Category Archives: Visioning

Of Vision and Purpose

While we’re busy preparing for the second Certificate Program for rural cooperative members and managers, technicians, second-tier coop representatives and others, the focus is on methodologies.  After all, we’ve spent portions of the past ten years describing organizational strengthening techniques used successfully in the U.S. in hopes that it might spark interest in the Nica countrysides.  Now that rural producers have asked for greater detail about initiatives like open book management, Lean continuous improvement and organizational transparency, the workshop facilitators are eager to deliver such particulars.

As mentioned here previously, Winds of Peace will have the great good fortune to present Brian Kopas and Alex Moss,  gentlemen whose organizational experiences in the fields of organizational Lean and open book management are extraordinary, and therefore of great potential application to this Nica workshop.  They  possess enormous knowledge and practical experiences, they have already provided materials for the introduction of their topics, they are counseling us in our respective workshop presentations and they will be huge resources for the inevitable questions and challenges that are encountered during the workshop.  (Where people are intent upon learning, their questions and challenges are essential.)

But as I consider the wealth of knowledge that will be available to our audience in September, I am cognizant of another critical piece to the process of teaching and growing an audience: the vision.

Underlying all the operational processes and applications, there must be a vision, a mission, a purpose, a theme for the hard work that the attendees will encounter if they seek to bring an entirely new basket of ideas to their farms and coops.  There must be a core principle that can re-direct and drive the improvements consistently, even when the newly-acquired skills might occasionally seem to become stale or seemingly inapplicable for some  reason.  In moments of frustration or temporary setback, that motivator can keep an organization together, to persevere and regain solid footing for the next advance in their collaborative strength-building.

Some organizations employ a vision, a stated “picture” of what the future might be like.  Others prefer the idea of a mission, an intrinsically important undertaking whose outcome has the capability of delivering fundamental, positive changes.  Still other groups elect to use the language of values, citing social or moral tenets that shape their beliefs and actions.   But whatever words are used, the reality is the same: in order for human beings to change, to adapt, to move from their comfort zones, they universally crave a “cause,” a fundamental, personal reason to do that which is difficult to do.

In the case of the very successful Panamanian cooperative La Esperanza de los Campesinos (the Hope of the Peasants), that bedrock upon which their success has been built is in the historical presence of Fr.  Hector Gallegos, whose spiritual and liberation theological teachings centered the coop members.  (See “A Cooperative That Regulates Markets” by Rene Mendoza.)  For a company like SRC Holdings in Springfield, Missouri, the birthplace of open book management, the bedrock was the liberation of employee thinking and intelligence through information sharing and involvement.  For Winds of Peace Foundation, the bedrock has been the  liberation of financial assets to address the dangerous gulf between the poor and the wealthy.  Initiatives come and go, but the calling for the each of these organizations survives because of the depth of its existence.  These organizations must do what they do.  It is in their organizational DNA.

The coops represented in the Certificate Program will need to identify and embrace their own “calls to being. ”  For some, the cause is already deeply engrained and sustaining the direction of the members.  But for others, the identification might be less certain and less steadying.  Maybe it has never been articulated in terms of a vision.  Perhaps there are several purposes that have been embraced by the members, with no single mission emerging as the great unifier.  In some cases, maybe the issue has never even come up; coop membership was simply a way to access funds for the next planting cycle.  Whatever the case, every coop will require  something to hold onto when the vagaries of weather and middlemen and coyotes of the marketplace interject their disruptions into plans for prosperity.  What will the coops bedrock prove to be?

When Brian and Alex bring their skills to the Certificate Program, it will not be due to monetary gain (they receive none) or for notoriety (the program will take place in the deep countryside, away from media notice).  They will present no political cause, no self-service nor personal advantage.  They will spend more than an entire week out of their professional and personal lives because of deep-seated values that inform their senses of servant leadership and responsible stewardship.  The lessons and know-how they teach may change between September and the next time they are invited to work with such an audience, but the reasons for accepting such an invitation will not.  It is, after all, who they are.

Sometime during that first week of September, we’ll be interacting with some very eager Nicaraguans who know precisely who they are….


