Sinking in a sea of garbage

Tegucigalpa floods: Take hills, garbage-blocked ditches and drains, add rain
I�ve been wondering about garbage-per-kilometre as a development indicator, along with all the formal measures like stunted children and GINI indexes and poverty rates.
Maybe when a society gets a handle on garbage, it�s reached some sort of turning point.
If so, Honduras has a long way to go.
Early this year, slick new recycling containers sprouted on the streets in Copan Ruinas. We saw them in Tela too, so it must be some sort of national program. They had their own little concrete pads and were abut four-feet tall tall and slender, with ad posters for banks or tourist sites on two sides. There was an opening on each end, and signs said one was for organic waste, and the other for plastic, cans, glass and cardboard.
Pretty darned green. Except if you looked inside, all the trash dropped into one open area. It was a really fancy and, it turned out, easily vandalized garbage pail.
That�s not surprising.
The �Don�t Be a Litterbug� stuff hasn�t caught on down here. When you ride the buses, people finish their snack or pop and toss the garbage out the window without a thought. (If the window is broken and won�t open, they toss it on the floor.) We�ve waged a continuing battle with the kids from Angelitos to use garbage pails, since their inclination is drop garbage anywhere.
The results aren�t pretty. A stretch of green roadside becomes an impromptu dump. The river - especially after a holiday - is littered with styrofoam food containers, bags of garbage and whatever detritus is left from the day�s fun.
Rivers and creeks are generally treated as good places to throw garbage, even whole communities� garbage. In part, that�s because when the torrential rains come the garbage is swept away.
A Utila beach, and mainland garbage
Not good news for the people downstream, of course. Ultimately, the garbage ends up somewhere, and oceanfront communities complain the big rains bring a flood of garbage into the Caribbean and onto their beaches. We wandered along a dirt road to a deserted cove in Utila, which would have been stunning except for the dune of plastic garbage, likely largely from the mainland.
Even the rains can�t sweep all the garbage away. Tegucigalpa, the capital, was hammered with a two-hour rain during Semana Santa and had massive flooding.
A big part of the problem was garbage. �The floods in the capital were generated by the large amount of garbage dumped in streams, rivers, streets, curbs and gutters,� La Prensa reported. Drains were blocked, creeks and ditches overflowed and streets filled with black, garbage-choked water.
Maybe worrying about garbage comes later, when two-thirds of the population isn�t living in poverty. 
Maybe the lack of easy access to markets for recycled materials, especially outside the cities is an issue. (There are people who scavenge the loads as they come into the Tegucigalpa dump, grabbing cardboard and plastic and metal and selling them to brokers on the fringes. We get garbage pickup three times a week; I assume the guys on the truck grab what can be sold. My partner met a guy who scavenged plastic bottles, crushed them with his truck and took them to the city to sell when he had enough.)
Or maybe getting people to think about garbage - about shared responsibilities and shared losses - would be a step toward a society that thought about tackling some of those harder issues.

The children's education fund: Even really stupid commitments should be honoured

Martyn Brown raises an interesting point about the NDP pledge to kill a really stupid piece of public policy the Campbell government put in place in 2007.
The Children�s Education Fund never made any sense. The Liberals said the government would put $1,000 for every child born in the province into a fund. Beginning in 2025, when the a teen graduated from high school, he or she would get the money, plus interest, for postsecondary training or education. Figure $2,200.
It was a goofy policy, pulled out of thin air when Gordon Campbell needed something to announce at the party�s 2006 convention.
And there have been suggestions for a couple of years - OK, perhaps just by me - to get rid of it.
In 2011, I wrote that the government was committing $47 million to the fund that year, money that was needed for services.

