Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The First Ever Presidential Visit to La Union

It was a day of interesting images, ideas, and opinions. Pepe Lobo came to town today, marking it the first time a serving President of Honduras has visited La Union. Instead of beginning my workday at 9:00AM, the town anxiously awaited outside my front door, and there was no way I would let this culturally fascinating event slip through my fingers. And so I ventured out in search of images.

Two hours prior to the President’s arrival, the town was already flooded with villagers from the La Union municipality to the neighboring Iguala, Lepaera, and San Rafael municipalities. Hundreds of people had arrived to receive bonos, essentially 10,000 Lempira ($530) handouts, an annual bailout program for farming families. Others had come to simply see what was going on. However, many of the people I spoke to leading up to the President’s visit were not excited for his arrival.

It was tremendous how little interest there was in seeing and listening to the President speak. Certainly, much of this disinterest came from members of the Liberal party (Pepe Lobo is a Nationalist,) but I would imagine that Presidential visits to La Union is a once in a lifetime thing. More often than not, the reason was that many people did not want to be lured into the sweet-sounding promises being offered only to continue waiting to see them unrealized.

Besides people flooding the streets, a huge dark-green covered truck carrying soldiers unloaded itself outside the municipal office and took to the streets with huge automatic rifles. Of course the police had made their presence clear, but I had never seen, nor will I ever see again the military roll through these streets. Believe it or not, the General of the Armed Forces (the equivalent of a Petraeus) wandered about preparing for the President’s arrival.

I walked around some more, more buses and pickups arrived bringing people from neighboring aldeas. I ran into Ever, Vida Abundante’s radio host and perhaps future pastor-to-be, and little did I know he would be leading the presidential ceremony. Because I did not know he was busy in his preparation, I had him try to convince a soldier to let me pose in a picture with him. No dice.

The clock neared eleven, the hour of the President’s arrival, so I took our new gringo, Carlitos, and walked to the soccer field where the President would be landing in his helicopter. I took a seat on a bench on the side of the soccer field and some kids approached me who I quickly recognized from one day when I had bathed in the Las Playas river. A few other local friends of mine arrived, and looking around me, I noticed much of the village had shown up to greet the President. As kids attempted to continue their soccer game, a soldier stood inches away watching the kids play as he held tight to his automatic weapon. I enjoyed this sight. Soon after the military men took to the field (who were comically ordered to clean the field of garbage) along with other pistol packing secret service, a light came flying towards us.

The first helicopter to arrive unloaded some congressmen, the mayor greeted them, and everyone awaited the second, more important helicopter. Before it showed, the military threw a yellow smoking flare on the ground to signal to the second helicopter where it should land. As I stood there snapping photos of the arriving helicopter, we were all blown away by the strong gusts of wind it created, blowing dirt and dust from the soccer field into our faces.

When the dust settled, out popped Pepe Lobo, Samuel Reyes (Vice President, also La Union native,) the Minister of Education, and last but not least the Ambassador of Taiwan. The entourage, being escorted by senior military officials, began greeting the villagers, exclaiming how great the mountain climate was, as several journalists began snapping photos. Carlitos and I were invited to pose with the President, but I politely declined due to the fact that this was a day for the villagers, and not for outsider gringos. I had barely lived here a year, while the rest of the villagers had spent their entire lives awaiting political help from Tegucigalpa.

Slowly, the politicians made their way to a four SUV motorcade which headed towards a makeshift stage set up in front of the mayor’s house on the steps of the computer center. The people who had gathered at the soccer field followed suit and formed a long procession. The President stopped at the Vice President’s house, a few doors down from Manuel and Mirsa’s pulperia, before continuing with the motorcade.

The ceremony began. Young students from the bilingual school led the national anthem, an anthem only known by two-thirds of the population. Ever valiantly emceed the event. He introduced the Catholic pastor, elegantly dressed in religious wardrobe, who shared a few words asking the President for money to finish constructing a monumental tower. Pastor Wilson, dressed handsomely, shared brief words with the President and community members. The mayor, Don Miguel Reyes, followed and welcomed each visitor. The mayor of Iguala also shared his appreciation of the visit. The Minister of Education gave a talk on the importance of milk, as a mother standing to my right nursed her two-year-old with a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola (to me, a very interesting symbol of Americanism.) Samuel Reyes, one of the three national Vice Presidents, made a few remarks and presented a symbolic street lamp to Don Miguel to represent the 150 street lamps that would be installed throughout the municipality.

