Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ten Billion Hungry Mouths

Laguna Maxbal (lake Maxbal) lies deep in the jungles of Guatemala. It isn´t in any of the tourist guides yet. It is an unspoiled jewel in a wilderness where howler monkeys still roam free. From the misty shores the only sound we can hear is a cacophony of insects and birds. This is a beautiful place. It is wild.

The people in the nearby village of Maxbal recognize the value of the lake. They know that a beautiful spot like this will attract tourist and money. They know that if they cut down the trees or fill the lake with garbage, people will not come. A warden is responsible for protecting the lake and escorting visitors to make sure they don´t leave any trash. There is even a hostel, waiting the day when the first tourists arrive.
Yet despite all this, Maxbal is under enormous pressure. The population of Guatemala is exploding. People need land to feed their families. They need places to live. Places like Maxbal.

Not 30 minutes up the road from Maxbal is the future. A huge wound gapes in the earth. Burnt trees stick out of the tortured ground. A new village is being hacked out of the jungle. There is land here for the landless. To us it looks like hell, but to a landless peasant this is hope.

People with empty stomachs don´t think about the future. They don´t have the luxury of caring about the valuable hardwoods they are burning to grow corn. They don´t have the luxury of caring about sustainability. They care about feeding their children.

If we want to save places like Maxbal, we need to provide alternatives for the rural poor. We need to rethink how we feed the planet. We need to restructure how land is valued so that we no longer cut down rainforests to produce crops which can be grown hundreds of times more efficiently in other places.
As the earth´s population climbs to 10 billion people the waves of humanity will surge ever deeper into the remaining wilderness. Unless we do something soon, places like Maxbal will be swept away forever, or become islands surrounded by a sea of people.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Way Out of Poor

Agros Mexico was our first visit as GlobalGiving Ambassadors. More pictures can be found here.

"We have no education. We have nothing. Our hope for the future is our children. We want them to go to school and learn."

Lara and I are sitting in a tiny church(1) in San Pedrito, Chiapas, Mexico. Antonio speaks to us in Totsil(2) through a Spanish translator. Like most of the people in his village, he speaks very little Spanish. His clothes are torn and his skin and hands show his many years of hard work in the fields. He belongs to the majority of people on this earth that live on less than $1 per day. He is among the poorest of the poor.

In May 2005, the 18 families in San Pedrito lived in shacks constructed of wood slats and plastic tarps over dirt floors. The food they ate(3) didn’t satisfy basic nutritional needs, especially for the children. Meals were cooked on open fires inside the shacks. The women in the village carried untreated water in 90lb containers(4) from a muddy pool 100m away. The local hillsides were deforested to provide cooking fuel.

This isn’t a “pull out your wallet, tear-jerker” story. This is just real life for a lot of people in Mexico. They don’t have much dignitiy and certainly don’t have any hope or any confidence that they can do anything for themselves. Life is a grinding, day to day struggle. Once you feed yourself – that’s pretty much it. There’s no energy left to think about, let alone try to imagine how you might send your kids to school. If you have any reserves left, you’ll probably save them for when your child falls into the fire and you have to walk 10 km to take them to a doctor.

Today the villagers are telling us a different story. The men sit on one side of the church and the women and children sit on the other. When they speak, there is hope in their voices.

"Agros taught us how to work together," says Jose(5). "For three months all of the men in the village worked together on the water system. Not a single one of us left to work outside the village. Agros paid for the materials. They also paid us half of what we would normally have earned working for other people so that we could afford the time to work on the water project. Now we have running water to all our houses."

The water system was the first project that Agros did in San Pedrito. Today we have accompanied Claudia(6) and Marcos(7) on their bi-weekly visit so we can see what has changed.

After our meeting with the villagers, we are taken on a tour of the village. There are piles of adobe bricks everywhere. Following the success of the water system, the villagers realized that they could work together to build better houses. Agros is providing corrugated metal for the roofs, but the villagers making the adobe bricks and are doing all of the construction themselves. Because everyone is working together, the houses are almost being constructed in an assembly line which means everyone should be moving in pretty soon.

"It´s a lot of work sometimes," says Marcos. "When we first come to a community the people are hoping we will just give them what they need. We don´t do that. It would be much easier, but it wouldn´t work. People value what they work for. We work alongside communities. It's a 7-10 year commitment to help a village out of poverty and build social and economic wealth. We teach them how to work together. Everyone has to get involved, both the men and the women. If they won't work together then we can't work with them."

San Pedrito has a school now. It´s a small wooden shack with a dirt floor. The town is too small for a government teacher, but the Mexican government has an excellent program where students that have graduated from secondary school(8) can spend a year or two teaching in a village like this one to qualify for scholarships in their chosen field of study. Agros helped arrange everything and there are now two young men teaching in the one-room school house. It´s a harsh living for the two teachers. They live in a mud shack and are provided only basic food by the villagers. Donations from a church in Cuernavaca help provide some extra support for the teachers.

