Nicaragua’s Territorial Learning Alliances: “I also have a right to decide”
Amidst the green mantle that covers the steep hillsides of Nicaragua’s mountainous center-north region, Doreyda Dávila proudly surveys her cocoa trees. “I have one manzana of coffee, and two manzanas of cocoa. They’re still little, but they’re growing,” she smiles. “It is hope we have for the future.” For Doreyda, like many other farmers in the region, working the land borders on a mystical experience, a continuous loop of giving and receiving with the earth they inherited from their ancestors, ensuring their families and communities thrive.
“When we harm the land, we are not only harming ourselves, we are harming others as well. People think, ‘The farm is mine, so I can do whatever I want. Who am I hurting?’ No. We hurt our community, as well,” says María del Carmen Herrera, a farmer from Rancho Grande, Matagalpa. “I tell my children, ‘Let’s work. This is not only for me. It is for you, as well, and it will later be for your children.’ That is my motto. My children will need to build their homes, and wood is expensive. So my children’s homes will come from this land.”
Nicaragua is facing complex development issues that are challenging this delicate balance and traditional production practices that have been passed down over generations. Extensive livestock production and a lack of incentives and policy enforcement to protect conservation areas has resulted in the fast expansion of the agricultural frontier, with over 20% of the country’s forests lost to date.
Natural resource degradation is further exacerbated by high vulnerability to the effects of climate change. The region is experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record, resulting in significant losses in crop production and negatively impacting food security. Over half of the country’s rural population lives in conditions of poverty as an evolving economic landscape, coupled with limited access to markets, is leaving vulnerable communities behind.
Knowledge is Power: The Territorial Learning Alliances
When it comes to agricultural development, Nicaragua is not starting from scratch. Nicaraguan communities consider knowledge sharing and learning experiences crucial channels to facilitate sustainable growth. “Sometimes other farmers ask me things. They want to know something good, so I base my answer on the institution,” Doreyda comments on the importance of having an organization supporting her as she explores innovative approaches to her productive activities and shares her experience with others in her community. “That helps me very much, because if I know something important and useful, I can share it with them, but it is based on the institution.”
Local development organizations have decades of experience facilitating these processes in their territories and building trust with rural farming communities. During the Organizational Analysis conducted by CIAT through Humidtropics, a CGIAR research program, organizations expressed that innovation and learning often result from the collaboration between different stakeholders, and rarely from a single organization working on its own. Furthermore, while eager to take part in innovation processes, organizations are often reluctant to take on leadership roles in these processes.
“An institution can start a journey on its own, but alliances are important to give each other feedback,” says Isabel Meza, of the local NGO Fundación Entre Mujeres (FEM) in Estelí. “We need to share to improve our experiences, because one organization’s strength is another’s weakness. We need to come together to create knowledge for development.”
To better integrate the development initiatives aimed at enhancing innovation and promoting sustainable intensification of small-scale agriculture as a means to raise the incomes of rural families, Humidtropics established the local Territorial Learning Alliances. Involving farmer associations and cooperatives, national and international NGOs, academic institutions, research centers, and stakeholders from the private and public sectors, the Alliances offer an inclusive platform to foster exchanges among actors working with coffee, cocoa, and mixed staple crop-livestock systems.
The Alliances also provide a new way to harness the research efforts of the Program and its partners, using the wide range of tools and methodologies that have been developed throughout decades of ongoing collaborative work in Central America, aimed at improving key agricultural products, strengthening their commercial potential through new market links, and reducing vulnerability in the face of climate change and other pressures.
A New Vision for the Future of Smallholder Farms
From the drought-stricken hillsides where the mixed crop-livestock Alliance tackles issues like erosion and soil degradation, across the coffee territory’s struggle with plagues and soil management, to the lush, humid landscape where the cocoa Alliance mediates productive activities on the edge of Bosawás, the second largest rainforest reserve in the Western Hemisphere, the diversity of social, political, and agro-environmental contexts found in Nicaragua’s various productive territories provide ample opportunity to tackle critical development challenges by encouraging the sharing of experiences and boosting networks of collaboration.
“The most important thing is for farmers’ institutions to put into practice what we have been learning and working on with the organizations,” comments Margarita Serrato, from Asociación para la Diversificación y el Desarrollo Agrícola Comunal (ADDAC). “We want to leave a solid base, for them to have a solid cooperative, so that once the institution is no longer here, their cooperative will take over these processes, and they will no longer need us to take action before their municipality.”
Bringing together local organizations, farmers, rural women and youth has been a revealing learning process, highlighting the value communities place on knowledge and information as a key building block for development, translating into actions that reduce rural poverty, increase food security, improve nutrtion and health, and promote the sustainable management of natural resources. Through their ongoing work, the Alliances are cultivating a new vision through which communities can conserve their roles as guardians of these valuable resources, transforming their farms into life-giving spaces for innovation and risk mitigation, to build gender equity and to safeguard natural resources for future generations.
“Of course I feel different when I have that support,” smiles Doreyda. “The technicians, they come [visit] me every day, and we go look at my crops together. I feel happy to walk alongside [them], knowing that I’m doing something good.”
Humidtropics works alongside farm families in tropical Africa, Asia, and the Americas to improve the income and wellbeing of rural populations through the sustainable intensification of agricultural systems, preserving the land for future generations.
Blog written by Shadi Azadegan, Communication Specialist for Humidtropics/CIAT.