Monday, March 18, 2013

La Moskitia: The road less travelled for a reason

Part of the regular route to La Moskitia (Jody Paterson)
Tourists don’t much go to La Moskitia.
The vast rainforest in southern Honduras, bordered by the Caribbean and Nicaragua, is an extraordinary natural wonder. It includes the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, jungles, lagoons and miles of untouched beach.  It’s home to Garifuna, Miskito and Pech communities, with distinct cultures. 
But all that empty space also makes it attractive to narcos shipping cocaine from South America to U.S. markets. The risk of running into narcotrafficantes is tiny, but it’s not good for tourism.
And more significantly, it’s really hard to get there, and to get around. 
We finished a meeting in Tela, a great Honduran beach town, and set out for Tocoa, midway to La Moskitia. Seven hours later - the last stretch hair-raising as our driver tried to pass anything that moved in our bus, long retired from some U.S. school district - we arrived.
The next morning we piled into a pickup headed for Batalla. That’s the only public transportation. Trucks run from Tocoa, with passengers and freight. It’s about $20 to sit inside, $15 to ride in the truck bed, crammed in with half-a-dozen people, propane tanks, crates and mysterious bags and boxes. 
That’s a lot of money for people here. Workers in the region’s vast African palm plantations are paid $5 or $6 a day.
Our destination, Palacios, was just across the lagoon from Batalla. (We were bound for La Moskitia because CASM, the organization my partner works with, has projects there.)
The first stretch was a paved highway. Then a ridiculously bad dirt road. Then almost an hour on tracks running ruler- straight through African palm plantations. 
The plantations are eerie. Rows of palm trees, planted in a perfect pattern, with no other plant life. Palm oil is hot right now, for food products and biofuel, and there is a rush to plant more and more trees. That has led to violent land clashes between powerful industrial interests and campesinos who claim the same land. Some 88 people have died in the last two years.
We came to a narrow lagoon crossing. There was no bridge. A small wooden platform, mounted on plastic barrels, nudged the shore. Boys put down two 12-inch planks and, after picking up four more passengers, we bumped onto the boat. A rope was tied to trees on each bank. The boys clambered on the ferry and hauled us across.
And then the road got strange. We were beside the Caribbean. A trail through the sand dunes led to the beach. The truck bounced through the dunes, across the beach, struggling and pitching through the sand, veering out into the waves to cross streams flowing into the ocean.
And at the end of the road, all the travel is by boat.
All part of the adventure for us. 
But a major barrier to any efforts to any economic development in the region.
We visited Plaplaya, a Garifuna community of about 800 people on a strip of land between the lagoon and miles of deserted Caribbean beaches. (The Garifuna are a culture made up of South American Indians and African slaves who blended on St. Vincent and were exiled to Roatan by the British in 1797, eventually settling along the coast. They’ve maintained their own language and culture.)
Planning the wine business
Plaplaya has a school, and the men catch fish and the women garden, especially yucca, a staple food, but there is little non-subsistence economic activity. 
CASM is working with a group of about 15 women on a microbusiness project. They each contribute $5 a month to create capital, attend workshops on rights and leadership and business. Their plan is to start making wine from the sea grapes that grow wild along the beach.
It’s a good idea. But getting the wine to an outside market will take a 45-minute boat ride and a four-hour truck ride. 
Making a sales trip to Trujillo, where there are tourists who might buy the wine, will require the same trip, plus another hour on a bus. And the roundtrip will cost more than $50 and require an overnight stay - a pretty big hit for a co-op that is raising $75 each month in working capital.
The isolation isn’t all bad, of course. Other Garifuna communities in Honduras are facing battles for their land as developers and agricultural companies covet the beachfront communities and land. 
But Plaplaya and other communities in the region - and the 80,000 residents - pay a significant price for their isolation.
The main street in Plaplaya (Yet there is one new SUV, despite no road access)
Footnote: Transportation is always a problem for remote communities. But it’s a much broader issue in Honduras. The construction sector claims 70 per cent of the road system is in disrepair, and it certainly seems that way. Maintenance barely exists - unless you count the people on the highway shovelling dirt into a pothole and holding out a bucket for drivers’ contributions. And most work has been stalled because the government hasn’t paid contractors. (Partly because of disagreements over the work, partly because there is no money.)

1 comment:

scotty on Denman said...

Really diggin' your travel log, fascinating! But I have to admit I'd take a bumpy sand and surf drive over a night-time river ride any day. I never was much of a water person but as we chartered many a floating accommodation and transport working the central coast, I had to completely entrust my safety to the skippers, which usually worked out just fine. But ever since we crashed into Mink Island full throttle ( 8 or nine knots ) in the middle of a moonless, freezing February night ( a situation where it might have actually been better if the skipper had been drunk--it was him who told me not to worry about that looming larger black silhouette ), the river ride you described just made me shudder.