News

September 19, 2007

Blood, Sweat, and Tears in Honduras

Sebastian Felipe Barreto Ortiz ’10 documents Engineers Without Borders project this summer

Sebastian Felipe Barreto Ortiz ’10 (Bogota, Colombia) is pursuing a degree in chemical engineering. From July 18 to August 1, Barreto participated in an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) project in Honduras where he, as well as civil engineering major Michael Adelman ’10 (Clarks Summit, Pa.) and Samir Awuapara ’10 (Lima, Peru), who is pursuing a B.S. in mechanical engineering and an A.B. in economics and business, worked to help create sustainable economies related to local coffee crops. They were under the guidance of Gladstone Fluney Hutchinson, associate professor of economics and business. The following is a copy of the journal that Barreto Ortiz kept while on the trip.

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Note: Everything inside brackets was added by Barreto Ortizwhile transcribing the diary from its original version to this electronic version, in order to help the readers understand it better. The contents are exactly the same as in the original notepad, which is kept in the EWB project room.

18/07/07 Wednesday- El Progreso

We got out of the airport at around 6 p.m. The money exchange agency was closed, and so was the bus station at the airport. An employee at the airport changed us $100 at 18 Lempiras/dollar. We got a taxi to El Progreso, which left us at a motel of very doubtful reputation near the town’s bus station. Samir and I went to a telephone/internet place near the town square. We sent emails home, and contacted Matt Verbyla [a Fulbright Scholar alum working in Honduras] and Porfirio Castro [community leader in Lagunitas]. We arranged to meet with Porfirio tomorrow in El Salitre (bus stop nearest to Lagunitas). The owner of the telephone booth place (Juan Fernando) told us that we were staying at a very bad place and offered to take us to a decent hotel. We were suspicious at first, but he took us to get food and then to a much better hotel (Hotel Plaza Victoria). He didn’t accept the tip we offered; he said he did it because he didn’t want people to leave with a bad impression of El Progreso. We are still suspicious about why he was so friendly, but if all goes well we might arrange for him to pick up Hutchinson on Saturday and send him off to La Habana to meet us.

19/07/07 Thursday- Lagunitas

We got a chip for the cell phone [one that Samir brought and was already decoded to work in other countries] and we exchanged money at a bank. We took the 11 a.m. bus to Yoro, and got off at “El Salitre,” which is the closest bus stop to Lagunitas. There we were met by Porfirio, who got a truck to take us the rest of they way. He summoned a meeting that day. Eleven people attended [two were missing according to the rest, so the whole group was of 13]. We presented the project and concluded we would help them build “viveros” (fenced spaces like a greenhouse [or plant nursery]) to plant coffee. We leave tomorrow to Yoro to get supplies, send emails, and contact FUCOHSO. So far we haven’t received any help from them. [FUCOHSO is an Non Government Organization that focuses on improving farmers’ lives by increasing the production of sustainable crops. They’ve helped in the past with the logistics of EWB-LC’s water system projects. We had contacted them before the trip.]

20/07/07 Friday- Yoro-Lagunitas

We left at about 9 a.m.: Samir, Virgilio [a resident of Lagunitas who attended yesterday’s meeting], and me. We walked around Yoro looking for supplies. We couldn’t find coffee seeds or a used bike [to mount the coffee grinder] at a low price. Instead we bought replacements to build a bike in Lagunitas. We also got some food and Samir sent emails to Kavinda and Hutchinson. We’ve arranged with Yovany [a FUCOHSO representative] so that he can go and pick up Hutchinson at the airport.

Back in Lagunitas we built the bike and set up a stand for the huller [which we bought from a company in England and brought with us from the U.S]. We’re going to have to go back to Yoro tomorrow to buy screws to attach the huller to the stand, and a couple of additional things.

We are having problems with the grinder. We’ve also encountered several scorpions where we are sleeping.

21/07/07 Saturday- Yoro-Lagunitas

Samir and I left for Yoro early. We got the rest of the supplies and spent some time on the Internet sending more emails.

On the bus back the driver turned the radio on, and the whole trip we had to listen as a woman read, with anguish in her voice, some chapters of the apocalypse. Basically it was a description of hell and how people who steal, commit adultery, or don’t pay the “diezmo” (tenth of your income to church [also called a tithe]) would suffer eternally. The tone of the reading made me think the whole purpose was to scare people into giving money to the church (which I saw in Yoro; it looked like a new building).

