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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nicaraguans can grow their own food, but not without land

     Who has the right to own land?
     In countries like Canada, we decided some time ago that it’s either government, aboriginals or people with enough money to buy a piece of tierra firma, and many of us get along just fine without owning land. While almost 70 per cent of Canadians own their own homes, it’s not a prerequisite to happiness.
     But the issue is more complex in countries like Nicaragua, where owning land can make the difference between being able to feed your family and going hungry.
     Subsistence farmers in Nicaragua can survive on the most minimal incomes if they own enough land to grow their food. Their basic diets of corn and beans may be monotonous and not diverse enough to guarantee good nutrition, but at least the calories are sufficient to keep a family going. 
     But that breaks down when a poor family doesn't own land or can't plant on someone else's land.
     If you have to buy your beans and corn at the local market, you’re going to need money – something that’s in scarce supply in much of rural Nicaragua. If you have to rent land to grow your food, every harvest has to be sufficiently productive that you don’t find yourself in the hole at the end of the day. With little access to affordable credit for land purchases and climate change wreaking havoc with production cycles in Nicaragua, these are difficult days for small-scale farmers. 
     Land ownership is a critical concern for the 2,200 women farmers that belong to the organization I work for here in Managua, a federation of women’s farming cooperatives that goes by the acronym FEMUPROCAN. Much of the organization’s advocacy efforts these days are focused on one section of an agricultural reform law that promises credit to women farmers so they can buy their own land, but has never been enacted.
     Only eight to 12 per cent of the country’s private lands are owned by women.  That places them at a huge disadvantage, not only in their ability to feed their families but to be able to participate in the country’s economic development. They’re up against the culture as well; even when a farming family does own land, more times than not the title is in the name of the husband only. In the event of his death, it’s not uncommon to see that title pass to his brother or other male member of the family, leaving the wife with neither land nor recourse.
     Without land of her own or her name on title, a woman in Nicaragua also struggles to qualify for credit – vital for small farmers given that they have to borrow against tomorrow’s harvest to be able to afford the seed today. Bank interest rates are brutal, upwards of 30 per cent.
     This year has been particularly harsh for FEMUPROCAN’s members in the parts of Nicaragua hit hard by drought, where some farmers who rent their lands are so afraid to lose what little they have that they didn’t even plant at the start of the second growing season in September.
     In Somoto, a particularly dry region, a woman farmer told me that with land renting for around 2,700 cordobas ($120 Cdn) per hectare, poor farmers risk ending up worse off financially than if they’d never planted at all if the rains don’t come on time. The owners of those lands expect to be paid regardless of how the growing season turns out.
     And with no additional money to buy more seed if the rains start late and the first crop dies in the field – as has happened this year in the country’s “dry corridor” – farmers are in some cases choosing to scrap the whole season and wait until next May to plant, hoping that the drought will be over by then.
     That means at least one member of the family will have to find day labour somewhere between now and then, because otherwise there’s no money for food. But day labour is in short supply as well, seeing as most of that work involves earning money by helping land-owning farmers with their own harvests. With the drought now in its second year, this is a tough time to be a small-scale farmer in Nicaragua.
     The solution is simple enough: Find ways to help women buy farm land. FEMUPROCAN's members have said over and over again that they don't expect to get anything for free, but they're going to need realistic interest rates, a generous amount of time to pay back their loans, and at least a little understanding that in a year when the weather doesn't cooperate, they're going to be strapped and might need a break. 
     It's all doable. Unfortunately, nobody's doing it, and probably won't be until Nicaragua works out the whole other complicated issue of a largely non-functional land registry system.
     But as I’ve come to expect from Central American farmers after almost four years of working here, they carry on. The Somoto woman I spoke to said all of 2015 has been a disaster, from the drought that disrupted both of the year’s two growing seasons to the community well that ran dry. But then she smiled, shrugged, and added that the women of FEMUPROCAN will just keep fighting the good fight. “That’s what we do,” she said. 

Thanks for supporting our work in Central America with a donation to Cuso International! Here's our fundraising site. 

Saturday, November 07, 2015

On going viral and feeling hope: My letter to the prime minister

Update Nov. 10: My Facebook post has now been shared 9,879 times and garnered 13,577 likes. My son's original post was shared 285 times, and a separate post of my post on the wall of Meanwhile in Canada got 7,331 shares and 7,751. Wow.

I have a Facebook post that is in the midst of going viral. You know, like that '70s commercial for Breck shampoo, where one woman tells two friends, and they tell two friends, and next thing you know the TV screen is full-up with people telling each other about shampoo.

