Ag Steward of the Chortí Maya

Okay. This is a story I’ve published on AgWired. There’s MUCH more to the story, which I plan on publishing here, but it’s been quite a challenge with the intermittent internet. So, I’m just publishing what I have now and will publish more later…

There is a group of indigenous people in Honduras that live off an average of $300 a year… less than one dollar a day. At least two months out of every year they starve. That’s the reality as Billy Collins sees it. Billy has been working with the Chortí Maya, the direct descendants of the Mayan Indians, for five years.

I met Billy in Copán Ruinas, a charming town in Western Honduras not far from the Guatemalan border. The small, cobblestoned town is “base camp” so-to-speak for visiting Honduras’ famous ancient Mayan ruins. That’s why I am here: to see the ruins. But, it’s been three days and I have yet to explore them. Instead, I’ve been exploring the harsh realities of the Chortí Maya, realties that Billy, his wife Mary and a handful of others are committed to change. And, they’re making those changes largely through agriculture. I spent an entire day with Billy touring villages of adobe huts with straw roofs, bumping and bouncing along dirt roads consistently washed out by the wet season’s frequent rains to get to them.

While Billy and his wife are involved in more than a handful of projects with the Chortí, their SALT project, or Sloping Agricultural Land Technology, is among one of the biggest. It’s a project that’s aimed at training the indigenous people how to cultivate their rolling, mountainous lands more efficiently and successfully. Through a double hedgerow terracing technique, Billy says the Chortí Maya can double, even triple their current crop yields.

“We give them enough to plant like a half acre, enough seeds,” Billy said. “I’m talking about seeds for their terracing. We use leguminous seeds to terrace. We use the A-frame to mark out how terraces should go and then they plant it… We want to stop water long enough to let it drop the soil, let plants get taller, this soil will get higher and they’ll have good soil. In three to four years, if they do this right they can double their harvest.”

The key, Billy is quick to point out, is the villagers’ hands-on role in the training.

“We go out in the village and we ask for [local] volunteers who want to enter the program,” Billy said. “We teach them how to use the A-frame. We teach them how to space out their seeds. Then, they have to go home and prepare their own land, about a half acre. Then, we will come and look at it and if it’s done then we will give them the seeds to plant… They just take a stick and they just punch a hole in the ground. They drop one seed of corn in there, cover it. And then they know how far to step. And then they put another hole in the ground. They put in two kernels of corn. Cover it. And then all this was planted by hand like that. Then they go back beside it on the uphill side, about four inches from it, when it’s time to fertilize, and they’ll punch a hole and they’ll put three fingers worth of fertilizer in the hole. But all of it’s done by hand. Every bit of it.”

Most of the seeds the Chortí are planting are corn and beans.

“Right now the Chorti live on tortillas and beans and that’s basically it,” Billy said. “And a few fruits. We’re basically trying to expand their diet… We give them ten fruit trees of their choice, like different type of orange trees, lemons whatever they want. Then, if they do well with this program and keep their hedgerows up, in between the hedge rows they plant beans, corn, and a permanent crop like coffee. Then there will be another double hedgerow on up to the top of the hill. On the top of the hill we try to get them to plant the trees.”

Billy stresses that his project is not a welfare program.

“We know that welfare does not work in the United States,” Billy said. “There is no end to trying to feed people. Here in Honduras, with a little education, they can feed themselves.”

Bottom line: Billy says his program will not plant crops for the people, but instead will train them how to plant it themselves. An aid policy that Billy says is more sustainable and more valuable for these people in need.

The training begins at a six-acre farm (3.5 manzanas) developed by Billy, his wife, other project leaders and the locals. The land was originally communal property that belonged to the Chortí Council. The council gave the project permission to use the land for five years. However, in order to avoid trouble in the future should the leadership of the Chortí Council change hands and the land agreement expires, the Chortí people have decided to legally designate the land as an agricultural training center. The center is where the local villagers come for about three full days of training in SALT techniques. Billy says, that’s all the time it takes to start drastically changing the lives of the Chortí people. Billy says the project is currently working with 100 Chortí families.