We Have Grown Together

ANIDES is an organization with whom Winds of Peace has partnered for the past several years.  It’s a group devoted to lifting up women, helping them to understand and embrace their rights and to explore their capacities as the critical players in strengthening their families and Nicaraguan society.  ANIDES has not only helped with basic living amenities for its women and their families across 34 communities, but has also assisted in the formation of communal banks in outlying villages.  The banks have created access to economic resources, but more importantly have helped to teach finance, cooperative responsibility and the dignity to be discovered in effectively managing such a collaborative endeavor.

Recently, one of the Foundation colleagues visited with the rural cooperative members to talk about their visions, their needs, and the aspirations.  After the meeting and some contemplation about the visit, Gloria Ordoñez- director of ANIDES and the hands-on godmother of the women members- drafted a thoughtful reflection about both the progress of the women and the challenging road ahead.  It’s worth reading, as excerpted with her knowledge and blessing, below:

For some five years we proposed to deal with this challenge in a joint way with the women, using tools for knowledge management, so that they might learn some of their good and bad practices, improving their self esteem, and the importance that the roles that each one performs have for making their organization stronger, working on the recognition of different leaderships that each one exercises within their organization.

For us the application of methodological tools seem important (Results Oriented Management), for their recognition as human beings and through them that they might recognize their skills, abilities and capacities. Likewise that they might recognize the medium in which they can “exploit” or apply those skills. These tools help to recognize what I am now, what I want, a balance in life, the personal values and how through learning to build their path toward the personal and organizational vision.

These tools not only help the growth and personal development, but also the organization, all the members working together to recognize themselves not only as individuals but as organization, the construction of this path toward the vision from the systemic approach helps them to take more ownership over the organization and to work, putting into practice solidarity as a fundamental principle of cooperativism. We know that putting this into practice, or the implementation of a good attitude toward the members, is a long and steep path that we need to walk.  In these years the members have shown an openness to change and are involved in the processes, more and more in a conscious manner.

… So we have grown together little by little, we started with 15 very fearful women that would arrive at the workshops in the company of their husbands or sons; now we have grown in number and active participation; maybe we needed to not move too quickly through stages, so that everyone might participate at the same level….

The communal banks have been the space for learning to set the foundation for the development of trust among the members, strengthening their self esteem, formation and skill development. Making a sieve in order to create cooperatives with the members that show better strengths, identifying and strengthening the common elements of institutionality (system of values held in common for governance).

We see that the role of ANIDES is still very important for STRENGTHENING THE INTERNAL SELF MANAGEMENT CAPACITY of the incipient cooperative organizations. Through accompaniment processes so that they themselves might facilitate them with knowledge acquired in previous processes, GUIDING the comprehension of INSTRUMENTS FOR COLLECTIVE ENTREPRENEURIAL GOOD GOVERNANCE (these documents already exist for each cooperative) in this new stage we will teach their leaders to use and apply them.

Precisely through this we think that strengthening a promoter group of leaders, we will expedite (in a cascading manner) the training process of the different cooperative organizations from within, being accompanied by ANIDES, so that the grassroots cooperatives might be able to continue strengthening themselves FROM THE IDENTIFICATION OF THEIR OWN STRENGTHS AND COMMON IDENTITIES, (like what you call the institution, that has to do with their roots, values and common commitments as women who are living in similar circumstances, learning to get ahead with their families in the midst of adversities).

Thanks for your multiple perspectives and contributions to continue going more in depth to make a different in the cooperative organizations, which is the strong commitment of ANIDES.

This memorandum is a complete and focused organization development roadmap, as holistic, sophisticated and ambitious as any strategic document I’ve encountered.  Its focus includes the health and strength of the organization, its current and future leadership, the well-being of the individual members, a sensitivity to collaborative realities, courage to take on enormous difficulties and a vision which exceeds the boundaries of sight.  It’s a document of hope and expectation, and one that any U.S. business organization would be challenged to achieve and proud to own.

When people occasionally ask me whether there is good news in Nicaragua, whether there is cause for optimism for the future, I will use the words above to state the unequivocal answer, yes….




My U.S. acquaintances almost always have questions about the work that Winds of Peace undertakes in Nicaragua, and especially they are curious about the people with whom we work.  They are curious to know how they are like us in the U.S.  They desire to know whether they are happy, what rural Nicaraguans like to do in their spare time, and what they may know about those of us who live in the North.  (My answers to those specific questions tend to be along the lines of: yes, they experience happiness in some very different ways from us, they have little spare time and they know a great deal more about us than we do of them.)