I have often fantasized of going viral for some of my posts around sex work, but this wasn't one of them. This was a post in which I shared my son's post about his feelings as a federal fisheries biologist at the news from his supervisors on Thursday that he was now free to talk to the media or anyone else, because the muzzle order silencing Canada's scientists that the Harper government had imposed had just been lifted.

His post made me feel warm and fuzzy, so I shared it thinking that my own Facebook friends would like a chance to feel warm and fuzzy, too. And then everything went crazy.

I knew something very strange was going on when, within the first hour of posting it, it had been shared 400 times. The left bottom corner of my screen was flickering and flickering with one notification after another of the post being shared and liked. (It kind of felt like the time I ate a piece of marijuana-butter cake and started feeling the effects within 15 minutes, which is really fast. My initial thoughts of "Hey, cool!" quickly shifted to "Oh, shit..." as the implications of where things would be going from there sunk in.)

As I write this, it's been 23 hours since I wrote the post, and it has now been shared 4,823 times. Four different media outlets have contacted me trying to track down my son. The Toronto Star even managed to find his home phone number, and never mind that even his own mother doesn't know the damn number.

What I have come to see through the popularity of that post is just how oppressed, bitter and sorrowful Canadians had become under the Harper government, and how hungry they were for optimism and hope again. I wonder if we even knew how dejected we felt until the day of the election, when even apolitical types like me felt our hearts lift at the prospect that maybe, just maybe, the Dark Lord had been vanquished and hope was possible again.

The events of the day inspired me to do another thing I'd never done: Write a letter to the prime minister. It just seemed like the right thing to do, to let him know that a simple post about a fisheries biologist being able to talk again about what he knew had struck such a chord that thousands of Canadians felt moved to share the joyful news. In its own small way, it was like the fall of our own little Berlin Wall. I could practically feel everyone running into the streets and calling from the rooftops: "The scientists are unmuzzled! We're free! We're free!" If I were the prime minister, I would want to know that something my government had done had triggered such an outpouring of relief and giddy emotion.

Here's the letter I wrote. The number of shares/likes has grown exponentially since I wrote it last night; in the 20 minutes it has taken for me to write this post, in fact, the number of shares has increased to 4,967, and the likes are at 6,591. People, we were so desperate for change.

Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister. Thank you, Canadians, for turning out to the polls and voting against a repressive, authoritarian, anti-democratic, fear-mongering and just plain awful government. So good to remember what hope feels like.

Hi, Mr. Prime Minister. I thought I'd share this little story from my day today as heartening evidence of just how happy Canadians are to feel the winds of change blowing across our country. 

I'm an old journalist turned communications consultant, and I've got around 1,900 Facebook friends. I generally set Public as my privacy settings for my posts because it seems to me that information wants to be free. While I am accustomed to a decent number of Facebook "likes" and shares, on a really good day with the cutest photo of my new granddaughter, I would still only expect maybe 200 likes.

But today, that all changed. Today, I shared the post of my son, a federal fisheries biologist, and added a few comments of my own. Here's what I posted:

My son is a fisheries biologist with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Here's his spirit-lifting post from yesterday. "It is official. At an all staff meeting today with some of the best scientists in the world, certainly the ones who know our coast better than anyone (and I am lucky enough to work for some of them), we were told that it's ok to talk to the media or anyone about what we do without permission. That's how surreal it was. That's how things changed over night."
I feel like I'm in one of those post-apocalyptic movies where there's nothing but darkness and sorrow and hard times, and then right at the end of the movie there's a scene of the sun rising over a new world and it's like everything just might turn out OK. People, we must never again let our government plunge us into such a fearful, secretive, divisive state.

And the Facebook world went crazy. I posted that 10 hours ago, and it has been shared 2,568 times. It has 2,984 likes. People are completely ecstatic about that post, and I have come to see that the unmuzzling of scientists is like a metaphor for the dark days ending for so many of us. Thank you for that. 

I'm sure there will be many tough days to come, and days after the honeymoon is over and everyone is crabbing at you. But I will remember this day, and that I realized for the first time today just how deeply my fellow Canadians and I had sunk into despair and hopelessness after 10 years of an oppressive, fear-mongering, arrogant and hateful government. 

