Reclaiming the Commons: Grassroots Resistance and Retaliation in Honduras


At the time of the Spanish Conquest, southern Honduras was a culturally diverse area, home to a number of distinct indigenous peoples. According to chroniclers of the sixteenth century, "more people than hairs on all the deer" utilized the rich volcanic soils along the Pacific Coast, cultivating corn, beans and squash, and supplementing their diets with chilies, peanuts, fruits and turkeys. Equally important was the monte, uncultivated land, where they gathered nuts, roots and grubs for food, and where they hunted and trapped deer, iguana, birds and jaguars for meat and skins. The monte also was a source of brush, timber and reeds that were used for construction. In the mangroves and mud flats along the Gulf of Fonseca the people collected shellfish and other aquatic species and fished from dugout canoes. Cacao and cotton were also grown and the indigenous groups participated in coastal and long distance trading networks which involved these corps.

Today, Southern Honduras is a "critically endangered region," designated by the United Nations as an area where basic life support systems, including water and soils, are in jeopardy. Deforestation, erosion, deterioration of watersheds, the indiscriminate use of agricultural pesticides, and overgrazing have transformed the southern Honduran landscape. The region's ladino inhabitants, among the poorest in Latin America, also are at risk. Recent nutritional assessments conclude that 65% of children under 5 years of age and 37% of first graders suffer from moderate to severe under-nutrition. In addition, the region is the site of significant, sometimes fierce, conflict stemming from the explosive growth of the shrimp farming industry in coastal wetlands along the Gulf of Fonseca. On one side of the struggle are the powerful shrimp farming interests who stress the economic benefits of the expanding industry. On the other side of the controversy are artisanal fishers, fisher/farmers, other rural people and environmentalists. These latter groups are responding to diminished access to natural resources, vital to rural livelihoods, and to the environmental destruction arising from the largely unregulated growth of the industry.

Central to the environmental and social transformation of southern Honduras has been the loss of common property resources and the inability of local people to reclaim the commons. Especially significant has been the post World War II period during which the Honduran government, with the assistance of international donor and lending institutions, promoted a series of agricultural commodities for the global market - principally cotton, sugarcane and beef cattle. By the 1960s, growing human impoverishment and environmental destruction provoked extensive migration from the south to urban centers, to coastal zones within the region and to the tropical humid forests in the northeastern portion of the country. Recently, economic development efforts have focused on the production of "nontraditional" agricultural exports (especially melons and cultured shrimp). By 1987, shrimp (most cultivated on farms along the Gulf of Fonseca) became Honduras' third highest source of foreign exchange after bananas and coffee. While providing an important source of export earnings, creating a limited (and highly contested) number of predominately temporary jobs and stimulating the start-up of related businesses, the industry also is significantly restricting access to the South's remaining common property resources: coastal wetlands, fisheries and water. Southern Honduras has been the site of several peasant movements that have resisted the loss of common property resources associated with the earlier spread of the cotton, sugar and beef cattle industries. In response to the current promotion of shrimp farming, poor people from coastal communities founded their own resistance movement, the grassroots Committee for the Defense and Development of the Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Fonseca (CODDEFFAGOLF). In contrast to past peasant movements, however, members successfully received the backing of an extensive global network that includes the public, the press and international organizations of environmental and social activists. It remains to be seen whether or not this support will significantly enhance the ability of local people to have a voice in development plans for the Gulf of Fonseca or if it will amplify their access to crucial coastal resources in light of the influential groups actively opposing their goals. The Importance of Coastal Resources for Local People

Because the coastal areas of mangroves, mud flats, estuaries and seasonal lagoons were unsuitable for the large-scale cultivation of cotton, sugarcane, pasture of other commercial crops, they were not highly valued by outsiders nor contested until the boom in the shrimp industry. Until then, the Honduran state (the legal owner of the coastal wet-lands) allowed local people access to much of the zone. Compared to agricultural areas, the coast remained less densely settled until poor families, dislocated first by the expansion of cotton in lowland areas and later by beef cattle (in lowland, foothill, and highland areas), began migrating to the coast in the late 1950s. Families settling in existing communities or starting new ones survived by exploiting the wetlands. They cleared adjacent areas to cultivate crops but depended as well on fish, shrimp, shellfish, animals and wood gathered from the surrounding common resource areas. By 1990, some 110,000 people lived in rural areas of the municipalities bordering the Gulf of Fonseca, including an estimated 2,000 artisanal fishers and an additional 5,000 individuals who apportioned their time between fishing and small scale agriculture.

