in the villages where Agros works in order to understand their experiences of working with Agros, the accomplishments they’ve achieved and the challenges they’ve faced. I also held interviews with Agros staff members and asked lots questions during my frequent visits to the villages in order to understand the various aspects of the Agros model.
The Agros model is a unique and holistic approach to ending rural poverty, one village at a time, with a fundamental focus on land ownership. Agros raises funds to buy land and gives it to landless families as a loan to be paid off over a period of seven to ten years. During this time, Agros has professional agronomists, sociologists, and social workers to work with the families as they develop the land and their village. Their technical assistance enables families to improve agricultural production raising incomes and paying off their land loans so that in the end they own their own land.
With so many of the world’s poorest people dependant on agricultural production, Agros’ emphasis on farming and land ownership is having visible effects on the lives of rural poor here in Nicaragua and in the other countries where Agros works in Central America and Mexico. These past ten weeks have flown by, but the memories of this experience and the lessons learned in one quarter, when I haven’t spent one day in a classroom, have served as one of the most profound educational experiences of my life.