Category Archives: Territorial Development

Ten Years After, Part 1

There must have been some kind of special “karma” in the air last weekend.  I had an urge to listen to a record album (yes, the kind that are played on a turntable) from the 60’s by a group called Ten Years After, and featuring a song entitled, “I’d Love to Change the World.”  After listening to both sides of the 33 1/3 RPM, I realized that both the song and the group hold special meaning this week: today, October 1, I have worked with Winds of Peace Foundation for ten years.  And naturally I have honed a deep yearning to change the world!

Ten years ago I left my role as corporate CEO with no plan about what I would do for my “next chapter.”  I had two kids in college and two more headed that way, a nice home with its accompanying mortgage, a desire to distance myself from the obligations of corporate demands (both personal and philosophical), and a need to search for meaningful work that was closer to my passions and compassions.  Firmly believing in the shelf-life of a CEO, I chose an early retirement on September 30, an option some companies afford to folks who are not old enough for Social Security but who are old enough to recognize when it’s time for a change.  I had no plan or prospect in mind.

I became involved actively with Winds of Peace the following day. Having served on its Board of Directors since its inception in 1980, I was familiar with its mission and history.  And with one of its founders, Harold Nielsen, in the hospital with pneumonia at age 90, I might have been the most logical and available person to step in on a temporary basis.  But within a week, I recognized the work as something I wanted for my “next chapter.”  By the time I could visit Harold personally later in that week, he apparently had come to the same conclusion.  He offered me the opportunity.  I jumped at the chance and have never looked back for even a moment.

There have been many affirmations about that decision.  The first was that I continued to work with founder Harold and Louise Nielsen, two of the most genuine and selfless people I have ever known.  (Harold was the wise  and entrepreneurial founder of Foldcraft Co., my firm of some 31 years.  Louise was his wife and co-conspirator, as Harold would say.)  The second immediate affirmation  was in the person of Mark Lester, the Foundation’s “feet on the ground” in Nicaragua, a most exceptional man, a student of and advocate for development in the country, and one whom I had met years earlier during my first visit there.  The third affirmation emerged a bit later, during my ensuing visits to Nicaragua when I was able to meet face-to-face with the potential and actual beneficiaries of the Foundation’s work.  This was where the true richness of the work has been experienced, where the longing to serve meets the hunger and thirst of people who are living their very lives on the edge of collapse, continuously.  These and other affirmations are endless and continue to this day.

Ten years is a long enough period to measure any organization´s impact and progress.  Over the past ten years alone, WPF has issued grants totaling over $2MM, loans totaling $7.6MM and maintained a loan default rate of just over  2%.  It has partnered on more than 300 agreements representing thousands of families.  It has underwritten scores of organizational and technology workshops as its focus has become focused on a territorial strategy.  The Foundation has added primary, secondary and university education as additional focal points for funding and development.  We have accompanied.  We have researched and written.  We’ve been busy.

The past ten years have brought about change in the lives of our partners, as well.  Access to capital in some of the most rural settings of Nicaragua has been a critically important element of life for those served by WPF.  For some, it may have meant survival.  The accompaniment in organizational development by our colleagues has illuminated some dark places where myth, falsehood, forgery and undereducation have festered for generations, rarely permitting the light of opportunity to foster growth.  Women’s voices have been heard.  Students bloomed.  People wept.  And smiled.

Well and good; the actions behind these measures what WPF has been called to do.  But there have been personal impacts, as well.  The past ten years have also rather dramatically changed the way I personally experience the world and its complexities.  I have come to understand how incredibly difficult it can be to “give away” resources.  Not the physical distribution of them, but the ways in which such work must be done to achieve meaning and impact; the presence of large amounts of funding does not guarantee success in the move away from poverty and marginalization.  Sometimes it even contributes to the problems.

I have experienced the importance of accompaniment.  I am still surprised and moved by the importance of our accompaniment with partners.  There is a feeling of strength on the part of rural peasants knowing that they are not entirely alone, that someone else knows of their existence and plight.

I now know the face of the poor.  I have established relationships, friendships, partnerships with individuals, real people with real families and real problems.  These are not statistics or photographs, but real human beings for whom my empathy and concern runs as deep as for any member of my community, my neighborhood, or other niches of my life.  That has changed me, as it would you.  I now personally understand why Harold and Louise Nielsen were so easily moved to tears when talking about this Foundation’s work.

