Florita Botts

Return to home page

Long ago I swore that I’d never accept an assignment to countries governed by generals and ex-sergeants. But there I went, grinding teeth, balking, not with it, knowing that I couldn’t not accept whatever was put into my schedule.

Tegucigalpa. Louis T. met me the airport. A surprise: he was handsome, had a wicked smile, a Slavic upturn of merry brown eyes above high cheekbones, thick black eyelashes. He was alive and alert. He may have been one of the rarest project directors ever encountered. He was designed to have followers.

I was swept to the Project office, to meet the foresters and field extension workers. The atmosphere was good; all were so young, friendly. Charismatic Louis T. was clearly well liked, spoke superb Spanish—astonishing for an American.

Ignacio, baby-faced cameraman to be my assistant had already arrived from Argentina. He said he felt privileged to be working with me, said with a radiant smile.

There was also a happy Dane, young, blond and fresh: Jens, the Project’s expert in terracing systems for soil conservation. I asked him how he could have learned about terracing in flat Denmark. He didn’t, he learned it in Nepal where he worked as a “junior expert” in an FAO forestry project.

Jens liked the Project, he said (“what a difference from working in Nepal!”). He looked the same age as the Honduran foresters. I agreed with him that it was easy in Latin America to work alongside technical people. You even found some with a social conscience, who’d let you know where they were politically and wanted to do something to remedy the problems of the peasants.

Under the foresters were the field workers, who didn’t have degrees or a desk. They spent their days in the villages around San Pedro Sula; I was shown the map, we’d move there the next night. They’d accompany us in our filming.

Back to the hotel for a sleep to get over the long flight from Rome, the changing at New York, again at Miami with an all-night stopover spent on a bench. I had a terrible reluctance to get going. I dredged in my foggy brain for a hook-up to the job to be faced in a country we should never be working in.

I groped for the papers still in my suitcase, started on the summary. Honduras, a military government, a small country, all hills and valleys. In the valleys were the multinational agribusinesses, ranching Black Angus cattle, growing and shipping Chiquita bananas; six hundred rich families owning over 85% of the cultivated land.

On the hillsides were the peasants, three-quarters of the population.

The Project’s target population was the peasants. The government asked for U.N. assistance to the peasants who lived and farmed on the steep slopes. The Project’s aim was to help them to turn their soil-eroding fields on the slant into productive terraces with conservation farming techniques. The Project was under the Honduran Forestry department. Their concern was to protect what forests remained, but little could be done while land-hungry peasants were cutting, slash-burning them down. Traditional forestry—protection, replanting—was unthinkable in such a context. Reforestation they now called agro-forestry.

“Massive ecological damage”: the last hurricane flooded the valleys and washed away the rich agriculture, roads, bridges.

That was the fault of the peasants high up there on the slopes. They destroyed the permanent forest cover to plant their corn. Corn stubble wouldn’t stop the rain and soil from barreling down the mountains and hillsides. If the peasants continued their traditional farming methods the agribusinesses in the valleys were finished.

I heaved myself up, head empty; felt stupid. Must snap on the public face for the happy Dane who came to get me, to take unavailing me to the Project office where Louis

T. was waiting. Louis was eager to get to work. I tried to rise up—he was warm and charming, gave me a full welcome, called for coffee. And he was truly beautiful: raven curls tumbled above his high forehead, matched the black arc of his eyebrows.
“I’m a maverick,” he said. “I don’t care if Headquarters does push for fast implementation or fast results. I’m not their man.”

He was against the control-oriented approach to technical assistance. He talked about a time horizon, the slow process of capacity building, people involvement. It would take a lot of time. His vision of the project was a long-term commitment to teaching and mobilizing the peasants. The adaptive approach, he said.

That bulb of pessimism in me dimmed slightly. That was a rare speech in our Agency. “People’s participation” was a buzzword in F.A.O.—true-- but it was only in documents. The majority of projects I’d known didn’t apply that process.

Louis started to be amazing. He’d seen my films from Thailand and Nepal, he wanted a similar package that his field workers could show in the villages. He wrote to Headquarters, requesting my assistance.

What irony. Finally to be sent to a project where I was wanted, and I was an empty sack, a radical disbeliever.

What do the generals and colonels have to say about your adaptive approach? I wanted to ask Louis, but I was quiet.


Work record: We bashed out a film program for the peasants. We invented a package of documentaries and comedies. One was a peasant love story with Juan and Rosita. The story went like this: Juan and his father are poor peasant farmers, grow corn and beans on the steep hillsides in the traditional, primitive way.

