Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mountaintop Experiences

Solving Local Problems

On Wednesday and Thursday, February 13‑14, we worked side-by-side with parents and teachers in the mountain villages of Pueblo Nuevo and Las Quebradas to make their local schools more rain resistant and inviting.  In Pueblo Nuevo we replaced a leaky metal roof and painted the one-room school inside and out.  The school district in Las Quebradas had purchased a house adjacent to its existing elementary school for a kindergarten.  The community had knocked out an interior wall of the concrete block house to create a decent area for teaching, but the interior walls were grey unpainted blocks; the old metal roof leaked, and the rafters were rotted.
Installing new rafters for the new roof

What is the real value of replacing a roof and painting a school?  Is helping these villages with these projects creating a cycle of dependency?  Do villagers simply say, “It’s too expensive; let the gringos do it for us” instead of solving their own problems and providing for their own needs?  Dr. Steve Rith‑Najarian, a member of our team who has been coming here for more than twenty years, told us of past experiences where team members came to solve a community’s problems and only created more unintended problems.  He told about a community garbage dump that also served as a treasure trove for little kids who picked through the rat-infested debris to find things that wealthier families had discarded.  The dump was an obvious source of disease.  The group decided that the solution was to build a high fence around the dump and to set hours when the dump would be open and supervised.  The result was that people started leaving their garbage at the gate when the dump was closed. Soon there were two dumps: one inside the fence and one outside.  The poor children still combed through a filthy mess in hopes of finding treasures.

Steve’s point was that “solving” problems for other people is doomed to failure if the community members themselves have not participated in developing the solution.  It takes a lot of time and local leadership development for a community to sift through the mountain of challenges it faces and to set priorities for the needs that most villagers believe will make the greatest difference.  This is where our partnership with the Santa Barbara Rotary Club is critical to the success of the few projects we support each year.  The local Rotarians take much personal time throughout the year meeting with communities spread throughout the department, assessing their needs, and identifying the communities who are committed to implementing changes that our group simply facilitates.  Providing materials and a little extra labor is valuable to a community in extreme poverty, but, more than that, it is an affirmation from outside of long, tireless effort inside the community to make lives of everyone a little better.
 Students paint their school for class tomorrow

In many ways, the men and women we meet as we lift a sheet of steel roofing or paint a wall are models for us.  When we fret about the gridlock we face in dealing with problems in our own communities, we can look to these local leaders who struggle daily to find food for their families or to get healthcare for a sick child.  What they give out of so little for their village makes us almost feel ashamed of the things we complain about in our home towns.

We Are Connected to Each Other

It is hard for us to see the impact of our own decisions at home on the lives of the people in Honduras:  when we buy Central American fruit or coffee in the grocery store, when we buy a T-shirt, or buy a car or truck “made in America.”  It is very easy for us to complain that illegal Honduran immigrants are simply trying to take resources from us in the USA when we do not see the harsh consequences of our own purchasing decisions on them.  When we compare products in a store, we usually limit our choices to quality, price, and brand recognition.  How often do we look at what it took to get that price and to make that product?

By visiting Honduras we see the effects of the economic power we wield on families outside our borders.  Would people in our country tolerate having people in another country do to us what we do to them with our economic and military power?  The OPEC nations give us a small taste of our own medicine when they manipulate the world supply of oil.  Hondurans are in no position to strike back when the US intervenes in their country to protect the control of US fruit companies over the best agricultural land.  Do we ever hear about sending US Marines to Honduras to favor the control of private US interests over the interests of Honduran citizens?  It is news we choose not to hear and history we choose not to learn.

Education Is a Key to Improvement

The villagers in Pueblo Nuevo and Las Quebradas know that they cannot break their cycle of poverty without educated children.  About 75% of Honduran children get through sixth grade. Less than a third of high school age kids go to high school.  Even fewer rural youth go to high school.  It is not simply because a family needs teenagers to contribute to its survival, but also because there are no high schools in rural areas.  A teenager has to leave home and live in a city where there is a high school. Sometimes this happens when a family has relatives in the city who are able to take in the teenager while they attend school.  The teenager may have to combine work and school in order to provide room and board, school uniforms, and school supplies.  One teacher we met planned to leave his job near the City of Santa Barbara so that his daughter could attend collegio (grades 10‑12) in the City of Tegucigalpa.  The parents did not want their teenage daughter to fend for herself in the big city, but they were committed to her educational achievement.
The Pueblo Nuevo teacher with his students

Our work down here is largely aimed at the other end of the educational spectrum: kids entering school.  The kindergarten teachers we met are trying to make their classrooms inviting.  They want children to love learning and to be excited about going to school.  If a five-year-old prefers helping her parents to pick coffee beans to attending school, it’s difficult for them to assure that she will stay in school while they are working on a mountainside far from their village during the day.  It was obvious that the kindergarteners we met adored their teachers.    I do not know how the teachers do it when they have so little materials in their classrooms, but the teachers were the Pied Pipers of their communities.