In ten years’ time, Harold and Louise have both passed away.  Our focus has both broadened (with the addition of education and research) and narrowed (with the emphasis on a specific territory).  Our processes have sharpened, with the involvement of our three Nicaraguan consultants and their personal commitments to WPF work, and our own experiences in nurturing healthy organizations.  The presidency of Nicaragua has changed, the country’s relationships within the international community are different and so is the landscape within which development must conduct its efforts.

But the poverty remains.  The Nicaraguan poor are as omnipresent as ever, perhaps not in every statistical metric, but certainly according to any reasonable measure of basic human needs.  And therein lies our work agenda for the next ten years, which I’ll envision in Part II of this message, next week….







Innovating with land leasing

Innovating with land leasing

René Mendoza Vidaurre *

Where water passes, there is life (E. Valdés S.J.)

In a previous article we invited people to search for alternatives for the so-called “Central American dry corridor”, a zone that is an expression of the effects of climate change and social injustice in the region, part of it being low quality soils and populated by peasant families expelled from another area dominated by monocropping haciendas (cotton, sugar cane, peanuts…) on historically high quality land and used for extensive ranching (See: ). This search for alternatives is even more urgent on learning that, according to the 2015 Climate Risk Index, between 1994 and 2013 Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala are among the 10 countries most affected in the world by climate events (See: In this article we discuss one of those options that is applicable to all the areas of the country and valid for Latin America. Based on the innovative work of the Rural Development Commission (CODER), supported by the Irish Catholic Agency for Development, TROCAIRE, in the dry municipalities of San Francisco, Cinco Pinos, Santo Tomás and San Pedro in the Chinandega Province (Nicaragua), we contend that a change in the rules of the leasing system as a result of the organized advancement of rural families would help to improve the efficiency, equity and agricultural and non-agricultural sustainability, and in the long term revert the drought.

Leasing system

Para-phrasing R. Fallas S.J., peasant families without land are like beings without souls, land is accessed via the family (e.g. inheritance), community, state and the market. According to Deere and León (2003, “The Gender Asset Gap: Land in Latin America” in: World Development 31.6), women acquire land more through inheritance, while men do so via the community, state and market. The leasing market is a way of accessing the land, of increasing efficiency in agriculture, and equity in terms of small producer access; so 41% of all the land in Europe is leased, 41% in the United States, 32% in Africa, 16% in Asia and 12% in Latin America (de Janvry, Marcours y Sadoulet, 2002, “El acceso a tierras a través del arrendamiento” in: IADB, El acceso a la tierra en la agenda de desarrollo rural). The experience of France stands out, with more than 60% of their land areas leased, with a stable leasing law since 1946 that allows whole farms to be leased for periods of up to 18 years, transferable rights (in the case of the death of the spouse and/or children), and with leasing prices set each year by a provincial commission; and it is a legislation that protects family agriculture, for example, with an egalitarian law on inheritances. These accomplishments in France are primarily due to decades of effort on the part of the peasant movement to access land without having to buy it, nor wait for an agrarian reform. (See:;

Following de Janvry, Marcours and Sadoulet (2002), leased land tends to be used by families who have little land and by family workers who voluntarily are more productive, that is the reason for their greater efficiency; mostly the transfer is from large land owners to small scale leasers, that is the reason for the poverty reduction; while the very imperfect and biased land markets favor the large producers who buy land off of the small ones, who have less possibilities of buying land (de Janvry, Platteau, Gordillo y. Sadoulet, 2001, “Access to Land and Land Policy Reforms”, in: de Janvry, Gordillo, Platteau and Sadoulet, Access to Land, Rural Poverty and Public Action). Why then is leasing in Latin America at only 12%? From the perspective of the owners, property rights are weak, the laws frequently change and their application (and conflict resolution) is costly; information is inadequate to do a good selection of renters, the local social capital is weak for honoring the leasing contract, and frequently agrarian reforms happen that later do not have registered titles, and when they have titles, their leasing is prohibited. From the perspective of the renters, their few resources limit their access to the market, they lack animals and credit, the opening of roads makes food production for their own use less necessary, even though the higher quality land is in demand for intensive crops (e.g. tobacco) from producers with more capital; and we would add, the producer families have weak organizations and their influence over policy is controlled.

