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.
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."