Mission accomplished! Members of a cooperative in Nicaragua build their own homes


Access to adequate housing continues to be an unfulfilled right in many parts of the world, writes Winnie Narváez Herrera, Facilitator ÁBACOenRed /FUPECG.

In Latin America, the problem of housing quality is even more serious than the problem of not having a home, and this is made worse by the increasing effects of climate change, violence in some parts of the region and migration.

However, in many ways the small country of Nicaragua, with only 6.5 million inhabitants, is showing a way forward. It’s building on a long cooperative tradition, promoted strongly since its revolution in 1979. Housing programmes focus not only on construction: in many cases they depend on local participation and actively promote community development.

The example in this article, from the north of Nicaragua, shows genuine cooperation between public institutions and local people.

In the northern district of La Dalia, the MULTIPRO cooperative of multidisciplinary professionals together with the Matagalpa housing cooperative centre, CECOVI, have collaborated in a housing project by the small cooperative, Victorias de Noviembre. With their support, the cooperative has built its first 10 houses, after two years of planning and building work.

Victorias de Noviembre co-op members hard at work on their homes

In August 2021 they started manually removing earth and rocks to prepare the site; in February 2022 they built retaining walls and by the end of 2022 they had already finished seven homes. It’s all based on participation: there is shared responsibility between women and men and the co-op also ensures that children take part in the less difficult parts of the work. Obviously, some people benefit in the early stages while others are simply contributing their labour. But as one member said: “In the construction phase we all have to be patient, my house isn’t ready yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working.”

Margini Martínez, president of the cooperative, explains how each stage of construction was carried out: “We organised ourselves in groups of three, working from Monday to Saturday,” she said, although in the case of heavier tasks the groups join together. “Right now we’re a group of 10 because there are 20 bags of cement to be shifted.” In addition to the groups working during the day, they have organised themselves into three committees: the warehouse committee to control materials; the work committee to organise the day’s work; and the site committee to monitor the quality of the work.

The small groups have arranged to have ‘days off’ to carry out paid work, such as coffee harvesting, cultivating basic grains and other jobs, as the construction day is a full one, from 7.00am to 5.00pm, with an hour for lunch. People have to get up much earlier than this though, to get the day’s food ready.

Together with the commitment to the cooperative, this project required coordination with different agencies. For example, in order to meet the housing ministry’s criteria for ‘social housing’, they needed a separate entity through which to channel the ministry’s subsidy. In this case, the local mayor’s office agreed to do it. In practice, it guaranteed the provision of some materials and the ministry made a cash contribution of US$ 25,000. The cooperatives also acquired a loan of $34,277 from a fund managed by MULTIPRO. To this amount was also added $14,000 raised as a donation by housing cooperatives in Zurich, Switzerland; $12,000 from a solidarity donation from international social housing networks, and $2,148 that each member of the Victorias de Noviembre cooperative saved by making a great effort, considering that most of them work only during the coffee harvesting season.

The scheme is funded as part of a government programme to build social housing at a steady pace, via local authorities and now with added support from the People’s Republic of China. (While this last may be controversial in the UK, in Latin America many countries are seeking Chinese investment in housing and other infrastructure projects.)

As a result, the homes have been built at a cost which is accessible to poor rural families, as the cooperative members will pay just $240 per family each year for 10 years to buy their houses, with each family also able to decide when in the year it will make their payments (for example, they may choose to do so after being paid following their coffee harvesting work).

In addition to the financial aspect, the value of the mutual aid involved in the scheme is of vital importance, not only the work by the beneficiaries but also the technical support provided by MULTIPRO (which also supports four other cooperatives on a similar basis). During the construction, the La Dalia mayor’s office and the housing ministry also made various technical visits to the site, before granting building permits and again on completion.

Another feature of this process was ‘mutual aid days’. These are working days when friends of the cooperative, whether other cooperatives or brigades of university students, visit the building site and help in the construction work. René Ruiz, president of the MULTIPRO cooperative, tells us: “A day of mutual aid was held in commemoration of International Women’s Day. The work consisted of shifting materials, filling in trenches and making foundations. Materials for the day’s work were provided by the La Dalia mayor’s office.” Another group prepared food for all those taking part.

June 2023 saw the inauguration of the first 10 houses, in a celebration organised by MULTIPRO and the cooperative, together with friends who have been part of the process. The mayor’s office and the Ministry of Family Economy also took part. In the future, the cooperative plans to continue working together towards its wider aims, not just providing homes for its members. For example, it also wants to buy its own farmland.

Although Victorias de Noviembre is just a small cooperative, in Latin America there are many like it. They are showing ways of tackling the inequalities of a global housing market that, as in other parts of the world, usually favours people who are already well-housed.

The completed housing

One Response

  1. Three cheers for Winnie Narvaez for her insightful reporting! In the 80’s I passed through La Dalia as part of the Omar Torrijos Brigade working to promote the new Amnesty Law. It was a poor community and transit point. I am thrilled to see residents working together, with gov’t support, to improve their lives. Being creative and resourceful. Poder Popular, People power in action!

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