"Are those Papayas?" I ask as we complete the tour of the village.

"Yes," says Jose, and he calls over one of his children. He lifts his child into the tree and together they pick a couple of Papayas for us. The sole Papaya tree in the village is now surrounded by a new grove of fruit trees. This is another product of Agros, and fitting symbol for San Pedrito. The little fruit trees have a lot of growing to do yet, but the seed has been planted and with a bit of support the future finally looks brighter(9).


After San Pedrito, Espinal Buenavista looks like paradise. Shady branches overhang well-tended yards. The houses have electricity and there is a one room clinic building for the travelling nurse to use. The basketball court is paved, and the school room is much better equipped. But Agros is doing good work here as well.

"The school only goes to grade 6," says Marcos. "Only of children in the village go to secondary school. The nearest secondary school is about 50km away. We have to pay to board them. We are just farmers. We can't afford it."

Lara and I reflect a moment on the commitment it takes to board a 12 year old child in a school 50km away when you grow beans and corn for a living. We take our education for granted, yet here anything past grade 6 requires a minor miracle.

In Espinal, Agros is looking at providing microcredit for the farmers. "We have a variety of crops and livestock. The cows don´t produce much milk and many of our plants don´t do well in this weather. We want to borrow money from Agros so that we can buy better seeds and livestock." The microcredit loan will likely be made to a group of farmers, not individuals. This is not just a financial opportunity. As the farmers work with each other and benefit from the technical advice and coaching from Agros, they will build their community and gain knowledge that will provide a stronger foundation for their future.


San Miguel, the last village are visiting, is a place of where cultural tradition is contributing to poor diet. It’s complex. You can’t just tell people to do things differently. Trust and understanding are required before any meaningful communication can take place. Different cultural backgrounds make finding a common ground very challenging.

I am reminded of our initial meeting with the Agros staff. "We are going to go around the table," explained Sergio, Agros Director - Mexico, "and each person will introduce himself and tell the group what plant or animal he or she identifies with.” At first, I’m not sure of the purpose of this exercise, but Sergio explains an application I hadn’t imagined. “Many of the villagers are very timid,” explains Sergio. “If we just walk up to them and ask for their names then they will look away. But they know plants and animals. It´s how we connect with them. Normally the women are very quiet but when I did this activity I had a woman get very excited and tell us all sorts of interesting stuff about a plant I had never even heard of. It was fantastic."

When people have grown corn and beans for hundreds of years it is hard to get them to consider new crops. As a result San Miguel had such a high rate of malnutrition that the government opened a women’s center to improve nutrition and provide health education. But this is just a stop-gap. "If we closed this center the people would just go back to doing what they did before," the nutritionist tells us. "It's hard to make a sustainable change."

Agros is trying a different approach. They have provided loans of a few hundred dollars to a group of local farmers along with extensive technical support. Agros visits San Miguel regularly to make sure things are going well and to provide additional training and support.

Mariano takes us on a tour of his plot of land. "We are very lucky to have a good water source here." He says. "But most people don´t do much with their land in the dry season."

This certainly isn´t true of Mariano and the other Agros farmers. His small plot has beans, corn, lettuce, radishes, squash, coffee, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, peaches, and other fruit and vegetables we´ve never heard of. "We used to
grow only beans and corn and would occasionally buy some other foods. Now we grow all this and have enough left over to sell."

Of course it isn’t always easy. Agros also helped several families with a Tilapia fish-farming project. Because the families had never famed fish before, Agros provided all the supplies necessary for one Tilapia harvest. There were quite a few families involved and the project was successful – some fish were eaten and the rest were sold. But now, if they want to continue, they have to take out a loan. Not all of the families feel comfortable with the kind of investment risks associated with the 2nd stage of the project. Mariano and three other families would like to continue, but that´s not enough for a successful project. Sergio later tells us, “They have a different rationality. We need to learn from their world and life view.”

The problem of poverty isn´t going to be solved easily. The billions of dollars we've wasted in the last 50 years show that we can't just pay people's way out of poverty. Leaving poverty behind means leaving behind old ways of thinking. It means educating children, building infrastructure, changing diets, and learning how to work together. It also requires extraordinary sensitivity to local cultures. It won´t be easy, but organizations like Agros are stepping up to the challenge.


  1. Faith plays a large part in the lives of Mexicans, particularly in the small villages. Agros promotes spirituality but does not distinguish between religious denominations or believers and non-believers. When we asked the San Pedrito villagers what they needed, one of the things they requested was for their Presbyterian brothers in other countries to pray for them.

