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.
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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.