The UN Guiding Principles in Nicaraguan Agriculture

Interview with Yolanda Brenes | 'Pillars in Practice' Project Sustains Progress of Previous Initiatives

April 2013

From left: Snapshot of workers in a banana packaging facility in Nicaragua; SAI Lead Trainer Yolanda Brenes.

Nicaragua's agricultural sector plays a major role in Nicaragua's economy. Employing an estimated 28% of the population, the sector offers both small-scale and large-scale farmers with the opportunities to enhance their livelihoods through production. However, like in many countries, the agricultural sector poses extraordinary challenges and safety risks for workers - such as the backbreaking physical labor needed to maintain crops, and the high-pressure seasonal demands to manage the harvest. 

The Nicaraguan agricultural sector is one of the three focus areas of SAI and the Danish Institute for Human Rights' 'Pillars in Practice' (PIP) Program. This month, SAI will launch its first set of multi-stakeholder round tables to discuss human rights issues in the sector, on April 25 in Chinandega and April 27 in Managua. The PIP Project's local CSO partner in Nicaragua - Profesionales para la Auditoria Social y Entreprenarial (PASE) - will lead this, and is represented by PASE Program Coordinator Alberto Legall López. We interviewed SAI Lead Trainer & Representative in Costa Rica, Yolanda Brenes, to discuss the relevance and context for the upcoming training, and its potential impact for workers.   

SAI: You are not only a lead trainer with SAI, but you also were involved with some of SAI's most successful projects in Central America - Project Cultivar, Comply and Win, and USAID's CAFTA-Environmental and Labor Excellence (ELE). How does the (PiP) project link with the learnings from previous projects, as well as carve out its own relevant space? 

Yolanda Brenes: In these previous projects, SAI gained insight into the principal challenges faced by local stakeholders [government, companies and trade unions] in complying with national laws designed to protect the human rights of workers. For the Pillars in Practice project, we are returning to the region to further develop our relationships with the same stakeholders, but this time we are involving local civil society organizations as well. Under PIP, our main objective is to raise the awareness and use of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) by all stakeholder groups to promote the respect and protection of human rights, and access to remedy by those whose rights were violated. Because of our previous working relationship with stakeholders, we are able to anticipate and respond to the challenges that stakeholders will encounter with the implementation of the UNGPs. 

SAI: During the April trainings in Nicaragua, you will be working with PASE to implement the UNGPs to reach the overall PIP Project goals. In your opinion, why is this relevant? 

YB: I will be training our local partner PASE on the UNGPs. They are based in Managua. Previously, they were our partner for SAI's Project Cultivar. Providing them with the knowledge and tools to replicate the training on the UNGPs to others will contribute to the sustainability of our project's objective. Every country that is a member of the United Nations has the obligation to comply with the UNGPs. PASE will be a source of information that will remain in Nicaragua long after the project ends to spread information on the UNGPs.  

SAI: What are some of the key challenges for workers in the agricultural sectors in Nicaragua, specifically in sugarcane and bananas? 

YB: Two great challenges for agricultural workers are - 1) knowing their rights, and 2) being hired indirectly by third-party subcontractors. In agriculture, most workers are hired this way. In sugar cane production, there is no direct link between the employer and the workers who cut sugarcane in the fields. Field workers are employed with short-term contracts. If the subcontractor does not pay a fair wage, this is not seen as the responsibility of the employer. But sugar cane refineries must come to accept that their responsibility does not end with the subcontractor, it extends further down the supply chain to the workers too. Subcontracting is often used as means to avoid the legal responsibility for worker. 

The banana sector is different. There has been a very positive evolution in terms of respect of human rights as a result of the pressure from brands and multi-national companies requesting change. It's a similar situation in the coffee sector. There are brands generating pressure for producers to monitor their operations for issues like occupational health & safety (OSH), wages and child labor. PIP will be engaging with stakeholders from all these sectors in addition to the tobacco sector. 

SAI: What opportunities do the guiding principles present for workers in those sectors? 

YB: Through the PIP Project, companies and government ministries will gain greater knowledge of their commitments to respect and protect human rights prescribed by the UNGPs. The UN says that they must comply with these duties. So in theory, their fulfillment will result in better conditions for workers and their communities.

SAI: Your roots are in bananas - prior to SAI you worked for Chiquita. How do those experiences relate to the work you do today? 

YB: I consider Chiquita to be my first training ground. There, I developed an understanding of the basic concepts of sustainability and the dynamics between business operations and management. This allowed me to later understand how to implement social management systems within a company.

SAI: Aside from the PIP Project activities in Nicaragua, what are you working on?

YB: We are working on several projects at the moment that focus on the monitoring of labor conditions. For example we are producing handbooks for the International Financial Corporation (IFC) for various industries.

About the Pillars in Practice Program: The Pillars in Practice (PiP) Program of SAI and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) works to build the capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Bangladesh, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe, to engage with and train on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (GPs). The program aims to activate a strategic alliance by establishing the training capacity of CSO partners in each of the three countries to sustainably promote and assist in the implementation of the GPs by local and multi-national companies, government agencies and other local CSOs. The PIP Project is funded by the U.S. State Department. Follow the project on Facebook at  

Special thanks to Yolanda Brenes for this interview. This article and interview was prepared by SAI Development Manager Eliza Wright and SAI Communications Manager Joleen Ong, with contributions from SAI Development Intern Tina Baboyan. For inquiries, contact Ms. Wright -

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