People still live in Honduras

by Andy Gaertner, Jan 2018

Coffee farmers from Comayagua.

Coffee farmers from Comayagua.

It has been four years since I last visited Comayagua, Honduras, a place I consider a second home. I almost canceled this trip because of the current political situation, but here I am, and I´m glad I came. The situation in Honduras requires attention. And we can´t think about things that we don´t see. During my time here this visit I have had many conversations with friends about what is going on. The best we can do is throw up our hands and acknowledge that the situation is "complicado" (complicated!). But that hasn't stopped us from talking. Sometimes I think that is the most important part of my visit: to listen to stories and commiserate. Here is a partial list of things that make the situation so complicado: gang violence, political corruption, and economic and environmental collapse. Through it all, from what I saw, the spirit of the Honduran people is still strong


When I lived here in the early 1990´s, Honduras was a poor country, but it felt generally safe. As an incoming Peace Corps volunteer I was told that the main thing to watch out for was petty theft. This was borne out in my experience. I was robbed several times, and all of the volunteers I knew had similar stories. I had two different baseball caps stolen off of my head; camping gear was taken from a Peace Corps vehicle that was left unlocked in a driveway; and a neighbor´s watchman foiled a thief trying to take my bicycle that I had left outside (but inside a fenced in area). These were crimes of opportunity. But I never felt personally in danger. I traveled all over Honduras using every means of transportation and I only met or heard about regular people who were trying to live their lives. I did not think twice about hitchhiking or walking alone at night. This has all changed. The theft is still there (every one of my Honduran friends has a story about being the victim of theft), but the country has also tipped into violence.


Since my time in the Peace Corps, starting in 2005 I have visited Honduras many times, combining visits to friends with leading trips for Farmer to Farmer. Each time, my friends would tell me stories about their lives. There isn't anyone who hasn't been touched by the violence. It isn't just the violence. There is endemic political corruption, environmental degradation, climate change, and a lack of economic opportunities. This time, after my being gone for four years, the problems of Honduras look insurmountable to me. During my Peace Corps days I had the impression that Honduras was part of the "Developing World." It was my impression that many people were poor, but things were gradually getting better: more education, better health, more clean water, more environmental protections, more organic farming, more tourism, more of the good things. But now I am questioning the whole idea that Honduras is moving forward. Or that there even is a "forward."


The current political chaos is just a symptom of a whole political system that is hopelessly broken and may never have been functional in the first place. The political parties are generally thought to be composed of rich people who take turns lining their pockets with public funds. Power is gained through patronage. When a politician is running for office they promise to give their followers jobs and social programs and sometimes just money. When one party wins, those people who supported the losing candidate get fired and lose their position in order to make way for the winners. So there is an incentive to use your position to your advantage while you have it. There is a perception that anyone working in any government position is taking personal advantage, either by actively taking public funds; by taking bribes; by funneling contracts to family members; or by simply pulling a salary and not working for it. NGOs don't have a good reputation either. They are seen as writing grants for outside money and pocketing most of the money. Neither are cooperatives trusted. People assume that coop leaders take whatever they can. So there is a generalized assumption that organizations are corrupt and the higher up you go in the organization, the worse the corruption is.


The current political crisis is between the Nationalist Party, whose leader is the current President named Juan Orlando Hernandez (who everyone calls "JOH" and the graffiti everywhere is "Fuera JOH!" - literally "Out JOH!"), and the Alliance Against Corruption, whose candidate is Salvador Nasralla, a TV personality. JOH has a history of working with the United States. He reversed many of the social programs that were started by the previous leftist government. He has created a separate militarized national police force that has been charged with reducing the gang violence and drug trafficking. He has been pushing for this militarized police to be autonomous and above the law so that they can act quickly. There is also a series of laws in the works in order to label various forms of protest as acts of terrorism. His opponents fear that with a second term his hold on power will be cemented by outlawing protest and making his police force above the law. His methods have suspended many civil liberties, but he has created jobs for many of his supporters and has pushed business opportunities for his financial backers. He has also given out millions of Lempiras in various forms to his supporters. This recent election saw him go for an unconstitutional second term, which was made possible after he fired one Supreme Court and installed another one that ruled in his favor. He "won" the election with a slim margin, but there are so many allegations of fraud in the vote counting that the Organization of American States has called for new elections. But the USA and some other countries have recognized his win, and he is going to take power for his second term soon.