Without the training though, Billy says the villagers’ situation is desperate. Traditional farming practices of the more than 50 Chortí Maya villages are leading to rampant deforestation.

“All their soil just washes away and in a few years and they make very little corn and they have very little to eat,” Billy says. “So they’ve got to learn to save and protect what they have because they’re not going to get anymore. The government’s not going to buy anymore land for them.”

Right now, the government gives each family just under an acre of land to farm, and that’s about all most will ever get. The land, relatively near the ancient Mayan ruins in a stunning terrain of peaks and valleys that are canvassed in mountainous jungle, is valued at up to $1200 per acre. That’s a price that’s ridiculously unafordable for a people whose income averages less than a dollar a day. But, Billy’s project is tackling the deforestation issue in more ways than one. Aside from training the villagers in SALT and teaching them how to sustain terraced, nitrogen-rich soil, the project also offers them the chance to cultivate self-propagating indigo trees from Indonesia as a renewable source for firewood. Billy says the goal is to give each family 365 indigo trees.

“This tree is self-propagating so after a year, the wife could go out and cut the tree down, have a days worth of firewood and that tree would start growing [again],” Billy said. “She would just continually have a supply of firewood around the house and they wouldn’t have to go around and cut all the forest down because 95 percent of the people in Honduras burn firewood to cook with.”

Crops and firewood isn’t the only agricultural help the project offers the Chortí. Billy says they also help the villagers develop proper pens for housing goats.

“We’ll give them a goat, three goats,” Billy said. “Three female goats pregnant at different times… I will give them the roof, the metal for the roof [of the goat house] and I will loan them enough money to build a house. The goat house is 8 feet by ten feet, and it’s built up off the ground. It has a half inch space. The floor’s done in slats or strips and there’s a half inch space between each strip and that way the manure falls through. Every three days, they rake this up because it’s built up off the ground. They can use that for fertilizer. The goats never touch the ground.”

Though Billy does offer some free aid and materials initially, he says program is designed to teach the villagers to pay back part of their aid.

“We give them enough seeds that they’ll plant a forage area. And they carry water and they’ll feed em twice a day. And when they have a baby, the first weaned female comes back to me so I can give it to another family,” Billy said. “Remember I gave them three goats. Then, the others, I will give them 400 Lempiras which is a little over $20 dollars for each good female and that way they can pay back for their goat house. We want all males castrated within 30 days and then they can fatten that up to eat it or they can sell it to make.”

The goats, Billy says, also help offer young Chortí children another milk source for vital nutrients.

“The children here, after they reach the age of two, they do not receive anymore milk because the mother weans them at the age of two and then she’s going to have another kid,” Billy said.

Billy says the project also offers similar programs with cattle, bees and honey, and vegetables if the villagers show they’re making progress and are paying off their debts. All the loans that Billy offers are free of interest.

For Billy and Mary, it’s all about education.

“There’s no reason they should go hungry,” Billy says. “No reason… They really need to be taught.
And they’re willing to learn. There are more that want to learn than don’t.”

The agricultural project is a big one, but it’s just one of many. Some other projects the couple is involved with include housing, clean water and health education and aid for the Chortí people. Billy says many of the projects they’re involved in are funded and supplemented by help and donations from various aid organizations, such as religious groups, non-governmental organizaitons and medical groups as well as private donations. One of the greatest needs that Billy describes right now is more aid in reforestation expertise.

You can contact Billy and Mary directly at

Now, check out these videos of the Chortí Maya Agricultural Center and a tour through a typical Chortí hut.

Honduras Update…

Right now, I’m sitting on a teeny tiny little balcony, listening to trucks rumble by on the
cobbled streets, Latin music blaring from their windows… sipping un licuado (shake/smoothie).