These factors generate lack of confidence among the owners to lease their land for a number of years, and even less to the same people, and makes them resist transacting with people outside their circle of trust; and the same with the renter who is afraid of the abuses of the owner. The low level of leasing means a lot of land gets left unused or is used for extensive livestock raising. Even this low percentage of leasing is done for a year or less, which is why it is only for basic grain crops; both situations, extensive livestock raising and only annual crops, in the long term, contribute to soil erosion and the factors that contribute to the drought, in addition to increasing poverty.

Nevertheless, in the last 10 years there is a new context that could invigorate the leasing systems: drought is reducing the amount of feed and the water for the cattle herd, the large ranchers are not getting into farming because of the high costs of supervising the labor force; people who are migrating from dry zones, are leaving their lands in the hands of some relative; and more and more the end of the agricultural frontier is being felt, many times even with increasing violence on the Caribbean Coast. The reduction in the profitability of extensive agriculture is also felt due to the fact that the land is already “worn out”, which requires intensive and ecologically sustainable agriculture and ranching. What is the response to this new context?

The experience of CODER, an innovative seed

The four municipalities (San Francisco, Santo Tomás, San Pedro and Cinco Pinos), founded over more than 100 years ago, illustrate the description of Latin America and this emerging context. The large rancher is seeing their grazing land dry up, and calculates that the costs of supervision are high if he decides to hire labor to raise basic grains, while the peasant families with little or no land see themselves forced to migrate to ensure food for their families. In the face of this situation the leasing system offers some relief, which, improved through the mediation of CODER, indicates a path with good transformative potential. See the Table.


  Land Owner Leasing family
Traditional leasing -provides land for one agricultural cycle (4 months) for C$1000, and whether the harvest is good or bad, he gets the post harvest stubble for his cattle, valued at C$1000, in addition to the fodder that grows on the rented manzana.

-can hire labor of the leasing family to weed or do domestic work

-grows corn (10qq, C$3000) and beans (10 qq, C$4000); 60% of production costs

-assumes 100% risk if the harvest is bad.

-the land is left ‘worn out” and the following cycle he seeks out another “hill” to plant

-leadership is assumed by the male

Improved leasing (with the mediation of CODER) -provides land for first planting for 3 years at C$1300/yr (a roll of barbed wire each year that costs C$900, in addition to 4 days of work that adds up to C$400).

-good rows for fodder and living and dead barriers (prevents soil erosion due to rain), estimated value of C$1000/mz/yr

-whether the harvest is good or bad he gets the use of the stubble valued at C$1100; it is better stubble

-grows corn (12qq, C$3600) and beans (12 qq, C$4800); 65% of the production costs. In year 3 production increases and 60% of production costs.

-stays on the same area for 3 years

-assumes 100% of the risk if the harvest is bad, but risk of bad harvest is lessened.

-leadership is assumed by the female.

“Traditional leasing” produces economic advantages for both, but only for one year, then the land is left in poorer shape and continues to be exposed to erosion; neither the leaser nor the owner want to continue with this relationship in the same area; in fact, in other municipalities like Palacagüina the ranchers see themselves forced to lease out their land without charge, under the condition that they leave them the stubble from the crop, even though the power asymmetry persists and many times the property owner forces the renter to harvest their corn early. The “improved leasing” creates greater advantages: year after year both earn more economically, the land also improves its quality and erosion is prevented; there is a smaller risk of a bad harvest because of the soil conservation works, which also means better post harvest stubble for the rancher; the corn or beans are better used because the leasing families led by women, in addition to ensuring food for their families, transform the corn into tortillas to sell, and the beans they sell by the pound and also cooked; relationships of trust are built between renting women and land owners, which could augur negotiation processes that would further improve the leasing system.

The key to this “improved leasing” is in the fact that the arrangement is for 3 years instead of only 1, which allows investing in soil quality, that benefits the leaser (more production), and the owner (soil quality and better post harvest stubble). This is possible thanks to the fact that CODER, a local association, has leadership that comes from a peasant-farmer background, and have had interchanges of experience with French agronomists around leasing (See:, which has given them legitimacy to be able to be guarantors of the notarized, signed leasing agreement,  mediators in conflict resolution, and providers of technical assistance to BOTH actors.

