View slideshow and read blog by our own Fr Padraig Shelley on visit to Honduras with Trócaire staff in preparation for the 2011 Lenten campaign.
On 10th January 2011, seven Trócaire Diocesan Representatives and Francis Cousins (editor of Intercom) travelled to Honduras with Trócaire staff in preparation for the 2011 Lenten campaign.
After a long day of travel, our group of Diocesan Representatives and Trócaire staff members arrived safely in Honduras. After a hearty welcome from Sally and Alexis we set out into the dark night. What was immediately noticeable was the dense humidity of the night – a marked contrast to home. One also observed, on leaving the airport, the sporadic street lighting meant the headlights of our mini-bus struggled to guide our path.
It’s been 25 hours since departing from home, but we have reached our destination, El Progresso.
Our day began with a briefing from Sally on the unique history of Honduras and the region. It’s a story of land struggles, political elites dominating and exploiting the poor, and various entities striving for power. Such a history has resulted in Honduras remaining one of the poorest countries in the region. 68% live below the poverty line and many have to endure extreme poverty. Yet people remain friendly and welcoming; they greet you with a smile and a gentle welcome; they are hopeful in the face of grave challenges.
Today we visited two projects that emphasised these beautiful qualities and also showed the impact of Trócaire’s work. Lives are being changed by the kindness and action of donors in parishes the length and breadth of Ireland.
Radio Progresso is situated in El Progresso, a short drive from San Pedro Sula. It is a community radio, supported by the Jesuits, that has served a vast listenership throughout Honduras for almost 40 years. Many people in Honduras received only a couple of years of formal education and because of this literacy levels are low. Ongoing adult education is needed and Radio Progresso assists it’s listeners with this task. It is the “teacher in the home”. People learn different tasks; everything from their legal rights to making compost at home, via the radio. It also trains reporters in the field so that civil society may remain strong and transparent.
Our day concludes with a trip to a non-profit regional development housing project called Alonso Rubi. Following hurricane Mitch in 1998, the region was devastated leaving countless families homeless. With seed capital of €30, 000, land was acquired and houses built, to give homes and much needed shelter. A co-operative was formed and the community assumed full responsibility for the project, guided by Trócaire staff. The monies have not only truly benefitted many individuals, but as much of this initial capital has been repaid, the money was regenerated to help others. To see donations that Trócaire received put to such good use was an inspiration for our entire group.
Our day begins by taking to the road! As a group we leave El Progresso and head for the Northern Coast. The road is very good for it links up with a major route between the two northern ports of Puerto Courtes and Puerto Castilla. We drive for two and a half hours passing the coastal town of Tela and on towards La Ceiba. A further 21kms East brings us to our new destination: Sambo Creek – a small Garifuna fishing village within arm’s reach of the Caribbean Sea.
Our focus today is in the area of health – how does Trócaire assist those who work to improve the levels of well-being of the poor and vulnerable? In this region Trócaire has supported with aid the Siloe Centre (Centro de Capaticion de Medicine Alternativea).
This project is run by a Mexican nun from the Congregation of the Heart of Mary, Sr. Rita. She has a small team around her: Santiago, Fernando, Waldo and Lena. Between them they advance natural medicine drawing upon the natural resources and local environment. Such treatment is holistic in nature and its powers of diagnosis in the field are both very accurate and cost effective.
The Centre trains Primary Health Care Workers to work in their native villages throughout the region. These people are now dotted throughout the Jutiapa region within 85 communities. This translates into 35,000 people in the region having access to medical care.
The Centre also runs a programme to help children suffering from parasites. And it is in the process of enabling 12 communities to build a total of 320 latrines to support standards of hygiene.
Interestingly, this model of Primary Health Care Workers has now been replicated in 8 different regions in Honduras. It was the initial backing of Trócaire funds that enabled this project to take off in its infancy.
A major branch of work conducted by the Centre is in helping those with HIV/AIDS. The Centre offers medication, training in nutrition, and job opportunities for those who have no income and who are stigmatised in society by their illness. Trócaire funding has particularly helped in enabling this arm of the project to care for the most destitute.
