Thursday, December 15, 2005

Security breach!

Welp, I'm back from the final coffee training event in La Fe. There seems to have been a trend with these things of gradually increasing lameness.... like, IHCAFE started off all nice and planned and organized, and gradually forgot about the project when other things came up. I got to the center a day early due to some misinformation that Lucas Dunnington, my contact with USAID/MIRA, had given me, so I hiked up to a sort-of-nearby aldea called San Luis Planes to visit some other volunteers, a married couple named Kevin and Kathy, that live there. It was a really nice walk (that part of the country is simply gorgeous) and I enjoyed the visit as well. So not a total loss. Then the classes we had yesterday and the day before were like, 50% a repeat of stuff we've had before and 50% new information, and 100% improvised on the spot. It's like they just sent a couple more of their techs down and said "uh, teach the CAFIN group whatever your specialty is". Did somebody actually plan this course out?

So I feel a little disappointed with that, but I still learned some very valuable information in pretty much all the topics I would have liked to except for grafting coffee varieties (and I want to do this in my community). We didn't do coffee nurseries either, but everybody knows how to do that. Well, besides me. :P

The other noteworthy event is that I got my wallet pickpocketed on the bus back from La Fe, or at some point in the journey, I'm not really sure when (hence the title). I discovered its absence when I pulled into the peace corps office in Tegucigalpa this afternoon to pick up my mail and drop something off for Josh. It's damn lucky I decided to stop by here, because I will be able to take care of the necessary steps tomorrow, which is going to Immigration and getting a temporary residence card plus requesting a new one. I didn't have any bank cards or money in the wallet so that is good. I've picked up the habit of carrying money just loose in my front pockets, and I don't even bother bringing my bank card since it's pretty much useless. Apparently what happens when you get things like that stolen is that people buy a crapload of gas with them at a gas station that has credit card pumps, and then sell that gas.

Anyhoo, I was in a pretty crappy mood earlier today but the fact is it could've gone a lot worse (like getting a gun stuck in my face, which has already happened to three people in my training group since August) and the damage is minimal. I also learned an important lesson and I think I'm going to start carrying a "ringer" wallet from now on. I might even use that goofy neck-hanging purse that mom bought when we went to Costa Rica. My faith in humanity was tarnished briefly, but the staff here at the peace corps office is so friendly and helpful, and then I had a great taxi driver who took me to the police station, that I feel better already.

Unless something truly stunning happens I probably won't update again til after some more time back in my site. Love to everybody, and happy holiday season. :)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Politics, Development, and CAFTA

As the title might lead you to believe, I intend to write a bit more than your average news post in this one. I feel I ought to, because the last post I wrote about CAFTA was done with basic ideas but incomplete information. I feel like now I have a better idea how it might affect myself and this country and that got me thinking about some other things. But first, some background information of events during the last few days.

On the 6th, I had a mandatory ´reconnect´ meeting with my fellow training group volunteers in a conference center type place in the mountains near Tegucigalpa. We were up right next to Parque Nacional La Tigra, which seemed really nice and I would love to go back to some day. The reconnect meeting was mainly to share info with the PAM staff on how things have been going, and also to provide feedback on how they can improve training for the next group based on our suggestions. In the next two days, December 7-8, another event took place in the same location called Project Workshop in which another whole PAM training group was there (they have been working for about a year now instead of just four months) and we all discussed our work, ideas, contacts, etc. Two groups of business volunteers were there as well and on the last day we also spent some time talking with them about how we can collaborate with each other on projects.

