THE MAYA CHORTI OF COPAN
The highest concentration of rural poverty in Honduras is found in the department of Copán, with an estimated 71 per cent of indigenous peoples living below the poverty line. There are over 220 Mayan villages in the Copán region, encompassing Copan Ruinas, Santa Rita and Cabanas, with a a population of over 70,000 indigenous people.
Copán has some of the highest infant and child mortality rates in the country, high teen pregnancy rates and an untreated AIDS population. The indigenous Maya Chorti population is especially marginalized, live in remote areas and are under -serviced in every way, especially in access to education and health care.
The average indigenous Maya Chorti woman living in the mountains has between 7 to 10 children, and children are literally dying of malnutrition, starvation and diarrhea.
The majority of women in rural areas give birth alone or with the aid of a midwife who has little to no formal training or sterile equipment. Many other women give birth alone, and many give birth on a bare dirt floor in very unsanitary conditions, leading to infection in the mother and/or baby.
A large number of infant births and deaths go unreported, but the scant reporting that takes place indicates that mortality rates are high. There are very few health services available in the remote mountainous areas of the region, as many are only accessible by foot, and not at all in times of heavy rain.
Because of little to no health education services in the remote Maya Chorti villages, there is generally very little knowledge or access to contraception and family planning methods. It is not unusual to find 12 year olds giving birth, and the doctors in Copan Ruinas have seen 19 year old women who already have three to five children.
In the hillside regions, where the Maya Chorti produce farm corn and beans, slopes are often steep and difficult to cultivate. This kind of terrain is also extremely vulnerable to erosion and much of it has become severely degraded and productivity has decreased as a result.Maya Chorti families live in adobe huts or huts made from sticks covered in plastic, with dirt floors and small living quarters.
It is not unusual to have 5 people sleeping on one bed together, and to have 10 or more people living in one room. Some families have a small plot of corn for subsistence, but have very little land, economic means or knowledge to grow other vegetables. Families generally cook over small mud ovens indoors without chimneys, resulting in pulmonary illnesses from long-term smoke inhalation.
Many families have almost no food for more than two months of the year, when they are virtually starving. Extreme malnutrition and the resulting incidences of illness and death among the Maya Chorti are of alarming proportions.
The Garifuna of the North Coast
Right between tropical rainforest and the Caribbean Sea in remote corner of Central America, 76 Garifuna villages lay scattered along hundreds of kilometers of beaches in the north coast of Honduras. Descendants of a 17th-century union of a fierce indigenous people with the survivors of two shipwrecked slave ships, the Garifuna inhabit one of the last pockets of communally held land in the world.
They live now as they have for centuries: relying on the sea for fishing, with little other means of subsistence or nourishment. Their environment is sandy and hot, and so not conducive to growing much in the way of vegetables. Their wooden homes are built along the beaches or on stilts above the water. The Garifuna men fish from dugout canoes and dive with spears along the reefs.
Over 100,000 Garifuna live along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and speak Spanish and Garifuna, which is mainly a combination of the South American Carib & Arawak languages.
The Garifuna are subject to poor sanitary conditions throughout most of the area. The lack of clinical establishments, basic infrastructure projects, illness prevention programs, and nutrition programs greatly affect The Garifuna. About 78% of the children under 12 years of age suffer from malnutrition, and 3 out of 10 will die before they are 2 years old.
72% of the population is illiterate or semi-illiterate. Not enough schools are provided for them in the nearby areas; and of the villages that have schools, only have teachers to provide them with enough education to reach a 3rd grade level and sometimes a 6th grade level if they are lucky.
Healthy Villages helps with the remote Garifuna villages in the Cayos Cochinos, a group of tiny islands off the north coast of Honduras. These islands are situated on a protected marine reserve, so the population is not allowed to fish commercially anymore, meaning that they have no other source of income. Thankfully, the World Wildlife Fund has funded some cultural tourism projects. Cabanas and restaurants on two islands, run entirely by the villages through organized cooperatives, gives the population some income. When we bring groups to help in the villages, we always stay with them to generate income through our stay there.
These villages are especially poor because they are on islands away from the resources of the mainland. There is no health care here and one village does not have naturally occuring fresh water, resulting in a host of skin ailments and sometimes dehydration. Family planning methods and help in child birth are also not available. There are no vegetables available to the population and their diet is limited to fried fish and starches, resulting in a high prevalence of diabetes. There is a wonderful two-room school on one island, where one brave teacher named ‘Profe’ , or teacher, has taught all six grades on his own for 30 years. The students from the other island go to school in canoes together when the weather is fair.
While they face daunting obstacles, the sense of community on these islands is formidable, and the people are overwhelmingly welcoming when we help with a project. The community meets to plan projects with us and everyone invariably shows up to pitch in with any work that is to be done. We eat fresh fish together every evening in the open air, with a palapa roof over our heads, and a group of women usually break into traditional Garifuna singing and dancing while the men keep the beat with their drums and trumpet on conch shells.
Healthy Villages works closely with these communities, filling needs and collaborating with the population. We have brought medical, dental and vision teams, taught health workshops, carried out AIDS counselling and testing, provided art, sports and music supplies and carried out lots of creative activities with these communities. Some projects for the coming year include plans to provide a cistern for rain collection, a composting and vegetable project and a library for the school. See our ‘donate’ page to learn more about helping to make these dreams a reality!