Iguana Azul, the place where I’m staying is SUPER nice. I got a cheap dorm room with three other girls for a little more than $5 a night. I haven’t met the girls yet though. Communal bathrooms but everything is spic and span.

Honduras reminds me a lot of SE Asia. A tremendous amount of poverty in the similar rusty bucket and brittle wood shacks, but plenty of affluence as well. Acres of green palms and jungles canvassing the mountains and valleys. The people seem much more relaxed, laid-back and approachable here though. Honduras also has tuk-tuks. They’re called mototaxis here though.

I still have much to write about my first week on the agritour. I’m working on that. My brain is simply overloaded with info right now. My creativity is consequently at a zero.

I met this really southern white couple in a shop while I was looking for face wash. And it turns out, they’re doing GREAT things. They’re helping locals start small goat farms and the wife has helped 13 families set up water and plumbing in their homes, or something like that. Tomorrow the guy is going to a couple villages to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. I’ve decided to go too both to help out and to get their story. So, that is the plan for tomorrow. I’m in Copan, a big tourist spot for locals and foreigners because of the ancient Mayan ruins that are just a kilometer away from here. While there are bigger Mayan ruins in Guatemala, these ruins are considered the most artistic and cultural. They’ve been dubbed the “Athens of Central America.” I came to Copan to check them out, but it looks like I’ll do the Ruins the next day.

Down for the count…

The typical “travel sickness” hit me quite early this time. I’m not surprised… I’ve been running myself ragged for two months straight. I was actually anticipating it. The good news: I’m in a Marriott tonight, the last night of my work trip. So, I’ll be quite comfortable with anything I need readily accessible. Plus, it’s early in the trip, so I’m getting this out of the way early!

Tomorrow, the group is checking out super early in the a.m. to head to their flight home departing from San Pedro Sula, a few hours north. Right now I’m in Tegucigalpa. The other good news is, even though I’m sick, a very generous couchsurfer is offering to host me. I was planning to either go early with the group (because I actually want to head north in my travel plans too…), or to find a cheap guesthouse and stay an extra day or two here to recuperate and get better. When the couchsurfer that lives here that I had been in touch with heard that I was sick, he insisted that I stay and make myself comfortable at his place until I feel better. This is how couchsurfers are… so generous and compassionate! For those of you who are skeptical, Arturo has dozens of references that attest to his good character.

What a wonderful world we live in! I’m in a entirely foreign country (that I love!) and a perfect stranger is happy to extend his hospitality and care. Wish more stories like these would be reported by the media! ; )

I have MANY wonderful stories to tell from the “agri-tour.” Kristine with Global Communicatiors and Liliana and Fabian with FIDE put on an excellent tour that took us across Honduras. As soon as I feel better, I’ll get cracking on the many wonderful examples of business stewardship here! I can’t wait to share!

Just Some Quick Notes

Farmland stretching to the mountains outside San Pedro Sulas, HondurasThe mountains are right outside my window… it feels as if I could just reach out and touch them. The clouds danced among their peaks all day.

We toured the Cerveceria Hondurena, or Honduran brewery today. There’s only one in the entire country and it carries four brands of beer. Salva Vida, Imperial, Port Royal and Barena. While we were at the brewery it started to pour in sheets of rain. It was as if someone just turned on the switch. It stopped just as suddenly about ten minutes later. It is the rainy season…

Our hosts from FIDE (Honduras’ Foundation for Investment and Export Development) are awesome! Streetside vendor in HondurasIt’s already as if I’m old friends with them instead of just some foreigner… They’ve given me all kinds of tips on where to go, restaurant recommendations, local secrets to fending off mosquitoes… I’m falling in love with this country… and it’s been less than 24 hours.

I suspected this…

¡Hola Honduras!

