Opening Eyes and Hearts in the Honduran Highlands: Part 1

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director of TWP

Over the past several years, TWP has organized work trips to Guatemala as the primary destination to feature our community development partners and their impacts. However, our newest partner, CEASO, in El Socorro (Siguatepeque), Honduras, was the focus of our past work trip in early January 2017. On January 5th, three key members of CEASO and I arrived at the San Pedro Sula airport to await the arrival of nine work trip participants, also accompanied by Gemara Gifford, TWP’s Director of Development and Biodiversity. The group of nine consisted of a mix of board members and their families, TWP donors, and some with no previous knowledge of our work.

From the airport we meandered through the hot sugar cane and plantain plains up past Lago Yojoa and eventually into the Highlands of the Montecillos Range where CEASO is based. The first feature of the trip was an introduction to CEASO’s approach to community development and sustainable agriculture. This method is defined by a powerful methodology called Finca Humana (a holistic, integrated approach to the farm, family, and individual) that is inserted into all of their daily activities and their overall development approach. Finca Humana stipulates that one must focus on the individual and the family before focusing on the farm and it preaches diversification and continued knowledge acquisition with a strong emphasis on farmer-to-farmer sharing of information.

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The result of two days´ worth of sweat equity in San Jose de Pane by our Eco-Tour group. A completed rainwater catchment tank!

This profound life and development approach has resonated with the communities of the Montecillos foothills, where we are engaged in a significant development initiative that seeks to bolster and expand on CEASO’s experience and knowledge, as well as enhancing access and trust. Our trip featured hiking through the environs of El Socorro to understand some of the watershed challenges, particularly with regards to the combined effects of continued agricultural expansion, deforestation, and the pine beetle outbreak. Currently, CEASO and the surrounding communities are only receiving water in their taps every 12 or 13 days and water harvesting and storage, a key component of this trip and CEASO’s expanding projects, is proving more and more critical for household survival.

This trip marked our first attempt to combine community development and engagement with the observation and study of bird species and habitat in the Montecillos area. Led by Gemara, who has been instrumental in leveraging her extensive biology and biodiversity experience into our proposals and programming, this tour highlighted the importance of migratory bird habitat and ecosystems and the relationship they share with smallholder farmers and sustainable, diversified agriculture and agroforestry.

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Two campesino youth are showing off their budding bird interests.

 

These Eco-Trips are designed to maximize community engagement in the areas where our local partners are helping to drive significant positive impacts and quality of life improvements. One of the highlights of our engagement stops was a frank living room discussion with Doña Norma and her husband, Don Oscar. Following the successful installation of the first TWP-CEASO clean cookstove in the Montecillos region (with generous support provided by World Centric for what will eventually be over 220 stoves), they shared with us their experience as immigrants living and working in the United States. In total, they spent over seven years working in the Northeastern US, scraping pennies and toiling away for enough money to provide for their children, some of whom were back in Honduras, while also saving for a future home back in their Honduran community. Upon their return, they constructed their dream home with much labor and love, only to see it go up in flames this past July. Despite the devastation and destruction, they labor on with Norma playing an increasingly important role as the community leader for the TWP-CEASO nursery project. Of the 12 nurseries, Gerardo is quick to point out that Norma’s trees were the biggest and healthiest and she’s an effective and skilled leader. We hope to continue to empower her leadership and increase the community development profile with her and Gerardo.

If you are interested in going on a work trip with us, or learning more about what we do and the people we work with, sign up for our monthly newsletter! 

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TWP Celebrates International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

Today marks an important date on the calendar for indigenous communities around the world as the United Nations declares the International Day of the World´s Indigenous Peoples. This year, the Indigenous Peoples Day highlights the importance of education for indigenous communities worldwide.

For the international and national partners of Trees, Water & People (TWP) as well as the home office employees, every day is indigenous people´s day. Our tribal program in the US continues to break new ground on housing opportunities on the Pine Ridge Reservation, expand access to sustainable agriculture and improve food security, and work to reforest hillsides that have been decimated by fires and erosion. Our partnership with Henry Red Cloud has led to many educational opportunities for Native Americans over the years, such as business development courses, green job training, and sustainable building.

Solar Women Warrior Scholarship winners
These two young Native American women were the recipients of our Solar Women Warrior Scholarship and learned how to install solar air heaters. Here they are working on fans for a heater.

Internationally, with our partner Utz Ché in Guatemala, we are also working to provide education opportunities, training, and capacity building for indigenous communities. In our primary community of La Bendición, where we led two work tours last year, we continue to support training in beekeeping (two youth leaders attended an apiculture and permaculture workshop at the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute in San Lucas de Toliman).