During my visit in Nicaragua two weeks ago, I became re-acquainted with a woman I had met several years ago, a grassroots coffee producer and member of a very small cooperative.  She attended an organizational strengthening workshop which the Foundation had underwritten and, in fact, turned out to be one of the presenters.  I want to introduce you to Corina, because she is a composite story of who many Nicaraguans are.


When we first met, Corina and her cooperative had found themselves in deep economic trouble. But the cause of the difficulty stemmed from the fraudulent actions of “middlemen” who recognized an opportunity to take advantage of small producers who were too trusting, unschooled and undereducated in the responsibilities  and obligations of organizational success.  In that first meeting, Corina and her fellow coop members faced a likely collapse of their group; she thus faced a similar fate for her own farm.  Without the middlemen to provide market savvy and price negotiation (as well as deceptive representation), Corina felt lost.

But I recall her tenacity in addition to the shyness.  She had not spoken much in front of her North American visitor those years ago, but she spoke passionately and with defiance when she chose to speak at all.  But I remember thinking that the odds were definitely against this small-producer coop which now faced significant debt not of their own making.  Winds of Peace has made annual loans to the coop since that first meeting, and the coop has survived thus far.  But providing funds each year for fertilizers and new coffee plants is neither the road away from dependence nor the key to sustainability.

Corina and her fellow coop members have worked hard.  They have attended other workshops.  The coop has been attentive to understanding exactly what project proposal information is required of them and what donor expectations are.   They’ve been scrupulously diligent in meeting their loan obligations.  While a preference for having others intervene on their behalf still surfaces at moments, a movement toward self-sufficiency is happening.

So I was both surprised and not surprised in seeing Corina before the audience two weeks ago.  She towered over the audience, in a way that very few people less than five feet in height can; sometimes captivation comes from unsuspected sources.  She clutched a handkerchief like a good luck token, but her voice was firm and her resolution fixed on two large papers taped to the front wall.  On the pages, Corina had charted her family’s 5-Year Farm Plan.

Set aside for the moment the fact that many businesses never attempt something as progressive as a 5-year plan.  Corina, with the assistance of her husband and children and workshop facilitators,  had undertaken a detailed description of her business, including its dimensions, crops, limitations, opportunities, improvements, environmental impacts, successes and its future outlook.  There on two sheets of butcher paper was a complete strategic plan, one which in its simplicity and breadth presented her story, both current and future.

As Corina related her story, her voice grew in size and confidence. The handkerchief became twisted with emotion and conviction.  The audience, notorious for its restlessness, now sat rapt in attention, utterly astonished at both the woman and the content of her work.  At one moment, suddenly self-conscious of her standing, she looked to the workshop facilitator and observed that, maybe she wasn’t making sense and that he could explain the process better.  To his everlasting credit, the facilitator turned to the participants and asked, “Is she doing OK?”  The audience erupted into thunderous applause, matched in emotion only by the modesty in Corina’s face.  She continued, with even greater fervor than before.

By the close of her presentation, Corina had communicated details of her life which, under any other circumstance, would never have been shared.  She talked of her children and their work on the farm, after school.  She described the long hours of labor contributed by her husband, who hired out as a field hand elsewhere by day before returning home to tend to their own land.  She talked of her own unending work among the coffee plants, and how she nonetheless was able to achieve the equivalent of her high school diploma, the first member of her family ever to do so.  By the conclusion of her talk, I had a distinct feeling of under-accomplishment in my own life.

I suspect that many in the group felt the same.  At the conclusion of her presentation, Corina was surrounded by many, people seeking more information, offering their appreciation for her tenacity and strength, thanking her.  Several members of a coffee-buying group from North America sought to establish direct links for purchasing her coffee.  She may never have experienced so many photographs taken of her.  Clearly a sense of accomplishment welled up within her, and yet the demeanor of humility and reserve never wavered.

