Honduras: People's participation brings food security

Ten years ago, farmers in the department of Lempira in Honduras could barely produce enough maize, beans and sorghum to feed their families. In 1998, when Hurricane Mitch hit the country, the same farmers provided tonnes of emergency food aid to their fellow citizens in other parts of the country.

The credit for this dramatic turn-around goes to a rural development and food security project implemented by FAO, which introduced sustainable farming methods. More importantly, by emphasizing the involvement of the beneficiaries, it proved that local participation is the key ingredient in development.

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"Development is really a question of the people themselves managing their own resources," says Ian Cherrett, FAO's Chief Technical Advisor at the Lempira Sur project. "If there is no respect for this principle, if the people don't feel that their needs are being taken into account, you really don't have the possibility for a sustainable development process."

The department of Lempira, with a population of 100,000, is one of the poorest and most isolated regions of Honduras, located in hilly terrain close to the border with El Salvador. In 1990, when the Lempira Sur project was begun, 72 percent of the people lived below the poverty line, and malnutrition was chronic. The soil was poor, yields were low, and erosion and drought were common due to the slash-and-burn farming system, which forced the farmers to find and clear new plots of land every few years.

Identifying needs and developing methods
The Lempira Sur project was initiated by FAO at the request of the Honduran Government with funding from the Dutch Government. Its main goal was to ensure food security by developing sustainable farming methods in the context of a broad agroforestry system. Twelve hundred small-scale farmers and their families in 84 villages were the direct beneficiaries, but as the project has expanded the lives of many more people have improved because of it.

Right from the preliminary stage of the project, the people themselves were at the centre of identifying their needs and problems. Through meetings and interviews, farmers and project extension workers determined that the main problem was the degeneration of the soil because of severe water run-off resulting from the slash-and-burn farming system, which had been used for generations. As a result, crop yields had fallen dramatically.

Prior to the project's start, some of the local farmers had experimented with planting trees to prevent run-off and improve soil fertility. The farmers and the project's young extension workers built on these initiatives, and in the mid-1990s introduced an agroforestry system based on interspersing three different levels of crops.

When a number of farmers adopted the new method, they had a pleasant surprise: their yields of maize and beans increased 50 percent on average within a few years. (To read more about the new farming system, click here.)

Despite the good results, many farmers were skeptical. The big breakthrough came in 1997 when an El Niño-associated drought hit the area. The crops on the farms using the new method withstood the drought. The others did not. Since that time, 80 percent of the farmers in the area have adopted the agroforestry system.

As a result the production of maize and beans has almost doubled. And now the farmer families do not only eat more, they also have a surplus of 30 percent to 50 percent to sell on the market.

With a surplus, people look to the future
With extra food available, people can look beyond simple survival. The needs of the households in Lempira Sur have changed, and therefore, so has the focus of the project.

"An increase in production does not necessarily improve nutrition and consumption within the families," says Mr. Cherrett. "Therefore, we have started new initiatives that support the families inside their homes, in their back garden and in their fields." Especially the women are involved in these new activities.

A woman in Candelaria is making tortillas on an improved stove outside her house. The stove has been introduced by the project.

A group of women in the village of Olosingo received a loan and have started to process milk into cream and cheese.

Farmers going to work in the fields around the village of Candelaria -- one of the 84 villages in the Lempira Sur project area.

For example, women's cooperatives are now making dairy products. Vegetable gardens are being established. More efficient outdoor stoves are being built, and so are silos for storing grains. And practical training of secondary school children in the new farming systems is taking place, involving students, teachers, farmers and parents. All initiatives are discussed within the villages, and the word is spreading to other communities. (For more about activities and participants, click here.)

The communities' social and institutional organization has also improved during the last ten years. "Farmers' organizations, trade organizations and cooperatives have been established," says Mr Cherrett. Now more people participate in democratic processes, and two women have been elected mayors for the first time ever in Lempira Sur.

New obstacles create new needs
El Niño taught farmers about the importance of the new technology, and Hurricane Mitch proved the project's worth when it blasted through Central America and Lempira in 1998. Thanks to the change in land use, the damage was less than in the rest of Honduras. And this region, which 10 years earlier could barely feed its own people, was able to provide food aid for other parts of the country. "Every municipality in the south of Lempira sent approximately two tonnes of food aid to the more developed regions of the country after Mitch," says Mr Cherrett. "It was very impressive to see the level of organization and solidarity."

But as food aid from all over the world flooded Honduras, market prices fell to an all-time low, hitting the people of Lempira Sur hard. The farmers couldn't sell their crops, and everything they had built up during the previous eight years was almost lost.

The villagers met to discuss their new problems. They realized that little could be done about the prices as long as the food aid kept coming. They identified the need to diversify their crops and find new markets, and today many of the farmers are selling their crops and livestock in nearby El Salvador, where prices are considerably higher. But this initiative raises yet another need: improved infrastructure. The roads between Lempira and El Salvador are bad or nonexistent, making it difficult for the farmers to get to their customers. So the task of improving bridges and roads is now a high priority.

The people take over
In 1999, the Lempira Sur project was extended for another four years so it can be expanded into other communities. The project and its methods have provoked interest both within Honduras and further afield. Honduran President Carlos Roberto Flores Facusse and various government Ministers have visited, and interest is high in replicating this rural development approach, in other parts of the country.

What is even more important is that the people themselves now are taking full responsibility for planning improvements in their communities. Little by little, the extension workers are becoming dispensable. The changes introduced in the communities have proved sustainable. "The people of Lempira have been able to end their extreme poverty," says Mr Cherrett. "Before they could not produce enough to eat. Now they produce a surplus. They have proven that they can do the job."


To see, hear and read about the activities and the people in the Lempira Sur project, click here.

To read more about the new farming system, click here

Article about countries hit by Hurricane "Mitch"

Article about the El Niño and its impact on crop production in Latin America

FAO Focus archive