The huller was installed and it works great. The people are very happy with it. The grinder looks like it is not going to work, and there is really no need for it either because grinding by hand is very easy. We did two batches of coffee from the dry cherry to the cup, one with their traditional way and one with our gadgets [huller, roaster, and grinder]. The roaster works but needs improvement, the huller is perfect, and the grinder is useless. The coffee produced was really good.

We called Matt [Verbyla] and he said he had picked up Hutchinson. We couldn’t contact Yovany. Porfirio was telling us about how FUCOHSO didn’t give them much help. They would only provide small things. He says most of the money ends up in the hands of FUCOHSO employees.

We found and killed two more scorpions in our room. We haven’t been able to sleep the last two days properly. It’s either scorpions, or rats, or dogs barking, or cows, or roosters

22/07/07 Sunday- La Habana-Lagunitas

I went to La Habana on a bike they lent me to buy food and recharge batteries. Meanwhile Samir and Mickey [Michael Adelman] fixed some drainage systems in the village.

Professor Hutchinson arrived with Matt, but Matt went on directly to La Habana, while Hutchinson came with us to Lagunitas and we filled him in on the news. He saw the huller and grinder, and had some coffee before I left with him to stay the night in La Habana. [For health reasons Professor Hutchinson needs to stay somewhere with electricity.)

[In La Habana,] we discussed with Matt and Hutchinson how we couldn’t provide financial support to individuals but had to do it to the community as a whole. Also, the purpose of the support is to develop their capabilities as part of a learning process. As such, we shouldn’t agree to give them money to buy other crops and process them to sell them with an added value, but we should provide the means for the whole community to increase their own production.

23/07/07 Monday- Lagunitas

We woke up early and went to Lagunitas with Hutchinson and Matt. Matt left for El Convento, where we joined Samir and Mickey and other community members in building the greenhouses of 5 members of the community. We cleaned an area of wild plants, fenced it in, set a space for the 5 sets of seeds to be planted, and measured the space for the bags once the seeds germinate.

We came back for lunch very happy with the work done, and afterwards we discussed with Porfirio and his family what would be a good option to get some coffee to process while the new plants grow (~4 years). We informed them about our purpose and about how we wouldn’t help one individual alone. We considered several options, from planting fast-growing crops among the whole community in the meantime, to buying coffee [from nearby communities] to process. We discarded the latter.

We suggested using Porfirio’s plantation [he planted a good type of coffee a while ago but didn’t have money to take care of it properly, and after a drop in coffee prices he abandoned it] and restoring it, as it has approximately 2,500 grown coffee trees of a good variety. He said that with fertilizer and proper care they could give around 45 sacs (4500 lbs) of cherries. As we can’t help him alone, we suggested offering help if he was willing to split the income in some percentage with the other 12 of the group. In that way the whole community would benefit but he would receive a fair return for his earlier investment. The people present agreed it was a good solution, and the idea is to be presented on Thursday to everyone.

24/07/07 Tuesday- Lagunitas-Yoro

Today we built one more greenhouse. We fenced the space, prepared the earth for the seeds and built a structure to provide shade once the coffee is put in bags. In the afternoon we went to Yoro, where we got two rooms for the four of us. We ate, showered, relaxed, and went to bed expecting an interesting day tomorrow in the market and the fest of Yoro. [Hutchinson was commuting from La Habana, where he was staying in FUCOHSO’s house. However, he had to move to Yoro because the house got full. We went with him to set him up in a hotel and show him how to get to Lagunitas from there.]

25/07/07 Wednesday- Lagunitas-Yoro

We got some marbles and a soccer ball for the kids, and some things for the water system. [Mickey had noted several valves that needed to be replaced, along with some drains that were damaged or non-existent. He originally planned to just collect data for an as-built sketch of the water system, but we thought it would be more productive to invest our time in repairing the system.]

We showed Hutchinson how to move around Yoro. We saw the “feria” [fest]. There were lots of people in the town. We also went to the market (which because of the feria was basically all around). We got in a really packed bus to El Salitre and we made our way back to Lagunitas. We played with some spray bottles with the kids.

26/07/07 Thursday- Lagunitas

We went to work around 9 a.m. with Virgilio in his greenhouse. So far he’s got the best crops we’ve seen, well-taken care of and with an irrigation system. By 1 p.m. we were done and we had done more than in the previous one. We built the poles and cables for the roof. We are more organized now that we have more experience.