IMG_5372Corina’s example to her fellow small farmers resulted in many such family plans being drawn up that day and in the weeks to follow; indeed, they are still being created.  She had extended herself, far from her comfort zone, in order to provide a basis for others to act.  Her courage on behalf of other producers enabled a development threshold to be crossed, one that may cultivate harvests and benefits for a long time.  But I recall the day in a different light.  I will recall her performance and leadership as a challenge to my own way of life, to look at its content, its yields and plantings and harvests, its potential and its character with a greater sense of needing to do better….


Making Sense of Synergy

I’ve written here in the past about the Winds of Peace vision of a “Synergy Center” in Nicaragua.  I’ve described a facility owned and operated by a U.S. college or university but partnered with the Foundation to access its research and experiences with rural development, its connections with grassroots Nicaraguan organizations, its history with the University of Central America (UCA) and its activities as a funder within the country.  We continue to refine the vision and search for the right education partner in the U.S.

In the process, we’ve shared the concept with lots of folks, both in the U.S. and Nicaragua, seeking to fully consider all of the cultural, social, national and financial aspects of such an initiative: the undertaking requires us to do a great deal more than simply provide funding for a building.  To be done effectively, the Synergy Center demands careful and comprehensive thinking about the needs and the expectations of all parties, with special reflection about Nicaraguan context.  Upon hearing the Synergy Center concept, interested parties have been intrigued and energized by the idea, recognizing intuitively the benefits of such a collaboration, whether in Nicaragua or anywhere else in this very complex and conflicted world.  The Synergy Center is seen as a bridge among people; there are never too many bridges.

Given the Foundation’s interest in sharing the vision and spurring thought and comment about its intentions, the Foundation’s Nicaragua Director Mark Lester focused on it during a breakout session on November 8 at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C.  The topic of Mark’s presentation consisted of the rationale behind the Synergy Center concept and how it fits intricately with the call for all of us to be seekers and creators of justice in the world.  The forum is an ambitious one, and Mark’s contribution is a clear statement of the Synergy Center’s keystone ideas and purposes.

Due to our periodic mentions here about the Center and its possibilities, I’ve included a YouTube link to Mark’s presentation.  It takes about 45 minutes to watch, but maybe it’ll give you a sense of a new bridge being built just as so many others seem to be crumbling around us….


I Wonder, Part 2

I still wonder.  A lot.  It seems that the older I become, the less I know about anything.  The more I read, the more questions I seem to have.  At this rate, I wonder if it’s possible that I will know less when I die than I did on the day I was born.  I wonder about that.  I wonder if you do, too.

I wonder about a global economy wherein so many human beings are in need of so much, while the leaders of governments and industries struggle with the need to grow.  I wonder if we’re even talking about the same planet.  I wonder if impoverished people in Nicaragua know that we in the U.S. spent $7 billion on Halloween costumes, cards and candy this past weekend.  I wonder what they think about that.  I wonder if we think about that.

I wonder if it is even possible any longer that world use of renewable energy sources will be reached before practical depletion of fossil fuels.  I wonder what the outcomes will be if the world does not achieve such a transition.  I wonder what my children will think of me and my generation in such a case.  I wonder if I’ll still be around to hear their frustration.

I wonder about the people I know in Nicaragua, and whether they are doing OK.  I wonder if their harvests have been as good as hoped.  I have not been in the country since April; I wonder if they wonder where I’ve been.  I wonder if they know that I think about them every day.

I wonder about the lottery.  Not the Powerball one, but the one in which the next group of random people are selected by some deluded gunman for elimination from this life.  I wonder what the odds are that any of the victims will be family members or friends.  I wonder if there’s anything I can do about that?

IMG_2810I wonder about Yareli.  I wonder if she is learning, growing, thriving.  I wonder what she is doing.  I wonder about all of her friends and the kids throughout the country, and how they are doing.  I wonder if Nicaraguan leaders truly see her and her classmates as the absolute future of Nicaragua.  I wonder if our paths will ever cross again.

I wonder if we’ll ever get to Mars.  Do we care more about that planet than this one, I wonder?  Sometimes the depths of our conflicts and problems here seem so overwhelming as to be unsolvable.  But I wonder if it could truly be said that the grass might be greener on Mars.  I wonder if anything could grow there.

I wonder if a Nicaraguan farmer could grow anything on Mars.  (Some might say the environments aren’t dissimilar.)  I wonder if a Nica farmer would be successful on land here in Iowa.  I wonder if an Iowa farmer could be successful in Nicaragua.  I wonder if it’s the soil or the soul.  Or something else entirely.  I wonder if U.S. farmers empathize with Nica farmers, and vice versa.

