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Moving from a history of poverty and hunger in Nicaragua into something transformational

by Oxfam | October 30, 2012

Silvia has something many women in Nicaragua want: title to the land she works.

by Robert Fox

Because she owns land she can get a loan and working capital. With those two things— and a great deal of hard work and the help of a nephew—she's been able to go from feeding her family to supplying produce to supermarkets in the capital.

Silvia lives in Palancaguina, nestled among the hills of Nueva Segovia not far from the Honduran border. It's an arid zone—marked by a history of poverty and hunger—where those with land eked out a living growing beans and maize.

Silvia and members of the May 10th Coop are beginning to change all that.

Silvia grows tomatoes, peppers and sweet corn on five acres of land. Planting is staggered so she's harvesting produce every week year round in three cycles. Crops are rotated to protect the soil.

Starting several years ago with her first tomato plants, she now produces 25 tonnes of tomatoes a year and 1200 peppers a week which are sold to a company that supplies supermarkets in Managua.

Silvia can count on help from her nephew Arnolfo, who has formal training in agriculture, and members of her family.  But equally important she has been able to get loans from the May 10th Coop, a credit and service cooperative founded in 1995.

The loans have allowed her to convert more and more of her land to intensive, diversified farming that needs an up-front investment in materials and infrastructure: seedlings, plastic tubing used for drip irrigation, plastic sheeting that serves as mulch and reduces risk of white fly.

Each year she produces and earns more—repaying her loans and reinvesting profits in her farm. For Silvia the next big investment would be a greenhouse so that she could cut costs by producing her own seedlings.

Mariana too has used Coop loans to diversify production, growing onions, tomatoes, cucumber and greens. With seven children, perhaps the biggest change in her life is that her husband no longer has to leave home to find work. When they relied solely on maize and beans, he would travel to Costa Rica to earn money as a farmworker, returning home for the sowing and the harvest.  Now he works year round in their fields and she goes to town daily to market their produce. But her roadside stand is quite precarious. So she's supporting efforts by the coop to secure funding for construction of a farmers' market.

The credit coop has grown to more than 700 members, almost half of them women. Women members are more likely to have savings accounts and are more likely to take out—and repay—loans. But the loans to women tend to be for smaller amounts and shorter terms—most often used for health care or education or other family needs. Meanwhile men are more likely to receive larger loans with longer terms, most destined to support agriculture or livestock production. This discrepancy is not accidental; it's systemic. Given women most often don't own land or other assets, they can't put up the collateral required to secure a large loan.

The coop is looking at ways to tackle this issue and balance its loans among women and men.  It sees the success female-headed farms can have and recognizes the contribution women make to farms where formal title to the land may be vested with the husband.

For that reason it is supporting efforts of Oxfam partner FENACOOP, the national federation of cooperatives to which May 10th belongs, to reform the law governing coops to recognize women's role and make co-ownership easier.

Meanwhile Silvia and Mariana are moving ahead, improving and diversifying their diets and incomes—and feeding ever more people with healthy, nutritious, local food in the process

Robert Fox is the Executive Director of Oxfam Canada.