Friday, March 22, 2013

It's school deworming time in San Pedro Sula

After more than a year in Honduras, I remain in a state of near-constant amazement.
San Pedro Sula is the country’s largest city, with glitzy malls - way nicer than any in Victoria, our old hometown - and all the North American fast food chains.
Take this, you'll feel better
But El Tiempo reported this week that students at César López Pérez kicked off the first day of deworming, 2013.
Some 700 kids lined up for the chewable tablets, thanks to the municipality’s Healthy Schools Program. By the end of the campaign, 96,000 students in 344 schools will have been dewormed.
It’s the fourth year for the effort, supported by Operation Blessing, a U.S.-based charity/aid organization.
Deworming is likely a good thing. (You can never be sure, I’ve learned. It’s always possible someone’s brother-in-law has the monopoly on Worm-Be-Gone tablets and is making big money.)
And I might not have thought twice if the campaign had been in a rural community, where water and food supplies would likely be suspect.
But the idea of mass deworming campaign for kids in the country’s largest urban centre is a pretty stark reminder of how far Honduras has to go.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lib MLA: 'Why would you rent from somebody who didn’t support you?'

“If you contact every MLA in this province... find out if they don’t rent from supporters.” 
I’ve been surprised this story and interview with Vernon-Monashee MLA Eric Foster hasn’t attracted more attention.
Especially his claim that MLAs routinely make a point of renting office space - with tax dollars - from people who contribute to their campaign.
Foster has been criticized by the auditor general for having taxpayers pick up the bills for a near-total renovation of the building he chose for his constituency office.
Especially as the building was bought just before the election by a family that contributed to his campaign. One of the co-owners was also hired by Foster as his constituency assistant.
It looks bad, especially as Foster rejected the less costly office occupied by his Liberal predecessor.
Taxpayers cover leasehold improvements for constituency offices - usually things like creating a meeting room or replacing worn-out flooring.
But Foster acknowledges that he chose a building that was bsically a shell. Taxpayers, the auditor general noted, paid for “purchasing and installing a complete forced air heating/cooling system including a four-ton heat pump and 75,000 BTU furnace, replacing the building's wiring system, installing vapour barriers in exterior walls and purchasing and installing a new double paned 18-foot by nine-foot storefront window and new plumbing including gas piping." 
That’s a great deal for the landlords. Their property is worth a lot more thanks to major renovations.
Not so good for taxpayers. 
Foster talked with Marshall Jones of Info-Tel news about the deal. The legislature comptroller approved it, he says.
Asked about the appearance of preferential treatment for a donor to his campaign, Foster was unrepentant.
“Why would you rent from somebody who didn’t support you?” he asked.
“If you contact every MLA in this province and ask them who they rent from, find out if they don’t rent from supporters,” he said.
Any business person is going to buy from someone who supports their business, he added.
Except, of course, the businesspeople are spending their own money.
Anon makes a good point in the comments.
If you want to spend more than $25,000 on goods or services in government, you are required to go through a competitive bidding process. It’s a away of getting the best deal and avoiding favoritism or corruption.
But MLAs don’t believe the rules that apply to everyone else in government should apply to them.
Which inevitably raises the question - why not?

Monday, March 18, 2013

La Moskitia: The road less travelled for a reason

Part of the regular route to La Moskitia (Jody Paterson)
Tourists don’t much go to La Moskitia.
The vast rainforest in southern Honduras, bordered by the Caribbean and Nicaragua, is an extraordinary natural wonder. It includes the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, jungles, lagoons and miles of untouched beach.  It’s home to Garifuna, Miskito and Pech communities, with distinct cultures. 
But all that empty space also makes it attractive to narcos shipping cocaine from South America to U.S. markets. The risk of running into narcotrafficantes is tiny, but it’s not good for tourism.
And more significantly, it’s really hard to get there, and to get around. 
We finished a meeting in Tela, a great Honduran beach town, and set out for Tocoa, midway to La Moskitia. Seven hours later - the last stretch hair-raising as our driver tried to pass anything that moved in our bus, long retired from some U.S. school district - we arrived.
The next morning we piled into a pickup headed for Batalla. That’s the only public transportation. Trucks run from Tocoa, with passengers and freight. It’s about $20 to sit inside, $15 to ride in the truck bed, crammed in with half-a-dozen people, propane tanks, crates and mysterious bags and boxes. 
That’s a lot of money for people here. Workers in the region’s vast African palm plantations are paid $5 or $6 a day.
Our destination, Palacios, was just across the lagoon from Batalla. (We were bound for La Moskitia because CASM, the organization my partner works with, has projects there.)
The first stretch was a paved highway. Then a ridiculously bad dirt road. Then almost an hour on tracks running ruler- straight through African palm plantations. 
The plantations are eerie. Rows of palm trees, planted in a perfect pattern, with no other plant life. Palm oil is hot right now, for food products and biofuel, and there is a rush to plant more and more trees. That has led to violent land clashes between powerful industrial interests and campesinos who claim the same land. Some 88 people have died in the last two years.
We came to a narrow lagoon crossing. There was no bridge. A small wooden platform, mounted on plastic barrels, nudged the shore. Boys put down two 12-inch planks and, after picking up four more passengers, we bumped onto the boat. A rope was tied to trees on each bank. The boys clambered on the ferry and hauled us across.
And then the road got strange. We were beside the Caribbean. A trail through the sand dunes led to the beach. The truck bounced through the dunes, across the beach, struggling and pitching through the sand, veering out into the waves to cross streams flowing into the ocean.
And at the end of the road, all the travel is by boat.
All part of the adventure for us. 
But a major barrier to any efforts to any economic development in the region.
We visited Plaplaya, a Garifuna community of about 800 people on a strip of land between the lagoon and miles of deserted Caribbean beaches. (The Garifuna are a culture made up of South American Indians and African slaves who blended on St. Vincent and were exiled to Roatan by the British in 1797, eventually settling along the coast. They’ve maintained their own language and culture.)
Planning the wine business
Plaplaya has a school, and the men catch fish and the women garden, especially yucca, a staple food, but there is little non-subsistence economic activity. 
CASM is working with a group of about 15 women on a microbusiness project. They each contribute $5 a month to create capital, attend workshops on rights and leadership and business. Their plan is to start making wine from the sea grapes that grow wild along the beach.
It’s a good idea. But getting the wine to an outside market will take a 45-minute boat ride and a four-hour truck ride. 
Making a sales trip to Trujillo, where there are tourists who might buy the wine, will require the same trip, plus another hour on a bus. And the roundtrip will cost more than $50 and require an overnight stay - a pretty big hit for a co-op that is raising $75 each month in working capital.
The isolation isn’t all bad, of course. Other Garifuna communities in Honduras are facing battles for their land as developers and agricultural companies covet the beachfront communities and land. 
But Plaplaya and other communities in the region - and the 80,000 residents - pay a significant price for their isolation.
The main street in Plaplaya (Yet there is one new SUV, despite no road access)
Footnote: Transportation is always a problem for remote communities. But it’s a much broader issue in Honduras. The construction sector claims 70 per cent of the road system is in disrepair, and it certainly seems that way. Maintenance barely exists - unless you count the people on the highway shovelling dirt into a pothole and holding out a bucket for drivers’ contributions. And most work has been stalled because the government hasn’t paid contractors. (Partly because of disagreements over the work, partly because there is no money.)