February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
William is a young man who worked as a day laborer before he became part of an Agros community in El Salvador. One day he was working with his father and fell out of a tree and hurt his back. In the hospital he worried about the mounting debt, the future of his children, and how they would ever survive. He contemplated suicide. Much later, he shared this story with a group of Agros service team volunteers from the US. They asked about the debt that almost ended his life. William responded, “It was about $27.” The group gasped. William’s new debt for the land he was buying from Agros to produce for his family was much larger. How does someone go from contemplating suicide over $27 to feeling secure in assuming a larger debt? William continued, “I now have a vision for a different life, a future for my children.” As the evening ended, William shared a prayer request with the group. “I don’t want to become materialistic and just be worried about things.”
Agros International is a non-profit organization that enables rural poor families in Central America and Mexico to escape the cycle of poverty by purchasing their own land. Although buying and selling land is “what we do,” it is not “what we’re about.” Agros is not about capitalism, although capitalism is a key tool we use to reach our goals. Agros seeks to bring about change that restores relationships and dignity.
Agros did not begin with the purpose of promoting one economic system over another. It began as a response to a basic need: for people to have access to the resource of land that would enable them to use their farming vocation to provide for their families. Agros is about providing an opportunity for people’s dreams to come true. It is about restoring relationships based on the Biblical concept of Shalom, the idea that everything is in a “right” or ”peaceful” relationship: one with God, one with self, one with community, and one with the environment. The scope of this definition transcends the usual translation of peace.
Upholding the concept of Shalom is one of Agros’ core values. Taking a holistic and sustainable approach to development, Agros works to restore the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual brokenness of the people we serve. Through experience, Agros has discovered that by singling out only the economic needs of an individual it cannot address the true issues of poverty, only a piece of it. The initial and continued focus of Agros is on land, but since we believe that people are made in God’s image, we must work with the whole person, not just one part of the person that works the soil. Agros builds hope on the foundation of land ownership, and then pursues the development and transformation through Christ of the whole person.
The people involved in Agros are motivated by the example and model of Jesus to serve the poor, regardless of their faith or their past.
Catarina is a grandmother. Her story is similar to many women in the Ixil villages where Agros works in Guatemala. She can remember living in the mountains during the long civil war. She cries as she remembers trying to provide food for her children, when they had to continually run and could not plant crops. Today she is proud of a steep hillside that she has cleared of brush and has terraced so that it can support the hundreds of trees she has planted. Corn grows between the rows of young trees. “My dream is that this will produce for my grandchildren.” She is using her land in a way that sustains life now and for the future.
The Agros model is relatively simple. It provides land ownership to groups of people who have no land, who are willing to work hard and who have developed a vision for a different kind of future. The basic components of the Agros model are the following:
This model is based on villagers participating at every level of the village development process. By asking them questions, we can identify key values leading to the success of their village.
Over the past 23 years, Agros has discovered a few key concepts upon which we strive to build each village. First, understanding the context in which we work, such as the importance of local culture, language, and practice is paramount to the people we serve. History, language, beliefs, politics, and economics can shape and form how a person or groups of people respond to various challenges. For example, years of civil war and unrest have displaced thousands of families in Mexico and Central America, resulting in a lack of employment opportunities. This forces people to leave the rural areas, impacting family structure, traditional values, and urban poverty.
Second, Agros begins the development process by asking people what their vision is for the future. In the past, development work started with an assessment of people’s needs. Food security and physical security are important but beyond that, we ask people what they want for their children and future generations. We discover that even people who are barely surviving have dreams. Their dreams often encompass basic needs like providing enough food for their family, but they also include ideas like providing an education for their children so that the next generation can contribute and participate in new and different ways in their community.
Third, Agros emphasizes the importance of relationships. In Bryant Meyer’s book, Walking with the Poor, he draws on the Old Testament theology of Shalom that aptly describes what hundreds of people have learned through volunteer service with Agros. We have learned that poverty is not about economics. We are all poor because we are all affected by broken relationships. The people in the villages need the capital and other resources Agros supporters can provide, and we need our relationships with these same people to help us understand what it means to be dependent on God, on one another, and on the environment. Even though we continue to talk about “the rich” and “the poor” working together, we recognize that our relationships help us understand the poverty we all share.
“I went down ready to give. I thought I knew so much because of my education, my professional expertise, etc. What I discovered is that in my humble attempt to ‘give,’ I ended up receiving so much more. I will never forget the response from the people when they saw water coming out of their faucets for the first time, ‘Thanks be to God.’ I learned so much about what is really important.”
—Service team member who worked on the installation of a water system for a village in El Salvador
Part of sustainability is good planning as well as recognizing and understanding the underlying values of a specific community. In our planning and implementation we use Kingdom values to under-gird the process. Agros believes that ultimately a difference will be made through modeling God’s values as expressed in the Bible. This is where living and working in a community can make a big difference — when people are accountable to each other. A villager thinks, “I can’t just go out and make lots of money on my own. I need to think about the whole community.”
The community of San Diego was looking forward to a bumper crop of corn and beans due to the new agricultural techniques they had learned from Agros and from the bountiful rain that came at the right times during the growing season. I walked out to talk with Don Santos. I thought that I would find him smiling; instead he had a big frown on his face. It was clear he was worried. I asked him about the crop. He confirmed the reports. They had a great crop. “So why are you so worried I asked?” He answered, “Because last night our president signed the letter of intent for the new Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and this morning corn prices dropped 40 percent.” I thought about what would happen if my salary were cut one morning by 40 percent.
Even while there are disappointments due to the trade agreements, restrictions imposed by the US and the changing world markets around agricultural commodities, there are still new opportunities. Cities continue to grow, therefore the local market continues to grow. The question is how to navigate through all of the market relationships to be able to provide a product at a cost that will be fair for everyone. Agros’ progress is a continual learning process, and connecting with others who are discovering what we are helps us build great partnerships.
How does Agros measure its success? The easiest way is to determine how many people have paid for their land. However, that is just part of the answer.
If we have facilitated the development of people with Kingdom values and created communities that are able to pass on the blessing for their children and for other communities, then that is a step in the right direction. When families from the US and families from Agros villages can sit down and dream about a different kind of future for all, then Agros is successful in giving people a taste of God’s Kingdom, here and now.