Coffee vs Gangs: the woman who claimed her place on the land

A dream of land ownership has become a reality for the Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs graduates. This is Maria's story


It’s cool and dark in the one-room home that 21-year-old Maria Mencia shares with her husband Carlos in the Honduran highlands. A large traditional clay oven sits heavy on the wooden floor as the sun streams through the shuttered windows. The couple are married only a few months but the confidence they exhibit and the stories they tell in their modest home speak of a strong life forged on the land.

I first met Maria 12 months before when, as a student on the Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs programme, she spoke eloquently of her plans to retake her place on the land and the role women can play in bringing peace to this troubled country. Since then, she has graduated from the programme along with 18 other students of that year’s intake and has been working with Kenco to turn what she has learned into a solid future. Each of the students received an interest-free loan at the end of the programme to purchase land or rent premises for a business – an incredible opportunity in a country where employment is chronically low and business ownership is a pipe dream for most.

Maria’s coffee farm is set even higher again in the mountains, an hour’s drive from her home. She had originally hoped to purchase land close to where she lives but increasingly common legal problems around land ownership in Honduras encouraged Kenco to look further afield to ensure that the land they did purchase was transparent, legally documented and reliable. Now each of the graduates who work the land own large swathes of coffee farm side-by-side in the highlands, a rich fertile part of this mountainous coffee-rich country.

Maria is a natural leader among the students and graduates, talking without drama of the impact the Kenco course has had on her life and the opportunities it has opened for her. But she’s ready to outline how hard it is to work the land also. Out in her yard she shows me the plants she is growing around her home, small coffee saplings, fruit trees, vegetables and a variety of herbs.  This is fertile land that supports a large proportion of the Honduran population with a deep connection to the land. Nonetheless, the skills that Maria learned on the Kenco course are intended to drive coffee production in a new modern direction.

In order to meet the demand and increase the quality of output, the training she received needs to have a multiplier effect - and it’s working. This year she gave work to 17 people from her community, hiring them to plant and harvest her crops. While small in number this employment can only grow as her own experience and output increases. She buys and sells good quality coffee saplings for her own farm and sells the remainder on to other farmers in the area, increasing the quality and strain of coffee plant in the region but creating a new cash flow also. She rents the home she lives in from a small farmer, taking the one room connected to their slightly larger house, an arrangement that is a welcome addition to their income. There is a small personal economy growing around Maria that is incredibly refreshing.

But she’s realistic about her next steps. Coffee farming is hard, laborious work and she knows that if she can’t increase her land holding, improve her techniques and turn a profit in the first three years she could fail. She stays close to the Kenco project, visiting the farm and staying in touch with her tutors who I can see hold her in high esteem.

Tragedy has come Maria’s way since the end of the training course. Her mother and brother have died, both from natural causes it is explained - an unfortunate clarification that’s required in a country with such a high death rate from criminal activity. It has grounded her, she says, and suggests that building her future is even more in focus now.

The future of the country is in transition too as it continues to grapple with its perilous existence on an international drug smuggling route. Honduras is no longer rated as the most dangerous country in the world, having been pushed off the top spot by its neighbour El Salvador. But unfortunately for the entire region, this doesn’t reflect on improvements in Honduras as much as an increase in the level of crime in El Salvador.  The country of approx 8.4m people still experiences high levels of crime and while Maria’s home is far from the larger cities and criminal gangs, she is very aware of how perilous the situation is here. The economy remains very fragile but with a young population with literacy rates of around 83 per cent there are still reasons to be positive, she says. She’s proud of where she’s from.

She recommended other young people to apply to join this year’s intake of students and spends a lot of time working with them. The project has become a large part of her life and she plans to repay them, in every way she can.

For more on the Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs project see irishtimes.com/sponsored/kenco or coffeevsgangs.com