The Oklahoma City-based NGO World Neighbors works on a variety of development projects across the world. Lionel Vigil, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, says the NGO is focused on four components in his region: Sustainable agriculture, clean water, sanitation and savings and credit groups.
World Neighbors works with locals in Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti and Peru. Vigil says agricultural projects focus on family farmers, and tend to use local resources to help farmer improve yields. That means an emphasis on organic farming to produce composts instead of chemical fertilizers. They also work on crop diversification.
In the Andes, Vigil says farmers have asked World Neighbors to work on guinea pig farm projects. Guinea pigs are a traditional food source in the Andes, and as more villagers move to the cities, the demand for guinea pig meat has grown.
“I wouldn't say that guinea pig farming will make a farmer get out of poverty but it will be it will be part of this farming component,” Vigil said.
World Neighbors is working on improved latrine projects for families that are more sanitary and less smelly than traditional latrines.
The NGO also works with biosand water filters that help provide families with clean drinking water.
“The household [can] have clean water in their homes so they don't have to use any kind of chlorine. They don't have to boil water, because it's expensive,” Vigil said. “It's actually a very adaptive technique or equipment that … can last for 20, 30 years in their homes.”
Through credit and savings groups, participants contribute to a pool of resources and then lend to each other or invest in communities.
“We contribute once with seed capital which could be $100 and they can grow. And everybody can benefit and they kind of start and last for many years,” Vigil said
On working with farmers
We work with family farmers, actually. So family farmers have not very large land, but they use the optimized use of the land by crop diversification, efficient use of water, and improvement in new techniques in how to not only rely on cash crops like coffee, for instance, or avocados, but also they use the seasonal green vegetables they can grow, and they … grow it for self-consumption, plus they can sell. But I would also in terms of family farming we don't only think about the growing crops but also livestock.
On guinea pig farms
Guinea pigs were raised traditionally in their homes for self-consumption. But now since there is a demand in the capital and there is a demand in the middle -sized cities, so these guinea pigs, it becomes a profitable business. But I wouldn't say that guinea pig farming will make a farmer get out of poverty, but it will … be part of this farming component. [It’s] very important the farming component for income generation or self-consumption, and because also these guinea pigs … it’s strange for people who are not from Peru because guinea pigs are considered as pets … but you know the quality of the meat of the guinea pigs is very, very healthy
On development work in Haiti
From my perspective, or in my experience, the most developed community-based organizations are in Haiti now. But because a lot of inputs …, a lot of resources, a lot of thinking, a lot of projects have been put in Haiti … now those communities in the rural areas in Haiti are more resilient to any kind of problems than Port-au-Prince or the country can face. … It's the government is who is weak and the institutions are not in place. But in the rural areas people find a living and a good place to live.
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Suzette Grillot: Lionel Vigil, welcome to World Views.
Lionel Vigil: Thank you.
Suzette Grillot: So for World Neighbors you serve as the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. And so I want to get to some of the work that you're doing in Latin America. But could you tell us a little bit first Lionel about your background? And in particular as I was doing my research on you and I read your bio that your education your formal education at least initially was in midwifery.
Vigil: That's correct.
Grillot: Can you tell us a little bit about that? Kind of where you come from, what you studied, and how midwifery led you down this path to studying development or working in development?
Vigil: Yeah, I was graduated from the the University of San Martin, which is located in the north east parts of Peru, far away from Lima. It's in the jungle area of Peru actually. That was at that time in the 1980s, or the beginning of the 1980s, it was the new open National University with only four faculties: Engineering, midwifery, agronomy, are all the faculty. So I wanted to study medicine, so the closest relationship with medicine was midwifery. So I decided to study that, thinking that in the future I may upgrade to medicine. However, after I finished my education, it took many years, just like six or seven years after doing the practice in hospitals, I just came to Lima from San Martin, finding for new jobs. And then there was this opportunity to move to looking for post graduate education in the UK. So I just went to the UK for two months, for two years, looking for I'd say, a post-graduate in biomedical science, things like that. So eventually I couldn't get any scholarship there. So that's why I decided to come back to Peru. And I find a job in education. So that's why I also have a degree in education with major in natural science. And then I just became involved working for the Ministry of Education and then starting working for the local NGO being reproductive health and education. And then from local NGO agency, I had the opportunity to work for other international development organizations like the Management Science for Health, for instance, which is based in the United States as well.
