Three Americas, Inc.: Latin America and the Passing of Co-Founder Bert Muhly

Bert & Lois Muhly, 1982

Three Americas, Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)3 educational and action organization that serves as a catalyst to link the people of the Americas through cooperative projects supporting social, environmental, and economic justice. It has operated in its current form since 2003, when it received its 501(c)3 status – the core group of volunteers and activists comprising Three Americas has been working on these issues since the 1980s.

Earth Links has partnered with Three Americas on numerous projects in Latin America and our collaborations have produced work we are all very proud of. With the recent passing of one of the founders of Three Americas, Bert Muhly, we wanted to share some of the important work this dedicated group of people has done over the years. This work started with Bert and Lois Muhly’s fact-finding trips to Nicaragua, and continues to be informed by their research and travel.

Bert, Lois, and their daughter Patricia staff the Three Americas booth at the Aptos Farmers Market

Three Americas is perhaps best known to locals in Santa Cruz for its Café de la Esperanza coffee sales at the Aptos Farmers Market, where two kinds of shade-grown, fair traded, organic Nicaraguan coffee are available both bagged and fresh-brewed, roasted by the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, a local roaster and retailer. Their coffee sales fund a great part of Three Americas’ educational and humanitarian projects, and the connections made with the coffee growers—on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua and in the vicinity of Mt. Pancasan—have been rewarding for all concerned.  Each coffee sale by the cup or bag provides farmers a fair wage, protects their health through paying a premium for organic growing methods, and helps to fund projects throughout the Americas.

Bert Muhly and Bill Burtch load a truck bound for Nicaragua

Three Americas has a long and rich story, beginning with the formation of the Santa Cruz Coalition for Nicaragua in the 1980s.  Following the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza, a group of committed citizens in Santa Cruz saw the opportunity for a people-to-people exchange of ideas, and for material and monetary resources to flow from Santa Cruz to humanitarian and environmental advances being made by the citizens of Nicaragua. Over 30 trips have been made by Coalition volunteers and residents of Santa Cruz, sometimes by truck with material aid, and some times as groups for training and cultural exchanges.  Exchanges have gone both ways as mayors and firefighters have visited Santa Cruz and discussed their needs and common issues in city planning and management.

Three Americas has demonstrated its commitment to sustainable living and indigenous peoples rights through numerous projects spanning many years. Here are just a few of their innovative initiatives:

Coffee Cooperatives in Guatemala

In 2008 and 2009, Three Americas partnered with Earth Links in order to  help establish a coffee growing cooperative in San Martín, Guatemala. It started with discussions of a proposal from a group of Mayan coffee farmers, which led to a $5,000 donation to a group of twenty or so families who planned to form a new co-op. These families converted 100 acres of land to organic growing, and then created three small scale coffee processing facilities.  The co-op was able to purchase just-picked coffee from farmers for processing by the co-op, which allowed the farmers to earn substantially more money when the coffee was finally sold to brokers for export.  The plan changed as the farmers determined it would be more efficient to invest the capital in joining and expanding an existing coop, which proved to be very successful decision.  This work also produced joint support for the building of a “casita” for the award-winning sustainable agriculture center El Mirador, which has allowed students and visitors more options to stay on site for training and internships.

Land Rights for the Rama Nation

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Three Americas and a large group NGOs, including Earth Links, Asdi, KEPA Finlandia, Lighthawk, and Raindancer Media, lent their assistance to key individuals from the Rama Nation on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua in their long struggle to gain title to their common ancestral lands. A major breakthrough in this effort came in January 2003 when the Nicaraguan government approved a new indigenous land demarcation law (Law No. 445). One of the main obstacles to defending native peoples’ land rights in Nicaragua had been the absence of a legal framework to demarcate and title community lands.

Much of the support provided by Three Americas involved working together with Earth Links to fund the efforts by environmentalist geographer Gerald Mueller Riverstone, PhD, to assist the Rama in documenting their historical land use of more than 1,00,000 acres along the Caribbean Coast. Using early hand held GPS units, drawing extensive maps and taking photos from a small Lighthawk-provided plane, Jerry and the Rama produced an aerial map of the Rama Lands. You can read Jerry’s extensive reports, Rama Indian Lands and the Protection of Nicaragua’s Cultural and Biological Diversity, here.

Media efforts were also supported by Three Americas, Earth Links, and Raindancer Media, who produced crucial short documentaries making the case to the Nicaraguan people to grant the Rama their homeland. In 2009 the Rama received their lands rights, although the struggle to maintain control and to manage settlement/deforestation by poor mestizo farmers is one of many ongoing challenges.

Three Americas provided critical support to Maria Luisa Acosta, a human rights lawyer in Nicaragua, aiding her in her quest to establish land rights as human rights for indigenous peoples in Central American courts. Three Americas helped fund the documentary The Living Documents, about the brutal, murderous opposition Maria Luisa encountered in her support of the indigenous people of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

Three Americas and Earth Links have provided ongoing support to some of these isolated rural communities along the Caribbean coast, who have been under attack, including gunmen attempting to force them off their lands (which would thereby allow large-scale development to take place). In 2000, Three Americas, Earth Links, and Paul Baker of the Nicaragua Network provided the Monkey Point community a ham radio and VHF radios to reach the regional police and army units, which helped reduce the violence and frequency of those kinds of attacks.  In 2010, satellite phones, a computer, cameras, and solar powered batteries were sent.  Working with the leadership of the Rama people (especially community leader and activist Miss Pearl Watson), Three Americas has also supported the Monkey Point Health Clinic with small financial donations and medical supplies. Three Americas also held conflict resolution courses in Bluefields to help the various ethnic groups (Rama, Creole, mestizo, Guarafuna) find ways to solve disputes over land and resources before they became violent.

In addition to the direct support for the Rama, Three Americas and Earth Links refurbished donated computers and shipped them by truck to the three indigenous universities on the Caribbean Coast (URACCAN). Trainings on computer care and software operation were held at all three universities and led by Three Americas volunteer Takashi Yogi.

Sister Cities and Jinotepe, Nicaragua

The Unveiling of the Truck in Jinotepe, June 2009

Three Americas’ multi-year aid to Jinotepe (in participation with Santa Cruz Sister Cities Committee) is almost too extensive to list: items have ranged from an ambulance to x-ray equipment. Another donation involved a shipping container of hospital beds. Sports equipment has been very popular – Nicaraguans love baseball. Bill Burtch, who drove many of the shipments direct from Santa Cruz to Jinotepe, made one trip to coincide with an Earth Links visit, to distribute donated wheelchairs and adaptive equipment to aid the special education efforts of Los Pipitos.

In June 2009, Santa Cruz Sister Cities Project and Three Americas coordinated delivery of a rear-loading garbage truck, valued at C$50,000 (the Nicaraguan currency), that was donated by the City of Santa Cruz to Jinotepe, Nicaragua, its Sister City.  It was so welcomed another truck donation is being planned.

Most recently, Three Americas and the Sister Cities Committee are providing assistance to the home for seniors in Jinotepe, to fund and provide additional services to the very low income residents who find shelter there.

Bert Muhly’s Legacy

As an original member of the Santa Cruz Coalition for Nicaragua, and then founding board member of Three Americas, Inc., Bert Muhly personified the spirit of people-to-people exchanges, which reach across great distances to bind together those who would protect our environment and our most vulnerable citizens. This work is a wonderful example of what a few committed individuals can accomplish, even against long odds, when they work together.

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