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  Number 213 | Abril 1999
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Honduras

An Exodus in Search of Housing

Six months after Mitch, the government is planning but letting nobody in on its secrets, making promises it has so far failed to fulfill, and making declarations but not allowing participation. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans wait for a roof over their heads. Four of the main challenges in the "exodus" of these refugees are obtaining land, organizing the communities, ensuring a decent life in the new settlements and providing housing that is not a charitable give-away.

Ricardo Falla

Five months have passed since the waters of the Pelo River suddenly and furiously rose, breaking their banks and sweeping away hundreds of houses in the city of El Progreso. The waters soon returned to their normal, modest level but the refugees faced a long wait until the first 150 families were finally moved from the five temporary shelters set up in local schools to the so-called "macro-shelter." The move finally came on April 1.

From temporary to macro-shelters

While a continuous line of yellow buses shuttled Easter vacationers to the wonderful beaches of Tela, the homeless families were engaged in what one refugee termed "the second departure." The first had taken them from the banks of the Pelo to temporary shelters set up in school buildings; the second is from those to macro-shelters. It is hoped that the third departure will prove the last, leading them from the macro-shelters to their own definitive plots of land and houses.

The macro-shelter in El Progreso is made up of around 15 modules of varying sizes with a total of 440 cubicles. The biggest modules have 32 cubicles arranged in two rows. The raised organic latrines at one end of each module are a curiosity to the refugees. At the other end are shower stalls, water taps and washbasins. Two communal kitchens are planned for either extreme under the almost certainly erroneous supposition that the families will prefer not to cook individually.

The modules are all on different levels, with those highest up receiving the fresh Atlantic breezes while those lower down are in a kind of basin that acts as a heat trap. The land on which the macro-shelter is located is surrounded by abandoned fields where the inhabitants who have little experience using latrines will probably go to defecate, running the risk of being bitten by summer ticks.

The land obtained for this second-stage temporary housing has various owners, the most conspicuous being El Progreso's local "boss" and parliamentary representative Roberto Micheletti, who also heads the soon-to-be privatized state telephone company HONDUTEL. It is not known what kind of agreement was made with the landowners but judging from other similar deals it has probably been temporarily leased out. Even though the refugees will take the shelter's metal sheet roofing and prefab wall panels with them when they leave, the owners will certainly benefit from the deal if only because the UN's Organization for International Migrations (OIM) had to level off the land.

At the gates of the promised land

The families were almost desperate to get out of the temporary shelters in the schools, having suffered increasing harassment by teachers, parents and schoolchildren. The refugees were quite aware that they were disrupting school life—the teachers were shouting themselves hoarse giving classes in the open air—but they were hardly there by choice. They had to keep reminding the school's rightful users that they were only there because that "goddamned river" landed them there.

When I saw the cubicles I feared the people were in for a shock. Each cubicle measures just four meters square and the sheet-metal roof is so low that at midday the heat is unbearable. There isn't a single tree around to provide shade and little water is available–just one tap among 32 families. In addition to the strange latrines being an unknown quantity for the inhabitants, their use is further complicated by being designed according to both sex and specific use. The organizers put up this sign: "women, poop only." The latrines designated for urinating face the open fields, those for defecating face the modules. There are no basins big enough to wash clothes, and for now no kitchens. And with just one overhead light bulb in each cubicle, there is little light and nowhere to connect an electric fan to improve ventilation.

I returned at 5:00 in the afternoon. The module cast a cool shadow as the evening sun began to sink and men, women and children were sitting around in a lively group. They weren't dejected. Each family was setting up its tortilla griddle, made from a piece of sheet metal or a metal barrel top balanced on stones. They had collected firewood from nearby and the tortillas were already heating up. The atmosphere was pleasant. People were happy because they had felt bad in the schools with everyone wanting them to leave. They had also lacked privacy with several families living in the same schoolroom, whereas here the larger families had even been assigned two cubicles.

These people will stay in the macro-shelters for up to a year, until the permanent lands and dream houses that they "will never leave" are ready. Then they will depart for their "promised land."

Forging a sense of community

The shortage of basic services such as latrines, individual kitchens, water, places to wash clothes, electric outlets and areas for children and young people to play are all problems that need to be dealt with, but the main problem is how to create a community. Homeless families face an experience similar to those in an exodus. It was in the desert that the Hebrews, at that time only a bunch of oppressed families, became a people and started to organize. The macro-shelter groups together families that were formerly dispersed in 27 schools around the city and are only now getting to know each other. That dispersion made communication difficult among the representatives of the different groups of refugees and between them and their grass roots. Now it will be easier. They can hold meetings, putting out the word over a loudspeaker system, and they can start a consumer cooperative. Also, the fight to ensure that the macro-shelter really does remain just a temporary solution should prove an important factor in uniting the families around a common cause.