Somewhere in the midst of speech giving and political promises, the Ambassador of Taiwan arose, bowed, and proceeded to the podium to deliver a Spanish speech in an Asian accent (think puebro [pueblo]). He was introduced as the Ambassador of China-Taiwan, a highly interesting remark that showed Honduras’ alliance with Chinese expansionism. Also interesting was the fact that the Ambassador received the greatest applause of the day when he joked that they ought to move his embassy to the beautiful mountain climate of La Union. His sheer presence at the event was highly unusual and curious.

Finally, Pepe Lobo approached the podium, but before continuing remembered a small dish of candy purposefully put on the table to give out to a few front-row kids. It was surreal to watch the President deliver his address. Certainly, I did not feel I was in the presence of some powerful leader, for essentially Honduras is like Tennessee attempting to become a nation with its own national government and military, there’s just not enough resources to do it well. The scale of the country relative to many large developed countries makes watching politics, nationalism, the economy, public education, very interesting. I often wonder how effective it is to have all these tiny Central American countries, or whether it would make more sense for a reunited Central American Republic/Federation as it once was.

To close the ceremony, a young girl delivered a letter to the President asking for games and school supplies for her kindergarten. An older bilingual school student, delivered a poem on matricide and socioeconomic issues. When all was finished and details were shared on the distribution of the bonos, my gringo posse left for lunch. It was 2:00PM and we had yet to eat so we headed for the comedor. After we had ordered our food, we heard the helicopter taking off and decided to head to the soccer field which was very close to where we were eating. The blades twirled around and lifted the helicopter off the ground.

Tilting forwards, the helicopter quickly approached Mike and I bringing a trail of wind behind the giant hunk of metal. Mike says he claimed he saw Samuel Reyes waving to him through the window. Despite the oncoming collision, we both just stood their as the copter passed a few feet over our heads on its way out of La Union, beginning to snake it’s way through mountain crevices. To think, these high level politicians pausing for a second in La Union to put a band-aid on rural poverty leaving with the image of gringos as their last sight in La Union; gringos, who contrary to these senior politicians are seeking sustainable change by staying put on the ground for an indefinite amount of time, instead of seeking a quick fix.



Monday, October 11, 2010

UMF State-Side

You have heard many posts on the work of Union MicroFinanza (UMF) in Honduras. But, what does UMF do in the US? What are its day to day operations and how does it coordinate with the team in Honduras?

In the US, UMF is supported by a broad network of dedicated supporters. These supporters give their time, finances and expertise to progress the work of the organization. From lawyers, to businessmen, to pastors, and professors, these people are part of a strong foundation that continues to build resources so that UMF can create prosperity for the farmers in Honduras. UMF employees in the US work with these people daily to coordinate their efforts into success on the ground in Honduras.

One of the main tasks of UMF employees in the US is the marketing of Honduran coffee. As many of you know, UMF purchases this coffee from its farmers at above fair trade value, ships it to the US and then works to find a market for it. All proceeds from the coffee then go back to the organization to fund microloans and the agricultural training that UMF provides. UMF believes that to break the cycle of poverty and create a cycle of prosperity, it is vitally important to open new markets for our farmers.

The coffee effort has been growing steadily and surely. From churches to farmers markets, to restaurants, roasters and businesses, the coffee is finding consumers that love the taste of the coffee and the message it stands for.

With many of the groups and individuals that are a part of the organization, UMF also coordinates trips to Honduras. This gives people a chance to see first hand the farmers they are support and how the coffee they drink is produced. Trips are an important piece of what UMF does because it connects those in the states directly with the people and work in Honduras. No amount of pictures, presentations and explaining can make up for a trip to Honduras. All who go are profoundly changed. Employees in the US spend time coordinating these trips.

