Nicaraguan woman plants new ideas in Northumberland

First published:
By Robert Washburn

The best lessons come to us from the most unexpected places.

The recent tour by Nicaraguan Zoraida Bonilla in Northumberland County gives a tiny insight into the massive problems facing her country. Sponsored by the local non-government organization Horizons of Friendship, Ms. Bonilla’s trip involved a hectic schedule of meetings, speaking engagements and farm tours.

Her work with the Association for People’s Development in Nicaragua is both complex and simple. She is simply trying to make life better for the countless farmers who live in incredible poverty. Just over 81 per cent of the rural population lives in poverty, with half of those people living in extreme poverty, said Ms. Bonilla. Agriculture represents a major portion of the economy with food being 60 per cent of its exports and one-quarter of the gross domestic product. It represents one-third of the country’s employment.

Giving these poor farmers a chance to raise themselves out of these extremely hard conditions is difficult because it is so complex.

Ms. Bonilla’s organization works with 1,400 families (with up to 10 members per family) in 82 counties across the rural region.  Often, it works in areas where no other aid agency would go. Horizons sponsor this work.

To hear her speak about conditions in her homeland is important. And it is also significant that we understand how our community can help. Money and resources, said Ms. Bonilla. Cash is vital so the farmers can buy what they need. Resources, such as notebooks, pencils and the like, can mean so much for children in school, who have nothing. The list of basic items is long.

It would be a mistake to believe these trips to Canada are merely a one-way exchange. Certainly their value cannot be underestimated for our southern friends. But to think for a moment that we have all the knowledge and we have nothing to learn from Ms. Bonilla and her fellow Nicaraguans is just not so. In fact, there is a serious lesson to be learned.

One of the major hurdles for farmers in Nicaragua is the dispute over who owns the land. Once the civil war ended a little more than a decade ago, farmers have literally been fighting – sometimes violently – over the titles of the land. The Sandanista government gave the land to peasant co-operatives as part of efforts to nationalize land ownership. The American-backed Contras fought a civil war with the government with an understanding the land would be given to them. To make things even more difficult, landowners that fled the country when the Sandanistas came to power, returned to lay claim to property. Acre on acre of good land is left in limbo.

With the election of the new president Enrique Bolanos earlier this month, Ms. Bonilla said the status quo would prevail despite promises during the campaign.

“The new president said he would help small farmers,” she said last week. “But after the campaign, I am pretty sure they are not going to help the people. There is no hope.”

Locally we only have to look at our own farmers to reflect on the chilling reality. As family farms are being replaced by larger corporate operations, often owned by huge multinational conglomerates, we must be afraid. These tenant farmers are becoming surfs on property that was once owned by generations of the same family. Without family farms, the control of our food source is left to the Wal-Mart mentality of international agri-business. Those who are left behind are crushed by the meager prices for crops and livestock. Everyday people no longer control the land, and by extension, we no longer control our food.

A similar concern comes over the urban development of farmland. We have watched as the provincial government stickhandles the sensitive future of the Oak Ridges Moraine. Hamilton Township council learned recently that a portion of the lands north of Cold Springs will be frozen for any use. Developers across the moraine complain bitterly about lost investment, but without careful thought, the entire watershed could be permanently damaged.

That is just one example. There is a constant barrage of disputes over what to do with land in Northumberland. Often pitting developers with others. Almost always it comes to a debate over property rights.

The question of who owns the land must be carefully considered. While we may not face the same violent disputes over land ownership as the Nicaraguan people, we must appreciate the importance of keeping a majority of the land in the hands of independent farmers and not multinational corporations. We must also pay attention to who owns environmentally significant (or otherwise) land within our communities.

When Ms. Bonilla was a young girl, she worked on her family’s farm. She was known as Zoraida “palitos”, which means “the one who plants”. While the reference originally was to the crops on the farm, maybe she has planted some ideas for us to consider in Northumberland.