Many rows of flimsy cubicles have been thrown up by landowners to rent to the flood of urban migrants in the cities of northern Honduras. The fear is that the macro-shelter could become a permanent macro-version of this if the definitive land and housing solution gets blocked.

The formation of a real community will face many obstacles. These people have little or no organizational experience and each group brings its own specific social problems, including youth gangs. The macro-shelter is open in social and political terms as well as physically—several of the school-shelters were fenced in and locked at night. Political parties and different church sects looking for converts will probably target them. Thus the formation of a community will require an effort of ecumenical and pastoral coordination even among the different Catholic groups.

The decision to move on

The move followed a series of meetings among shelter representatives, representatives of the urban refugees and the Church's reconstruction committee, which has a housing commission. The meetings culminated in the question: "Should we move now, even though the macro-shelter isn't finished?" In the end it was decided that they should. They also decided to hold a protest outside the municipal government buildings to demand the installation of basic services in the macro-shelter and the speeding up of the purchase of the land for permanent housing.

The reconstruction committee also invited the teachers to join the protest with the aim of unifying their struggles. The idea was to unite the teachers and the refugees without treating the refugees as either angels or disorderly delinquents. The time was ripe for such a move as the teachers were themselves fighting against a decree that stripped them of several days' vacation.

The resulting event was the second big protest in El Progreso this year. The first had come a month earlier when a group of peasants took over the Ulúa River Bridge, cutting all communication between San Pedro Sula and El Progreso and between El Progreso and the whole Atlantic Coast. That one had a national focus: to force Congress to drop a series of projects aimed at burying what remains of the agrarian reform.

Our protest lasted from 8am to 2pm and shook the whole city. It also succeeded in shaking the city mayor from his lethargy. The Catholic Church radio station, Radio Progreso, not only loaned the protesters its sound system but also broadcast the whole protest live. A violent confrontation occurred at one point at the entrance to the municipal buildings when a police officer put his pistol to the neck of a journalist and a woman knocked it to the ground. Disarmed and feeling vulnerable, the police officer reacted by hitting the woman in the face. Since the incident was transmitted live, people immediately ran to the scene to see what had happened. The pressure forced the mayor to negotiate, which effectively ensured that the Easter week move would take place.

Pressure and dialogue

Word ran through the city that the Church was behind the refugees, building people's hope's. But in fact the Church is not behind the refugees so much as with them. The refugees themselves are very conscious that the only way of obtaining anything at this particular time in Honduras is by exerting pressure while at the same time remaining open to dialogue. Pressure and dialogue, dialogue and pressure: that is the way, especially with local authorities. The authorities are distracted by a thousand different duties and are not typically inspired by or interested in the welfare of the population, from which they remain isolated. Unless the refugees can break these bureaucrats' routines and get their attention, they simply don't hear the refugees' daily but semi-silent clamor.

But pressure and dialogue also have their potential dangers. The only way to stop pressure from turning into ungovernability and chaos that trigger bloody repression is through lively participatory organization; that is also the only way to ensure that dialogue not become appeasement that generates false promises, corruption and domination of the poor. This is why the Catholic Church is currently embarked on trying to strengthen the organizational capacity of poor and disorganized people, without disregarding their own initiatives and rhythms.

Many pieces to the housing mosaic

There are many pieces in this mosaic of permanently resettling those left homeless by Hurricane Mitch. Some provide solutions and others only false starts; some are relatively easy, others harder; some are straightforward, others have serious flaws. With so many different actors involved, each piece inevitably has its own stamp, and it is not yet clear whether the overall mosaic will have any coherence or even stick together.
Piece 1: land. In the near future a 15-hectare plot of land, which can hold 600 houses, will have to be found somewhere around El Progreso and purchased. Other plots of about 2 hectares are also needed in various neighboring villages, among them Arena Blanca which was partially leveled and requires 55 houses. The Salvadoran organization FUNDASAL will be responsible for designing and implementing the larger project, since it is experienced in building basic housing with the participation of the beneficiary population.

