Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cuso volunteer helps Honduran growers' co-op harvest benefits

A Cuso International volunteer offers her organizational skills to a farmers' co-op in Honduras. 
By Giselle Portenier/ Photos by Brian Atkinson
High in the hills of Western Honduras, in the small village of El Campanario, Western Honduras, 96 school children squeeze into two school rooms, taught by two teachers who teach three grades apiece, all at once.
The houses in this small community of 400 are simple adobe construction. Most, but not all, have electricity. Free range has a totally different meaning here, as chickens and pigs run free through the village, and often in and out of houses. It's an hour-and-a-half walk to the nearest health centre along a muddy track, and specialist attention is hours away and very expensive.
Most people here, like Maria Cleotilde Maldonado, are hard-working but economically poor farmers, working small plots of land.
Maldonado says she starts before the first rooster crows, around four a.m., cooking, cleaning, and working her land. If there is any time left before bedtime, she sews clothes for her grandchildren and extra cash. Several of the grandchildren are hanging around grandma; all are beautifully turned out in home-tailored clothing.
Maldonado’s is a simple – and common – goal: to improve the lives of her children and grandchildren. "My dream is to earn enough money to send my grandson Darwin to High School. He wants to study agriculture."
Maybe, just maybe, that simple dream may become reality.
Farming here is a precarious existence – middlemen often take most of the profits, and the loss of a crop through bad weather, or, as happened here a few weeks ago, a bug attack on fields of beets, can be devastating to the local economy. 
Strength in growing numbers
But three years ago, a local non-governmental organization, OCDIH, started a vegetable farmers' co-operative, CAEOL, to change all that. The concept is safety in numbers, and it's already making a difference.
Yobani Cuestas, the co-op's director, says the goal was to get as many producers as possible to work together, help them diversify into different vegetable crops, and devise a planting master plan to allow farmers access to local markets by guaranteeing a constant weekly source of product.
"The point is to generate income and employment," says Cuestas.
The co-op is in its infancy; to date, there are 35 members, including Maria Cleotilde Maldonado, who is the only woman. It's very hard for women to be members, she says, because they all have household chores and children, and find it hard to attend the mandatory meetings.
Since the birth of the co-op, the 'coyote' (aka the middleman), is now history, and three truckloads of their vegetables, including beans, chilies, cucumbers and beets, are trucked to market each week for fair prices.
When Nadia Mohammed-Assisi, a volunteer with Cuso International, came to Honduras, she expected to help OCDIH market the farmers' products. But the 28-year-old soon discovered that Cuestas had already secured a market for the co-op's vegetables.
She also soon realized that CAEOL had a real organizational weakness. What was missing was a database of the co-op's members, and basic information about them – their socio economic levels, education, whether they have electricity, challenges with production, and so on.
And so Mohammed-Assisi went to work interviewing every one of the 35 co-op members. Her survey found that the farmers had, on average, only finished grade three. The Quebec native knew that basic information like this could be invaluable in planning education sessions and policies.
"There is no point taking all kinds of reading materials to a workshop full of farmers who can't read or write," says the international development specialist, who had already worked on Fair Trade issues in Guatemala.
In the field and sometimes the mud
Visiting each of the co-op members was not an easy task in a country where few roads are paved and four-wheel drives are needed to visit hillside communities, especially in the rainy season. And just to get to OCDIH’s headquarters in the town of La Entrada from her home in Santa Rosa de Copan, she has to travel more than an hour by local chicken bus each way, five days a week.
Mohammed Assisi says she can't actually live in La Entrada because it's too dangerous. It's a well-known narco-trafficking municipality where drug lords are king.
"It took me six months to learn to differentiate between firecrackers and gun shots," she says, laughing.
One of the rural communities she regularly travels to is Buenos Aires. To get to it she has to go through a town called Espiritu – Spirit in English. It’s always the same routine she says: roll down your windows, make sure she and her co-workers are clearly visible, so the gun-toting thugs protecting the narco-traffickers can see that they're not the police, or competing thugs.
"It's like I'm starring in my own television soap opera," says the volunteer, who takes it all in her stride.
Mohammed-Assisi has big ambitions. She wants to help the co-op grow, get more members, and gain much greater visibility, so they'll have more bargaining power. That way they'll be able to further improve the lives of all their members.
"I told them in the beginning, I don't know anything about farming, but what I can do is bring more people into the co-op, so production goes up. I can also help raise morale among the farmers, give them more self-confidence, and make them proud to be a part of this enterprise. That will help raise the co-op's profile."
Nadia also wants to help combat the ingrained machismo and attract more women farmers by allowing them to elect someone to represent all of them at the obligatory meetings. 
"That's been a challenge, as it's very hard to convince the men on this issue," says Yobani Cuestas. "But with Nadia's help we've been able to make progress there. Her work has been totally essential in the success of our co-op."
Mohammed Assisi is only halfway through her posting, but she's already made a big mark on Honduras. "Nadia is like a member of the family," says Maldonado, the lone female co-op member, who reports that through her membership, both her income and her self-confidence have improved.
And Honduras has made a big mark on the Canadian too.
"I’ve gained an incredible amount of experience and self-confidence too, because I've done so many things I had no idea I was capable of."
Mohammed-Assisi's time in Honduras will end, but don't expect to see her back in Canada any time soon. Like many an international volunteer, she's seen what a real difference one person can make.
"The world of international development is very difficult, with many obstacles and limits, and no doubt I could live back in Canada and get a good job in government with lots of security and stability, but I think I wouldn't feel alive doing that," she says. 
“I’m very happy here. Of all the things I’ve done in the past, this is where I feel I’ve been the most useful.”
And judging from what all those she’s been working with are saying, Honduras feels the same way.

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