Striving Toward Sustainability
A worker earns 15 lempira (75 cents) per
3-gallon basket of berries picked.

What are solutions to the economic hardships Hondurans face?  The country created economic incentives for foreign companies to establish maquiladoras here.  Maquiladoras are factories operated by foreign companies.  The maquiladora near Santa Barbara was owned by a South Korean company.  The firm imported cotton cloth and hired Honduran workers (mostly women) to make T-shirts and shipped the finished product for sale in the United States.  Laborers who faced high levels of unemployment in the rural villages were pleased to find employment at the factory, but there were stories of worker abuse.  Workers complained that they were forced to work overtime rather than be allowed to go home to prepare meals for their children.  There were reports of company officials giving women free “vitamin supplements” that actually were morning-after pills that employers used to prevent women workers from becoming pregnant.  The neighborhood Colonia Las Brisas del Pinal is now reeling in economic hardship because the nearby maquiladora closed.  Many of the families that moved here for jobs are now returning to coffee fincas during the daytime to pick coffee.

Brayan, the Santa Barbara Rotarian who worked with us at Pueblo Nuevo, owns three parcels of land nearby totaling about sixty acres where he was growing coffee.  He has a vision for how to achieve sustainable development, and he was eager to show us efforts. He and his wife Miriam are in their late twenties and have a six year-old daughter Sharon. They own a building supply store in Santa Barbara. After we finished repairing the school, Brayan took a group of us for a walk farther up the mountain to his coffee finca.  He showed us a row of small ceiba trees he planted among his coffee plants.

“Everyone here says I’m crazy to put so much effort into planting these trees,” he said as Becky translated.  “It will be twenty years before they are ready for harvest, but, in twenty years, each tree will yield 200 board feet of lumber at $2 per board foot.  Maybe it will be too late to provide for my wife and me, but it will be valuable for our children.”
Separating the beans from the fruit

Brayan said that the finca workers did not realize that he did not want the tall shade trees cut when they planted the coffee plants in this area.  The tradition in the area was to thin the forest before planting the new coffee plants.  Brayan wants to manage his land for both the overstory trees and the understory coffee.  He showed us how the fleshy fruit of the coffee berry is separated from the beans.

Making corn tortillas from scratch
“Most people here let the fruit of the berries wash down the hillside,” he said.  “I save the organic matter and compost it to enhance the soil.  It is a valuable resource.”

Cooking on a wood burning stove
He went on to explain that he is making changes to the traditional ways coffee is produced and harvested in order to have his operation certified by the Rainforest Alliance.  He said he currently is in the early stage of certification, but he is upgrading living quarters for coffee pickers, improving forest cover over the plants, and reducing his use of industrial chemicals in order to be fully certified.  He expects certification to improve the quality of the coffee he produces, to increase the price he can get for his product, and to increase the income of the families who work on the finca.

Brayan took us to the century-old building where his coffee pickers live during the harvest and to the kitchen where their meals are prepared.  A woman in the kitchen showed how she makes sixty tortillas per meal twice a day from dried kernels of corn on a wood-fired stove.  The old building had rows of triple decker bunk beds for twenty-four workers.  He said that, even though this is a long-time tradition in this area, he will be building smaller, more family-friendly quarters with better sanitation for the workers.

Workers' bunk beds
At the dinner meeting of the Santa Barbara Rotarians last night, Brayan and Miriam gave each of us two pounds of coffee from their finca as a sign of thanks for the help we provided during our stay.  Each bag had a label expressing thanks for the partnership we maintain.  I think coffee also expresses a hope for the future.  When an agricultural product is produced by local people on relatively small plots in ways that maintain or enhance the productivity of the land, there is hope for the future of these little villages on the mountaintop.

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