All posts by Steve Sheppard

Steve is CEO of the Winds of Peace Foundation

Planting and Growing the Seed

The Winds of Peace Advisory Committee met last Friday to evaluate the current docket of proposals and recommend funding.  It’s always a dynamic gathering as we discuss the possibilities inherent in small, rural groups that perhaps have never had previous access to project funding. 

One of the proposals that caught our attention was from Nicaragua’s National Union of Agriculture and Ranching (UNAG) in the municipality of San Juan del Rio Coco.  We’ve had other projects in this region, but this one is unique in that it focuses on raising potatoes for seed.  It’s part of UNAG’s Peasant-to-Peasant Program, and it represents the expansion of a pilot project which has been successfully completed there primarily by women farmers.  This is seen as a significant step toward food security for women peasants in the rural sector, as well as an alternative to the coffee mono-cropping which can create land resource problems.  With UNAG’s technical help, these women can potentially create a significant new niche for themselves in the marketplace.

Take a look at the results from one of the pilot project participants and the preparation for the project’s expansion.  We’re excited to be part of this initiative that contains social, economic and environmental components! 

More On Buculmay

Future_offices_of_Pig_coop_Buculmay[1] I related my reactions to our most recent visit to Buculmay Cooperative in my August 19 post, but here’s a bit more.  Parts of this video footage were taken before our visit and parts taken during, but I think it provides an idea of the scope of the project that these women and men have undertaken, as well as the sophistication of the approach.  This will be no small operation and is no small undertaking for the coop, consisting of raising crops for both capital as well as feed, and the animal husbandry that will be required for success.  No wonder they are standing tall and drawing more potential members to the coop!  We’ll continue working with and watching this amazing story as it continues to unfold….

Outhouses and Insights

I wrote a reflection here in May, 2007 about a circumstance facing the Indigenous People of Telpaneca, and how they had been forced to fight the same battle against the municipal and state government with regard to illegal squatters on their land.  One of the actions that had been taken in those days was the construction of several green outhouses on the farm properties, so that the municipal government could claim that the squatters had “improved” the farms and thus had a right to remain.  It seemed a ludicrous argument then and is even moreso now.Nica August 2009 071

The Indigenous have continued to press their claims and rights through every legal means required of them, despite still more of the odious outhouses popping up on the lands as seen here.  (I took this photo from nearly the same spot as in my May 07 entry.)  Their most recent stop was before the Nicaragua Supreme Court just last Friday, as the President of the Indigenous, Jose Benito Basilio, presented a deposition on behalf of his people.  The court will consider the arguments of both sides before rendering its decision within the next months.

This is an important case, not just for Tepaneca, not just for Indigenous people, not even just for Nicaragua.  It’s a case of basic land rights which, if it fails at the Supreme Court level, will almost certainly be taken to the Inter-American Court of Justice for a hearing there.  At its root is the question of how to come to terms with the fundamental conflict between Indigenous patrimony and nationalistic authority.  When Indigenous people exert their ownership of land through titles acquired long before nation-states existed, whose claims to ownership shall prevail? 

The question is one which neither the Niacraguan nor other Inter-American Court governments may wish to defer to an outside court, because the ramifications are far-reaching.  But the Indigenous of Telpaneca have courageously and persistently fought for their lands despite artificial obstacles raised at every turn.   They have not swerved or hesitated in their quest for justice.  They have mobilized their members (1500 in a rally in Telpaneca just 2 weeks ago, without the support of any other Indigenous groups).  Their case is sound and backed by the evidence.  They give meaning to the Margaret Mead observation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

We will watch the proceedings with great interest and hope….

 

Worth the Visit

One of the sites I visited last week was the Buculmay Cooperative, an outgrowth from the Women’s Council of the Indigenous People of Jinotega.  I’ve written before about how abused these women (and some men) were at the hands of the unscrupulous Board President, but take a look at where the coop is now!  They are in the middle of a pig-raising project financed in part by the government, and they are on track to become a model for this activity!  From less-than-obscurity to state-of-the art livestock, and with all of the recognition and self-esteem that such progress brings.

 Nica August 2009 032 Nica August 2009 033

It’s one thing to develop a vision of what you want to become and a mission to specify how to get there.  But it’s another thing altogether to bring those concepts into reality, especially when you’re at the bottom of the pile socially and economically to begin with.  But with patience and a belief in the “rightness” of their independent walk, the Buculmay members are doing just that.

  

   

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From organizing themselves into a coop to learning the basics of collaborative work, as was happening in the above sessions, the members have been eager learners on their own behalf.  Some of the rudimentary business plans they created on their very first attempts were as good as some I’ve seen in mature corporations!  It was during this training session that the government became aware of the unusual extent of education that Buculmay was experiencing.  As a result, the government approached Buculmay with the proposal to manage the pig project!

