Sunday, April 17, 2011

The History of Community in La Unión

As my stay in La Unión continues extending itself, I learn more about the people I live with. And no, I’m not talking about UMF staff members Andrew, Mike, or Charlie. I’m learning a lot about los Unióneros (Hondurans from La Unión.) Recently, I’ve learned more through Mike’s encounter with a veteran gringo, Gifford Laube, a Peace Corps volunteer who passed through our village more than a decade ago, and who is currently married and working in Trinidad, Honduras.

Gifford, apparently also known to locals as Mateo, lived in the northern part of town, just a little bit past the park. The area he lived around was made up of the Martinez’s, one of La Unión’s formative families. He lived by himself in a mud-brick home and built himself his own latrine. Or so the legend goes. To travel to Santa Barbara or Lepaera, he would walk through jungle for hours on end. No buses. No jalóns. Now, it’s easy to get a jalón, otherwise known as a hitch in the back of someone’s pickup.

Ten years ago, jalóns weren’t really offered. People feared each other. Regional families were in a power struggle, killing each other, eye for an eye. Men from neighboring aldeas (villages) walked around with machetes, and not because they were off to tend their fields. Electricity had yet to arrive. The streets were dangerous at night.

Then, around 2000, the churches arrived, electricity shortly thereafter, and certain families won out over others to become the current large landowners. As if by magic, the new millenium ushered in a new La Unión. “La Nueva Unión” as Pastor Wilson from Vida Abundante (Church)calls our community. Of course this society is far from perfect; fundamental educational, health, and financial institutions fail to adequately exist. Rural poverty remains vibrant.

Though I have often heard pieces of its history from many town elders, the Peace Corps volunteer’s story was an awakening. An awakening as to how far this town has come in only ten years. I’m reminded that people thirty and over have witnessed horrors, but have also witnessed change. Recently, when I look into their eyes, I can see this story emanate from their pupils.

The potential for another decade of immense change is palpable. I’m excited, for it seems Unión MicroFinanza has arrived just at the right time. The dust from the past seems to be slowly settling. New mentalities are permitting people to think in longer terms. Hondurans have a vision for that future. Unión MicroFinanza does too, and its an exciting vision. We will turn the municipality into the specialty coffee region it deserves to be. Mike and Patrick have already proven this to be possible with their award winning coffee. Our idea is to turn people’s focus from the rough past and shift it towards a bright future, a future where the standard of living improves for all.d shift it towards a bright future, a future where the standard of living improves for all.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Microloans: A Recap and Looking Ahead

After looking back upon the first year working with the families of La Unión, one thing is certain: it has been a year of change. As an organization, UMF has gone through many changes—deciding to focus 100% on agricultural microloans rather than traditional microloans, giving microloans as necessary field inputs rather than money, and learning innumerable lessons from the people of La Unión.

More importantly, this has been a year of change for 126 farmers and their families living in the villages surrounding La Unión. We have seen the first steps for growing production, improving quality, managing money and, most importantly, looking to the future so that they can continue to improve their lives.

We are proud to say that, with only a few days of loan and training meetings left, 97.3% of the $12,638 given to assist farmer has been returned! (No this isn’t the on time repayment rate, this is the ACTUAL amount). This was used on corn milpas, bean frijolares, and coffee fincas to help ensure a good crop this year.

Many of these loans went to farmers that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to grow or harvest. Farmers like Felicita Reyes who, for the first time, was able to plant beans that are helping to feed her family this year.

Many more of these loans helped coffee farmers move out from oppressive intermediaries who charge interest rates of 72% and don’t allow farmers to sell their coffee anywhere but through them. Farmers like Evelio Hernandez who is just wrapping up his best coffee harvest ever.

As we prepare for the coming harvest cycle, UMF will use this past year of working with and listening to the people of La Unión to make a few changes to the program. We are excited to expand microloans to include fertilizer for new fields, grain silos which will allow farmers to store their harvest, solar dryers to improve the quality of their coffee, and many essential farming tools.

We are also excited to give more responsibility to the local boards of directors for incoming members. These town leaders will play an even larger role in selecting responsible members from their communities to enter loan and training groups.

Most of all, we are excited to grow! We look forward to adding 150 more farmers into the program and to doubling the microloan amount available to returning members.