This is from a series of reports written in 1997 for an NGO, Mopawi, exploring their efforts to promote sustainable development in the native Miskito and Garifuna populations in La Mosquitia, a rainforest in eastern Honduras.
There was a time in America when you could ride out west, find some land, clear a patch, grow your crop, and support your family. You could try that now, but you'd spend a good chunk of time in court fighting with Ted Turner.
a finca in every manzana
proyecto de cacao organico
awas y wampusirpi
melius ramos y maximino angulo
That kind of landed freedom still exists in la Mosquitia. You can get still get lost in the forest; the population centers are still relatively small. For generations, along the Rio Patuca and elsewhere, farmers have staked out small parcels of land for fincas - small individual plantations. Most people grow granos basicos - beans, rice, corn. Recently, prices for cacao have gotten high enough that a few acres of these chocolate seed trees can prove bastante lucrative.
For ten years, Mopawi's Proyecto de Cacao Organico has provided assistencia technica - a bridge to the scientific and professional sides of farming, the world beyond la Mosquitia. Mopawi has sold hybrid, high yeild cacao tree seeds (that don't reproduce for planting) from a labratory in La Ceiba to approximately 600 farmers in the Rio Patuca region (of a likely 800 or so total farmers).
For this tropical region, cacao is an ideal crop because it yeilds fairly constant harvests, and it can be grown with other plants.
Though the average cacaotero tends 15-20 manzanas (1 manzana = 7000 meters^2), only up to four might have cacao trees. That's enough work for one family/farmer though: each cacao tree takes up about 12 feet, allowing up to 700 cacao trees per manzana. Between them grow trees that provide the cacao with shade; for example guama, which replaces nitrogen in the soil, or phillipitas, a sweet sibling of the banana. There are two four month harvests per year - February to May and August to November, with cacao being harvested continuously; 8 to 10 pounds of seeds per harvest, per tree. As twilight fell on a casual crossroads in Awas, one farmer, Antonio, says that it is safe to expect 1500 pounds, or 15 quintales of cacao seeds per manzana per year.
The farmers harvest the cacao in the form of large-avocado sized seed pods (bellotas) containing each approximately 30 seeds (semillas) the size of a large piece of garlic. These seeds are dried in the sun for three days, mashed into a paste, and either delivered that way, or cooked up into a block.
Current prices for cacao are relatively high - 5.50 lempiras per pound in La Mosquitia; while in San Pedro Sula, the prices can get as high as 7 lempiras per pound. While the voyage is too far and too expensive for any one farmer to make on his own, collectively they could bring their wares to market and perhaps fetch higher prices.
Mopawi is encouraging the farmers to work in groups. With groups, they could also perhaps invest in some production equipment - facilities for drying, processing the seeds, boats to export the results. (There was a secadoro, cut oil barrels over a fire used to dry seed, in Wampusirpi three years ago, especially important during the rainy season, but no one managed it and it has fallen apart). The further you go down the line of production, the higher the markup; picture organic sweets from the central american rainforest - "Miskito Munchies" - at your local hippy grocery store. Then you're talking about miskitos in suits with business plans, and brothers in the candy wrapping business. If these workers own their own means of production, that could employ a lot of miskitos and their extended families for some years to come.
Also, in groups, it is easier to offer technical assistance and information. Once a year in many Rio Patuca communities, Mopawi offers classes - plant management and health, increasing productivity, administration, marketing. For ten years, Mopawi has been encouraging cooperation - the persistent problem for Mopawi has been the persistent refusal of these folks to work in groups.
While i was in Wampusirpi i went to the local cine - salvage (savage) - the type of flick you'd find on late night cable television in the midwest. Meglomaniacal cyberworld takeover stopped by wronged man turned primieval warrior by benevolent aliens from Atlantis. Every character in the movie, includling low-on-the-totem-pole cops, had big apartments with lots of stuff; home entertainment type stuff, pretty looking stuff. It is exciting to look at a place that is materially beautiful, but as i shifted my buttocks back and forth on the rough hewn wood moviehouse benches, i realized that my neighbors, overwhelmingly children (80% of the 18 or so persons), they were learning an America, a dream of stuff some different from the America I hail from.
As Maxi said, these people want the stuff of the Americans, the stuff that they see; more than just getting by. Sure they have clothes and food, but sending their kids to school or having a few extra cassettes, power all day long, no. Melius confirms this - the people they want light; it's a dream.
Most new pueblos take a little getting used to. I finally found a way to get in here, I sat in the town centro, writing. A few folks gathered around and I commenced a class on America: 30 to 40% impuestos (taxes), 500 $ month rent for a small place in the city, many homeless people, many jails, the news every night of violence and kidnapping, chickens grown by the billions in enormous buildings, crazy people accost you in the street for money or to decry the end of the world. I share this vision of the US so that they will know what comes with money - scrawny trees, hemorrhoids, and locks on all the doors.
Maybe these Miskito dwellers understand, and by refusing to work together, or by doing so painfully slowly, they are forcing a slow acclimation, a gradual middling between the money culture and their own more of sharing.
