Water and electricity became available in the Honduran village of Las Camelias only two years ago. The village sits at the end of a bumpy road, a turn-off from the only paved motorway that crosses Honduras to link it with Nicaragua. A journey of more than three hours by car from Tegucigalpa city, the capital of Honduras, ends at a school surrounded by a flower garden.
The women of the Cooperativa La Dinámica gather here every day. Most of them grow maize (sweetcorn) and beans in their own vegetable gardens, in this zone of the Corredor Seco, the “Dry Corridor” that runs through the south of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These farmers are reinventing themselves as entrepreneurs, and even as bankers.
The women’s collective is one of several whose members lack job opportunities in a country that is threatened by climate change, surrounded by oceans on both sides, and undergoing political and economic upheaval. Controversial presidential elections last November drew charges of corruption and fraud, which led to protests. Human rights groups expressed concern over the subsequent government crackdown on protesters that led to at least 30 deaths. At the end of January, Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in as president for a second term, as people protested in streets controlled by military forces.
In the rural areas, the cooperatives give hope to the women farm in Honduras and the Corredor Seco. Joining together has made it possible for them to create new business, form their own banks, and boost economic opportunities. The goal: to create sustainable livelihoods and not be forced to migrate.
But the challenges they face – getting access to land and economic opportunities – are multifaceted and complex. And they are worsening as climate change impacts their crops and livelihoods more strongly every year. While the cooperatives offer a lifeline, they can only be part of the solution.
Drier than ever
Daily temperature fluctuations have changed in the Corredor Seco in the past 50 years, explains Francisco Argeñal, chief meteorologist at COPECO, Honduras’s permanent contingency commission. Mornings and afternoons are hotter; there are fewer days of rain, and when the rains come, they come fast and hard, so water does not penetrate the soil and instead runs off.1 1. Argeñal, F. J. 2010. Variabilidad Climática y Cambio Climático en Honduras. UN Development Programme. Pdf (in Spanish)
Though the country is a small contributor to emissions of anthropogenic CO2, Honduras is one of the more vulnerable countries to climate change, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) Country Index. One of the greatest climate-related challenges here is the decline in production of cereals, such as maize. Another is the threat of increased extreme weather variability.
The effects of climate change have already been felt locally. “We lost 9o,000 quintales [9,000 tonnes] of maize and 40,000 quintales [4,000 tonnes] of beans, in the first crop cycle of the past year,” says Franklin Almendares, secretary general of the National Center of Farm Workers (CNTC). This loss directly translates to less food on the table for the farmers, and such losses occur more and more often.
According to Dulio Medina, director of the Association of Producers of Staple Grains (Prograno), “in Honduras, maize production has dropped to 4,500,000 quintales in the last three years, while in the good harvest years it reaches 1.1 million tons. The same happens with beans. The production has dropped from 2,300,000 tons to 800,000”.
Climate change is only one of the challenges facing Honduras. The country is the second poorest in Central America after Nicaragua, and the most unequal, according to the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality. For farmers, employment opportunities are scarce in rural areas and underpaid in the cities.
To go or to stay?
In response to the combination of challenges Honduras faces today, some people choose to emigrate, leaving rural areas for the cities – or leaving the country entirely for destinations like the United States or Spain. In 2016, 258,000 women left Honduras out of a total population of 4,581,913, according to the Honduras National Institute of Statistics.
Others stay and try to find new ways forward. In Las Camelias, the women of the cooperative La Dinámica have worked together over the past two decades, and they help each other to adjust to shifting environmental conditions.
“Our dream is so big. The cooperative started with nothing and now we are ready to export to the foreign markets.”
– Myriam Suyapa Flores
One afternoon in July, at the start of the canicula, the hottest and driest period of the year, 50-year-old Rosmary Sosa chairs the women’s meeting. “This started as a dream of an assembly of friends, and afterwards, it became a cooperative and a rural bank, to help each other in moments of difficulty,” Sosa explains later. “We just celebrated our anniversary. La Dinámica was born 20 years ago and I was among the founders.” The group flourished in part with the support of different international, nongovernmental organisations, such as Action Against Hunger and Heifer International.
Caren Valeska Flores Cruz is the group’s treasurer. She writes meticulously in her notebook, recording the group’s income, how much is shared between the members, and how much will go to increasing the capital of the rural bank. As bankers, the women use this money to make loans to members of the cooperative or inhabitants of the village, to help them in case of family needs, for example paying for medical care or to offset poor harvests when they lose seeds and crops.
Today the cooperative sells its own brand of La Dinámica beans and is developing other projects, such as selling household goods like oven gloves, which they sew themselves. La Dinámica now serves the next generation of women, at a time when environmental changes have grown more extreme. “Our dream is so big. The cooperative started with nothing and now we are ready to export to the foreign markets. Can you believe that?” says Myriam Suyapa Flores, a 34-year-old single mother and daughter of one of the founders of the cooperative, showing a package of beans proudly.
This cooperative means a lot to Flores. Every morning, she wakes up at 3 a.m. to tidy her house and get her children ready for school, before going to work at the cooperative. She also cares for her brother’s children, a common situation for women in Honduras: the children’s parents both migrated to the United States to find work. One third of households are headed by single mothers in Honduras.
Flores says “this cooperative is my esperancita, my little hope. Thanks to this job, I can pay for the education of my two children”. She has benefited from being part of the cooperative she says, “especially last year when we lost half of our harvest due to drought,” but also for extra income and loans when needed.
