Friday, August 03, 2012

The hard work of being poor

The young woman walks this dirt road twice a day, 90 minutes each way. She carries her nine-month-old baby in her arms while her two other children - seven and four - follow behind. Seven days a week, they walk from their mud house in La Pintada to the park in Copan Ruinas, where they sell corn husk dolls to tourists  for a dollar apiece.
It's a tough way to make a living. On a really good day, the family might sell 10 dolls. But the woman says there are many days when she doesn't sell any. She not only has to contend with the struggling tourist economy in Copan, but compete with all the other women and children from her village who walk to the park every day as well to sell their own corn husk dolls.
Life is hard for the poor in any developing country. But in the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere, it's brutal. People work long hours for little money, and in many cases start and end each day with walks of two hours or more just to get to their work site.
I regularly run into Rumilda on my bird walks in the hills, a Maya-Chorti woman in her 70s whose daily round-trip journey to sell tortillas or corn in the Copan public market takes her five or six hours. It didn't used to take that long, but her knees are bad now and she has to take a lot of rests along the way.
She's got family in the aldea where she lives, but they're no better off than she is. Everybody has to work, and every precious lempira gets spent. Some development agencies working in Honduras like to talk about the need to encourage a "saving culture" in the country, but I wouldn't count on that idea taking hold anytime soon. People don't have enough money for today, let alone tomorrow.
The per-capita gross domestic product in Honduras is $3,448. Mexicans look rich by comparison at $12,429, and wealthy countries like the U.S. and Canada have rates that are more than 10 times higher than Honduras.
But that $3,400 figure is just what comes out when you add everything up and divide by eight million people. There are many, many Hondurans who earn much less than $3,400 a year. That's particularly true in rural areas, where three-quarters of the country's poorest citizens live. One in four households in Honduras has to get by on the equivalent of $1.25 US a day - less than $500 a year.
I suspect the corn husk doll vendors of La Pintada are in that category. Could there ever be enough tourists to buy all those corn husk dolls clutched in the hands of sad-eyed children dogging the heels of every gringo who passes through the park?
I'm pretty sure the elderly Nueva Esperanza man who walks countless kilometres every day to find firewood to sell is also in that category. His poor old neck is so bent from his heavy load that he can't even look straight ahead anymore - just down to those dirt roads beneath his feet. It's not uncommon to see whole families emerging from narrow trails through the forest with big bundles of wood on their shoulders, scavenged from the increasingly bare-looking hillsides around here to be sold in the street.
A half a block away from our house in Copan, I'm getting to know Doris, the cheerful native of San Pedro Sula who makes the best baleadas in town. She has been in Copan for a year now, and does well enough in her little restaurant to afford the $100 rent for the commercial space and another $100 for her home. But that's only because she works seven days a week, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. She's been doing that for 30 years.
Stories of deprivation from poor countries are nothing new, of course. But here's what's unsettling about the situation in Honduras: Poverty is worsening. In the last 20 years, the country has seen a 15 per cent increase in the number of people living below the national poverty line. More than two-thirds of Hondurans are now below that line.
That news probably wouldn't come as much of a surprise to the people who live here. They're well aware of how poor they are. But where exactly is this struggling country going? While other Latin American slowly make progress, Honduras is losing ground.

Sources for the statistics in this post: International Human Development Index; U.S.Congressional Research Service; World Vision; International Fund forAgricultural Development; Index Mundi (various sources)


Anonymous said...

To paraphrase Monbiot, if all there was to becoming rich was hard work, it sure looks to me like a lot of Hondurans should be wealthy.

Raleigh Storage Facility said...

What has the Honduran government done about it? If there is one way to beat poverty, it has to be through the help of the government.