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HONDURAS: Indigenous Cooperatives Cultivate Success

Cooperative members at the APROHFI wholesale centre select the best potatoes to sell to supermarkets. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

Cooperative members at the APROHFI wholesale centre select the best potatoes to sell to supermarkets. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

INTIBUCÁ, Honduras, Dec 8 2011 (IPS) - Thanks to the quality and freshness of their produce, indigenous Lenca farmers in western Honduras are regular suppliers of seven supermarket chains. This year they won the National Environmental Prize, in the community initiatives category.

In the mountains of the department (province) of Intibucá at a height of 1,850 metres above sea level, some 101 families live in the villages of Monquecagua, Togopala, Dulce Nombre and Candelaria. These communities are home to the country’s poorest ethnic groups.

Every day the small-scale farmers begin work at dawn, tending their potatoes, carrots, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, cilantro and other vegetables. Maintaining their ancestral traditions, their plots always include maize and beans, the staple foods of Hondurans.

A little over two years ago, they initiated an agricultural business value chain, and it has transformed their view of their future prospects. They were supported by the Access to Land Programme (PACTA – Programa de Acceso a la Tierra) of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the state National Agrarian Institute (INA).

They are confident they can overcome poverty, as María Cleofes Méndez, from Togopala, said, proudly showing us round her home on the lower slopes of a mountain, which she has renovated, changing it from a thatched-roof wattle and daub hut to a cosy home with solid walls and a tiled floor.

“The land gave me this, and the technical assistance provided by the PACTA people has allowed us to harvest all year round,” Méndez, a 49-year-old indigenous woman who is the president of her community’s farmers’ cooperative, told IPS.

She said everyone’s work in the community, the work of both men and women, is equally important. “There are no differences, because we all want to fight for better development,” she said.

“Before, we had nothing but poverty. Now you can see the difference: we have improved our houses and we invest our profits in the family, sending our children to school, because it is not enough to just carry on making furrows in the earth with a hoe,” Méndez said proudly.

Héctor García is one of the agricultural technicians working closely with the indigenous community. He, too, is a Lenca, and his wages are paid by the local cooperative. He is very enthusiastic about helping his own people, and even more so about the way the cooperative is using drip irrigation.

He also expressed concern for the environment. Indigenous people “know the value of the land,” García said.

“I like this project, because the farmers are producing without using fuel, and instead using what nature provides, in small natural reservoirs they have built,” said García, who was on a visit to the area when he spoke to IPS.

Adán Bonilla, the regional coordinator of the project for Intibucá, explained that in order to take advantage of local water resources, and learning from a similar project in Brazil, they decided to build small dams and a pumping system that is not reliant on fuel, but uses gravity to distribute the irrigation water.

This system has saved the Lenca farmers more than 40,000 dollars a year, which they used to spend on fuel. “They have learned to optimise both natural and economic resources, for instance in the way they built the dams, which are made with several linings to allow cleaning every two weeks,” Bonilla told IPS,

The water is pumped to storage tanks made of geomembranes – impermeable synthetic liners used with earth or rocks to contain fluids. Afterwards it flows into smaller containers, where it is mixed with fertiliser and is conveyed to the roots of the plants by drip irrigation.

In Monquecagua, Salvadora Domínguez told IPS that it took three months to build the dam. “We worked from Monday to Sunday, come rain or come shine.”

“They have shown us how to clean and maintain the reservoirs, and we have organised in an irrigation board, where every member pays 20 lempiras (nearly one dollar) a month, to keep the pump in good condition,” she said.

In Monquecagua, which means “water mountain” in the Lenca language, the dam is located nearly a kilometre away from the pump. The terrain is inhospitable, covered with thick undergrowth, and the paths are uncomfortably narrow, testifying to the difficulties the indigenous people had to overcome to build their reservoir. There are no vehicles, so everything had to be carried up on foot or muleback, Domínguez said.

But the effort was worth it. Their produce now goes to a wholesale centre belonging to the Intibucá Association of Fruit and Vegetable Producers (APROHFI), and from there to seven large supermarket chains, including a U.S. franchise that operates in Tegucigalpa.

“This has allowed us to avoid relying so much on intermediaries, and we are also offering top quality produce,” she said.

“It hasn’t been easy to get where we are now, but we are proud to know that these supermarkets are turning to us to find out if we are able to supply them with our produce, rather than ordering imported goods,” Domingo Paz, the head of APROHFI, told IPS.

At the wholesale centre, the produce is processed and classified, and then sent on to its destination by refrigerator truck. “We never thought we would come so far. We had a more limited vision, but now our dream is to set up a processing plant, to provide consumers with a more sophisticated product,” said Paz, smiling.

Raúl Alemán, the national supervisor of PACTA/FAO projects, said this network of agricultural businesses is a kind of public-private partnership, with financing coming from the participants as well as strategic partners who believe in this kind of development.

“Now they can get credit from high street and second-tier banks. We facilitated the processes, and we can see how this productive chain has not only changed their lives, but has also ensured food security while protecting the environment and fomenting local development,” Alemán told IPS.

One source of credit is the Foundation for the Development of Honduras (FUNED), a microfinance NGO. In Intibucá its manager, Alex Guzmán, is pleased with the support they have given these indigenous farmers.

The Lenca people of Intibucá won the National Environmental Prize, awarded by the environment ministry and private companies. Part of the prize money, 4,500 dollars, was divided up among the members of the cooperative, part was invested in production, and part went towards creating a small fund for educational scholarships.

* This article was produced with support from FAO.

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