�There�s no logical basis for the government to decide that a tuition subsidy for students starting school in 2025 is a priority today � more important than caring for the disabled, improving health care or offering a tax cut to encourage employment growth," I wrote then.
�In fact, the notion that the government can predict the needs of students two decades in the future is dubious. Imagine the outgoing Socreds trying to come up with a tuition plan that would work for students in 2011.
�The amount, for example, could be a pittance compared to the cost of education more than a decade from now.
�Or alternately, a future government, given the need for skilled British Columbians, could have decided post-secondary education should be free to some qualifying students, or even all students. That�s not an outlandish notion, given the shift to a knowledge-based economy in the province....
�Why not take the $47 million and address today�s needs, through scholarships or education credits or tax breaks, or target First Nations� high school graduation rates, or address other educational needs?
�It�s also bizarre that the fund makes no distinctions based on the needs of either the province, or the students.
�A multimillionaire�s child will get $2,000; so will a youth coming out of care, living on income assistance and trying to get an education. 
�A smart program would target bright students who couldn�t afford an education, and be based on merit and need. Or it could support education for students entering fields that were critical to the province�s future.�

By 2025, I noted, the government would have stashed more than $1 billion in the fund.
The government changed the plan this year, pledging to give parents a cheque for every child on their sixth birthdays, to put into an RESP.
Brown�s point is that parents who had babies between 2007 and today had a right to count on the money and taking it away violates a �social contract.� (And he acknowledges, implicitly, the irony of the argument, given his role in the Campbell government�s illegal ripping up of contracts with pubic sector unions.)
The programs needs to be axed.
But perhaps there was a commitment here, at least to the parents of children born since in 2007. It might be right to preserve the program in its original form for those families. After all, the money has been set aside.
Even stupid commitments probably should be honoured.

Vote for our musical Cuso volunteer video

This is utterly shameless, I admit.
Cuso International had a contest, inviting volunteers around the world to submit videos about the experience.
We entered, with a song featuring the accordion stylings of Jody Paterson and my guitar fumblings.
I kind of like it.
What I would like you to do is go the Cuso Facebook page and watch the video.
If you think it's kind of OK, you have to like both the Cuso Facebook page and our video to vote for us.

Footnote:
Should you want to sing along, here are the lyrics, to the tune of Leaving on Jet Plane,


All our bags are packed, we're standing here
About to be a volunteer
In a country Peace Corps left just weeks ago
Will we get gunned down? Or take up coke?
Will our workmates think we're quite the joke?
With our high-school Spanish messing up the show?

But we're flexible Cuso stock
We'll survive this culture shock
If capacity needs building, count us in
We're working in a new land
Don't know when we'll be back again
Our world won't be the same

We've met campesinos by the score,
We've learned most folks here are really poor
We know more about la roya than we should
We've been bounced down dirt roads, left to wait
Learned that 6 o'clock is more like 8
And that sunshine in December sure feels good

We're flexible Cuso stock
We'll survive the culture shock
If capacity needs building, we're your team
The power failures don't get us down
We've landed in a real nice town
And the guns aren't aimed at us, just worn with jeans

Are we changing culture? It's hard to tell
Communications is a real tough sell
In a country that has faith and not much more
But they love the photos, think the website's cool
The Facebook friends and the PowerPoints too
But will they keep it up when we walk out the door?

We're flexible Cuso stock
We've survived this culture shock
We're thriving in a most appealing way
Thank you for this chance to shine
In a land that has no sense of time
O Cuso...can we stay?