The coastal inhabitants are not tribal people with centuries-long, well regulated mechanisms to manage the commons. In contrast, many are relatively recent migrants whose economic strategies center around the household rather than the community, although some community based controls exist. Coastal communities vary considerably, with some more dependent on income from fishing, others from agriculture. The economic livelihood strategies of households share a great deal with the survival strategies of peasants living in predominantly agricultural communities: they are extremely diversified, flexible, dependent on cash remittances and can shift among economic resources in response to changing market conditions and resource availability. Most households integrate subsistence and wage activities combining fishing, small-scale agriculture, gathering wild foods from coastal wetlands and wage work (e.g., as hired laborers for their more affluent neighbors, as larva gatherers or laborers for the shrimp farms or as workers in the shrimp processing plants). Although some shared labor occurs within communities, it generally takes place within extended families. Households also earn income by cutting mangrove for fuel wood and charcoal, producing salt, extracting bark for tannin, and collecting turtle eggs, mollusks and crabs. Expansion of the Honduran Shrimp Industry

Honduras shares jurisdiction of the Gulf of Fonseca with Nicaragua and El Salvador where the shrimp farming industry also is expanding rapidly. There has been little research on the physical and biological characteristics of the Gulf. The lack of reliable information is a critical factor in resolving the current conflict. Because it is a large shallow depression, it is vulnerable to both pollution and siltation. The coast-line is dominated by approximately 50,000 hectares of mangrove wetlands that are fed by five major river systems. The biologically diverse mangrove ecosystems have many important ecological functions: they provide habitats, especially nursery areas for aquatic and terrestrial species; they protect coastlines from inundation and contain sediment to form new land; and they are an important stopover for an uncounted number of migratory birds. During the rainy season, the extensive mud flats from temporary shallow lakes which sustain large populations of fish and shellfish that are harvested by local inhabitants mostly for domestic consumption. The region is considered ideal for shrimp farming. This led to the largely uncontrolled conversion of mud flats and mangroves, as well as some agricultural lands, into shrimp ponds.

Currently, Honduras is second only to Ecuador in the production and export of cultured shrimp from Latin America. Faced with chronic economic crises in the 1980s, the Honduran government began encouraging investment in the industry with the support of international development organizations, including the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Through its concession process, the government began granting rights over state owned coastal land to investors, thereby supplanting the previous claims of communal users. Renewable concessions are leased to individuals or corporations for 25 years at a cost of about US$4-5 per year. Concessions cannot be legally transferred or sold, but entrepreneurs have circumvented the law by remaining as minority investors in new farms and have established a black market for leaseholds which has stimulated land speculation. Despite the low cost of leases, their lack of political power to influence the award of concessions (along with the high costs of farm construction and maintenance, lack of technical assistance, insufficient rates) has impeded the entry of small producers, agrarian reform cooperatives and poor coastal communities into the industry. While concessions confer only use rights, investors treat their holdings much like private property. Repeating past" enclosure movements" in which small farmers were evicted from good agricultural land, often violently and with the help of local authorities, concession holders exclude others by means of armed guards, barbed wire fencing and "no trespassing" signs. Over 25,000 hectares have been leased through concessions, although more than half the area remains undeveloped. Estimates of mangrove loss due directly to the construction of shrimp farms range from about 2,000 to 4,000 hectares. Since World War II, half the Gulf's mangrove areas have been destroyed. If conservation policies are not put in place, estimates suggest that all the mangroves will be gone within 20 years.

While areas in mangrove and mud flats have the best designated property rights under the concession process, activities affecting estuaries take place under a largely unregulated, open access system. Seed to stock shrimp ponds comes either from captured wild shrimp post larvae or (increasingly) from hatchery produced seed. About 1,500 larva gatherers trawl the coastal estuaries in boats or on foot collecting shrimp post larvae in nets. They work individually or in teams under a variety of contractual arrangements. Some are paid on a piece-rate while others receive a wage from labor contractors. While larva collecting provides a source of employment, it does entail environmental costs. While these costs remain poorly understood, artisanal fishers maintain that their catches have fallen since larva gathering began. This may be due to the loss of by catch: an estimated number of five organisms die for each shrimp larva that is captured. Significant environmental costs in estuarine areas also include declining water quality from farm effluent that contains high organic loads and low levels of dissolved oxygen. Several farms usually recycle water from the same estuary among themselves - the waste water pumped from one farm is the source of water re-pumped into adjacent ponds. Degraded water quality affects not only the sustainability of the shrimp farms and the livelihoods of artisanal estuarine fishers but myriad other aquatic organisms.

