Aiding peasants who slip through net

After seeing nothing but bone-dry soil and barren skies for six months, Juan Valenzuela gazes at the season's first thunderstorm gathering on the horizon. For Mr. Valenzuela, like many of Mexico's estimated 12 million farmers without access to irrigation, the water-logged clouds carry the seeds of hope. But without outside assistance, the farmer could never reap a harvest equal to that hope.

For despite Mexico's ambitious land-reform program, the 29 families in this makeshift village - along with thousands of others - have slipped through the widening cracks of the government's social net.

In this community, however, there is an independent group that helps fill those cracks. The Foundation for Rural Development and Child Aid, based in the town of Alamos, just north of here, assists 32 local farming villages struggling through Mexico's five-year economic crisis.

With funding from a variety of international organizations, most notably the Inter-American Foundation and Save the Children International, the foundation's Mexican staff is able to offer health care, educational services, technical assistance, and - most of all - credit to farmers who don't qualify at the nationalized rural bank.

For everything from mules to tools, the foundation extends short- and long-term credits at lower rates than the bank. The operation is small (about $80,000 in credits to be distributed for the entire year) but potent (some farmers say their families would starve without the extra guidance).

Even though credit is being extended to a high-risk group, the pesos are not being thrown away: A farmer can't receive any seeds, for example, until his credit proposal is approved by all of his fellow farmers. According to Santiago Mendez Robledo, director, the peer pressure has enabled them to fully recover 96 percent of the credits. So far, 20 of the 32 communities have taken advantage of the 1-year-old credit program. ``It takes a lot of work to convince them it's a good idea,'' Mr. Mendez says.

On this particular evening, in this scorched valley at the base of the Western Sierra Madre mountains, rural development specialist Eduardo Espinosa has come to finalize the farmers' credit application. When he arrives, Valenzuela bangs a cow bell to call two dozen sandal-clad peasants to the open-air meeting place.

As they gravitate silently from the fields, one can see other signs of the foundation's presence: A group of girls frolic in a playground recently built with the foundation's help; two young boys swing in a hammock outside the one-room ``schoolhut,'' built by two resident teachers aided by the foundation.

In the meeting, Mr. Espinosa pushes the group to a vote on the seed requests for each farmer. When a difference of opinion arises, he waits until the men work out a consensus among themselves. In the end, all seem content about the prospect of receiving seed. And all look to the darkening skies, hoping the rains come soon. Their hopes are answered: As Espinosa turns to leave, the season's first drops of rainfall to the dusty earth.

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