Sunday, 19 May 2013

Visit to Trocaire in Nicaragua and afternoon with their partner organisation Impulsivo

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America after Haiti and with more than 4.4 million people living on less than 2 dollars a day, Nicaragua presents the worst poverty situation in Central America. It is the fourth country that I cycled through where Trocaire are involved and last Wednesday I visited their office in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital.

Trocaire has been supporting local partner organisations in Nicaragua since 1978 and their current programmes support over 30 partners working in four key areas; governance & human rights, a sustainable livelihoods programme that support poor rural communities to improve their food security, disaster risk reduction programme and finally a programme aimed at supporting the prevention of gender based violence which is all too prevalent in Nicaragua. Trocaire’s programmes are focused in parts of the country (Pacific and North Central) where there are high or severe poverty levels. These zones are predominantly rural and where agricultural production was severely affected by the civil war in the 1980s.

When we met in the Trocaire office Ronie, Zoila and Carlos talked Rowan and I through some their projects in more detail.

Zoila, Rowan, Ronie, Carlos and Billy

Rowan (thrilled with his Trocaire sticker), Billy and Ronie
In the area of Disaster and Risk prevention they explained to me how they work to set up local committees to coordinate relief efforts, get radios into some of the more isolated rural areas that get effected by natural disasters, educate children in schools about natural disasters and steps they can take, and also encourage isolated communities to communicate better with their municipalities. Nicaragua is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, floods and landslides) and in the last 20 years has been the 4th most vulnerable country in the world for extreme weather events.

In the area of sustainable livelihoods Trocaire work with poor communities by helping and educating them how to produce different foods to eat and sell and in turn help to improve their self esteem. Maize and beans are the most common foods in Nicaragua and traditionally the staple of the poor.  They work with communities to grow additional foods such as tomatoes, bananas, yuca and casaba to complement their diet and be less reliant on one or two food stuffs. 

In the area of advocacy Trocaire work with communities and partner organisations focusing on local participation of grassroots communities in political process and decisions that affect them, helping to change the reality of the community. A very real problem in Nicaragua is the dominance of the large political parties and strong government control over local structures that works more for the benefit of the government or political party than for the local communities. Over the past few years grave concerns have been expressed about the shrinking political space and the increasing control by the executive over state institutions. The Nicaraguan judicial system, the Supreme Court, the Electoral Supreme Court, the Ombudsman and the Comptroller General have all been severely criticised as a result of many controversial resolutions and decisions linked to the interests of the two big political parties. The government has tried to silence critical voices by controlling international NGOs and national civil society organsiations through the implementation of new procedures that are intended to regulate not only the administrative and financial aspects but also political aspects of NGO work and especially in areas of advocacy, citizen participation, government transparency and accountability. Nicaragua is said to have the most unfavorable political, economic and social context in the region because of the political and legal restrictions and attacks on organisations for their affinity or lack of affinity to the FSLN, Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional)

Trocaire work with local partners to help communities so that they feel empowered and can see the difference that the communities can make themselves.  A recent example was in the municipality of Posoltega where the government wanted to build a school in a community where there was a low child population but there was a nearby area with a high child population without a school and the local organisations succeeded in lobbying the government to change the school location. 

The fourth and final area on which Trocaire focus in Nicaragua is a programme aimed at supporting the prevention of gender based violence. In Nicaragua, relationships of control and domination by men over women prevail. Gender based violence (GBV) is extremely high in Nicaragua, with one out of every 3 women having experienced GBV. In order to combat the high levels of violence against women on 26th January 2012 the Nicaraguan Assembly passed the “Comprehensive Violence Against Women Act” – this new law recognises “femicide” (femicidio) and other forms of violence against women as criminal acts. Femicide was described to me as the murder of a women because of her gender. The awful example quoted  was where a Canadian woman who was only 3 weeks in Nicaragua working for an NGO went out to a nightclub and was then raped and murdered by the taxi driver when she tried to get home. The main argument by the defense lawyer was what was a woman doing out on her own at midnight. This poor woman was killed because of her gender, it is considered fine for a man to be out at that time but not a woman.

Later I spent the afternoon with Impulso a partner organisation of Trocaire’s that works with victims of gender based violence in Laureles Sur one of the poorest neighborhoods on the outskirts of Managua. Laureles Sur is a ghetto that was established in 1990. As part of the peace agreement to end the civil war fighters from both sides were promised land if they laid down their arms. These were nearly all rural people from the countryside who fought on both sides of the conflict, they were all dumped into this small area with no electricity or running water. Not used to city life most of the inhabitants main experience was of working the land and war so needless to say it's a neighborhood that suffers from extreme violence. To be honest I was slightly apprehensive when the guys from Impulsivo told me where I was going for the afternoon once I had heard that background to the area.

Impulsivo was founded by a group of people from the community who came together. Rowan and myself were made very welcome for the afternoon into one of the groups of brave women who were undergoing therapy after all being the vicitms of GBV. It was an incredible opportunity to meet these friendly women who made us feel very welcome.

A diagram of how Impulso works within the whole community
Impulsivo runs a 5 year programme for the victims of GBV, with the first 2 years focused on councelling the women and helping them to come to term with their experiences. The remaining years are to train them in different techniques to be able to help other women and train them as councellors and legal advisors. Training would include such things as knowing the law, to help a woman who has been raped in preserving evidence and counseling.

