Each year InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S. development and humanitarian assistance organizations (including Oxfam), gives a prize to an individual for his or her outstanding work on behalf of humanity. This year the Humanitarian Award went to Dr. Juan Almendares, a Honduran doctor and Oxfam America partner.
Dr. Almendares is a renowned defender of human rights and the environment. He has a long trajectory of work in the poorest communities of his country, providing people with free health care, organizing them, and passing on his knowledge. In his academic career, he has directed research at prestigious universities and institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the Cardiovascular Research Institute in San Francisco. In his own country, he has dedicated himself to the sciences, first as a professor at the Medical School, later as its dean, and eventually as rector of the Autonomous National University of Honduras.
After the award ceremony we spoke with Dr. Almendares:
What does it mean to you to be nominated and then elected for this prize from InterAction?
I accepted this recognition as a noble and generous act by the organizations in the United States, and also as an act of solidarity with the people we are working with to build a better world that is more respectful of human rights and environmental justice. This honor has been a great act of moral support for me in the face of the all the risks we take in order to defend the life and dignity of human beings and to provide for a great love of humanity and our planet earth.
What inspired you to study medicine?
My greatest inspiration was my mother. I call it the theology of dreams. When my mother was pregnant she dreamed she was in paradise and that I worked with plants, the environment, and serving humanity. I come from a poor family. We lived in a poor neighborhood plagued with alcoholism, prostitution, and violence. Thanks to my mother's advice, I didn't get involved in all that. She never physically or psychologically abused me and she taught me a culture of non-violence. But it was a struggle to make it out of that environment. When I was in college sometimes I went hungry. I was malnourished and anemic. When I it was my turn to spend six months in bed, I learned what it meant to be a patient, and that as a doctor, one must be humble. When I graduated from the university with a degree in medicine, I had three callings: to work on behalf of the poor, to educate, and to dedicate myself to science.
These callings led you to establish various projects aimed at improving people's lives...
For many years we have run a clinic for poor people where we provide free medical attention. Mostly we work with the urban poor residents of Tegucigalpa and with indigenous people in some of the most remote communities in the country, where doctors rarely venture. In addition to providing medical attention, we do organizing work. For example, we work with 26 communities in the Tegucigalpa urban areas. We organized the women in these communities into a committee called the Honduran Committee for Peace. Now they have family gardens. Also, with the support of a Canadian organization, we have constructed more than 200 tanks to store the water that they get only once a month. We held natural medicine workshops to teach women how to treat common illnesses themselves. For example, chamomile, mint, and linden flower teas, and massage techniques, can relieve stress and tension. We have taught them how to treat a cough or diarrhea. We are also concerned about the environment and founded the Madre Tierra [Mother Earth] movement. Now we are working on a reforestation project. We asked the kids in the program how many trees they would like to plant. The told us one million trees. So, with the dream of planting a million trees, we are working with them in the poorest neighborhoods. We have already planted more than 15,000 trees and within this movement we have created a school of sorts, where kids are learning how to care for the environment and their health.
How is your work related to Oxfam America's work?
Through our work with Madre Tierra, we have been involved with Oxfam on the issue of mining. Madre Tierra has been studying the health impacts of heavy metals. We have been conducting research for five years in the Siria Valley region of Honduras, where there is a large mine. With the help of a Harvard student, we were able to get baseline data on the health conditions in the community prior to the mine, in order to make a before and after comparison. We go to the communities to conduct research and clinical exams and what we have noticed, interestingly, is that it is mostly the women who are ill, not the men who work in the mines. The women use the water often, to cook, clean, and wash clothes. We have seen many health problems in their skin, eyes, and nervous and respiratory systems. Oxfam America has helped a lot by providing us with information on technical and ethical issues. It has worked on a broad scale in many different areas.
In all these years that you have spent working with the poorest of the poor, have you seen any changes in the people, their situation or policies?
Yes, we have seen changes. The people have a better perception of their situation; they are more aware. This allows them to dissent and make demands of the authorities if they disagree with decisions they make. We also work in human rights. We have a center for torture victims and violence prevention, inspired by the teachings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Francisco Morazán [Morazán, a Honduran politician and defender of democracy, was the last president of the Federal Republic of Central America in the mid-1800s]. We have been able to promote a message of non-violence with government institutions, which we see as directly related to the issue of health. We advocated for the government to incorporate mental health issues in its human rights agenda and women's rights into the health agenda. The government also approved and ratified The United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Your work presents you with some of the toughest situations in your country. What motivates you to keep going?
Despite it all, I always maintain great optimism and a love for the earth. I appreciate the cooperation from the international community. I have found great human beings in all the continents: Africa, Europe, Asia, and America. I am very grateful for this. We must always have love and compassion among us and with all that we do.