Two hours of sleep. Straight, non-stop travel for the past two months. Tons of stories already to tell. I honestly wondered if would be jaded to the fact that I have been blessed yet again to go to an exciting new country for another exciting new adventure. Uh huh… how could I ever question? My first glimpse out the window as we were beginning our decent in Honduras and I could barely hold back my yelp of glee… well, a little yelp did escape! ; ) I saw a pale, sandy beach ringed with brilliant azure and emerald turquoise. I still don’t even know really what I was seeing… I’ll find out! From that second on, I proudly wore a grin from one ear to the other for all the other first class passengers to see. Yup, that’s right. First class. The flight from Atlanta to Honduras was booked solid, so poor little me had to be upgraded to first class. What a treat!! I’ve never flown first class before…

For the rest of the landing I was like a kid in a candy shop. I’ve never been to Honduras but I felt like I was coming home. ‘Pah’… some of you might say. But, it’s true! Some places just resonate within you. Honduras does for me… just like Italy… just like Laos… just like the Tiger Muay Thai boxing gym in Phuket, Thailand.

The “international airport” was a trip. I’ll get pictures up asap so you know what I mean.

But for now, I’ve gotta run. Work to do


Just as I suspected… the photo above is a shot of part of what’s known as “The Bay Islands” and the coral reef that surrounds them. The Bay Islands, Utila and Roatan, are home to the world’s second largest coral reef. Second only to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

Tijuana Pics

More Tijuana pics are now uploaded to flickr. You can check them out by clicking the link below. I was going to include the audio from Fr. Tom about the border in this post since I have finally looked into how to get audio on this blog. However, I can’t find the file. I’m very disappointed about this. The file was sitting on my desktop forever. I just did some desktop organizing and cleaning the other day and I am praying (literally) that I didn’t accidentally trash the file…

Tijuana Mexico 2007

La Llaga

There is rusty metal wall in Tijuana that not only marks the border between Mexico and the U.S., but visually defines the sharp division between the two countries. Large portions of that wall, on the Mexican side, are canvassed with crosses, coffins, memorials, even altars honoring those who have died by simply trying to cross it. Los Tijuaneses know the wall as La Llaga, or “the festering wound.” And behind that wall, there is another. The other wall is taller, stronger, sterile. It is guarded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

One of our hosts, Fr. Tom, brought us to the border, to the walls. Walls that represent a horrifying amount of suffering and loss. As we simply drove by it, I couldn’t help but feel oppressed by it, taunted by it. I wanted to cross it just because it’s very presence was telling me not to. But I can cross it. Freely. And those that can’t cross it… or those that must risk everything to cross it… have a real reason to try. They risk losing their lives… so they can have a chance at living.

When we visited that wall we saw names; names just like those honored on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. And these weren’t just the names of men. I also saw the names of women, children, infants. Yet, what’s most disturbing… is this is a living memorial. More and more names belong on it each day. As we drove away from one part, we witnessed a group of Mexicans jumping over the wall in the very spot we were standing just minutes before. Seconds later they came scrambling back. But we were assured these men would have went for it if they had seen a real opportunity. Our group was baffled. Why there? Why risk it? It seems so secure.

Fr. Tom shared more of the realities of the border with us. I have some great audio but apparently blogger doesn’t offer audio hosting. I am still trying to figure out how to get audio up on this site… and I’m getting frustrated because I really want to share his comments with you.

Listening to Fr. Tom speak, I become less hopeful, more disturbed. But then Donna Eisenbath, the leader of this trip, reminded us “that walls do come down. The Berlin Wall did.”

30 Minutes to a New, But Somewhat Familiar World

Thirty minutes. That’s about how long it takes to get from the border of the U.S. to Tijuana. That’s how long it takes to suddenly find yourself in the midst of a Feed the Children commercial. You know, those commercials that feature mangy children, dirt streaked across their faces, swollen bellies. The poverty of Tijuana was evident immediately. As we rounded the corner to the street of the oblates’ house where we would be staying, I glimpsed a mother watching her pequeño muchacho, clothed in a just a t-shirt and diapers, rummaging through the trash.

