Friday, February 17, 2012
If Only Corn-Husk Dolls Were All It Took
We took a horseback ride yesterday up to a little Chorti village not far from Copan, La Pintada. Before any of us got a foot on the ground, children started running toward us from all directions, clutching the corn-husk dolls that are a common sight for any tourist visiting Copan. In seconds they had us surrounded.
Once upon a time, somebody with the best of intentions introduced to this tiny, impoverished community the concept of making and selling corn-husk dolls to tourists. I recall reading about the project somewhere in the various bits and pieces of literature I took in during the run-up to moving to Honduras. On paper, it sounded like a great idea for social enterprise.
But of course, reality is something different. The corn-husk dolls are charming enough - bright-coloured trinkets that I can imagine a few tourists might buy, albeit with some concern as to whether they will be able to clear customs without getting hassled about the dusty corn cob at the centre of each doll. Unfortunately, there aren’t a heck of a lot of tourists coming to Honduras these days, and the percentage who want a corn-husk doll is considerably smaller than the vast numbers of Chorti children really hoping someone will buy.
So the whole thing has taken on an air of desperation. Children as young as two or three now wander the streets of Copan trying to hawk corn-husk dolls. The older ones follow the gringos around with sad eyes and urgent pleas, as if their very lives depended on you buying a corn-husk doll. I fear that in some cases, that might even be true.
I’m presuming the project was intended as community development, something that tapped into a “traditional” skill to bring money to an impoverished village. But how many corn-husk dolls does it take to lift a struggling community out of poverty? If you saw the shoeless, hungry-looking kids who sell these things - the rough-looking houses that their families live in, without running water and for the most part without electricity - it’s pretty obvious that all the tourists in Honduras couldn’t buy enough corn-husk dolls to turn these people’s lives around.
We took a short walk through the handful of dusty little trails that constitute streets in La Pintada and came across another good idea gone wrong. The women in the village do some beautiful weaving - placemats, table runners, scarves and the like, in dazzling colours. There’s a sign outside the tiny building where they’re sold that proudly points to the “micro enterprise” inside.
Alas, you have to come to La Pintada to buy the weaving, because it isn’t sold anywhere else. There are at least a half-dozen tourist-oriented stores in Copan Ruinas hawking goods from China, India and elsewhere, but you won’t find the local weaving anywhere other than at the top of a mountain that most tourists will never visit unless they happen to like riding horses.
It smacks of one of those projects that kind-hearted people from elsewhere conceive of, but then leave to die on the vine in the hands of locals who have no idea how to market the goods or get them to town. Everybody presumes somebody else will take the project to the next level, but no one ever does.
We have to continue to work toward eradicating poverty. I admire the Westerners who come with their big hearts and novel projects to underdeveloped countries and try to make a difference. But unless local people have the capacity, cultural understanding and means to sustain and nurture such projects, generations of Chorti children will have little but handfuls of corn-husk dolls and disappointment to show for their efforts.