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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Profile of an Eco-Activist

Air Date: Week of

Honduran fisherfolk face tough times. Hurricane Mitch devastated their fishing grounds and commercial shrimp farmers are destroying the mangroves that spawn fish. Honduran biologist and activist Jorge Varela has forged a powerful alliance of fisherfolk. Ingrid Lobet profiles Varela, a finalist for the Goldman Fund’s annual award for environmental activism.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Honduras is one of the poorest nations in the Americas, though it borders a once-bountiful sea. Most recently Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduran fishing grounds, but even before the storm the rich coastal mangroves, prime fish breeding and fish catching grounds, were being destroyed by the commercial shrimp industry. It's a scenario that has played out in mangroves from the Philippines to Africa. But in Honduras, some small fisher families didn't just stand by and watch it happen. They formed a green alliance to help protect their interests. The name itself is a mouthful: the Committee for the Defense and Development of the Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Fonseca. And the alliance's founder is a finalist for one of this year's awards for environmental activism given by the San Francisco-based Goldman Prize. Ingrid Lobet has this profile of Honduran biologist and organizer Jorge Varela.

VARELA: We are arriving to the San Lorenzo office.

(A door shuts)

LOBET: Jorge Varela breezes into town and is greeted like a favorite uncle. It was here, in the steamy coastal working class city of San Lorenzo that Honduran fishermen joined forces 11 years ago to protect their right to fish near the places where they were born. Their coast was being privatized with exclusive leases going to large, new shrimp export operations. Calisto Reyes, a gentle man missing most of his teeth, has nourished nine children by fishing.

REYES: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: They've closed off the gate where we used to pass through to go fishing, the big shrimp companies have these armed guards watching over you. When you try to pass, they level their rifles at you.

LOBET: Crabs and conch and fish became more scarce, the fishermen say, as commercial shrimpers cut down mangrove for their farms. Mangroves provide critical nurseries for shrimp, crabs, fish, and an array of other sea life. They also buffer coastlines from tropical storms. Five thousand three hundred acres of high-quality mangrove had been lost to shrimp farming by 1992, according to a study by the University of Florida.

REYES: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The fishing now isn't like it used to be. You used to put your hook in and get fish, but not any more, because of the destruction.

LOBET: Accounts like this one are what made Jorge Varela leave a university biology post and build what's become one of the strongest environmental organizations in Central America. Some 5,000 gulf fishermen are fighting for the right to fish the way their grandparents did, in carved canoes among the mangrove, close to shore. But Varela has made sure the small fishermen also understand the ecological principles that sustain their economy. Through hundreds of workshops up and down the coast, he's brought them a new awareness of the marine environment, and in the process bred a movement that's equal parts social justice and ecology. It was just a few blocks from here that it first took shape, with a handful of frustrated fishermen. Varela was there.

VARELA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: I found 10 to 12 fishermen there. They were losing their source of living, their income and their quality of life. It was a life and death matter for them, and it was the same to be dying of hunger or to get killed fighting for one's livelihood. The way I see it, the Earth is hundreds of millions of years old. We're here only for a second. If you're going to die anyway, I think you ought to die for an ideal.

Back in the 80s they accused us of being Communists, and here that meant that you were a murderer, a guerilla, subversive, you name it. But that person had to disappear. I was receiving these anonymous threats, where they would say, "We're going to kill you."

(Papers shuffle)

LOBET: Varela leafs through a bound volume of bulletins from the Alliance's early years. Over the last decade, nine fishermen active in the Alliance have been murdered, their deaths not investigated. The fisherman's alliance says they died for insisting on their right to fish, rowing too close to the shrimp ponds and their rifle-toting guards. The industry says they were shrimp thieves.

VARELA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Look, look, here's one of our dead. Martial Law in the Gulf of Fonseca. Here's the murder of two more fishermen, look. They're young, just kids. See? Here are the beautiful lagoons.


LOBET: This is the coveted terrain. Here and along quieter waters. It's a 165-mile-long stretch of coast shared by Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. It's a landscape of endless mud flats and gnarled mangrove with their roots exposed in the dry season, lagoons filled with fish, crabs, and migratory birds in the wet season. Jorge Varela, a short, solid man in his 50s, was drawn in. Considering that he's now its nemesis, Varela finds it ironic that in the 1980s he was a commercial shrimp booster. Back then he thought the industry would be an economic step forward in the Gulf, a place where barefoot children often go to work as early as age eight.

VARELA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: But around 1985, the industry started to get out of control. Big investors with the support of international lending agencies were gobbling up the best lands. They spread into the mangrove. That's when I started to oppose it.

(Many voices and rattling)

LOBET: A group of men on the beach play a game using hand-cut dice.

