OROCUINA, Honduras — Hurricane Mitch didn’t just bring a devastating storm to Honduras in 1998, it also brought a host of relief and development organizations. When gangs and violence rose after the turn of the century, most of those groups left.

The Brethren in Christ Comité de Desarrollo Social (Social Development Committee, or CODESO) was already in place before the storm, and it is one of the few organizations that stayed. The Orocuina-based development organization works at sustainable food security and family empowerment near the border with Nicaragua.

The Brethren in Christ expanded their work after 1998, doing things like giving material aid, building houses and constructing cisterns. Six years ago it moved away from aid and into teaching sustainable practices in places the government and nonprofit organizations don’t want to work.

Orocuina is one of those places. Tucked in a remote corner near the Pacific Ocean, it is hot, dry and an attractive route for U.S.-bound drug traffickers avoiding authorities.

Jose Cipriano Orsorto los Hornos, left, a farmer participating in CODESO trainings, speaks with Cesar Flores, Mennonite Central Committee area director for Central America and Haiti, at Orocuina Brethren in Christ Church.MWR photo/Tim Huber

Land they are stuck with

Farming families work by hand on tiny patches of steep, rocky slopes. Corn and milo plants, each tended individually by hand, rise in places most farmers would avoid. It’s the land they are stuck with.

“Farming is what we have. If our children leave, they will be killed,” said Gertrulis Mendoza about her family.

Fellow farmer Jose Cipriano Orsorto los Hornos offered praise to God that his community is affected by gangs to a lesser degree than the rest of Honduras — but only because it is so remote and there are so few people.

“If you go into a community where people don’t know you, they’ll kill you,” he said.

Gertrulis Mendoza, left, and Julia Aguilar are two women participating in CODESO conservation agriculture trainings.MWR photo/Tim Huber

Tradition dictates plant material left after harvest be burned to kill pests. CODESO works with farmers to develop ground cover, a mulching process that can take four years but ultimately preserves precious ground moisture.

“Before we just planted. Now we dig a hole, add organic material like manure, and when we water it just sinks in and is absorbed,” said Gertrulis Mendoza, whose family adopted the principles.

In addition to training, CODESO has provided funds for purchasing manure. The organization has also provided “silos” repurposed from used oil drums for protecting precious harvests from rodents, and also creating the option of saving grain to get a better price.

A pilot project two years ago won many converts, but then a drought set in. Last year looked optimistic until November brought a new kind of aphid that is resistant to pesticides, turning promising stalks black and wilted.

Social Development Committee coordinator Adolfo Nuñez inspects corn and sorghum wilted by a new kind of aphid that is resistant to pesticides. The insects secrete a substance that grows mold, killing the mature plants.MWR photo/Tim Huber

“The problem is, we have so little rain,” said CODESO coordinator Adolfo Nuñez, who is also president of the national BIC church. “A farmer will put in all the work and not have a harvest — perhaps investing two months of work and only harvesting 50 to 60 pounds of corn.

“It’s a lot of work for few results, but they do realize it works well with sufficient rain.”

In 2016, CODESO stepped in with food to help families live until the next harvest. Mennonite Central Committee funded donations of beans, rice and corn and provided canned meat. MCC and CODESO have long worked together to ensure families have an adequate food supply.

“We have to work hard just to bring food to our tables,” said Jose Cipriano Orsorto los Hornos, a farmer who is working to use CODESO’s techniques. “We want to thank you so much for the food provided.”

Jocelyn Carrasco’s family makes hammocks they can sell for about $30 each. Social Development Committee microloans mean they can purchase their own supplies, increasing their earnings by 10 times.MWR photo/Tim Huber

Micro approach

CODESO also works with single mothers, teaching them how to raise livestock or distributing MCC-funded small-business microloans.

Up a meandering road into the hills above town, 10 households weave hammocks by hand.

Dinora Carrasco and four other women live in one shack, where even her 5-year-old daughter Jocelyn helps make the hammocks when she isn’t at kindergarten.

Nuñez said before the loans the women had no money to buy materials, so they made them for a merchant who paid a little less than $3 per hammock, each of which takes three days to make.

With the loans, the women buy thread that they weave into rope using an old bicycle wheel fixed to a clothesline post. More colours means a more attractive hammock that can be sold without a middleman for about $30.

When Nuñez and his staff aren’t assisting families with practical help, he reaches out to his community’s spiritual needs.

“There are areas in Orocuina you cannot enter because of gangs, and the gospel is prohibited. It is seen as communism, and pastors are chased out with machetes,” he said. “There is misinformation done by the Catholic church, and the gang members know when the gospel arrives, things change.”

He said the BIC’s message of laying down weapons isn’t accepted well, because those are the tools of power.

“You can go to neighbourhoods in Orocuina where there is nothing to eat, but there are piles of expensive weapons,” Nuñez said. “All the other development and relief organizations pulled out because workers were assaulted and women were raped.”

“I recently visited the most dangerous area in Orocuina. I was not afraid. I don’t know why, I just wasn’t. Someone had to go.”

Associate editor of the Mennonite Weekly Review Tim Huber participated in an MCC learning tour to Honduras in November 2016. This article was originally published in the January 2, 2017 issue of the publication and has been reviewed recently to confirm timeliness and accuracy.

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