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Training at work: community food liaisons in the villages

Training at work: community food liaisons in the villages

Women and wells

The group "Maria Elena Bolivar," in the Valley of Comayagua, is named after a peasant woman who fought for land through the Agrarian Reform. Fifteen women formed this group in 1987 with the help of a Women's Group Organizer. The women live on the outskirts of the mid-size city Comayagua, and their husbands belong to a cooperative that produces basic grains. Aside from the land worked collectively, each family is allotted one tenth of a hectare to produce food, although this is not their property.

When the Food Production Liaison for the Maria Elena Bolivar group began her training, none of the women in the village had ever cultivated the land surrounding their houses. A lack of water for irrigation limited agricultural activity. However, the Liaison came back from training with the idea of building a well with which she and others could irrigate gardens. She proposed the idea to the extension agency, which agreed to experiment with a new pump technology recently developed by its Appropriate Technology Division. The Liaison and her husband bought materials and dug a well. The pump was installed for a trial period of one year. Built like a see-saw, the pump required two people to operate it, pushing themselves up and down to pump the water out through a hose. Once the Liaison and her family had access to water, they were able to plant a garden.

The women in the group were enthusiastic about the well and pump arrangement. Four more women had the capital to invest in their own wells, which the others could access for a user's fee.

The appropriate technology has proven to be successful, and the pilot testing period is over. Now group members have to pay for the pumps they obtain from the extension agency, and some women are thinking of applying for a loan for that purpose.

With the wells in place, seven of the members now are able to cultivate their parcels of land with beets, carrots, onions, squash, cabbage and fruit trees. The women first made their own organic fertilizer. Then they prepared the soil and, with support from the Inputs and Seeds Fund, planted vegetables and fruit trees. They paid back half of their loan to a local community fund under the terms of the Inputs and Seeds Fund loan programme. The women continue to purchase seeds and inputs from the diminishing fund, paying back only 50 percent of the principal. For the more productive women in the group, the once-a-year harvest has paid off well. Because few people produce vegetables in the area, these women have been able to sell in the nearby urban market and make a good profit.

The extension agent in the region is highly motivated and always attends to the women when they have problems with agricultural or poultry production. He helped them to procure the pumps and has also promoted fish farming with the African species Talapia, bred in the Government's extension pond. The families buy the minnows for a few cents each, and then tend them in rudimentary fish ponds until they are large enough to eat.

The Food Production Liaison in this women's group has successfully demonstrated agricultural activities and motivated many of the women in the group to dig wells, prepare organic fertilizers and cultivate vegetables. However, the poorer women in the group continue to have limited access to water because they do not have the labour power or the capita! to make or buy the bricks, concrete and sand needed for a well. Research on technology for water access is now being developed as part of the project's second phase. It is hoped that this research, together with the credit available for poultry production, will eventually allow all the women in the group to fully benefit from the productive activities promoted by the Food Production Liaison.

A special case - a male peasant women's liaison

In the remote mountain community of Santa Fé, along the border between the Departments of Intibucá and Comayagua, a small women's committee was established when a Women's Group Organizer visited the area in 1986 and convinced the men's cooperative affiliated to ALCONH (Alianza Campesina de Organizaciones Nacionales de Honduras) to support a women's committee. She promoted and organized productive activities with the group and acquired credit for family pig production during the first year. However, when she married in 1987, her husband did not allow her to continue organizing and the group fell into inactivity.

When the Food Production Liaison module was begun in 1988, the project team approached the women's committee in Santa Fé to ask them to choose a candidate for training. Of the 12 active members, only two were literate, but neither wanted to leave home every month for the one-week training courses. Therefore, the women chose the husband of the committee president, a serious 38-year-old who was active in the men's cooperative. The project team decided to accept the challenge of incorporating a man in the training, in order to respect the decision of the women of Santa Fé and to document the novel experience.

The families buy minnows bred in the state extension pond for a few cents each, and tend them until they are large enough to eat.

The Liaison conscientiously carried out his practical work, giving talks on nutrition and promoting the cultivation of family gardens with both women and men in the community. At first the women did not show interest and the men constantly teased him, saying that he should wear a dress. In the face of these difficulties, the Liaison developed a plan to stimulate productive activity. Seeing that there was no irrigation system, he proposed to the project that it support the purchase of plastic tubing to direct water from a nearby stream to the family gardens. With the Inputs and Seeds Fund and the plastic tubing, the women's group now had everything they needed to get started with family gardens. Once activity began, the community's attitude towards the Liaison changed radically -- especially among the men. All 12 women continue today with their individual vegetable gardens, even though they no longer receive credit from the project.

Since 1988, the Santa Fé women's committee has also tackled the high rate of malnutrition in their community. With the produce from collective vegetable and soy bean production, they run a feeding programme for the community's children. By 1990, there were no children suffering from malnutrition, and only two were found to be at risk.

The community then applied for an 8,500 Lempira ($1,700) loan from the reactivated Rotating Fund for Peasant Women to establish a community store that would bring profit to the women's group and provide a service to the community. The village of 53 families is a three hours' walk from the nearest road and has no access to stores to buy basic goods such as soap, salt, coffee, and other dry goods. In the past, families had to travel for an entire day in order to buy provisions.

The Santa Fé Food Production Liaison is now paid a subsidy by the extension agency to work full time at organizing activities both with the women's committee and the men's cooperative. He also obtained aid from the Government of Spain to begin a pilot project for coffee and potato production, and for the construction of a community centre. If it were not for the contacts he developed during training, the Liaison would not have known about the Spanish agency. With the training and practice he received in community project planning, he was able to present his community's needs and solicit support.

