12 Mar 2017

Where water can be life and death - A visit to Trócaire's programme in Honduras - Rosemary O'Connor

I was privileged to participate in a field visit to Honduras last November with Trócaire.  The first thing I would say is that the situation in Honduras makes pretty grim reading.   The poverty in which the majority of Honduran people live becomes evident very quickly when you travel through the country.  64% of Honduran people live below the poverty line and 45% on less than €2 per day.  Corruption is rife throughout the country.  Human rights, resource rights and land rights are violated on a regular basis.   

Yet despite all these challenges there are signs of hope and of positive change. I was really struck by the warmth and hospitality of the people and their willingness to share what they had with us.

The water is coming….

Maria José (age 6) and her Mother Miriam Marivel Campos Perez
The Cuyamel community in the North of Honduras is the focus of this year’s Trócaire Lenten Campaign.  Honduras is the most vulnerable country in the world to climate change.  I saw first-hand the devastating effect that rising sea levels and extreme weather has wreaked on a community of 84 families (approximately 500 people).  Miriam Marivel Campos Perez and her 6 year old daughter Maria José feature on this year’s Trócaire box.  Miriam and Maria live on the Cuyamel sandbar.  The area where they live is very beautiful – wouldn’t anyone love to live on the beach? 

The problem for Miriam, Maria and their neighbours is that the sea is encroaching further and further into their community.  There used to be an 800 metre beach between the community and the sea.  This is now reduced down to 35 metres.  Between September and February is the rainy season in Cuyamel.  At least once a week people have water coming into their houses.  They wear flip flops all the time because the ground is so wet and muddy. 

At least twice a year the area is flooded and the community has to evacuate in fear of their lives.  The evacuation usually happens at night; one single mother of six small children described the terror of the water coming in and trying to get her children to safety.  The road gets flooded so the only route out is via boat on a narrow canal.  The community has access to only two boats with the capacity to evacuate 25 people at a time.   Trócaire has supported the community with training and resources to establish a disaster committee to coordination evacuations and emergency responses.  They have also supported the dredging of the canal which had been blocked with mud and debris from previous storms and floods.

Elvia (age 65) and her husband Candido (age 70)
Candido and Elvia also live on the Cuyamel sandbar.  When we visited them they had suffered some damage to their house during a storm towards the end of October 2016.  Candido and Elvia have lived on the sandbar all their lives; they have raised their family there and were hoping to enjoy their retirement there.

Eliva and Candido’s home after a storm on the 8th of January 2017
On the 8th of January 2017 another storm came, the water came, the community evacuated and sadly Elvia and Candido’s home was taken by the sea.  This retired couple are left with no home.

This is the reality of climate change for the people of Cuyamel; their homes and their livelihoods are being swept away leaving them vulnerable and dependent on support from agencies like Trócaire.  The irony is that a country like Honduras contributes the least to climate change yet they are the ones that suffer the most.  When we visited Cuyamel one of the community leaders asked us to convey this message:
“Thanks to God that you have come here; can you pass on the message to the international community – we need help”.  
This Lent if you contribute to Trócaire you will be helping people like Candido and Elvia to re-establish their lives, you will be helping Miriam to ensure her daughter Maria gets a good education and you will be helping the people of Cuyamel to survive the detrimental effects of climate change.

Turning the Tide on Gender Based Violence

One of the statistics given to us in Honduras remains ingrained in my mind; that is that 9 out of 10 women in Honduras have suffered some form of physical violence; physical violence will almost always inevitably also include sexual violence[1].  Gender based violence is a very serious issue in Honduras, and unfortunately many other countries.  We asked the question as to what is the cause of violence on such a scale.  Its roots are cited as being cultural; a ‘macho’ culture that has managed to perpetuate itself over many generations without being challenged; alcohol, drugs, poverty and oppression were also mentioned. 

Eduardo, Rose, Merlyn and Elvina, La Cuesta Community
I was deeply moved by the Honduran women; their great faith, their courage, their resilience, their desire for a different future for their children.  MerIyn and Elvina (in the photograph) are both survivors of gender based violence. Merlyn shared some of her own story; how her teenage daughter’s attempt to take her own life drove her to take action and get her family out of a violent environment.  Merlyn has trained as a community leader.  Eduardo (also in the photo) is hoping to train as a youth leader.  Merlyn and Elvina and many other women are turning their lives around with the support of Trócaire and its partners - Ayo in La Cuesta and AMDV in the South. 

I  was greatly inspired by the work that Trócaire is doing, working with local community partners providing leadership training, legal support and empowering local women to find their voice and stand up for what is just.  Collectively they are slowly, slowly turning the tide on gender based violence.  Women are being empowered; young girls and boys are being educated to recognise that the norms and culture they have been operating in needs to be challenged.  I believe we have a lot to learn from the women of Honduras.

“What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land” Euripedes

Welcome banner prepared by the local community in Zacate Grande

We visited the Zacate Grande Peninsula in the South of Honduras.  It is a stunning area; these beautiful houses that you see below have been built by Honduras’s elite – there are approximately 15 families in Honduras that have the power and influence to control the economy and the media. 

The reality is however that they have effectively stolen the land that the houses are built on from the local people; families who have lived there for multiple generations.  Through corrupt means they have acquired the rights to the land and evicted the families, subjecting them to legal challenges; a number of people have been imprisoned for trespassing on their own land.  By contrast the photo below gives you a sense of how the local people have to live.  

Zacate Grande Peninsula
Trócaire is working with ADEPZA to provide legal support in challenging the land rights and also the human rights of the local people using the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The President of the community association Nelly Canales expressed gratitude for the support from Trócaire by saying 
"thanks for always being on our side in the fight of the people".

Eco-Farming & Diversification

The final project we visited was also in the South of Honduras supported by Trócaire through AMDV.  

Women farmers in Namasigue
We met this group of women in the photo who have been trained in eco-farming methods.  They were so proud of their work and their achievements.  They have been working on diversifying their crops growing chillies, cucumber, beans, corn and pumpkin – we got to sample some of their produce. 

Trócaire has supported them with training and an irrigation system.  It was lovely to end our visit on such a positive and hopeful note.

There are a number of strengths of Trócaire’s approach – firstly the fact that Trócaire is seeking to address the root cause of the challenges in Honduras; whether it be in the area of climate change, land rights, resources rights or human rights including women’s right to live a life free of violence.  My sense is that this is the only way to address the issues in the long term.  It would be easy to fall into the trap of focusing on alleviating symptoms and achieve short term ‘quick wins’ however the real issues would still not be addressed.

I was very taken with Trócaire’s policy of working with and through local partners.  It doesn’t parachute in support from outside.  Local partners have the benefit of understanding the nuances of the local context and culture and facilitate connecting with the communities.  This really helps with the process of building up capacity within communities; identifying and training local leaders who can in turn train more leaders.

Finally I believe the approach of aiming for long term change is ultimately the best that Trócaire can do for Honduras.  By building capacity and empowering the people themselves Trócaire will leave a sustainable legacy that will have longevity beyond any aid programme.  Investing in the people facilitates them to be masters of their own destiny.

Young children in Namasigue
I will be keeping the people of Honduras in my heart for a long time to come; there are so many parallels between their struggle and our own history.  They are strong and courageous people.  When you see Miriam and Maria on your Trócaire box this year I hope you get a sense of the people behind the picture.  Every penny you put in that box will help to make a difference in their lives and lives of others like them.

Rosemary O'Connor

[1] According to figures from COSC and the CSO 9% or 1 in 11 Irish women have experienced domestic violence. 

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