He’s convinced that farming is a dead end, wants to leave his poor home and village and go to the city to find work.

By chance, as Juan hitches a free ride on a truck to the city, he meets the other passengers, Rosita and her father from a neighboring village. He helps them unload their produce at the market, notices what quality vegetables they have to sell.

With Rosita it’s love at first sight, he has to find a way to see her again, be accepted by her family. He tries, but can’t get anywhere, he’s a backward peasant and Rosita snubs him. Her father is a progressive farmer, proud of the good harvests from his terraced crops.

After some cleverly planned moves Juan worms his way into Rosita’s father’s heart by pretending interest in the new ways to grow crops on terraced slopes. Rosita’s father shows him around, shows him his beautiful terraces. He explains how rainfall is caught in the inward-sloping terraces so it’s filtered back into the soil, how erosion is checked bla bla. Juan’s taken on a tour of the fruit trees and vegetables grown on different levels. But his eyes are only on Rosita.

He doesn’t find work in the city, and begins to realize he’s got to make the best of what he’s got. Slowly, in spite of himself, he’s converted to the system in Rosita’s village. He convinces his father and some of the doubting peasants in his village, they apply for technical assistance from the Forestry department, and join together to dig the terraces on their hillside.

They have a good harvest and Juan wins the lady. “Una Vida Mejor” (“A Better Life”), the story is called. Our package was entirely wrapped around the message of successful farming with terraces. There was a how-to-do-it film—staking, measurements, the dumpy level, slope gradient, proper digging techniques, the toe drain, etc. And a documentary—we filmed the peasants in their villages and in their huts as they told how poor their crops were on the slopes,

the most the soil would produce was three years and then it was worn out, the topsoil and nutrients were washed down the hillsides,

another piece of forest had to be cut and burned to start another field, and so it went until entire hillsides were eroded.

The peasants showed how they decided to adopt conservation farming, how they learned about it from the extension agents. They showed the different crops that could be grown. Running through it all was the back-breaking work of digging and planting and maintaining these terraces, the steep climb from the village up to the terraces, transporting precious manure, fertilizer, insecticide sprayers.

The filming was also back-breaking in the torrid tropical heat. We dragged the heavy equipment and staggered up the slopes to the terraces. I noticed that my assistant Ignacio was just as exhausted as I was by noon. Every morning we were on the road by six, and continued till sundown.

* * *

“These are beautiful terraces,” I said to Louis T. We were among spiky pineapple plants glistening on a terrace after a night’s rain; the fruit was almost ready to be harvested.

Louis had come to see us at work. I think it was the first time in my many assignments in god-awful places that the project director left his office to visit my workplace. He found us above Santa Ana village, filming the sequence of Juan being squired around fully developed terraces by the father of Rosita his lady love.

I was a mess of sweat and mud, even my straw hat was wilted with sweat. Louis was crisp in clean khaki. I spread my plastic raincoat on the edge of the terrace bank, we sat together, while Ignacio and the actors continued the scene. Louis offered me a bottle of cool water from his backpack.
“I wish I could believe in what we’re doing,” I blurted out.
“How so?”
“Certainly I believe in terraced farming; I don’t mean that. But we’re telling these people that they’ll have una vida mejor and I don’t think it’s so. All they’ll manage to grow here is subsistence food, their corn and beans.”
“We’re encouraging income crops to intersperse with corn and beans. These pineapples are for the market,” he said.
“Sixty pineapples,” I groaned. “How much cash will they bring?”
“It’s a start. More can be planted when people see how well they grow up here.
And there’s coffee, teak, citrus, fruit trees. We’re pushing those permanent crops. Not only for conservation, but for a steady income.”
“The concept makes perfect sense. I’m totally convinced. But where’s all that land for orchards and teak forests?” I waved my arms, pointing up, down the slopes.
“Land is scarce. These hill people need the few acres they possess for their food crops, that’s Priority One. Terraces cut out a lot of precious space on these slopes.”
“We’re proving that corn and beans, and other annual crops, can be planted and can flourish along with the trees. The land can be used to the maximum.”
“You’re proving that terracing systems work, no matter on what scale. Here, it’s the scale that’s the problem,” I mumbled, locked under a dark mesh of pessimism, believing nothing.
It wasn’t in Louis’s terms of reference to tackle. He and his project could discount the insurmountable facts of the imbalanced ratio between people and available land.

