Developing Nicaragua with schools, bakeries and job training

Integral Development Project: Centro Santa Teresa de Jesus


The Integral Development Project (IDP) is located in the rural community of Los Cocos, about ten miles from Granada, Nicaragua. It consists of a school, a bakery, job training, and agricultural projects.

The work of the Sisters of the Society of St.Teresa of Jesus in Nicaragua began in 1980 during a national literacy campaign. Since their mission is education and pastoral work, the sisters opened a school in Los Cocos. Contact with the people living in the rural community of Los Cocos helped them become more acutely aware of their needs: nutrition, transportation, training in agriculture and job creation. A response to these needs took the form of a human promotion initiative in 1994 and later grew into the Integral Development Project.

Approximately 60% of the population in Los Cocos is unemployed or underemployed. Those who are employed work as agricultural day workers or fishermen. There is very limited access to health care or education and no access to public transportation. Malnutrition is common. Since land is owned by only a few people, the majority of the population has no access to land.

Most men drink heavily. Many women and children are subject to domestic abuse.

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Girls are initiated into their sexual life at a very early age. Many get pregnant at age 11. This has been the case for most women in this rural community for generations.

Addressing the Needs of the People

The sisters began with community organization of the people, working to raise their consciousness. As they became more aware of the needs of the people they eventually targeted three major goals which gave shape to the project to:

  • Promote self-esteem and the dignity of women through early sex education

  • Educate farm laborers in agriculture and animal breeding in the 5th and 6th grades

  • Improve working conditions for women through formation and equipment that leads to quality performance and output in the bakery

All three of the program components were planned and implemented with participation of the local community: a sex education component, an agricultural and animal breeding component, and a job training component that led to the creation of a bakery after the 1998 hurricane.

The Sex Education Component

Education was broadening the horizon of the women but there was an urgent need for a component in sex education to transform the "machismo" that characterized the rural society in Nicaragua. The following programs were initiated to give impetus to this undertaking:

  • Sex education was incorporated into the curriculum of 5th and 6th graders at school and also into extra curricular activities including talks, workshops, retreats, and meetings with students and parents

  • Two weekend workshops were scheduled each year: one for 5th and 6th graders and another for mothers

  • Two weekend courses were offered to parents each year. As preparation for this, two parents (one male and one female) participated in one week courses offered each year through CANTERA, a non-government organization in Managua. CANTERA promotes human development and popular education in various fields such as agriculture, alternative medicine, leadership, human rights, etc. After receiving this training, the two parents served as facilitators for the parents' courses

  • One weekend retreat for sixth grade students was scheduled each year

The police commission also held meetings in the community to inform the people about the new legal codes that protect women and children against domestic violence.

These educational opportunities were communicated through posters, letters, home visits, and parent meetings at school.

The Agriculture and Animal Breeding Component

Education in agriculture and animal breeding techniques was aimed to improve the production of pigs and poultry at the school farm. The project included: the purchase of equipment--water tank, silos--and salaries for the farm laborers and teacher of the agriculture classes.

The agricultural component began in 1996 with the purchase of one pregnant pig to teach the students the process of reproduction. Students and teachers learned about different breeds and techniques.

In 1997-1999, three former students were trained by INATEC (a government institute for technical education) where they learned basic techniques in agriculture and animal husbandry.

In 2001, sisters, teachers, and two of the three trained technicians met to discuss the possibility of training a group of teachers to begin a pilot project with sixth graders:

  • The two technicians were recruited as teachers for the pilot project because of the two-year training they received at INATEC

  • In 2003, they provided training for 5th and 6th graders, farm workers, parents, and women

  • Four hours per week training was offered to 20 students and four teachers. The four new teachers would begin training 30 new students each year

  • One weekend workshop in organic agriculture was also offered to the students, parent, and other community members

  • Three days of training were offered to six women who would work at the school farm cleaning and packing poultry that was to be sold to the local people

A bio-energy experiment was also conducted to process the solid waste of pigs. Pig manure was used to create gas for cooking, fertilize the gardens, and feed worms that were, in turn, fed to chickens for egg production. Five sows were purchased and bred to produce piglets. Waste from the pigs flowed into a large, heavy plastic bag (digester) about six feet long. As the waste was heated, it produced gas that was siphoned off and piped to a small family house nearby where the gas could be used for cooking. The rest of the waste from the manure was collected and used for two purposes: the bio-fertilizer was used to irrigate the bananas and the regular manure was used to feed a special kind of worm that was fed to the chickens. One worm per day was enough to provide the chicken with adequate protein to produce eggs. The intent was to teach the people to collect the manure left by local herds of cows and use it to produce natural gas and fertilizer. The experiment had mixed results. First, metano (the natural gas formed from decomposition of organic matter) was used for energy at the farm kitchen and the organic fertilizer was used for fruit trees. The woman in charge of the kitchen resisted using the gas because she was afraid of explosions. Secondly, the plastic material of the digester was inadequate, lasting only two years. This brought an end to the bio-energy experiment.