Expanding the cooperative is not the women’s only dream. For Flores and others, being an entrepreneur means keeping families together. “I was 27 years old when we started this cooperative and my last son wasn’t born yet,” says Mirna del Carmen, another founder of the community. “I don’t want him to leave to another city or country. I want him to stay here! Being an entrepreneur is our way of creating jobs so no one will have to go away.”
Women in other parts of the country have been attempting similar approaches. Outside the coastal city of Tela, the weekly meeting of Mariposas Libres – the free butterflies – takes place every Monday. One afternoon, as a group of children paints a mural of a butterfly on a nearby wall, their mothers and neighbours sit in a circle, deep in discussion.
The Mariposas Libres is a group of Garifuna women, descendants of West African and Caribbean peoples now spread across Central America. Like the women in La Dinámica, the Mariposas Libres struggle to find ways of tackling issues that are pushing people to leave this coastal part of the country: pesticide pollution from palm tree plantations, lack of policies for rural farmers to gain access to the land, climate change, and more.
One growing concern is how economic interests of property companies are interfering with local land rights. Some of Mariposas Libres’ members come from Barra Vieja, a community that borders the Indura Beach Golf & Resort, owned by the Hilton Group. The resort owners deny having evicted the community or invaded their lands, but community members blame Indura for the legal trials and evictions that the Garifuna people have been going through in recent years.
“Inequality and landholding in Central America are extraordinary. The individual decisions made by people at the village level are overwhelmed by the powerful political decision[makers], and farmer women can do nothing for this disparity,” explains Deborah Potts, emeritus reader in human geography at King’s College London. Potts is an expert in “circular migration”, a pattern in which people leave rural areas for urban jobs, yet maintain deep ties to “home”.
Calixta Martínez, spokesperson of Mariposas Libres, says that Garifuna female farmers are mostly affected by drought, pollution, and threats of eviction from their land. Coconut trees are endangered, and fish are disappearing – two of the community’s main food sources and crops sold for profit. “Almost half of the women of our community migrated. But we have started to find solutions and a way to create a micro-entrepreneurship with the production of homemade curatives such as ointment and soap with herbs. Also, we developed small vegetable gardens to sell the produce in neighbouring communities, to offer opportunities for women to stay,” Martínez says.
The Mariposas Libres are building a network of mutual help and support, where they share personal and work issues. One member, Ernestina Diego, farms malanga (taro root), sweet potato, maize, and yucca. “I thought about leaving Honduras so many times. I migrated to Belize; there I was fine and I found a job,” Diego says, “but Belize is not Honduras. It’s so different from here”. She returned to Honduras and joined the Mariposas Libres. “Although if I had known the situation that we are experiencing right now, maybe I would not have come,” she says. Jobs are still lacking, as is access to land alongside a growing fear of eviction. And so people continue to migrate from the Corredor Seco and Atlantic Coast, even if their final destinations are disappointing in other ways.
Potts of King’s College believes that policies that change the context of agriculture significantly and create better access and rights to lands could make it easier to live in rural areas. But she sees no such changes happening soon. The current political upheaval in Honduras could make such progress unattainable for the foreseeable future. Historically, activists for the environment, indigenous land rights, and human rights have been at high risk. The murder in 2016 of Berta Caceres, a Honduran environmental rights activist, Goldman Environmental Prize winner, and founder of the land rights organisation COPINH, was the latest blow to a movement that has lost more than 100 people in the past decade.
A long struggle shifts
The international movement La Via Campesina, which works for food sovereignty and rights of smallholder farmers around the world, has worked in Honduras since 1998. The international organisation promotes agroecology, calling for environmentally focused agricultural practices in addition to its platform of farmers’ land tenure rights and stopping violence against women.
Sonia Isabel Triminio and Mirna Sagrario Duron both joined La Via Campesina a few years ago. Triminio has been a farmer her whole life. Her family’s coffee farm perches on the mountains that surround Rancho del Obispo, a village in the Corredor Seco inhabited by only a few people. She just finished building a house with adobe bricks, a few steps away from her vegetable garden, where she grows maize and beans.
“Last year we lost all the beans and the previous [year], all the maize,” Triminio says. As elsewhere in the Corredor Seco, without productive fields many are forced to leave for the cities or for other countries, she says, “and that is what we don’t want”.
Duron is a single mother of five and sole provider for her family. She built a wood oven on her patio where she bakes loaves of bread to sell when she needs money. She sells the bread in Tegucigalpa, a five-hour bus ride away. Duron doesn’t want to be forced to leave her home in Ojo de Agua. In spite of losing more than 60% of her last harvest of maize and beans in the past year, she is trying hard to bring new life to her lands: she uses organic compost to regenerate the soil and make it hold water better, which she learned through La Via Campesina.
Against the backdrop of the upheaval of politics, lack of jobs and climate change, different organisations of farmers across the country continue their struggle to remain in Honduras, in their ancestral lands. From the Corredor Seco to the Atlantic Coast, cooperatives seem to be a way to try to deal with the climate changes threatening Honduras. “Creating networks is a way to strengthen the local economy in rural areas, things that make it easier to improve farmers’ incomes and lifestyles,” Potts says, for example, by bridging “the gap between the income that they get at home and the one that they get if they move”.
The farmers of the Corredor Seco still dream of expanding and changing how they work. “I would like to develop a project to counteract drought in this area, [using] drip irrigation. This could be a way to continue to produce platano [plantains], pataste [a gourd], yucca in our vegetable gardens, even in summer,” says Sagrario, walking between maize plants that are almost ready to be harvested. “We want to produce more foods on our lands, regenerated without the use of chemicals.”