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.

summer 1997


the eastern part of honduras, la mosquitia, is a richly forested region still indigenously inhabited. as the natural resources there become increasingly scarse elsewhere, outside interests move in to exploit them. in return, they offer a different way of life to the inhabitants. both the community infrastructures and the ecosystem of the region are at risk of destructive transformation.

mopawi proposes that the miskito people might arrest and command this development.

Mopawi is the primary non-governmental organization operating in la mosquitia. the largest group of indigenous peoples living there are the miskitos; Mopawi draws their name from their language - Mopawi stands for Moskito Pawisa, which means development of la moskitia.

the folks at mopawi believe in sustainable development, which means they don't provide handouts: they teach people and develop opportunities for them to work, with the hope that those folks will learn to do it themselves.

in a region where much still grows on trees, that can be a difficult mission - many miskitos wish mopawi would simply distribute its funds and let the inhabitants use the forests as they would. historical stewardship of the environment by the natives is a romantic concept, but today, with birthrates soaring, and increasing opportunities for selling out to foreign interests, the terrain is precious beyond the ability of individuals to manage.

mopawi is staffed and run by miskito people - they negociate between their people in la mosquitia and the laptop toting foreigners who provide funds and expertise for enlightened development of the territory.

group photo
mopawi group photo: july 1997

the honduran government is largely absent, so mopawi is the infrastructure of la mosquitia. if you need to speak to a relative studying in tegucigalpa, you go to your local mopawi office to use their radio; chances are it's the only one in town. if you want to send someone money, you bring it to mopawi, who will get a check to them a few days later. if you have a baby to vaccinate, you might take the mopawi motorboat to the clinic in the next town. they're the telephone company, the bank and the post office here.

miskito society is traditionally familial: people share profits with their relations. anything beyond that is shared with extended family, and then with the tribe beyond that. you trade surplus for influence - in this agricultural territory, nothing lasts long enough for capital investment, you spend it around and people respect you.

since mopawi works with miskitos, in la mosquitia, it abides in part by that system, or is at least beholden to it. while mopawi works in remote villages with rickedy wooden houses perched above puddles, they also have electrified offices with computers. these resources permit them to organize across the large landmass of la mosquitia, and coordinate between international donors, local volunteers, and administrators in tegucigalpa.

to some miskitos, this is hard to accept. if mopawi has all that stuff, and miskitos are suffering, shouldn't mopawi provide for them? i ran into this in mocoron, a town with a history of contra-aid handouts from the UN. when these stopped, the village was left without sustainable industry. traditionally, folks in mocoron could cut timber and sell it downriver for profit - now the forest was environmentally protected. when i visited, the men of the village complained to me about joblessness and hunger, not being able to support their children at university in the capital. while mopawi was there to help them develop a plan for forest management, a few men complained bitterly; they wanted mopawi's money and permission to exploit the forest to relieve their suffering.

mopawi preaches delayed gratification, difficult for miskitos to swallow being surrounded by so much natural wealth. mopawi's credit program, providing loans to entrepeneurs, has a difficult return rate because so few borrowers respect contracts or the money system. mopawi is trying to teach these people modern capital management: how to conserve and look to the future.

there was a question in my mind when i first arrived - if these people are living with familial gifting system, isn't presenting them with capital structure encouraging a major cultural change?

much of mopawi's work along the patuca river involves planting cacao trees and investing in seed banks: they are encouraging miskitos to invest towards agricultural surplus, one of the critical foundations for developing a complex society. instead of affirming your family ties and living for today by consuming all goods which are perishable, you save and wait 'til tomorrow for things your saving can provide you.

i was troubled by the pending loss of family, and a perishable economy, when i realized that the alternative to mopawi is wellington hall, red lobster, and foreign oil interests, all effectively working to strip la mosquitia of its natural resources. better if the miskitos learn to both take care of the land, and control access by the outside world. they are going to have to learn to play the game here; it's a question of who will teach them, and how soon.

sustainable development of la mosquitia is a complex task, and not just with regard to miskitos and multinationals: there are even people involved in charity who can be seen working against the best interests of the territory. i met with a woman from the united states, she was travelling through raista with an evangelical youth group. each year, they came down with many hundreds, perhaps even a thousand dollars, and in each pueblo they visited, they would gift a tidy sum to "the five poorest widows," as designated by the pastor of the local church. if this is the primary experience miskitos have with foreigners and development, it's no wonder they have limited patience for the pedagogy of mopawi.

mopawi is stuck between its miskito identity, and its business sense: a modern entity in a primitive place. imagine the local management consultants in the last outpost town before you hit the central american rainforest. many of them speak spanish, if not english, and a few even have laptop computers. some have PhDs, all are passionate about self-determining resource management of la mosquitia. it was strange to encounter such a professional operation in a decidedly unprofessional place. while it's difficult to be thoroughly efficient when the power goes out every few hours, mopawi might just be the most effective pedagogy in la mosquitia. and a little pedagogy might be just what these people need to keep them from squandering their best opportunity to remain responsible for some truly magnificent resources.

mopawi logo
i was fortunate to travel with mopawi for five weeks in june july and august, 1997.

after two weeks breathing diesel in la ceiba, i kept mentioning wanting to see the more antideluvian parts of honduras; after consultation, that ended up being la moskitia. my family villars, the father had been the first director of mopawi's credit project in the eighties - when he heard i wanted to go there, and that i was willing to volunteer time or labour, he wrote me a letter of introduction for oswaldo mungia, an old friend and now the executive director of mopawi.

so, i took the capital rinel over to puerto lempira, and arrived just in time for the mopawi annual reunion.

oswaldo asks, "what are your skills?"

computers and writing.

great, travel around la moskitia, we'll pay your travel costs, you write articles about 9 of our projects and one big article on us.


Banco Comunal, in Puerto Lempira
hable espanol! Educacion Bilingual, in Puerto Lempira
Proyecto Comunal Forestal, in Mocoron

Fincas de Cacao, in Awas, Wampusirpi, and Batalle
Proyecto de Iguana Verde, in Brus Laguna
Finca de Mariposas, in Raista
EcoTourismo, in Las Marias

Buzos, in Cocobelia
Proyecto de la Conservacion de las Tortugas Marinas, in Plaplaya

the travel costs amounted to 1492 lempiras, about $110. what was invaluable was having a host, a guide and often a home in a broad range of communities. awas is a pretty spread out place - it was nice to have melius to show me where to buy chocolate cake, and to give me a mopawi office floor to sleep on, and a bucket to bathe with.

moreover, it gave me something to do besides be a tourist. i had questions to ask people, i arrived somewhere, met with some cacao farmers, asked questions, saw their farms. when i met with them, i knew already some of what they were dealing with - it was kinda thrilling to be talking about trees per manzana and crop yields and hybrid seeds, most all in spanish.

i got to see stuff of the beaten road, and had a good excuse to do so.

i learned a lot. it got me thinking, that the issue of "development" is worth a look. both from a web/technology point of view, and an agricultural, basic infrastructure point of view.

mosquitia | hondo | trip | life

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