Paying the Debt

Last month’s visit with partners in Nicaragua included some sobering visits with small coffee producers who are struggling with the after-effects of “coffee rust,” as described here in my previous entry, “Faces of Loss.”  This crippling plant disease, along with other afflictions which can occur once the coffee plant is weakened, is taking an enormous toll on the yields of these farmers and threatening their livelihoods.  There is truth to the fear that this year’s impact from the disease is more intense than in past years, and that some producers may not survive the onslaught.

An initial inclination might be to offer more funding assistance, to financially help growers who are already on a razor-thin margin to somehow withstand the assault.  In other words, send money.  I confess that my initial, gut response to the coffee farm devastation was a panicky feeling about how our partners would ever garner sufficient funding to recover from the hit.  But monetary resources aren’t always the answer, and aid agencies who really understand the context where they work and the people who make up that context would recognize the truth in that.  Upon reflection, Winds of Peace has arrived at some additional conclusions that take into account not only the current state of affairs, but the future state, as well.

The reality we encounter is that not all farms have been affected to the same degree or in the same ways.  That’s partially due to geography, the climate at different altitudes and degree of exposure to other affected farms.  But it’s also due to policies and practices followed by the producers in protecting the one asset that they have: the productive capacity of their land.  For those producers who have gained the technical knowledge needed for careful preservation of the health of the land, practices such as selective fertilizations, planned plant renovations, continuous improvement and future investment all help to guard against the ravages of an infestation.  It can be done even when the capital available for such activities is at a minimum.  There are practices to blunt the impact of a coffee sickness.  There is an investment that can be made against future disaster when know-how and collaboration come together to help growers better understand the earth and its ways.

As is true for most strategies and plans, however, things can get in the way.  Always, there is a shortage of capital.  But there is also the way in which the limited capital might be used, stemming from lack of knowledge or manipulation by outsiders or simply succumbing to short-term gratifications.  There is a premium on available time, as rural families existing on extremely small incomes parcel out their minutes each day according to the whatever crisis cries loudest for their attention, cries which may not have anything to do with coffee plants.   Realities can and do get in the way.

Given these realities and the difficult outcomes which often result from them, it may be a wonder that peasant producers don’t encounter even more setbacks than they do.  And with that perspective in mind, Winds of Peace is creating some new or expanded partnerships where we can.  In conjunction with our rural partners, local lenders, national technical sources and, hopefully, additional outside funding participants, WPF will continue supporting rural partners in the development of their knowledge, capacities and farming sustainability.  Certainly, a portion of that support may be in the form of credit capital.  But  perhaps the more lasting, important support will be in the form of technical help, workshops, training, accompaniment, reflection and collaborative opportunities within the coops.  Some forms of institutional strengthening come from outside, but tremendous amounts of experiential knowledge comes from within, as well.  Cooperatives can derive strength from the territories in which they reside as well as from internal development; in a sense, we become what we surround ourselves with.

Winds of Peace will be trying to surround its partners with ideas of collaboration within the coops: meaningful participation by substantially all of the members, a steward’s view toward the future as well as the present, and a sense of self-responsibility upon which those futures can be built.  Sustainability of these small rural enterprises rests upon a collaborative embrace across the country and a clear understanding of what the earth requires in return for her bounties.  As one leader observed, “We are always insistent in repaying the debt to our funders.  Maybe we have not been as insistent in repaying our debt to the Earth and to each other.”

It’s a lesson which we all need to understand….



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