Below is an update from Julia Baumgartner on the reconstruction of the community of El Colorado. Julia left her every day duties at JC this past summer going to work for La FEM in order to help direct the rebuilding of the community. Thanks to all of you who helped support this project– we will keep news coming as the work continues. And please consider joining Julia in late January to meet the women of FEM and to see, and possibly assist, in the great work that they are doing in Nicaragua. And while you are at it, pick up a bag of FEM’s “Las Diosas” coffee in our webstore!
Turning Crisis into Opportunity:
Progress on the rebuilding of Comunidad El Colorado
Twenty women stand along the dirt road in Comunidad El Colorado, some nursing young children, most wearing knee-length cotton skirts, their long black hair tied back in bright colored plastic clips. The wind is fierce up here in the mountains, but the sun shines bright. Coffee and abundant shade trees, of the guanacastes and banana varieties face each other on either side of the rough road. Our team made up of the accountant, the engineer, the warehouse watcher, the driver and myself are all there too. Men gallop past us on their horses, doting cowboy hats, rubber boots, and plastic containers tied to the saddle, coming and going from their work in the field. Hungry dogs accompany their owners, who are marching past with machetes in hand. After months of waiting, the first shipment of building materials are on their way to this seemingly forgotten village in the mountains of Estelí. It feels like a dream after the months of waiting, constantly finding ourselves facing new roadblocks as we worked to execute this project. We wait excitedly as we hear the massive green truck trudge ever so slowly through the unkept roads that wind around the mountain, listening to its motor long before we laid our eyes on the metal rods, the piles of sand, the bags of cement, and the wood boards that would soon bring a new sense of hope to the community of El Colorado.
As the semi came to a halt, we all anxiously moved closer. The women’s partners were all there to help store the materials in our makeshift warehouse we had built to assure that none of the materials will be stolen throughout the duration of the project. The agreement has been that each woman will provide two family members to assist the workers to store the materials when they arrive and to help with the construction of the houses, latrines, and cook stoves throughout the process.
WIth the engineer, contractor, and the builders well on their way, two months into the project the first ten houses are nearly finished and the second ten are getting started this week. Miraculously, the rain has not held us back this season. Contrary to the past couple years, this year saw a dramatic decrease in precipitation, leaving the builders content, but the farmers worried. It has been an adventure getting to the source of the materials needed to build these houses, consisting mostly of brick, cement, sand, iron rods, wood, gravel, and metal roofs. With several trips to visit the very ovens where the bricks are produced along the Panamerican highway, to the woodworkers’ workshops at the top of the mountain in the community, the rural women selling their young animals, to FEM’s coffee nursery that will be selling us 20,000 young plants, and the local men that are working to build the houses, we have been benefitting the local economy with as many purchases as possible.
The community has been through a lot in their recent history; their unfortunate location on top of a risky fault line in addition to the constitution of the soils that fill the land here, combined with heavy rains has caused severe landslides for the past few years as a result of climate change. It has taken time, and much struggle, but change is finally coming to this little village. The mayor has committed to building 20 homes, another cooperative is building 10 houses, and with la FEM and financing from the Basque Government in Spain, we are building 20 homes and carrying out a larger integral development project with not only solid walls and a secure roof, but also access to land (and land titles!), organic vegetables, pigs and chickens, as well as more sustainable cook stoves and latrines. We are not simply building four solid walls, but rather creating an opportunity for these women to advance in both their individual and collective empowerment, through their womens cooperative, within the local community, in their homes, and in their personal lives.
One of the most meaningful aspects of the project for me has been turning over 10 manzanas of land (about 17 acres) to the twenty women involved in the project. Along with the plots of land come land titles for both the lots that their houses are located on as well as the farmland, a process that has been difficult, to say the least. Considering Nicaragua’s long history of land struggles, the confiscation, and redistribution of land throughout the past thirty years, acquiring previous land titles and meandering through the legal process has been eye opening, if nothing else. Working with a topographer and a lawyer, the office of land registry, as well as the community members, we’ve been working to accumulate old land titles that were given out to the majority of the community members that were part of a cooperative during the agrarian reform. Gaining access to those old land titles has been tough, as people are weary to hand them over to us, giving us insight on the value these titles have for campesinos.
