It's school deworming time in San Pedro Sula

After more than a year in Honduras, I remain in a state of near-constant amazement.
San Pedro Sula is the country�s largest city, with glitzy malls - way nicer than any in Victoria, our old hometown - and all the North American fast food chains.
Take this, you'll feel better
But El Tiempo reported this week that students at C�sar L�pez P�rez kicked off the first day of deworming, 2013.
Some 700 kids lined up for the chewable tablets, thanks to the municipality�s Healthy Schools Program. By the end of the campaign, 96,000 students in 344 schools will have been dewormed.
It�s the fourth year for the effort, supported by Operation Blessing, a U.S.-based charity/aid organization.
Deworming is likely a good thing. (You can never be sure, I�ve learned. It�s always possible someone�s brother-in-law has the monopoly on Worm-Be-Gone tablets and is making big money.)
And I might not have thought twice if the campaign had been in a rural community, where water and food supplies would likely be suspect.
But the idea of mass deworming campaign for kids in the country�s largest urban centre is a pretty stark reminder of how far Honduras has to go.

Lib MLA: 'Why would you rent from somebody who didn�t support you?'

�If you contact every MLA in this province... find out if they don�t rent from supporters.� 
I�ve been surprised this story and interview with Vernon-Monashee MLA Eric Foster hasn�t attracted more attention.
Especially his claim that MLAs routinely make a point of renting office space - with tax dollars - from people who contribute to their campaign.
Foster has been criticized by the auditor general for having taxpayers pick up the bills for a near-total renovation of the building he chose for his constituency office.
Especially as the building was bought just before the election by a family that contributed to his campaign. One of the co-owners was also hired by Foster as his constituency assistant.
It looks bad, especially as Foster rejected the less costly office occupied by his Liberal predecessor.
Taxpayers cover leasehold improvements for constituency offices - usually things like creating a meeting room or replacing worn-out flooring.
But Foster acknowledges that he chose a building that was bsically a shell. Taxpayers, the auditor general noted, paid for �purchasing and installing a complete forced air heating/cooling system including a four-ton heat pump and 75,000 BTU furnace, replacing the building's wiring system, installing vapour barriers in exterior walls and purchasing and installing a new double paned 18-foot by nine-foot storefront window and new plumbing including gas piping." 
That�s a great deal for the landlords. Their property is worth a lot more thanks to major renovations.
Not so good for taxpayers. 
Foster talked with Marshall Jones of Info-Tel news about the deal. The legislature comptroller approved it, he says.
Asked about the appearance of preferential treatment for a donor to his campaign, Foster was unrepentant.
�Why would you rent from somebody who didn�t support you?� he asked.
�If you contact every MLA in this province and ask them who they rent from, find out if they don�t rent from supporters,� he said.
Any business person is going to buy from someone who supports their business, he added.
Except, of course, the businesspeople are spending their own money.
Anon makes a good point in the comments.
If you want to spend more than $25,000 on goods or services in government, you are required to go through a competitive bidding process. It�s a away of getting the best deal and avoiding favoritism or corruption.
But MLAs don�t believe the rules that apply to everyone else in government should apply to them.
Which inevitably raises the question - why not?

