Posted on January 8, 2012

Honduras Day 7: Is There Hope For Honduras?

This morning, I was outlining my next blog article and the working title was “Skeptical Questions.” It had been a long, emotionally draining, week here in Honduras and one that I’m not sure was ending on a high note for me. For the past six months, I had faced rejection after rejection from the public when trying to raise money to support volunteer eye surgeon, Dr. Carlos Martinez. And once I got down here to San Lorenzo myself, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I could blow away each “skeptical question” that I received from the reluctant public with a clear message that their money really would go towards a permanent solution. A clear message of hope that if only provided with the right tools, Honduras could take them and run with them–fixing a systemic problem so that they wouldn’t need help.

And isn’t that what we’re really asking ourselves when we’re hesitant to support a cause? “Is my money going towards a real solution, or am I just throwing it into a bottomless hole?” We all want hope.

I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t convinced. What I was feeling was pretty beat up by the endless waves of horrific stories, and the sense that the work Project Vision was doing was like shoveling with a teaspoon against the tide. It was just one little medical mission in the midst of unending poverty. I couldn’t find real evidence of a specific systemic failure, nothing that I could point to and say “Hey, that’s what’s holding you back!” There doesn’t appear to be more government corruption here than there is everywhere, and the unequal wealth distribution didn’t raise enough flags for me to say “It’s the greedy people that are the problem!” To me, it just seemed like a nation at the mercy of not having any natural resources to exploit. A nation without industry. A nation without education.

A nation doomed to always be in destitution.

Reading back over the first draft of that “Skeptical Questions” article, which I still might revise and publish another time, I can hear the despair and fatigue in my own voice. And on top of it, we had another village tour to do this afternoon. Another round of shocking photos and depressing interviews, with each tale of despair and resignation more draining than the next. The President of Mike’s Melons, the only industry in the Southern Honduras area and the largest benefactor to the San Lorenzo hospital, had come to show us the company’s agricultural operation and the nearby village of Buene Fe. Adam and I gather the camera equipment and climb into the rear seat of the extended cab truck, with air conditioning and tinted windows to block out the 100 degree bone-dry heat. We have Eusebio with us to translate, but I can understand the President’s spanish clearly. I had struggled to converse with the villagers at the clinic all week, and thought my spanish had really just gone downhill. “That’s the education in his accent,” says Eusebio.

Can Honduras really change its ways?

We head towards the melon farming fields first. Mike’s Melons is owned by Pamela Molina, a woman idolized by everyone at hospital San Lorenzo. Her melon farming operation employs 4,500 field workers in an otherwise zero-job region. The mountains are hazy and blue in the distance as we barrel down a pot-holey road through the flat valley. I do not take my camera out, since I already have hundreds of photos of the shacks and litter along the way. Some of the grassy areas are charred and black, and I ask if fires are a big problem here. The President says ohhh, yes. Not just from lightning, but because it’s a cultural tradition to clear the land for farming this way. Unfortunately, the impact of wild fires and erosion pollutes what little water there is. I try to phrase my questions respectfully while still asking the ones I feel are at the root of things. “Are Hondurans so mired in their cultural ways that they’re resistant to change?” No, he says without any sign of offense. In fact, the people embrace instruction on how to do things properly. “That’s very unusual. Human nature is usually resistant to change.” Yes, he agrees. But the community and the government both know that poverty has become a serious crisis, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to turn that around.

The road comes to a wide open farm field. It stretches far into the horizon, which shimmers in the hot afternoon sun. “I know that melons and sea salt are the two primary exports here. What else does Honduras have?” The President shakes his head. Melons. Sea salt. Shrimp. Sometimes fish. “What about the proposed railway project going from coast to coast, similar to the Panama Canal?” He chuckles. That project has been in the works for forty years, but it’s too expensive and the mountainous terrain is too treacherous.

I slip back into my doubtful state of wondering if an entire country can be sustained by melon exports alone. We are driving through the clean and tightly-run agricultural plant now. A shiny cargo container sits on the back of a Mack truck waiting to be loaded up and driven to the Pacific port. The irrigation system hoses are clean and new. In the fields, the delicate, white protective netting sits gently on top of the baby seedlings. The rows are planted in razor-straight lines that seem to stretch on for miles. Even the dirt looks tidy. It is a clean running operation.

