Monday, July 1, 2013

Meeting farmers, hearing their stories

By Kerry Huang

A lot can happen in a month. A business can be started. A house can be built. A farm can be planted. Or a life can be changed.

Only five weeks ago, I was in my comfortable room back home in Rochester with no clue of what I was getting myself into. After all, I have been to Central America before; how different could it be this time? What I didn’t realize was that living in a place for an extended period of time is completely different from vacationing there for a week. Since my first blog, I got to see and learn a lot more about life in La Unión. This post touches on two different aspects about my observations and opinions, both centered on farmers I have met in Honduras while in the office.

Kerry talks with farmers receiving their microloans.
Specifically, I have been busy working on microloans and on my research project. Here, microloans are distributed to farmers in the form of fertilizers. Farmers from aldeas (villages) around La Unión come to pick up their orders and receive any other information they need for their next monthly meeting. In preparing for microloans, we needed to set up a distribution sheet for all the farmers and go over what types of fertilizers they requested. Lead by Martir, Gilberto and Pedro, we reviewed every client’s loan application and determined how much each farmer qualified for and how much they would receive for their microloan. These numbers take into account the farmer’s attendance at bimonthly meetings and repayment records from past microloans.

Every client who came into the office had a story. The farmer that made the deepest impression on me was a man who walked in with crutches. At first, I thought his foot had nails in it that came through his socks, but that didn’t seem plausible. I glanced back. It did. On March 6th of this year, he had been chopping wood with an ax and accidentally chopped right through his foot. The nails were surgically implanted to hold his foot together until the wound healed. He is hoping to get the nails taken out in September but will need another checkup just in case.

In the aldeas, surgeries and emergency medical care aren’t available for many miles. The nearest hospitals are 2-3 hours away by bus, and for more serious cases, residents need to travel to San Pedro, about 5 hours away by bus. This farmer’s accident would have cost him not only medical bills, but also the income lost from not being able to work on his farm. Moreover, like much of Central America, his farm suffered from roya, or coffee leaf rust disease, which would have further impacted his harvest income. I can only imagine the hardships he endured (and still is enduring) to support his family. Despite the situation, his strength resonated. This has been a recurring theme with all residents of La Unión: resilience. They find a way to come back.

I was likewise impacted by another example of strength and resilience. It regards a common story shared by only a handful of voices: the voices of women. In the week and a half of microloans, I was excited to see a few women farmers walk in to buy fertilizer. In La Unión, women typically stay at home to cook (it may take hours to prepare one meal) and take care of their children (many households have three or more children). The male of the household is usually in charge of working on the farm or other business. In one of my conversations with Hondurans from La Unión, I mentioned that some fathers in the U.S. stay at home to take care of the children and do household work while the mother supports the family with her job. They simply laughed and thought I was joking. Although women in Honduras have many duties, they are usually not the main income-generator of the household. That is why I was very excited to witness five women, out of 143 clients, walk into the office for their microloans. Although only five physically came into the office, we have a total of 24 women microloan clients—17% of our total clients. (For those who didn’t come into the office, either their husbands picked up the fertilizer, or the village organized one or two representatives with trucks to pick up everyone’s fertilizer.) I recall learning that one of the women farmers represents La Cuesta as a village leader. And, in the town of La Unión, another woman simultaneously raises her three daughters, manages her coffee farms, and owns a coffee processing facility. I was impressed by the strength and independence these women show in their leadership roles.

By interacting with these and other farmers during these past few weeks, I have witnessed their unceasing ability to overcome obstacles. Whether faced with economic or social obstacles, they adopt a mentality of not succumbing to defeat—this is not for themselves, but for their family and their children. In every interview and every meeting with the farmers I have had, I see their faces light up as they mention their children, their cousins, and their parents. Through my conversations, I'm continuing to see how the people of La Unión work to support the ones they love. 

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