When we came back, Hutchinson was waiting. We waited for Wilmer for a long time, but he didn’t show up. [Wilmer is a technician from FUCOHSO. He is supposed to have some expertise in coffee plantations, so we contacted him and arranged for him to come to the meeting so he could give a workshop on coffee plant nurseries.]

We started the meeting by reading the coffee huller instructions, giving out 1,000 bags to each member (to grow the coffee in), and deciding property rights for the equipment. I wrote everything down, and we also recorded it on film.

Hutchinson left to catch the last bus to Yoro, and we [Samir and I] left a while afterwards for water on bikes. We actually caught up with Hutchison. It started to rain heavily; we reached the main road and were all soaking wet. Two buses passed, but they didn’t stop, probably because they saw Hutchinson completely drenched. For reasons mentioned above, we had to get him back to Yoro. So he took my bike, I sat on the back of Samir’s, and the three of us went to La Habana. It was still pouring.

In La Habana, I spoke to the owner of the store (Marcos), who had previously taken us to Yoro in his van for 300 Lempiras. He asked for 600L this time. After some talking we got the price down to 400L, but with the condition that he would also take Samir and me back with a big 5 gallon container of water to El Salitre. Hutchinson left in one van, and we were taken back in the other. It was still pouring.

Samir and I were of course drenched, so we sat with the bikes and the water on the back of the pick up truck. It was freezing, and the guy drove really fast. We tried to offer more money if he would take us all the way up to Lagunitas, but he said his brakes were failing.

We managed to tie the water to Samir’s bike, and we started our way down. It was still pouring.

Samir got stuck in the middle of a huge puddle, the water up to his knees. I had to get in also to get him back on track. Further down Samir lost control of the bike due to bad brakes, the unbalance created by the water bottle, and the rain. He fell down and scratched himself badly on his arms and legs. It was still pouring.

Back in Lagunitas he washed with soap and water and after we dried ourselves I got my first-aid kit in which fortunately I had an iodine antiseptic solution, some gauze, and cotton. We did our best to clean up his wounds and used the gauze and toilet paper to wrap around his arm. It was STILL pouring.

At night, Samir started to talk in his sleep for the first time, and of all the topics he could choose, he chose snakes. [On our way to the first set of nurseries we came across a snake that kills you in half an hour with one bite.] He started yelling that there was a big snake on top, and I of course got alarmed and searched with the flashlight. Then I saw he was sleeping, so I figured it was a dream. Ten minutes later, he said in Spanish “We need to ask Porfirio about the snakes.” I couldn’t get much sleep afterwards

27/07/07 Friday- Yoro

I went to Yoro early with Porfirio and Alberto. They were going to get some documents ready for the “personeria juridica” (legal incorporation/recognition) of the water board. I bought some PVC to Galvanized Iron adapters, some food for Hutchinson, and a couple more things for the community.

The idea was to get some market information for the different stages of coffee (wet, dry, parchment, etc.) Unfortunately at this time of year it is impossible to get that information. Instead we are going to ask the group to record the prices throughout the next harvest season.

At lunch, I discussed with Hutchinson the limits of the project. We think that right now we’ve already done enough to provide an incentive for their entrepreneurial skills and that as long as we provide for fertilizers and fungicides they can build on what they have. They said they would make more money with a huller for cherries [wet instead of dry]; this tells us that’s the limit. We won’t give them capital to make more money; they are going to be able to do that for themselves. We won’t need to send another team later on. Perhaps we’ll send someone to monitor; or if they get to the point of roasting it and grinding it, then we would need to reconsider.

I came back to Lagunitas to work a little bit on the report.

28/07/07 Saturday- Lagunitas

We worked on two “viveros” today, the ones belonging to Eulofio and Roman. They decided to work together, but in different places. The hike was really long, around 45 minutes through the mountain. Fortunately we were more experienced because they didn’t know as much as the other farmers.

We came back hungry and thirsty. Though we came two nights ago with 5 gallons of water, we had already run out. I rested a while and then went on a bike to El Salitre to buy some water bags to keep us going. It started raining again. It is the rainy season. I had to wait in the store and then start on my way back up to Lagunitas. It’s been a very long day and we are all really tired. Mickey is a little bit sick, he says perhaps due to dehydration. I gave Samir some antibiotic ointment that I had. As for myself, I’m feeling a little bit weak and I’m really sleepy. It’s only 8:25 p.m.