(Play continues)

LOBET: A woman is grilling bass on a stove of mud baked onto tree branches. Varela explains there are methods of farming shrimp that are less environmentally harmful. For example, when the ponds are carved out of empty expanses of salt flats. But investors sometimes lease stands of mangrove; then men with machetes come and hack it down and bulldozers push up the 3-foot perimeter walls. Still other owners move in on natural lagoons. Completed, the farms look like acres of soccer fields flooded waist-deep, filled with baby shrimp. Once the farms are built, there can be other environmental problems associated with them. Jorge Varela looks past barbed wire at the wall of a large pond.

(Flowing effluent)

LOBET: A couple of yards from his feet, a 2-foot-diameter pipe passes through the wall and empties into a creek.

VARELA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: One of the big problems with the semi-intensive shrimp farms, like the one we're looking at, is that they drain their waters directly into the estuary, into the ocean. The wastewater is full of organic matter from the shrimp itself: uneaten shrimp feed, and animal waste. There are also other chemicals like Rotenones that they use to kill other species that get into the ponds and compete with the shrimp.

(Bulldozer motors run)

LOBET: These bulldozers are not shaping new shrimp ponds. They're fixing retaining walls washed out by Hurricane Mitch. The shrimp industry, though it suffered an estimated $40 million loss from the storm, is recovering and has already had its first post-Mitch harvest. The small fishermen haven't been as fortunate. Besides stripping out all four of the Gulf's river valleys, the storm remodeled the sea floor habitat of nearly every square inch of Gulf coastline, as if 4 feet of trash had been dumped on a region the size of the San Francisco Bay.

(Digging, voices)

LOBET: Jesus Laine, an Alliance member, steps around the edges of the 5-foot- high, 30-foot-long pile of garbage he's already pulled out of the small lagoon that used to provide food for his children.

LAINE: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: I haven't even pulled out a quarter of the garbage yet.

LOBET: The bulk of the trash consists of large pieces of insulation from broken-up refrigerated shipping containers.

(Banging on metal)

LOBET: But more worrisome is this full, 50-gallon drum of malathion, a pesticide and nerve poison lethal to humans even in small doses. Jesus Laine is storing other containers he's pulled from the muck in his house. The debris has destroyed fish habitat, and though the Alliance is helping to coordinate clean-up, small fishermen like Laine are still waiting for the mackerel to come back.

LAINE: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: I have got a house full of children. There are times I go out and come back with nothing. The fisherman's alliance is the only group that has been out here helping us. You can imagine how much dirt we are buried in.

(A door shuts)

LOBET: Soon Jorge Varela says his goodbyes to Laine. He's finished his rounds on the coast and gets back in his truck for the 3-hour trip back home to the capitol.

(Horns, whistles, traffic)

LOBET: Varela credits having an office in the capitol with some of the organization's biggest achievements. Passing the nation's first laws protecting forests, air, and water. Winning a moratorium on the building of new shrimp farms from 1996 to '98. And bringing 3,000 fishermen to the city for a rally in the summer of 1997. But the group may be on the verge of its biggest success yet. It's trying to bring nearly 300,000 acres of coastal lagoons and wetlands under national protection. Recently, after a round of political arm-twisting, the Alliance won the backing of the Honduran Association of Aquaculture, the shrimp producers' trade group. Francisco Avalos is executive director of the industry group. He says the time when the fishermen clashed physically with the industry is over. But he says subsistence fishing, no matter how well protected, is hardly going to pull Honduras out of poverty.

AVALOS: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The difference is, we exporters create a better economy in this country. This fisherman's alliance, they don't produce. They just dedicate themselves to protection. Those people fish in a primitive way. I'm not against protecting that. But you have to realize that's only protecting something for a few. In contrast, the industry generates work, and foreign exchange, not just for the region but for the country.

LOBET: Commercial shrimp farming employs some 18,000 people. There are fewer than half that many small fishermen. The shrimp industry has become the third largest source of foreign exchange for the nation. But Jorge Varela questions how much the benefits of that foreign exchange have trickled down. His perspective is shaped in part by the place where he grew up and still lives, one of the capitol's poor barrios.

VARELA: This is my house, this is my family, and we are honored with your presence here.

(Children play)

LOBET: Here, in a house that's grown over the years, Varela lives with his wife and six children, one daughter-in-law, one grandchild, and two dogs. But Marta Alicia Moncada de Varela says her husband has spent precious little time here.

M. VARELA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: He will come back here weekends, or sometimes after two weeks. He was always working. My older children didn't see much of him. They grew up with just me.

LOBET: Varela says there have been many costs over the years. He counts among them the loss of nine fishermen, the loss of mangrove, the loss of time at home. But Varela also finds satisfaction in some of the year's hard-won gains.

VARELA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The single fact of having avoided the mass destruction of the coastal mangrove, that is the principle achievement. The mangroves are still there.

(Sounds of children)

LOBET: For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.



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