Trocaire, Impulsivo and other partners main focus is on trying to prevent Gender Based Violence by changing attitudes and society. This is obviously a very long term process that involves the whole community not just the victims. At a community level they work with women, men and teachers and then at a municipal level they work with the police, court system and public prosecution office. A survey was done in 2010 where 52% of the women in the programme had faced GBV that year and last year in November 2012 there had been a reduction of 30%. The programme is obviously having positive effects and long may that continue but in a country that has experienced a recent civil war and violence against women is still all too prevalant this will be a long process, I wish them well.

Having seen it first hand yet again, I was incredibly impressed by the work Trocaire does along with their partner organisations here in Nicaragua.
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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Justice in Guatemala as Rios Montt found guilty of genocide | Trócaire

Justice in Guatemala as Rios Montt found guilty of genocide | Trócaire

Please see full details of the verdict in the Rios Montt trail on the Trocaire website by clicking on the link above.

Top: Maya Ixil women and men, witnesses of the trial, celebrate after listening to the sentence given to former Guatemalan de facto President, retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 86, for crimes committed during his regime, in Guatemala City on May 10, 2013.  Bottom: Rios Montt testifies in court. Photos: Elena Hermosa.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

El Salvador

El Salvador here we come
Having spent almost a 9 months cycling through 4 countries (USA, Canada, Mexico & Guatemala) I was going to be adding a lot more countries to the list in relatively quick succession as I made my way through the rest of Central America.
We were greeted on our first day in El Salvador with lots of waves and smiling faces. We also saw a huge number of fellow cyclists on the road. Cycling in all shapes and forms is certainly a popular form of transport in El Salvador.

You see all sorts of things attached to bikes in El Salvador.
Through friends back in Ireland I had been put in touch with a few different Irish lads living in El Salvador so it was great to have been in contact with some friendly folk who had plenty of tips, contacts and suggestions for the way through their adopted country. For one reason or another I didn't manage to meet any of them, they were all based in the capital San Salvador which we would not be passing through and they all do a lot of travelling.... or else they had been warned to have their excuses ready!

Our first stop was Los Cabanos where a pal treated us to a lovely little hotel for our first night in El Salvador. We got there mid afternoon keen to make the most of our stay in this lovely place right beside the waters edge. Despite cycling close to the coast at various stages the last time I was actually on the beach was back in January with Nick just south of Mazatlan so I was thrilled to make it back to the coast proper.

Somebody is excited to be going to the beach

Cheers to our first day in El Salvador and arriving at the beach

The next day, after a quick swim in the pacific, we made our way along the beautiful winding coastline which was reminiscent of Big Sur in California. We were headed to Atami where had been hooked up with the use of a beautiful holiday place right beside the beach. This was a beautiful home and certainly not the usual kind of place we get to stay in so we made the most of it by taking a few days off to recharge the batteries.

Heavy traffic
View of the coast

Some of the many beautiful orange blossoming trees we passed, luckily I was wearing my matching orange TriAthy top.

It was hard to leave the lovely beach house but we needed to do a few big days to get us through the remainder of El Salvador and on through Honduras. Where we stayed the following night could not have differed more from our previous few days of relaxation. We spent the night in a fairly grotty "hotel" where Rowan spoted a rat crawling across one of the beams in the roof  so despite the stifling heat in our claustrophobic room we decided to erect our tents on our beds. The next morning I literally woke up in pool of sweat (nice) in my clammy tent but would rather that than have Mr Rat whispering sweet nothings in my ear as I sleep!

Always use protection.
The coast of El Salvador is a popular surf spot
House by the road
The next two days were spent cycling in hot humid conditions through the rest of El Salvador, taking breaks where we could in air conditioned petrol stations. You would not have to be in El Salvador very long to notice the amount of guns in the country. Most shops seemed to have heavily armed security guards, including a bike shop we passed. 

Some of the heavily armed security guards we met outside a petrol station

Beautiful El Salvador landscape

Some captured iguanas for sale to be eaten

Trocaire also have an office in El Salvador and although we did not have time to visit any of the their projects  I have included some additional information on El Salvador and Troaire's work in the country.

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America and has been wracked by civil war and a succession of natural disasters.The population in 2013 is estimated at 6.1 million and average per capita income is estimated at US$ 7,700.

In the 1980’s El Salvador was ravaged by a bitter civil war. This was stoked by inequality between a small and wealthy elite, which dominated the government and the economy, and the overwhelming majority of the population, many of whom lived - and continue to live - in abject poverty.

The war left around 70,000 people dead and caused damage worth $2bn, but it also brought about important political reforms. In 1992 a United Nations-brokered peace agreement ended the civil war, but no sooner had El Salvador begun to recover when it was hit by a series of natural disasters, notably Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and earthquakes in 2001. These left at least 1,200 people dead and more than a million others homeless.

The economy depends heavily on the money sent home by Salvadoreans living in the US. At least 20% of El Salvador's population lives abroad. The remittances they send home account for close to 20% of GDP, are the second largest source of external income after exports, and have helped reduce poverty.


Trocaire’s current programme in El Salvador focuses on supporting poor communities to improve their livelihoods and resist the impacts of climate change and natural disasters. As well as working directly at local level, Trocaire supports partners to engage in advocacy so that the Salvadorean government and the international community take action to mitigate against the worst impacts of climate change.

A wall mural we passed on the road in El Salvador saying No to violence against women.