  2. Totsil: a local indigenous language

  3. The traditional diet of indigenous peoples consisted mainly of maize (my-`eez: white corn) and frijoles (free-`hoe-less: beans). The quality of the soil in most places can support a wide variety of fruits and vegetables but people aren’t used to eating them as a result of hundreds of years of tradition. Agros spends a lot of time educating and training men and women about the importance of a diverse diet as well as how to cultivate and rotate crops.

  4. The indigenous women in mexico are of short stature (4 – 4 1/2 feet tall). In Mexico, hauling water is considered “women’s work” so these tiny women began to have knee problems from hauling heaving containers of water. One of the the Agros principles is to stress gender equality. The villagers also have a hard time understanding the need to boil water. Traditionally, they don’t boil water because it tastes differently (it is deoxygenated). Again, time is required to educate the villagers about this – either by discussing why children get sick, or showing the villagers a side-by-side comparison of filtered and unfiltered waters so they can see the difference.

  5. Each village in Mexico has a mayor or community leader. Jose is the community leader in San Pedrito.

  6. Claudia is currently completing her Masters in Education in a university in Chiapas. She has been working on the Agros team for two years. Her biligualism in Totsil and Spanish is extremely important because the villagers speak mainly Totsil. As a woman, she provides an alternate role model for women in the village. One of Claudia’s projects is helping to organize a clothing cooperative in the village. Currently, there are 7 women and 1 man that embroider clothing for sale outside the village. The man is the best embroiderer.

  7. Prior to starting with Agros 2 years ago, Marcos had a background in animal husbandry and agriculture. While providing assistance in many areas, his expertise is in training the villagers in crop cultivation and the proper care of livestock.

  8. Secondary school is the equivalent of Grade 7-9 in Canada and the United States.

  9. There doesn’t seem to be an end to the projects the villagers want to tackle. In 2006, Agros loaned $100US to the farmers in the village to buy seeds for beans. The villagers used the seeds, ate some beans, sold some beans and repaid the loan. Agros has provided new smokeless stoves that require 50% less wood. These stoves will also help prevent respiratory illnesses that kill millions of children each year. Right now, the villagers are buildling a community center that can also function as a better school facility, are starting to re-forest the area where they live, and are negotiating with Agros for a loan to buy some additional land.


Global Giving: Global Giving is an innovative charitable organization that allows donors to connect directly with the projects they choose to support. Check out the donation wizard, and the gift certificates (for those friends hard to buy for) after you check out the Global Giving / Agros Village link:

Agros: Take a minute (or three) and cruise the Agros site – We really appreciate the time we spent and all we learned from the Agros staff in the Mexico office. Often one thinks about charitable projects in terms of who is taking and who is giving.

Each office of Agros (Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras) follows the Agros Development Model but is free to determine the methods in which to implement them. In Mexico, the Agros Director, Sergio Sanchez, is training his paid and volunteer staff in “Participatory Development Methods.” This term refers to a model in which the community-in-need is directly involved in determining the types and methods of assistance required.

Agros is a committed organization that is truly responsive to the needs of local communities and seeks to work incooperation with existing govenmental programs and complementary agencies. Agros plans to expand their operations to help other indigenous peoples in Mexico and will proceed with the same respect for traditions and cultures.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Lines of Life, Lines of Destruction

Five years ago Barrias, Guatemala, was the end of the road. It was a lawless, dangerous place where cowboys on horses came to haul goods into the highlands and maybe have a drink or ten. The vehicles in front of the police station all had broken windows from when the townspeople had tried to burn the station down. It was not a place that we were looking forward to returning to.

Today, however, it is unrecognizable. People are friendly, the air of menace has vanished, and we are staying in a shiny new hotel with hot showers and off street parking. The change has been brought about by one of the most powerful forces of change in the world. The road.

There are new roads connecting Barrias to most of the local communities. The hiking trails and horsemen have all but vanished. Instead, a steady stream of Toyota trucks bounce through the jungle, carrying goods and people back and forth.

Roads are a tremendous force for good. They provide people with the freedom to choose where they want to live. They allow families in remote villages access to distant medical care. They connect people to global markets so that they can buy tools ( and Coca Cola). They give people a broader view of the world.

But the corn fields we pass are also a testament to the destructive potential of roads. Five years ago Barrias was surrounded by a dense jungle. Now the roads spread out through the forest like poisonous tentacles. When a road goes into an area, the people follow. Logging companies remove the biggest trees. The rest are simply burned. Tens of thousands of dollars of beautiful forest slashed down and set of fire so that somebody can make a dollar a day growing corn.

I feel so torn. These forests are so beautiful. The colorful highland cultures are so unique. In ten years time, they will both be gone forever. Yet the benefits are undeniable. Even knowing all the costs, if I lived in a remote highland village, I would want a road.