By 1993, about 11,500 hectares of primarily semi-intensive shrimp farms existed in southern Honduras, approximately 70% located on leased concessions of national land. Although about 100 farms operate in the country, the various economies of scale that favor large producers have led to domination by six major firms. The largest, Granjas Marinas San Bernardo (GMSB), a US-Honduras joint venture, accounts for 60% of the cultivated shrimp exports from Honduras. According to the southern Honduras Chamber of Commerce, the shrimp industry provides employment to some 11,900 people through 25 commercial farms, six packing plants and six ice-making operations. In 1995, foreign exchange earnings from shrimp were about US$ 80 million.

Although the shrimp industry contributes substantially to export earnings and provides a number of jobs, it also has provoked widespread conflict and increasingly violent confrontations among competing users. The influential shrimp farming interests include the national and foreign owners and managers of large farms, powerful bankers and industrialists, government leaders and military officers. Many are members of the National Association of Shrimp Farmers of Honduras (ANDAH) and stress the economic value of the industry. They claim that environmental destruction is due to factors that are external to the farms - especially destructive agricultural practices in the highlands which cause erosion, siltation and ultimately destruction of mangroves; the harvesting of mangroves for subsistence use and for sale; and over-fishing by artisanal fishers. The powerful interests have been subsidized by international development assistance. However, foreign aid is being replaced by foreign investments channeled through joint ventures. Increasingly, ANDAH is presenting itself as conservationist, even imposing a largely unenforceable moratorium on expansion of farms until environmental assessments are completed. Resistance and Retaliation

Coastal inhabitants are actively opposing the expansion of the industry. This resistance has ranged from non-compliance (e.g., poaching within concessions) and protest marches to more violent confrontations such as physically obstructing earth moving equipment, barricading roads to shrimp farms, destroying canals and burning farm buildings.

In 1988, local people with the help of Honduran environmentalists founded CODDEFFAGOLF which currently has about 5,000 members. Members challenge the transformation of what were multi-use and multi-user coastal resources into private property controlled by national elites and foreigners who have the political connections and power to obtain concessions or title to coastal lands. They maintain that the industry is reducing access to natural resources that are crucial to the support of coastal residents and causing irreparable environmental damage. They contend that shrimp farmers are depriving fishers, farmers and others of access to mangroves, estuaries and seasonal lagoons; destroying mangrove ecosystems, altering the hydrology of the region, destroying habitats of other flora and fauna and precipitating declines in biodiversity; contributing to degraded water quality; and exacerbating the decline in Gulf fisheries through the indiscriminate capture of other species caught with the shrimp post larvae that are used to stock ponds. As an alternative to current development practices, CODDEFFAGOLF members urged the Honduran Congress to create and enforce protected areas and/or resource extraction reserves and promoted the creation of a tri-national management plan for the Gulf.

Demonstrating the link between social conflict and environmental destruction, CODDEFFAGOLF is both a social and an environmental movement. On the one hand, similar to earlier peasant movements, members attempt to increase access to natural resources necessary for rural sustenance and to advance social and economic justice. For these efforts they received several hundred thousand dollars from the Inter-American Foundation to finance sustainable development projects that integrate agriculture, aquaculture and salt-making. Simultaneously, they highlight environmental concerns and conservation efforts, and have received funds from international environmental organizations such as World Wildlife Fund. Their efforts were recognized at the United Nations Conference on Environmental and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro where they received a Global 500 award for outstanding environmental achievement. Recently, Greenpeace announced an initiative to promote mangrove conservation in Central America. The Moby Dick, the Greenpeace vessel, will arrive in the Gulf of Fonseca in March, 1996, to kick-off the project by protesting the conversion of mangroves to shrimp ponds. To some extent, growing international recognition has protected members from reprisals by powerful supporters of the industry, but members of CODDEFFAGOLF and other community leaders have been harassed by shrimp farm security guards, imprisoned and received death threats. Three artisanal fishers who were active with CODDEFFAGOLF have been murdered.

What grassroots groups such as CODDEFFAGOLF can accomplish is restricted, in part, by their position within the broader political-economic context. Integrating local people into the coastal management scheme clearly is at odds with the broader political-economy of southern Honduras as well as with the global shrimp mariculture industry. Tension persists between CODDEFFAGOLF and the Honduran government (which refuses to acknowledge CODDEFFAGOLF's role in representing coastal inhabitants), between CODDEFFAGOLF and ANDAH, and between CODDEFFAGOLF and the path of the export diversification program sponsored by USAID, the World Bank and the industry. It remains to be seen whether outside support from the Honduran public, from academics, and from national and international environmental organizations and social activists will strengthen CODDEFFAGOLF sufficiently to given the organization a significant voice in development and environmental management plans for the Gulf of Fonseca, and thereby to reclaim what remains of the commons. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: