Welcome to CCA’s international development blog page … the sights and sounds, the people and places as experienced by credit union and co-operative volunteers on the frontline of development.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 11

It’s my final blog for this development education study mission to Nicaragua. But rather than give my impressions of our experience one last time, the final word goes to my teammates and the cooperators we met in Nicaragua. Here are few quotes that did not make it into previous blogs.

Memorable quotes
“The co-operative movement is going to make a big impact on this country.” Bill Freeman, Toronto freelance writer

“This mission has given me a deep appreciation for what we have in Canada.” Roger Harrop, Fergus Ontario dairy farmer, GayLea board member. “It’s been a truly educational experience.”

“We produce just as the land provided.” Gonzalo, organic coffee bean grower

“I feel blessed to have a chance to come here. It makes me want to do more.” Marie-Claude Jette, Metis National Council, Ottawa

“We are very happy in God’s name.” Krukira Fisheries Co-operative secretary Mary Webster welcoming our team.

“We can’t just sit around scratching our behinds, looking at the ocean.” Ralph Washington, Krukira Fisheries Co-operative.

“What we brought is nothing compared to what they (the Nicaraguans) have given us.” Betty Willemsen, Ontario Dairy Farmer

“The co-operative movement is very beautiful.” Bernardo Cardenal, president, CECAMPO, Masaya

“Rape is a huge issue,” Martha Downs, executive director of ODISRAN, association for the disabled referring to a 17-year-old mentally challenged quadriplegic who was impregnated by her father.

“We are very proud because we did not know we have a family in Canada and now we see this with our own eyes and we are very, very happy.” Ralph Washington

“The commercial banks don’t think farmers pay back their loans.” Jorge Martinez, president of Caja Rural Credit Union, Managua, explaining why 60 % of its services support agriculture production.

“The shorter rainy season means we have a small window to plant and harvest our crops.” Mausilia Navas, La Esperanza red bean co-op, commenting of the effects of climate change on Nicaragua’s agriculture sector.

“The co-op is very aware about gender issues. I think it’s very important because we incorporate this into our lives.” Lesbia Vargez, farm woman, member of La Esperanza board

“I can’t wait for my son to finish school.” Myra Kormann, Calgary Co-op board member telling the team that she hopes to take her son on a similar mission when he gets older.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission- Day 10