I wonder what the U.S. will be like with a new president in 2017. (Right now, it’s hard for me to picture almost any of the candidates as president.)  I wonder if Nicaragua can envision anyone as their president in 2017 other than the incumbent.  I wonder if new presidents would make any difference to either country.   I wonder what Donald Trump thinks about Nicaragua;  I wonder if he knows there is a Nicaragua.

I wonder what the animals know that we don’t.  Some scientific studies demonstrate that certain species have specialized knowledge and innate senses far beyond our own, that allow them to experience the world very differently than we do.  I wonder why we aren’t more curious to learn more about that.  Especially anything related to stronger memory.

I wonder every day if I’m doing everything I can….





Ten Years After, Part 2

There’s no question but that the modest beginning undertaken by Harold and Louise Nielsen has evolved into something broader and deeper than a funding mechanism for poor Nicaraguan peasants.  Yes, the grants and loans have been exceedingly important to those rural recipients who received them.  But the lessons embedded in those transactions and the fruits which have blossomed from them may hold a much greater value than the strictly financial one.  The impacts can be transformational, and that has the potential to change not only lives, but ways of life.

Looking forward to the next ten years has both precedence and importance.  Years ago, Harold and Louise envisioned a foundation that would somehow help to alleviate poverty and marginalization of rural Nicaraguans.  WPF has likely evolved in ways far different from that initial vision, but the shape of that initial dream has been the base upon which any good results stand.  Nonetheless, it can be dangerous to attempt prognostications.  (I cannot even make a fair prediction about my day tomorrow, let alone a look into the future of a people and their country.)  No one can ever say for certain what the future will hold, whether in terms of natural evolution or human interventions.  But not to dream is a missed opportunity, a failure to imagine better circumstances for the rural poor in Nicaragua and perhaps elsewhere.

What lies ahead?  Our dreams and discussions continue  around the idea of a Synergy Center in Nicaragua, a site in Managua which is the intersection among WPF, Nicaraguan development and an education entity from the U.S.  The Synergy Center concept presents a progressive opportunity for a U.S.-based education institution to become the owner and administrator of a facility that can utilize data and experiences for the real-life learning of its students, as well as for other international visitors seeking to understand and bridge the immense gaps between the Global North and South, for mutual global benefit.  It’s a notion that is bold in light of the frequent tendency of education entities to “pull back” in times of global and economic unrest, the very times when this very sort of personal education presents perhaps the only realistic means of addressing such gaps.  It’s a big initiative for a little foundation, but that is not likely to have stopped Harold and Louise.

The creation of the Synergy Center would represent  a significant boost to education development within Nicaragua, as well.  While the Foundation has funded scholarships for elementary to university-aged students, we will continue to seek additional bridges between opportunity and learning.  The path for rural Nicaraguans to move from poverty is located squarely within education.  The Foundation’s commitment to growing such opportunities was born of Louise Nielsen’s determination that young women, in particular, could become key resources to Nicaraguan society through their education; our continuation will be based on objective data that confirms the essential nature of improved education opportunities at all levels of society.  The Synergy Center can serve as one education “pivot” between Global North and South, an intersection of research and education between the regions.

Concurrent with the establishment of the Synergy Center, the Foundation dreams of collaborations which could bridge the gaps that exist among the various funding agencies which still operate in Nicaragua.  We are all still victims of our own thinking in terms of what Nicaraguans can accomplish and how they will accomplish it.  As a result, there are many development resources which operate in total independence from one another, and sometimes even at cross-purposes.  As is true for any organization, there is greater strength in numbers and collaboration, a truth which still represents a major hurdle for those of us who operate in Nicaragua.  In a curious conundrum, it’s another potential value of a Synergy Center, but only if WPF and other organizations would be willing to abandon a “not invented here” mindset and choose to collaborate and learn with one another.

My own background includes experiences with some of the most important tools for transforming organizations into higher-performing enterprises.  Cultivation of organizational transparency (Open Book Management) in the cooperative’s function and adoption of methodologies which cultivate continuing improvement (Lean Methodologies) are two concepts that will generate transcendent, positive change in both the businesses and the lives of their practitioners.  It’s a movement whose seeds have been planted, and whose harvest needn’t wait for ten more years.  And I can readily imagine rural Nicaraguan cooperatives embracing and applying the tools for themselves as a means to retain the ownership and value of the lands they tend.

