From factory laborers to stewards of the land: how one Honduran family found resilience back at the farm
Mirna Barahona, Edgardo Garcia and their three sons live in El Tule community, in the western department of Santa Barbara, Honduras. When they are not in school, the boys work with their parents on their 3.4-acre shade coffee plantation, or tend to their corn and beans food crops, spread across three different fields that together amount to 6.8 acres. The family relies on coffee – the Lempira variety – as their main source of income, which requires a significant investment in household and hired labor, beasts of burden to haul the bean-filled tins from their plantation (one hour´s uphill walk from their home), and transportation to Trinidad, where they sell their harvest to intermediaries (called bodegueros). Last year, they tell me, from May to September 2015, all their crops were hard hit by a severe drought. They were not able to harvest enough corn and beans for consumption, nor enough coffee to sell. They made up for some of these losses by going to work for other people: weeding their fields and sowing their corn – or milpas – come planting season. “The grains were very thin”, says Edgardo. “What a drought that was!”
Yet, for Mirna and Edgardo, there have been darker days.
After coming back from a visit to one of their fields of beans, I sat down with the Barahona-Garcia family to eat a meal that Mirna prepared: a delicious stew made with chaya leaves (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius), home-raised chicken, and a combination of aromatic herbs and flavors that, as if magically, is bigger than the sum of the parts. Mirna and Edgardo began to tell me the story of their life at the maquiladoras or foreign-owned factories, before they decided to come back to their modest home and farm in El Tule. In San Pedro Sula, roughly 80 miles away, Edgardo worked at a textiles maquila for eleven years. There, he spent his days applying dyes to T-shirts. Mirna worked in a different maquila, also applying dyes. “There were large, hot ironing machines that stamped the shirts, and we had to breathe in the vapors infused with chemicals all days long”, says Edgardo. In a week, he would make 800 Lempiras, worth about 33 US dollars, which he would have to spend in rent, food and somehow save for the family. Today, despite the ups and downs of coffee prices and the last drought, Mirna and Edgardo do not regret being back in El Tule.
“After all those years at the maquila, what made you come back?” I asked.
“Once my father died, my aged mother was alone here in El Tule. I wanted to come back and be close to her. And life at the maquila, day in and day out breathing chemicals, was no life for me anymore. I wanted to come back to my land, my church, my community,” Edgardo replies.
Since making that decision, Mirna and Edgardo have committed themselves to the agroecological stewardship of their land. In 2008, they began to work with an organization (Sustainable Harvest International) to conserve native tree seedlings and reforest around their water resources. From 2008 to 2010, they also initiated a transition in how they took care of their soils and managed pests and disease in their farm. By partnering with Groundswell’s International’s local partners, Trinidad Conservation Project (TCP) and Vecinos Honduras, they eliminated the use of agrochemicals – fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides – and learned how to make different kinds of organic, composting mixtures, natural repellents and medicinal boosters to nourish and strengthen their crops´ own defense mechanisms. They also adopted soil-restoring practices like zero-burn, contour farming, green manures, and widely integrated a small, nitrogen-fixing tree locally known as “madreado” (Gliricidia sepium) into their coffee agroforestry system.
What before used to be burnt and thus excluded from the farming system´s regenerative capacity, today serves as food and protection for their soils.
Through these practices, Edgardo and Mirna explain, they have been able to save money because they don´t need to buy any agrochemicals. They use these economic reserves to buy their children´s clothes and school supplies. Further, the diversity of edible plant species that find a home in their agroecological farm provides them with auxiliary sources of food – avocados, guavas, oranges, lemons, coconuts, at least three types of bananas, squash, and the lesser-known, edible flower of the pacaya palm (Chamaedorea tepejilote) – during periods of seasonal shortage of the main staples (corn and beans).
The positive transformation that the Barahona-Garcia family has witnessed on their farm, and the faith that they cultivate in their small, evangelical church, gives them the conviction and capacity to keep dreaming. They have future projects. They would like to raise more tilapia – which already provide them with another source of food and income – and integrate some pigs into their system. As to the oscillating coffee market prices? Edgardo and Mirna are not wasting any time. With the support of Groundswell and our local partners, they have begun to plant allspice (Pimenta dioica), which has a more favorable and stable market price. It is also easily ground to consume with their home-grown coffee, which Mirna makes every day.
Despite the challenges of Honduran small-scale farming in a world of top-down market structures, Mirna and Edgardo show us what adaptation and innovation look like on the ground. They don´t have to survive. They can, and should, thrive.