 

Nica August 2009 047 One of the means by which this project is being funded is through the members’ own contributions, made possible by the crops that are raised and sold (yes, in addition to developing the pig-raising enterprise, these folks have “real” live, too).  Availing themselves of better seeds and fertilizers (not chemicals or GMO stuff), they have vastly improved their harvests.  Just contrast the corn crop in the foreground- grown under traditional means- with the field in the background, using newer methods and more indigenous inputs.  The volume difference is overwhelming, and these women are not necessarily farmers!  This could be Iowa corn!

 

Nica August 2009 036 The residence quarters for the Buculmay pigs is not some ramshackle sty.  With technical and construction advisors provided by the government, this modern facility features gravity-fed self-watering apparatus in each stall, grated floors for automatic removal of wastes, a bio-gas facility to capture waste product gas for fuel, four separate electrical sectors for energy efficiency and more.  Here you can see the installation of the main waterline.

 

Buculmay Coop August 09 I’m no pig farmer, but I know organization and efficiency when I see it.  Subsequent buildings to be constructed in Phase 2 of the project will allow separation of the animals according to maturity and need.  Note Julieta on the left, President of the Buculmay Cooperative and a lynchpin in their development.  With justification, she showed us the facility with extreme pride, undoubtedly recalling those dark days several years ago when everything seemed lost.  She did not imagine this!

 

Nica August 2009 054 This good-bye photo captures only a portion of the membership, but the image is in stark contrast to the group with whom we met those several years ago, who wondered how they might survive socially, economically and in every other way.  They stand taller, their smiles are wider and even the surroundings in which we met are brighter.  There is certain satisfaction, I suppose, when members of your community now seek you out to ask about membership in your coop, and the adversary who has oppressed you is now quiet in the face of your earned status as a credible and important entity in the community. 

Buculmay means “the place where corn becomes ground.” Basic.  Honest.  Of the earth.  It’s evident that this collection of courageous actors is true to its name….

North and South

I am just about to conclude nearly a full month of “hanging out” with a group a Scandinavian educators, here visiting the Luther College campus.  The Scandinavian Institute brings visitors from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland to this middle-of-America location to learn about American history, culture, people and attitudes for nearly a month of immersion.  They headquarter on the Luther campus, where they are exposed to lectures covering such diverse topics as public education, healthcare, the culture of the Amish, Hispanic immigration, philanthropy, Black American experience, Obama’s economic and international challenges, Native Americans, environmental sustainability, the U.S. system of government and religious trends.  It is a month-long crash course on all things American, mixed with lots of opportunities for the participants to travel the region in order to meet and speak with everyday midwesterners. On top of it all, they even get to participate in perhaps the largest summer festival honoring Scandinavian-Americans in the country, the local NordicFest in Decorah.

I’ve been privileged to address groups each of the past two years, talking about Winds of Peace Foundation and the work we do in Nicaragua.  Katie and I have also been favored with the opportunity to host two visitors for dinner each year, part of the program’s “get-to-know-the-locals” effort.  As a result, we’ve been invited to participate in many of the events that our visitors experience while here, a unique opportunity to re-learn about America, to see ourselves through the eyes and experiences of others, and to broaden our own perspectives with regard to how we live here in this country as compared with other places.  All of that within the confines and comfort of our own community, even our own home.

What this annual interaction provides is a reality check of sorts, an occasion to step back and consider our country and society from an outside perspective, always a valuable exercise.  Hearing lectures about American fundamentals reminds us of the foundations of the country and how we have, in some cases, strayed significantly from them.  Hearing questions about American life and lifestyle posed by people who live outside our borders- maybe especially when they have come from another westernized culture- is a sure cure for nationalistic myopia.  We live on a shared earth, so it’s important for us to recognize how everyone sees reality.  And it’s pretty much impossible to do on our own because so much of what we create for ourselves is illusion.

It’s like the familiar eye test: what do you see when you look at this picture: a beautiful, young girl or a haggard, old woman?  The fact is that there is no incorrect answer to the question, only a difference in the ways that we see the very same things.  If all that I have ever seen in this drawing is an old woman, then I am grateful to those who can show me a new view.  It may or may not change the way I see the drawing in the future, but it’s valuable to be able to see it in a new way.  On the other hand, it just may convince me that a different perspective is somehow of even greater value.  But at least I have the benefit of both truths.

Such has been my education over the past several weeks.  Once again, it has been intriguing, educational, introspective and refreshing in a curious way.  It takes me away from seeing the world in status quo and gives me new reasons to feel thankful for the incredible blessings that I have as well as chagrined about that which I have overlooked, both of which are important realizations.  I have discovered that, even without any traceable Scandinavian blood in my heritage, I have a world in common with these guests. Although they traveled here to be educated, they, too, have served as the educators.  I have new insights, new energies, new friends.

The bus will load on Sunday and once again we will head our separate ways.  I experience both happiness and sadness at the prospect: happy to have had the opportunity to make such connections and to grow in the process, sad to lose sight of new friends who have taught me a great deal about myself through their presence.  And as I reflect on the emotions, I am suddenly struck by a sense of deja vu.