La Bendición was founded in 2000 by two different indigenous communities that were displaced by the armed conflict in the 1990s in western Guatemala. They were relocated to an abandoned and defunct coffee plantation in the southeastern part of the country and were passed a bill for the value of the land, as assessed by the government. The discrepancy between the valuation of the land and what they received has characterized the next 16 years of their community’s existence. They have fought for dismissal of this over-inflated debt so they could get on with learning how to live separated from their ancestral land and people.

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Osvin Goméz of La Bendición fits a wax mold into a frame for the beehive to build a new honeycomb.

According to Oswaldo Mauricio, our primary coordinator with La Bendición and the director of Campesino exchanges for Utz Ché:

“The relationship between TWP, Utz Ché, and La Bendición contributes to an enhanced quality of life in many different ways. Together we improve the overall reforestation and conservation of the forests, protect the watersheds and the rivers, moderate the use of firewood and pressures on the forest, and help smallholder farmers diversify their parcels (productivity projects). All these activities are the primary focal point for the creation of better educational opportunities, both informal and formal. All of these developments help to ensure clean and healthy food production and consumption for the families of La Bendición.”

In addition to these efforts, our ongoing goal to build 500 clean cookstoves, in collaboration with Utz Ché and two Guatemalan improved cookstove producers, EcoComal and Doña Dora, is helping to train and educate other Utz Ché communities on the use and maintenance of the clean cookstoves. Your donation will allow indigenous communities in southern Guatemala to have access to these clean cookstoves, as well as the training they need to use and maintain them.

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15th Anniversary of La Bendición

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the founding of one of our keystone communities, La Bendición, in southeastern Guatemala. This community served as a gateway for us when we sought to deepen our presence in Guatemala through our local partner, The Association for Community Forestry, Utz Ché (translates as “Good Tree” in the Kaqchiquel language). Utz Ché introduced Trees, Water & People (TWP) to La Bendición with hopes that we could develop a long-term relationship to address some of the long-term challenges the community faces, such as agrarian debt, isolation and lack of livelihood opportunities.

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Women of the La Bendición community cooking.

La Bendición was founded on June 7th, 2000 by two indigenous communities that were displaced by the armed conflict in the 1990s in western Guatemala. They were relocated to an abandoned and defunct coffee plantation in the southeastern part of the country and were passed a bill for the value of the land, as assessed by the government. The discrepancy between the valuation of the land and what they received would characterize the next 14 years of their community’s existence. They have fought for dismissal of this over-inflated debt so they could get on with learning how to live separated from their ancestral land and people.

Last year, which marked my first year with TWP, I was fortunate enough to visit the community on three different occasions. My first week with TWP, March 2015, I joined our International Director, Sebastian Africano on a work trip with 16 other participants from all over the U.S. It was a huge success and served as a great introduction to the critical partnership building and community development that are a hallmark of TWP´s development model. Then, in October, I made an individual visit to work with Oswaldo Mauricio Orozco, who is both one of the community´s main youth group leaders and the Coordinator for Campesino Exchanges at Utz Ché. During that visit, we analyzed lessons learned from the March work trip in preparation for the then-upcoming December-January work trip with the Geller Center and Unity of Fort Collins. These groups also had a tremendous experience during their time in the community.

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The work group from the Geller Center and Unity of Fort Collins learning about coffee farming.

Our efforts at La Bendición are ongoing, with continued support in many strategic areas, including:

Agroforestry and apiculture – helping to strengthen and deepen the community´s commitment to strengthening the full life cycle of the forest and diversifying livelihoods with value-added products.

Sustainable agriculture – while coffee remains the principal cash crop, pineapple plots have increased exponentially and they are now focused on commercialization and marketing of these high-quality fruits.

Capacity building and leadership – supporting the youth group in its efforts to lead on agriculture, livelihoods and forestry through important trainings and opportunities for education and professional growth.

Community forestry and ecotourism – from its founding, La Bendición´s leaders realized how important the surrounding forest is and they have worked tirelessly to manage the buffer zone with an eye toward conserving forest health. Ecotourism proposals and concepts are currently underway and the renovation of the main community center was a focus of the last work trip´s efforts.

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Harvesting pineapple in La Bendición.

Help us celebrate the anniversary of this special community by donating to our efforts to install 500 stoves in three Utz Ché communities over the next two months. We are currently raising funds to complete the installation of these stoves with an eye toward expanding the project to Utz Ché’s network of 40+ indigenous partner communities across Guatemala. La Bendición is one of these communities, and we are excited to continue to support them as they continue on a path of sustainable development, autonomy, and prosperity.

Feliz Aniversario!

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New Report: The Health Consequences of El Niño in Central America

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Rural, poor farmers in Central America are often hit hardest by El Niño events.