On the surface this looks like a clear case of a right-wing would-be dictator versus a left-wing alliance who wants to stop corruption. Of course, it is more complicated. The Alliance Against Corruption is essentially the same thing as the Libre (Free) party, which is headed by former president Mel Zelaya. Mel was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup several years ago. He is a populist more than a leftist, and he allied himself with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez during his presidency. Since the coup, Mel's supporters have been organized as a sort of resistance. Nasralla's run for the Presidency is the latest form that the resistance has taken, and Mel is seen as the force behind Nasralla. Mel's supporters believe his populist rhetoric and point to the coup against him as evidence that he was shaking up the power structure. Mel's detractors think he is just another corrupt politician who is made worse because he claims to be against corruption.


There was likely fraud in the election. During the vote count, Nasralla was ahead by five percentage points, and he was declared the irreversible winner. Shortly after that, the vote counting was suspended for 5 hours due to technical difficulties, and when the count was resumed, he was now behind JOH by a narrow margin. JOH was eventually declared the winner. Supporters of JOH claim that there was no fraud and that it had to do with the locations of the votes that were counted late in the process: that Nasralla won in the big cities, but JOH made up for it in the rural areas. Since the election, there have been massive protests. The protests include marches and the occupation of highways and public buildings. There has been violence at the protests, with over 40 people killed. Public buildings have been burned. There was significant looting of businesses near the protests. And a curfew was imposed (that was lifted in late December). The current situation has calmed down, since the US acknowledged JOH's victory. But it is still a simmering crisis. Every day there is a protest somewhere and the protests are televised and talked about. And this week Nasralla announced that he intends to be sworn in as President as well in a parallel ceremony. Nasralla's supporters claim that the violence in the protests was instigated by others in order to make their resistance seem illegitimate.


This current political crisis is happening against the backdrop of a Honduras that has been more and more under the control of gangs and drug cartels. The main gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, is better described as a multi-national criminal organization. They sell drugs, but their main source of income and power is extortion. According to what my friends say, all of the taxis, buses, and most businesses have to pay "protection" money or risk kidnapping or murder. If you get a chance, look up some history for the Mara. The short version has to do with refugees from the Salvadoran civil war (where the U.S. funded the right-wing repressive regime) who ended up in Los Angeles. They formed gangs in order to protect themselves in a place where gangs rule. The nature of the Salvadoran diaspora meant that these gangs also developed branches in New York and San Salvador. Then enter a series of U.S. Presidents whose response to crime is immediate deportation. Thousands of gang members are sent back to Central America, at just the time when drug cartels are moving more of their products through Central America because the DEA has been clamping down on their previous routes. Combine this with a corrupt and ineffective police force, and Honduras found itself in midst of gang warfare in the major cities, as rival Salvadoran gangs fought for turf in the major cities of Central America. This started to be noticed 10 to 15 years ago and it has become the new normal. Honduras vaulted to the position of one of the top five most violent countries in the world. The Peace Corps withdrew its volunteers, and tourism from outside countries has almost completely dried up. Legitimate businesses start to look at Honduras as too much of risk. Hondurans who have wealth start to figure out ways to leave the country. The wealth that remains is largely assumed to be based on money laundering. There is a sort of downward spiral effect. The violence from the Mara has been the pretext for JOH to impose the restrictions of civil liberties and build up his militarized police force.


With the loss of tourism, the economy of Honduras has become more closely related to agricultural exports and something called "remesas." Remesas are money that is sent back to Honduras from family members who live in the United States. There is a lot of money that enters the economy through remesas, but that money depends on things going well for immigrants in the U.S. When the U.S. experienced economic collapse in 2008, immigrants were some of the hardest hit. The remesas largely went away and many people had to return to Honduras because of the lack of opportunities in the U.S. Now the policies of Trump are having a similar depressing effect on immigration and remesas.


