In Honduras, recent hurricanes and the coronavirus pandemic have left many people struggling to support themselves, and therefore considering the risky journey to the US as their only hope.
Thanks to a Christian Aid supported solar energy project, financed through the EU-funded Breaking the Barriers programme, women like Marlen in rural Honduras are being provided with an income, while also ensuring local communities are less reliant on cutting down trees to light their homes.
In November 2020, Central America was struck by the hurricanes Eta and Iota, triggering flooding, landslides, and causing widespread damage. In Honduras, 4.5 million people were affected by the storms which killed nearly 100 persons and damaged or destroyed over 70,000 homes and hundreds of roads. Marlen recounts that many families in her community lost their homes.
The devastating effects of climate change
Climate change is contributing to the increased intensity of hurricanes in the region. The climate crisis has deeply impacted Honduras and communities as Marlen’s one. In addition to storms and landslides damaging infrastructures and buildings, increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather conditions have also wiped-out crops, further aggravating the hardships people face.
"Climate change affects the crops. If it rains a lot or if there is drought or the temperature is too hot or cold, it damages the crops. My husband lost half his coffee farm due to strong storms," says Marlen.
Extreme weather as well as the coronavirus pandemic only made things worse for Marlen’s family. Roads and bridges damaged by storms left many communities isolated and made it difficult for her husband to travel to other villages to sell his coffee. The local economy was also impacted by the lockdown, with people choosing to spend their money on food rather than on other items.
Unable to earn enough to support themselves, Marlen’s family, like many others in her community, started to consider emigrating to the US as their only choice.
People here migrate a lot due to climate change and unemployment. When this project started, I was about to move to the United States because I felt that I had reached the limit, I could not continue.
Breaking barriers for rural women
Through the Breaking the Barriers programme, the EU and Christian Aid aim to boost the income of women living in rural areas by helping them to find a job in the sustainable energy sector. Through Christian Aid’s local partner, Organismo Cristiano de Desarrollo Integral de Honduras, Marlen was one of 120 women who received training on how to install solar panels.
Through the programme, Marlen was able to access a low-interest loan to kickstart her own sustainable energy business, Belén Solar. The loan helped her to buy solar panels and installation equipment as well as to refurbish a space for her business.
The business, which also employs two other women, has helped Marlen face the challenges of climate change whilst also earning a better living. To date, Belén Solar has installed nearly 40 solar energy systems.
Solar energy represents the solution to multiple issues faced by Marlen’s community. It is cheaper, it means less deforestation as fewer trees are chopped down to light people’s homes and also keeps the air cleaner, reducing the risk of breathing problems from inhaling smoke.
What we are trying to do through Belén Solar is spread the message to recycle, to use natural resources carefully, and to reduce the burning of forests.
Women entrepreneurs promote sustainable energy and change perceptions
As well as tackling climate change, Marlen is striving for gender equality. Starting Belén Solar was a real challenge, Marlen admits. In a sector dominated by men, Marlen could not imagine installing panels, but soon she began to understand the technology and processes and started to acquire new clients. ‘When I started to install the first one, I did it with fear. By day six, we were finishing the installation. We turned it on, and it was so wonderful to me. I cried," Marlen explains.
Life is changing for Marlen and her co-workers. Collectively they cover the accounting, the promotion of their business and the installation of the solar pannels. In doing so they are changing local opinions about women working in the sector.
Initially her clients assumed that the technicians were men, and couldn’t believe that a woman was able to carry out these tasks, Marlen explains. But she managed to show how women are also capable of working in this sector and that men and women are equal.
Women are not the weaker sex. On the contrary, we are the strongest people. We can carry out the work, and we do it in the same way.
Marlen wants to be an example, showing other women that they too can open their own businesses and become financially independent. She hopes to see more women in professions and sectors, where they were previously excluded from. She believes that the Belén group will show what women are capable to achieve in the sustainable energy sector and beyond.