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

A new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) calls attention to the devastating effects of El Niño in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. El Niño refers to the “large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific (NOAA, 2016).”

El Niño Wreaks Havoc on Central America

The presence of El Niño has caused prolonged drought in Central America that is expected to last through at least March of 2016. Crop failure, especially in the “dry corridors” of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, has already affected 4.2 million people in the sub-region.

As with many climate-related events, the poorest households are most affected. Food insecurity and malnutrition are the biggest challenges facing these countries and are expected to last through the next harvest in August 2016. Guatemala and Honduras have gone as far as to declare a state of emergency. The governments of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are providing support to farmers by distributing seeds and water pumps.

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Source: World Health Organization (WHO), 2016

Most farmers in the region, particularly subsistence or small-scale campesino (rural farmer) operations, rely predominantly on natural rainfall for their crops, and these recent weather patterns, caused by El Niño and increasing climate volatility, have exacerbated food insecurity and overall instability in the rural areas of Central America. We are not even halfway through the summer season here, with full bore temperatures (and corresponding dryness) reaching its peak in the months of March and April.

Eco-Friendly Agriculture in a Changing Climate

One of the key takeaways from the campesinos that I work with and visited on my last regional tour in October is that increased variability creates significant uncertainty around the arrival of the first rains in May. Many farmers are unsure about when, what, and how much they should plant for the season. These conversations played over and over again as I traveled from El Salvador to Guatemala, and then from Honduras back to Nicaragua.

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A farmer in Honduras takes us on a tour of his small tree nursery, where he grows a variety of species.

According to Gerardo Santos, a field coordinator for Centro Educativo de Agricultura Sostenible (CEASO), “These fluctuations and changing climate dynamics are wreaking havoc in the most vulnerable areas and increasingly encroaching upon the majority of the country. Without the stability and predictability of the rains, campesinos are really in a difficult spot; they are in a struggle for survival.” 

To assist these farmers, Trees, Water & People supports programs in sustainable agriculture, like those of our newest partner, CEASO in Honduras. A shifting paradigm in agriculture emphasizes climate mitigation and adaptation strategies like better soil management, conservation, rainwater harvesting, enhanced water storage capacity, agroforestry, crop diversification, and better and more resistant local seeds.

We believe that a more diverse, holistic approach to farming will protect campesino families in the long run, ensuring rural communities have access to food and other natural resources in a rapidly changing climate.

To read the full WHO report please click here.

Notes from the Field: La Finca Humana

soil and life

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

In rural Honduras, two consecutive years of agricultural hardship have driven vulnerable rural communities to the brink of insolvency. As crop yields and income drop due to volatile weather patterns and a coffee disease that wiped out half of Central America’s 2014 harvest, proponents of conventional agriculture prescribe more chemical inputs, genetically modified seeds, and machinery. None of the above are feasible or sustainable options for poor rural families who can scarcely feed their families.

This year, the rains that irrigate corn and beans have been delayed again, and news reports claim that millions are in danger of food shortages – the time is now to shift the agricultural paradigm.

Trees, Water & People and our partners propose a different path forward: agroforestry, crop diversification, soil remediation, and farmer-to-farmer education. Working with Centro Educativo de Agricultura Sostenible (CEASO), we will support the following work in 2016 and 2017:

  • Agroforestry training curriculum comprised of seven modules to 200 farmers in 10 communities in the Department of Comayagua, Honduras, over a two year period. Coursework will be offered at community centers and at participants’ farms.
  • Between modules, each group will visit local farms that have implemented the Finca Humana approach, including CEASO’s demonstration center and campus, to observe mature agroforestry systems and test several appropriate rural technologies.
  • Establish tree nurseries in each of the 10 communities, where tree species (avocado, mango, citrus, guanábana, bananas, papaya, fuel trees, and native hardwoods) will be raised for integration into the agricultural landscapes of the trainees.

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CEASO refers to their holistic development approach as La Finca Humana, roughly translated as “The Human Estate.” This approach puts family at the center of a successful farm and helps build resilience in every aspect of a rural family’s life, including food production, agroforestry (integrating trees into agricultural systems), waste management, pest management, water storage, soil quality, animal husbandry, energy use, agricultural economics, and gender equity.

In a region that is extremely vulnerable to climate change, La Finca Humana gives farmers and their families the tools and knowledge needed to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Families should not only survive, but thrive. We hope you will join us in supporting the important work of CEASO and the communities they support. To learn more please contact Sebastian Africano, TWP’s International Director, at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org.