Vigil: I then I just work also for other organization because this organization has projects that last for three to five years. And then when the project finishes, you move along into another organization. So I work for another UK-based organizations called Every Child which has to do with dealing with child abuse prevention and also funding by the USAID projects. I was program coordinators and then sending monitoring and supervising other people. And then I find that opportunity also working with Norwegian organizations called Strong Foundations, which I was in charge of the education area, bilingual education, which means helping children to develop a curriculum in which they can they use Quechua, the mother tongue, and Spanish, helping them to upgrade their knowledge and the learning process that they have. And I was in charge of supervising Bolivia and also Peru programs and the smaller NGO that were receiving funding from the Norwegian organizations called Strong Foundations. And after that I just had this opportunity to work with World Neighbors which has been working for five years so far.
Grillot: So tell us a little bit about some of the projects that you've been working on. It sounds like education, largely. Are there other types of development projects that you've been doing in Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru? Those seem to be your Latin American countries that you primarily focus on.
Vigil: Yeah. Actually our our main focus as World Neighbors is strengthening the capacities of people, helping them through workshops and to gain skills in family farming, you know, to diversify their farms. They use their very local resources, they have to go into organic farming, to produce composting, to use all the leftovers of the agriculture products to be reused and come back into the soil again so they can actually use that in a more efficient way rather than buying inorganic fertilizers or other chemical things that actually don't have that they don't have the money to do that, and it's pretty expensive to do that. So do we teach them, we help them to go into family farming. Also we have this big, large component in World Neighbors who are working in those countries which is water sanitation and hygiene. You know water is one of the key issues and that's why I am in this in this water conference as well in which people they drink dirty water, and that produces gastrointestinal diseases. And we help people to use biosand water filters which was a kind of innovation for our program. Seeing all last four countries in which the block of concrete this is made with a mold, an iron cast mold, in which you put layers of gravel and sand and then any kind of water coming from rainwater or water from the river is filtered through this process. This is two aspects of this filtration process. One is a physical process. And the other is the bio layer we just on the top of the or the water and the household have clean water in their homes so they don't have to use any kind of chlorine. They don't have to boil water because it's expensive. They don't have to. I mean it's it's actually a very adaptive technique or equipment that they have that they can last for 20, 30 years in their homes.
Vigil: And the other is sanitation. We are promoting all this dry pit latrines. I mean improved latrines. So they use sawdust and these latrines become less dirty, and the smell disappears in the homes in the house flies have not been around. So that creates the improving life for the people. So this is farming agriculture, water sanitation and hygiene. And another core component in Latin America is the saving and credit groups. I mean it is something very innovative innovative as well because the differentiation between micro finance is the saving and credis groups helps actually the people who stay there because they are the ones who organize. We train them with the what we call financial education. They decide how much, the interest rate that they have to pay every beneficiary from the group. So that differentiation in microfinance is most of this microfinance, I'm not against that. I just want to stress the difference. This microfinance programs in other organizations and other projects is that benefits the organization itself. But in the case of World Neighbors, the savings and credit groups actually benefit the people. So it stays with them. So we contribute once with seed capital which could be 100 U.S. dollars and they can grow. And everybody can benefit and they kind of start and last for many years. It's very sustainable. So that's where we stress that that component as well.
