July 15, 2009

The Grassroots Development: Nicaragua class visited a coffee cooperative in El Porvenir

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — The residents of El Porvenir, Nicaragua, were looking for alternative protein sources when they introduced an unusual breed of livestock to their agricultural pursuits.

Raising hairless sheep seemed like an economical way to enhance their diets - until the sheep started munching on the shade-grown coffee plants that are the livelihood of this mountaintop village near Leon.

When it came down to the sheep or the coffee, the sheep had to go, said Bucknell University Professor Paul Susman, who studies successes and failures of cooperatives in Nicaragua. Although the choice was obvious in the sheep debacle, the case is indicative of the numerous and varied challenges Nicaraguan cooperatives face as they try to build sustainable businesses in one of the poorest areas of the world.

Susman and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Molly McGuire brought a class of 17 Bucknell students to Nicaragua this summer for a course, "Grassroots Development: Nicaragua." During a three-week trip May 19 to June 7, the students learned about and visited worker-owned co-ops including the coffee operation in El Porvenir. They worked alongside members of another cooperative that is constructing a factory to spin organic cotton for clothing. And they witnessed the pronounced contrasts between the wealthy and the extremely poor during tours of various Managua neighborhoods, government buildings and sweat shops.

Around-the-clock learning
The class and Susman's research are an outgrowth of the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua, a service-learning program that this year marks its 10th anniversary. The first Brigade went to Nicaragua in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch devastated communities along Lake Managua and survivors were sent to the resettlement area, Nueva Vida. Susman has served as a faculty leader on the Brigade many times. He has been offering the summer course every other year since co-founding the Bucknell in Nicaragua program in 2005.

The service-learning class is, more or less, an expanded version of the Brigade with a formal academic component, and the days in Nicaragua are long and intense.

"Aside from the formal class sessions, the whole thing is 24-7 teaching and learning, with unlimited office hours," Susman said.

The students and professors stayed in the same one-room dormitory where the Brigade stays, at Jubilee House Community headquarters in Ciudad Sandino, near Nueva Vida. Bucknell's host agency is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Nicaraguans find health care and build sustainable businesses.

Close quarters
Breakfast was at 7:15 a.m., followed by class sessions, guest lectures, day trips or work days. Some evenings included time for reflection or writing assignments before lights out at 10:30 p.m. The class ate together, worked together, traveled in a small, bumpy, yellow bus together and learned about the history, politics and economics of Nicaragua from local experts and activists.

The summer class visited a group of banana workers who live in an encampment across from the National Assembly in Managua in protest of their exposure to pesticides. They took side trips to the U.S. Embassy and Grenada and Leon, the historical capitals of Nicaragua, and they made the harrowing trek to El Porvenir in a tractor-pulled wagon. They also spent a weekend in Selva Negra, an eco-tourism getaway that also has an organic coffee plantation, and visited tourist attractions including churches, museums and an active volcano.

Physical work - often in high temperatures and dense humidity - is an integral part of the experience, Susman said.

"They work side by side with Nicaraguans," he said. "The students this time constructed rebar frames so a concrete floor could be poured in the spinning cooperative. While the work itself was tedious, it was a vital contribution.  The cooperative needed 80 frames of rebar. In three weeks, we managed to put together 22."

Ongoing challenges
Working with members of the Genesis Spinning Plant Cooperative, the students learned first-hand about some of the challenges and triumphs of building a cooperative. Like an already operating Women's Sewing Cooperative next door, the spinning co-op wants to engage in "fair trade" with decent wages and working conditions. Convincing the women that the long-term investment will pay off is, however, an ongoing struggle.

"Part of what's going on is that a minority of members are not confident the cooperative will be successful," Susman said. "This small group had learned enough and felt sufficiently empowered to go to a government-based agency to seek a dissolution of the cooperative and a distribution of the assets. But there are no assets to distribute, and the likely outcome is that some members will leave the co-op."

Some of the co-op members, who gave up their $2-a-day jobs in sweatshops to create their own business, were worried their cooperative would meet a similar fate to that of the giant Cone Denim factory across the street from JHC that closed in March. The denim factory had agreed to take some of the spinning cooperative's organic cotton for its products.

"On the one hand, it's disheartening to see conflict among the co-op members," Susman said. "On the other, they have realized a level where they know their rights."

As a free-trade zone, the spinning cooperative members will receive higher wages, benefits and better working conditions than in the sweatshops, but not until after the business is up-and-running.

Kurt Davies, an incoming junior, hopes to work for a nonprofit group that focuses on developing countries in Latin America after graduation. He said the class fit in perfectly with his major, international relations with a focus on Latin America. Working with members of the spinning cooperative was an especially moving experience, he said.

"It's pretty amazing that this group of mostly women and a few men have been working for two years now with no pay and putting all their chips in that one basket for the opportunity to put themselves ahead," Davies said.

Leslie Kramm, an incoming third-year student who is majoring in Spanish and environmental studies, also said the class reinforced her drive to pursue a master's in public health after graduation.

"It's hard to sum up the course," she said. "It really solidified my career goal to get into global public health. It changed my perspective, too. ... When you get home, you really think about your activities and what you buy and consume."

Contact: Division of Communications