Tag Archives: economic crisis

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….



The Closed Intersection

And you thought you had a tough commute!

Last month’s visit to Nicaragua was memorable for any number of reasons, not the least of which was an encounter we experienced on our way north for some meetings.  Near the community of Ciudad Dario, traffic started to slow down significantly.  Within a few miles it had crawled to a halt.  Protesters at a major intersection had taken over the highway some miles ahead in a well-planned protest of high bus fares.  They made their point by making everything stop.    Buses, trucks, cars, all stationary .  And there we sat, wedged in from behind and in front, traffic halted both north and southbound, a complete gridlock in the countryside.

The impassability of the highway turned out to be significant enough to make the news around the country, including the front page photograph of one of the daily newspapers, shown above.  The protesters were successful in making their unhappiness known, if not corrected.  They were upset over the increases in bus fares which they had recently experienced and were essentially demonstrating that if they were unable to travel by bus, no one else would travel, either.  I’ve thought about those protesters and their bottleneck and wondered about the both the genesis of their actions and whether it portends anything for the future at large.

I’m fairly certain that the reason for the rise in bus fares would be blamed on the cost of fuel, and that as fuel prices rise, bus fares must follow suit.  It’s the same formula the world over, but the bite taken out of the personal budgets of poor people is felt sooner and more deeply than for many of the rest of us.  Additionally, rural Nicaraguans have no practical alternatives to the overcrowded buses that comb the countrysides; they are truly hostage to both the circuitous routes and the fares charged.  When fuel prices rise in the United States, drivers grumble and pay the increase.  When fuel prices rise in  rural Nicaragua, the resulting fare increases change the ebb and flow of life dramatically, and very quickly.  Hence, the protests.

There was no point in cursing the jam and no real inconvenience to us.  The delay provided a welcome opportunity, in fact, to get out and stretch along the highway, a diversion which was actually appreciated.    In each direction, the highway was filled with vehicles for as far as one could see.  On several occasions during the wait, vehicles moved ahead, ever so slightly, causing all other drivers to scamper back into their vehicles in the expectation of an end to the gridlock.  But each time, the short movement proved to be nothing more than the wishful thinking of impatient drivers trying to fill every available space in the hopes of moving ahead.  (In one particularly “urgent” case, the sudden lurch forward interrupted one truck passenger whose need to relieve himself could wait no longer, but whose cover was suddenly “blown” when his driver unexpectedly lurched the truck forward .)

The traffic jam made for some interesting people-watching and it raised some curiosities.  Seeing the tremendous impact that this one relatively small protest was having upon the daily lives of many Nicaraguans got me to thinking about what kinds of scenarios might be playing out across the world in the months and years immediately ahead.  Of course, some scenarios are already unfolding, as in Greece and Spain.  The immediate situation here represented but one small portion of Nicaraguan society in the face of one or several fare hikes, but what will the consequences look like when the increases are even larger and more frequent?  What will the landscape look like when these impacts begin to be felt more deeply within the U.S. and other large economies?  Witnessing the extensive backup of vehicles on a Nicaraguan roadway is one thing; what does a similar effect bring to the major cities and the very rural locations elsewhere in the world?  Quite suddenly, the jam before me shrunk in its dimensions as I contemplated energy shortages and higher prices making themselves felt the world over.  Imagine no traffic in and around Los Angeles, for example.

Futurist Chris Martenson has managed to synchronize a great deal of this thinking in his work, Crash Course.  In it, he articulates with great clarity the looming intersections of overpopulation, increasing energy demands in a finite energy world, energy-dependent economies and the costs of degrading environments.  A scientist by training, Martenson offers his work not as a futuristic dreamer, but as one who has data at his disposal to support the vision of what these intersections will mean to all of us in the years immediately ahead.  The picture is not necessarily one of doom and gloom, but it is a vision of a very different existence for most of us.  And the lineup of vehicles on a rural stretch of highway in central Nicaragua is but a small and early manifestation of what we might well experience in the near-term.

On this day, some drivers lounged in the grass by the side of the road, surrendered to the reality that they were not going anywhere very soon.  I heard only a few frustrated blasts from car horns.  Passengers who were headed north climbed down from their buses and began walking to where the southbound buses were stopped; the southbound passengers did the same in reverse.  The strategy was to turn the respective buses around, exchange passengers and resume their journeys north and south.  I don’t know whether it worked, given the way the vehicles were tightly wedged together, but it seemed a good plan.  The shared dilemma created an almost festive atmosphere among the drivers and passengers stuck there along the road, giving credence to the adage that misery really does love company.  For us, the delay didn’t interfere with anything except our arrival at the hotel for the night, a slight inconvenience at worst.

But for many, the long halt in traffic flow created great inconvenience or worse.  In seeing the massive backup stretch for as far as I could see, I felt as though witnessing a preview of a world soon to come, an intersection of realities with the potential to bring much of the world to a halt, a blockage in the flow of economic, energy and environmental life that will demand extraordinary patience, a strong sense of community and an increased acknowledgement of those who possess far fewer resources than the rest of us.  For ultimately, none of us can ever be as well as we might as long as others around us are unwell; it’s the limitation of the weakest link.

