A major focus of Plenty's work is its ongoing, long term program in Belize. Plenty Belize is a registered non-governmental organization, with an office staffed by a full time coordinator and office assistant in Punta Gorda Town, the hub of Belizes southernmost Toledo District. Bordering Guatemala, the Toledo District is home to a harmonious mix of ethnicities Mopan and Kekchi Maya, Garifuna, East Indian, Creole, British and American ex-pats - as well as some of Central America's most pristine rainforest and numerous bird, plant and animal species. As is unfortunately the case with similar environments worldwide, the areas rainforest is increasingly threatened due to population pressures, logging, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Iris in 2001. Iris not only destroyed forest directly in one night of ferocity but created the conditions for further destruction by fires and flooding as downed trees became dried timber and brush and soils lost their root base and could not absorb seasonal rains.
Projects in Belize
Plenty's work in Belize
has expanded to include
several different projects.
photo by Anita Whipple
Within this context the focus of Plenty Belize is to assist indigenous Mayan, Garifuna and other local community-based groups in their efforts to create and maintain economically viable and environmentally sustainable activities from organic farming to crafts production to ecotourism. Since 1990, Plenty staff and volunteers have provided financial, technical, and material support to these efforts, including strategic planning, computer training, project development, marketing, fundraising and networking. Plenty Belize also implements a small number of its own projects in health, nutrition and other efforts, in close liaison with local government and non-governmental agencies, and relying on a network of international volunteers.
Village Midwife Training
The impetus for the Belize midwifery project grew out of our experience working with Kek'chi and Mopan Maya people in the Toledo District. Spread out over approximately 48 rural villages, the Maya in this district have the poorest health indicators of any population in Belize. Mayan infants have a 45-55% mortality rate, meaning 45-55 babies out of a thousand live births die before the age of 3 months, a rate about 5 times higher than that of the US. A high percentage of Mayan women are anemic, which puts them and their unborn babies at risk during pregnancy and childbirth, and a high number of Mayan children suffer growth retardation due to malnutrition.
The majority of Mayan women birth their babies at home. Since many of Toledo's rural villages are several hours drive from the local hospital, and transportation and communication systems are generally poor, the focus of the midwifery training project is to train rural village women to assist their neighbors during pregnancy and childbirth and to provide back up support to them in times of emergencies.
The first training began in April 2000, under the direction of Plenty trainer Deborah Flowers, with 14 women from 11 villages. These women were chosen through a community meeting process, and represented a cross section of the Toledo population in rural villages: 7 Mopan Maya, 6 Kek'chi Maya and 1 Mestizo. The midwifery training course focused on essential skills that would have the most impact in saving the lives of women and newborns such as prenatal care, identifying high-risk pregnancies; when to refer a pregnant women to the medical system; how to minimize infection using sterile techniques; and newborn care.
A second midwife training course began in May 2001, targeting an additional number of underserved villages. This second phase was organized by Plenty midwife Christina Kahlou and assisted in large part by the Ministry of Health staff of the Punta Gorda Hospital, who conducted the majority of the classroom training and facilitated the midwives hands-on practical work in the hospital. In February 2002, 10 new midwives completed their theoretical and practical training, and successfully graduated. Participants from both groups received a basic supply kit for deliveries as well as a copy of the training manual.
Mary Kroeger has been our project manager/trainer since June 2002. Mary is a Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) with extensive international work experience, including two years prior work in Belize managing a USAID Child Survival project. She has maintained follow up support for the 22 midwives trained in both phases, including regular Continuing Education classes on various reproductive and child health issues. Project staff have also visited each midwife in their home village to do more personalized assessments of their skills and to identify and help address any community or personal issues that may be limiting their service. An additional ongoing capacity-building activity begun in December 2002 under the guidance of Plenty volunteer Reva Kidd is literacy and ESL training for midwives that are in need of such help. With this support we aim to increase the level and quality of communications that the midwives are able to maintain with Ministry of Health personnel, their ability to contribute to record keeping and health monitoring, as well as their self-esteem and broader ability to participate actively in the affairs of their community and district. Some midwives are also beginning to serve as contact/reference points for the Belize Family Planning Association, and are sources of basic family planning information for their communities.
