12/03/2013 05:39 EST | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 EST

How Co-Ops Are Making a Difference in Nicaragua

The scenery is breathtaking; the poverty is heartbreaking.

Below the swaying palm trees, men and women struggle to survive.

I wrote those words in December 2010 to describe my first impressions of Nicaragua.

I was there as part of a development education mission to learn firsthand how Canadian Co-operative Association-sponsored co-operatives, including credit unions, are making a difference in the lives of Nicaragua's rural poor.

Nicaragua is a land of extremes: a deeply scarred paradise with placid lakes and active volcanoes; warm, welcoming people, divided by class and polarized by politics. Its economic growth has been slowed by a civil war, a U.S. trade embargo and devastating natural disasters. Yet, in this divisive environment, Canadian-assisted co-ops are a unifying force, bringing people together to work for the common good.

Two years later, Nicaragua haunts me still and warms my heart.

One of our most memorable visits took us to Krukira on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. It was an historic event, as we were the first delegation of white people to enter this indigenous community in nearly two centuries.


Krukira was a paradise lost until it was found by CCA. Ravaged by Hurricane Felix and largely ignored by the region's central government, Krukira's residents lived a hand-to-mouth existence. In fact, it was only three months earlier that their homes had been connected to Nicaragua's power grid.

The introduction of electricity to Krukira had opened up opportunities this remote community could only have dreamed of until then. Through a partnership with CCA, local fishers banded together and formed a co-op.

Our Canadian hearts swelled with pride as former president Ralph Washington told us of the potential the co-op held for his community. They hoped to purchase a refrigeration unit to keep their catches in safe storage, a small hangar to serve as a processing plant, and that their newly built office would eventually be filled with grain and rice to market.

"Everything is within our reach," Washington said, thanks to the generosity of their Canadian "family."

At the end of our one-day visit, vice-president Franklin Florez thanked our delegation for coming to see how this Canadian-supported co-op was building a pathway from poverty to prosperity.

"We will record this moment in our lives forever," he said.

That moment has certainly stayed etched in my mind -- a mental souvenir from an eye-opening, life-changing journey of discovery.

In Nicaragua I saw hope rising among its disadvantaged people, just like the green shoots that were sprouting from its hurricane-toppled trees.

Author Rayanne Brennan is operations manager of Atlantic Co-operative Publishers, a full-service publishing co-operative, based in Moncton, NB. She is also editor of The Atlantic Co-operator, a bilingual, bi-monthly magazine focused on the co-operative sector in Atlantic Canada. And Rayanne is a director on the board of the Co-operative Enterprise Council of New Brunswick.