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Lessons from Honduras for Haiti's Recovery

New America Media, Interview, Marcelo Ballv Posted: Mar 07, 2010

Editors note: Recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile highlight the vulnerabilities of urban developments. Humanity is increasingly concentrated in environmentally fragile cities, like Port-au-Prince, Haitis capital, and Concepcin, Chiles second city. One result is that more and more peopleespecially the urban poorare left homeless after disaster strikes.

In the Amarateca Valley in central Honduras, relief organizations have built seven villages from scratch after Hurricane Mitch swept through Central America in October 1998. Ryan Alaniz, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota, has been living and researching in the Amarateca Valley. From his home there, he spoke to NAMs Marcelo Ballv about this experiment in community building.

Describe Hurricane Mitchs effect on Honduras.

About 10,000 people died. What made it devastating was that a number of dams broke and completely flooded a number of towns. The capital city was filled with 18 feet of mud and everything stopped. So the government could not function properly. In terms of infrastructure, towns throughout the entire country were affected. Mitch did not only sit on the coast, it went inland.

How are Honduras and Haiti similar in terms of their preparation for natural disasters and their response?

Politically speaking, both nations had a weak state, Haiti had a coup de etat not long ago and Honduras had one last year. Both countries are poor, obviously. Haiti is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. And Honduras is the third poorest and second poorest, by some measures. Hurricane Mitch affected more than half of the people in Honduras in some way, and its a similar proportion in Haiti. The population size is relatively is similar. When Mitch happened there were 6 million people in the country. In Haiti, there are 10 million people.

Also geographically, Port au Prince is in a valley and its in a mountainous area, and so is Tegucigalpa. And [in Haiti] theyll face the challenge of reconstruction in mountainous areas. Both countries have been subject to tremendous amounts of external influence both economically and politically speaking. What Im sure well see in Haiti is that NGOs will run the reconstruction process. The government will have a role, but the real decisions made will be made by those have the funds. The government will be a side shadow-player in rubber-stamping what these NGOs do. That is what happened in Honduras.

How did the plan arise to resettle people in the Amarateca Valley?

The government donated this area for the construction of housing for essentially seven communities. The seven communities were built by different organizations, and each of the organizations had a different philosophy and a different practice in development. Habitat for Humanity came and helped the people build houses and then left. Thats one extreme. The other extreme is Divina Providencia, where the fundacin [the Fundacin Cristo del Picacho, a local Catholic charity] came in, built the houses, had a strict application process, and has been intimately involved in the community.

You live in Divina Providencia. What is it like?

Youll drive up a winding dirt road like a mile, a mile and a half, and you have to honk so that you dont hit a guy coming around the corner. The road turns into a semi-paved road. Youll see two types of houses that are almost identical in size and materials. The biggest monument is the Catholic Church next to the Central Park, by the main street. People, dogs, horses and cattle, roam the streets, all times of the day.

The town is located in the valley foothills, and the hills are covered by pine trees. There is a pre-school and elementary school and a middle school. Theres one clinic. There are maybe four evangelical churches run out of homes. I would say there are probably about seven canchitas--dirt soccer fields. The market has about 44 shops. There are also 30 pulperas--people selling out of their homes. In all there are 585 homes, and about five people per homeabout 2,500 or 3,000 people in all.

Will there be a role for planned communities like Divina Providencia in Haiti for those who cant return home?

I think they will have to play a role. I think the disaster has made some areas unlivable and some areas so dangerous that the government will have to say, you cant live here anymore. Other organizations, like the United Nations, will help the government determine whos not safe: for example, some households, might be living below a cliff. If people cant return to their home it also often means that they cant buy another place. I dont know exactly how it will play out in Haiti, but I do believe there will absolutely be a need for planned communities.

How has the experiment in the Amarateca Valley worked?

All of the communities I studied, a significant majority of people say the new communities are better than were they lived before Mitch. So, even though they dont live close to the city, and they have new challenges--and in some communities crime is a problem--they are happier than they were living in Tegucigalpa. I ask a question: is your life better now in this community than in the community you lived in beforeon average 70 percent of people say its better.

What are some lessons learned by Honduras in the process of creating communities like Divina Providencia?

The first is to be careful of corruption, to really have high transparency. The second point would be for NGOs and government to think together about how they want to define the local governments sovereignty and how they want to think about NGOs influence. Where is that balance and how can people on both sides be happy with that balance? Who has power? Who makes decisions? What we see often is that the NGO will make a decision based on how much funding or personnel they have, so its a decision based on convenience for them. I want the NGOs to be more critical about that.

In Honduras, I think they thought of this as an opportunity, and that was a good thing. As the Cardinal said, I want to make a better Honduras through the community Im building, and the Red Cross said the same.

What mistakes should the Haitian government and NGOs avoid when they build new communities?

The communities [in the Amarateca Valley] were built by seven different organizations and none of the organizations ever communicated with one another. In some places, they handed the ownership titles to the people after they built the houses. In another community, residents had to pay off the houses for 15 years before they could get that title. So what you have is completely different ways of giving these houses to people. Now people are really angry because theyre still paying off these houses. And in other communities, through donations made internationally, people already own their houses.

Another big mistake was in terms of social control. People in a post-disaster situation are too vulnerable and dont have the resources to do it on their own. Here, gangs took over the first couple of communities that were built and they imposed a war tax, where the gang members would charge people in the community to enter and leave or charge households a tax to live in the community.

If these communities are built and left to develop on their own, there is a chance that criminals can take over these communities or that people could come to power in the communities and use them for their own purposes. So it could go either way but if these communities are created intentionally, then, yes, they can be a great source of housing.

Related Articles:

Climate Migration in Latin America: A Future Flood of Refugees to the North?

Honduras Heads List for Climate Risk

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