Well there is a small glimpse of UMF in the states. Thank you to all who have been part of the journey and welcome those of you who are newcomers.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rushing Good Things

There once was a wise young man, who said “You can’t rush a good thing.” Many who read this blog post will recognize those famous words and wonder how this fine young chap is getting along working for General Mills in Memphis, Tennessee. While I hope he is doing well, I can’t help but remember these words and how well they relate to our current story, here in La Union.

We set out more than one year ago to bring microfinance to La Union. In the process, we’ve pushed farmers to grow crops organically, we’ve encouraged vegetable growers to sell goods in a local farmer’s market, we’ve dealt with American and Honduran governments who had yet seen a holistic approach to rural third-world economic development, we’ve empowered local leaders and sought out new ones, we’ve challenged traditional farming methods, we’ve attempted to become masters of law, accounting, marketing, microfinance, and continue to strive for sustained change. The change we seek will increase incomes, here in La Union.

There have been organizations here before us. Many of them have failed and as a result created tremendous distrust throughout the aldeas; from the women of Gualciras to the men of Chimisal. We want to be the first organization with a sustained presence, and we want to help people, regardless of what church they belong to, regardless of what political party they vote for. I am fully aware we are shooting for new and different, better and bolder, here in La Union.

I don’t expect farmers to change their ways overnight, I don’t expect the Honduran government to allow us to stomp over decades of tradition, and I don’t expect that self-sustainable microfinance operated and directed by Hondurans will be up and running tomorrow. However, many people have responded positively to our efforts. Speaking this morning with Patrick, Mike, Gilberto, and Martir, it is clear we have come a long way; there are still miles to go. The change we seek is to improve living conditions, to make La Union’s residents healthier, more educated, and more confident that better things are attainable for themselves and their children. BUT, like the friend I met the first time I came down to this mountain municipality said, you can’t rush a good thing. To amend his quote, I would say that while you can’t rush a good thing, you mustn’t wait too long and hope for change through inaction. Slowly, change will come to the people, here in La Union.

Daniel Schwartz

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Beans Part I (aka. The Harvest is Here)

The highlight of my day today was beans. I was sitting on the porch taking care of a few things when Martir came up on the motorcycle, with a bunch of bean plants slung over his shoulder. Turns out these weren’t just any beans, though; we had our normal payment and training meeting in Chimisal today, and they were beans given to us by Dolores Rodriguez of Chimisal.

These were the beans from her family’s frijolar (bean field). She had harvested these beans earlier this week, beans which were grown only thanks to a loan from UMF. She was so excited about her harvest, she sent Martir and Gilberto home with as many beans as they could carry as a way to say ‘thanks’ to UMF.

So, from Dolores of Chimisal, thanks to everybody who has helped UMF make this happen. Until next time, adios.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Should I Put Honduran Coffee in My Gas Tank?

(by the dawns early light, what so proudly we hailed) (Zingerman's Loading Dock)

This is the Mazda MX6. Do not be deceived by her small appearance and customary looks, inside she is beaming with personality. Let's take a look. A model office, coffee delivery system, wardrobe, and gym, her capabilities are unfathomable. During this particular road trip she carried 300 lbs of green coffee in the trunk, 100 lbs or regular and ground in the back seat, office supplies, tennis rackets, and clothes for 10 days. Starting out in Macomb County (Northeast Detroit), at 4:00am on a Monday, we traveled for 10 days to Muskegon, Saugatuck, back to Muskegon, Holland, Ann Arbor and finally back to Macomb. Great times! The mx6 is fortunate enough to have never driven in the winter. However, coming this December, I think she will have to eat some flakes. Send a prayer her way if you think of it. She is getting a little puttsie. The thought crossed my mind to brew a little microloan coffee and put it in the gas tank. Something tells me that this was very early morning delirium and probably wouldn't work as well as I think.

(The Office) (Green Coffee Delivery)

Well, her is my advice to you this morning as you are headed off to wherever. Listen to "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson and sip on a hot cup of some delicious Honduran Microloan Coffee. If you don't have some, you really should consider it. Order at Who knows the famous Mazda MX6 may show up at your door, if your lucky.



