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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Hungry kids today, leaders tomorrow

Children head home after a day harvesting coffee


Whether you’re a kid in Canada or Honduras, your school is going to try to convince you to eat better. I attended a workshop for teachers this week here in Copan Ruinas that was introducing a seven-series program for primary kids that was all about food.
But that’s where the similarities end. While the Canadian efforts are aimed at stopping our kids from getting any fatter, the Honduran course is trying to stave off malnutrition. Listening to the Honduran group outlining the themes of the nutrition course was yet another reminder of just how tough things are in this struggling country.
Like so many other countries, Honduras is a signatory on at least a dozen big international agreements guaranteeing this or that right for the children of the country. But it’s all just words on paper. In the second-poorest country in the Americas, bad things happen to kids every day, and going hungry isn’t even the worst of it.
Honduras has laws prohibiting children from working until they’re 14. But in reality, kids from poor families typically start harvesting coffee when they’re seven.  Every day on my way home from work, a giant truck absolutely jammed with 50 or 60 indigenous kids from the poor communities around Copan trundles by, taking the children home after a day cutting coffee. You just need a glimpse of those tiny little faces peering out from what looks like a cattle carrier to have a new understanding of child slavery.
But what’s to be done about that? Some 65 per cent of Hondurans live in extreme or relative poverty – and relative poverty in Honduras is damn poor, that’s for sure. Families send their kids off to the coffee fields because they’re desperate for the money and the seasonal work pays comparatively well. 
If the country ever did get its act together enough to enforce its own laws around child labour, it would be devastating to families. We in the western world could launch a boycott of coffee harvested by children, but it would be like signing those kids’ death sentence in a country without a shred of social support to break a family’s fall.  One recent international study identified 123,000 Honduran children ages 5 to 14 who were working, including in the deadly lobster-diving industry that claims hundreds of lives a year in this country.   
The school nutrition course delves into subjects that Canadian kids never have to think about. Why your mom and dad feed you only beans and corn. Why a body needs more than that to live on. Where to find wild plants and fruits to bulk up your subsistence diet. Why a household needs money as well as land, because it’s just not possible to grow everything you need (especially on the sides of mountains with 50-70 per cent slopes, which is where the poorest families in Copan live). No surprise that almost a third of children under age five in Honduras suffer stunted growth from poor nutrition.
What’s to be done about all of this? I wish I knew. I’m learning a little more every day about a new, complicated reality, and every day I’m a little less sure what the answer is. I’ve heard that old adage about “planting seeds” a thousand times, and yes, I get it. But when you watch those big trucks rolling by with their cargo of children - or hear about teachers trying to manage classes of 50 or 60 children without desks, school supplies or bathrooms - it’s pretty hard to feel good about planting seeds.
Still, I watch the organization I’m volunteering with working hard with children and young people to create a new generation of leaders in Honduras. I take great heart from the young faces - some no more than nine or 10 years old – sitting at the various planning tables of CASM as genuine participants. Real leaders grow out of a process like that, and this country desperately needs them. 

1 comment:

janeyc said...

We felt that same seeing the kids in India - refusing school, being shoe-shines 'cos they had to earn money. It also made us realize why dog rescue and pet rights is not high on anyone's agenda! We have the luxury of all these 'concerns'. Their concern is living day-to-day.