Lessons from Cuba: Finding Solutions to a Climate Crisis

Havana Cuba

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

Of all the memorable encounters during my ten days in Havana, Cuba for the 10th Convention on Sustainable Development and Environment in July, there is one that stood out most. A man stopped me between sessions and said he’d overheard I was from the U.S., and asked if I could help him identify someone from our delegation. Happy to help, I asked who he was looking for, and he said, “Sebastian Africano.” I almost fell backwards when he told me that he was from Guantánamo province (where my wife worked years ago), and that he was told to look for me by some of her former colleagues.

This man was Alexander Fernández, who works for the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA), and is also a member of the Cuban Association of Agriculture and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF). His specialties are in Sustainable Soils Management and Conservation Agriculture, and he is based in one of the driest regions of Cuba. Meeting him opened the door to a crucial network of people working on climate adaptation strategies for rural populations in Cuba, and led to a flurry of private meetings after the conference.

Cuban art

Cubans have much to teach, having lived through the forced austerity of “The Special Period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that time, Cuban people survived through solidarity and ingenuity, devising ways to produce their own food without the benefit of petrochemical and technological inputs. The lessons learned during these challenging times make Cuba a staunch ally in facing the challenge of climate change.

After an anemic 2014 harvest, several countries in Central America have reported net losses of staple crops in 2015 at over 60% due to drought, creating conditions of scarcity never before seen. Many of the approaches to agriculture and natural resource management that Alexander and his teams have been forced to adopt in Cuba hold pertinent lessons for those struggling in Central America.

This is where TWP’s model of leveraging local knowledge, building regional networks, and allocating resources to build rural resilience come into play. Over the next year, we seek to strengthen our bonds with Cuba, through educational exchanges involving our partners and donors, as well as by helping to fund local projects. Challenges as daunting as climate change require that we put our heads and resources together to find replicable and impactful solutions.

Notes from the Field: Partnering for Sustainable Agriculture in Honduras

Honduran boys

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant National Director

In the small community of El Socorro, located just ten minutes north of Siguatepeque, Honduras, there is an impressive institution focused on sustainable agriculture. The Center for Teaching and Learning of Sustainable Agriculture (Centro Educativo de Agricultura Sostenible – CEASO) is a critical organization working to build local and regional consciousness.

Trees, Water & People (TWP) is looking to support and partner with CEASO to help local campesinos (farmers) improve and diversify their plots, helping to conserve and manage an increasingly critical protected area – Reserva de la Cordillera de Montecillos – that serves as a key watershed for the growing cities of Comayagua and Siguatepeque. There are plans to move Tegucigalpa´s international airport to the current air base (Palmerola) that has long served as a joint Honduras–U.S. operation since the conflicts of the 1980s. That airport move, along with the advanced work on turning the Tegucigalpa-San Pedro Sula highway into one of the best in Central America, will gradually increase development pressures in the central highlands region of the Cordillera de Montecillos Natural Reserve. Thus, our discussions on potential projects and proposals are timely as the region faces a quickly changing landscape and an ever-expanding agricultural frontier.

San José de Pané along the Cordillera de Montecillos in central Honduras
San José de Pané along the Cordillera de Montecillos in central Honduras

Like many areas of Honduras, the mountainous regions surrounding Siguatepeque are dominated by coffee. However, heavy dependence and reliance on coffee as a single cash crop is exceptionally risky. The coffee rust plague has caused significant damage, prices have been unpredictable and volatile, a small percentage of overall coffee value goes to producers, and climate change is impacting crop productivity. Not to mention the key fact that coffee does not turn into nutritious food for campesinos and their families. In some of the rural areas where we traveled around the mountain pueblo of San José de Pané, families are resorting to purchasing their corn and beans instead of producing it, due to reliance on coffee as the principal crop. CEASO works to ensure that these campesinos learn how to not only diversify their lands with other crops, but also conserve and protect their soil health and increase yields via ecological and organic methods.

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Traveling with staff from CEASO

Perhaps the best part of CEASO is that it´s a friendly, welcoming, family-run operation. They took me in for the better part of five days and showed me the true meaning of warmth and hospitality. The father and founder, René Santos, works with his wife Doña Wilma and several of their children and friends to run a Sustainable Agriculture Technical School for local children. They started with just nine students and they are now up to 50, with more interest every year. It´s an impressive operation and they have received regional and national accolades.

These are the types of small and very well-run operations that we seek to partner with as they are professional, experienced, dedicated, and passionate, living and breathing sustainable agriculture as well as agroforestry. With the seeds of hope and optimism that are planted by small entities like CEASO, especially those that are focused on changing attitudes and behaviors towards more sustainable development and coexistence with protected areas, we can work to ensure a brighter future for Hondurans living in these rural, neglected areas of Latin America.

For questions or comments about our work in Honduras please feel free to email me at lucas@treeswaterpeople.org.