Does your desk, like mine, have a stack of year-end charitable requests? 'Tis the season to ponder again what causes best fit our values and which organizations will make best use of the checks we send. With both my time and money I try to balance local and global needs, looking to create opportunity rather than dependency. The surprise is that to the extent I choose and act wisely, I am changed. I get to glimpse the best in humanity, a gift beyond measure in these days when our worst seems always in view.
Perhaps it's part of my Iowa DNA, but much of my personal focus is on raising food, from our backyard garden and chickens to the fields of smallholder farmers around the world. I know how it feels to be in relationship with the soil, the rain, the sun and the seasons. And I've seen the faces and heard the stories of what it means to parents in Zambia and Laos and Guatamala to be able to feed their families. Dignity, hope and creativity are part of the harvest and provide good seed for the future.
The area of disaster response will continue to necessitate relief that meets immediate needs. But Robert Lupton, a Christian community developer and author, is among those advising that as soon as possible it be replaced by development, lest we do more harm than good. "When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them," he writes. More organizations are finding that taking a long view and investing in the development of under-resourced communities brings the power of human dignity, hope and creativity into the equation, making an exciting difference.
Seeing that difference with my own eyes was the reason I headed to the mountains of Nicaragua earlier this month with friends I've worked along side for years — staff and volunteers from the Foods Resource Bank. The grassroots organization focuses on the importance of smallholder farmers in addressing global hunger and poverty. We advocate on their behalf and support the work of local partner organizations in establishing food security.
This work differs from place to place because it is based on a community's assets and is targeted to address the needs and desires of the farmers themselves. We were off to visit "land banks," large tracts of land that had been purchased, subdivided into five-acre parcels and sold to landless farmers.
Nicaraguan partners secure titles, screen applicants and continue to support the communities that form. Climate-smart agriculture is core to the work here in the country ranked third most affected by climate change. My own deep concerns about global warming drew me there. Other parts of Nicaragua have been gripped by a devastating drought; this mountainous area has been especially affected by the erratic nature of rainfall. Wet and dry seasons are no longer predictable, disrupting the traditional rhythm that guided planting and harvest. When rain comes, it is increasingly likely to be in destructive torrents.
Trained agriculturalists assist new landowners in developing their land with an eye toward the changes they are experiencing and anticipating. Identifying climate-associated threats and strategizing about options for adaptation allow communities to reduce their vulnerability and develop resilience that will help them recover from a disaster. Crop diversification means that in unpredictable conditions, one crop may succeed while another fails, also providing a more varied, nutritious diet. Indigenous seeds are being rescued and tested for tolerance in climate-stressed conditions. In farmer field schools, participants test planting methods and seed varieties side by side, then decide what they want to implement on their own land. When trainings are provided, students commit to teach four others what they have learned. Knowledge spreads.
Families have built simple homes and reclaimed land that had been deforested, over-grazed and compacted. Green manure cover crops are improving depleted soils and protecting them from erosion and drought. Fruit trees are beginning to bear, as are coffee varieties resistant to the rust that has recently destroyed much of the harvest. Plantains and rice are becoming important crops along with traditional maize and beans. One proud farmer showed us a fish pond he had dug and stocked, as he shook into it termites from a nest he harvested for fish food.
Now that families are becoming food secure, marketing is the next step. Next year farmers will be trained in organizing at the cooperative level to facilitate their working together and their ability to advocate on their own behalf.
We could have learned all this by reading reports in the comfort of our own homes. Instead we hiked for miles up and down rocky, muddy mountain paths because there is simply nothing like meeting the farmers themselves.
Segundino, like his neighbors, used to be a day laborer. "Now I don't have to give away my energy to other people. Because of this program our lives are filled with happiness."
Digno told us: "I was born in poverty and set my eyes on poverty. I used to have to work for food. Now I work my land for my family."
Melvin looks to what this opportunity means for his two children. "My oldest is in first grade, and after his homework he helps me. Already he is looking for creative solutions to fix problems! My dream is a college education for my kids."
Years earlier Bismark failed in his attempt to enter the U.S. illegally. "But it was God's plan for me to come back and have this opportunity." Raising pepper and tomato seedlings, he has paid for a greenhouse. The coffee plantation is beginning to produce, and for harvest he is "dynamizing the local economy" by hiring workers, to whom his wife, Yessinia, sells bread from the business she established after they built a kiln.
They have just paid off their second plot of land, and as they were presented the title we raised cups of coffee brewed from their beans, toasting both their personal success and the vision being lived out before us of what is possible.
We witnessed the force of human dignity in creating the kind of world in which, I suspect, anyone who had been standing with us that day would want to live. We weren't there to do anything for these strong, capable people; we came because as we live in solidarity, we all grow in hope. It changes what we believe to be possible.
As the year draws to a close and we ponder opportunities for giving, I offer this: Give not out of pity, but out of a sense of justice. In sharing your resources become part of creating the world in which you want to live, the world you want today's children and grandchildren to inherit. Give generously, wisely and joyously, trusting that human dignity, hope and solidarity are forces that truly can transform our world.
JOAN WOOTERS FUMETTI, a retired United Church of Christ minister, is a former staff member with Foods Resource Bank and now works as a volunteer there. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org