Four of us (Betsy and I, and Mary Procter and Bill Matuszeski) went to Honduras in the early part of March to spend time with villagers in five mountain communities that were a part of our ongoing support to the Trinidad Conservation Project. Three of the towns had previously been in the cluster, while two new towns had been added.
On previous trips, we had been engaged in projects and lived in the communities. And a part of our presence there had been to witness changes in the communities regarding number of trees planted, fuel efficient stoves built, and house gardens planted. We gloried in how much organic fertilizer had been made, and how no one was using harmful tradition methods such as slash and burn, and chemical insecticides and pesticides.
This year, we experienced a different deeper layer.
Hondurans are going through tough times: a drought has pervaded the country; a plague is destroying the country’s pine forests, crops have failed, and a well known and respected environmental activist was assassinated. Some families may have to leave their villages because there is no source of income and food. They may have to migrate to dangerous urban areas if the drought continues. Security, drugs, and corruption continue to be realities.
Having to face all of this, it would be completely understandable if the people that we met were despairing. Yet, that is not what we saw. What we saw glimpses of were shining, smiling, faces and hopeful discussions.
There was also a sense of living in intergenerational communities (grandmothers and grandfathers, parents, children); much less attachment to things for a sense of well-being, But something else was evident, and that was their living in a faith that they would be empowered to care for themselves and each other. And that is the power of the Vecinos Honduras presence, embedded in what Roy Lara does; he is a skilled agronomist, and he cares for the villagers. He himself is carrying out his calling, that work with people in small communities can make a difference.
Here is another observation about the trip. A two way interconnectedness exists between the Washington and Honduran communities. We do serve an important role each hour we spend listening and observing in our five villages, and with both Roy and Edwin. It has to do with the caring qualities and energy that we bring to the relationship. So, we inspire by our interest and compassion. And, in return, we become inspired by what we are witnessing up close and from photos. It is truly a mutual exchange of energy.
Click here to see Inspired by Faith Photos
One of the strongest principles of Vecinos Honduras (our TCP partner) is that outsiders can bring new knowledge of health or agriculture to a community but the people in the community must learn to teach each other campesino a campesino. To our delight, we found out in visits to the five TCP communities during our trip to Honduras in early March, that the people we meet really like to be taught by each other and to teach each other.
In early January 2016, a gifted facilitator for Vecinos Honduras in southeastern Honduras gave eight workshops to people in the five TCP communities. Her name is Balvina Amador and her surname (meaning “lover” in Spanish) gives a hint of the affection she generated in each of these communities. She taught people how to build a stove that consumes one tenth as much wood as a traditional stove. She taught people techniques to make their homes safer and healthier and she taught them how to grow and balance food in the three basic food categories.
In February 2016, another experienced facilitator, Melvin Molina, gave six workshops on techniques to conserve and reuse water—various techniques for constructing a filter for gray water out of common materials such as used tires.
By the time we four arrived in March, half a dozen members of these five communities had already taught one or more workshops to other families. In total, local people in the communities had taught eleven additional workshops, passing on what they had learned from Balvina or Melvin.
The local leaders who taught these workshops included men and women and young people ranging from as young as 13. All of them expressed great satisfaction at being able to pass on what they knew to their neighbors or to people in nearby communities.
After her stove was created in a workshop taught by Balvina. Lucinda Martinez, a mother of four in El Puente, taught other families how to build a wood-conserving stove. After years of struggle in this community with poor access to water, Lucinda said the experience of working together gave her confidence in her community’s ability to make life better.
In El Cablotal, Mercedes Rios, another mother of four, taught three other families how to build a stove. She told us of her satisfaction that El Cablotal families were working together to make progress. She was just named an officer of a newly- formed rural credit union for El Cablotal.
Antonio Gamez, a farmer in La Majada, travelled to Agua Zarca to show several farm families there how to build a chicken coop. Natividad Peña, a farmer in El Puente, teamed up with the youngest community trainer, middle school student Byron Bueso, to conduct a workshop on how to build a wood-conserving wash basin and filtering system to turn gray water (from washing clothes and dishes) into water for a garden. Byron lives with his grandmother and two uncles, while his parents work in the city, and has expressed a strong desire to learn everything he can about how to build improvements to their lives.
We could observe that the value of local families teaching each other how to build a wood-conserving stove, or a chicken coop, or a gray water filtering system goes far beyond the value of the thing that is built. The experience for the participants creates satisfaction and even joy and the desire to work together again to improve the whole community.
Click to see Teaching Others photos.
Drought over past several years is causing a national emergency in Honduras. The drought is caused by climate change, possibly aggravated by El Niño. Without rains in May and June, many families will be malnourished and even hungry. Some family members will be forced to leave the communities to search for city jobs or even to leave the country. In communities that have been in the TCP program for years, improved soil and water conservation practices are providing some protection against the impact of the drought.
During a recent trip to Honduras, TCP members saw scattered fields of dead cornstalks. Corn and beans are the staple crops and together are a source of complete protein in the daily diet. Drought reduced the planting done last December. Farming families are now praying that the annual May and June rains will water the seeds planted this spring. Two poor crops in a row will spell severe hardship for all the families and disaster for some.