If a government can't provide licence plates... Part 2

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the Honduran government�s baffling inability to get licence plates into the hands of drivers.
I saw scads of cars and motorcycles without licence plates, and thought at first that people were just ignoring the law. 
But it turned out the government didn�t actually have the plates, and hadn�t for almost a year. That was a major hassle for drivers, who had to keep going back to the licensing office every month to get temporary permits, a process that took hours. 
And in a country with a big crime problem, some 330,000 vehicles and motorcycles without licence plates was unhelpful. 
The news stories were never clear why the government couldn�t get its act together.
A year later, and the story is back in the papers.
There are still about 200,000 vehicles without plates because the government can�t supply them.
The president mused about having prisoners make licence plates, but then learned the government is too broke to buy the needed equipment. 
It can�t afford to order plates, either, even though drivers� licence fees should cover the costs (less than $20 to make a pair of plates).
This is new to me. In Canada, governments can borrow what they need. Deficits are debated, but, ultimately, if governments need licence plates or money to pay teachers or buy medical supplies, they just borrow a bit more, at pretty good rates.
Not in Honduras. Teachers plan a one-day strike tomorrow because they say they haven�t been paid. Buses weren�t running in the cities today, because owners say the government hasn�t paid promised subsidies. 
Road repairs have been stalled for a months, because the government can�t pay the contractors� outstanding bills. It offered the companies a combination of cash and government bonds, but they weren�t keen. 
That�s not surprising. Honduras went to the international bond market this month to raise money. The rating agencies put them deep into junk bond territory. The issue raised $500 million, at 7.5-per-cent interest. (B.C. borrows at less than half that rate per cent.)
The president said the government could have sold more bonds, but he was worried the money would just be wasted. And a commission is to be set up to manage the money, to ensure it isn�t squandared. (Commissions are big here. Anytime a public body fails to perform, the response to seems to be to create a new one to oversee it, instead of just fixing the original governance problem.)
Anyway, back to the licence problem. No money. Prisoners can�t make them. 
So the government is looking at a public-private partnership, hoping to find a company that will take over the whole process in return for the chance to make a profit on licensing cars and drivers.
Those 3P agreements are very big in Honduras right now too. The government has signed a contract to hand over management of the country�s main port for 30 years. 
And I suppose model cities are a way of privatizing government itself.
It�s an appealing concept for Honduras, much more than in North America. Private companies can borrow more cheaply than government for infrastructure, a significant saving on large projects. Government is judged corrupt and incompetent. So the idea of handing responsibility to a third party is appealing.
But there�s an obvious problem.
A government that can�t manage the problem or deliver the service - like licence plates - probably can�t negotiate a good private-public partnership deal either.

Do-it-yourself gated communities and police in Honduras


Gated communities are different in Honduras.
New subdivisions in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the two big cities, tend to be built behind walls and gates. But that happens in North America too.
But people in existing neighbourhoods also throw up their own barricades and gates, blocking city streets into the neighbourhood with concrete blocks or corrugated steel and allowing limited, controlled entrance.
There are no permits, or traffic studies. One day you can drive through, and the next you can�t - at least without showing ID and explaining where you�re going.
La Prensa reported 18 San Pedro Sula neighbourhoods have blocked traffic so far, with more making plans.
The people who live in the barrios say crime has fallen, and they�re happy.  
Urban residents have no confidence in police or the justice system, so they come up with their own solutions.
Of course, the people in other neighbourhoods, who now have travel another 20 blocks to get to work aen�t so keen. Neither are bus and taxi drivers who don�t know from week to week which roads will be closed next.
And of course, the barriers don�t actually reduce the number of criminals or crime. They just shift it from one neighbourhood, where people have enough money or organization to put up barriers, to another where they don�t.
When the justice system doesn�t work, people eventually take measures into their own hands.
By building barricades. Or by paying for their own surrogate police forces.
And Honduras has a ton of them. Last month, a UN Human Rights working group on mercenaries urged the Honduran government to get a grip on the explosion of private security forces.
There are more than 700 registered private security companies, many more unregistered, and some 70,000 armed private guards. That�s five times the number of police officers in the country, and twice the police and military forces combined.
You get used to armed guards outside the banks, or riding shotgun - literally - on the delivery trucks.
But 70,000 is an astonishing number. And the UN group noted they are at risk of becoming �a substitute for competent and accountable police.� It�s deeply flawed, but there is at least theoretical accountability for real police that doesn�t exist for the private police forces.
And, again, private police forces only protect those who can pay. 
Or, the UN group warned, they may go farther. �Human rights violations allegedly committed by private security companies are not investigated, perpetrators remain unprosecuted and victims do not have access to remedies.� 
None of this is easy to sort out. If your store has been robbed a few times and you can afford a guard with a shotgun, then it becomes a wise investment. If people are riding through your neighbourhood and committing robberies, maybe killings, then barricading streets seems a good idea.
Or if you live in a remote community and a couple of guys keep stealing things from the rickety houses of everyone else in the community, it makes sense to deal justice directly.
What all these responses to crime have in common is that they don�t change the reality of life in the country. They create a bit more security for some, and less for others, and increase injustice, rather than restoring it.
Barricades and private security guards are no substitute for a police and legal system that actually works.

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