Introduction of changes to the leasing system

“Improved leasing” shows us a path that, changing the rules and including coordination among various actors, can have a better economic, social and environmental impact. This path speaks to us of the urgency of expanding it, because 3 years are not enough for adding permanent crops like citrus, coffee, cacao, fruit or wood or energy trees, which also would contribute to the cattle feed and protecting areas of water replenishment. When the 3 years come to an end, the actors go back to the pre-leasing situation, including its consequences for soil erosion, scarcity of cattle feed, and human migration. The same happens with the gender relations that tend to regress. How can sustainable changes be generated in the leasing rules? We propose what we are calling “leasing plus”: reform the agrarian law to permit 15 year and even 20 year leases, ensuring legal stability so that those contracts are respected, and include reform of the law so that inheritances be given equally to sons and daughters, which would allow for those children who might not want to work the land to lease it out; these reforms, especially their sustainability, will be possible to the extent that producer families organize and promote them.

These results require inclusive processes. Local organizations like CODER, in coordination with DIRAC (Alternative Conflict Resolution Office of the judicial branch), could facilitate negotiations between renters and owners, and conflict resolution that gets beyond the abuses toward more lasting social arrangements and more adequate laws. Research institutions could study the various forms of leasing, including sharecropping, and think about leasing to groups, leases with the option to buy, community or cooperative supervision of the leases. Financial and technical and organizational assistance institutions could contribute to awakening in the landless families and the owners a long term vision and an effort and transformation awareness.

This leasing plus could contribute to efficiency, social and gender equity, and environmental sustainability, strengthening the peasant and farmer forms of production. And with this, the drought would give way to diversified zones with protected water sources, understanding that truly where water passes, there is life. Under this umbrella, the biggest challenge will no longer be accessing land, but being a farmer and being an organized farmer.

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (, an associate researcher with the IOB-Antwerp University (Belgium) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua).

** I am grateful to P. Merlet and J. Bastiaensen for their comments and suggestions for improving the article.


The drought: social injustice and the opportunity for change

The drought: social injustice and the opportunity for change

René Mendoza Vidaurre*

“Behind adversities are opportunities” goes the saying. After the rust that affected thousands of families working in the coffee chain, repeatedly we heard about the adversities of the drought: “the first planting season was lost”, “the families´food reserves have been used up”, “the water table has been reduced”, “there is a risk that the second planting will not happen..nor the third,” “insects are appearing like the flying locust, the cotton weevil, mites and the pink hibiscus woodlouse”, “cattle raising is at risk due to the scarcity of water for drinking and for grazing,” “exodus from the communities”, “increase of cattle rustling because of the economic crisis,” “ microcredit is protecting itself in the face of the drought.” Without a doubt, it is important to be concerned about the effects of the drought in the short term. In this article we call attention to the fact that the drought is being understood as if it were only a natural phenomenon, and the human activities that contribute to it are being ignored. Understanding these actions and their impact would allow it to be seen as an opportunity for thinking about ways of overcoming the challenges that the drought imposes, and developing a possible long term perspective.

The Central American dry corridor

The FAO (2012, Estudio de caracterización del corredor seco centroamericano identifies the dry corridor of the region. Out of a total of 75 million hectares in the region (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua), the corridor covers 15.9 million hectares, in other words 21%; out of this total 42% is low effect drought, 50.5% large effect drought, and 7.5% has severe effects. See map.

corredor seco CA


What is alarming is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency of the US (NOAA), in addition to confirming the presence of El Niño, points out the possibility that it might be extended into the first months of 2016 (prolonged dry season and early withdrawal of rainy season), and on top of that, concludes that the below normal rainfall for the months of August to October will affect the dry corridor and beyond in each country. (See map below; Central America Agricultural Council, Climate Change and Holistic Risk Management Technical Group, 2015, Current status of El Niño, climate perspective, implications for farming and recommendations for regional measures;


