COVID-19, hurricanes and Honduran hillside farmers: A Q&A with our partner organization

February 9, 2021

How are smallholder hillside Honduran farmers coping with the double whammy of COVID-19 and an intense hurricane season? We spoke with our local partner to find out.

COVID-19, hurricanes and Honduran hillside farmers - image shows a screenshot of a video call between seven people.
Top, from left to right: Beatriz Oliver (SeedChange), Paola Orellana (FIPAH), Verónica Zelaya (FIPAH) | Bottom, from left to right: Carlos Avila (FIPAH), Gioconda Ortega-Alarie (SeedChange), José Jiménez (FIPAH), Fredy Sierra (FIPAH)

[Este artículo está disponible en español.]

In Honduras, our partner organization, Fundación para la Investigación Participativa con Agricultores de Honduras (FIPAH), and the farmers we work with, are dealing simultaneously with pandemic disruptions and the aftermath of a disastrous 2020 hurricane season.

Our program managers Beatriz Oliver and Gioconda Ortega-Alarie spoke via video call with several members of the FIPAH team to get an update on how they’ve been affected by the pandemic and hurricanes and what this has taught them about the work they do in communities, together with farmers.

Sharing their insights and experiences were Paola Orellana (regional coordinator in Yorito), Fredy Sierra (administrative manager of monitoring and evaluation), José Jiménez (executive director), Carlos Avila (national coordinator) and Verónica Zelaya (regional coordinator in Jesús de Otoro).

[Editor’s note: This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity and length.]

Beatriz Oliver (SeedChange): Honduras was hard hit by the pandemic and hurricanes Iota and Eta. How is the situation today in the areas where you live and work?

Carlos Avila (FIPAH): Regarding the pandemic, the cases continue to increase in our area. But we still do not have real figures. We have infrastructure problems in the communities where we are working. [Many] checkpoints have been closed and the communities cannot be accessed.

If we talk about crops—if we talk about coffee, which is one of the main crops for family income—it has been affected by the rains, which decreased production. Also, due to the lack of mobility, there are problems with getting help for coffee harvesting. This has caused uncertainty in the communities.

The production of basic grains, corn and beans, was also severely affected by the hurricanes, reducing production. The groups we work with have managed to produce a certain amount of food in the communities. This meant there was some food availability.

Paola Orellana (FIPAH): It is important to highlight that the farmers organized in CIALs [local farmer-researcher committees that SeedChange supports] in this case did not have difficulties in accessing grains and seeds, since they had them in their community seed banks or family reserves. This is in contrast to other families in the community who experienced food insecurity.

When the municipality was shut down for a long time, we saw the importance of the local seed systems.

Verónica Zelaya, FIPAH regional coordinator in Jesús de Otoro
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Verónica Zelaya (FIPAH): Here [in FIPAH-supported rural communities], when the municipality was shut down for a long time, we saw the importance of the local seed systems. Sales of basic products [which come from rural areas] were affected by mobility restrictions. We collaborated in the distribution of food aid baskets and saw that in the city the food problem is much more serious. In the communities they had some crops for food and they had seed that they knew how to select.

Gioconda Ortega-Alarie (SeedChange): What has been the biggest challenge for you and your team in 2020?

Paola Orellana (FIPAH): It should be noted that there’s triple work for women. Working from home is a much heavier burden. Being at home means greater demands to take care of the children. This has been a challenge for the team, to see how to organize work from home. The new normal for us is still a challenge because the Internet connections that we have are very poor. At any moment on a work call, the connection is lost.

[At this point, Jose Jiménez disappears from the call.]

Now, it so happens that Jiménez says that the power went out where he is, so he had to leave. All these things have limited or slowed down the work being done at the community level.

Beatriz Oliver (SeedChange): Are schools still closed?

Paola Orellana (FIPAH): Yes, that has caused lots of complications for young people. They have had to attend their classes virtually. But in rural areas there is no Internet access. Sometimes, people have a cell phone to connect. But often people do not have the money to buy phone credit. This has limited education a lot. The moms in these cases have to follow up on the children’s homework. And in our rural areas, most of the women have difficulties with reading and writing, so this has been quite complicated for them.

Beatriz Oliver (SeedChange): Can you share some other examples of the types of challenges that farmers have faced in the past year?

Fredy Sierra (FIPAH): In the countryside, in the areas where we are working, there is the challenge of imparting hope that better times are coming. I think that is the biggest challenge we have.

What happens at the macro level has an important effect. That is to say, we can be doing a good job of supporting farmers, and we can develop with them many beneficial practices for their production… But then we must also deal with insecurity. Things that at the country level become a challenge.

That’s why caravans [large groups of people migrating together] are organized all the time because people no longer see how they can cope with everything that’s coming in terms of food security, people’s security, for having a future.

