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Protecting the watershed and a way of life in Honduras

Maria Gloria Martinez stands atop a concrete wall that creates a small dam at the source of a pooling watershed. From this vantage point, she explains the problems that she and her community of farmers faced before they began work to manage and protect their watershed. When it rained, the water came fast and in unmanageable quantities. In drought, the watershed produced little more than a trickle. Due to deforestation, soil had eroded along the watershed’s riverbanks, muddying the water flowing into the village and destabilizing the hillsides. 

In Honduras, agriculture is the main source of sustenance and income, but with the changing environment, Maria and her community had to find a way to ensure the water kept flowing to their farms.

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Maria Gloria Martinez (center) and women from her community stand on the concrete wall buttressing their watershed's source and managing the flow. (Photo by Emily Karol/iDE/2019)

Community-level watershed management

This is why Maria represents her small community, located in Opatoro in central Honduras, at a regional council that’s organized to sustainably manage and protect the larger Goascorán River watershed.

Working with iDE, an international nonprofit, Maria and her community learned to harness and protect their precious and fragile water source. Terraced ledges made from tree logs and barriers comprised of spiky, green fronds protect the watershed from debris and erosion. Water is carried through a series of canals to farms where drip irrigation lines feed rows of crops. The farmers are conscious to not take more than they need.

Natural barriers made of logs and plants protect the source of the watershed from debris. (Photo by Emily Karol/iDE/2019)

Protecting and harnessing the water system enables Maria and her neighbors to not only grow more food but the new use of drip technology allows them to diversify—growing vegetables such as carrots, onions, and green beans, as well as fruit trees, with the guidance of iDE technicians. They now sell their produce to local schools for a student lunch program. 

“I used to go out [looking for work] and now I don't. Families that used to go work elsewhere are now staying and working their own land,” Maria said. 

They are also planning for the future, when iDE steps away. 

“The projects come and go. But we need to be prepared,” Maria said. 

To continue with their agriculture and conservation efforts for years to come, Maria and her neighbors formed a community savings group called a caja rural.

Community Savings

Across Honduras, small, rural communities form cajas rurales to serve as a community savings fund (literal translation: rural box). Each group is unique, but in Maria’s community, the caja rural’s funds are used to invest in community agriculture and environmental protection. As president of the caja rural, Gloria manages the community’s collective savings. 

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The watershed that Maria and her community care for is only one small part of a larger system that snakes through tropical, green mountains to dusty, wind-ridden valleys and beyond to flat, hot plains. The care and protection of the watershed along all of its twists and turns is imperative to the health and survival of people who live in its boundaries. 

(Photo by Emily Karol/iDE/2019)

Water governance in the Gulf of Fonseca

In the southern part of the country, iDE is working with a consortium to develop water governance in the Gulf of Fonseca. This region is comprised of 8,400 square hectares of micro watersheds that feed into major rivers, including the Choluteca River that irrigates large commercial farms. 

In recent years, the water table in this region has dropped 30 percent, due to less infiltration (rain making its way into the ground) from deforestation and hotter temperatures. To put this change in perspective, consider that livelihoods in this area are heavily dependent on agriculture. Approximately 5,000 people live in this watershed and many work for large commercial farms growing okra, corn, melons, and coffee—500 people work in okra production alone. To grow okra, 10,000 liters is needed to water 7,000 square meters of crops every day, and that’s with water-smart drip irrigation technology. 

If the watershed dries up, all of these jobs would be lost, which will have devastating economic, health, and environmental implications for this community.

No Longer There

The evidence of water scarcity isn’t just below ground, it’s also visible above. Jose Carlos Ordóno, President of the Okra Producers, describes the dry river bed just beyond the watermelon field he’s kneeling in. He says the river used to flow year-round. But today, and increasingly more often, it is dry.

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In June 2018, a watershed council was formed in the Gulf of Fonseca. It began developing a conservation plan for this vital water source. The council brings together 27 communities, agriculture producers, and landowners. iDE advises the council on water-smart technology and sustainable agriculture methodologies.  

In October 2018, the council partnered with the Nacoomé Agriculture University to conduct a study on the health of the watershed. The watershed study involves an examination of the soil composition; chemical analysis of the water; and a physical analysis including water flows, water levels, and testing the infiltration rates of the water across the region. Findings from the study will be used to inform the water conservation actions of the council.

Preserving watersheds and communities

Across the country, water provides employment and prosperity. When it is plentiful, farming families thrive—they build businesses and invest in their community. When water is scarce, people leave to search for another source of income, immigrating to a new country or moving to urban areas—leaving a way of life, knowledge, and culture that has been built over generations. Without farmers, the food security of thousands of people is threatened. Protecting the watersheds in Honduras is imperative to preserving the stability of the family unit, local culture, agricultural heritage, and food security of Hondurans for generations to come.