The Centre continues to grow from strength to strength. It conducts research on an on-going basis that advances natural holistic medicine in the area. It sources many of its ingredients locally, such as natural honey. Yet again, some years ago, Trócaire funded the training of a number of bee keepers who now supply honey to the Centre for its medicines and nutrient rich supplements. Income for local farmers who keep bees has also grown substantially.
On leaving the Centre we travelled to a small rural community called Coyalitos. There we met a very kind hearted woman who cared for her community as a Health Care Worker. Juventuda opens her home to receive all who are sick and cares for all ailments. This lovely woman gives of her time in a voluntary capacity – only too happy to serve her neighbours. It was such an inspiration to see her goodness; from the little she had she was willing to give so much.
The Honduran flag consists of 3 horizontal stripes – blue, white and blue. The two blue bands represent the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea which form the southern and northern coastline of the country respectively.
We are now based on the Northern coast close to the sea. The Caribbean is within earshot of our accommodation and it sounds angry! It has brought with it torrential rain. In modest accommodation, that many in Honduras call home, such a deluge must bring great hardship.
The focus of visit today was to meet Fr. Victor and his parish community. Fr. Victor and his confreres belong to the Congregation of San Viatore. Since arriving from Spain 13 years ago, Fr. Victor has devoted all his efforts to build up Basic Christian Communities within the region. 40.000 people live in 85 communities within the larger parish of Jutiapa. Trócaire has worked with Fr. Victor since 2003 and in his own words he was quick to acknowledge that the “relationship has been a blessing. We have learnt a lot with Trócaire and from Trócaire”.
Fr. Victor not only cares for the spiritual welfare of the parish but other elements of care and Christian reach out take the form of: building rural housing; establishing sustainable livelihoods; and establishing a local Co-Operative. Under the banner of SERSO (an organisation to build bonds of solidarity with Honduras) he has become a main driver for social change.
Fr. Victor is a genial man with a warm smile. He is also a man of courage whose advocacy work with the Honduran government has resulted in the local peasant movement gaining access to land. But his courageous witness has come at a cost; on numerous occasions Fr. Victor has received death threats from the militias of the landed classes. In Honduras, access to land is very difficult. Only 30% of people have legally secured their property. In such a loose culture large multinational companies make sweetheart deals with the government to acquire large tracts of lands at the expense of the poor. This year alone SERSO plans to build 39 houses for families who have acquired such lands.
The parish also has an educational out reach – it believes in the value of the ‘teacher in the home’ programme as a way of countering poor education standards in society.
SERSO has a very fine infrastructure of advancing the local needs of farmers. A Co-Operative movement has benefited farmers by enabling them to bring their produce to market. Likewise the purchasing power of the Co-Op can acquire needed supplies and sell them on to the locals at a cheaper rate via a network of local village stores.
One of the great challenges for farmers in the developing world is to try to utilise the small patch of land they farm to its fullest potential. In an ideal world a little farm should try to create enough food for a family to live on, and maybe also produce a cash crop to be sold at market. In many cases that is just not possible. SERSO and Trócaire have worked in tandem to create initiatives to tackle this challenge. The Cocoa plantation has been one such project. We witnessed a new project to help 200 farmers produce a high grade cocoa. 300,000 plants are grown in nurseries on a plot of 45 acres acquired by SERSO. These plants are skilfully grafted to produce more and more plants to make the project sustainable. Such plants are then transplanted onto farms in the region and can be harvested in 3 years. On that same patch of land farmers have planted mahogany that will be harvested in 15 years. The mahogany trees are an investment for the future. In the meantime they offer shelter for the cocoa plants whilst also utilising the land to its utmost potential.
For those who have very little land a second project was developed – installing ponds to grow Telapia fish. Ponds vary in size and can serve more than one family. This is a very low maintenance project which can offer both food security and a cash crop. Once again the local Co-Op will help bringing the fish to market and gaining a fair price for the farmer. This fish farmer initiative is reserved for those who are poorest in the community.