Around the middle of the second day, a Honduran lady named Jackeline Foglia, a diplomat of some type, showed up to talk to us about what exactly went down during the CAFTA negotiations and what kinds of things would be most relavent to us. She was very good at English and had a sharp sense of American as well as Honduran culture, which lent her observations and opinions on the treaty a substantial amount of credibility. Here are a couple of the things I said before about CAFTA that were incomplete or erroneous:

I thought the country would be flooded with cheap American food products (especially grains) with tariffs gone, which would wreak economic havoc on the campesinos. Jackeline explained to us that, first of all, each item that needed to be was negotiated specifically, with the representatives of Honduras having to make concessions on certain items (like, for example, rice) that were less important to its economy, but sticking it out to the very last on others (like corn) in which they absolutely could not open up to competition because of its economic and cultural importance. So, in short, corn coming from the states is still taxed. So are many basic foods and some other products that are the most vital to Honduras´s economy. Also, the majority of trade goods between the US and Honduras were already untaxed. We had pretty free trade before and made it more free while setting specific regulations on certain important items.

I also said something along the lines that environmental and labor standards would take a hit. This is not exactly true either, according to Jackeline. The country, as per its part of the agreement in the treaty, will now be forced to abide by the labor and environmental standards it has on the books (and while labor laws still aren´t the greatest, its actual environmental standards are extremely strict). The problem at this moment is, there isn´t hardly any enforcement of those standards. The government can´t afford to. The companies can´t afford to suddenly start adopting those standards either, especially the environmental ones, so they will be given a certain period of time to gradually bring themselves up to speed.

The idea that big american corporate interests pushed this treaty through has a flaw as well. Trade with Honduras accounts for less than either .01% or .1% of the United States economy (I forget which it is, but both those numbers are small.) In the very best case scenario, that might triple. It still isn´t hardly even a blip on our radar. Honduras, on the other hand, depends heavily on the United States to buy the stuff they produce and to invest in their businesses. Their economy in fact would be screwed without us. I´m not saying this is a good thing, but that´s how it is right now. Therefore, they have much more to gain.

Some things still make me uneasy. If Honduras is unable or unwilling to really force adoption of its existing environmental and labor standards, then what? The government is not going to magically become competent and effective enough to do this kind of thing with the signing of the treaty. Supposedly they will be punished if they don´t comply, but I don´t think anybody really wants to do that. Furthermore, the people or organizations that will have to monitor corporations and the system for doing so sounded kind of dodgy to me. Jackeline talked about corporations self-monitoring under the pressure of public opinion and I must admit we snickered at her.

As part of an upcoming strategy to take advantage of the treaty and keep Honduras from getting more left behind by the rest of the world, and helped by the recent debt condonation, there is supposedly a plan in the works to start immediately investing that extra money in some of the most needed areas, including communications (mostly telephone lines) and other necessities of infrastructure, education and technical training, and advanced technology. The timeline for all these improvements, and the point at which the changes of the treaty will supposedly have reached their maximum effect on the country, is 16 years. But in my opinion this is making some extremely optimistic assumptions about the functionality of the government to carry out the steps. For one, I just don´t see how these plans can be realized on a timeline like 16 years when almost the entire government switches every four years. That´s the way the system is here. Government entities (like COHDEFOR, for instance, which is in charge of protected areas) usually fire almost everybody if the ruling political party changes after an election. This is going to happen this year because their was a big swing in power from the Nacionalistas to Liberales with the elections that just took place. I guess I just feel like some basic, vital changes must take place within the government if it is to take advantage of the coming changes, and not be taken advantage OF. Based on past history it is hard to buy this.

So ok, a few more facts and a lot more speculations. How might this affect me? There is in development what Jackeline referred to as ¨La estrategia para la reducciòn de la pobreza¨ which means a strategy to reduce poverty. Some of the extra money from the debt condonation is going to be invested in this and I think it will include such things as better rural health centers and education, better rural communications and infrastructure, and a lot of pushing on the small farmers to increase their technical knowledge and add value to their products. I asked Jackeline if there was included any kind of emphasis on sustainable/organic farming or diversification, and she said yes, so that is good. But there will unavoidably be a move toward urbanization and an economy based more on services than goods, which is where the most developed countries in the world are right now.

Is this bad? In the unplanned, immediate short term, it causes social problems in cities and is hard on small producers. They can´t compete in the global market just selling potatoes anymore. You have to invent a new flavor of potato chips, market it successfully, run your business, etc etc which are things that are, lamentably, far out of reach for the average campesino both economically and culturally. I feel like the most important areas of change in rural areas will be education about new techniques and products in agriculture and a move away from traditional practices so that every square foot of land is as productive as possible in a sustainable way. Another key point is communication. They need to be in active contact with the outside world and its changes. And finally, most important of all in my opinion, is organization. One small organic coffee producer has nothing, nothing whatsoever to offer the world market. 50 small to medium sized organic coffee producers, among which are a few people that have some professional skills, and can make contacts and help them market their product, can find a very nice niche indeed. The spirit and awareness of the power of cooperatives in my area can, I feel, help immensely.

I feel like I finally have a better idea ¨where things are going¨ in terms of development here (well, idealistically anyhow) which helps me think about what needs to be done in order to get there. No doubt I will continue to revise these ideas throughout my service, but the CAFTA talk was really a breakthrough moment for me. Besides the economic concerns, I also got to musing about something that has always bothered me a bit about development in the world and which many other people simply don´t seem to notice. This is what I perceive as a loss of culture associated with growing up to be bigger, faster, richer, and more competetive. In other words, more like the U.S. The more TVs they have here, the more cards and CEOs and malls, the more they will be inundated with our culture. It´s more powerful and insidious than any overt hostilities, that´s for sure. It´s just hard to know what the right thing to do is - help a culture attain the same kinds of things we have, and in the process assimilate themselves into our ideas, or simply leave them alone to their own problems? Which is less moral?

It brings to mind the example of native americans in the United States. I feel fairly confident that the persistent poverty and social problems on reservations are propagated by the ¨island¨ situation that native americans are in, encouraged to dependency and inadequacy by excluding them from the society all around them. But, then, what should we DO? Any decision we make will have to be done, to some extent, parternalistically by us because we´re the only ones with the power to do anything. Maybe they want their native culture and ways. Maybe they just want to have the same opportunities and difficulties as us. Maybe, like everyone else in the world, they´re not exactly sure what they want. Nobody really does, after all.

Getting this abstract usually reminds me of how little such high-minded ideas really mean to me. Real human contacts with people and my own personal interests are more important than that crap. So here I am, enjoying the hell out of myself, learning more than I ever have in my life (the most important reason why the experience has been so fun) and once in awhile (but not too often) questioning myself.


I just got off a bus from Tegucigalpa a couple hours ago. I´m going to go visit another volunteer in this town (San Lorenzo, which is just west of Choluteca) and attend the wedding of a good friend from my site this evening. Tomorow I travel back north, past Teguc, to go to the third and final of this series of coffee training events in La Fe. I´ll be heading back to my site finally the 17th or so of December, around which time I hope to have another update written here (maybe just some basic news stuff). Hope everyone is having a great Christmas. :)


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Thanksgiving etc

Like, whoa, been far too long since I updated my blog. Sorry yall, I can´t fully blame it on being busy this time but that was certainly a part. But this update will more than make up for it, oh yes indeed.

I´ve been up to various things since the last posting, but the best part of the time between then and now was Thanksgiving. The volunteers in the south organized a big get-together in the nearby town of San Marcos de Colon, which is a very different place compared to the rest of southern Honduras. It´s clean, the climate is cool because it´s at almost 1000 meters (compared to the low valleys that make up most of the region) and the people there are pretty rich. None of these things really contributed to the experience for me, but I can see why other volunteers like the town so much.

Anyways, we all convened at the house of two older married volunteers, Chuck (a guy working in the same project as me, Protected Areas Management) and Hortensia, who works in Municipal Development. They met during Chuck´s first tour of duty in the Peace Corps in El Salvador, which was way back in like 1974, even before Dad was in Guatemala. They have been living in southernwestern Oregon for the last 20 years or so, and I guess they got bored. Chuck is a cool guy, a Kentucky native and very gregarious. He also works with a organic coffee cooperative, after which the cooperative I work with more or less modeled itself, and has been going to these training events in La Fe as well.