29/07/07 Sunday- Lagunitas

Mickey got sick last night. We had to take out the mattresses and stuff outside. We gave him water, but we couldn’t do much more. We don’t know what it was because Samir and I are fine. The beans make your stomach a little bit heavy, but not that much. [We ate beans every day in Lagunitas]. Perhaps it was because he didn’t wash his hands before eating, and though he did use a hand sanitizer, I don’t think that would take away the chemicals from the bug spray (DEET) and such.

In the morning we had a meeting with the group. The only one absent was Esteban, who had an accident recently and we haven’t been able to meet yet. Wilmer of FUCOHSO was supposed to come to give technical advice to the group because he is supposed to have some experience with coffee. He didn’t show up. Porfirio called him at 9 a.m. and he said he would arrive around 10 a.m., but he didn’t come. It’s the second time he has left us waiting, and when I met him in Yoro I was very clear in stating the importance of him not missing it this time. He had assured me he would come. The group tells us that FUCOHSO tends to do that. They promise materials and support, and then they don’t show up, leave you waiting, and don’t answer at their office. We are going to look for other alternatives to get the coffee seeds [FUCOHSO had also said they would help us find quality seeds] and to find a technician to provide assistance to the group.

The meeting went really well otherwise. They agreed to use Porfirio’s plantation and then the crop would be divided among the group members. The full details of the agreement were written down. They understand our purpose and are conscious about what we are doing, not investing in the land but in them; that is, we are giving them the initial push to get their entrepreneurial skills rolling.

We were going to work on the GI pipes today, but we wasted time waiting for Wilmer and the plumber didn’t turn off the water, so we are leaving that for Tuesday. We decided to do some bonding with the adults, as we have done some with the kids but not with them. We went to play billiard pool and bought refreshments for everyone.

30/07/07 Monday- Lagunitas

Mickey and I went up to the source and built a ditch around it to cut off run-off water. It is a 45-minute to 1-hour hike. On our way back we visited three houses [the team was visiting each house in the community to check on their water taps and drains] and built three drains in three more. The kids were really helpful in gathering rocks. [We used rocks in the drains to prevent erosion and encourage infiltration of greywater into the soil.]

Back at Porfirio’s we worked a little bit on the report and Samir filled us in about his day in Yoro. He said he went to the National Coffee Institute and contacted an expert in coffee technologies. They provide free orientation to farmers as long as they ask for help themselves first and are located at around 1,000 m above sea level. [Above this elevation is where coffee grows best.] Since Alberto Galindo [community member] had gone with Samir, the first requirement was covered. We also checked on the topographic map and with the GPS devices, which said Lagunitas was more than 900 m above sea level at its lowest point. Therefore, we are within their constraints.

They said they also provide supplies such as fertilizers, usually at a lower cost because they buy them cheaper, being a national non-profit organization. They seem to be pretty serious, so we got all their info and are thinking of sending them the money for the supplies so they can give them to the community. Their technician is going to come and check how everything is being done, give lectures, and monitor periodically. They are also going to get the certified seeds for us.

In the evening we wrote the agreement for Porfirio’s plantation.

31/07/07 Tuesday- Lagunitas

In the morning we were changing the PVC pipes that were exposed to the sun to GI pipes. I had to run to Yoro to get an English wrench, some adapters and a couple more check valves. When I came back around 12:30 p.m. the group had met and signed the agreement we wrote last night. Mickey and the plumber had changed most of the check valves, and the pipes were ready for the adapters to be put on, at which point we were done.

We had met Esteban last night finally, and he came today too. We left the extra materials in the granary so that he could build his greenhouse later.

In the evening, Professor Hutchinson gave a few last words to the group and he left with Mickey to Yoro from which they will leave early tomorrow. We started to gather our stuff with Samir too; we’re leaving everything that’s useful to them. We also hulled, roasted, and ground some more coffee to take with us.

1/08/07 Wednesday- Lagunitas-Yoro

We spent the last day in Lagunitas walking through the village and gathering the last bits of information. We also worked on a last minute repair to the water system. A tube broke last night after the tank was reopened, so we had to cut the water off again to fix it.

We said goodbye to everyone and left for Yoro in the afternoon, where we each had a long shower and got some rest.

2/08/07 Thursday- Yoro

We both woke up early out of habit, but had a rat-and-scorpion-free night of sleep for a change. We went out around the market and bought some coffee. Again we tried to get prices for dried, cherry, and parchment coffee. We got some estimates, but once more we couldn’t get anything precise because we are not in harvest season. We also found out about the prices of some farming equipment they might need (“chancha,” machete, etc.).

We used the opportunity to get some fruits also because for some reason in Lagunitas they don’t eat much fruit, and I, being used to eating lots of fruit back home, was happy to finally get some.

