Controlling the Lake

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"Feed a man a fish and hel'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." It's conventional wisdom. But what happens when the fish disappear from the lake? Pollution, over-fishing. Then what? Well, then it's time for a change of strategy. Someone has to figure out how to get control of the lake, stop the polluting, issue fishing licenses, put wildlife management policies in place. Teaching a man to fish is an individual matter; gaining control of the lake is a community issue. That's why we call it "community development," not human services. While we value direct, hands-on, high-touch personal ministry, we also see that there are larger issues that impact upon a person's potential for growth. What good is job training if the available jobs won't enable a man to support his family? Or what benefit is home ownership if the home is in a deteriorating, crime infested neighborhood? If we are to teach men to both fish and thrive, we must figure out how to harness the potential of the lake.

Take for example the yucca farmers of Nicaragua. When our community developer asked a group of peasant farmers why they didn't grow more yucca on their idle land, they told her that they were growing all they could eat. When she asked why they didn't grow yucca to sell at the market, they explained that yucca begins to wither in three days, making it unmarketable. These men knew how to fish; their isolation kept them from thriving.

Will the community development principles we have tested in US cities work in a dirt-poor rural environment? We wanted to find out. So two years ago we launched a pilot study in the poorest Central American country - Nicaragua. Our blonde-haired, Minnesota-bred community developer, fluent in Spanish, moved in with the peasants and began to observe, listen and eventually ask questions. She learned to enjoy the taste of yucca, also called cassava, a staple of the Central American diet. The question begged to be asked: "Why don't you grow more of it?"

A good community developer is both curious and entrepreneurial. Geralyn was both. Her visits to the large produce market in Managua, conversations with local produce merchants, with agronomists and exporters, surfaced a wealth of important information about yucca. The yucca her neighbor-farmers grew was utilitarian grade at best, adequate for family consumption but not the quality demanded by national and international markets. Export-grade yucca had to be treated with a preservative paraffin coating to give it a shelf-life of 30-45 days. She was pleased to learn that the soil in her mountain community was quite fertile, volcanic, excellent for growing yucca, and that the rainfall was plentiful. There was certainly potential here, Geralyn could see it. But in order to take full advantage of this opportunity substantial changes would be required.

Hybrid starts of export-quality yucca were available in country for a price. Paraffin processing equipment was technologically simple and relatively inexpensive. The markets were accessible. But, and this was a big but, at least forty farmers, each planting five acres of hi-bred yucca, would be required to sustain the operation. The profit potential was alluring - four times a pound what their current crop would bring - but the risks were daunting. It meant letting go of a practice that had kept their families fed for generations, taking out loans to buy plants they had never before grown, hiring an agronomist to consult with them on planting, fertilizing, processing and marketing their harvest - all on a gamble that the bright ideas of an outsider could be trusted.

Twelve farmers took the gamble - not enough to sustain a processing plant but enough to test the theory that a harvest of hi-bred yucca, if rushed to a pre-arranged wholesaler at the central market, would yield a handsome return. With their own meager savings, loans from our micro-lending partner, and back-breaking labor with oxen and wooden plows, twelve peasant farmers took their first courageous steps into the unknown world of agri-business.

Two and a half months later, twelve proud farmers stood in a waist-high field of lush hi-bred yucca, admiring together the early growth of their investments. It would be several months yet before harvest time but the well-formed sub-soil tubers were maturing nicely. And these were not the only admirers gathering this day. A delegation representing forty other farmers arrived, farmers who had passed on the initial offer but were now eager to be included in the next. Success breeds success. Now there would be economies of scale to sustain the paraffin operation. And that means value added to the crop, new packaging and trucking job opportunities, and marketing streams that could flow to distant regions, perhaps all the way to Miami!

Survivors who know how to fish can become achievers when they learn how to take control of the lake. Peasant yucca farmers are dreaming dreams never before accessible to them. Perhaps they are the fore-fathers of a fertile growing region that will supply basic nutrition to the tables of millions of Central Americans. Perhaps their children will go off to college and return to lead a burgeoning agricultural economy. The dreams of achievers know few bounds. The aspirations of survivors, on the other hand, seldom rise above subsistence level.

The effectiveness of "controlling the lake" becomes quite clear when applied to the productivity of land in a rural, underdeveloped setting. But how does such a concept work in a dynamic western urban economy? One effective strategy is to connect those who have learned to fish with the opportunities in the larger economic mainstream. A good job with a stable company that provides health benefits is an enormous step-up for a struggling parent. A little prosperity releases an abundance of dreams. And when a worker begins to dream dreams of a brighter future for his or her family, he will likely begin to look for a better environment for his children - safer streets, superior schools, healthier influences. The job placement strategy can be very beneficial for the individual family but there is a downside. Very often it results in the withdrawal of achieving families from their inner-city neighborhood - a move that may be very good indeed for a family but bad for the community.

Controlling the lake implies ownership by the community of their community. It begins with a change of perspective. Instead of viewing their neighborhood as a dead end destination, a place the lucky escape from, workers must come to see that there exists within the neighborhood resources that can be exploited for the benefit of residents. Some one, often someone with a fresh, outside perspective, someone must seed a vision of economic potential greater than the familiar, deadly economies of drugs and prostitution. Someone must ask the question: who owns the land (the lake)? Who owns the crack house? How do we get control of it? Who owns the abandoned warehouse? How can we retrofit it for lofts? Who owns the vacant lot? How do we get the tires and trash cleared off it? Who owns the vacant storefront? Can it be reclaimed as a community restaurant? Controlling the lake is a community affair, not the bright ideas of individuals on their way up and out. And it is grounded in the belief that there are assets to be harvested from a place most others view only as wasteland. That belief must be strong enough to risk the investment of personal time, money and resources.

How is such a community vision birthed? What sparks the creative imagination of community residents? The reality is that the dreams are already there. Alive in the souls of even the most destitute are the seeds of visions planted by the Creator, longings for a better life for their children, hopes that their labor will someday produce a more prosperous future. But in isolated urban ghettos, like isolated rural villages in Nicaragua, the dreamers are seldom connected to the resources that could give their ideas legs. And so while peasant yucca farmers survive by their back-breaking toil generation after generation, inner-city parents continue to board early morning buses heading to their dead-end jobs, subordinating their dreams to the pressures of feeding their families. Until...

Until one day, one long-hoped-for day, a connection is made. By chance or by providence, someone in the village meets a connected person with a heart, a person who has time to listen, a person with both imagination and resources to stir a belief in the possibilities. Hope, smothered dim under years of survival pressures, begins to flicker once again. Not a flame at first - too many disappointments, too many broken promises, too many failed attempts to allow fresh hope to burst forth unbridled. But in time, after the trustworthiness of the connecting person can be tested, after the opportunity is subjected to ample reality-testing, then hopefulness can be freed. It is a dangerous, fragile, exhilarating moment when the poor release their restraints and begin to believe. And it is this, more than any other moment, that the community developer lives for. And the community.

Native intelligence is abundant in even the poorest of communities - under-developed perhaps, but very present. And likewise, abundant energy. When community imagination and manpower are partnered with opportunity and expertise, taking control of the lake becomes a live possibility. Vacant lots can be cleaned, crack houses can be converted, abandoned warehouses can become lofts, legitimate businesses can return. It will not happen quickly but small successes lead to larger ones. Quick fixes are rejected by the seasoned community developer. Yucca plants don't grow in a day nor do communities change overnight. Steady, incremental progress over time is what produces lasting results. In due time and with much concentrated effort, the lake can become owned and managed by the community.

Feed a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; help him gain control of the lake and the village eats for a lifetime.

Bob Lupton

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