* * * *

Brisas de Baracoa. Work on our romantic story. Filming Rosita collecting water at a stream, superb jungle vegetation, wild orchids, green parrots, yellow-tailed birds and their liquid calls.

Juan tried to kiss Rosita but she wouldn’t have him, spurned him. It was a good scene. We climbed to the village to continue filming in Rosita’s house. Shacks and hibiscus and banana trees, some palms, always on steep hillside.

In Rosita’s house, a typical peasant home build of upright poles lashed together, adobe stuck between the chinks, tin roof. Rosita stood at the mud stove, toasted tortillas while we filmed her. Kitchen corner—neat, clean, mud floor swept—papered with cardboard, some nails protrude as hooks to hang plastic cups, enamel pots. Five forks and five spoons were tucked in a bamboo strip nailed to the cardboard. It was considered a rich house: it had two rooms, while most of the shacks had only one—for cooking, eating and sleeping for everyone.

* * * *

Up high at Monte Alegre (sardonic misnomer), on a severely eroded slope, where we worked on the step-by-step sequences of terrace-digging.

A noon break with our group; we rested on the bank of Adan’s terrace. Adan and Pascualito brought us bananas, and we offered everyone warm Fanta. It was easy working with these Honduran peasants. They were comradely, accepting. Ready for a good laugh, no matter how bitter and exasperated they were with their condition. I chatted with Berta and Maria. These lean, tough Honduran women were used to working side by side with their men. They were perfectly at ease with me, with us. Berta looked over my shoulder while I jotted film notes in my notebook. I wrote in Spanish:
“Berta, how many children do you have?” and showed her the message.
Caray!” She laughed.
Me: “Can you read my writing?”
“I can’t read.”
“Does your husband know how to read?”
“The father of my last child does. That’s Pascualito.” (I’d photographed Pascualito mulching his fruit trees earlier.)

Berta had 12 children. Her first husband was killed in the village when he was trying to collect a debt. She and six children lived with Pascualito. The other six died during infancy. They farmed two acres of monte they call it, the hillside. The standard corn and beans were coming up on their new terraces. They’d managed to squeeze chili and green peppers among the corn. One piece of terrace had tomatoes and eggplants.

The view from up high was spectacular. We could see all the way to the valley below, a green sea of banana trees. “Bananas americanas,” Antonio said. “In the next valley, beyond those hills over there, American cattle, black with short legs.” Probably
Black Angus.

He continued, in a low monotone more like a sigh, as though he’d recited it hundreds of times but he was tired of repeating it: “That’s one huge banana plantation down there.” He took a last draw on his hand-rolled cigarette, flicked the butt downhill.
“It’s run like a factory. Everything’s mechanized. Only a few men are needed to run it.
An open car runs on tracks between the rows of plants. It’s equipped with a machine that wraps each banana bunch while it’s still hanging on the trunk, clips the package, drops it into the car. The car continues along a rail directly to a port for mechanical loading into refrigerated boats.”

Adan, in the same monotone: “No machines up here. Everything we do up here is with our arms and backs and sweat.”

Antonio: “All this hard work, these terraces…We work for those American bananas down there, don’t we.”

Pascualito: “Do any of those Americans pay us to protect them from being flooded?”

I shriveled in shame, wanted to sink into the earth, disappear from their sight. We weren’t on the side of the peasants. We were a part of the government strategy. What was the government anyway? Corrupt colonels with bulging bank accounts in Miami.

We were helping them to reinforce their power.

It wasn’t that the peasants would ever be able to occupy the land in the valleys.
We were to work with them exactly where they were. We were there to show them how they must adapt to their permanent condition. With lies about a better life, a good income. We brought in soil conservation experts to teach them that with hard labor they could hand-dig terraces on their rock-naked slopes. Plant coffee, fruit trees, teak forests. With hand and hoe cultivate their corn and beans on these platforms, hand-plant tough grasses on the terrace banks to hold them in place, hand-maintain the drains, so that the rain was checked and the valleys would not be in danger. And Big Mac and Chiquita Banana could be satisfied that Honduras was user-friendly.

And I was participating in these lies. The “success story” of international technical assistance.

The real success story would have been that these land-hungry peasants could farm the rich soil of the valleys, and the hillsides would remain forest and the rain would be checked by the thick natural vegetation.

Why weren’t we working for land reform?

Pascualito was right: why didn’t the billionaire agribusinesses pay for all this work? It was only for their protection, and all the rest was lies.


Return to Florita Botts home page