I’m on a plane somewhere between Miami and Toronto. Dirk and Betty Willemsen are seated behind me and Roger Harrop is a few seats ahead. Vera Goussaert, Nicole Woelke, Marie-Claude Jette and Lise Boissonneault are headed to Chicago where they will split up to make connecting flights to Ottawa and Winnipeg. Karen Timoshuk took an earlier flight to Houston enroute to Saskatoon, while Bill Freeman is waiting for a later flight to Mexico. Bill Lee is on a bus bound for Costa Rica. Myra Kormann and Tony Dawson have remained in Nicaragua to spend more time touring the country. Before going our separate ways I asked my teammates to share with me their fondest memories from this mission. Here’s what they had to say:
Mission’s Most Memorable Moments
• Watching sun set on Lake Nicaragua with volcano in background
• Young boys jumping off the shoulders of Dirk and Betty into Lake Nicaragua
• Swimming in the healing waters of a volcanic spring, followed by salsa dancing
• Americano breakfasts – pancakes, fresh fruit and honey; Nicaraguan lunches – beans, rice, tortillas, fajitas, plantain
• Looking down into the crater of an active volcano
• Handing out balloons, pencils and putting smiles on the faces of children
• Getting to know a cross-section of Canadians from coast to coast
• Spending time with Canadians who are passionate about co-operatives
• Meeting Nicaraguans who are practicing the co-operative principles in their daily lives
• Reconnecting with our co-operative roots; feeling rejuvenated about efforts of co-operatives to fulfill economic and social needs of people everywhere
• Discovering how Nicaraguan credit unions are giving micro credits to help aspiring entrepreneurs, from tortilla and pastry makers to yucca and orange producers
• Hearing that co-operatives are helping members do things for their families that we take for granted like sending their children to school and giving them fresh milk to drink
• Learning about a unique form of eco-tourism in which tourists stay with local families and share their skills with the communities, e.g. teaching English at the local school, providing medical attention
• Sipping wind made with the fruits and herbs grown by Candida, an Ometepe farm woman
• Filling our bus with tables and chairs for our meeting with the Krukira fisheries co-op
• Crossing a wooden plank bridge with the bus driver’s 14-year-old son behind the wheel
• Checking out the nightlife in Bilwi after a late night dinner at a chicken take-out
• Dirk having to crawl on his hands and knees to get his 6’ 3” frame into a tiny 12-seater plane
• Taking off in the plane, leaving four team members behind at the Bilwi airport, without notice
• Thinking a tarp-covered stand was the airport terminal at Bilwi
• Nicole, Vera signing up Tony, Betty and Karen for Facebook
• Bill and his drive-by shooting (taking countless photos of oxen carts, horses, etc. through the front window of our van)
• CECAMPO secretary Carlos and his sideways hat
• Interpreter Ron testing our gullibility by making up answers to questions he didn’t know
• Welcoming Lola (a monkey) on board our boat
• Hotel preparing guacamole from fresh avocado, served with complimentary Crown Royal
• Having coffee grower peel my orange with a machete
• Showing children their pictures on digital cameras
• Recapping the day’s events poolside over cold cervezas (beer)
• Getting our group photo taken at Ometepe
• Watching a mother monkey and her baby swing from a vine, nearly touching the top of my head

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 9

Packed suitcases stand by our hotel room doors, filled with souvenirs to take home to loved ones in Canada. We head home tomorrow after nearly two weeks in Nicaragua carrying heavier luggage than we arrived, but more significantly, with fuller hearts and richer minds.

Our experiences have made us keenly aware of how fortunate we are as Canadians to live in a land of plenty and opportunity.

We return “rejuvenated” from having seen first-hand the positive difference co-ops are making in the lives of Nicaraguans.

We leave inspired by the people of this country for their resilience, their passion for life and their determination to pull themselves out of poverty.

We will fondly remember their ever-present smiles, the pride they took in the properties and the way they treated all children as if they were their own.

These are not my words but those of my teammates who shared their thoughts following a final dinner in Managua. Together, we took this eye-opening journey through the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and came away feeling hopeful about Nicaragua’s future.

“I made the erroneous assumption that with extreme poverty there would be extreme sadness,” Nicole Woelke said. “Instead I saw such warmth. They (Nicaraguans) did not have a lot of physical things around them, but that did not matter.”

One of Vera Goussaert’s personal goals for the mission was to reconnect with the roots of the co-operative movement in narrowing the gap between those that have and those who have not. “We lose sight of the impacts co-ops have on our communities.”

Vera and the other team members plan to apply the lessons they learned on this mission to help others both abroad and in Canada. “What works here certainly can work at home (to address poverty).”

Both Nicole and Myra Kormann hope to take the children on similar missions when they get older and everyone is eager to tell their stories when they get back to time. The team is also keen to get more involved in supporting the international development efforts of the Canadian Cooperative Association.

“There is hope and co-ops will work in Nicaragua,” Betty Willemsen said, expressing a widely held sentiment among the group.

“I found Nicaragua to be a very poor country but yet optimistic,” Bill Freeman agreed. “This trip reaffirmed by belief in co-ops and grassroots organizations.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 8

If your idea of roughing it is staying at a hotel without laundry service or Wi-Fi then scratch Nicaragua off your list of must-see places. This is NOT a country for the faint of heart. Yes, it has sun, surf and sand – the holy trinity of most dream vacations - but generally its hotels provide only the bare basics to its guests – a bed, lamp, fan, cold water showers and an air conditioner if you’re willing to pay extra.