3/08/07 Friday- El Progreso

We had breakfast at Yoro and then we left for El Progreso. We checked in at the same hotel we had stayed in before (Plaza Victoria). Then we went to the market and looked around for coffee: either roasted and ground, or only the cherries, dried or parchment. As we expected, we only found ground coffee. We asked around and we were told that during harvest season farmers from the region we were in come here and to San Pedro to sell their coffee. We assume you can get better prices here.

We also went to the same Internet place where the guy that helped us the first day works. We contacted our families back at home, and looked up places of interest to visit in Honduras. Now that we have done all we can for the project at this moment, we plan on spending a couple of days getting to know Honduras. We heard about the ruins of Copan, the beaches of Tela and La Ceiba, and the island Roatan. We are both tired of the jungle, so we discarded Copan. Of the other three places, Roatan seems to be the nicest one. We called several hotels and managed to get a room in the Hotel Pura Vida, in West End, Roatan, for Sunday and Monday. Tomorrow we will travel to La Ceiba, from which you take the ferry to the island. We are going to have to look in La Ceiba for a hotel for tomorrow night, because everything was booked in Roatan for tomorrow.

4/08/07 Saturday- La Ceiba

From here on we will cover our expenses ourselves, because though Professor [Sharon] Jones[, associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and EWB adviser,] did tell us we should take a couple of days off, we don’t feel we should include this in the budget. Fortunately we brought our debit cards and we can get money from an ATM.

We left for La Ceiba after breakfast. This trip was longer than to Yoro, because there is no straight route and you have to pass by Tela. La Ceiba is the third largest city of Honduras, and for the first time we saw a real city. Yoro and El Progreso had been only towns compared to this. There were still no tall buildings, but at least you can see nice houses, streets, proper lighting

Once there we found a hotel in the outsides of the city. It is called Canadien, and was obviously built by a Canadian who fell in love with the Caribbean Sea and decided to live here. The beach is nice, though the water is not clear and the waves are a bit too strong for just swimming. It is a good change though.

We are using our spare time to work on the report, so we can put in as much as we can while it’s still fresh in our heads.

5/08/07 Sunday- Roatan

We left early for the city to get the ferry to the island. The ride on the ferry was a bit rough; they gave everyone plastic bags just in case. Several people got seasick, but I just imagined it was a rollercoaster or some kind of mechanical attraction in an amusement park and got by without getting sick. It was actually fun sometimes.

In the island you could see how different everything was. Most people speak English, some speak Italian; some natives don’t even speak Spanish. The ATMs give both dollars and Lempiras, and you can pay with both in most places. Prices are also higher than on the continent, but they are still not that expensive. The hotel we are in is in the center of the nightlife of the island. Nevertheless, it is Sunday and there is nothing going on.

The island is very beautiful though. Where we are there is not that much beach, but we were told of where to go. Today we just walked around and relaxed, tomorrow we’re looking forward to go to the beach.

6/08/07 Monday- Roatan

We woke up early and got a taxi to the beach. It is the most beautiful beach I’ve seen. The water is so clear that even when you can no longer touch the ground you can still see the pearly white sand beneath you. There are practically no waves, and swimming is very easy. The water is also denser so it is easy to float. We rented a small boat for two for two hours and went snorkeling. They say they have the second largest coral reef in the world. It was gorgeous. There were lots of fish in the coral, and it is all very well preserved.

After that we had lunch and just laid out in the sun. When it was getting dark we got a taxi back to our hotel. It’s too bad we can’t stay longer; tomorrow we have to catch the last ferry to La Ceiba and get a bus from there to El Progreso. I would definitely try to come again sometime. It is not a very popular place for people of my age, but it is so nice and relaxing.

7/08/07 Tuesday- Roatan- La Ceiba- El Progreso

We enjoyed our last half of the day in Roatan and got a taxi back to the ferry. The ride was much calmer now that we were going with the waves.In La Ceiba we got a bus to San Pedro, and we got off at El Progreso. We practically spent the whole day traveling; we arrived at night to the same hotel we knew already.

Tomorrow we leave in the morning for the airport, and again we will spend a whole day traveling. We have to wait a while in Miami, but at least we don’t have to make two connections and wait five hours in Durham like when we came. It’s OK though, because we got cheaper tickets for that, and the money we saved was well spent building the viveros.

We are both tired of traveling, but excited about the work done. We feel this project has a bright future and are happy with how it evolved throughout its course.

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