It’s everywhere. It works its way into your lungs and nasal passages, creating coughs and phlegm. It burns your eyes red. It drives people to the medical clinic with respiratory problems.
It’s the dust and air pollution of Talanga.
Talanga is a very dusty town. None of the roads are paved, and all the streets are made of compacted dirt. When it does not rain, as it has not rained for the past few months, the ground becomes bone-dry and with no moisture to hold the dust to the ground, it gets kicked into the air with every passing car. There are so many dust particles in the air that it creates a sooty fog that makes faraway objects blur.
The dust works its way into everything. Every day we sweep and mop our entire house. If we didn’t, it would quickly become buried under the dust and the air would become unbreathable. Each morning, I run a Lysol wipe over our coffee table, and when I pick it up brown dirt covers the wipe. That evening, only eight hours later, I wipe the table again and pick up the same amount of dust.
Wherever you walk in town, you are breathing it in. When I go to blow my nose, the snot comes out brown-black from all the dust that was caught before it went into my lungs, and I wonder how much I breathed in. Just breathing the air here must be equivalent to smoking a few cigarettes a day.
When I spoke to a man from the health clinic and asked him what the most common illnesses in Talanga are, he told me he sees more respiratory problems than any other ailment. This is not just from the dust, but from pollution from the wood mill outside of town. The mill is making people sick, but no one complains because it is such a major employer. The choice is a slow death from lung contamination, or a faster one from unemployment.
More air pollution comes from everyone driving diesel cars, and almost no enforcement of emissions laws. Trucks belching out thick black plumes of acrid smoke are common. Many of the poor cook on wood-burning stoves, which adds to the smoke. Even worse, many of the poor do not have chimneys for their stoves, so the smoke circulates in the house. I am reading a book called "Donde no hay doctor" (Where there is no doctor) which is a medical guide written for campesinos who live in rural areas without access to medical care. The book cites wood-burning stoves without chimneys as one of the main causes of respiratory problems.
The other major polluter is the constant fires that blaze on the hills all over our region. Every night I can see a brushfire burning on one of the hills outside of town, and when we drive by them we see that many of the hills have been burnt to a black waste. We are in the dry season, so it has not rained for months and the brush and forests can go into flames like a tinderbox. But most of the fires are intentional. They are deliberately set.
Some are from farmers burning off their fields. "Milpa" agriculture, practiced by the Maya for millennia, involves slash-and-burn farming with the fields allowed to lie fallow and rejuvenate after burning. When done correctly, this type of farming is sustainable.
But the fires that are set here are often are uncontrolled and chaotic. The popular belief is that burning kills off the pests in a field, or for livestock farmers , the burning leads to grass growth later in the season that can be used for grazing cattle. When a farmer lights his fields on fire, though, there is almost no way to stop the fire except to let it burn out. The fires can spread for acres and burn down any forests, houses, or aldeas in their way. The people who start the fires don’t seem to care. They simply light the fields and let them burn as they will. The people of the aldea Todd and I work in, Terrero Colorado, just had to fight off a massive acre-wide blaze that came within meters of their homes - some person who started a fire and didn’t bother to stop and control it. There seems to be an "I’ll take care of my field and forget the rest of you" mentality. I wonder what the people who start these uncontrolled blazes are thinking. Don’t they realize that the fire is going to keep burning until it runs out of fuel, and often that fuel is people’s homes?
After asking about the deliberate brushfires, I have been told that many of them are not lit with any agricultural purpose in mind. They are lit for the sake of seeing something burn. People who are angry at the world, or bored, light the fires and watch them go, knowing that the lax police force and understaffed firefighters will do nothing to stop them. People seem to vent their aggression and rage by watching the fires burn for kilometers over the hillsides. They are especially common in the shantytowns outside of Tegucigalpa, where the cinderblock houses of the poor are build packed together on impossibly steep cliffs. Driving back from Tegucigalpa, we saw fires burning just meters from homes, with no firefighters or police on the scene - they are simply apathetic. I wonder how many people were burned out of their homes, or died that night, because someone was angry at the world and lit a fire that was unstoppable until it burned itself out.
Needless to say, these fires generate huge amounts of smoke and pollution. In fact, if you go to the Weather Channel website and look up the forecast for Tegucigalpa, they will sometimes predict "smoke" in the weather report! The sad reason for Honduras’ spectacular sunsets is that the sunbeams are touching the dust particles in the air. Sometimes I wake up with my throat full of phlegm and a persistent smoker’s cough, a cough I have not had since I was a child in similarly-polluted Germany.
At times I have thought about the question, if I were to suddenly come into a large sum of money which I could use to develop Talanga, what would I do with it? After seeing the dust, my first choice would be to pave the roads. This would seem a strange priority. Why not spend the money improving the schools, or the medical center?
Paving the roads would dramatically reduce the amount of dust in the air, which would improve the health of the entire community. Recently I visited two other towns of about the same size as Talanga, Cantarranas and Copan Ruinas. Both of these towns had cobblestone streets, and the improvement in air quality was remarkable. The air was breathable. Also, paving the streets would create much more employment. Local jobs are desperately needed; otherwise many young people will risk going to the States "mojado," or illegally, looking for work.