It’s a mix of things to address. The challenges are many… Educational and access to land and credit. Undoubtedly we feel that where we are working there is hope. But what is more influential is often what the farmer next door is doing—if the neighbour is saying “I am leaving, why don’t you come with me?”

Verónica Zelaya (FIPAH): There has been an incredibly high increase in gender-based violence and domestic violence. We met with those in charge of the Women’s Offices, and the cases of violence in the communities are very sad: Having the husband always there, spending every day in the house when we were completely locked down, seeing the frustration of not being able to bring food to the house, or alcohol or drug problems as well that increased the violence for the woman and the children.

We’ve had a lot of limitations to participation in meetings of associations such as the National Bean Chain and the municipal Women’s Networks, because not all farmers have Internet access in their communities.

Marketing for the small-scale initiatives we support was quite limited, because everything was completely closed. Sometimes, groups wanted to send people to sell coffee but they couldn’t get the coffee out on time. [During lockdown] the person would be subject to a sanction for circulating when they shouldn’t and they could have the coffee taken away.

Jeidy Marilú Domínguez Morales, farmer, and Verónica Zelaya in 2018. (Photo: Kath Clark/SeedChange)

José Jiménez (FIPAH): In rural areas, the situation with Internet is more critical because [the infrastructure] does not exist. For example, out of 25 students in my son’s grade, 17 did not participate because they did not have Internet.

Verónica Zelaya (FIPAH): There is quite a lot of dropout of young people and children from schools. Imagine a family with three children, all with virtual classes. They are not going to have enough money to pay for an Internet package for their three children to be in class. As one woman was telling us, sometimes it was up to her to choose which of her children were going to attend class at that time.

José Jiménez (FIPAH): One of the advantages that the compañeros and compañeras with whom we are working have is that they always have the opportunity to be able to get some income or food through agroforestry systems.

The situation with the pandemic plus the storms [hurricanes Eta and Iota] has made the situation in the country critical, not only at the urban area level but also at the rural area level. And remember that in the urban areas, everything that is consumed is produced in the rural areas, right? And if there is not enough up there [on the farms], it is even worse down here [in the towns]. The food security situation is a strong challenge that the country is facing.

Beatriz Oliver (SeedChange): Reflecting on the last five years of the Seeds of Survival program with SeedChange, what effect has that work had on communities that can help people to cope with the difficulties they are facing now?

Carlos Avila (FIPAH): There are several strategies that have allowed us to create better conditions in these difficult times. One of them is having the local capacity to produce and store seeds and grains. The seed issue has become quite complicated. In fact, there has been very little availability of seeds from the government or other sources. It is the farmers who have led these processes in the communities and at the regional level. So this has had a good impact today.

And we could mention other areas, for example agroecology. We have always talked about this in our team. Many farmers who implement this type of practice in their farms, we know that they are more resilient to these situations such as these heavy rains. This type of system allows crops to have greater possibilities to develop, produce, and face adverse situations caused by excessive rainfall such as pests and diseases.

All those agroforestry systems and the diversified plots that we have promoted have allowed families to have food diversity in their communities.

José Jiménez (FIPAH): Capacity building has been a very good strategy, which has given very good results because the farmer can more easily respond to these problems. Even without money, the person has the knowledge to be able to manage their crop better. The farmer knows how to control pests, how to manage diseases, the different problems in the field. They know, and look for, solutions. And this also allows them to help other farmers in the community. So we see the importance of training.

Carlos Avila (FIPAH): The training that farmers have received thanks to the support of the program has been very valuable in these difficult times.

José Jiménez (FIPAH): Because it makes it easier for people to find answers. As a result of this training we have the production of new seed varieties, we have the production of inputs and other alternatives that the farmer can—without buying anything—use at home with their own resources. So while we often do not recognize the importance of capacity building, it is one of the activities in which we’ve had the best achievements.

Paola Orellana (FIPAH): The organic input microenterprises [biofábricas] have played a very important role in the reactivation of the means of production because they have been able to respond [to the need] for access to inputs quickly and efficiently. Many of the organizations in the area that are responding are now using these inputs. Because it has already been proven that the agroecological practices we have been promoting for years respond better in these adverse climate conditions.

The biofábricas now have a very strong economic opportunity in the area.

Fredy Sierra (FIPAH): For me, one of the key strategies is we have restored farmers’ confidence. With that confidence, they are capable of resisting any situation.

Beatriz Oliver (SeedChange): Which specific strategies that FIPAH has been supporting are of critical importance right now? For example, Paola, can you tell us about Bennis Margarita Castro and how the practices she’s implementing to cope with climate change?

Paola Orellana (FIPAH): A woman named Bennis had implemented agroecology and soil and water conservation practices on her farm in La Esperanza where most farmers plant on steep slopes that are not suitable for planting—but these are the only lands that are available. She and her husband, Odir, used agroforestry systems and implemented soil and water conservation. After the hurricanes, they did not have any problems with landslides or anything like that in their plots, compared to their neighbours who lost a large part of their plots because of landslides. So they were able to prove that the fact of being able to manage water and have a diversity of plants gives them better options to be able to face these adverse climate changes.