But when I looked again, and really looked instead of merely glancing, I found the beauty of Tijuana to be just as evident as its poverty. I wandered around the grounds inside the gates of the oblates’ house and found treasure after treasure. And as I wandered, I overheard one of our hosts, Fr. Salvador Chava, inform us that our neighborhood is considered middle-class, “When I first moved here, this neighborhood didn’t have electricity,” he explained. “Now they have electricity.”

Tijuana is just hills and valleys and every inch of ground is covered with houses. Some are sturdy, others are just shacks thrown together for some sort of shelter. Some are more impressive than most houses of affluence in the U.S. And those can be found amidst a cluster of shacks. I gaze up at the hills, where it seems houses and shacks are practically built one upon the other, and I can’t help thinking one big downpour could easily wash away everything these people own. A sentiment most of those in my group share. Their wealth, or lack there of, seems to be at the utmost mercy of the weather.

There is so much to tell. So much that I’ve seen and learned in just two and a half days. My days are full. What time I can spare, I share with the muchachos; the kids who already greet me with hugs so full of love and excitement that they match those of my sister, Serena.

We must carefully watch the amount of water we use. We are advised not to flush any toilet paper. The cost of draining septic tanks, something I have never even thought about until now, is a large expense for the residents of Tijuana. The city is growing rapidly, at times entire neighborhoods popping up literally overnight. The city’s water system cannot support this rampant growth, so all drinkable water is shipped in from outside sources. No one drinks the tap water here.

The first night I spotted some ninos playing futbol (aka soccer). Of course, I had to go join them. And for my simple interest in playing futbol with the muchachos, I am rewarded with big, warm hugs every time I step outside or return to the house. Those pictured with me are Adrian, Lupita and Toni. Adrian is so sweet and lovable. Lupita has a contagious laugh. Pequena Toni simply stares at us all with a huge grin, darting into our games every so often and darting back out just as quickly.

But that is just one stitch in the tapestry of life here. Forgive me for using such a cliche, but I’m tired and don’t have the energy to be creative with my writing right now.

I can’t wait to share more about our work at the oblates’ Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, hearing testimony from Mother Antonia – the mother of the prisoners, serving food at the Missionaires of Charity soup kitchen, munching on street-side tacos… and more.

Roosters crow at three in the morning… but their calls merely work seamlessly into my dreams.

He Will Deliver…

As I’ve been praying to God for Him to lead me to where he wants to use me next… He’s provided an answer to my prayers! I’ve been feeling compelled to travel and explore foreign places and cultures for as long as I can remember. Already, I’ve been blessed to visit so many wonderful places and encounter so many people, cultures and experiences. I’ve grown from each one of them. But, the more I travel the more I feel called to include more in those travels. For the past several years I’ve felt called to serve through travel. I’ve explored various options such as the military, the Peace Corps and others. I’m still strongly considering them… but, God has opened up another opportunity that I’m very excited about! My previous youth group leader has invited me to join her and her ministry in a mission trip to Tijuana the last week of July. We will be visiting a very poor community, offering whatever help we can and we will be sharing the truths about God and Christ. I think this trip will be particularly interesting in light of the growing controversy over immigration from Mexico to the U.S. It’ll be interesting to hear the stories of those struggling just across our border.

An added bonus is I’ll be working with my former youth leader to film our trip. I’m very excited about this! One of my biggest goals is to film a documentary and this trip will most certainly let me try my hand at documentary filming. I’m not looking for anything spectacular… just the chance to get my feet wet and see what I might come up with.

This opportunity is an absolute answer to my prayers… and as I said before…. I am eager to be God’s faithful servant! I’ll be compiling information on Tijuana as I find it.

Less than 20 miles south of downtown San Diego lies the world’s busiest port of entry –
the international border crossing between San Ysidro, CA and Tijuana, Mexico.