Thank you for doing what you said you'd do. Thank you for your gender-equal cabinet, and your respect for smart people who care deeply about Canada. Thank you as well for reconsidering Bill C-36, another issue I feel so passionate about. Thank you for giving us back hope that we no longer have to be ashamed to be Canadians - ashamed to have a government that had descended to the depths of hatred to try to stay elected. It's like we have been living our own version of being behind the Berlin Wall, and it feels so good to see that ugly, divisive wall falling. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

#Rolls4Strolls: Let's put an RV back on Victoria's sex-work strolls

Fundraising was never my thing in my journalist years, and I felt very awkward about it back in 2004 when I realized that as the new executive director of Peers Victoria, fundraising was going to be one of the most important parts of my job.

But there quickly came a point in those early fundraising days where I realized that I didn't mind asking people for money, because I knew just how important that money was to achieving whatever it was we were trying to do. It wasn't long before I was making dozens of speeches a year calculated at attracting new supporters for Peers, and got involved in the crazy-making work of organizing a musical talent show for three years running (Victoria Idol) just so we could keep those desperately needed dollars flowing in.

Since starting to work in Central American for Cuso International in 2012, I've gone on to raise money for impoverished children and their families in Honduras, and for Cuso International as well. With 11 years of community fundraising under my belt, I am now just fine with putting my hand out and asking anyone for a donation when it's for a cause I care about.

One of my first fundraising campaigns for Peers in 2005 was to buy a used RV that our late-night outreach team could use on the outdoor sex-work "strolls" in Victoria as a mobile drop-in. I had no idea how we were going to do it (raising money for sex workers, so profoundly stigmatized and misunderstood, is just about as tough a fundraising pitch as you'll ever have to make, trust me), but then a local businessman appeared out of nowhere with $10,000 in his hand and poof, it was done.

Ten years passed, and the outreach team and outdoor sex workers loved that RV right into the ground, and a second one as well. The team has been using a little passenger van for the last two years after the last RV gave up the ghost, but it's just not the same.

There's no kitchen for boiling water for soup, hot chocolate and coffee. No room for loading up donated coats, scarves and such to bring down to the stroll. No warm, welcoming indoor space where people can just take a break from their work and have a few laughs. No private place for a sex worker in crisis to pull an outreach worker aside for a few moments.

So here I am again, back helping Peers find the money for another RV. Not living in Canada right now does make it more challenging to help with fundraising, but I can still help in the background with things like crowdfunding, tweets, and other communication strategies. I can, for instance, write this blog post, and hope that someone reads it and thinks, "Hey, that's a good idea. I want to be part of that."

Maybe that person will be you. And if it is, just glance over there on the right-hand side of my blog and see that GoFundMe link for #Rolls4Strolls. Click on it and give whatever you can.

I know, I know, there are a thousand people like me clamoring for your money, and we've all got causes that in our opinions are the most in need of your support. I won't try to tell you that $5 is barely more than what you pay the barista for a cup of coffee, because that line's probably wearing thin.

But if you've got $5 to give, please do. There are 140 or so outdoor sex workers working off and on along the cold, dark streets around Government and Rock Bay. They've never stopped talking about how much they loved the days when Peers had an RV.

Donate to #Rolls4Strolls and help Peers get another RV out there. Whatever the size of your donation, it matters. And it will go a long way to demonstrating to an extremely marginalized group of workers that they matter, too.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Walking in Managua: Pedestrian tips from the front line

 My walk to work is quite a bit longer this time in Managua, about an hour each way. It gives me more time to reflect on all the ways I could be killed in traffic. 
     Managua certainly doesn’t have the craziest traffic I’ve ever had to walk through; I have, after all, lived to tell the tale of crossing the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. But fresh from a summer wandering along the coddled streets of Victoria, Managua is quite enough crazy for me at the moment.
    So herewith, a few words of advice for those who would be pedestrians in a busy Central American city:

Cars rule. Never assume that any driver is going to slow down for you to cross the road. Never assume that they even see you at all, even if they appear to be looking right at you. Yes, every now and then you are going to spot a crosswalk, but you’d be out of your mind to think it means anything at all. 

Do way more than simply looking both ways. Approach every road crossing as if you were a CIA agent anticipating an assassin coming at you from an unknown direction. 
    Sure, the nice little green man is signalling that you can walk, but don’t trust him. Sure, the guy in the lane closest to you is smiling at you and giving you a friendly go-ahead wave. But what about the guy in the lane next to him? Or the motorcycle that is almost certainly coming straight up the middle of the two lanes? Or the guy turning left against the lights? Or the guy turning right from the street down the way – the one who’s gunning it to clear the intersection you're crossing before the light changes? 
    Think of it this way: If there’s a car anywhere in sight, it just might run you down. Act accordingly.