As in many parts of the world, the distribution of land between men and women remains incredibly unequal in Nicaragua and proves to be a major obstacle to women’s economic empowerment. Unequalaccess to economic resources makes it incredibly difficult for most rural women to not only purchase plots of land and productive resources, but also to legalize land titles. Women oftentimes lose access to their land because they are unable to pay the hefty legal costs necessary to secure and maintain it. Without access to land and property, it makes it difficult for women to have a base for their own food security and income generation, or as collateral to apply for credit. Evidence has shown that women who have secure access to land are able to have more decision making power both in their personal and public life. Being more independent and having a secure piece of land to count on makes women more capable of leaving unhealthy relationships and negotiating with with their partners.
In order to divide up the 47 manzana farm that La FEM owns, we headed out to their beautiful farm with an experienced topographer, our team, the 20 women, and their partners to help clear the land and measure each of the 20 plots. Women carried their babies as we hiked through the mountainous farm, untouched for many years, so it seemed, venturing for the first time to their very own plot of land. The topographer’s assistant called out below, “watch out for the cascabel (rattlesnakes)!” as they measured each 1/2 manzana and used machetes to clear out the paths bordering each plot. When we arrived at each of the 20 pieces of land, some more arid, some more apt for coffee production, you can imagine the smiles on each of the women’s faces knowing that they could soon call it their own, a reality that they have never experienced before.
Our next steps are to finish the series of workshops related to the project that include climate change mitigation, organic agriculture, and organizational strengthening. WIth our workshops to mitigate the effects of climate change, we’re working in coordination with the Civil Defense team to organize a local community response team so that the community will be prepared should another disaster hit. They will be provided with workshops, first aid kits and other resources as well as practicing drills in what to do in case of an emergency. With the help of an experienced agronomist, we’re planning on executing workshops related to reforestation of the surrounding area as well as techniques to maximize the revolving animal packages including pigs, chickens, pig pens, and chicken coops, and proper management of organic vegetable, fruit tree, and coffee production. To continue to strengthen the organizations within the community, we will focus on issues relating to self esteem, business management, cooperative strengthening, and continuing to support the community promoters in the fight against violence.
The animals will be purchased from women in the nearby communities who have already benefitted from FEM’s revolving animal packages, which means that once their animals reproduce, the offspring will be gifted to another woman organized in FEM who will then benefit another woman in the future. This model has been proven to be extremely successful since it began over 10 years ago with the support of different organizations, including Madison’s WCCN.
The cocinas lorenas that will begin construction next week contribute to the sustainability of the community, given the amount of firewood that is used in traditional cookstoves. Without access to alternative fuel sources, rural families rely on nearby forests to cook their food, contributing to severe deforestation, and contributing to the devastating landslides in this area. With different technology, improved cookstoves also improve the health of rural families, using chimneys to decrease the amount of smoke inside the homes.
Although the project has been carrying on much easier than we had anticipated, there are still many challenges at hand. With a lack of safe building space located within the community, the women had to find and purchase their own plots of land, which turned out to be incredibly small, resulting in many changes to the original project. With a lack of space, we’re looking at the challenges/possibilities of incorporating all of the other materials into the space: latines, sustainable cook stoves, pig pens and chicken coops. One hopeful solution we have come across is the construction of composting latrines compared to traditional latrines. These latrines can be built right next to the house, as opposed to the traditional latrines that require 8-10 meters distance from the house, they do not contaminate water supply, they can last a lifetime if maintained correctly, and the rich compost can be used for coffee, fruit trees, and vegetables. Given these benefits, this model has been well received by the women involved in the project.
With only two months left to go, it’s time for us to poner las pilas, as they say here (get crackin..).
Let me know if you’re interested in supporting the final stages of the project or visiting this community on our upcoming delegation in January.