Still, Nicaragua is increasingly becoming a hot spot for tourists because of its tropical climate and its abundance of biologically significant and unique ecosystems. In fact, it was named one of the top 10 places to go in the world in 2010. According to a recent article I read in the Globe and Mail, travelers like that it is not as well trodden and cheaper than its popular neighbor to the south, Costa Rica, yet offers similar biodiversity.

After a week and a half in Nicaragua I can appreciate its allure to vacationers, particularly the last two days when we have had ample time to sightsee. We swam in volcanic springs; watched monkeys swing from treetops; strolled the cobblestone streets of Granada; shopped for native handcrafts at the Masaya market and took a boat tour that saw one of the monkeys climb onboard for a snack.

As tourists, we have seen the many faces of Nicaragua, from extreme destitution to extraordinary opulence, from barefoot children begging for a few Cordobas to multi-million dollar island homes that have sailboats tethered to their docks and monkeys chained to their trees as symbols of wealth.

Nicaragua’s economic progress has been slowed by a civil war, U.S. trade embargo and natural disasters (including extensive damage from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Felix in 2007). More than half the population is either underemployed or unemployed. About 40 per cent of the Nicaraguans who are working are employed in agriculture and sector exports are the main contributor to its economy.

The poor economy, combined with years of fighting and natural disasters, also damaged Nicaragua’s transportation and communication systems, setting development back decades. The recent economic crisis slowed economic growth even further as remittances decreased and demand and prices for the country’s exports fell.

Nicaragua is a representative democratic republic and the largest country in Central America with an area of 130,000 square kilometers, although only 20 per cent of the land is suitable for cultivation. Nearly 60 per cent of Nicaragua’s 5.8 million inhabitants are Roman Catholic. Spanish is the predominant language.

Would I recommend Nicaragua as a holiday destination? Yes, just remember that it’s an impoverished paradise. Your accommodations might not be luxurious but the people are friendly and there are plenty of incredible things to see and do. Plus, the beer’s not bad. The tortillas are tasty. And Nicaraguan rum rivals Cuba’s.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 7

As I’m writing this blog the setting sun is casting a warm glow on the open-air restaurant where my teammates have gathered for the past two days for good food and conversation. We are a cross-section of Canadians from coast to coast united by our commitment to promote, unite and develop co-operatives in Canada and abroad.
Today was a day of well-deserved rest for our team and, I should add, the beginning of International Development Week. So it is fitting that we are here in Nicaragua doing our small part to build a better world. The goal of our mission is to turn our experiences into stories to tell Canadians upon our return. In doing so, we hope to inform and inspire others to support the work of the Canadian Cooperative Association to build sustainable co-ops and communities around the globe.

We have left children, grandchildren, including Betty and Dirk Willemsen’s one-week-old grandchild, husbands, wives and pets – even a fish – to participate in this mission as CCA observers and messengers. Our team is comprised of a freelance writer from Toronto, two dairy farmers from Ontario, an organic apple grower from BC, a Saskatchewan grain producer, leaders of GayLea, the Calgary Co-op, United Farmers of Alberta, Assiniboine Credit Union, Manitoba Co-operative Association, Metis National Council and Red River Co-op.

I am humbled and honoured to be part of this group of civic-minded Canadians who personify the guiding principles of the co-operative movement.

A number of us have participated in previous missions to various corners of the globe including Ghana, the Philippines and Indonesia, with CCA and other humanitarian organizations. Among them is Karen Timoshuk, CCA’s development education coordinator for the Prairies, who has led similar missions to Asia and Costa Rica. I asked this mother of two earlier in the week what motivates her, given the sacrifices one makes to go on these missions. “The importance of the message,” she replies thoughtfully. “The world is too small and its children too precious to think and act only within our borders.”