Even with these successes, there is still much work to be done. The two women's group leaders in Santa Fé are older widows who are also members of the men's cooperative. The other women participate little and often defer to the men's cooperative for decisions. The Food Production Liaison says that he cannot include a "gender awareness" component in the training he gives because he is not a woman and cannot fully understand women's conditions -- notwithstanding his good effort in the face of jokes from other men.

A sampling of results

Whereas women who were trained as Women's Group Organizers were strongest in the area of group formation, the Food Production Liaisons are strongest in consolidation of groups. The Food Production Liaison's smaller time commitment, her permanent presence as a member of her grassroots group, and her commitment to transferring her knowledge through "show and tell" projects, are features that ensured group continuity and activity.

The trained Liaisons have new perceptions and feelings as a result of their training and work in the community. One older woman claimed, "We women before were humble, but now we have confidence. Before we were good for the house, only for the house, and now we are good for more. We know about production, and my husband consults with me."

Another woman said, "The people respect me now, although I have had to struggle so that they recognize that I have knowledge that can help them. "

Liaisons often become leaders of their groups. Through their knowledge and promotion of activities, they act as promoters of the group from the inside. They ease the overloaded work schedule of some of the state extension staff who can now concentrate more on support, training, and extension rather than on motivation, promotion, and organization.

The improvement in women's lives has been more than monetary. The traditional monetary concept of economic impact is too restrictive in the subsistence economy of rural Honduras, where needs are not defined, nor necessarily fulfilled, by access to monetary income.

This is not to say that income has not been generated or that there is no local market. In fact, in almost all groups, some women have sold their produce to neighbors in the village or, on rare occasions, in nearby villages or towns. Some individuals have sufficient resources and production to establish a steady business -- as is the case of a group member who has become the "egg lady" in La Pintada, Santa Barbara; or a woman in El Sitio, Comayagua, who paid for her dental work with a bumper chile crop. Others have such a need for cash that they sell products that could be consumed by their families, like the single mother of eight in Santa Luz who sells all her garden produce in order to buy corn and beans for her young children. But the first priority for Food Production Liaisons and group members is improved consumption; marketing their produce is a secondary concern.

Some have sufficient production to establish a steady business, like that of the "egg lady" of La Pintada, Santa Barbara.

The success of the first agricultural cycle stimulated many groups to continue vegetable and fruit production by either sowing seeds from the previous year or buying seed with their community fund built with repay-meets on the Inputs and Seeds Fund loan programme. This resulted in at least 274 vegetable and fruit gardens in the second cycle, increasing the variety of food consumed, improving diets, and generating income for those with abundant harvests. These home gardens increase both the quantity and quality of the family diet, adding foods such as chile, onions and tomatoes. Families eat much better for at least six months out of the year, consuming vegetables that they could not have afforded if they had to buy them.

Members of the women's groups have also shown an interest in community gardens. Since the first agricultural cycle, many groups have purchased seeds and inputs using either the community fund or their own contributions. Produce from the collective garden, the groups report, goes to feed the children in the local kindergarten or is distributed equally among members of the group. One group in Santa Luz particularly enjoyed group gardening because it offered them time away from the house and moments together to discuss personal and community problems.

In one mountain village in Comayagua, a pilot intervention decreased the number of malnourished children by 90 percent. The Food Production Liaison first measured child malnutrition and proposed nutrition and diet training. A community garden was then developed whose produce was used to feed the children.7

7 The community's success was especially significant because Santa Fé did not have access to any food supplement program from other organizations. Of the other 11 groups questioned, five had active food supplement programs for malnourished children, but none recorded the success rate of Santa Fé.

Women continue to express even greater interest in poultry production. With relatively less risk and greater returns, poultry production assures family consumption of eggs and an occasional chicken. With luck, vaccinations and appropriate supervision, a woman can multiply her chickens in two months and have sufficient production for sale and consumption. The production problems associated with vegetable and fruit gardens are greater, with higher risks of pest infestation and greater needs for purchased inputs. Drought and flooding also decrease yields, as do poor soil quality and vandalism. Production lasts only six months, and the daily time invested is significant.

Of 88 Food Production Liaisons initially trained, 60 continue to be active in their communities. Some 60 new Liaisons are currently being trained. The fairly high attrition rate (30 percent) has been due to several factors. First, the selection process in some cases was inconsistent: at times the extension agent did not secure the husband's or father's permission, or the group president showed favoritism and selected an inappropriate candidate. Women's home and child-care responsibilities, as well as out-migration, have further raised the attrition rate. At times women did not have the 10 Lempiras ($2.00) to pay for bus fares to attend the training sessions, even though these were reimbursed later. In three cases, groups reportedly disintegrated due to conflicts either among group leaders or between the Liaison and the group.

The Food Production Liaison module has improved qualitative aspects of rural women's lives and has contributed quantitative benefits in terms of increased food production. The impact of outside influences on the project's success -- credit funds, international development organizations' support for other activities, and continued project activity -- cannot be measured. The subsidies and low-interest credit for subsistence production and service projects have been a source of motivation for group activities and vital to follow-up.

At the same time, the training of human resources within the women's groups has been a dynamic factor in defining needs, attracting outside support, and soliciting credit. The participation, independence and relative sustainability that the Food Production Liaison model generates have increased group cohesion and formed new leaders.

Efforts to refine the training methodology and content are revealing a need for still more comprehensive content -- like that of the Women's Group Organizer module -- to ensure long-term success for the grassroots groups.

In each community, Liaisons have had to struggle for acceptance and respect. Their solid skills hold them in good stead once they find support to promote productive activities, but the real challenge is to sustain their work in the long run. Each community is different, experiencing unique successes as well as unique problems. Group consolidation is a long and difficult process since it requires change in attitudes and practices that have been established over a lifetime and date back over generations.

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