Finally, the future must hold one additional achievement, this one perhaps more essential, more transformative, more vital to development of the rural poor (and therefore to the success of WPF) than any of the others.  It’s the awakening of the global conscience to the circumstances of the poor and the terrible costs that we all pay for their plight.  Even if we collectively have no empathy for those who struggle (a terrible supposition by itself), we are inextricably tied to their outcomes.  It’s a sobering prospect to consider.  Those who know and feel it have an exclusive obligation to educate, to touch, to move others who have had no personal connection to draw upon.  That work, too, will continue to be mission and vision of WPF.

The next ten years will pass by like the flash of lightning in a summer storm.  We know this, given the passage of the past ten years.  It is a short term in which to create truly transformative movement in any environment, even shorter when working abroad.  Our aim will continue to be improvement in Nicaraguan and North American lives, by helping people in both lands become more globally literate.

These are visions for WPF, not roadmaps.  Our fuel for change continues to be made up of capital and accompaniment.  But  we will also continue to remind ourselves that better circumstances do not imply greater monetary wealth only.   Indeed, as the adage goes, some people are so poor that all they have is money, and we know that we can aim higher than that….


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.


We Know

I was talking about Winds of Peace Foundation with a contractor who had come to our house; he had asked me what kind of work I do. When I described to him the work of grantmaking and microlending in Nicaragua among the very poor, he responded enthusiastically with, “Wow, what great work that must be!  I’d love to be doing something like that.”  I explained that the work was really the legacy of Harold and Louise Nielsen and that I was merely privileged to be administering the process.  Nonetheless, I agreed that the work has been not only interesting but very fulfilling.

The man’s reaction to the work of Winds of Peace was not at all unusual.  Wherever I have had the opportunity to represent the Foundation, people have been very vocal about the way they perceive the work, frequently offering both congratulatory words of encouragement as well as wistful wishes about someday doing “some kind of work like that.”  Indeed, the way people used to respond to learning that I was a CEO of a company was far different than their reaction upon learning that I work for a private foundation serving the rural population of a very poor country.

We seem to have an innate awareness that work which serves others is somehow a higher calling, something we should aspire to, more deserving of our appreciation, embodying perhaps a selflessness.  I can make the generalization because I have experienced the shift in perspective of others as I made the transition from corporation to non-profit.  I also admit that I have some of the same feelings myself: foundation work in Nicaragua has greater meaning to me than my corporate responsibilities ever did, despite the fact that I valued those days of corporate organizational development.

We just know, don’t we?  For most of us, there is the recognition that we’d love to be making a positive difference in the lives of others.  It’s why we have reverence for firefighters and nurses and teachers. It’s the same emotion that grabs us when we hear a news report about some bystander performing an heroic deed to save the life of another. We love to imagine ourselves accomplishing something so life-changing.  We hope that we’d be capable of mustering the unselfishness to act in such a way.  The notion taps into our need for a bit of nobility in our lives, to see ourselves as being significant enough to be making even a tiny difference in a very big world.

We know that the need is deep inside of us.  We long for its manifestation.  It resides in us as a psychological desire for meaning in our lives.  It also resides in us as a physical desire to affirm our connections with others: it coaxes the tangible sense of joy that often washes over us when we perform an act of charity or help for another.  In other words, the need is as much a part of our makeup as head or heart.

That need, that higher calling, is an inextricable extension of our humanity, and it’s also as accessible as the next person we encounter. Important work isn’t defined as an occupation or limited to dramatic circumstances.  It doesn’t require a change of vocation or geography.  It’s available in the way that we live.  It’s in our interactions with every other soul in our daily lives.  “Great work” isn’t limited to the rural poor in Nicaragua or the rescue of a small child from a burning building.  Great work is to be found in every niche of our existence, if we will just look for it and see it for what it is.  Of course, that’s the tough part, sometimes even more demanding than entering a burning building.

We know what works need to be done.  In lifetimes limited by time and circumstance, we are simply required to gather the courage and heart to contribute that which we can….