This is exactly the way I feel when returning from the south, from Nicaragua and from people who  help me to so clearly see the realities of where we both live.  Each time I pack up to return home, I am happy to be headed back to my family and the lovely community in which I now reside, and yet melancholy at separation from new acquaintances who cultivate my sensibilities so deeply.  Both of these people connections have a feel of circularity, of completeness, of holism, that convince me of the dependence and oneness that define us as human beings.  These are the moments when I am most hopeful for the future, when I see a clear means by which the human condition can be made well and strong, capable of overcoming that which so artificially separates us.

It is far too easy for most of us to avoid such self-confrontations by distancing ourselves- north and south, east and west- from the experiences and perspectives of others who are viewed to be so different than us.  But therein lies the false assumption, the falsehood which prevents us from being fully who we can be and prevents the world from its true identity….

News of the Day

I went to the television for some news this week.

I particularly wanted to see whether pictures from last weekend’s coup d’ etat  in Honduras might be available, especially as I had just been scheduled to be there at the end of May.

Michael Jackson named Diana Ross as the guardian of his children if his mother is unable or unwilling to care for them….

I also wondered what the reaction might be from government officials concerning the rise in unemployment to 9.5%, with another 467,000 more people out of work last month, the worst such numbers since 1983.

Michael Jackson may have consumed as much as $48,000 a month in prescription drugs…

The crackdown in Iran continues to boil and I fear for and cheer the Iranian people engaged in their struggle for voice, so I sought to hear reports from that news-strangled country.

Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch covers 2,800 acres and he paid $30 million for it, though he didn’t live there anymore….

With the Fourth of July creeping up, I hoped to hear something about North Korea’s possible plans for an "event" of some sort on the holiday.

Three of Michael Jackson’s albums are now selling more than any other artist, current or past….

Michael Jackson’s neighbor remembers Michael as a very nice, caring person….

Michael Jackson’s manager says that the singer was in terrific shape for the upcoming tour….

Michael Jackson’s brother says that Michael will be missed….

Michael Jackson’s sister says that he was much more than an icon to her family….

A full five days following the announcement of Michael Jackson’s death, one hour of television news contained 48 minutes of Michael Jackson.  The other 12 minutes were local weather and commercial messages.

Coup d’ etat.  The people of Honduras deserve better than that….

Blessing for the Poor

I’ve been carrying a lovely "blessing" around with me, on the desktop of my computer and in my briefcase, so that I see and contemplate it often.  I obtained it from a young woman who had performed mission work in Central America; she did not know who might have written it.  Frankly, the anonymity makes it almost more poignant than if I knew the writer’s identity.  I like to reflect on the words and their implications. 

             Blessing for the Poor

May we be blessed with                                                                                  discomfort at easy answers, 
half-truths and superficial relationships 
so that we will live deep in our hearts.

         May we be blessed with 
         anger at injustice, oppression, 
         and exploitation of people and the earth. 
         so that we will work for justice, equity and peace.

         May we be blessed with 
         tears to shed for those who suffer  
         so we will reach out our hands to comfort them  
         and change their pain to joy.

        And may we be blessed with 
        the foolishness to think 
        that we can make a difference in this world                                                                          

so that we will do the things which others say cannot be done.

Over the many months in which I’ve carried this, it has served as a reminder to me of the many wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met in Nicaragua.  I have thought of our many partners when reading these lines, calling to mind the immense poverty in which most of them live, the needs to be met, and the tremendous obstacles that prevent them from experiencing all that they are capable of being.  It has made me mindful of the poor, but when I read it again today, it caused me to think about precisely who the poor really are.

For all these months, I have read the blessing from the vantage point of the one blessed, of one who has been granted all the opportunities and material comforts about which any human could reasonably dream.  I have regarded the poor, therefore, as the ones with whom I visit several times each year, in the midst of their overwhelming material needs.  But for whatever reason, today I reversed the roles in this blessing; I was both astonished and mortified at my epiphany! 

Today I read myself in the role of the poor, the one in need, as one who is impoverished.  Not in material ways, but in the ways of the spirit and servanthood.  Instead of seeing myself as a favored one who has the power and the means to bring "rescue" to the needy, I could suddenly discern that my Nicaraguan brothers and sisters are the ones on whom I must lean, to pull myself out from the weight of a life that has been too narrow, self-absorbed and quite oblivious to the real needs in the world. 

This blessing is for the poor.  But I have required months to recognize that the subject of the blessing is each of us.  In our own ways, we are all impoverished and desperately in need of what others can give to us.  Those needs may be material, they may be of the spirit, they may be of the intellect.  But the holistic health of the entire world is dependent upon what each of us gives, not receives.  Poverty is simply the measure of what it is that each of us lacks, and thus, what we need from each other. 

We are all in immense poverty of some sort, having needs to be met, and beset with tremendous obstacles that prevent us from experiencing all that we are capable of being.  It’s funny how familiar words can so suddenly be understood in a very different light, just by virtue of the company we keep….