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? ;)