In January, we announced that our local partner in Honduras had been honored with the Innovation Award from the Yale chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters. The prize recognizes the collaborative effort between our partner AJAASSPIB, EcoLogic, and an urban municipality to scale up AJAASSPIB’s successful model of rural community-led conservation to a larger watershed. In honor of World Water Day and the International Day of Women—which we celebrated earlier this month—we want you to meet the amazing woman without whom none of this award-winning conservation work would have happened.
NILIA ZUMILDA DUARTE SANDOVAL—or Doña Zumilda, as she’s called by neighbors and colleagues as a sign of respect—knows what it’s like to see a community go thirsty. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras, leaving behind an unprecedented trail of destruction. The President at the time, Carlos Flores, pronounced that the hurricane had cost Honduras fifty years of development. Doña Zumilda’s small community of La Chorrera, home to just over 200 families, was devastated. “When Hurricane Mitch came, all of our water systems were destroyed,” she remembers. The hurricane reduced water storage and filtration infrastructure throughout the region to rubble, and communities were left without access to clean water. “We had to rebuild everything.”
In 1998, EcoLogic first began work in the area of northern Honduras that would eventually become our Communities Organizing for Watersheds project site. A few years after the hurricane, in 2003, EcoLogic helped establish our project partner, the Association of Water Boards of the Southern Zone of Pico Bonito National Park (AJAASSPIB). Doña Zumilda was a founding member, and remains active in the group’s leadership.
Doña Zumilda’s history as an organizer and conservation leader in her community began long before Hurricane Mitch. “I have been serving my community since I was eight years old,” she says with a smile. Her father couldn’t read or write, but thanks to her schooling, she could. When Zumilda was eight, her father began taking her to community meetings with him so she could take notes. “My father was a very active local leader, and he taught me the value of service to the community. When I was a girl, I always liked spending time with him out in the community more than I liked staying at home with my mother. I have him to thank for so much of the course of my life—it’s through him that I learned to be politically active, and it’s because of him that I know how to be strong.”
Before she became known in her community as a grassroots leader and clean water activist, Doña Zumilda was a primary school teacher for more than twenty years. She chose to teach both out of a desire to work in service to her community, and because she understood the immeasurable value of an education. She grew up in a large, boisterous family of 15 siblings in a very rural part of Honduras, and the children were expected to help their parents in the fields and at home. She remembers her frustration at being pulled out of school after six years so she could work at home with her sisters. “It was a long time before I was able to go back to school again,” she reminisces. It was thanks to the support of a few friends and mentors that she was able to complete her studies in the city years later. “I learned how important it is to have someone who will fight for you,” she says. By teaching—and later in her organizing work with AJAASSPIB—Doña Zumilda was able to be the one doing the fighting.
In the more than 10 years since AJAASSPIB was founded, the Association has worked with EcoLogic’s support on initiatives ranging from environmental education programs to building fuel-efficient stoves to establishing a rewards for ecosystem services and stewardship program. But the heart of AJAASSPIB’s work ever since Hurricane Mitch reduced water tanks to rubble in 1998, has always been water. “The greatest success we have accomplished has been to provide water to families,” Doña Zumilda says. “We suffered from so much pollution in our watersheds. There was a lot of infant mortality. So many children died before they were even a year old because of the diseases they got from the dirty water.”
AJAASSPIB has provided clean water by reconstructing the destroyed water storage systems, as well as filtering and treating water with chlorine to improve quality. “After the hurricane, as AJAASSPIB was first forming, we got support from EcoLogic as well as other aid organizations, church groups, whoever could help us. There was such a great need in the community,” Doña Zumilda recounts. “We rebuilt our infrastructure, and we have basically eradicated infant mortality from water-borne diseases. Meanwhile, we watched the government sit there with their arms crossed doing nothing to help us. In the end, we rebuilt our own communities. It was a beautiful experience that made us stronger.”
Driven in large part by Doña Zumilda’s tenacious leadership, AJAASSPIB has earned regional respect for its community-driven water and forest conservation efforts. In 2011, the municipality of Olanchito—a city of 40,000 people—approached AJAASSPIB and EcoLogic -about using the Association’s model of financing watershed restoration through a voluntary environmental fund, and replicating the idea on a larger scale. It was for the success of this agreement that AJAASSPIB was honored with the Yale ISTF’s Innovation Award.
Looking forward, Zumilda wants to build and strengthen partnerships with other community groups and develop initiatives to bring sustainable, small-scale economic development to the rural and poverty-stricken region. “We’re planning some workshops to train community members how to start micro-enterprises in the hope that residents can gain more income that way—and use it to educate their children!”
But even when deep in her ambitious plans for the future, Doña Zumilda takes care to value the past. “I have always loved reading and learning about the history of my community,” she says. “Writing down your story is an incredibly valuable thing to do.” She smiles. “I want to make sure that future generations know that their ancestors were good people, and that we cared so much about serving our community. I hope that inspires them.”
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