Florentino Amaya told the TCP visitors during their recent visit that the agricultural practices he has learned from Roy Lara are “excellent” because they have helped protect his crops from climate change. Antonio Gamez says that turning the material he slashed down at the end of last year’s harvest makes good mulch and protects this year’s planting. A simple tool made of a wooden A-frame and a plumb line enables farmers to plant seeds in contour lines across the mountainsides to catch and hold the water in the soil. Placing recycled plastic bottles filled with water provides drip irrigation through pin holes in the cap to individual plants with almost no water lost to evaporation.
Their fields and vegetable gardens of long-time TCP farming families are now demonstration plots for others. New families are eager to learn these new practices and in some communities farms belonging to new TCP participants are already being used for training.
The number one home improvement which the women in the new communities want is a water-conserving sink. Traditional sinks store water in large basins for later use in smaller sinks with drains. Scarcity of water and loss of water to evaporation make these large holding sinks impractical. Both communities depend on water brought to the villages from far-away water encatchments in tubes that have been heavily damaged by fallen trees and mudslides. In one community this public water system delivers water only intermittently and in the other never because it is completely destroyed. In the second community they bathe and wash clothes in the nearby river.
Altagracias Pena, like the other women in the village of El Puente, brings water up from the river to cook, clean her home, and water fruit trees and a small garden. She treasures this new water-conserving sink that was built for her by other members of her village, who had learned how to make them from a demonstration by a Vecinos Honduras staff member. After being used and then passed through several layers of gravel and rocks, the filtered water is drained into a nearby family garden.
As shown in the photo above, in El Cablotal which receives diminishing supplies of water from functioning water pipes, water-conserving sinks made of recycled tires and cement are valued. No matter what material the sink is built of, the water is used sparingly, filtered, and then drained to water plants.
Emphasis on workshops on practices to conserve soil and water will continue during 2016. The specific practices will differ, depending on the needs and wishes expressed by participants in the community.
Click to see Conservation Measure and Drought photos.
The families with which we have been working in our six communities have now successfully graduated from Sustainable Harvest International (SHI). SHI is no longer working in the Department of Santa Barbara. We will continue the Trinidad Conservation Program work in Santa Barbara, but with a new set of nonprofit partners. As a result, our work with Roy Lara continues, and he has become a part of our new Honduran partner., Vecinos Honduras.
This new chapter is exciting for us. First, something about our new partners: Groundswell International has its offices here in Washington, and Vecinos Honduras (Honduras Neighbors), in Honduras. While many of the previous objectives remain intact from our former work (reforestation, “sustainable” agriculture), there are new nuances: an explicit connection is made with environmental awareness at the village level and practical actions that can be undertaken to mitigate climate change in particular, “community led processes”, concern for gender issues, and an emphasis on local determination and self sufficiency. Underpinning all of these is a profound belief in interconnectedness with the environment and others.
Here is a bit more about Groundswell International and Vecinos Honduras. Groundswell is an “umbrella” nonprofit: it has affiliate organizations in, among others, Guatemala, Haiti, Ecuador, Mali, Nepal, and Ghana. Its core values are local action leading to global impact by fostering connections, lasting change, agroecological farming, etc. Vecinos continues these values.
Steve Brescia, Executive Director of Groundswell, and Edwin Escoto, Executive Director of Vecinos, are exciting, dynamic leaders.
Here is a bit about the new program as it is presently visualized. The program, will last for three years (with the possibility of renewal), operate in five communities — three from our original cluster, and two entirely new villages from a neighboring area. The Vecinos methodology will be applied, and participants from the original villages will become “extenionistas” in the new villages. Roy is at present a consultant and has worked with Edwin to frame the start up of a three year project in the municipalities of Chinda and Ilama both of which are near Trinidad, Honduras. We are presently reviewing. a budget and proposal that will cover activities through the end of 2016.
In some respects, this seems like another mountain to climb, but we are really excited about the journey. We continue with Roy, our good friend and the villagers whom we have come to love. We have made new friends with Edwin and his staff, and people in the “new” villages. Broadly speaking, the new partnership will work to build alliances among organizations in Honduras and connections with new organizations here in the United States.
So, we invite you to share in our excitement about how TCP can continue to empower the rural Honduran poor and help the environment.
by Betsy Agle
On March 1st, a small group of TCP members from Capitol Hill arrived in San Pedro Sula and was met by Roy Lara in his family pickup truck. During the next 9 days we traveled many hours and many miles. “We” includes Roy Lara, Betsy and Collie Agle, Mary Procter and Bill Matuszeski — it was a snug fit!
One of the reasons for the trip was for us to become more familiar with Vecinos, a Honduran NGO that has sustainable agriculture programs in areas southeast of Tegucigalpa. We were introduced to Vecinos by Steve Brescia of Groundswell International, which is a US NGO that supports sustainability programs around the world. Roy Lara has met Edwin Escoto, Executive Director of Vecinos, several times, and they have been discussing the possibility of working together.
