Post-Mitch Risk - Abandoned Farms, Teeming Cities

Digging out, Honduras focuses on survival - and on new policies to save farms and keep farmers on the land.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Guillermo Hernndez Pinto surveys the field where floodwaters from hurricane Mitch dumped his farm's drowned chickens and pigs after they were swept without warning from their pens. As buzzards blacken the trees, he says: "They've had their feast, I can't afford to give them any more."

Honduras's growing "maquila" industry of mostly textile assembly plants was almost untouched by Mitch. But, as Mr. Hernndez knows, at least 70 percent of agricultural production is lost, which means the country will lose export revenue that pays its bills.

A key reason for immediate attention to recovery of agriculture, observers say, is to prevent acceleration of a migration to the cities.

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"We might have to cut back our work force by half or more, and a lot of those families will head straight to the city," says Hernndez. "Then when we get back on our feet we won't find the people to do the work, and the city will have that many more poor, unemployed, homeless people to deal with."

"We need policies that keep people productive in the short term where they are in the fields, or we're going to have a serious problem," says Efran Daz Arrivillaga, director of the Honduras National Human Development Report in conjunction with the UN.

"We really have to reinvent the model of development for Honduras," says Mr. Daz. Himself a farmer who lost most of his productive lands in the country's south, Daz says the new model must focus on "development of the person," with more emphasis on education, social needs, and a wise use of natural resources.

Noting that most of the recent development and Honduras's high population growth have been in the country's primary watershed, Diaz says much of Mitch's damage can be attributed to human error such as deforestation and overdevelopment in vulnerable areas.

"We have to change this perspective of what the river did to us," he says metaphorically, "to ask instead what we did to the river."

One need, he says, is to develop economic "magnet" areas to attract people and business away from environmentally sensitive areas like the watershed.

The general population would be ready to embrace a "new direction" if it were articulated, Daz says, "but that takes leadership and so far I don't see it coming."

But other observers say they are encouraged by some words they are hearing from the country's leadership.

As he tours the country and meets with foreigners bringing aid, President Carlos Flores Facusse is talking about building a "new Honduras." And Zoraida Mesa, resident coordinator of UN activities in Honduras, was encouraged by a ministerial meeting she attended last week.

"The education minister made a point of saying, `We don't want to rebuild our education system because the old one wasn't working, we want to build a new one,' " she says. "That impressed me."

Mitch hit Central America just as the region's economies were showing new signs of growth and dynamism, particularly in the important farm-export sector. Honduras, in whose name "banana republic" was coined, has diversified in recent years beyond bananas to coffee (now the top export crop), melons, palm oil, citrus, and shrimp farming. At 25 percent of gross domestic product, agriculture represents 70 percent of the country's exports.

BUT the devastating storm left this progress in shambles, economists say. The $250 million banana crop is largely lost, while big banana plantation owners like Chiquita and United Fruit are putting their losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars and laying off workers by the thousands. Only a small part of the coffee crop can be saved and only if the roads to get it to market are reestablished. Many melon fields, which were gearing up for November's harvest, were washed away, as were many shrimp pens.

"Our big problem is going to be unemployment and the multiplying effect of lost production," says Jorge Bueso, a Honduran economist and chief executive officer of Banco de Occidente. "If we can quickly get people active in reconstruction, it shouldn't be so damaging."

With thousands of people still stranded in flooded areas and facing hunger and exposure, the focus of both national and international assistance efforts is still immediate needs. The United States, taking stock of the storm's toll in Central America, increased assistance at the end of last week from the $3.5 million originally announced to $70 million.

Excessive migration to the cities would not only hit the economies of these traditionally agricultural countries that were just beginning to benefit from a modernization and diversification of their farm sectors, experts warn. It would also aggravate the very urban problems - haphazard development, shantytown proliferation, poor basic-service delivery, hillside deforestation - that abetted Mitch's natural destructive force.

Farmer Hernndez in Comayagua estimates it will take a decade to recover from his losses. But he says he is even more concerned about the 45 workers and their families who depend on the farm for their livelihood.

"It will only set us back further if they see no alternative to migrating into the cities," he adds.

He says the millions of dollars in international assistance should include loans to farmers at low rates of 4 to 6 percent.

"If I have to pay off the loans I took out at 36 percent with no income for another year, it'll be that much longer before I can become productive again," he says.

Many young farmers will be watching what happens over the next few months as they decide whether to stay on the farm.

Alex Antonio Raudales is another Comayagua farmer, helping his eight-member family with their 60-acre farm while finishing up his last year of high school.

Alex knows his family came through Mitch a lot better than thousands of other Hondurans, but he still had never seen anything like the raging waters that tore out almost half a corn crop and most of the farm's mango trees - which gave the family an important cash crop. The flood also destroyed a fish-breeding pond the family was developing.

The Honduran equivalent of a Future Farmer, Alex says he still hopes to go on to study agricultural engineering.

"I know a lot of people are going to say this set them too far back, and they're going to give it up," he says.

"I don't want to do that, but I'll have to see what happens before I decide to stay on the land."

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