Perhaps we all need to be halted in our tracks for long enough to look for that closed intersection and what it will do to our respective journeys….




What If?

What if the lives we are living were not at all about how much we could earn, or what we could accumulate for ourselves, but rather about how much we could give away, sort of a “reverse competition” of life as we know it?  Would there be an intensity to our turmoil as we no sooner had given resources away but somebody else had unloaded their resources upon us?  The world might become a new “everyone for himself/herself” kind of place as we sought to outdo each other with our giving, and in the meantime each of us would have more than we wanted rather than less than we needed.

What if the idea of being in power pertained not to the ability to force one’s will on others- whether individuals, organizations, nations- but rather to be the one first in line to offer help, solace, sustenance, education.  Would the now-upside down nature of governments and corporations alike compete for recognition as the best among their peers in creating sustainability, sufficiency, and being the best stewards of the abundance that the world has to offer? The world might create a new definition of fame and fortune wherein leaders would be extolled for their servanthood instead of their domination.

What if the notion of having enough to eat referenced the minimal amount which we needed for sustenance rather than how many additional calories we were able to consume as a show of our success and abundance?  Would we not only not want a second helping of Thanksgiving dinner, but also feel insulted at the idea of eating more than was needed?  And what would that mean to our health?  The world might soon discover that food is not a symbol but a right of every living thing, and that as such, there is plenty of it on earth.

What if we were somehow able to view ourselves as all part of a magnificent quilt, whose beauty was comprised of different colors and textures which made for the exquisite whole, rather than exhausting ourselves in the pursuit of identifying differences which do not exist?  Would harnessing the strength of collaboration create a new source of atomic power  in the process?  Understanding how my own well-being is directly tied to the well-being of everyone else might cause a new form of fusion.  The world might suddenly find that its energy crisis had been quite different than it imagined beforehand.

What if we were born with the bias toward inclusion and regarded exclusion as some sort of abomination?  What if this was our only bias? Would we be able to see ourselves more clearly as a result, and thus know our place in the world, the universe, differently?  Would that make a difference? The world might discover a meaning and a purpose for itself which reaches far beyond the atmosphere of this very tiny place in the cosmos.

What if the questions here represented reality instead of sounding like fantasy?  How would my life be different?  What might have been my experiences in such a world?  What might I have known, learned, lived?

I find myself musing over such ” what if” questions from time to time, especially during the holidays when the blessings that I have received in my life are so particularly clear.  But it’s the perfect time of year to revisit such questions, as each of us seeks gifts to give, perfect and meaningful symbols of friendship and love, and preferably ones which have never been received before.  There are perfect gifts to be given.  They will not be found at midnight in a department store, but rather, deep within our psyches and waiting to be discovered and freely given, as they have been since the dawn of humankind.  It’s a new type of “shopping” that we must do if we truly seek the greatest bargain of all….




Real Life

Nica 4-10 002 While in Nicaragua several weeks ago, I had many opportunities to hear from rural Nicaraguans about their current economic circumstances in light of the global crisis.  Naturally, most of the news was bad, compounded by an unusually harsh drought which hit the country last year.  In light of the early rains which had begun to fall, hopes were high that this year’s rainy season would choose to be rainy.  I heard many stories about scarcity of food, non-existent crops, real hunger and growing uneasiness about the future.  This is a telling message, given the already-impossible conditions in which many of these people live.  Once again, and as I have observed here many times before, I was moved by the resolve and resourcefulness of these rural Nicaraguans to survive in the face of relentlessly traumatic conditions.

LigiaOne afternoon I was engaged in conversation with my Nicaraguan colleague, talking about U.S. reactions to the economic crisis and the circumstances in which U.S. citizens found themselves.  I related the difficult unemployment conditions and the struggles faced by many in the wake of losing a job.  I mentioned what I saw as a continuing crisis in confidence being experienced by people in the face of  increasingly contentious party politics.  I talked about linkages to other countries and how their experiences definitely impacted our own.  And then she affirmed an eerie feeling that I have had for some months now.

She told me that her son was living and working in the U.S. and experiencing the global economic meltdown in a very different way than that being felt in Nicaragua.  In frequent Nica 4-10 036communications between the two, her son observed on more than one occasion that many U.S. citizens seemed to be almost dormant in their reactions, as if waiting for the economic cloud to lift or for the government to enact some quick fix for relief.  In his view, it was as if some person or some entity bore responsibility for the conditions and once the culprit was identified, relief would soon follow.  After a brief pause in our exchange, my colleague said that according to her son’s perceptions, many in the U.S. don’t seem to know what to do.  Most people don’t know how to grow food or save it.  She mused that, strange as it may seem,  when a calamity occurs, Nicaraguans might be better prepared than those in the north. After all, too often it’s been a way of life in Nicaragua .

This observation made for the second time the notion has surfaced.  I made much the same observation at this site back on February 17, 2009 in a piece I called “The Further We Fall.” Only this time, the recognition came from a more experienced, reliable source, from someone who has truly lived in both realities.

I still find myself asking the question, especially in the face of tumultuous times, “Who’s learning from whom in all of this?”