The community of Carricillos Arriba lies amid the serene highlands of Olancho, Honduras, lush green land sprinkled with banana and palm groves laden with fresh harvest, mountain trails veiled with the canopies of towering oaks and pastures echoing the sound of birds and bees.
Rosa Elvira Castro, 63, has spent most of her life in these highlands, milking cows, feeding pigs and cultivating corn, beans and coffee. As much as she enjoys taking care of her pastures and its inhabitants now, this wasn’t her childhood dream.
Until the age of 27, Rosa struggled with epileptic seizures. As a young girl, lack of health facilities in her vicinity and the ordeal of traveling several days each month to procure medicine from Juticalpa, the capital city, encouraged her to pursue a career in nursing. However, when the time came, she couldn’t afford to leave home for the six-month resident training in the south of the country — and couldn’t complete her nursing course. “It was difficult,” she said, referring to her decision to give up. “It was my dream.”
Rosa is not the only one who has had to discard her ambitions. Widespread poverty and difficult socioeconomic and security conditions have forced many in Olancho to abandon their dreams, some even leaving their families and communities altogether in search of reliable livelihood opportunities. Heifer is working with Rosa and other families in the area to fulfill their aspirations and achieve more, at home.
Around 4.8 million people live below the poverty line in Honduras, and agriculture is their main source of income. However, inadequate earnings, unfavorable weather and insufficient infrastructure have resulted in declining livelihood opportunities and a surge in people leaving the community.
When Rosa and Ramón Lainez, her husband, moved to Carricillos Arriba after their marriage, they built their farm brick by brick, cultivating corn, beans and coffee, and rearing cattle — but the production and income were rarely enough to sustain the family. In Honduras, corn, coffee and beans are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the region’s erratic rains and natural disasters causing low yields, decreased quality and production losses.
When Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, it poured down a year’s worth of rain and left behind a trail of flooded farms and broken houses and bridges. “We could not move,” shared Rosa, recalling how local communication networks collapsed and they could not access necessary food, health supplies and services for several weeks.
Absence of higher-education institutions nearby also kept Rosa’s son, Carlos, from studying beyond sixth grade. The closest secondary school was hours away and the sole dirt road that traveled there would often get washed away due to rain, leaving it impassable.
To escape the dearth of opportunities and in search of a dependable livelihood, Carlos left home and travelled to the US, and Rosa stepped up to take the responsibility of raising his children, Kellyn and Marvin Alexis.
Income from abroad is a mainstay for many poor families in Honduras, and Carlos sends the family $200 every chance he has.
Rosa has seen a generation grow and move to other countries, often leaving behind their families. “I want the young people to have a better level [of education],” she said. “So that they come out as professionals, and they don’t migrate.”
Heifer has been working with smallholder farmers in Honduras to build profitable farms for a decade. By strengthening existing livestock rearing practices and introducing complementary agricultural value chains, such as beekeeping, Heifer is helping farmers like Rosa diversify their income streams, improve production, enhance quality of their produce and earn sustainable living income for their families — all within their communities.
Producers are grouped into Farmer Field Schools — each group consisting of 10 to 15 members — and provided training on livestock rearing techniques and feeding practices. This includes knowledge on how to manage pastures, prevent overgrazing, prepare supplemental feed with the help of mineral salts, and access healthcare services for livestock from trained extension service providers. Both Rosa and Kellyn, now 25, have received training from Heifer to provide animal health services to local livestock producers.
“Before Heifer we didn't know things like working properly with cows,” said Kellyn. “If they got sick we just tried to get rid of them because we couldn't find a cure or how to fix it. Now with Heifer we know about diseases cattle get, how to treat it, how to treat deficiencies.”
Rosa and Kellyn can now identify conditions like mastitis, or inflammation of the mammary glands in cattle that leads to decreased milk production, and know how to treat it. This allows them to support cattle farmers in raising healthy animals that provide nutritious milk and additional income to their families.
Heifer has also been trying to revitalize a profitable but dying industry in Honduras — beekeeping, a practice that was virtually abandoned in several departments in 2012 after a disease named Nosema killed many bees.
To support beekeepers, Heifer organized training sessions for Farmer Field Schools on beehives, sanitation, honey production, processing and techniques to prevent diseases in bees. Heifer has distributed 450 two-level honey producing beehives. Currently, 32 field schools in Olancho produce nearly 14,000 bottles of honey a year, providing supplementary income to farmer households and populating pastures with these prolific pollinators.
“[In] Honduras throughout the years, young people are migrating; they are leaving their towns, villages.” shared Olman Gaitan, livestock chain specialist at Heifer Honduras. Heifer’s technical assistance and entrepreneurship training have allowed them to continue working in livestock in their home communities, he added.
To generate employment opportunities within her community, Rosa started a youth-led beekeeping initiative with the help of Heifer. She now helps a small group of young people manage 13 beehives. The group recently harvested 60 liters of honey, nearly 16 gallons, which they sold for 150 lempira, around $6, a liter. The money was reinvested in a rural bank where farmers pool their money and provide low interest loans to each other. The group hopes to use their savings to expand their beekeeping operations in the future.
Kellyn appreciates her grandmother's resolution to inspire youth. “She is an elderly person who likes to get involved in everything that is good to the local community,” she said.
Rosa and Kellyn now keep bees and pigs, graze their cows on healthy pastures and earn additional income by providing extension services to other producers in the community. With the milk from their cows, they prepare cuajada, a variety of traditionally made cheese — a dish Kellyn’s 8-month-old son, Ian, relishes.
Rosa no longer dreams of becoming a nurse, but she hasn’t given up on the future. She wants her grandson Marvin to pursue his interest in robotics, and she now envisions having a local secondary school that will help the upcoming generations access education and follow their dreams. With Heifer’s help, she believes it will happen.