AKRON, Pa – Like the biblical widow who faithfully offered her mite, a tiny Brethren in Christ (BIC) association in the hot, arid, mountainous area of southern Honduras has been working selflessly with neighbors in spite of growing violence and changing weather patterns.
Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world according to 2011 U.N. figures – 82 per 100,000 inhabitants per year – and the prevailing lawlessness caused the U.S. Peace Corps to withdraw its volunteers from the Central American country in January.
With Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) support, the Social Development Committee of the Brethren in Christ churches in Honduras, known as CODESO, is teaching farmers how to store crops, providing microloans and offering agricultural training – all to develop a more reliable food supply and income.
In Choluteca and el Paraiso departments (like states), where CODESO focuses its work, storing corn is not the norm for many farmers. Without a silo, farmers often are forced to sell their entire crop at a low price before the corn is harvested, said Andres Zorrilla, an MCC representative for Honduras, from Ephrata, Pa. Then farmers need to buy food and seed corn.
So CODESO, based in the city of Orocuina, Choluteca, has encouraged 20 groups of six to eight farmers to work together to build metal silos, eight-feet tall by six-feet in diameter, and store their grain together.
“By having your crop stored, you can eat from that storage and sell when the market’s good, but also have seed grain for the next crop,” said Zorrilla.
The silos provide a more secure food supply for participating families. Some are church members and some are not. And, when rain and heavy wind destroyed bean and corn crops two weeks before harvest last October, farmers opened the silos and shared all that they had with their neighbors.
The “unprompted generosity” was amazing to see, said Zorrilla. They were giving their food and income assurance away, without knowing how they would replenish it.
With MCC funds, CODESO then purchased local seed corn to plant in April for the farmers who shared from their silos, said Zorrilla. In addition, CODESO gave enough food for the lean months of January and February to about 5,300 of the most vulnerable people – families with many children, families with disabled members, single mother households and senior citizens.
“We were able to hand out over 20,000 pounds of corn,” CODESO coordinator Adolfo Nuñez, a BIC pastor in Orocuina, said in an April phone interview. “Now not a single grain remains.”
Meanwhile CODESO is developing its own grain bank capacity, building silos that will be used to store grain that can be distributed during a crisis.
CODESO leaders fear that annual cycles of drought and flood will continue in southern Honduras instead of the once-a-decade flood that was a pattern in the past. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 served as a disaster “detonator,” carving out new gullies, rivers and flood-prone areas, Nuñez said.
CODESO consists of pastors and lay leaders of BIC churches, including Nuñez, who have energy and ideas for helping alleviate the suffering of families, regardless of religious affiliation.
Nuñez is especially enthusiastic about the success of CODESO’s microloans, also supported by MCC. With a small investment, about 25 single mothers in Orocuina have opened tiny shops in their homes, enabling them to generate income while watching their children.
“Many of the women have dug themselves out of debt and have prospered in less time than anticipated,” Nuñez said. CODESO expected to help 100 families begin microbusinesses within three years; he now believes the organization will be able to help 300 families within that time.
To mitigate the region’s vulnerability to drought and flooding, CODESO also is promoting practices to improve the degraded land and protect watersheds from erosion – helping farmers plant trees and make organic compost, for example.
In the future, MCC will partner with CODESO to carry out a pilot conservation agriculture project in southern Honduras. Conservation agriculture is a method of farming, used in MCC programs worldwide, that revitalizes soil and increases crop yields.
CODESO implements this ambitious program despite the climate of intimidation and violence, often attributed to drug trafficking and poverty.
“There’s an overabundance of weaponry; Orocuina’s three policemen are facing assault rifles and grenades,” Zorrilla said. “They’re as scared as everyone else.”
Ordinary citizens, including church members, are not immune. Nuñez and other CODESO volunteers have been threatened; one was assaulted. Nuñez’s cousin was murdered and his uncle forced to flee the department.
Despite the situation, Nuñez said Brethren in Christ congregations in southern Honduras are “dynamic and committed, recognizing that God is active and all-powerful.”
Emily Will is a freelance writer, living in Frederick, Md.