The 55-house project will get under way as soon as the municipality buys the land. One plot "kindly" being donated by a company turned out to be embargoed by a second company owned by multi-millionaire politician Jaime Rosenthal Oliva. This discovery has delayed the start of the project. This and other cases have been gradually making us aware that the housing problem is really rooted in the complicated land problem.

Piece 2: only promises. After 1.4 million children returned to school on February 15, pressure over the next month and a half from teachers and parents throughout the country led many organizations to publicize urban housing programs supposedly about to be implemented. But the houses are not yet being constructed and the methods to be used for their construction have not even been established. Meanwhile many macro-shelters have been erected and many people transferred to them from the emergency shelters.

Piece 3: objects rather than subjects. In San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the refugees have not organized to exert pressure and speed up their move from temporary shelters to the macro-shelters. The 300 families sheltered in the Olympic Stadium and the Municipal Gymnasium appear to have been waiting passively; their only signs of rebellion are limited to slowly trashing the sites they are stuck in.

The macro-shelter modules in Puerto Cortés are identical to those in El Progreso. The OIM's delays and slow progress have also proved to be identical. As in El Progreso the municipal government is being pressured rather than the OIM because the local government should be responsible for exerting pressure on the international organization. However, unlike El Progreso it was the teachers and parents not the refugees who were responsible for exerting the pressure. The mayor was obliged to move the refugees from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Institute, where they were disrupting classes, to the Liberal party headquarters, where they were treated like objects rather than subjects who have a say in their own lives.

In Puerto Cortés, therefore, the refugees will experience four rather than three "departures": the exodus from their houses destroyed by the hurricane to the emergency center at the school; from there to the Liberal Party headquarters; from there to the macro-shelter; and finally, from there to their own new housing, which has so far not even been mentioned.

Piece 4: the quick fix. There is another kind of solution, a speedy one that skips the macro-shelter stage and thus involves only two departures: from the destroyed houses to the emergency shelters and from there to the definitive housing. One example of this has taken place in Church shelters, where the refugees have not been subjected to pressure from teachers and parents. In these cases the Church has sought a solution that would both clear people from parish property and provide them with housing. Two parishes in Tegucigalpa, Los Dolores of the Redemptionists and María Auxiliadora of the Salesians, will transfer 250 families directly to a plot of land in Amarateca, a municipality about ten kilometers outside of the capital, where the Christ of El Picacho Foundation is to finance the construction of the houses. There appear to have been no real problems with this solution, though it has not made the refugees subjects of their own exodus so much as offered them a solution to their problem. The speed with which the construction was announced would also seem to indicate that the refugees will not even participate in building their own homes.

Piece 5: outside solutions. The Mennonite Church is implementing a slower but more participatory project in Choloma, near San Pedro Sula. The Mennonites have organized according to different work areas, some bringing in strong and very willing foreign youths as a labor force to build the houses without involving the affected population.

Piece 6: women. Although the Choloma project, where 66 houses are being built on a 3.5-hectare plot of land donated by the municipal government, is headed up by the Mennonites, no foreign youths are involved and the refugees are providing the labor themselves with advice from INFOP. The project has a gender focus in which the women are also actively involved in building the houses and the woman's name has first place on the deed. Each house costs 27,500 lempiras (some $2,000 dollars), 60% of which the beneficiaries will have to start paying off two years after the houses are officially turned over to them. This money will be used to set up a revolving community fund to finance housing and community improvements. Although the project is participatory, the Mennonites and not the refugees are responsible for producing the reports.

Piece 7: the Church plays its part. In an interview at the beginning of March, German Cálix, executive secretary of the Catholic Church's Social Pastoral, announced that through its dioceses the Church would help construct just over 8,300 houses throughout the country with financing from the various European Cáritas groups. Of these houses, 2,000 will be built in Tegucigalpa, 2,000 in Choluteca, 1,129 in Santa Rosa de Copán, 922 in Trujillo, 900 in Comayagua, 800 in Olancho and 550 in San Pedro Sula. "It is said that 35,000 houses need to be reconstructed throughout the country," Cálix stated.

According to the Social Fund for Housing, 35,000 houses were completely destroyed by Mitch and 50,000 damaged, excluding the housing provided by the transnational banana companies. In line with these figures, the Catholic Church is covering almost a quarter of the country's housing reconstruction needs.

Piece 8: before Mitch. In quantifying the losses, the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) calculated the damage to housing at $344 million, in fourth place behind agriculture ($1.7 billion), transport and communications ($579 million) and industry ($377 million). ECLA and the government both agree that when the field studies are finished the figures for rural housing affected will increase.