Thursday, September 9, 2010


For many people in many places this word carries different meanings. People’s meaning of it directly relates to their involvement within it. Communities come in all shapes and sizes, revolving around certain ideas and beliefs.

I have spent time throughout different communities; I’ve often adventured to different cities and countries for both long and short amounts of time, but after living 10 months in this mountain village of La Union, I have already developed such a strong sense of community; personally I feel an inexperienced sense of belonging. I don’t claim to know everyone on a personal basis, but I’ve evolved and continue evolving from gringo/stranger to catracho/neighbor.

This hit me most recently when I arrived back from spending two weeks in New York. Granted, I wasn’t gone from La Union very long, but the second I exited from the rear of the old converted school bus at Hilario’s pulperia with all my luggage, he helped me in from the rain and chatted until the downpour turned into a drizzle. Martir happened to see me from my front porch and came to help me with my heavy suitcase.

Everyone began asking about my recent vegetable harvest. Though the garden grew to be a disaster within the period of my absence, I was able to harvest 25 cucumbers and a pound of green beans. Instead of hoarding my harvest for my roommates, I thought better to meander around town during my first day back to reengage with my friends in La Union, bringing them fruits (technically vegetables) of my labor. We did also save some cucumbers and green beans for dinner later that night and batter fried them. They were unusually delicious to say the least. I highly recommend it.

I’m preparing my second harvest currently, and have ideas for the municipality to grow a communal garden located right next to the kindergarten to be sold at the farmers market to raise money for educational supplies. If I can’t get them on board with my idea (which I think would do wonders for village unity) I want to use my organic garden as an inspiration for others to grow on whatever small plot of land they have. As a matter of fact, Gilberto told me I inspired him to plant an additional corn yield in his front yard. He promised me a masorca/stalk after I spotted the first top flowers.

I certainly have more community building to do, but I can’t walk down the street without stopping to converse with someone I share some history with. I was eager to return to Honduras for a variety of reasons, but returning to a community that I feel a part of topped the list. Fortunately for me, I’m Manager of Community Relations and Union MicroFinanza is doing a great job relating to the village. It’s almost impossible not to become so ingrained from everything we do. What’s great is that the rest of the team is finding their own place in La Union which makes Union MicroFinanza’s success that much more meaningful and worthwhile.

By Daniel Schwartz

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Savings in La Union: Part II

So, last time I talked about savings in La Unión. Recap: nobody does it and it is vitally important since incomes vary drastically at different times of the year. So what can be done to remedy this problem? The two things that need to be addressed are the lack of knowledge and the lack of a good savings facility.

Enter INFOP, the National Institute for Professional Formation in Honduras. This organization provides business training and development to a variety of small businesses, including small agricultural producers, in just this area. INFOP, much like IHCAFE, has professionals ready to teach, and UMF is now coordinating business training sessions for the near future.

Now, when I say, “business training”, this may not be the same thing that most people think about in the United States. The first training that we are looking to coordinate will be on savings. How much do people make during the harvest? How much could they save? What could they do with this money? How will they save it? The next session will be the planning of investment, essentially, planning beforehand how much producers will need to invest in their fields, versus how much they will make during the harvest, in order to decide the right amount of land to plant, how to budget the money they have saved in order to purchase necessary inputs, and how much money to expect to keep after all of their expenses. This will be complemented with several other topics tailored to agricultural business, but these first to sessions – which will teach both how to save and then what can be done with those savings – will serve as the building blocks for anything that will be taught in the future.

As for the lack of facilities to save money, the easiest solution to the lack of savings facilities would be for UMF to take savings ourselves. Unfortunately, as a non-profit rather than a formal bank, we are not legally able to do this. Additionally, we have heard stories of distrust from people in towns who have deposited savings with organizations before, only to find their money gone when they went to withdraw it at a later date. As such, UMF has been looking into other options. So far we have come across two.

One – form community banks based upon the common Caja Rural form. These would allow members to manage savings themselves and would be located in each individual town. However, these come with problems of trust and the potential for mismanagement mentioned in my previous post.