The first night we spent in Trinidad. The next day we set out for the Vecinos office in Tegucigalpa,where we were greeted warmly by Edwin Escoto and the Vecinos Board of Directors. Over the next three days we went way far east and way far up to the communities of El Guano and Azabache . What we saw and heard was exciting.
We got a good overview of the organizing model of Vecinos. While there are many interesting comparisons with Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) work, these points seem particularly worth mentioning:
Everywhere people shared meals made of produce they had grown and chickens they had raised. They were delicious!
After returning to Trinidad, we made our way up to the communities of La Majada and El Tule. In La Majada we heard testimonials from families about how they are sharing what they have learned from their participation in the SHI program with neighbors and in class rooms. In El Tule, we heard excitement in the voices of the families who told us about a small watershed protection project and the potential for a revitalization of the local rural bank. In both places we passed out beautiful Certificates of Appreciation to all the families.
We did feel we had accomplished something important as well. There was clearly rapport between Edwin Escoto and Roy Lara. What will come next is the drafting and adoption of a written agreement of major points for a three way alliance between the Trinidad Conservation Project, Vecinos and Groundswell. Roy will have responsibilities in both the Vecinos and TCP areas. The TCP leadership, including representatives from all the churches, will have a chance to review this agreement before it is signed. Roy will need TCP financial support to continue his work under this agreement.
Sunday night we finished off the trip by treating our Trinidad hosts to ice cream from the store on the park. Monday we headed for the airport and bought Roy more than a dozen donuts to take to family and friends. Sweet endings to a sweet trip.
High up in the mountains above Trinidad, Santa Barbara, a joyous group of people gathered to celebrate the graduation of 34 farming families from the Sustainable Harvest International five-phase organic farming program. The families came from six villages located on three different mountains: El Tule, La Majada, El Cablotal, El Cerron, El Robledal, and La Laguna Verde. Since July, 2008, the Trinidad Conservation Project (made up of churches and individuals in Washington D.C.has supported the program in these communities.
The graduation ceremony and lunch took place in the community center in El Tule. More than 40 people crammed themselves into the space to witness the ceremony. For me, it was a wonderful reunion. The room was filled with the men, women and children I have gotten to know over the past nine or ten years since I have been traveling there.
Consuelo was the first one I saw. She is such a wonderful person – generous, hard working, and always smiling! I met her when my church started supporting her church community’s basic grain storage project in 2003. She and her husband Salvador traveled about three hours from El Cerron to be there. Consuelo is a field trainer for SHI now. She and Salvador graduated from the program that day as well. As a field trainer, Consuelo has been teaching women how to prepare, package and market their products, especially plantain chips.
Around the room in the community center, farmers had set up stands to showcase and sell their products. There was roasted and ground coffee, pickled vegetables, marmalade, sweet green peppers, plantain chips, and honey. This young woman selling plantain chips came from Laguna Verde.
The graduation ceremony started with talks from SHI leaders and local staff. Then the leaders of each community were called upon to speak about their experiences with the program and the successes they have had. The stories from the leaders were very moving, especially the testimony from Maria de Jesus Cortes of Laguna Verde. She spoke from the heart about how her life had been changed by learning how to farm organically and how to market her produce. We all had tears in our eyes when she had finished.
After the testimonies, we ate a wonderful, healthy lunch made by the families from their organic fruits, vegetables, and spices, including delicious soy products.
After lunch and mingling with our friends, some of us went to Don Virgilio’s house to see his new silos and his vegetable garden. His silos were built with funds provided by TCP to teach farmers how to build silos to store grains safely and to teach others how to build similar silos. I was sad to leave my friends in the TCP communities so soon, but I am very happy to have celebrated with them such a great milestone in their lives. These families have come this long distance in large part because of the financial support from TCP supporters. All of you can rightfully celebrate their achievement as well.
Honduras has two problems that have engaged me professionally and personally for well over thirty years: the high rate of poverty that exists in the small rural communities of the country and the continuing destruction of the environment, particularly as it has related to the country’s forests.
Previous to my involvement with my friends from Washington, I was working with the Diocese of Honduras in the undertaking of environmental work in small, poor rural communities. My commitment has, for a number of years, been to develop skills, knowledge, and awareness among community leaders in issues such as the protection of watersheds, wildlife, and ecosystems. I also have taught stewardship and the necessity of protecting the environment to students in the local schools. Part of this work was to directly involve the students in the planting of trees in endangered watersheds.
My relationship with four Washington churches started in 1987. And we started a joint relationship called the “Trinidad Conservation Project (TCP).” As a result of my relationship with TCP, I joined the staff of Sustainable Harvest International as the lead field trainer for Honduras.
I treasure my relationship with my TCP friends in Washington. They have contributed both their time and financial resources to helping six small, rural villages learn good forestry and sustainable, organic agricultural practices. Through on-site visits to the communities over these years; they have developed close, supportive relationships with a wide number of men, women, and children who often feel as if no one cares. And their time and financial resources have made a difference in increasing local vegetable production, improving family nutrition, and empowering these residents. And I also believe that the youth and adult trips have touched and changed my friends from Washington. So, it really is a companion relationship.
I am grateful for this relationship for myself and for the countless villagers who have felt its supporting presence.