perspective climatica CA

Causes that generate the drought

It is said that the behavior of the current rainfall is similar to that of 1976 and 1982, that the drought is similar to that of 1997, and that the seriousness of the situation is that the drought goes back to last year, 2014. In other words, the drought is becoming something structural. What has caused this? The absence of humidity in the atmosphere, which is made worse by the increasing variability of the rainfall, including the increase in temperature, particularly on the ocean´s surface. This variability has been caused by human actions that generally are interconnected. First, deforestation causes soil erosion, which is why the soil then retains less water, the water is less able to infiltrate and the soil loses its fertility, so then flooding increases, and the creeks and springs disappear, rivers dry up, crop yields decrease, and become more vulnerable to rainy season droughts and infestations, and with this the families lose their capacity to maintain themselves. Secondly, this deforestation is accompanied by another chain of pressures that include the “hamburger effect” (fast food in the United States at the cost of the forests of Central America), increase in extensive cattle raising, the advance of the monocropping haciendas (producing sugar cane, peanuts, sorghum, tobacco…) on large areas emptied of trees, land concentration that expels families from their communities, and the consequent reduction of diversified farms and manual agro-industry (cheesemakers, grinders, cacao drying…). Third, this dynamic of deforestation and land concentration is accompanied by financing, research and technology – by and for – large monocropping production, but it is dressed up as modern economics and even the first “victim” of the drought. There the drought appears as a “natural” phenomenon, as a matter of “those poor” subsistence peasants, and organizations discussing the size of its impact.

One hypothesis for any territory in the dry corridor for the last 70 years would be that the combined effect of these three factors (degradation of natural resources, concentration of the land and accompanying chain of pressures) has increased the variability of the rainfall, and has resulted in less capacity to resist the impact of the drought, which is a human result that underlies the current of injustice “an underwater riptide”.

Opportunity for change

If the drought expresses the social injustice and the merchantilization of the land (and the climate), and it is a human outcome, then it is a changeable phenomenon. Recalling the words of Chesterton, “playing the violin when Rome is burning is amoral, thinking about a hydraulic system is the task of the researcher”, thinking about strategies for overcoming the drought is more than suggesting technical solutions (communal gardens, raising iguanas, drought resistant crops like pineapple, reforestation, agro-forestry and silvo-pastoral practices, protection of water sources, irrigation systems in harmony with the profitability of the crop and without affecting the water basin, combination of agriculture and ranching, and diversified farms), it is thinking about how to implement over the long term. What follows indicates some points along those lines.

First, organizing research and experimentation in specific territories with mostly producer families, doing it in a participatory way so that the families and the researchers can build awareness about the fact that the drought is not “a punishment from God”, nor something “natural”, to just “monitor”, but a changeable phenomenon, and that under certain conditions crops can be rotated and farms diversified, capable of feeding the soil, so that it retains more water, has a greater capacity to allow the water to infiltrate, produces more, and thus families become more capable of maintaining themselves and bettering their situation. In this process one learns to observe, analyze and act preventively, as a family from the municipality of Cinco Pinos (Nicaragua) recounted: “if we plant with irrigation in the dry season, we notice that the insects pile up in green places, in the barrier of corn or sugar cane, and we can fight them there before they get to the crop; while in the rainy season they are all over.”

 Second, what is crucial is awakening among the families a vision of change on their farms and their communities, that they cultivate a long term perspective, and that they hold to that vision. One family: “dreams of the day my friends visit me and say, ´how beautiful your farm is´; here the entire family is working to see that day.” This awakening and perseverance is possible when various families, aware of the fact that alone they cannot overcome the drought, organize into cooperatives, associations or some form of community, and do so in alliance with organizations or institutions of the region that are capable of putting on the shoes of those families, commit to their formation, and provide follow up to one another for various years.

Finally, creating the conditions so that the two previous points can become possible. Financial institutions, instead of “shielding themselves” (reducing credit to non-ranching families or vetoing credit to dry zones), increasing their loans to intelligent investments that would allow them to move past the drought. Universities can create interdisciplinary certificates on development in high risk dry territories with the participation of rural leaders and professionals, with follow up intervals on experimentation processes. Commercial enterprise chains that buy products from the dry corridor within a framework of subcontracting relationships for various periods. Fiscal policies that provide incentives for sustainable productive diversification, and penalize land concentration and monocropping.

The drought is an opportunity for change. One family in San Francisco del Norte (Nicaragua) is clear about it, “I am planting land…that is what is going to feed us, and that is what is going to be my inheritance, that is our common home.” Our greatest challenge is to quit planting drought and to contribute to this “common home.”

* René ( has a PhD in development studies, is a collaborator with the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) (, an associate researcher with  IOB-University of Antwerp (Belgium) and the Research and Development Institute , Nitlapan-UCA (Nicaragua).