Grillot: So they're running their own micro finance activities rather than relying on some external organization to do that because there's obviously been some criticism, as you mentioned, supporting the organization more so than the people. So you set this up to where the people themselves are running their own micro finance and saving group. I want to go back to agriculture for a second though. Can you just tell us what their agricultural products are, largely? In and is this largely for their own subsistence or are they doing export based agricultural activity or are they just looking at local communities?
Vigil: Actually we look we work with family farmers actually. So family farmers have not very large land, but they use the optimized use of the land by crop diversification, efficient use of water, and improvement in new techniques in how to not only rely on cash crops like coffee, for instance, or avocado things, but also they use the seasonal green vegetables they can grow, and they can, they grow it for self-consumption, plus they can sell. But I would also in terms of family farming we don't only think about the growing crops but also livestocks.
Grillot: I was going to ask about the livestock issue because I read that you've been involved in a project regarding guinea pigs in Peru, that guinea pigs are a very popular meal and that guinea pig farming is really picked up and that it grows very quickly and can actually support a family very quickly. So can you tell us a little bit about that type of project?
Vigil: Yeah that's right. So we have been promoting that kind of guinea pigs farms, not because we wanted them to do that, but because the farmers asked why World Neighbors don't help us to have these guinea pig farms. Actually guinea pig farms have been a traditional culture in the Andes because most of, there was a lot of migration from the Andes coming to the capital. So it became over that time a popular meal in Peru. Now I will say that 70 percent of people would have tasted guinea pigs in different ways, like fried guinea pigs, or boneless flesh guinea pigs. And that demand has made these farmers to encouraged to have this guinea pig farms.
Vigil: It was grown, guinea pigs were raised traditionally in their home for self-consumption. But now since there is a demand in the capital and there is a demand in the middle, middle size cities, so these guinea pigs, it becomes a profitable business. But I wouldn't say that guinea pig farming will make a farmer get out of poverty but it will be it will be part of this farming component. Very important the farming component for income generation or self-consumption, and because also these guinea pigs, is strange for people who are not from Peru or from, because guinea pigs are considered as pets but you know the quality of the meat of the guinea pigs is very very healthy no cholesterol and the protein is 45 percent, a good quality protein. I mean it's something that is awkward for many people it's strange to eat this pets. But in the Andes this guinea pigs are not seen like that. You know.
Grillot: That's definitely a different cultural thing just like perhaps in other countries as well. Finally I just have to ask you about your work in the Caribbean. You the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, and you've done some work in Haiti and elsewhere. What are some of the development comparisons between the two as we kind of conclude this conversation in terms of what kind of work and projects you do in countries like Bolivia and Peru compared to Haiti. Are you working on similar projects? Do they face some of the same problems?
Vigil: Yeah we are in similar similar projects. We work in the same components, in farming agriculture and livestock and saving and credits. But the challenges are that we have are different, of course. For instance we have been working for many years, World Neighbors has been working since its foundation, or inception, 65 years ago in Haiti. And we have made a lot of progress in strengthening organizations. I think there is a lot of social capital in the in the rural areas in Haiti where we have been working. There are large community-based organizations who have being able to grow food and to get also connection with other organizations that supports them. So if you go to these isolated, vulnerable villages in Haiti, far away from Port-au-Prince you will find that they are making a living in all this component that I'm talking about. From my perspective, or in my experience, the most developed community-based organizations are in Haiti now. But because a lot of inputs are being, a lot of resources, a lot of thinking, a lot of projects have been put in Haiti. So now those communities in the rural areas in Haiti are more resilient to any kind of problems than Port-au-Prince or the country can face. You know everybody knows, we know, that Haiti is a country that has being, I mean, it's the government is who is weak and the institutions are not in place. But in the rural areas people find a living and a good place to live.
Grillot: Well that's very interesting, Lionel, and I think we could continue a conversation just about Haiti. But it's interesting to hear that perhaps in the rural areas, in particular, there's some interesting development going on there. So thank you for sharing that with us. Thank you for being here today. Appreciate you telling us about your work.
Vigil: Thank you to you.
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