Two – set up bank accounts at a formal bank. To me, this seems the better option, especially with the recent opening of an ATM in La Unión (which consists of a card scanner at a pulperia or small store; the store owners then take money out of the drawer in the amount withdrawn). While basic, this ATM allows bank members to make deposits and withdrawals 7 days per week here in La Unión, thereby fixing the transportation problem previously faced. Taking advantage of this, UMF could coordinate the opening of personal savings accounts with the training sessions in towns so that people could, in a short period of time, learn about the advantages of saving and gain access to a viable savings mechanism.

So where does that leave us? I think that, by coordinating proper training and facilities for savings, UMF can help to implement an effective savings program which will help the people of La Unión save money to be used for emergencies or otherwise productive uses during times when money has not traditionally been available. My hope is that we can at least make first steps to move away from the attitude of “dinero ganado es dinero gastado.”

Until next time, adios.


Monday, August 30, 2010

The Real Leaders

Hello Readers,

It is very intriguing to me the way we’re approaching the building of a non-profit microfinance organization. Whether or not we are sustainable or close to becoming sustainable is a side issue, but what interests me most is including more than just gringos in our operations. Gilberto and Martir work active roles leading town meetings in conjunction with a locally elected board of directors in each village. Bilingual students contributed to collecting socioeconomic data which helped create the basis of our project. High school students are helping us gather more information on our client and client villages. And a scattered mass of community members help us coordinate logistics, gather resources, move materials, and carry out an array of other small but necessary activities.

We’re not only instructing what people are to do for us, but local leaders emerge who take their own initiatives and solve problems when issues erupt. I’m not suggesting that by tomorrow we’ll be able to hand over the keys to Union MicroFinanza to a group of Hondurans, but I sincerely believe and see us heading in that direction. The idea as I see it: empower people economically through microloans, train people to orchestrate these microloans, and one day remove all gringos from local operations and allow the people who we’ve been working with to take the reins and move forward, helping themselves help each other.

Certainly, this is a very idealistic perspective, but anything is possible; such as creating a self-sustainable microfinance organization managed, run, and organized by their Honduran neighbors.

Peace and Love,
Daniel Schwartz

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Definition of Savings in La Union: Part I

Yesterday, I had a several hour conversation with Gilberto and Martir about financial planning and what people in La Unión do to plan, budget, and save money. It started because we wanted to ask new loan applicants the question “If you wanted to make a small investment of 1,000 Lempira ($50 USD), how long would it take you; right now, a few months, the next harvest, or never?” We wanted to ask the question in order to gain a better understanding of how people in the area manage their money. “Patrick,” Gilberto said, “This question is going to seem very odd if you ask people. No one has money set aside right now? Everybody will have to wait until the harvest.” From here we began discussing what people do to save money.

The short, and somewhat disturbing explanation, is nothing. I was told that there is a saying here “dinero ganado es dinero gastado” or “money earned is money spent”. When people make money – almost exclusively during the coffee harvest – they spend it immediately. As Martir said, if he has 10 Lempira and his Aunt comes by selling bread (which he knows is delicious), he is going to buy it. This is not to say that it all is wasted, since I was told that money often goes to new clothes, housing repairs, medicine, and other worthwhile purchases. However, it means that shortly after the end of the coffee harvest, all of La Unión and the towns around it are collectively broke for the rest of the year. This is the reason that fertilizer is so difficult to buy in May and September – people have been unable to save the money they need for inputs in the many months between the harvest and the following growing season. Additionally, what happens when a roof starts to leak? What happens when a child gets sick? Unfortunately, there is no good solution for people. For extreme emergencies, people can go to neighbors and ask for small amounts of money, to be paid back when possible. For less urgent matters, the only realistic option is to hope that it can wait until the next coffee harvest. This leaves little possibility for fertilizer or agricultural products, since all people in the area need them at the same time.

