DISA 2013 | Agros International
Carlos and Marina, a young Honduran couple, were desperate to move their family to a safe place, but faced many obstacles that made it seem impossible. Their youngest daughter, 5-year-old Lizzy, had developed respiratory problems, and they worried that proximity to a toxic river posed a grave risk. They had no land of their own, and no hope for their family’s future. That is, until they heard from a neighbor about a nearby Agros village, and jumped at the opportunity to move there. Last year, they harvested their first crop of coffee, and Lizzy’s respiratory problems dissipated. Their lives are dramatically different now, and they have hope that their future will be bright with success because of their hard work.
Carlos and Marina’s story is only one example of how non-governmental organization (NGO) Agros International empowers families in Central America to work their way out of poverty. In many of the regions where Agros works, as many as 70 percent of the people are living in poverty and many are earning less than $1.50 per day. Agros has made it their mission to give these people not only better living circumstances and means of making money, but a sense of hope and pride. This is why the organization was honored by a group of University of Idaho International Studies Students with the 2013 Distinction of International Service Award (DISA).
Working primarily in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, Agros International (based in Seattle, Washington) uses donations to buy local farmland in Central American communities, and then parcels the land out to rural families. The families must work the land to repay Agros. Of course, Agros assists the family in building sustainable agricultural based businesses. The NGO believes that when families invest their “sweat” equity in the land they gain not only the expertise necessary to build a livelihood, but also dignity and hope. Then they are able to pass on their knowledge to future generations to help break the cyclical nature of chronic poverty.
“The Agros Model involves a lot of steps, especially when working with people traumatized by war, poverty and illnesses such as malnutrition,” said Don Manning, CEO and president of Agros International. “Helping them to establish a livelihood and to believe in themselves is the key to sustainability.”
The Agros Model focuses on three key components: Health and Well Being, which requires creating a communal governance structure and empowering the women in the community; Agricultural Technology and Production, which builds market-driven agricultural businesses; and Financial Empowerment, which promotes financial competence with investment, savings and debt management.
“There is always a big celebration in the communities when a family pays off their land loan and receives title to the land. The land title is always made out in both the man and woman’s name,” said Manning.
Manning, who has been the CEO and president for the past 14 months, and served on the Agros board for six years prior to that, says that it’s the human side of the organization that keeps him inspired.
“There are so many stories of lives that have been dramatically changed just in the last few years,” said Manning, sharing a story of a young man who had managed to pay off his coffee field in four years, rather than the seven to 10 years it takes most individuals.
“He went to show me his coffee plantation, and before stepping out of the truck I asked the man, ‘Do I have permission to walk on your land today?’ And you could just see the sense of pride that man had in finally owning and successfully managing his own land,” said Manning.
Through 2013, Agros International has established 42 villages in four Central American countries and Mexico and has seen great change in the local communities. The organization, originally founded by Skip Li, has been at work for nearly 30 years.
The long-term promise and commitment of Agros International is what stood out to student committee members Ruben Tsarukyan, Carly Lauffer, Patrick Green, Leanna Dann and Katie Russell as they selected the NGO for the 2013 DISA award. This award was created by UI International Studies students in 2011 to recognize NGOs that are making a powerful impact in today’s world. The team worked during the semester to critique Northwest NGOs that had an international focus to select one for the award.
“The selection process was somewhat based on how large and old the NGO was,” said Lauffer. “We wanted an NGO that was down-to-Earth with less publicity.”
The sustainability of the NGO was also a factor for selection.
“Part of what initially attracted us to Agros was their long-term and holistic approach,” said Green. “We were also looking for an NGO with financial accuracy and integrity.”
Agros fit the bill. The team also wanted an organization that successfully acted on their mission statements to provide real-life results.
“The purpose of human life is to serve and show compassion for others, so we wanted to see what the focus of each NGO was. Land is a very valuable asset that could really change someone’s life. What Agros is doing is very important,” said Tsarukyan. “[Agros] doesn’t just give them land, but helps them mentally and emotionally.”
And Agros plans to continue to make positive change, with hopes to expand beyond Central America. However, the NGO isn’t just concerned with “successful” numbers. Agros is dedicated to creating solid, quality communities before moving on to establish others.
“We want to reach bigger areas and interconnect current villages to create a regional impact on both villagers and those living outside the village,” said Manning. “There are families living outside of our villages that own land but they are not as productive as they could be with some assistance. We aren’t going to ignore them. We want to provide them with expertise to improve, and make sure the villages we have work really well before expanding.”
Agros, a faith-based Christian organization, takes the advice to love thy neighbor whole-heartedly, and will continue to improve the lives of families just across the U.S. border.
“Even though the organization has experienced great change, I’ve never questioned the heart of Agros,” said Manning. The NGO will further provide a sense of hope and pride in Central American communities, breaking down the cycle of poverty through the gift of land.
By Lisa Laughlin
Originally written Spring 2013