CRS in Nicaragua

As the largest of the Central American countries, Nicaragua is also one of the most ecologically diverse. Lakes, volcanoes, rainforests and wide agricultural plains provide the setting for amazing biodiversity and tremendous potential in agriculture and natural resources. Unfortunately, its turbulent history, punctuated by violent, corrupt, and predatory governments, foreign intervention, and economic exploitation, have kept Nicaragua near the bottom of Latin America’s poverty rankings. In addition, the country, which has historically suffered from frequent earthquakes and hurricanes, is increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters. Hurricane Felix and disastrous rains in 2007, drought in 2009, flooding and landslides in one of the wettest rainy seasons ever in 2010, and severe drought again in 2014, serve as grim reminders of Nicaragua’s increasing exposure to extreme and damaging weather patterns.

According to the World Bank Nicaragua Poverty Assessment (2008), 46 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2005 (while 15 percent lived in extreme poverty), and the incidence of poverty is more than twice as high in rural areas (68 percent) than in urban areas (29 percent). Nicaragua’s social indicators also rank among the lowest in the region, commensurate with its relatively low per capita income level ($1,000 in 2006).

CRS Nicaragua manages a large portfolio of agricultural projects serving the country’s poorest and seeking to sustainably increase their food production and incomes. Yield improvements are sought through a focus on improved soil and water management that will also increase the resilience of the producers and their communities in the face of climate change. Agroforestry with cacao and coffee, conservation agriculture with corn, beans and vegetables, and managed forage and trees for cattle are among the crops and systems that CRS promotes in Nicaragua.

In addition, CRS works to improve communities' ability to manage and reduce risks and to prepare for and mitigate future emergencies. Activities that improve the communities' capacities include vulnerability mapping, evacuation plans, and training in the above-mentioned agricultural practices that build their defenses against extreme weather and mitigate the impacts of shocks such as drought, flooding and epidemics. 

Rising crime across Central America has become a significant international concern as it threatens democratic development and slows economic growth. In particular, the spread of gang activity and expansion of cross border networks and illegal activities, particularly drug trafficking, have led to increasingly serious insecurity in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. While these problems have not yet affected Nicaragua to the same degree, the country suffers many of the same underlying causes and risk factors, raising concerns that the issues will continue to spread south. These underlying factors include a lack of educational and economic opportunities for the large youth population, marginalized urban areas, intra-familial violence and family disintegration, and easy access to drugs and firearms, among others.

Since 2007, CRS Nicaragua has worked with the Youth Builders development methodology to educate, train, and place unemployed, marginalized youth in employment and self-employment livelihood opportunities. The model utilizes life-skills training and community-based service projects to facilitate youth acquiring critical leadership, employment, and/or enterprise development competencies. 


People served: 52,543

Population: 5,907,881 (July 2015 est.)

Size: 49,998 sq miles; slightly larger than Pennsylvania; slightly smaller than New York state

CRS' History in Nicaragua

Catholic Relief Services began working in Nicaragua in 1964. CRS provided disaster relief, distributing food, clothing and medicine after a powerful hurricane. 

During the 1970s, CRS continued to implement a food program for school-aged children and introduced a groundbreaking "revolving funds" project, which was to become a precursor of microfinance and other financing mechanisms for agricultural producers.

In 1972, CRS responded to the Great Earthquake in Managua, which killed 10,000 people and left 300,000 homeless, with a $6 million, multi-year reconstruction effort implemented with Caritas Nicaragua.

Between 1979 and 1990, given the insecurity of a country at war and the logistical difficulties caused by a trade embargo, program staff relocated to Costa Rica and provided assistance to Nicaragua during natural disasters, particularly after Hurricane Joan in 1988.

In 1990, CRS reopened an office in Nicaragua with a special emphasis on strengthening key relationships with government ministry officials, local church representatives, and in-country partners and donors to address the volatile, post-conflict period.

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch -- which killed 3,800 people in Nicaragua -- highlighted the country's extreme vulnerability to natural disasters and their impact on the poor. Hurricane Mitch brought about a renewed focus on the importance of justice as a motive for programs designed to address poverty.

On a global scale, CRS began promoting greater awareness of justice issues in development, which in Nicaragua found expression in Global Solidarity Partnerships. Designed to connect Catholics in the United States and Nicaragua, such outpourings of international solidarity resulted in the construction of bridges in the areas worst hit by Hurricane Mitch. In the process, other bridges of understanding formed between the two countries.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch was soon followed by another crisis, the collapse in 2001 of international coffee prices. With so many small-scale farmers and day laborers relying on coffee for survival, Nicaragua was particularly hard hit. The crisis, which pitted hungry and unemployed coffee farm workers against landowners and the government, threatened to erupt into violence. Supported by CRS, the local Catholic Church led efforts to defuse the situation, calling for dialogue, immediate relief and long-term development assistance.

This experience became an entry point for CRS to promote the concept of fair trade and justice-based commerce in general. Working through small producer cooperatives, CRS opened markets in the United States for fair trade-certified coffee, while simultaneously promoting organic coffee production and crop diversification.

Building on work done following Hurricane Mitch, in the 2000s, CRS Nicaragua increasingly focused on agroenterprise programming, which beyond increasing productivity, focused on the skills and conditions necessary to add value to farm produce and connect farmers to higher value markets. CRS’ agroenterprise programs have benefitted more than 12,000 producers and generated millions of dollars in economic development in Nicaragua’s rural areas.