This is a bad time to reduce remesas because the other strength of the Honduran economy is also in danger. Coffee prices in Honduras are at a historic low at just the time when climate change is making coffee farming much more difficult. Farmers are currently receiving between 3000 and 4000 Lempiras for a load of conventional coffee (200 lbs) from middleman buyers. At 3600 L, that would mean 1800 L for 100 lbs, and 18 Lempiras per pound. The dollar is at 24 L per $1. So we are looking at coffee priced at about $.80 per pound. It was almost double that last year. Costs for farms hover around 3000 L per load. But the costs rise depending on how far the farm is from a city. The further away the farm, the greater the costs. Also labor is scarce for people who are willing to pick coffee for the low prices farmers can afford to pay. For some farms, it is hardly worth the labor costs to pick the coffee. These low prices come at a time when a disease called "La Roya" (a fungus known in English as Coffee Rust) has decimated the farms. All of the traditional varieties are susceptible to the Roya, which can kill a whole plantation quickly. The farmers have responded by switching varieties and cutting down shade trees. Switching varieties requires at least 3 years for a plantation to come back into production, which is a huge cost, and it looks like La Roya is evolving to be able to damage some of these varieties. Cutting down shade trees is problematic, because although it opens the plants up to the sun and reduces the fungus, it also leaves the soil exposed to drying and erosion; reduces the organic matter from leaf fall; requires more fertilizer; and requires the use of herbicides to deal with the grass that inevitably grows when the shade is lost. Cutting the shade trees is no guarantee that the Roya won´t take your farm either. So some farms spray fungicides too. The fertilizer, herbicide, and fungicide all require money to buy and labor to apply. With coffee prices so low, these costs are a huge risk. Organic coffee might be a way out, because the prices might be high enough for people to justify some of the costs (using hand-weeding versus herbicides and chicken poop fertilizer versus chemical fertilizer), but there is essentially no internal market for organic coffee, and for our coop farmers, we are the only ones offering a good price for their organic coffee.


Free trade and climate change have also hit all agricultural sectors of Honduras fairly hard. The prices of corn, beans, and rice are all determined by international markets, and are all usually lower than the cost of production using the hand-cultivation methods available to campesinos. So the only people who are growing these basic grains are those who are so poor that they cannot buy the grains and have to substitute their labor at a reduced rate. The banana industry and the African palm oil industry and the cattle industry are all likely doing okay (although banana farmers are dealing with a fungus that threatens all bananas), but those agricultural industries are all concentrated in the hands of rich Hondurans and foreigners. In ideal circumstances, free trade might be enough to undermine the agricultural sector, but climate change is adding an extra layer to difficulty. The coffee rust outbreak (and related issues with other fungi and the Broca - an insect) are largely assumed to be made worse by the impacts of climate change causing extreme weather. Things are warmer, but also the droughts are worse and the wet periods are worse too. The extreme weather meant that two years ago, a drought seriously affected the coop´s coffee production and quality. This past year, non-stop rains have caused coffee to fall off the plants and also caused many landslides. In the area of Rio Negro, they estimated a loss of at least 50 acres of coffee plantations due to landslides this year. In our tour of the area we saw that perhaps as much as 50 percent of the pine forests have also been killed by the pine bark beetle (another thing that is made worse by climate change). Without the pine forests, there will be more landslides and erosion. It is looking like a total environmental system collapse and the only thing that is replacing it is uncertainty.       


When my Honduran friends and I talk about what might help get Honduras out of this hole, we talk about how the internal economy needs to be stronger. My friend Hector says that people need to make things again. We notice that everything in the markets is either used items from the U.S.A. or new items from China. For example, the Honduran artisan industries for making shoes and clothes are all but gone. But we both agree that when things are so cheap from outside Honduras, it undermines the internal production of goods. We also talked about how small businesses need capital to get started. Banks tend to lend money to people who already have money. And laws tend to favor large businesses over small ones. For example, Hector has a small business roasting coffee and selling it locally. But he is limited because he needs permits and papers, and the rules are set up to make it hard for someone to break into the business. For example he needs to prove he has a certain amount in the bank in order to get a license to sell. Likewise, Hector has been trying to help a woman who threatened to go to the States and leave her kids behind. He has suggested she set up a stall to sell street food and he offered financial help. It is good idea, but she has been kicked out of the places she has tried setting up - no permit.