So why don’t people save? This is a difficult question, but here are my thoughts. First, there is a lack of knowledge. People know that saving is a good idea, but don’t know how, where, or exactly why to save. They know that it is hard when they have no money for emergencies, but see this as an unavoidable way of life – like daily rainstorms – that cannot be changed. Second, there is a lack of facilities. The nearest commercial bank is a 3 hour, 80 Lempira ($4 USD) bus ride away. Since most people wouldn’t be able to deposit more than 40-50 Lempira (~$2.50 USD), they would spend significantly more on food and transportation than they would be able to put in the bank. Third, there are several community groups which have been set up to provide savings, but these are plagued by stories of mismanagement, burglary of houses in which money was kept, to straight out robbery by community bank treasures. Overall the outcomes have been poor.

It is important to realize that these reasons are different than saying that people are not CAPABLE of saving. Right now, UMF clients are making interest payments of 10-20 Lempira ($0.50-$1 USD) at each biweekly meeting for exactly this reason. People CAN save small in amounts, are capable of depositing those small amounts every few weeks. Our current 99% repayment rates are proof of this. With the proper training and facilities, La Unión wouldn’t have to scrape by for nine months out of the year. But how can this be done? Well, that is a lesson for another day.

Until next time, adios.


Friday, August 13, 2010

A Day in the Life...

6 am. It’s lights out. Did I oversleep? Nope, alarm won’t go off for another 30 minutes, but now I’m up and it’s time for coffee.

6:30 am. Coffee and some reading. I think Economics of Microfinance. We are going and revising all of our procedures for the upcoming round of loans, so it is good to run back through this.

8 am. Coffee’s gone. Time to head out. Bottle of water and iPod in my backpack and I’m off to meet Gilberto.

8:30 am. Meet up with Gilberto at his house and we are off to his field in Llano del Venado.

9 am. We arrive at his field, where I have planted an area of corn and beans. This is my first time here since I was in the states and, although I was told about it already, I am disappointed to see what used to be my beans. A plague of insects came and ate them in a day while I was gone. Fortunately, my corn is still looking good.

9:15 am. Gilberto shows me how to sharpen the hoe, and I start cleaning the field.

9:17 am. I am in a full sweat. This is hard work.

9:30 am. I step in an ant hill. They are the “angry ants” as they are known here, and I am quickly reminded why.

Noon. I have cleaned my part of the field while Gilberto planted yucca. Gilberto tells me that it would take a full three days to clean his portion of the corn, and I now understand why. His field is relatively small (he has about 1/4 of a manzana or about 2/3 of an acre planted), but looks monstrous next to the four rows that I just cleaned. I enjoyed the work, but now it is swelteringly hot and I am ready for lunch.

12:30 pm. Baleadas for lunch. I don’t have time to cook them, so I get them the little restaurant across the street. They aren’t bad, but they use reheated tortillas and beans and you can always tell the difference.

12:45 pm. Time for a shower. No running water which means bucket shower today. I grab two buckets, fill them with water from the pila (reservoir behind the house for such occasions) and am refreshed by the icy water.

1 pm. Showered and shaved, it’s time to start preparing dinner. Tomorrow is Trisha and Malia’s final day in La Unión and we are making a final dinner. I start some beans boiling and go to grab stuff to make dough. Tonight’s menu: nachos. pizza of various types (Hawaiian, cheese, pepper and onion, roasted tomato), onion rings, and cake and coffee milk shakes for desert.

1:30 pm. Trisha and Malia show up. Trisha and I go shopping while Mike starts prebaking pizzas and Malia fries tortillas. Cooking continues for the rest of the afternoon. I love cooking.

6:30 pm. With all of the food ready, guests arrive. First Martier and his family, then Gilberto and his family, and finally Rolando and Rosa (with whom Trisha and Malia live). In total, 18 people.

9 pm. After several hours, several courses, and a good time, dinner is over. It is late for La Unión and everybody except us Gringos go to bed.

9:30 pm. The gringos hang out, exchange music (a favorite pastime) and reminisce about the experience that the interns have had this summer. It has been great having them here, and I am sad that they have to head home to start school up again.

10:30 pm. It’s been a long, but great, day off. Time to hit the hay and start over tomorrow.

Such is a day in the life of a Gringo in Honduras.

Until next time, Adios,