Fighting Miskito Poverty in Gracias a Dios

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IXONIA, Wisconsin — La Mosquitia is the Honduran portion of the Mosquito Coast, homeland to the Miskito people. The region encompasses the three northeastern departments of Colón, Olancho and Gracias a Dios. The latest data indicates that Honduras has the second-highest extreme poverty rate in Latin America, with 17.2% of the population surviving on less than $1.90 a day. Poverty is not evenly distributed across the Honduran population. Today, the Miskito are largely confined to Gracias a Dios, one of the most impoverished regions in the country. Miskito poverty is a multifaceted problem requiring multifaceted solutions.

Gracias a Dios’ Infrastructure

Despite being the second-largest department in Honduras, Gracias a Dios is underdeveloped. No roads lead into the area and many families lack electricity or clean drinking water. In 2013, the Village Infrastructure Angels (VIA), a group of investors working in developing countries, teamed up with the Rotary Clubs of Arlington, Texas and Roatan Island to bring electricity to 200 homes in Gracias a Dios. Specifically, this project provided households with solar lighting systems and solar mills. The latter reduced manual labor for women, allowing them to pursue extra incomes by creating products to sell at home or abroad with VIA’s help. After the initial success of this project, and with the backing of the local government and several international organizations, the project expanded. Currently, VIA hopes to electrify 10,000 homes in Gracias a Dios by 2022.

Since 2004, the Rotary Club of Arlington, Texas, has worked to alleviate Miskito poverty. In partnership with the Norma Love Foundation, the Rotary Club created safe drinking water access by installing wells and water filters throughout Gracias a Dios. By the end of 2018, it had installed more than 3,000 water filters in schools and homes as well as numerous shallow water wells and latrines.

Access to Medicine

Throughout Gracias a Dios, there is a lack of medical facilities and health services. This translates into high death rates for diabetes, hypertension and various infectious diseases. For example, the department capital, Puerto Lempira, has a population of almost 60,000 but only one hospital and few specialists on hand.

Since 2016, MosquitiaMed has attempted to remedy this problem. Made up of volunteer health personnel, MosquitiaMed travels throughout Gracias a Dios treating and educating rural communities on preventative techniques and how people can treat “low complexity” health issues without leaving their community. It optimizes the spread of this information by using mobile technology to create and distribute videos detailing these treatment methods in local languages.

Through a telemedicine app, MosquitiaMed connects patients with doctors and specialists. These consultations reduce overcrowding at hospitals while being cost-effective since patients receive treatment at home. When the health problem needs hospital treatment, MosquitiaMed helps transport the patients. In its first year of operation, 350 patients used the telemedicine app and only 20 needed to travel for treatment.

The Legal Battle for Land Ownership

The most pressing issue for alleviating Miskito poverty is the fight for legal ownership of their homeland. When Honduras obtained El Mosquitia, the Honduran government divided it into three departments and privatized all but Gracias a Dios for non-native settlers and private companies. In the mid-1960s, a new wave of settlers started to invade the remaining Miskito lands. The government viewed Gracias a Dios as unimproved, uninhabited land so those who cleared the forest and built on the land became owners. With little government supervision in this process, the settlers destroyed the department’s natural resources and disrupted traditional lifestyles.

In 2012, Mosquitia Asla Takanka (MASTA), an indigenous association aimed at reclaiming and managing Miskito lands, set out to obtain land titles from the government. Before this intervention, the government had only entitled 21% of La Mosquitia to the Miskito. Over the next three years, the government granted the remaining 79% of the land to the Miskito. This titling benefited 17,500 families and protected the Miskito’s resources from illegal activities. MASTA also created a Biocultural Protocol to protect the Miskito’s natural resources. This protocol explains to outside organizations the terms and conditions for operating in the Miskito territory, reducing the chances of exploitation.

Food Security and Livelihoods

To alleviate Miskito poverty and food insecurity, the Japanese government, the World Bank and Ayuda en Acción launched “Improving the Livelihoods of Miskito Indigenous Peoples in La Mosquitia” in August 2020. The Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF) is providing a $2.72 million grant to fund the program. Ayuda en Acción, a Madrid-based NGO that focuses on fighting poverty and inequality, will be administering the program. The program centers on the community’s autonomy. While the program gives grants to invest in farming, fishing or agroforestry, it is up to the Miskito community to decide the best way to use it. This program will benefit 2,000 Miskitos in Gracias a Dios.

While this last decade has seen significant improvements in reducing Miskito poverty, there is still room for improvement. Gracias a Dios needs roads connecting the department to the rest of Honduras and hospitals need to be built in rural areas. Now that the Miskito people own the titles to their land, they have a more prominent voice in the decision-making that affects the future of their community.

Riley Behlke
Photo: Flickr

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