La Moskitia: The road less travelled for a reason

Part of the regular route to La Moskitia (Jody Paterson)
Tourists don�t much go to La Moskitia.
The vast rainforest in southern Honduras, bordered by the Caribbean and Nicaragua, is an extraordinary natural wonder. It includes the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, jungles, lagoons and miles of untouched beach.  It�s home to Garifuna, Miskito and Pech communities, with distinct cultures. 
But all that empty space also makes it attractive to narcos shipping cocaine from South America to U.S. markets. The risk of running into narcotrafficantes is tiny, but it�s not good for tourism.
And more significantly, it�s really hard to get there, and to get around. 
We finished a meeting in Tela, a great Honduran beach town, and set out for Tocoa, midway to La Moskitia. Seven hours later - the last stretch hair-raising as our driver tried to pass anything that moved in our bus, long retired from some U.S. school district - we arrived.
The next morning we piled into a pickup headed for Batalla. That�s the only public transportation. Trucks run from Tocoa, with passengers and freight. It�s about $20 to sit inside, $15 to ride in the truck bed, crammed in with half-a-dozen people, propane tanks, crates and mysterious bags and boxes. 
That�s a lot of money for people here. Workers in the region�s vast African palm plantations are paid $5 or $6 a day.
Our destination, Palacios, was just across the lagoon from Batalla. (We were bound for La Moskitia because CASM, the organization my partner works with, has projects there.)
The first stretch was a paved highway. Then a ridiculously bad dirt road. Then almost an hour on tracks running ruler- straight through African palm plantations. 
The plantations are eerie. Rows of palm trees, planted in a perfect pattern, with no other plant life. Palm oil is hot right now, for food products and biofuel, and there is a rush to plant more and more trees. That has led to violent land clashes between powerful industrial interests and campesinos who claim the same land. Some 88 people have died in the last two years.
We came to a narrow lagoon crossing. There was no bridge. A small wooden platform, mounted on plastic barrels, nudged the shore. Boys put down two 12-inch planks and, after picking up four more passengers, we bumped onto the boat. A rope was tied to trees on each bank. The boys clambered on the ferry and hauled us across.
And then the road got strange. We were beside the Caribbean. A trail through the sand dunes led to the beach. The truck bounced through the dunes, across the beach, struggling and pitching through the sand, veering out into the waves to cross streams flowing into the ocean.
And at the end of the road, all the travel is by boat.
All part of the adventure for us. 
But a major barrier to any efforts to any economic development in the region.
We visited Plaplaya, a Garifuna community of about 800 people on a strip of land between the lagoon and miles of deserted Caribbean beaches. (The Garifuna are a culture made up of South American Indians and African slaves who blended on St. Vincent and were exiled to Roatan by the British in 1797, eventually settling along the coast. They�ve maintained their own language and culture.)
Planning the wine business
Plaplaya has a school, and the men catch fish and the women garden, especially yucca, a staple food, but there is little non-subsistence economic activity. 
CASM is working with a group of about 15 women on a microbusiness project. They each contribute $5 a month to create capital, attend workshops on rights and leadership and business. Their plan is to start making wine from the sea grapes that grow wild along the beach.
It�s a good idea. But getting the wine to an outside market will take a 45-minute boat ride and a four-hour truck ride. 
Making a sales trip to Trujillo, where there are tourists who might buy the wine, will require the same trip, plus another hour on a bus. And the roundtrip will cost more than $50 and require an overnight stay - a pretty big hit for a co-op that is raising $75 each month in working capital.
The isolation isn�t all bad, of course. Other Garifuna communities in Honduras are facing battles for their land as developers and agricultural companies covet the beachfront communities and land. 
But Plaplaya and other communities in the region - and the 80,000 residents - pay a significant price for their isolation.
The main street in Plaplaya (Yet there is one new SUV, despite no road access)
Footnote: Transportation is always a problem for remote communities. But it�s a much broader issue in Honduras. The construction sector claims 70 per cent of the road system is in disrepair, and it certainly seems that way. Maintenance barely exists - unless you count the people on the highway shovelling dirt into a pothole and holding out a bucket for drivers� contributions. And most work has been stalled because the government hasn�t paid contractors. (Partly because of disagreements over the work, partly because there is no money.)

Liberal MLAs should be ashamed of role in scandal

The sordid, bumbling ethnic outreach scandal has sealed the Liberals' fate in the coming election.
It has also finished Christy Clark�s leadership. She is responsible for the actions of the government, for choosing the senior managers, for not demanding to be kept informed, for remaining willfully blind. 
She failed as a leader. She failed the citizens, and the people who put their trust in the Liberal party.
But what about the Liberal MLAs? This is supposed to be a system in which citizens elect representatives who speak for them and share in responsibility for governing. MLAs are responsible for the conduct of government, or the opposition.
Liberal MLAs also failed. They abandoned their responsibilities and let the premier�s office and political staffers run amok. They didn�t ask questions about who was hired or what they were doing, or set standards. 
These are $100,000 a year jobs, representing voters who have placed considerable trust in the men and women they send to Victoria.
Instead, MLAs vote the party line. They defend the indefensible. They inexplicably give up their right and responsibility to represent their constituents, and cede all power to the premier�s office and political operatives. 
Which is not why most chose to run.
All the candidates in the coming election should think about this scandal, the failure of Liberal MLAs to exercise their responsibilities and the dire consequences - not just for the party, but for democracy.