Plus now they have better availability of different foods. Their diet is much more varied. This even allows them to have some extra income to improve the quality of life of their families.

COVID-19, hurricanes and Honduran hillside farmers - image of a woman in a dress standing in a steep field of bean plants that come up to her mid-shin.
Bennis in one of the plots in the family farm. (Photo: Odir Palma)

Beatriz Oliver (SeedChange): Carlos, can you tell us about the importance of seed availability? Will seed storage from community seed banks be important now?

Carlos Avila (FIPAH): With this situation we have gone through, both the pandemic and the hurricanes, the need for seeds in the communities has become evident. Many people lost their entire crops, in fact, they lost their seeds.

There are many farmers who set aside their own seed for the next planting but with these hurricanes and too much rain, many, many plots were lost. So farmers have to have somewhere to go to renew their seed. And that is where the CIALs, the seed committees, the seed banks have played a very important role, providing that seed so that farmers can rescue their varieties and crops in the communities.

We had always talked about that—that all this work was going to be for those difficult times. And we got to those difficult times. We realized the importance of having seeds available, seeds of different varieties adaptable to all those agroecological conditions we have in the country.

José Jiménez (FIPAH): There are many farmers requesting the seeds we’ve developed. And in this way the seed reaches other farmers in the country. These materials have been disseminated quite a bit.

You have to remember that this is work that farmers develop for farmers.

Fredy Sierra (FIPAH): It gives us great satisfaction to know from farmers in the area that the seeds developed by the CIALs give a better response than the other material they had. That motivates us a lot. We are bringing the right seed at the right time. And that is very important.

Gioconda Ortega-Alarie (SeedChange): And in the future, why would it be important to continue supporting this type of work?

José Jiménez (FIPAH): CIALs produce seed. Through their participatory plant breeding work, CIALs give rise to new seed materials, which we disseminate to many places. There are even farmers beyond our reach who manage to improve their production, yields and sales [with the use of seeds produced by FIPAH and SeedChange-supported CIALs]. Think about CIALs, seed committees, community seed banks, seed guardians, their small businesses. We have to strengthen these areas.

But seed does not come alone. Rather it comes accompanied by a series of actions that are important to maintain and continue to strengthen.

The fact that the capacities of the farmers are strengthened, regardless of the issue at hand, helps them to be resilient when faced with the problems that arise in the communities. This has been clear in how farmers have responded during the pandemic and storms. That makes us very proud.

And because we know that from that work there is food. We know that there is food sufficiency in many places where everything was lost.

Gioconda Ortega-Alarie (SeedChange): Looking at 2020, what has been the most rewarding thing for you or what has given you hope?

José Jiménez (FIPAH): Hope? Hope really is the last thing to go.

[I take hope from] the fact that farmers have responded to this issue. I remember when hurricane Mitch came in 1998, we had no response at all. But today other worse phenomena are coming and we have the answers from the farmers. That gives us hope.

What does that mean? That we are learning. The farmers and us too.

And that organizations like SeedChange that support us gives us hope. It’s hope for us to be able to support thousands of Hondurans who are working in the communities. It energizes us.

And that Sally Humphries [long-time collaborator from the University of Guelph] is also with us gives us hope. We know we are not alone.

Fredy Sierra (FIPAH): We have to transmit that hope when we go to the communities [where we work with farmers].

Paola Orellana (FIPAH): It is gratifying for me to see how farmers are able to immediately respond to reestablish production in the short term after a shock. For us it is very gratifying.

Seeing how seed produced through this program can also reach other communities and other municipalities through other organizations and can also help reestablish production in other areas.

Despite adversity we always know there is hope.

José Jiménez (FIPAH): And more so when we go to La Esperanza [a rural community where Paola works, whose name literally translates to “hope”]!

All: [laughing]

COVID-19, hurricanes and Honduran hillside farmers - image of a woman standing in a sloped corn field. She smiles toward the camera.
Isidora Garcia

Verónica Zelaya (FIPAH): In my case, I wanted to comment on the role of women. We have a colleague, Isidora García, who always says that in CIALs women take ownership of the processes, women speak up, they leave their shyness behind. It’s incredible the personal growth that the women have had.

Something that is very gratifying for me personally is the relationship we have with the farmers. They open their homes to us, they give us their trust. That’s something that drives us to continue with this work.

Carlos Avila (FIPAH): This situation confirms the importance of work in rural areas. This pandemic has taught me that it is more important to be in the field producing food than anything else you could do. We are in the hands of the farmers.

We are very pleased to have an organization like SeedChange that supports us.

Beatriz Oliver (SeedChange): Thank you very much for all the incredible work you do.