A determined and self motivated group of community organizers and new home owners have built Colonia Luz y Vida (Colonia Light and Life) which has generated criticism regarding its location, its environmental impact and its shoe-string budget style housing on Roatan. Thirty-nine houses have been constructed so far, with another 100 in Luz y Vida phase II planned to be constructed by the end of the year. “We have an environmental permit that will expire on December 27, 2011, so we need to finish before then,” says Joel Arguetta, the Los Fuertes pastor who coordinates Luz y Vida.
The cookie-cutter, 48-square-meter, two-bedroom houses have been a dream come true for single mothers and others who own no property and live on the edge of poverty. The first 39 homes enjoyed a grant of house construction materials worth around Lps. 100,000. The next 100 houses of phase II will not benefit from this subsidy.
For the past two years Luz y Vida has been turning the heads of anyone driving past Tres Flores. Down a precarious dirt road and into a valley 5 kilometers from the main road sit small cement block houses with metal roofs. “Engineers are always amazed that this road could be done by only the popular effort,” says Arguetta. Indeed, the meandering dirt road descends 200 feet, from its highest point on the Palmetto road to French Harbour road into a valley that turns into a “crater”-the site of the project’s phase I.
While an example of some adventurous engineering, the road is a tough, hour-long hike and will likely remain unpaved for years. Though passable in dry season, even a 4 x 4 vehicle has difficulty getting there during rain. Access to the homes is of growing concern. “My husband leaves every day at 5 am so he can catch a bus at 6 am,” says Maria Martinez, a mother of four who lives in the Colonia.
The location of Luz y Vida to more affluent neighborhood has been a cause of tension. To get to work and services Colonia’s inhabitants use shorter cross-country paths but find themselves being watched with suspicion by owners of expensive homes by the ZOLITUR road where the trail ends up.
The shorter, more direct path takes 25 minutes by foot, but traverses private properties and a high end-neighborhood whose owners have placed a barrier across the road and have occasionally employed a watchman to discourage the Luz y Vida inhabitants from using the shortcut. “Albert Jackson, the property owner [where the shortcut is located], doesn’t have a problem with this,” says Arguetta, admitting that Luz y Vida has no plans to purchase a right of way.
While many island houses cost $450 a square meter to construct, the Luz y Vida cost were around $55 a square meter. Martinez estimates that it cost her around Lps. 86,000 to get her dream land and home, which is all paid off already. She paid Lps. 35,000 for the 30-foot by 60-foot piece of land, another Lps. 35,000 to construct the road and two months for the salary of a construction worker that worked on her two bedroom house.
There is no electricity, the water is brought in from a water truck and stored in plastic barrels, and there is no septic system. “We use rain water to wash and cook,” says Martinez, who also shares half of a $100 monthly bill with another homeowner for a portable toilet.
Luz y Vida has been a thorn in the side of the Roatan Municipality. While the previous administration’s Mayor Dale Jackson assisted in securing the land from his uncle Albert Jackson, the new mayor is much less enthusiastic about the development. “Any [Roatan] municipal can only do so much. The Luz y Vida is constructing without municipal building permits and we filed complaints with the Fiscal de Ambiente [prosecutor of the Environment] in La Ceiba. They [the fiscal] just haven’t done anything,” said Mayor Galindo, who says that the project is an ecological disaster waiting to happen. “When the rains come, this will be a big problem.”
Arguetta sees Mayor Galindo’s attitude towards Luz y Vida as politically motivated. “It’s demagogue politics. He [Mayor Galindo] didn’t do it [give construction permits] for political reasons so he wouldn’t need to install the electrical services and water he promised,” says Arguetta. “He will remember us when he needs our votes,” says Martinez about Mayor Galindo.
Arguetta points out that the Honduran Ministry of Environment signed off on the entire project and has supervised its progress. “We even have catch filters installed. Its better than the broken down septic system at the Colonia Los Maestros, or none at all as in Colonia Santa Maria and Policarpo Galindo,” said Arguetta.
Others see the complexity of the situation in which the need for low income housing has to be balanced with the protection of the environment and political realities. “[Mayor] Julio will not back down and he will balance the social, economic, environmental and legal issues that surround the project,” said Governor Shawn Hyde.
The view of the Colonia from Tres Flores is spectacular, but no one really cares about the views, as they are living their dreams of finally owning a house in a quiet, cool neighborhood, even without electricity and running water.
At the end of February, 14 of the 39 homes were occupied. With no electricity, no running water and no sewer system it was no picnic, but residents are tough, used to hardship and self reliance. and a bit desperate. “I’m happy to be living here and not renting,” says Maria Martinez, who used to rent an apartment in Los Fuertes. Over a hundred more determined and resilient families like the Martinez are to join the growing community in the near future. [/private]