According to an Oxfam America report, "If the housing losses caused by the hurricane are added to the quantitative and qualitative pre-Mitch housing deficit, officially estimated at 700,000 houses, it is obvious that housing has become one of the most sensitive problems for Honduran society."
Piece 9: government silence. So what is the government doing in the face of such a colossal problem? The answer so far is simple: nothing but plan. And what will it do? At the end of March, the specially named Reconstruction Cabinet presented its Master Plan for Reconstruction and Transformation to Congress. This is the plan the government will present to the international community in Stockholm in late May. The presentation took place behind closed doors and the media were not invited. All that is known is that the plan will require US$3.9 billion, the equivalent of the total estimated damages caused by Mitch, and will cover four main areas: human development, economic reactivation, the fight against poverty and sustainable development. These four areas are divided into various other aspects such as housing, health, education and infrastructure. Following a strictly mathematical logic ($3.9 billion in total damages and $344.1 million in housing damages) housing should receive between 8% and 9% of the total amount proposed by the plan.

The national budget sheds no further light on what plans the government has for the housing sector for the simple reason that it has still not been approved or published. This may be due to the need to make it consistent with both the Master Plan and the IMF letter of intent signed by the Fund's director on March 26.

Since neither the plan nor the budget have been approved or published, we have to rely on statements made by public authorities to provide us with a few clues as to what areas will be attended in terms of housing. Minister of the Technical and International Cooperation Secretariat Moisés Starkman, who serves on the Reconstruction Cabinet, presented a list of projects that have already been prepared for Stockholm. He spoke of the construction of "thousands [of houses] using the mechanism of self-construction and the government will provide infrastructure support, and we are going to obtain international aid" so that the beneficiaries will have access to easy credit to finance the building process.

Piece 10: Swedish aid. The way in which this project will be implemented was demonstrated by an agreement signed between the governments of Honduras and Sweden which earmarks for housing construction $4 million of the $75 million fund set aside by the Swedish government for the reconstruction of Honduras. This housing fund will be channeled through the Honduran Social Investment Fund (FHIS) and the Integral Urban Housing Improvement Program, which will be responsible for providing the loans. This project will be integrated with other housing projects that will be financed by the Inter-American Development Bank.

Piece 11: the United States. The United States has also promised money for housing. Part of the $300 million that President Clinton promised to Honduras during his recent visit will be dedicated to that area. The US ambassador to Honduras did not specify how much this would be, but he pointed out that the United States has already given $230 million to Honduras, $4 million of which was earmarked for housing. This amount must surely include the aid used to buy the plots of land and construct the macro-shelters, as in El Progreso. Another $100 million have been used to finance the mobilization of US Army and National Guard troops during the emergency and rehabilitation periods.

Piece 12: bureaucracy. It is also expected that the whole state housing sector will be restructured, not only to avoid duplication of responsibilities and competition among different organizations but also to create a greater concentration of decisions at the presidential level. According to reports that came out of a Reconstruction Committee technical meeting on the housing sector, governmental bodies such as the National Housing Council, the Social Fund for Housing (FOSOVI) and the National Production and Housing Fund (FONAPROVI), which are currently semi-paralyzed, will be restructured.

There are plans to reform the FONAPROVI law, transferring the fund from the Secretariat of Finances to the Presidency and providing it with the organic structure of a second-tier financial institution. Although the official reasoning behind this is to provide the institution with greater efficiency and independence, the reform also provides the Presidency with more concentrated power in the politically sensitive housing area.

In mid-March the director of FOSOVI complained that the National Housing Council had not been as effective as it might have been because it had not met. "We are in contact with the Housing Ministry to ensure that the executive board meet as soon as possible," he said, "because it has to outline the policies of action for me." The Reconstruction Cabinet, which includes the housing minister, has been immersed in drawing up the Master Plan and has therefore had neither the time nor the capacity to attend to housing plans that could be implemented now. As former foreign relations minister Fernando Martínez, who President Flores forced to resign in January, so rightly pointed out, it is impossible to be both minister and member of the Reconstruction Cabinet.

Despite the confusion over which policies to follow that FOSOVI's director complained about, his institution along with the Land Legalization and Ordering Program (PROLOTE) began to hand out 123 plots of land measuring 20 square meters each to refugees from the community of Tizatillo in Tegucigalpa. The FOSOVI director stated that the program, which includes San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba, could total 6,989 lots, which will be provided at a symbolic price.

