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).
"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.
WANT TO GET INVOLVED?
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: http://www.globalgiving.com/pr/900/proj879a.html
Agros: Take a minute (or three) and cruise the Agros site – www.agros.org. 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.