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

Lessons of Hurricane Mitch

Air Date: Week of

Last fall Hurricane Mitch slammed into Honduras and devastated the nation's harvest, tearing away at small steep plots of corn and beans and burying valuable fruit and vegetable export farms. The storm exposed the long-term vulnerabilities of Honduran agriculture. And some say the priority given to export crops in the cleanup effort may be making the country's problems worse. Ingrid Lobet reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's the wet season in Honduras, and for the farmers of this Central American country the rain is bringing back painful memories. Last fall Hurricane Mitch devastated the nation's harvest, tearing away at small, steep plots of corn and beans and burying valuable fruit and vegetable export farms. The storm exposed the long-term vulnerabilities of Honduran agriculture, and some say the priority given to export crops in the cleanup effort may be making the country's problems worse. Ingrid Lobet reports.

(Bird calls, footfalls)

LOBET: Honduras in Spanish means depths, and looking at a map you can see where this country got its name. It's a dramatic landscape of volcanic mountains plunging into hundreds of tiny creeks like this one, so small it's called the Rio Chiquito.

(Running stream)

LOBET: Last fall during Hurricane Mitch, this creek became a raging torrent, tearing up tree trunks as thick as oil drums. Ripping out not only hillside corn fields but the very soil they were planted in.

(Crunching rocks)

LOBET: The water washed the soil away and left a carpet of rocks where Marta Estela Saucedo Minense and her family used to farm.

MINENSE: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: All this was a big corn field. The corn was high and the ears were already this big. But Hurricane Mitch wiped it all out, look. I watched as the water brought the electric poles crashing down. I could only look up at the sky and think: Lord, protect us. You have us here. You know what you're doing with us.

LOBET: People here are coping with whatever meager resources are available, joining together to pick the stones from each other's fields. If steep hillside plots like Marta Saucedo's were scoured away by creeks turned into rivers, what happened down below was slightly different. There, fertile lowland soils were in many places buried under sterile sand, as much as 6 feet of it. Maria Elena Filde's whole family farms on the Atlantic coast, and she returns to visit.

FIELDE: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: It used to be really good land for everything, for every culture. We planted rice, corn, beans, yuca. Whatever touched, the ground grew. But not any more. Whatever you plant dies. The leaves turn yellow and they die, all dried out. The soil is no good now; it's turned salty and bitter.

LOBET: Traditionally, Hondurans practiced two basic types of agriculture. Poorer farmers often grow corn and beans on the hillsides. Down below in the wider river valleys, exporters farm bananas, melons, and pineapples on large commercial plantations. Hurricane Mitch affected these export farms differently, depending upon their location. Up north on the Atlantic coast, flooding is frequent and sometimes even dumps fertile soil on the banana plantations. Ian Cherret, a geographer and advisor to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Honduras, says that's what happened with Mitch.

CHERRET: I know somebody who did some research who suggested that the banana companies received the soil that was deposited as worth at least $10 million in equivalent to fertilizer. Now, one of the representatives of a banana company said no, no, that was rubbish. But another representative said well, that is true; the only question is how it was deposited.

LOBET: On the south or Pacific coast, however, the flooding left exporters' fields buried under tons of boulders and stones. Some experts say more sustainable agricultural practices could have prevented some of this damage. International development groups have had their agronomists experimenting in Central America for decades, and by now they say they've found a number of ways to help keep Honduran soil in place on Honduran hillsides. Ian Cherret's work is with one such project. It's designed to protect hillside soils, in part by teaching small farmers alternatives to slash and burn agriculture, which leaves the soil exposed.

CHERRET: We need to ensure permanent coverage of the soil. Crops and systems of mulch, so you don't burn, you don't plough. You keep a permanent vegetative cover.

LOBET: Not just cover crops, says Cherret, but trees as well.

CHERRET: We have to leave the hillsides with a tree cover. And basically, large deciduous trees with deep roots. Often people here say that Honduras is 85% forest, it's the natural vegetation. I don't think we can talk about returning to the historical forest. But what you can create are systems of agro-forestry in which you can have at least 30% of your land covered with trees, and within that you can in fact farm.

LOBET: But the funding for projects like Cherret's and dozens of others in Honduras is limited. And this is where the wise use of the Honduran landscape runs head-on into the global economy. The big money for agricultural development in the country is aimed at increasing export crops. Large international funding organizations have historically preferred these projects because they generate income that can pay off debts quickly, and the foreign exchange they produce goes a long way in the Honduran economy. But Mayra Falck, an economist with the private bank Bahncafe in Tegucigalpa says focusing on these pressing short-term priorities makes funding longer- term development, including post-Mitch sustainable agriculture, almost impossible.

FALCK: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The international organizations ask you how's you're exchange rate doing? How are your interest rates? These are the questions every 6 months. What this means is that every 6 months, we have no idea what is going to happen. I can't lend money for a project for more than 6 months because I don't know whether the interest rates are going to change.

LOBET: Falck, Cherret, and some scholars, say ultimately this agricultural policy, which emphasizes high-value crops and short-term reward, is influenced by funders like the US Agency for International Development and international lenders like The World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. Dr. Lori Ann Thrupp is a political economist who's written extensively on agricultural policy in Latin America.

THRUPP: The international agencies really do have a significant amount of influence on the national government's decision making processes, because they depend on those agencies for loans and for funding. So, they really have a very profound effect on the strategies that are chosen.

LOBET: Thrupp says there are people working inside the international agencies who are committed to sustainable agriculture, but their ideas are not yet in broad practice on the ground.

THRUPP: If you look at agencies like The World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank, and USAID, they all have environmental programs. But their environment programs are much more dealing with forestry or with protected areas or climate change. But they are less effective at becoming integrated with agriculture.

LOBET: The Agency for International Development disagrees, saying it does have a commitment to hillside agriculture. Officials point to the 15-year-long Lupe Program in Honduras, in which extension agents taught some 30,000 small farmers to improve soil fertility by planting trees among the crops and to reduce runoff with contour terracing. Honduran officials say funding for that program has ended. But John McMahon, a natural resource specialist with AID, says after last year's storm there's more recognition that lessons from projects like Lupe need wider application.

McMAHON: There is a very strong focus on trying to see what can be done to reduce the vulnerability to future events, even at a much lower scale than Hurricane Mitch. And a lot of that does get at small farmer, hillside agriculture, and watershed protection. And so I think you will see both the US government as well as other donors increasingly supporting those types of programs.

(Flowing stream)

LOBET: Weather watchers are predicting this will be an unusually wet rainy season in Central America. Up above Tegucigalpa, on the Rio Chiquito, Marta Estela Saucedo eyes the gurgling creek that became a roaring river 7 months ago.

MINENSE: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: When the rainy season comes, who knows what kind of water will rise here again? Because in winter this creek really swells. And now with this huge beach it left here? No, it's going to be terrible.

LOBET: Ian Cherret says tropical storms on the order of Mitch are likely to keep coming at shorter and shorter intervals. Hondurans are hoping their government will seize the moment and stem the degradation of the country's land. Cherret says if Honduras does not take the long view and address issues like deforestation and soil erosion, he predicts in 10 years it will be another Haiti, a desert devoid of trees where once forested hills and fertile valleys flourished. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.



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