Healthier homes for the Chor’ti’ community -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Healthier homes for the Chor’ti’ community

By Stephanie Banas and Jessica Deras

The Chor’ti’ is a Mayan subgroup that currently lives in the remote rural communities surrounding Copán. These communities are not prioritized for government funding, and are outside the jurisdiction of most social programs and infrastructural investment. Despite living near a major tourist attraction which celebrates their ancestors, the majority of Chor’ti’ families today live in extreme poverty (less than US$1/day/person). Quite literally in the shadow of their past, marginalized Chor’ti’ groups face very real vulnerabilities in regards to health, sanitation, disease, poverty and natural disaster.

In these communities, houses are built using what Pedro José Remírez Sendoya, priest and social scientist from the mid-20th century, coined the Bahareque technique—a mixture of bamboo, mud and timber with thatched roofs and dirt floors. The holes that often form in these roofs and mud walls craft the perfect environment for a parasite locally dubbed the Chinche Picuda, or kissing bug—the principal transmitter of Chagas disease. According to the Honduran Health Secretary, as of 2004 six percent of the total population in Honduras was infected with Chagas, at least a third of which have suffered resulting heart damage. Copán is one of four regions in Honduras where the disease is most prevalent. Full-blown Chagas can cause paralysis, heart failure and death, and is a significant contributor to infant mortality, of which the Chor’ti’ community suffers one of the highest rates in the country.

Chor’ti’ communities in Copán also suffer from a soaring number of respiratory diseases due to poor ventilation, which leads to smoke inhalation from the wood-fired stoves used to prepare meals. Families congregate around these stoves, which deposit a visible layer of soot on the walls and ceilings and expose family members (primarily women) to what the UNDP estimates is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. The fires also result in a significant level of localized deforestation, causing further vulnerability in the face of natural disaster and the area’s 7-month per year rains.

Habitat Honduras and its partners understand that simply improving houses will never provide a complete solution. “This project works differently from traditional Habitat projects. Our mission has always been to partner with families that need a hand up…but this group needs more than that,” says Jessica Deras of Habitat Honduras. “Working with indigenous communities requires an integral approach that addresses decades of marginalization, racial discrimination and other serious vulnerabilities evident in, but not limited to, the state of their homes.”

The initial stage of the “Healthier Homes” project brought together local authorities, the National Indigenous Maya Chor’ti Council of Honduras, the Rotary Club, the HFH affiliate of Gaston County in North Carolina, Habitat Honduras and Chor’ti’ families to establish an integrated approach to addressing vulnerabilities in rural Copán.

This initial pilot provided assistance to 120 families from the Chor’ti’ community, with priority given to women-headed or overcrowded households, benefiting some 847 individuals. In the model, Habitat and its partners work closely to first educate communities on the project requirements and potential benefits from home improvements. Families are trained in construction techniques, home hygiene and maintenance. At the end of the project, homeowners are equipped with skills to make further home improvements and additions that are structurally sound. Quarterly workshops raise families’ awareness about how the housing improvements and good practice will reduce health risks.

In the next stage of the project, Habitat Honduras hopes to provide 1,728 housing improvements on indigenous Chor’ti homes, 192 new houses for families whose homes in their current state cannot be approved, and training for 3,840 individuals in Chor’ti communities on health control of the Chinche Picuda insect as well as improved technology construction techniques.

Stephanie Banas is the writer/editor for Habitat for Humanity’s Latin America/Caribbean Area Office in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Jessica Deras is the Project Coordinator for Advocacy for Access to Adequate Housing, with Habitat for Humanity Honduras.