A River Tale: Protecting a Tawahka Way of Life

Doña Rufina Cardona picks her way barefoot to the riverbank. She bends down, cupping water in one hand and wetting her face, arms, and feet. It’s early. Mist rolls off the river and up the Patuca valley; it’s just possible to make out the rainforest-covered hills on the far bank. Children washing pots in the shallows greet her with respect in the Tawahka language: Mapiris yamni Kuka—Good morning Grandmother. She sits down on a massive drift log, part of it covered in fish scales, and looks over the river. A man is poling his family upstream in their dugout, rhythmically digging a long palanka into the gravelly bed. He’s not straining.

It’s May—the end of the dry season—and the river is low. In their boat, an empty washtub indicates that the family is on its way to harvest ripe cacao from their floodplain orchard. They’ll crack the heavy pods and fill the tub with the sweet seeds that are currently selling for five Lempiras (25 US cents) a pound (wet). On the sandy shore near Rufina, Miskitu Indians finish re-loading Coke bottles and other stores onto their freight canoe. Then they push off, revving the outboard and pointing the prow towards Miskitu towns downstream. The motor’s wash sends waves up the shore.

It is a typical morning at the landin (boat landing) at Krausirpi. This is the capital of Tawahka territory, a 1,000-person town of stilted wooden houses clustered along the high bank of a meander along the middle reaches of the Patuca River, in the heart of eastern Honduras’ Moskitia region. Upstream are six more Tawahka villages, including Kungkungwas (‘howler monkey stream’), Kama-kasna (‘where iguanas wash their hands’), and Yapuwas (‘alligator stream’). Tawahka estimate their numbers at about 2,000, making them one of Honduras’ smallest Indigenous groups. Certainly they are the most remote. It has taken us four days to get here from the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa. Because the river is too low to navigate the headwater rapids, we had to go the long way around— to the Caribbean coast, then the slow ascent by motorized dugout up the meandering lower river. We have come to discuss with Tawahka and other residents of the Patuca the impending hydroelectric development of their river, set to begin this year with construction of an 104 MW dam known as “Patuca III.”

We met first with Miskitu residents of the coastal town of Brus Laguna, where the proposed dam seems worlds away. But a web of canals link the lagoon—culturally, ecologically, and economically—to the Patuca. We heard serious concern about the dam. As Miskitu leader Norvin Goff explained: This Patuca, with all of its branches [distributaries]— it comes to feed the lagoons and wetlands as far as Brus. I tell the people of Brus [pop. 11,000], we are going to be affected! Because Brus’ economy is based on fishing. If the dam is built, shrimp production will go to hell. And another thing: all of that water coming down the Patuca, it is a barrier of fresh water, to keep the salt water from entering. So we need to be fighting this fight [against the dam]. There will be profound impacts on the 30,000 or more Miskitu living in communities along the lower reaches of the Patuca. Along the river’s annually replenished floodplains, Miskitu have always focused their subsistence farming of cassava, beans, rice, and plantains. The proposed dams would choke off the enriching sediment, slowly starving the downstream agricultural systems. A more immediate impact would come from the seasonally lower water tables predicted under a dammed flow regime. Miskitu teacher Kinke Wood tells us: “When the level of the river lowers the soil loses humidity. Beans and rice are affected. It’s hard planting rice knowing it’s going to dry up, or won’t even germinate.”

Miskitu leaders are also incensed at the government’s complete lack of consultation with river dwellers about the project. Months after President ‘Pepe’ Lobo led a ground-breaking ceremony at the dam site in Olancho, river residents are still awaiting an official government visit notifying them of the government’s plans. “This is ‘free, prior and informed consent’!’’ laughs Goff bitterly. Indigenous organizations have repeatedly demanded more information, but are rebuffed or ignored. It was only through pressure on Inter-American Development Bank personnel that they discovered that an IDB-funded impact assessment was already underway, and that they would be contacted soon for their input. Meanwhile, pro-government newspapers are feeding the urban public a steady diet of cheery dam-related updates, including assertions that the “only impacts” of the dams will be on the 300 or so non-Indigenous families upstream from the dam who will have to be relocated.