I was the very first guest to arrive, early in the afternoon on the day before Thanksgiving. I brought baker´s chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla, then I went and bought a crapload of fruit and milk and some sugar with which I made licuados (smoothies) for everybody on the morning of Thanksgiving. The very best mix we discovered was papaya, banana, mandarin orange, and vanilla. Absolutely awesome.

Everyone else besides me either brought a dish or the ingredients to make it on Thanksgiving. We cooked all day up until about 5 pm, and early on there was a crisis about only having one turkey for 30 people, but two more miraculously showed up. With all the other food, it turned out that one large turkey was enough anyhow. We had an awesome quiche, a grits dish that kicked ass, mashed potatoes, gravy, a little cranberry sauce, biscuits, stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, a hot cheesy broccoli dish, and undoubtedly a few other things I´m forgetting. For dessert there was chocolate pecan pie, pumpkin pie, cheesecake type pie made from zipote, a common fruit in the south (this was just amazing) and apple pie. A lot of people also brought wine, which was really nice. I felt bad for not thinking of this. All in all we got ´er done right in terms of food. Besides that it was pretty much a normal peace corps social gathering, everybody enjoying the company of a few gringos for awhile. After Thanksgiving, I have met pretty much all the other volunteers in my region now, and there were actual several from other parts of the country. For example, Josh, one of the other volunteers from my training group that lives near Tegucigalpa, showed up. He did the apple pie, bless his heart.

Many of the visitors stuck around to take a hike up to a waterfall in the mountains nearby, but I had to leave super duper early in the morning the next day (I got up at 3:30 to catch the first bus leaving town for Choluteca) because of a meeting related to a new project I´m working on, which brings me to the next big subject of this blog entry.

The week before Thanksgiving, Isaí asked me to participate in a meeting of this group of people, a ´comission´ apparently, from different parts of my municipality. We were to provide some data for a big project that was coming to the region from the Banco Centroamericano de Integraciòn Econòmica, or BCIE. I guess that would be Central American Bank of Economic Integration. While I was at the last coffee training event in La Fe, they had called together a huge group of people from the municipality and, I suppose, chosen the members for comissions in five different subjects: Health, Infrastructure, Services and something or other, Production, and Natural Resources/Environment. I was meeting with the comission of Natural Resources.

The basic idea of this project, called Active Citizenship Foundation, was to bring a set amount of funds that were provided by the European Union to each of seven municipalities that were around the border of Nicaragua. Each Municipality basically had $500,000 to divide between projects proposed by the five different comissions with their respective themes. After the preliminary meeting I attended with the commision of Natural Resources, there followed a three-day training event in Choluteca for everybody (25 people from each municipality, 7 municipalities) about how to plan a project and write the proposal. Really, most of the time was spent in helping the comissions brainstorm projects by identifying the most important and commonly perceived problems in their area, and then following that with a project that could address such problems. Then we had to meet with all the other comissions from our municipality and prioritize projects and appropriating a reasonable amount of funds to each one prioritized. My comission ended up with just about exactly $100,000 for a project of reforestation and agroforestry.

After that, we had to outline our basic ideas for how to execute the project and present them to one of the techs from BCIE, which was that meeting the day after Thanksgiving. In that moment we also had to encounter an agency to execute the project, because the five community members from all over the municipality who all had their own work would never be able to pull off such a thing. Since three out of the five comission members didn´t show up for that particular meeting, Isaí managed to get the job for his coffee cooperative. The other guy on the comission that actually showed up voted for a different non-governmental organization to do it, which incidentally he´s supposedly also involved with somehow. The BCIE tech asked the mayor of our municipality, who happened to be around, to cast the deciding vote. The mayor also happens to be a coffee producer and member of the cooperative, so he voted for us. I don´t know how one would even begin to untangle the conflicts of interest present, but I do believe that the cooperative is objectively a better choice because it is a local, community organization, and can execute the project a lot more cheaply because of its location and because there are a lot of cooperative members who can be paid less than a certified engineer but nevertheless have all the skills and knowledge necessary to help with the project. And of course, because they´ve got me! And I work for free!

