Economic diversification, a way to erradicate poverty

Economic diversification, a way to erradicate poverty

by René Mendoza Vidaurre and Edgar Fernández

The United Nations declared 2014 as the International year of Family Farming, and 2015 as the International Year of Soils. In Latin America and the Caribbean 80% of the agricultural exploitations are family farms, including more than 60 million people. Family agriculture has to do with farming, forestry, fishing, herding and aquatic production managed by families based mostly on family labor. One path that most helps family farming identity and soils is productive diversification, which provides food security and rural development, mitigates climate change and improves resilency in the face of droughts and flooding, regenerates nutrients for the soil, conserves a quarter of the biodiversity, and helps to manage water.

Historically peasant families and small producers have diversified in order to stagger their income, reduce their risks, and cultivate their autonomy in the face of usury and mechanisms for dispossessing them of their land. In this article, recognizing this legacy, we argue that in the current context we need to rethink productive diversification; we do it based on the experiences of families in Cinco Pinos, San Francisco, La Dalia, Quilalí, Jalapa, Jícaro and Palacaguina, supported by the Irish Catholic Agency for Development (TROCAIRE), the Union of Cooperatives of Farmers and Ranchers of Quilalí (UGAQ), the Orfilia Vásquez Cooperative (COACOV), the Association for Diversification and Communal Farm Development (ADDAC), the Association Commission for Rural Development (CODER) and the OCTUPAN Association. With that purpose in mind we present four types of diversification, then we highlight some points in common, and finally the challenges to promote it.

Types of diversification

Type 1: light products and products that “walk”. In dry areas like the community of Plazuela of Palacaguina, more than 10 kms from the municipal capital (the market), and without public transportation, the optimal diversification is into light products (chicory, mint, coriander, basil, oregano, etc) that the family of Natividad Matey takes out in bunches in a basket on bicycle, or products that walk, like pigs (“walking corn”). In this type of places, diversifying with dozens of avocado, citrus and mango trees results in lost resources, as can be observed in many communities with mangos littering the ground; because just the cost of transportation is more than their monetary value.

Type 2: products weighed in quintals. In zones far from the market, but blessed by rain and access to public transportation, like La Tronca of La Dalia, the optimal diversification is with cacao and coffee, basic grains and small and large livestock. The family of Ernesto Pineda sells their cacao and coffee, high value crops, through the cooperative, and the cattle they sell on their farm. Combining ranching and agriculture is a high value path.

Type 3: products weighed by the dozen. In areas with access to public transportation and close to highways, like Santa Bárbara of Jalapa, the optimal diversification is into fruit trees, citrus trees, including nancite and jocote, and foilage. In these conditions the family of Seyda Delmín sells their products in the house itself, sends them on buses to clients who order them from Ocotal, and sells them in the “Segovian Night Fair” once a month organized by the Municipal Government of Ocotal; and they do it with 1.5 mzs of land, flouting the belief that “more area you have the more income you get.” The family of Arturo Carrasco does it as well 500 mts from the principal capital in San Francisco, he takes his products to the market even carrying them in his arms.

Type 4: processed and non agricultural products. In dry zones with a history of ranching haciendas and families without access to land, particularly families led by women, optimal diversification includes commerce (buying and selling products), processing and agriculture. The family of Elia Gutiérrez in San Bartolo de Quilalí sells clothing, she is a teachers, and works in agriculture within the framework of an extended family; the family of Aurora Sarantes in El Jicaro rents land for basic grains, sells products, makes bread and ground coffee, and sells their labor; the family of Lorena Vásquez in Cinco Pinos rents land for basic grains and sells their corn as tortillas and their beans by the pound in their family storefront. These three families even overcame the exclusion of the millennium institution of inheritance.

Common patterns

Comparing the four types of diversification, we learn that diversifying, even though it varies depending on the conditions of the place and the families, is consistent in combining ecological sustainability and economic, social and political sustainability; it is not just having various crops but combining them in the logic of a system.

Even in families with more than 30 manzanas of land, their productive diversification area is less than 3 manzanas; in many cases it is half a manzana. The foundation for the four is the planting of basic grains, be that in their own area or in rented land. It is their first step on which they build the diversification – as they say in Mexico, “there is no country without corn.” The diversified areas improve the quality of their soils and avoid erosion, maintain the humidity, preserve water springs and creeks, and are spaces for intensive crop association. Families with less land area, even without land, when they diversify their economic activities, improve their income and their lives. Those who diversify generally are connected to different markets, energizing their economies, even some of these families learn to read their surroundings, to not have competition, introducing new crops on their geographies.

The more diversified the economic activities, the more gender equity there is; the women have more ingredients for the family table, better health in the family, yearlong income even though it be in small amounts and less indebtedness, turn the market into a space for making friends and for learning, and in their homes shared decision making tends to increase. They are families that diversify their minds, think up different forms of organization (family networks, friendship networks with their clients, community groups and cooperatives), and tend to have greater leadership in their extended families and their communities.

Toward intelligent diversification

Diversifying products is a big step, processing them (pasta combining chicory, mint, coriander, onions, garlic and tomatoes, pickles, nacatamales, roasted coffee) is like climbing Momotombito, and winning niche markets where in addition friendships are weaved is like climbing Momotombo. Nevertheless, even with these steps, you have to observe each crop and product daily, erasing the belief that “after planting it is just a matter of waiting”, resist the temptations of institutions that show up with aid before listening to the families, understand contexts of resistance to the large hacienda systems and “market integration” that are imposed, dispossessing land and degrading natural resources, and awaken the passions and energy that the families create, diversifying their farms and their economies.

It is a matter of diversifying in an intelligent way depending on the conditions in each zone, the potential of each family and their social network, building new horizons and making the markets work for families. Accompanying the families in these practices and ideas requires accepting two universal truths: to help, first you have to understand what to help with; and wherever there are good initiatives there are always people.

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


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