Always look behind you. This is probably my most common error. I look both ways, step into a side street to cross it, and boom, a car comes hurtling from behind me doing a high-speed left-hand turn to sneak through a big line of traffic travelling in the opposite direction.
    Equally deadly are the cars coming up from behind that are turning right into some parking lot or gas station whose entrance you are walking past. Back in Canada, such cars dutifully wait until you’re safely out of their way before turning in. Not in Managua.

Never assume that being on a sidewalk means you’re safe. Aside from major pedestrian hazards like cracked cement, giant open storm drains, tree roots, dangling electrical wires, dog poo and wildly uneven surfaces, it’s not unusual to encounter a motorcycle driving along the sidewalk toward you. A couple days ago, I had to jump out of the way of a small car making its way along. Do not allow yourself to grow comfortable.

And anyway, a lot of the sidewalks just end. And just like that, you don’t have so much as a gravel shoulder to walk along. All of a sudden you go from being a relatively happy pedestrian on a sidewalk to someone who’s scrambling to get out of the way of fast-moving buses that are pulling in to pick up passengers, or inching your way around a higgle-piggle of strangely angled parked cars, food vendors, and clamorous hordes of tired Nicaraguans trying to get home on those buses.

The safest place to cross is between stopped cars, not in front of them. Let’s say you’ve got a choice of crossing the street at a controlled intersection, or walking a few metres further up and weaving your way between the cars that are stopped waiting for the light. 
      Pick the weaving option. There’s just way less risk when you can pick and choose which stopped cars to walk in front of, and more chance of escaping unscathed if the line of traffic suddenly starts moving.
      But remember to watch for those motorcycles coming up between the lanes of traffic. Walk. Stop. Peek. Walk. Repeat.

Embrace medians. What lovely things they are, turning impossible four-lane highways into manageable two-lane chunks. And they’re great for standing on while you take a photo of all the traffic coming at you.

Get yourself a good pair of shoes. You do NOT want to be doing all this bobbing and weaving in shoes that are slippery, high-heeled, dainty, or otherwise unsuitable for a last-minute dash when all goes wrong. Never mind what the Nicaraguans are wearing – they’re experts at all of this. Get yourself a sturdy pair of runners and don’t worry about fashion faux pas.

Save the “empowered pedestrian” crap for when you’re back in Canada. You know what I’m talking about: Waving an angry fist in the air at a driver who came close to hitting you; thumping on the hood of a car as you walk past to signal your annoyance that he’s protruding so far into the intersection; fixing the driver with a steely, disapproving gaze to convey Just How Mad You Are; crossing the street at the speed of a tortoise just to prove the point that you’re the one in control.
     It’s hard enough to take empowered pedestrians back in my own land. Down here, they’d just be run right over. Come to think of it, that might be the one endearing feature of Managua traffic. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Early intervention changes everything for children with disabilities, health challenges

Tytan Beckford's family had to make the horrific decision
to ampute part of Tytan's feet when he was born without
fibula in his legs.
  Gotta admit, it was kind of fun being back in reporter mode this summer as my partner Paul and I worked up a four-page newspaper supplement for Children's Health Foundation of Vancouver Island.

     The stories of families of children with disabilities can be hard to listen to, because nobody likes having to think of children experiencing the pain, surgeries, life limitations, and whirl of therapies that the kids we wrote about have had to face. Our own granddaughter was born right in the middle of the period when we were doing this work, and we couldn't help but imagine her in a similar situation with each and every heartbreaking interview.

Twins Nolan and Asher Trousdell on their way into Grade 1
this fall. Read the family blog at
 Yet the hope and determination of the families are what will stay with me. They get knocked down, but they get up again. They endure unbelievable amounts of stress, sadness, and wholesale disruption of their lives and dreams, yet they stand alongside their children and together, they make it work.

    I have new admiration for the dedicated people who work in the field of children's health and development, and new appreciation for the worth of these services - not only for the children whose lives are literally being turned around through early intervention, but for society as a whole. There's something magical about the ability of a brain of a young child to adapt to limitations and challenges, but making use of that magic is all about the right interventions in those early years from birth to age five.

     Early intervention not only changes the course of a child's life, it dramatically improves the chances that children can reach their potential in school, work, and life overall. Early intervention ensures we have active, healthy, and engaged citizens ready to build an even stronger future of British Columbia.

    The supplement is in today's Times Colonist, and you can read it here on the foundation's web site.

Hannah Harris, whose family spent a total of 115 nights
at Jeneece Place after Hannah and her twin sister Hailey
were born premature and with a long list of health
challenges. Read more about the Courtenay twins
on their mom Bonnie's blog at