2015 Stories of Sustainability

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Stories of Sustainability 

"The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms."

Diver catching lion fish_RCDR (DR)That statement, from a poem by Muriel Rukeyser, is inscribed on a plaque in the sidewalk outside the New York Public Library and has found its way into discourse ranging from sermons to science lectures. It certainly applies to the universe as the Inter-American Foundation knows it. For more than four decades, the IAF has invested in the ideas and hard work of the organized poor, and they have reciprocated with a profusion of stories that have validated grassroots development and animated the pages of this journal. Their stories must be told, so that the accomplishments of real people prevailing against the odds are on record as proof of what is possible.

In recent years, the IAF has received capsule stories via email from organizations funded in the 1970s and early 1980s that had fallen off our radar—understandably perhaps, given our 5,000-plus former grantee partners throughout the hemisphere. Martin Scurrah’s was among the extraordinary messages that inspired this edition of Grassroots Development, and the story he tells here has a back story.

Nearly 30 years ago, this journal included a feature by Scurrah and others about a cluster of IAF-funded communal dairy enterprises in the Peruvian Andes. The piece ended with a "cautionary note” on the danger of the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, in fact foreshadowing the devastation wreaked by the Maoist insurgency. End of story, it seemed. But not long ago Scurrah inadvertently discovered a remarkable comeback. While the grantee institution had fled and the infrastructure was gone, the idea had become rooted in a community whose residents never forgot how well it had worked. Scurrah and coauthor Custodio Bojórquez’s narrative of 2015 tells of the determined farmers who had embraced the successful approach and taught the concepts and lessons to their children.


Stories like this one give us perspectives on sustainability, a word in dire need of definition. Exactly what does it mean? One connotation, I would say, would be continuity. The articles here color the notion of sustainable development by looking at just what continues when circumstances change. How do people work together to confront new challenges or exploit new opportunities? A Colombian community thrives even though the special weaving tradition that had taken it through hard times is less practiced and the museum that supported the weavers has closed. Livelihoods survive if fishers protect the ecosystems, so that the sea yields benefits into the future. Farmers gain independence by recovering seeds from their patrimony. And, as the IAF well knows, imaginative government programs endure when dedicated public employees believe in the mission, go the extra mile, think outside the box and help people learn.


Stories are sometimes dismissed as atypical, lacking in rigor or susceptible to bias. They simply don’t “add up.” But the power of stories to illustrate complex truths is undeniable. Those shared here are drawn from the IAF’s trove from the field, and they are testament to the ingenuity, resilience and commitment found in communities across Latin America and the Caribbean. We expect to bring you many more.


Robert N. Kaplan
President and CEO
Inter-American Foundation