It was with great pride that the local farmers we visited showed us their farms and the various projects initiated by SERSO and supported by Trócaire. In every case they spoke with dignity and grace asking our group to extend their thanks and appreciation for the support received from the people of Ireland.
In Honduras, threatening weather patterns are coloured coded according to severity. White is for normal weather conditions. Green asks you to be on alert. Yellow is the warning to prepare to evacuate, and red is a call to evacuate. After the destruction brought about by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 one cannot take the weather for granted. Following the previous days heavy ran we awoke to hear two pieces of information: news reports told us that the equivalent of 7 months rain fell yesterday in the region causing widespread flooding; and that the current weather pattern had changed from yellow to red.
It was our intention today to travel further east along the Northern coast to meet Digna (the little girl who appears on this year’s Lenten Trócaire Box) and her family. Sadly, that trip was not possible as the incessant rain had taken out a number of bridges over night. Even more disturbingly we pondered as to the welfare of Digna and her family.
Little Digna is 9 years of age. In her short life she has experienced a lot. In May 2010, with the advocacy and assistance of Trócaire, her family acquired land in La Confianza – a place to call home. But on the 11th of December 2010 her family and neighbours were forcefully removed by the army and they had to take shelter on the banks of the River Aquan. This type of shelter was very basic – some tarpaulin to cover a simple wooden structure. Yesterday’s heavy volume of rain caused the River Aquan to burst its banks forcing Digna and her family to flee. Today turned out to be another challenging day in her young life. Our prayers are with her at this time.
The weather has forced us to adopt Plan B. We retraced our steps and moved back West, passing once more through El Progresso, San Pedro Sula, and down towards a little village called Gracias which once served as the capital of the Spanish Empire in Central America. It is a journey in our mini-bus that is time consuming due to the poor condition of the roads. Crater like potholes pop up endlessly before us, mile after mile, forcing our driver to constantly make avoidance manoeuvres. It all serves to make the journey tiresome and prolonged.
We break our journey by visiting a most welcoming community called Jardin Clonal near San Juan Pueblo. This community was initially made up of 54 dispossessed and landless women, who had nowhere to live. In Honduran society, women are particularly vulnerable. If the man of the house leaves, then the woman may find herself having no legal claim to any property. She may even find herself and her children homeless, like these woman in Jardin Clonal. Facing such a fate, and with the support of a Land League movement called Moviento 10 June, they gathered to lay claim to some land so that they could begin a new life for themselves and their children. Today, the long legal process to secure their rights to the land will be complete in a short few weeks, and they invite us to return for the great party they hope to hold to mark that momentous occasion in the life of their community. It has been a long battle, for a local university was keen to acquire such lands for its own use. The women freely acknowledged that only for Trócaire they would be still landless (and homeless) today. It was Trócaire’s support that afforded them the opportunity to acquire a lawyer – something that poor people cannot afford in Honduras. With such good counsel they were able to fight off the advances of the University. Ella Roman, the President of the Land League, told us of how the University sought the assistance of the army and forcefully removed the families, but fortunately in November 2008 the government issued new legislation that enabled them to return to the land once more.
Jardin Clonal is a farming community, which all started from a Trócaire Global Gift of chickens some years ago. Trócaire also paid for an agronomist to advise the community on their land and how to plant crops. Today, the community proudly owns 50 cattle and benefits from crops of corn and plantain. They are now self-sufficient and have food security for the whole community. As we left that cheerful community behind us we realised the power and impact of just one Christmas Global Gift. From being destitute, this community had come to possess a wonderful dynamism, a dignity and an energy that was so heartening for us all to experience.
We overnighted in the little town of Gracias. It is a mountain town with cobbled streets, situated on the Ruta Lenca. During the day the streets are filled with locals going about their business, shopping in the numerous street markets for food and supplies. It has the vibe of a frontier town. Whilst some of our group were otherwise occupied for the morning, others visited a Lenca community further up in the mountains. This indigenous group of peoples, with their colourful dress and warm welcome, extend a hearty welcome after the 20 minute trek up to their village. They are most pleased that some clergy are part of the visiting group and present each member with some locally grown produce from their land. Such gifts are a very gracious touch and much appreciated by our group. Following a number of brief speeches to formally welcome our party, a tour of their lands and farming practices concludes the visit.
