One of my favourite things we did whilst visiting Leon was the trips we took up in to the mountains to visit the rural communities living there and see some of the projects that are supported by the people of Oxford through OLAT (Oxford Leon Association and Trust) and the local charity Nuevas Espenanzas.
One of these days we went to visit a community affected by arsenic poisoning, living underneath the Telica volcano, which most recently erupted in 2015: a highly explosive eruption.
The problem this village faces is that their water wells are polluted with arsenic. This problem was noticed by the government agency responsible for testing water supplies. They found that arsenic levels were 3 times higher than the maximum allowed by the World Health Organisation. As a result of this the well was closed so the village turned to an older well that had been out of use for many years and started using that instead. However, later testing showed that this well had over 80 times the maximum level of arsenic. Initially, filters were supplied by Nuevas Esperanzas to remove the arsenic and make the water safe to drink. However, these only lasted 3 months at a time and many of the villagers struggled to see the benefit. The filters made the water taste funny, whereas the arsenic water tasted fine. As the effects of arsenic water are long term, rather than immediately visible. So many people found it difficult to see that there was any problem with the supply they already had. It didn’t seem worth the effort of filtering water as it didn’t feel as if it offered any benefit. So Nuevas Esperanzas supported the community leaders to find a safe water source which would not need to be filtered. They eventually found a safe water source and built a pipeline to bring the water to the village. Building the pipeline was a huge challenge and team effort on the part of local people and technical experts brought in by Nuevas Esperanzas. If you have ever supported the Oxford Leon Association Trust with their annual sponsored swim, then you have helped to provide this technical expertise and materials to provide safe drinking water for the community I visited. Having built the pipe Nuevas Esperanzas continues to support the community to maintain their water supply.
We travelled in pick-up trucks and our first stop was the two water tanks which feed the village. One of these contained fresh water, which was piped from higher up in the mountains where there is a source of water free from arsenic. The other contained locally sourced water contaminated with arsenic – this is still used for clothes washing etc.
We then travelled further up into the mountains. This is where the pick-up trucks were really needed! The road became a steep dirt track, and several times we had to stop to remove trees and boulders that were blocking our way. Here we climbed into the back of the truck and stood holding onto the grab rail and dodging trees as we ascended through the forest, using our legs as suspension. The air temperature dropped slightly, to everyone’s relief. The mountain air felt very refreshing after days in the heat of Leon. We passed people on horseback, and picked up a lady walking to the village meeting we had been invited to.
On arrival at the mountain village, on the way to the water source is, we were shown a part of the water pipe which had to be suspended to span a gorge using a carefully designed suspension system. Because the pipe is fairly thin and the water pressure is low the pipe needs to fall evenly with gravity all the way to the village to prevent problems. We then looked at the new farming methods that are being used as a model to introduce new ways of working which could improve the yield. They were growing fruits such as pineapples and dragon fruit which are hardy in the environment and are far more profitable than the traditional corn. We met with a family.
After lunch the village meeting was being held around the village tap. This was new and had been provided as an extra benefit of providing arsenic free water to the neighbouring village lower down the mountain. It meant that the mountain village had a supply of clean water all year round instead of depending on the very scarce rainwater during the dry season.
It was a real privilege to be able to witness the community meeting and even without understanding all of the words being said it was fascinating to watch the group dynamics. In particular it was very interesting to see that there didn’t seem to be a clear gender divide in who’s voices were being spoken and listened to. There was also a very good age range from toddlers brought along, to people starting young families, to older family members: the whole community was involved. This was impressive as many people had obviously travelled some distance to attend, either on foot or on horseback.
This wonderful day was finished off by travelling home in the back of the pickup truck with the sun setting behind the volcanoes as we drove.