In 2003, a water tank, silo, and other equipment were purchased. Several organizations helped to finance the training and purchase the equipment needed: 1) The American Nicaraguan Foundation helped to underwrite the cost of tools, 2) EDUCO helped to recruit volunteers, 3) CECALLI helped with educational costs for the organic agriculture workshops.

By 2005, the project had expanded to include:

  • Twenty adult pregnant pigs. More than 100 pigs were sold to members of the community who wanted to improve their production.

  • Improved quality of poultry, resulting in close to 1500 pounds of chicken sold each month. The poultry business provided work for two men and three women.

  • The introduction of organic agriculture by students at the school farm produced bananas, coconuts, mangoes, lemons, pumpkins, squash, and other vegetables. Natural pesticides and compost were used instead of chemicals.

Unfortunately, the cost increase in corn and the influence of a big enterprise that began to sell industrial chicken meat at lower prices brought the project to a stand still. Furthermore, the sister who promoted the project was assigned to another mission. The production of pigs and poultry ceased because of lack of personnel. On a more positive note, the agriculture classes continued, and a pilot project of producing medicinal plants was begun. This new direction was an attempt to respond to the lack of medical care and pharmacy in the community.

The Bakery Component

After hurricane Mitch the sisters started a bakery in 1999, with a group of 20 women to help them improve their living conditions. Weekly meetings were held with the bakers to discuss their activities for the coming week. Baked goods were advertised to the community through posters and through the salespeople. When the bakery opened, six of the women were employed to operate the bakery. Eventually the number was reduced to three.

In 2003 two new improvements were made:

  • A grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters made it possible to purchase new equipment which improved working conditions and the quality of bread produced. The new equipment included mixing machines and smaller items such as trays, cookie cutters, a thermometer, scale, and timer.

  • An experienced baker from Managua came to live in the community for six months to help the bakers improve their techniques for processing and selling bread.

As a result of the training of three additional women, the quality of the bread and sanitary conditions improved. Production was upgraded considerably. In addition to bread, baked goods included hamburger and hot dog buns, cakes, muffins, empanadas, picos, and cookies. The bakery expanded its service to include Los Cocos as well as Granada and other neighboring communities. Moreover, it supplied the bread distributed to students as part of the school nutritional program.

What is especially rewarding is the fact that one of the bakers became the administrator, so that the bakery is now completely operated and staffed by women in the community. Two women do the baking early in the morning, one woman is in charge of maintenance and sales at the bakery and another sells baked goods around town by bicycle. The sisters continue to help with formation of staff (skills for administration of a small business, techniques for sanitary conditions, skills for leadership and the development of self-esteem, knowledge of human rights, etc).

Learning from Challenges

One important learning that is hard to come by is the need to be patient in situations like this; that is, not to try to go faster than is comfortable for the people. As Sister Berta Montiel, Project Coordinator pointed out, "One can see something clearly, but it is only when the beneficiaries can see the benefit that they really commit themselves to the project."

Another challenge that had to be faced was the frequent change of religious personnel. Due to fewer sisters in the congregation, the number of sisters involved in the project was reduced from four to three and two of the three sisters currently involved in the project are new replacements for former personnel. This affected the continuity of the work, the decline of participation, and funding for the project. The participation of the people was further affected by a change of parish pastoral leadership.

The sustainability of the project has been threatened by the cost of food for pigs and poultry and by the competition of the big business enterprise that has out-priced the cost of chicken meat sold by the Integral Development Project.

The ongoing evaluation of the project has been done through the sisters' religious Congregation. There is a need to promote involvement of community members: parents, teachers, students. The view of the Congregation is centered more on a traditional type of education and this type of project requires a wider vision that begins with the basic needs of the people.

The biggest challenge for the sustainability of the project has been to motivate the people to break out of a dependency mode of operation. There is a need to get them to rely less on the sisters and to take the lead and claim ownership of the project. This is especially important, because if the sisters can no longer continue in this work, the project will need leadership and commitment from the people for it to survive and expand. With hindsight, Sister Berta stated, "Maybe our dreams were too big and we failed to convince the people in the community and did not work with them enough to make them more independent of the sisters. It is also fundamental to prepare sisters for this type of project to assure continuity and growth." Listening to the people and going slowly is crucial. Without this the people cannot keep pace with the process and make it their own.

The project would never have been executed without the Conrad N.Hilton grant. It would have remained an impossible dream. Yet, in spite of all the difficulties faced, the project has accomplished very important things for the life and education of the people at Los Cocos.


Taken from Seeds of Hope: Sisters in Action Around the World © 2009, sponsored by the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters and used with its permission. All rights reserved.

For more information about the program or about Seeds of Hope Seeds of Hope: Sisters in Action Around the World, contact: the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, 10100
Santa Monica Blvd. Suite 1000, Los Angeles, CA 90067-4011 USA. Telephone: 310-785-0746 / Fax: 310-785-0166 / E-mail: Web site:

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