Living in Harmony

by Lily Mast

Sitting in the dappled sunlight by this remote stream in southern Honduras, it’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, there were no trees here at all. In October of 1998, Hurricane Mitch sent a roaring torrent of water, rocks and mud tearing through this now-tranquil valley. Adolfo Espinal, director of Comité de Desarrollo Social (CODESO, Social Development Committee) recalled giant ceiba and guanacaste trees toppling in the storm surge. Formed as a response to Mitch, CODESO led an effort to plant 13,000 trees in this watershed to help it recover.

20 years ago, the trees along this stream were wiped out by Hurricane Mitch. Thanks to Comité de Desarrollo Social (CODESO), this area is now replenished by over 13,000 trees.

The Brethren in Christ (BIC) Church in Orocuina, Choluteca Department welcomed several members of the MCC Honduras team this August. They shared two of their MCC-supported projects that promote local sustainability and community development. CODESO aims to help farmers become resilient and self-reliant during droughts and flood-inducing downpours.

Espinal led us further upstream from the shaded grove to a small dam with an aqueduct leading out of it. “Three hundred families use water from here,” he told us. But he explained it took work to provide that access to the people of the Pueblo. One rich landowner controls much of this creek, and another owns the spring. CODESO negotiated with both to secure the use of this water for the local people.

CODESO director Angel Adolfo Espinal (left) and farmer and treasurer of Araditos farmer’s collective, Melvin Virgilio Sánchez Portillo. Espinal and Sánchez teach a group of MCCers about Sánchez’ crop of corn and maicillo.

The next morning, Espinal introduced us to a farmers’ saving collective in Araditos, 1 of over a hundred smaller communities surrounding Orocuina. Ten months before our visit, CODESO shared the idea for this collective with the community. After several months of organizing and planning, the cooperative had been in operation for five months.

The twenty cooperative members met with us in the schoolhouse where they hold monthly meetings. Espinal offered a short devotional about responsible decision-making, especially as we interact with each other and the planet. The theology of love for their neighbor and creation motivates CODESO’s efforts. They help farmers wean their plants off pesticides, which damages human and environmental health. This can be a challenge in a region plagued by locusts and yellow aphids.

The farmers introduced themselves and told us how their group’s shared fund works. Each person pays a monthly membership fee of twenty lempiras, or roughly eighty cents USD, which acts as a savings contribution. Absence penalties for missed meetings cost fifty lempiras, a day’s worth of income. The group allows a member 3 pre-arranged excuses per year, but no-shows or additional absences are subject to the fine.

The collective’s most powerful tool is the micro-loan. This acts as a safety net for the community and a way to grow their joint savings. If there’s an emergency need an individual can’t finance themselves, the group can help cover it. For example, if a member needs to repair their roof for one thousand lempiras, they simply sign a promissory note with two witnesses. The interest is 2% per month, and the group records payments in their shared ledger. All members have the right to check over these records for accuracy and fairness.

Melvin Virgilio Sánchez Portillo, treasurer of the collective, offered to give us a tour of the land he cultivates after our meeting. He led the way up a rocky path past his home. We continued between hand-stacked rock walls and under mango trees to the parcel where Sánchez grows corn and maicillo, a type of sorghum.

We found ourselves in a field of what, at first glance, looked like newly planted corn. Mountains and forests surrounded the baby plants, and to the right, we could see a more mature crop growing on a hill. The flat land and the hill make up a three-manzana plot (about 5.2 acres). This land belongs to a wealthy landowner who lives close by in the countryside. He demands half of Sánchez’ harvest for the “privilege” of working on his land. Farmers in the zone often find themselves in this type of sharecropping situation. As Sánchez told us, the going rate for one manzana (about 1.7 acres) of land is a hundred thousand lempiras, or about 7.5 years’ worth of earnings.

Members of the cooperative planted the young crop by hand 3 weeks earlier. Sánchez showed us that what looked like a single young corn plant was actually a corn and a maicillo plant growing together. They grow well like this because they mature and are harvested on different schedules. Planting in this way acts as insurance against a dry year. During a growing season without much rain, the corn will often die, but the maicillo can survive the harsher conditions.

Corn and maicillo grow side by side in the country near Orocuina, Choluteca, Honduras. In the background, a mature crop of these two plants illustrates this planting method’s drought insurance benefits. The corn died from lack of water, but the maicillo is still green and ready for harvest. Farmers are relying more heavily on this sorghum species for food than they have in the past.

This is exactly what happened to the April planting, which was nearly ready to be harvested. The dry stalks of corn and still-green maicillo mottled the hillside with a reminder of the too-dry summer. Despite the corn dying this year, the farmers said that the rains were better than previous years. 3 years ago, even the maicillo failed due to a combination of drought and locusts.

On our way back down the hill from the parcel, Sánchez invited us into his home. With money saved from his time as a migrant farm laborer in Guatemala, he purchased this plot of land. He built his home from materials already on the lot. His family welcomed us in, and we saw some of the steel drums CODESO helps families obtain to store their harvests in throughout the year. These barrels increase the storage life of beans and grains from a few months to a year or more by keeping out moisture and pests. If an entire harvest failed before this project, communities needed to rely on relief efforts for food. Now they can draw upon their past yields to weather a particularly bad season.

Anticipating the good maicillo harvest standing in the field, the family felt confident to sell their reserves from last season. Sánchez’ children showed us the family’s livestock, including pigs and chicks paid for with the proceeds. The family shared a snack with us—purchased with that same money—and we visited for a while before heading back down the hill.

As the climate crisis grows more dire, life will only become more difficult for the people who cultivate this area. Rains will become more unpredictable and insects and diseases will overtake crops stressed by unfavorable conditions. It’s heartening to see organizations like CODESO  mitigate climate impacts. They’re implementing creative and sustainable agriculture methods, building physical infrastructure and strengthening social capital in the region.  All so these communities can live in harmony with their environment for generations to come.

Lily Mast is currently serving as a Digital Communications Specialist in Honduras through MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program.

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