All program activities encourage sharing of information and experiences, and create an atmosphere of greater trust and friendship among the women. Through these activities we emphasize the importance of the midwife in her community as an advocate for women and children, and the importance of respect for women. The project touches on other key issues as well such HIV/AIDS, spacing of children, and domestic abuse. Through the course we encourage midwives to become more active in their communities in these areas.
As of January 2003 the midwives have successfully handled over 120 deliveries in their villages and referrals for high-risk situations have numbered at least 20.
We continue to be excited about the programs successes and the opportunities presented. Via this endeavor we are enhancing women's equal access to quality health care, and also empowering the Village Midwives to become respected service providers in their communities and income earners in their families. There is still much work to do, and as previous program funders support is ending, we need to identify other funding sources in order to continue this program. We gratefully acknowledge UNICEF Belize and the Ministry of Health for their support and guidance, our midwife trainers Deborah Flowers, Christian Kahlou, and Mary Kroeger, as well as the Atkinson Foundation, Daniele Agostino Foundation, International Foundation, and Plenty donors for their financial support.
Midwifery and Reproductive Health Spring 2000 Plenty Bulletin
Continuing Education for Mayan Health Workers in 2001 Winter 2000-2001 Plenty Bulletin
Belize Traditional Birth Attendant Training Project Update Spring 2002 Plenty Bulletin
Belize Traditional Birth Attendant Training Project Update Fall 2002 Plenty Bulletin
Belize Traditional Birth Attendant Training Project Update Winter 2002-2003 Plenty Bulletin
Belize Midwife Training Project Update Spring 2003 Plenty Bulletin
Belize Village Midwife Project Fall 2003 Plenty Bulletin
Garden-based Agriculture for Toledos Environment (GATE)
In early 2002, Plenty Belize collaborated with the Toledo School Feeding Program Committee (SFP) on a short-term hurricane relief project that included establishing organic gardens at four targeted rural primary schools. The intent of the project was to begin to establish more sustainable food sources for the schools involved in the SFP, which were providing a hot lunch for their students. Further discussion with the SFP and the PTAs of these schools led Plenty Belize to develop the scope of the project further, and the GATE project became an integrated educational tool to address the multiple threats of environmental degradation, unsustainable agriculture, and poor nutrition. Plenty Belize has a successful history of community-based work in all three of these interconnected areas. In the 2004-04 school year the GATE program grew to incorporate thirteen primary schools and the regional high school.
While the school garden is the centerpiece for this project, this school gardening project includes several components that make a productive and sustainable program. These include: Extension work/ technical assistance; tools, seeds, and other supplies; training of village volunteers to assist with the gardens; classroom training; educational support to teachers in integrating the gardens into their curriculum; encouragement to start home gardens; and nutrition and food preparation education. Plenty Belize staff, local partners and volunteers provide this support at each school on an ongoing basis.
The GATE project is a collaborative effort of many people and organizations - The District Education Department, the administrations of the Methodist and Catholic schools, PTA members, villagers, teachers, principals, Sustainable Harvest International, Belize Minerals, Belize Marketing Board, Trees for Belize, Pan American Health Organization, Atkinson Foundation, UNICEF Belize, NOPCA, Peace Corps, and many individuals, as well as Plenty Internationals donors. The efforts and resources of these varied people and organizations are coordinated and managed by Plenty Belize and Plenty International. Funding is needed to continue providing support to the GATE project in the coming school year. Read more about GATE from previous Plenty Bulletins.
Toledo District School Feeding Program
The Toledo District School Feeding Program is part of a national effort to help undernourished primary school children do better in school by providing them a hot lunch. Eleven schools in the district participate in this program. Each school has to raise funds to buy food or secure food donations, as well as provide volunteers to cook, and the success of these efforts varies with each school. Through the designated donations of several Plenty supporters, in the spring of 2003 we have been able to provide cash donations for two schools in the School Feeding program that needed a little extra help to feed their students a hot lunch. Donations are still needed to continue this support. Contact Plenty for more information at [email protected]
Additional information: See School Feeding Program from previous Plenty Bulletins.