River dwellers know better. Their lives and livelihoods pulse with the river. A Miskitu teacher tells us: “We will bear the costs. We will see none of the benefits—not even electricity.” (True: Honduras intends to sell Patuca-generated energy to urban users and to Nicaragua.) We hear these opinions repeated in towns we visit on our way upriver—Ahuas, Wampusirpi, Tukrun. But we are most keen to hear from the Tawahka people. By any measure, they are the group with the most to lose if Patuca III and two other dams planned for the Patuca’s main stem just miles from the edge of the Tawahka Asangni Biosphere Reserve, are built. And there is no question that they will have the most to lose.

After two days traveling upriver, we arrive at the Tawahka village of Krausirpi and stay for a week. A priority for us is to check in with Doña Rufina. When one of us (McSweeney) lived in Krausirpi in the mid-1990s, every morning was marked by her dawn walk to the river. She is a Tawahka matriarch; reckoning by the ages of her direct descendants she is near 100. We’re told she’s frail now, losing her sight, her hearing. When we do get a chance to visit her, she’s sitting on the veranda of her daughter’s new house, trying to catch a breeze on this stifling afternoon. “Miriki!”* she yells in Miskitu, recognizing one of us. Taking a hand in hers and leans in and declares, “It’s too hot! My knees hurt! This house is too far from the river!”

The Tawahka are river people. Their history can be read in the river, and the river’s in theirs. This is not a history of placid coexistence, but a dynamic one of constant adjustment, as Rufina’s life attests. She was born on the Río Wampú, a major tributary of the Patuca, at a time when the Tawahka moved around more, spending months in fishing camps or hunting camps or gold-panning camps upriver. Remote as they were, the river tied them to distant economies. They tapped rubber to be processed in Akron, Ohio; they sold chicle latex to Wrigley’s chewing gum plant in Nicaragua. They grew bananas to be eaten in New Orleans. The ruins of one of the steamboats that plied the river during these eras lie exposed near the rapids Tawahka call Tima Bahna (‘shipwreck’—some 12 hours upstream from Krausirpi by motorized dugout). As products flowed out along the river, fortune-seekers flowed in. Rufina’s twin sons—born on a river beach at night—were the children of a mahoganytrading
mestizo from the Honduran interior. One of her twins married a Nicaraguan Miskitu woman during the U.S.-backed war with the Sandinistas, when 10,000 Miskitu refugees flooded the Patuca valley. In limbo on the Patuca for 10 years, landless and hungry, the refugees hunted the last of the Patuca’s freshwater sharks. “Good riddance!” says Doña Rufina, “they ate hunting dogs.”

We bring Rufina some cans of sardines in spicy sauce. Even better than river fish, she says. She has always ascribed her longevity to the local fish, but she hates the bland tilapia that have invaded the river. Some 20 years ago, this African fish escaped from aquaculture ponds in Olancho and have been outcompeting the migratory cuyamel (Joturus pichardi) and other native fish ever since. A more serious invasion is the steady advance of Spanishspeaking mestizo settlers into the Patuca watershed. Converting rainforest to cattle pasture is the way they know best to add value to the land, and they do so with enormous energy. Forests that the Tawahka had used for centuries to make dugout canoes are now sun-baked fields. Doña Rufina marks the cultural impact of this advance in the growing use of Spanish with every new generation of her family. She stubbornly speaks to them all in Tawahka.

The river, too, has been responding to the increased loss of its basin’s forest cover: it has become more “moody”, the Tawahka people say. When it rains now, the river floods more than anyone remembers; when it’s dry, it’s almost impossible to pry a flat-bottomed freight canoe along river reaches navigated by steamboats 80 years before. So while the majority of Tawahka territory remains forest-covered, the river’s character is shaped by the barren hills far upstream. The Tawahka must contend with the consequences. This was never more evident than during Hurricane Mitch, when the torrential rains that fell for three days over the Honduran interior all exited via the Patuca. Tawahka families lost virtually all of the multigenerational, spectacularly diverse agroforests on which they relied for money, medicines, and food.