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 6

Candida Espinoza is a tiny wisp of a woman, barely five feet tall, with her grey hair neatly tied in the back. She’s a mother of nine, grandmother of 33 and one of 15 farm women who belong to La Espenanza, an agricultural co-operative on the scenic island of Ometepe.

Candida grows a variety of aromatic herbs, produces a variety of citrus fruit, yucca and sesame seeds and makes Jamaican wine which she serves to the Canadian visitors to her 1.5 hectare farm.

“As you can see we are they type of people who, if we don’t make a profit with one product, we make it with another,” she says proudly as we admire her tidy mixed operation at the base of one of Ometepe’s two volcanoes.

Tumeric is one of her more profitable commodities. At one time she had a contract with a Swiss company that purchased her entire crop for $3.50/kilo. However, when the firm took six months to pay, the relationship ended. Candida is now in search of other markets for tumeric and the other products she harvests from the volcanic ash-fertilized soil. “It would be wonderful if one day if we could export to other countries so we can sell our products at international market prices, rather than local.”

The second stop on our farm tour takes us to another mixed operation headed by Lesbia Vargez. She is one of two women who serve on the board of La Espenanza. Lesbia notes that her co-operative, like many of the co-operatives we have visited, actively promotes gender equality. In fact, it was written into the by-laws that the board comprise of no less than two female directors. Moreover, members have received gender awareness training on issues ranging from the role of women in decision-making to reproduction. “We know that the women are not here to have babies but to work,” explains Mausilia Navas, co-op secretary.

La Espenanza represents 52 producers in total and directly benefits more than 200 families on the island. Formed in 2000, it markets primarily sesame seeds and red beans. The latter are processed by Delcampo, a central cooperative based in Leon. The co-op is assisted by CCA-supported CECAMPO, particularly in the areas of administration and accounting.

Producers here face many of the same challenges that confront their Canadian counterparts, from rising input costs and falling market prices to global warming and a shrinking land base. Foreigners and Nicaraguan mainlanders are buying the island’s relatively cheap lakefront properties, while climate change is narrowing the time frame farmers can plant and harvest their crops. Nicaragua’s rainy season is getting shorter, meaning they have only from June to September to grow sesame seeds and corn and soy from September to October. This in turn has led to a labour shortage because farm labourers head to Costa Rica to work once the harvest done and do not return.

Still, there are opportunities for the producers thanks to the collective power of their co-operative. One of their goals is to acquire micro irrigation systems to lengthen the growing season for Ometepe’s small scale farms.

The co-operative has been a positive force in the lives of the producers and thei r families. “Our lives have certainly improved,” board member Natanail Alvarez says. “We started from nothing and now we have a production centre. We have food to eat and we can send our kids to school. “

“It has been a huge effort on our part but well worth having a co-op,” Mausilia agrees.

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 5

In Managua there is a village built on garbage. The dump is home to 6,000 men, women and children, spanning three generations, whose day-to-day existence depends on the waste they salvage. They pick through the refuse for food, clothing, shoes and recyclables like tin and plastic bottles. A few years ago houses were constructed for the dump's resident scavengers but bit by bit they sold off the building materials for a few cordobas (Nicaraguan currency).

This morning we met an American team of doctors and nurses who are spending the next 10 days administering medical attention to the dump dwellers. We ask if they know Krukira, the indigenous community we visited a few days earlier. They had not and since it is the Department of Health that decides where they go it is likely the team will not be directed there.
The end of day five of our mission finds us on the island of of Ometepe, far removed from the squalor of the dump. Ometepe in Spanish means two mountains for the volcanoes - one active - that lay like sleeping giants here.

We dine in an open-air restaraunt with a volcanic ash floor overlooking the lake that surrounds the island.

It's a gorgeous setting but my mind keeps going back to the dump.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 4

Think banks overcharge for credit cards? In Nicaragua, you’ll pay 60% interest to make your purchases with plastic, and 90% if you default on your monthly minimum payment to its major banks. Currently, there are 150,000 delinquent cases before the courts .That’s one of the effects of the global economic meltdown on this Central America country. Little wonder that credit unions are growing in size and strength as the preferred alternative to mainstream lending institutions.

Today we returned to Managua via a 12-seater plane where we met with Jorge Martinez, president of Caja Rural National “CARUNA R.L. and founding president of CECAMPO, one of over 300 co-ops the credit union has helped to finance.

CARUNA was founded in 1994 with 38 members with annual contributions of $300 and $100,000 in seed money from the European Union. Today, the credit union has some 20,000 members, 52 % of whom are women, has 560 employees and has 30 branches throughout Nicaragua and in neighbouring Costa Rica and Honduras. In addition, it has agreements with over 30 co-operative agencies to provide services at satellite locations and has 30 active investors world-wide.

The majority of its services are used to support agriculture production, which in the view of commercial banks is too risky to extend credit. CARUNA offers a number of programs to support so-called “high-risk” entrepreneurs, ranging from a small cattle retention program that offers loans to small-scale farmers to keep their animals to a micro-credit program tailored specifically for women to sell items like tortillas, small pastries, yuccas and oranges.

In total, CARUNA has given out 100,000 micro-credits at 4% interest to help Nicaraguans achieve their business goals and hopes for the future. This was done with the help of a $10 million loan, received at 1% interest, from the Bank of Social and Economic Development of Venezuela.

Like CARUNA, agriculture is the central focus of CCA’s efforts in Central America. In El Salvador and Honduras, CCA has worked with agricultural co-ops to improve their production and marketing, as well as to find ways to involve youth and in Guatemala, CCA has partnered with Quatro Pinos, a federal of agricultural co-ops that has evolved into a successful enterprise, growing vegetables for export to North American and Europe. In Costa Rica, the association sourced local agronomic expertise to improve on-farm production. The CCA also provided production loans to farmers through a cooperative and worked with the co-op to build marketing and trade capacity.

CCA has delivered programming to Central America for most of the time the organization has been involved in international development, dating back 25 years.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission – Day 3

Krukira – Paradise Lost

Today we became the largest group of people to ever visit Krukira, an indigenous community of 3,500 northeast of Bilwi.

Devastated by Hurricane Felix and ignored by the region’s central government, the Mesquitos live a hand-to-mouth existence. In fact, it was only three months ago that their homes were connected to Nicaragua’s power grid.

And yet they look to the future with optimism because of the generosity of Canadian co-operators.

Krukira was a paradise lost until it was found by the Canadian Cooperative Association. Through the agricultural cooperative CECAMPO, CCA provides financial assistance to Krukira’s fisheries co-operative, which in turn allows its 32 members to fish to feed their families and earn incomes.

Needless to say, our arrival here on day three of our mission in Nicaragua, caused a great stir among the Mesquitos up and down the Caribbean Coast.

Not since this community was settled in 1825, has Krukira welcomed a delegation our size (12 in total). And a heartfelt welcome it was.

“We never imagined in our wildest dreams that we would see today the friendly faces who helped us in this room,” co-op vice president Franklin Florez said in greeting our group. “It is a blessing from God that you have this good heart in you. Now we are happier and stronger. Now we are going to ask for things without fear. Because now we have seen the faces of our brothers and sisters.”

The co-op members share one boat with a 9.9 horsepower outboard motor and two dugout canoes which they use on a rotation basis (about once a month for each member).

The introduction of electricity to Krukira back in November means the fishers can purchase a refrigeration unit to keep their catches in safe storage. A small hangar, purchased with the help of CECAMPO, will serve as a processing plant. “The community is finally understanding the benefits of joining the co-operative to store their product and take it outside and sell it,” Mr. Florez said. And that’s just the beginning. The co-op hopes that its office, which was also built with the assistance of CCA through CECAMPO, will eventually be filled with grain and rice to market. “We realize we just can’t live off of fishing. We need other means of survival.”
Former president Ralph Washington also spoke of the tremendous potential the co-operative holds for this community and surrounding Moskito communities. “Our dream is to go from small scale to industrial. He said thanks to their “family” in Canada “everything is within our reach.”

Before bidding farewell to our team, Mr. Washington highlighted the significance of our visit to Krukira. “We will always remember this day. We will record this moment in our lives forever.”

We returned to Bilwi with a few extra passengers on our bus, including a young malnourished mother and a five-month-old baby that was born premature. They had travelled by boat for one hour after word reached her community north of Krukira that we were meeting with the local co-op. Her hope was that she could hitch a ride to Bilwi to get medical attention for her child. She told us that she had been trying to get help for her son, who was suffering from a respiratory ailment, for three months. We took up a small collection to buy medication and vitamins for her and her son.

In Krukira, there is one nurse, but she has no medicine to treat patients, except for 100 painkillers she receives monthly to distribute among 3,500 residents.

The co-operative, like the green shoots springing up around the trees that were toppled by Hurricane Felix in 2007, represents one of the few hopes the Moskitos have to meet many needs.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 2


We have just wrapped up day two of our mission to Nicaragua on the Carribean Coast. The scenery is more breathtaking; the poverty is more heartbreaking.   

Nicaragua is a land of extremes. 
It is a land of placid lakes and active volcanoes.
It is a land of warm, welcoming people, who are divided by class and polarized by politics.

So it is ironic to find co-operatives alive and well in this divisive environment. In Nicaragua, co-operatives may be one of the few unifying forces that brings people together to work for the common good.

Today we visited a unique collective that represents the interests of the physically challenged and blind. The organization is led by a remarkable woman named Martha Downs who has overcome the challenges of being poor, being a woman and being a paraplageic in a discriminatory society. Even more incredible, is that as the deputy mayor of the town of Bilwi, she is the first disabled person in Nicaragua to hold public office.

 Martha concedes that hers is a rare success story. "Most times when a female is disabled she is confined to the home and she is a huge burden to the family. The family controls her life"

Martha heads ODISRAN, an advocacy group that provides its members with legal advice, medical supplies, and other related resources and support. ODISRAN was originally formed 17 years ago to meet the needs of disabled divers, most of whom are from the indigenous Mesquito race. Today, these divers continue to account for the majority of its ODISRAN's membership. In fact a survey conducted three years ago revealed there were 1,100 quadriplegics in the northeast region of Nicaragua, the vast majority of whom were in wheelchairs because of lack of training and proper equipment used diving for lobster.

The divers use only partial equipment without an air regulator, diving beyond 30 metres. When they come up to the surface, they come up quickly, without decompressing and are inflicted by the paralyzing syndrome known as bends.

ODISRAN is supported by CECAMPO, which provides seeds to members and their families to grow crops to feed themselves and create livelihoods.

Late in the afternoon, we visited the home of ODISRAN's secretary Sylvia Howard, who became a paraplegic at age 12. She is one of two family members of a household of eight who are physically disabled. Her niece became a quadriplegic at age six as a result of viral encephalitis.

Mother and grandmother Carmen showed us the plants that were growing in their backyard from the seeds that were donated by CECAMPO. She said they have raised enough plantain, watermelon, yucca and other fruits and vegetbles to live on for four months, as well as sell some for profit.

CECAMP0 receives financial assistance from the Canadian Co-operative Association. Acccording to CECAMPO board member Carlos Bravo, the new government under Daniel Ortega, recognizes the importance of co-operatives to the economic prosperity and social progress of Nicaragua. In fact, co-operatives will soon be added to the country's school curriculum.

"We have political stability. Now they should let us work," Bravo said of the efforts of co-operatives to promote economic sustainability in Nicaragua and empower the disdvantaged. "It is a new era for us now."


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission - Day 1

Nicaragua is a beautiful country with deep ugly scars.

War. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. All have made their mark on the majesty of this place and the psyche of its people.

Below the swaying palm trees are men and women struggling to survive. Nicaragua is the Western Hemisphere's most impoverished nation, second only to Haiti and the evidence is everywhere, from its crudely built homes to its littered gravel streets.

Yet there is hope.   And we saw it today in Masaya.

There we met with executive members of CECAMPO, a multi-sector co-operative that represents the collective interests of 220 members, 43 per cent of whom are women.

The majority are farmers who grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, coffee, sesame seeds, rice and coffee. They also raise cattle, make handcrafts and clothing.

Formed in 1994 and supported by the Canadian Co-operative Association, CECAMPO helps to meet the financing, training, technical and marketing needs of six co-operatives in total.

President Bernardo Cardenal's face lights up when I asked him what impact this co-operative has had on its members and their families. "Our members are making improvements to their homes. We now have means of transportation. Our children are studying at universities. We have progress in the best possible way."

Earlier in the day, our mission leader, Karen Timoshuk, gave our team an overview of CCA's international development work. Nicaragua is one of 22 countries where CCA is building pathways to poverty by empowering and strengthening partners like CECAMPO. She reminded us that CCA is not a "bricks and mortar organization" but an organization that is building sustainable co-ops and communities and developing human potential.

CECAMPO's success is a strong testament to the effectiveness of its efforts to reduce poverty using the co-op model.

On our way to the CECAMPO office I spoke to my fellow team member Betty Willemsen who had just completed her second church mission here in two years. "People asked me why I wanted to go back..that it was only a drop in the bucket. I told them "if you could just go there and see what a drop in the bucket does'."

I was reminded of her comment as I listened to Mr. Cardenal and his board proudly list the past accomplishments of their co-operative and their goals for the future.

"One of our missions is to improve the quality of life for our members. That's why we're here," he explains.

And that's why CCA is here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Nicaragua Study Mission

Greetings from sunny and WARM Nicaragua (31 C when I and my bleary-eyed travel companions arrived here at 2 p.m. Sunday compared to -28 C when Roger Harrop left his dairy farm in Fergus, Ontario at 2 a.m.) We are here for the next 11 days to witness first-hand the positive difference Canadian Co-operative Association-supported credit unions and co-operatives are making in one of Central Americas poorest countries.  It promises to be an amazing journey.

Since this is my first entry, I should introduce you to my teammates on this development education study mission. We are an eclectic group, reflecting the diverse and dynamic character of the co-operative movement in Canada.

Roger is one of two Ontario dairy farmers I am travelling with. Dirk Willemsen, of Milverton, On. is the other. Both Roger and Dirk are members of the Gay Lea Foods Co-operative.

Dirks wife Betty will join us. She has been in Nicaragua for the past two weeks working with a co-operative here as part of a church mission.

Marie-Claude Jette is with the Metis National Council. She looks forward to meeting members of a co-operative that her organization helped to establish in Bilwi. The co-op delivers health care and other related services to indigineous women in northeast Nicaragua.

Western Canadians in our delegation include: Tony Dawson, of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Co-operative; Vera Goussaert of the Manitoba Co-operative Association and Assiniboine Credit Union; Myra Kormann, of the Calgary Co-op; Bill Lee, United Farmers of Alberta and Nicole Woelke, of Confido DS and Red River Co-op.

CCA staff members on this mission are Lise Boissonneault, CCA project assistant, International Development Department and Karen Timoshuk, CCA Development Education Co-ordinator, Prairies.

I look forward to getting to know my fellow co-operators on this mission and telling their stories.

Before signing off, I would like to give a shout out to the credit union managers who are in Ghana over the next few weeks, sharing their expertise with their African counterparts. We spent three days together in Toronto for cultural training last week and we had so much fun I was tempted to stow away on their plane. These managers are truly ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things to make the world a better place through credit unions and co-operatives.

It will be interesting and exciting to see the impact of CCAs international development work in Nicaragua.