After the tour, we head to Buena Fe–a village adjacent to the fields. The majority of the patients from the clinic have come from this village, and I have been told to prepare myself because “it’s really something else.” Like what. How much worse could it get? I’ve already seen a thousand dirt-floored cinderblock shacks. But nope. Haven’t seen it all. On my side of the road is what appears to be a paper shack. It’s a house. Built out of cardboard. The frame is made from sticks, and large strips of cardboard are somehow fastened to them. The next house has cardboard too, but with black nylon fabric around the bottom. You have to be joking. You can’t build a house out of cardboard and nylon fabric. But nope, not kidding. The President says that some of the homes are constructed entirely out of nylon fabric. (Picture this: The summers here hover around 120 degrees fahrenheit every day). The driftwood-colored ground around us is cracked clay, and he explains that the river floods through here each spring. But that’s not all. Buena Fe is apparently a paradise compared to the mountain villages. In the mountains, you are lucky to even have a mud shack. Most people sleep under a lean-to of sticks and leaves. If you get sick… you die. Period. I am reminded of the man who had his eyes sliced out by a machete… he came from one of those mountain villages. (By the way, next week Project Vision sends a mobile medical team of doctors up into them… if someone blogs about it, I will link to it). I feel my brain explode. How is it possible to get even poorer than this? Is there no limit?

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

He takes us on a walking tour, and shy children run away from my camera but then peek around the corner of houses or trees with a big smile. We see a simple box-style wooden home on stilts, and the family proudly invites us in. It has colorful hammocks strung from the walls and even a refrigerator. The President beams. This is an example of a new home funded by Mike’s Melons. The stilts protect the inhabitants from the spring floods (unlike those cardboard houses), and the wood construction allows for ventilation along with minimal insect infestations. He explains the philosophy of building homes for the villagers: It requires community participation. Mike’s Melons only provides the essential materials that the villagers could not obtain on their own (maybe some metal roofing, or the nails*) and then the villagers are expected to provide the rest. Including the labor. The digging of holes for the stilts, the construction of the home itself. This way, because they’ve worked hard to build the home, they’re invested in it.

I feel my chest swell up and I want to hug him. I feel like someone finally gets it. The difference between a hand-up and a hand-out. One only encourages dependency on the system, but the other builds self-esteem and independence.

Breaking the cycle of poverty begins with education.

I notice that the village smells…nice. Like the sweet smoke from a woodfire. “I just realized, there’s no litter anywhere!” Yes, smiles the President. Mike’s Melons emphasizes public health education, as well. The importance of handwashing. The importance of not littering and not polluting the rivers. Hygiene. Proper food preparation and water purification. In villages close to this one, almost every child has parasitic infections and the average lifespan is ten years shorter due to chronic amoebic dysentery (from drinking contaminated water). As we walk around the village, people watch us with friendly curiosity. We come to a colorfully painted school house, bearing the logo of Agrolibano (the parent corporation of Mike’s Melons). The president explains that assisting villagers in achieving better housing is not enough. To break the cycle of poverty, education must be made a priority. Generation after generation of children drop out of school after the 3rd grade to go help work in the fields– they cycle never ends. But slowly, because of the efforts of Mike’s Melons in villages like Buena Fe, parents are seeing the value of educating their children and are letting them attend school.

“But what is the point of education, if there are no options besides working in the melon fields–which has a limited number of jobs in the first place?” I didn’t actually voice that question out loud, but now I wish I had since so far his answers had all been spot-on. However, there is zero chance for things to change, if changes aren’t initiated in the first place. Honduras clearly lacks natural resources to exploit other than “sunshine and hard-working people,” so what the country needs is something cerebral. Honduras needs industries that rely on brain-power more than manual-labor. And that’s not going to happen if its people remain uneducated.

A very faint light on the horizon.

Yes, the hope for Honduras is only a tiny glimmer right now. It’s true that even with emphasizing education in small villages like Buena Fe, generations of Hondurans are still likely to live in poverty due to lack of industry. But. Do you throw in the towel because the light is very faint…. or do you paddle like hell and try to reach it with all your might? Mike’s Melons is a micro-effort, but one that– with a common vision between the People, The Government, and Humanitarian Efforts– could be applied on a macro-level. All of the ingredients are there. Now it just takes leadership with a vision.

Bravo to Mike’s Melons. They really get it right.

*If you or your group are interested in a missions project, Mike’s Melons has hosted other teams that have come down to actually build these simple homes. They are open to both monetary donations (it takes $3,000 to construct a home) as well as labor parties who would like to build the homes themselves. Please contact me for more information.