We also talk about education as a way towards a better Honduras. In the rural areas, the one-room schoolhouses go up to 6th grade only. If a person from the coffee cooperative wants to study beyond that, they have to figure out how to live in a city with family or friends. This is very expensive. So most rural Hondurans only have access to education up to 6th grade, if at all. If a person does make it through high school and even college, there are very limited opportunities for professional jobs in Honduras. People get frustrated and leave the country. Hector and I have a friend who recently took his wife to France, and they are asking for asylum. Our friend is not poor, rather he is an educated middle class person from a good family.


This is a tough nut to crack. Honduras does have a lot going for it. There is still a functional economy which many small businesses. There are also a lot of young people who are able to work. The streets are full of economic activity. Remesas have not stopped entirely. The majority of the coffee farms are small holdings of just a few acres and when the prices are high, the whole economy can grow. There are some Roya-resistant varieties that might do well with shade. We spent a lot of time talking about the relative merits of different varieties of coffee. There have also been arrests of rich and powerful people for drug trafficking and money laundering. Part of JOH's connection with the USA is ostensibly reduce violence and drug trafficking. It might help bring order and safety to Honduras. The Anti-Corruption Party and the resistance also seems to have woken up the people of Honduras. It is possible that their protests will have some sort of positive effect. Honduras is historically a country known for hard-working people who have strong moral values. Those values and that work ethic are still there. The people are still here in Honduras.




Some background: I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Comayagua from 1993 to 1996. My job was to work with the people who were charged with protecting and developing a newly created national park. As part of my job I got to know many coffee farmers. The nucleus of the park is the top section of a mountain range, from 1800 meters above sea level on up. The buffer zone of the park extends down the shoulders of the mountain range, and includes about 30 different coffee growing villages. Coffee grows best between 1000 and 1600 meters in this area of Honduras. To call these places villages is not quite correct, because really it is one massive coffee growing area, with people living scattered on their farms. There is a school, a church, and a soccer field every so often and that counts as a village. I ended up spending most of my time working with people in the buffer zone.


When I was here in the Peace Corps, I was faced with a seemingly impossible task. The new park had no funding. The borders were drawn arbitrarily; there were many people living inside of the buffer zone of the park, sometimes in the nucleus area too. The challenge was to work with people so that the forest did not get destroyed any more than it already was. I ended up focusing my work on trying to raise the consciousness of people about the value of the protecting the forest in order to have access to consistent sources of clean water. Each community has a water system that consists of a catch dam on a stream, which takes the surface water and accumulates it in tanks and distributes it to families. The national park is surrounded by communities which each have an interest in protecting their own watershed. I also worked with farmers who live inside the watershed of the large city in order to teach them sustainable farming techniques. We also had a dream of protecting the park through tourism. Much of the work that I started in tourism was continued and multiplied. There is a developed trail to a waterfall, a large visitor center, eco-huts for tourists to sleep in, families trained in how to provide meals to tourists, and a group of trained guides. But all of these efforts are currently abandoned, since tourism has dried up in the last ten years. The people who are in charge of protecting the park have neither the funds nor the authority to protect it. The watersheds are haphazardly protected. Some yes, some no. The biggest city has a watershed that is full of coffee farms, and one of the biggest farms is owned by the mayor of the city, who everyone acknowledges as unwilling to protect to the watershed because it would affect him and his cronies. It would also cost a lot of money to buy people out of their farms. The mayor´s solution is to build a new project for more water to come from farther away. Hector explained to me that the mayor can award contracts for projects to his cronies, so a new project makes economic sense, but repairing the old system and protecting the forest is just a drain on the budget.


The only thing that the park seems to have going for it is the collapse of the internal production of corn and beans. Since the prices have been so low, the production of basic grains has not driven deforestation. The main thing that continues unabated is coffee production. Every year there is more coffee planted. As climate change makes Honduras warmer,the coffee farms creep up the side of the mountain. Likely without protection, the whole mountain will be coffee farms eventually, despite the designation as a national park. I really want to see this mountain keep its forest, and not just because I love the cloud forest. If there is no forest, there will be worse droughts and worse floods and people will have it harder and harder. I think of the work of Farmer to Farmer to promote organic coffee and fortify small farmers as a continuation of my Peace Corps work.

Jody Slocum