Piece 13: middle classes. We have so far concentrated on housing for the poorer classes, but the middle classes also suffered from the impact of Mitch. The Reconstruction Cabinet decided to place at the disposition of these economically comfortable families–known as the "adequate cost population"—around 9,000 houses that were completed by various social security systems but remain uninhabited because they proved too expensive. This will make houses available to middle-class families who will be eligible to pay soft interest rates even though the head of family does not belong to the trade that paid for the houses to be built in the first place.

Examining these thirteen mosaic pieces together we can only conclude that the government will dedicate a fair amount of funds to rural and urban, popular and middle-class housing, but that up to the beginning of April virtually none of these projects had been started. Nor has the government announced its plans or encouraged participation in drawing them up.

Government vs. civil society

Civil society has seriously criticized the government's method of permitting it little participation in the formulation of the Master Plan. On March 24, INTERFOROS launched its own proposal. INTERFOROS is a platform for the confluence of various forums and organizations including Cáritas Forum, the Social Forum on the External Debt and Development of Honduras, the Federation of Private Development Organizations of Honduras, the Citizens' Forum, formed by a group of opposition intellectuals, and others.

INTERFOROS handed out its proposal to the nearly 150 participants and divided them into round tables focusing on particular areas of interest, one of which was housing. The objective was to add the finishing touches to the proposal, which was to be presented to the Reconstruction Cabinet the following day for its integration into the Master Plan. The meeting took place in the elegant Honduras Maya Hotel in Tegucigalpa with no participation by the refugees.

When the government rejected the proposal, the Citizens' Forum issued a statement on March 30 that turned out to be one of the most severe criticisms ever made of the government. It describes the official reaction as a disqualification of all criticism, a frontal attack on NGOs, an out-of-hand rejection of all accusations regarding dubious transparency and an irrational questioning of the use of Internet to disseminate civil society's proposals.

The contradiction between the government and civil society is one of the key elements in this particular period that will come to an end with the Stockholm meeting in May. The question is, if the government has not accepted civil society's proposals, how will civil society be represented? The government will probably seek to resolve the problem by propping up the National Convergence Forum, which has been inoperative throughout the emergency, in representation of civil society.

Housing: Four aspects

The INTERFOROS proposal for the housing sector insists on four fundamental aspects, the first of which is land. Obtaining the lots is a basic requisite and as land prices have risen since Mitch, it recommends policies to value the land at its pre-hurricane appraised value. Also, because the municipal governments have been losing their administration powers over common lands occupied under suppletory deeds, it recommends stripping such titles of their validity. Adopting the gender focus recommended by the women's round table, it calls for the property deeds be put in the woman's name and states that only as a second option should they be put in the name of the couple. It also suggests establishing that if the couple separates the house may not be sold without the agreement of the person responsible for looking after the youngest children.

The second aspect is the creation of an environment suitable for human development. To ensure this, the settlement must be very carefully designed taking into account the size of the houses, the security of the population, the improvement and protection of the environment, recreation and ornamentation, garbage and construction waste collection, social interaction and all other elements related to the quality of life, taking into consideration people's particular cultures. As the housing round table emphasized, "An urban settlement in Roatán is not the same as an urban settlement in Choloma."
The third aspect is the emphasis on community organization. Work groups made up of the beneficiaries themselves, both men and women, should construct the houses. The revolving fund created through repayment of the loans should be managed by the community to install and improve public services. In this way the community itself will constitute the best urban development "infrastructure."
The fourth aspect is the contribution made by the beneficiaries through constructing the houses and paying for the lot and/or house according to their particular means. Since the house should not be some gift from above, a financial policy is recommended that should be previously established according to the target population's particular payment capacity. This would take into account the particular situations of single mothers, young couples and low-income families, for example.

Although the INTERFOROS proposal does not explicitly contemplate a strategy of pressure and dialogue to obtain land, urbanize the settlement and finance the housing, its insistence on strengthening democracy and on local participation as a way of fighting poverty is similar to the experiences of the refugees in El Progreso.

This fight, the prolonged exodus through the desert, will gradually bring about a sense of community, the only guarantee that this utopian dream can be achieved on earth. Many people point to the failed housing projects that started up in the wake of hurricane Fifi, forcing us to put our feet firmly back on the ground when they warn that people won't pay, that later they'll sell up, that it's impossible to form a community out of a group of emigrants and that urban communities are not the same as rural ones. But none of this can stop us from looking for new ways of achieving the dream. We'll keep on searching.

Ricardo Falla, sj, is director of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits of Honduras.

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