But Mopawi is clearly having an motivating effect, and there's an optomistic sense of soon to this old program.
Melius reports that all the growers in this region grow organically - using traditional methods without pesticides and herbicides; their yeild is high enough without the chemicals to balance the loss due to disease and fungus. I was unsure how 600 miskito farmers could be said to be doing anything in unison, but Melius answers that the chemicals are not even vended in the area. Perhaps, according to Mopawi, if they were to have official organic cacao certification, recognized by the world market, then the farmers of the Rio Patuca could begin to ply their product for higher prices on the international market. This is one area where Mopawi doesn't need the collective cooperation of the farmers - samples of the cacao have been sent to a US private lab and investigations have been made independently; if all checks out they could have their organic status by next year.
Also, the farmers appear to finally have been impressed by Mopawi - recently witness the arisal of collective groups - local organizations of farmers. All the cacao farmers in Honduras belong to Procacao - an organization too big to represent the interests of these peticular Miskito manufacturers, with their organic cacao, and their more erratic, irregular yeilds. Hence the recent formation of Association de Cacaoteros, formed with two persons from each area to develop export strategy.
In the Mopawi office, a bit up the mainstreet of Wampusirpi, I talk a bit with Maxi. Like most of the buildings here, this one sits in the middle of a grand puddle - the outcome of the rainy season. There were two sets of steps up to this building, set seven feet off the ground, now only one stands. To leave the Mopawi compound, choose a side of the extended barbed wire fence; one exit has a foot and a half deep puddle in front of it, the other exit is more than thirty yards away.
As Maxi sez, these things take time - urging these folks to cooperate is slow and ongoing; now they understand that working together can yeild better results, they just don't know how.
For six months, this program has been expanding to cover granos basicos - in this case the assistencia technica de Mopawi is silos - means of storing seeds between harvests. The farmers here have a notoriously hard time conserving bastante semillas dryly between harvests.
As Maxi and I talk development, the daily value of Mopawi in this community persists in the other room - since lunch time, there's been a line of people waiting to talk to their boyfriends, their wives, their children in other cities across Gracias a Dios, and across Honduras. With so many of their people travelling so far to schools and hospitals and business, the short wave radio in the Mopawi office is literally a life line, a live wire, a virtual community for the people in these upriver pueblos. Maxi easily responds that this short wave access is the most immediately valuable aspect of Mopawi to this community. The short wave, and probably the motor (boats) too.
While I was visiting Wampusirpi, the hot issue was land rights. Bastinasta, the local chapter of Masta, was having a reunion to inform folks on progress on talks with the government and to elect new officials and new provisions. There was stomping and clapping and energy and joy, even in the midst of this rainy winter season. These people have been trying to secure their land rights for about ten years - they have an astonshing patience to them. Especially compared to their counterparts in Mocoron, who do not sound so happy or patient. But these people have bastante comida, trabajo; it is still magically possible to simply carve a bit of the riverside forest out for your finca. And you get a sense of the potential when you talk to the people of Wampusirpi - everyone or their brother has a finca, everyone is in a little cacao.
But there were farmers with gripes - one tipsy cacaotero between harvests doing some construction on a new cantina wanted money, giveaways. But he was a rare cacaotero; this is an area of enterprise - these people are working.
And it is hard work - visiting a finca was hard enough for this gringo (or "miriki" in miskito). There were more mosquitos than I ever thought possible - literally droves that you could see like snowflakes - swarms in the air. The hordes of winged bloodsuckers between the trees make this the most aggrevating profession I've yet witnessed. I could not walk without waving my arms around my head and swearing - there was just nothing to be done but output total energy all the time to avoid being a bloodletting pincushion. I understood then why Benjamin, my cacaotero guide and head of a local group of farmers, was wearing jeans and a courdouroy shirt in the mindless heat - walking behind him I could see many mosquitos on his clothes, one stopped to suck every three inches, none getting through. Meluis, the jolly enough extensionista de Mopawi in Awas, just seemed used to it, and he thought it was hilarious when I mentioned that they seemed particularly attracted to me; "sangre fresco."
Mopawi is promoting cacao in other parts of the biosphere, particularly to supplement limited or endangered businesses (ecotourism and lobster diving, for example). But this kind of seed has not been grown for a long period, on a large scale, in this kind of environment. It could have unforseen environmental impacts, or there could be a single disease or grand cacao calamity that could wipe out the hundreds of farms involved. So Mopawi is encouraging farmers to take up mahogany as well. The timing is conveniently close - the productive lifespan of the hybrid seeds is estimated at around 25 years; mahogany takes around 20 to 25 years to mature. Theoretically, if planted properly, there could be a fresh load of valuable wood to sell during the three year cacao tree replanting cycle.
The idea of people here planting, farming mahogany is revolutionary: it's a long term investment. In a region where food still grows on trees, it's difficult to demand the foresight required now by the growing strain of increased population on natural resources, and by the negociations required to manage foreign investments. Hopefully, by integrating long term thinking and encouraging collective decisionmaking, Mopawi's cacao project will prevent the further erosion of the Mosquitian frontier.
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