Racing through jungle rivers in the night

Sweeping through a narrow jungle river at high speed, in a long, narrow crowded boat, as a searchlight picks out trees crowding the banks in the darkness - business travel didn�t used to be like this.
We�ve gone to where the road ends and far, far beyond.
Travel in Honduras is often an adventure, but last week took it to a new, Indiana Jones level.
The boat journey, about four hours, was the highlight. We left Batalla at dusk. The collectivos - shared boats to the heart of La Moskitia - don�t leave until the last truck has arrived at the end of the road in the Garifuna village, delivering passengers and goods for roadless communities down the line.
The boat is a pipante. The traditional versions - still much in use - are hollowed out of a log, long, narrow and barely above the water. Men fish and paddle the lagoons to forage in the jungle, families travel, hand-carved paddles moving the log boats through the water.
The collectivos follow the same design, though larger. Some 40-feet long, less than six feet wide, flat-bottomed and with about 18 inches of freeboard.
We cruised down the first lagoon, then through a canal so shallow the boy had had to jump out and pull us to deeper water. Then down a river, with scores of egrets settling in trees for the night.
Past Garifuna villages and isolated settlements and suspiciously large new houses with open launches in front powered by twin 200-hp outboards. (Some questions are best not asked in the region, a centre for drug transport to northern markets.)
By the time we entered the next large lagoon, it was fully dark. We passed another pipante full of travellers, and I realized none of the boats had running lights.
The waves picked up a bit. The freight - including our packs - was in the front, covered with a tarp. There were six rows of benches, with three passengers in each. Passengers shared green sheets of plastic to pull up over our heads when the spray splashed over us.
At the end of the lagoon, we slowed and picked our way along the shore as the driver played a searchlight along the dense forest until he found an improbably small river entrance - perhaps 10 yards wide.
Then he opened the outboard up, and we swooped and swerved through the channel. Our bow wave swept through mangroves and water hyacinth and floating grasses rose and fell. In the dark. Openings appeared magically just when it appeared we would run aground.
The shore, glimpsed in the starlight, changed constantly - grasses, trees, a long stretch of six-foot tall fan palms that looked like waving creatures in the star light. Triffids maybe.
Then a light flickered from shore, and we pulled into a makeshift log dock, where a cluster of people waited. We unloaded a few passengers and lot of goods, took on some more passengers with their belongings and set out again. A cluster of boys struck a gangster pose for a photo.
The jungle closed in, the channel became even narrower and the boat still moved impossibly quickly, skidding through turns, brushing past thick trees growing from the water, the spotlight playing over the trees and vines, bats darting through the bright tunnel. When we had to slow, the night came alive with sounds of the jungle.
Stars, jungle, an outboard motor, river banks pressing in - part Heart of Darkness, part the grandest Disneyland ride ever.
We slowed suddenly in the dark, because two other boats were in the channel, a smaller one unloading melons into another pipante.
We were stranded in shallows again, this time both the boat chica and the driver, stepping into to the muck to push os free.
Then out into Laguna Brus, a giant body of water separated from the Caribbean by a sandbar. 
We picked up speed for the run to the town of Brus, our destination. There were more stars than I have ever seen in Canada, and under the light the water turned to a light grey, so it seemed we were racing through clouds. Burst of phospherence flashed by in the wake.
It was a painfully long trip by the time we pulled up to the dock in Brus, a town of about 8,000 that can�t be reached by road. 
It would have been spectacular in the day time. But it was unforgettable at night.
Footnote: The boats leave Batalla in the late afternoon when the trucks arrive. The truck drivers and helpers sleep there, then head back to Tocoa in the morning, leaving early enough to allow a return trip. Which meant we had to catch a return boat at 4 a.m. in Brus to get back in time to pile into a waiting truck. A good chance to see dawn over the lagoons.

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