Thursday, April 11, 2013
Hard road to travel
It's difficult to know where to start in a country with a lot of problems. Give the kids a better education? Prepare subsistence farmers for tough days to come? Do something about all the murders? Advocate for better wages? Look for economic opportunities to address chronic unemployment?
Nor is it easy to priorize when a country has strong distinctions between its classes, with all its problems at the bottom of the economic scale and all the wealthy, influential people at the top.
Honduras is made up of a thin crust of rich, powerful people, a small and struggling middle class, millions of people living in poverty, and an emerging class of “nouveau riche” who work in the cocaine import/export business. Tough to find consensus among groups as disparate as that.
But if I could be so bold as to suggest a starting point – a start-small kind of project that will benefit every Honduran across all social classes – how about this: Fix the damn roads.
I just spent five brutal hours today bouncing home from La Campa, Lempira, a 128-kilometre trip that requires a traveller to pass along three of what have to be among the worst sections of paved road in the country: Gracias, Lempira, to Santa Rosa de Copan; Santa Rosa to La Entrada; and La Entrada to Copan Ruinas. I'm also barely a month home from our epic bus journey to the Moskitia, which took me to new depths of understanding as to what it means to travel a “bad road” in Honduras.
So yes, the country's ridiculous roads are weighing on my mind right now. But really, just think about it for a minute: Couldn't you take a big step toward improving almost every problem in Honduras just by giving people better roads?
Take poverty, for instance. Bad roads aren't the cause of poverty, but they surely add to it.
Honduras has probably been the site of thousands of noble economic-development projects over the years in impoverished, out-of-the-way villages, but few appear to have taken into account that unless people can get their goods to market, nothing will change.
I'm always running into charming little micro empresas in the middle of nowhere that have been started by some well-intentioned foreign entity wanting to give villagers a new, marketable skill that would lift the town out of poverty. The villages always seem to be located many hours away from the nearest commercial centre of any size, up dirt “roads” so terrible that only an earnest NGO type or a missionary would ever travel on them willingly.
Yet there they are, all these tiny businesses at the end of the road, producing pretty pottery or plant-based paper products with not a chance of getting any of it to market. I visited one yesterday up in the mountains above La Campa.
For the last seven years, the five women who run the micro empresa have been boiling up leaves of local plants to make really great-looking paper, cards and fancy little gift boxes. But other than a small shipment of goods that goes to market in Gracias a couple of times a year, the only sales the group has are when people like me stumble upon them on the way to somewhere else and drop $5 for a few things.
I've met other groups of women producing everything from bread, woven goods, jewelry from recycled materials, ceramics or honey who all face the same problem. Their operations are a long way from a commercial centre, they're too poor to have their own vehicles, and the roads are much too rough for buses to set up a service. Others are helped to set up vegetable gardens, small coffee plantations and tilapia ponds as a means of lifting them out of poverty. But they, too, can't get around the transportation problems.
As for the rich and powerful – well, they have to want better roads, too. Roads that are almost universally rutted, pot-holed, nausea-inducing and frequently accessible only by 4x4 add significantly to the risk of an accident and the time it takes to get anywhere. Unless you're wealthy enough to own a helicopter, rich and poor alike spend an inordinate amount of time in Honduras jouncing along truly horrible roads. Whatever business they're in, the condition of the roads likely affects their bottom line as well.
Then there's the middle-class – the ones making maybe $10,000 a year, which is just about enough to be able to start dreaming about the possibilities of a better future for your kids. Some live hours away from their families because there's no work nearby, and can't possibly consider a commute on abysmal roads that take three or four times as long to drive as you'd expect based solely on the distance.
They know that a decent education is the best hope their children have. But it can be a tremendous struggle just to work out the transportation issues around getting them to school. It's generally pretty easy to find nearby schools up to Grade 6, but colegios are scarce and often many hard miles away from the family home. Decent roads and a daily bus service could have a dramatic impact on education levels in the country.
Those in the country's bustling cocaine import/export business have to want better roads, too. Planes and boats bring the cocaine from Colombia into the country, but much of it travels on roads after that as it moves toward markets in the U.S. and Canada.
Having been to the Moskitia and travelled the only road out of there – which gives “beach-front drive” new meaning – I'm sure transport is quite an issue for those guys as well. I'm not suggesting that better roads for narco-traficantes should be a goal, just noting that even they should be on-side with priorizing road repair.
Come on, people. Just do it. There's a whole lot more to tackle after that, but the wheels of progress can't possibly get a grip on roads as bad as these.