Toledo Ecotourism Association
The Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) provides an alternative source of income for the indigenous people of the Toledo District in a way that contributes to the protection of the environment and the preservation of biodiversity. The TEA operates guesthouses in ten villages (nine Mayan and one Garifuna) and its trained guides lead visitors on jungle tours, cave exploration, canoe trips and village tours. Plenty has worked closely with the TEA since its inception in 1990, offering financial, technical, moral and volunteer support. This support has included management and marketing assistance and networking both in-country and internationally to strengthen and improve their ecotourism program; workshops in wood carving and mask making from already felled wood and/or selective harvesting; and in 2001, joint planning and implementation of an environmental education program focusing on bird monitoring and conservation.
Toledo Ecotourism Association official web site.
TEA on Plenty's web site.
Soy Promotion and Agricultural Assistance
Plenty has long promoted sustainable agriculture and a plant-centered diet as a way to feed more of the world's people. Plenty is a strong believer in the value of small-scale village-based soy bean agriculture and soy foods production as a way to improve nutrition, soil quality, and food security. In Belize, for many years Plenty supported the operation of a small "Soy Center" out of its offices in Punta Gorda, where soy products such as locally flavored ice cream, tofu, soy milk, and "soysage" are produced and sold by long time Plenty Soy Technician, Ignatius 'Gomier' Longville. Gomier has over 17 years of experience in soy agriculture and processing in Plenty soy projects. "Gomiers Foods" is now an independent business.
From 1986 until 1999 the focus of Plentys agricultural assistance work in Belize was to help farming cooperatives and families to bolster self-sufficiency and sustainability by learning organic farming methods and adding new crops for consumption and local markets. Plenty also from 1997 to 1999, Plenty's soy technician Chuck Haren promoted the value and use of soy products by offering basic soy foods processing demonstrations to village farmers and their families, as well as other interested groups in the Toledo District. Two local women were taught basic soy foods processing and they in turn were hired to share information and techniques with volunteer school cooks at various schools.
In recent years the focus of Plentys soy and agricultural assistance work has been with local schools via the GATE project and the School Feeding Program.
In fall of 2000 Plenty started to explore possible projects in collaboration with Solar Energy International (SEI), a group of solar energy experts who teach classes on solar energy usage and have begun projects in the US and other countries. Alternative energy sources have long been of special interest to Plenty, given the environmental benefits of these systems and in the case of Belize, the very limited access to electricity in the rural areas of Toledo. SEI technician Ed Eaton visited Toledo District with Tomas Heikkala of Plenty International in September 2000, on a fact finding mission. They took a first hand look at several potential projects involving solar energy, including one that would involve as a partner the Toledo Cacao Growers' Association, another indigenous community-based organization with which Plenty maintains close ties. The TCGA grows organic cacao for export, using sustainable agro-forestry methods appropriate to their environment. A second visit by Ed and Tomas in January 2001 included demonstrations of solar energy equipment for Association members at several rural locations, in preparation for a project to provide solar home lighting systems via a revolving loan fund to TCGA members (Renewable Energy Rural Electrification Project). Unfortunately, Hurricane Iris derailed the REREP project, as cacao farmers were hard hit - many lost their trees and therefore their source of income and have been working hard to recover. However in 2002 Plenty was able to assist the TCGA in establishing four tree nurseries for reforestation purposes, by funding solar pumping equipment for irrigation at each site.
In the summer of 2003 Plenty will fund the purchase of a solar lighting system for a new Community meeting building and hurricane shelter at San Jose village, which is not on the electrical grid. The system will allow community meetings and other classes to take place at night which is a real benefit to the village. Thanks go to Unity Avenue Foundation for their financial support to these efforts!
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