After lunch, we visit another little community 16kms from Gracias called La Campa. This small village is situated at the bottom of a step-walled valley and possesses great natural beauty.
Today, we morph into tourist mode and head to visit the Copan Archaeological site – a UNESCO World Heritage site. We are now just 5kms from the border of Guatemala. This site dates back to 800BC and tells of the existence of the Maya people in the region. At their height the Maya were regarded as a brilliant civilisation. They could predict lunar eclipses, and their calculation of the orbit of Venus was off by less than a day for every 1,000 years. Their demise came about by over population and a severe shortage of food. Due to a prolonged drought in the area, and farming techniques which stripped the local environment of its natural resources and in the process thus making the land non-productive, food supplies dwindled. Our guide pointed out the irony that the rich Mayan rulers were buried with the gold they had acquired during their lives, but evidence shows that they also died of starvation. In the end, their gold did not save them. There is an ironic and salutary lesson there for todays landed classes in Honduras – if you continue to rape the country and its resources for your own gain, remember that your gold will not save you in the end!
We travel a few kilometres to Santa Rita de Copan to celebrate Sunday mass. In many ways our Eucharist is a prayer of thanksgiving and blessing: we take time to thank God for the courage, resilience, and determination of the many local communities we have met throughout the week; and we pray God’s continued blessing upon the good work achieved by Trócaire and its partners in bringing about the hope and joy of God’s kingdom in our world today.
Before we depart for the airport, and take our leave of Honduras, we make one final stop. It is to a Trade Union for banana workers called COSIBAH (Coordinadora de Sindicatos Bananeros y Agroindustriales de Honduras). Upon entering their offices we are introduced to the small staff: German Zepeda, Jose Maria Martinez, Nelson Nunez, Gloria Guzman & Gloria Garcia. COSIBAH is a union for the many Banana Workers, which has an emphasis on gender equality, advocacy for workers’ rights, and human rights.
German Zepeda, the Coordinator of the Union, told us in his briefing about the engagement with the two major banana suppliers in the country: Chiquita Banana and Dole. In recent years, both companies have sought to undermine the influence of the Trade Union movement by sub-contracting out the banana production to small private farms. Chiquita now only produce some 30% of their total output, relying on other smaller producers to make up the remaining 70%. In order to become a contracted producer one must fulfil certain criteria: your banana production has to be produced exclusively for Chiquita; and none of your work force can belong to a Union. Many small producers have no choice but to abide by these stipulations for access to market is completely controlled by Chiquita and Dole. In such new structures, the rights of workers have diminished greatly. The prevailing cultural for many now is: no social security; no work = no pay; no work = no food for your family. The union is trying to reach out to independent farmers. It is difficult work when there is so much fear in this sector. As Zepeda suggests, we need the determining power of the European Union, and its likes, to bring these practices to a halt. The value of the Fairtrade movement, and what it stands for, is brought home to all of us as we listen.
We concluded our trip with a visit to a banana plantation. It is a sombre experience for all of us. We are greeted by a middle manager who immediately sets the tone: under no circumstances are we allowed to take any photographs of the facility, and we are especially warned not to speak with any of the workers. One only wonders what they have to hide. Maybe it is something to ponder the next time we are at home in our local supermarket and see the Chiquita sticker on a bunch of bananas!
Our group returned to Ireland with a far greater understanding of the work that Trócaire achieves in the field. It was an education for all of us to see first-hand the projects that help change lives and bring hope to so many. It was wonderful to see the impact that one single Global Gift can bring to a community; or how the integrated planning and levels of engagement that Trócaire staff members have with such communities can be so effective. It was a privilege to walk, even briefly, with such good people and something that we were grateful to have experienced.