Doña Rufina has seen and weathered it all. Collectively too, the Tawahka have consistently asserted their resilience and adaptability. In response to settler invasion, they shepherded a grassroots process of territorial protection resulting in the 1999 ratification of the Tawahka Asangni Biosphere Reserve; they now lead the development of a novel co-management plan. After Mitch laid bare the vulnerability of their river orientation, they rebuilt their homes—like Rufina’s—farther from the river. They also reorganized their patterns of land use to spread production out more efficiently and farther from the floodplain, turning instead to rich microenvironments along streams. They have responded to new cultural pressures with a long-standing prioritization of bilingual education in primary school—ensuring that Tawahka language and culture endure. Families are also transforming cacao harvests into high-school and college fees to ensure their children can acquire much-needed accounting, agronomy, or engineering skills.

For all their capacity to adapt, Tawahka people tell us that the Patuca III dam may be too much to bear. Tawahka leader Lorenzo Tinglas says, “We are facing the slow extermination of Indigenous Peoples in the Moskitia. The destruction of the headwaters has been killing the river, slowly. I think with Patuca III, this dam will finalize the death of the Patuca River. It won’t just kill the river, but the people too.” It’s not hard to see how. If the river already runs so dry now, Tawahka anticipate little more than a trickle when the dams must retain water to generate energy. This will literally starve them of fish and river-dependent animals like turtle and iguana; it will quickly desiccate and slowly de-nutrify their agroforests. Gold panning—an important source of cash with gold prices at historic highs—will end overnight, as the river’s gold-bearing sediment will settle out in the dam’s reservoir. Canoe-based trade and navigation will be severely curtailed.

Tawahka grandfather Lucio Sánchez talked to us when we finally reached the site of the future dam at the end of our trip. When the river is very dry, the traders won’t come. We’ll have problems—how will we get a pound of salt, some cooking oil? I don’t want them to make this dam. When the river is dry, the Moskitia’s highway [the river] will disappear. Then real highways will come in then, with this dam. And we’ll lose our land. Most observers agree that agricultural invasion of Tawahka lands will accelerate as indeminified families upriver move in the only direction where ‘land’ can still be found: downriver. Honduran construction workers who are brought in to work on the project may also make use of the new roads to invade Tawahka territory, once their work is done Rob Rogers, a geologist at the CSU-Stanislaus, is an expert on the Patuca River and familiar with other large-scalehydroelectric development projects in Honduras and elsewhere. He explains that there are ways for dams to be engineered to minimize downstream impacts (sediment routing, flow regimes). But knowing what he does of comparable dams, of the current political climate in Honduras, and the track record of ENEE (Honduras’ state-owned energy utility), his assessment is blunt. “If you don’t mitigate on the downstream effects, the Tawahka are history; the Miskitu will be toast in 10-20 years from now…. Anyone living downstream has a HIGH potential for getting screwed over.”

The Tawahka are fighting against this dam, as they—together with Miskitu, mestizo, and Garifuna—have done before. After all, the Patuca is Honduras’ biggest river, and it has stoked the dreams of hydroelectric developers for over 40 years. In 1998, an American company planned to build ‘Patuca II’ on the edge of Tawahka territory. The project folded after a coordinated international campaign spearheaded by Tawahka and Miskitu; Hurricane Mitch helped too, by allowing the river to demonstrate its capacity for destruction.

In 2008, Tawahka were a crucial part of the Plataforma para la Defensa del Río Patuca, which eventually convinced   then-President ‘Mel’ Zelaya to suspend an earlier plan for Patuca III; Taiwanese backers later pulled out. On our last evening in Krausirpi, Tawahka leader Lorenzo Tinglas talks to us on a hill by the church. The mountains behind him glow electric green in the fading light. He points out that in 1998, the fight against Patuca II gained major momentum through the involvement of environmentalists worldwide. He sees global support as the only way to make the fight against Patuca III work. “From our position here, it’s hard to do much. But we hope that the international community will help us to protest this dam!”


— Kendra McSweeney, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Ohio State University. She can be reached at kendra.mcsweeney [at] gmail.com. Zoe Pearson and Sara Santiago are doctoral and undergraduate students, respectively, in OSU Geography. Ana Gabriela Dominguez is a Honduran student and micro-entrepreneur in Tegucigalpa.

* Literally, ‘American.’ A generic term for (white) foreigners.

CSQ Issue: