Thursday, August 28, 2008

Boys, Bulbs, and Biodiesel

This is Enrique. He is nine years old, but he looks more like seven. He lives in a small village a few miles off the paved road on the north coast of Honduras. His home has no electricity, although water is delivered to their house at a single spigot near his house. Behind their two room house is a cinder block outhouse that sees a lot of action. Enrique has four brothers and two sisters; he is in the very middle, and sometimes gets overlooked. But he is a happy boy, and lately he has been excited about the changes his family is experiencing.
Today is a special day for Enrique. He is going to the city, something he has only done once or twice before. Mother made him put on his best clothes for the trip, so he put on his "imported" blue tee shirt with English writing on it. He doesn't know what it says, but North American visitors would recognize it as an NBA Championship commemorative shirt from 2001.

His family rents a small plot of land, about an acre, on which they grow most of their food: beans, rice, and plantains. Free ranging chickens walk in and out of their front door, although sometimes they get eaten for dinner. Several days a week, his father and older brothers walk a mile down the footpath to work at a palm oil plantation. Enrique likes to play in the plantation, because the trees are planted in straight lines that go on and on as far as he can see. He and his friends run beneath them and enjoy the shady canopy seemingly held aloft by innumerable living pillars. Much of his life takes place in or around this plantación, this orchard on steroids, itself bigger than his entire village many times over.

On the days his father and brothers work at the plantation, they spend the morning riding in the back of a large truck that Enrique's uncle drives up and down the rows. When the truck stops near a palm tree, the workers use a long-armed sickle like a modified machete to reach high into the tree and cut loose a cluster of fruit. Palm fruit looks like watermelon-sized clusters of gigantic, prickly, reddish grapes. But unlike grapes, they are relatively tough and are not damaged by the fall when cut loose from forty-foot trees. Another worker gathers them from the ground and tosses them into the back of the truck, and it goes on like this for about six hours a day. They are paid 80 Lempiras each, or about $4.

When the truck gets full, it returns to a central location where, today, Enrique meets his father as he dismounts the truck. While the load of fruit is recorded with a scribble in a notebook by a foreman, Enrique's father washes up at a water spigot, and changes his clothes. The driver, Enrique's uncle, receives a receipt from the foreman and is joined in the front seat by a security guard equipped with a rusty shotgun, two shells, and a prepaid cell phone, presumably to call for backup.

Enrique and his father also climb into the truck to start their journey to the city. The foreman doesn't mind the extra riders; it is common for rural Hondurans to "catch" rides from friends or even strangers.

Enrique has only been in a motor vehicle a few times before, and he finds it exciting but disconcerting. He stares at the controls with wonder, but he fidgets a little because he doesn't know how to act in the truck. His unfamiliarity with the (unused) seat belts and door mechanisms remind him that his family is poor. As they crawl down the potted paved road at 40 miles per hour, lots of pickups and smaller trucks pass them as if they are sitting still, though to Enrique it seems they are moving very fast.

After an hour or so, they pull the truck into a gated processing plant and get in line behind half a dozen other trucks that have come from other plantations. They are not allowed to go inside the plant, so they wait in the hot truck while the fruit is unloaded into a hopper to be processed. They are good at waiting, and at being hot. They get a lot of practice at both.

Later, his uncle drives Enrique and his father around the plant for the next leg of their journey, but for the fruit itself, this is the end of the line. It will be crushed and smashed and filtered into huge tanks of golden orange palm oil. Tank trucks are filled with palm oil on the far side of the plant, and that is where his father is introduced to another man, Fidor.

Fidor drives a tank truck and is friends with Enrique's uncle. Goodbyes are said and Enrique, his father, and Fidor climb aboard the biggest vehicle Enrique has ever seen. They are headed for the city where, apparently, they need a lot of palm oil.

In the city, Enrique's father meets his other brother, Miguel, who is a taxi driver and knows the city well. They go to a few stores that Miguel knows and trusts and Enrique's father buys some familiar items: a new machete, an aluminum cooking pot for Mother, and a new hammock. Then Miguel helps Enrique's father with a new thing that Enrique doesn't understand.

By the time they return home to the village, Enrique's father has explained that the new thing is an electric light, and that their village will soon be wired for electricity. Enrique is fuzzy on the details, but his father seems genuinely excited, something Enrique has seldom seen.

You see, although they live far from the national electric grid, the plantation owner is partnering with a private company to start a village-level electric company called "Energía Para Aldeas" or EPA. It means energy for villages.

A small portion of the palm fruit will be processed into palm oil with small equipment similar to that in the processing plant. It will then be converted into biodiesel with another machine at a cost low enough that electricity can be economically produced with a simple diesel generator.

Electricity will not solve all their problems or meet all their needs. But the village will be better off than it was. The people will no longer have to use "candils", or home-made oil lamps, for lighting their homes at night. But beyond the improved quality of light, the improved respiratory health, the improved safety from fires, their is a dawning hope in their hearts. "If we can have electricity in our homes, what else is possible?" New businesses arise. A carpenter can use power tools. Someone buys an ice maker and begins selling ice to preserve food and cool drinks. Enrique can do his homework at night. They can finally charge their cell phones!

Someone even buys a television and a pirated DVD of "Walker, Texas Ranger" season three. Oh, wait. That's not really an improvement...

[This story is fiction based on fact. Regular readers (hi Mom) of this blog will see the connection with my work. But these things did not happen, yet. This is an expression of "what if?". All the photos except the light bulbs were taken by me in Honduras, 2008.]

1 comment:

Dovie said...

This is my favorite kind of story. It really puts it into perspective for those of us who take so many of these things for granted.