Our plan, as it stands at the moment, is to start by inviting three known community leaders from each of the 16 aldeas of the municipality to a meeting and present the concept and plan of the project there. Those who are interested in participating will go back and present the project to their respective communities, do an inicial survey, and analize the community needs with respect to the area in which the project will work. Then they come back and present us the information, and we plan everything more specifically from there.

The communities that make it that far will be provided with funds for labor, materials, and technical assistance in building tree nurseries in their own communities. They will have to take a pretty fair hand in the management and care of the nurseries, because we´d never be able to reach much of the municipio otherwise. But this is also good because it involves the community in the project.

We want to present it as a multi-faceted natural resources management project, with agroforestry as its central feature, with the purpose of reforesting important watersheds and vulnerable areas, as well as diversifying people´s production by getting them to plant grafted fruit trees and valuable wood trees. According to the plans we´ve made, this will supposedly be going on in various stages until after I leave the area, so I can stop worrying about not having enough to do. Phew! Glad to get that weight off my mind.

More recently, I´ve been spending a lot of time helping the cooperative write up this proposal that they supposedly have to turn in a rough draft of by the 8th of this month. We spent three solid days grinding it out (the motherBLEEPer is 19 pages long) and I came down to El Corpus today to search for some missing information about the population of the municipality. So I guess that brings us to this moment, in which I failed to find such information but supposedly it will be available on Monday. Too bad I will have left by then for the obligatory Peace Corps ¨reconnect¨ meeting, where I go to Tegucigalpa for three days to meet with my superiors and convince them that I´ve been doing something. Somehow I don´t think it will be too difficult.

I don´t know if Uncle Tim reads this blog? But I would love to fax him a copy of our proposal when it´s finished and see what he thinks if he´s got the time to check it out. This will probably be after I get back from my next series of traveling adventures including the reconnect and another coffee training event, until the 16th of December. The final draft of the project is due the 15th of January so there is plenty of time yet.

To finish up with the news, one of the other things I have been doing lately is working with the Patronato (community development organization) of a nearby aldea, San Juan Arriba, to type up a profile of a totally unrelated project that they want to submit to the Embassy of Japan for some funds to bring electricity to their community. I spent like a day and a half with that. I also spent a day helping one of the local teachers review algebra and geometry so she can take a test to pursue more studies at a university, and some other time doing coffee-related stuff with the cooperative. It´s a darn good thing the school year is over, I tell you what.

When I was telling Maya about all this crapola on the phone, she said it makes her feel like she should be doing something more worthwhile with her own life. I of course think that what she is doing is every bit as worthwhile, but this really got me to thinking, not only about her, but about the paradox of development work.

The thing is, my ultimate goal here is to help the community sustainably improve itself, and work on projects that they will continue to be involved in after I leave. This requires that they are capable of managing such projects, and in order for this to happen they first have to think they are capable of it. Unfortunately, it seems that by my mere presence here, people end up getting the idea that they could not do this without my help. Just paternalistically handing out stuff to people as do missionary groups and various NGOs is bad, but doing work for people that they could just as easily do themselves amounts to pretty much the same thing and is in some ways even worse. So I have to try to work alongside the community, but by virtue of whatever abilities I have to share in said subject and the fact that I do everything without pay, people end up getting ideas about their inferiority in those abilities and hence the paradox.

Now I find out that somehow at a distance of 2000 miles, I´m even making my sister feel like her own interests aren´t worthwhile to some extent. I have therefore concluded that the best way to improve the world is to do absolutely as little as possible in my life, forcing people to rely on themselves and create their own self esteem when they realize how superior they are to me. This has the added advantge of relieving me from any work or responsibility, forever. Who knew that making the world a better place could be so easy? ;)