Saturday, October 19, 2013

A wondrous place, a fragile future

Sunrise at Palacios
This place, this place. With each passing day I am astonished by its beauty a little more, and a little more worried for its future. What will ever become of the fabulous and vulnerable Moskitia?
    In another life, the Moskitia would be a world-renowned destination sought out by adventure travellers who crave that thing that’s so hard to find in this modern world of ours: An authentic experience. Whether the travel fantasy is vast stretches of empty Caribbean beaches, thriving indigenous cultures, or a world of lagoons, rivers and wildlife to explore, the Moskitia delivers. Monkeys, toucans, orchids, herons, fish dinners straight from the sea – all here.
    But this is not another life. And the overwhelming presence of narco-trafico in the region – while not nearly the danger to tourists that it is to those working directly in the business – pretty much guarantees that the Moskitia isn’t going to be seeing a lot of new travellers any time soon.
    The people who live in the Moskitia would love to see more tourists passing through. Jobs are hard to come by in this isolated and neglected region, and tourists boost the local economy in all kinds of ways – from the tours they take to the food they eat, the gas that powers their boats, the hospedajes and lodges they stay at while here, and the places they pass through on their way into the Moskitia.
    But the tiny toehold that the industry was just starting to get eight or nine years ago has ground to a halt under the weight of the 2009 coup in Honduras, a struggling global economy, increasingly dire travel warnings from the U.S., and the growing presence of serious-looking armed men in the cocaine business who don’t take kindly to outsiders.
    The Moskitia has always been a place for pirates. The state of Gracias a Dios, which encompasses the Moskitia, was practically made for illegal activity with its 16,600 square kilometres of waterways, hidey-holes and deep jungle. But cocaine trafficking is not just a few bad guys in eye patches stashing plundered booty, it’s a multi-million-dollar international business that is deeply integrated into life, government and policing systems in Central America.
Gulls and terns gather at the sandbar near Brus Laguna
    I visited Brus Laguna yesterday with my work mates, taking photos and videos for what is intended to be a promotional video that will spur tourism and investment in the Moskitia. Unfortunately, almost everyone we talked to in the little town was glum and worried, brought down by two murders this week, the murder of a couple and their young child a couple of weeks ago, and a rather horrendous shoot-em-up between rival drug traffickers a month or so ago that left 13 dead.
    Nobody’s killing tourists, of course. But that’s of little comfort to tour operators who are understandably nervous about bringing people into a situation that is well beyond their control. (Truthfully, well beyond anyone’s control.) One woman who was organizing tours in the region as part of a small Miskito collective cited two incidents last year that convinced the 11 families who had formed the collective to just pack it in.
    In the first incident, one of the small planes that brings the cocaine into Honduras from Colombia landed very close to where a group of travellers was staying. Nothing happened, but several of the travellers were very curious about the late-night landing and the small specks of light that appeared in the area after the plane came in.
    In the second incident, a tour guide was leading travellers through the jungle when suddenly a group of heavily armed men passed by. Pressed to come up with a quick answer as to who the armed men were, the tour guide told the group the men were guardabosques – forest conservation officers.
    That got everybody through a difficult moment. But fearing for the safety of future tour participants and of those working with the tour group - who would ultimately be blamed by those AK-47-toting “conservation officers” for bringing outsiders into the territory - the collective shut the tours down this year.
Miskito fishermen salt the day's catch, Brus Laguna
    My own travels here have been unadventurous, but for the countless sightings of super-powered boats carrying armed men zipping through the waterways of the Moskitia. But I have the benefit of being with my co-workers - all Hondurans and known in the area as staff of the Comision de Accion Social Menonita.
    My co-workers tell me if and when it’s safe to take photos and videos when we’re out and about, and I do what they say. I don’t scare easily, but even I don’t think a fair-skinned stranger toting a camera and stumbling solo into a place like Brus Laguna would be a good idea right now.
     The locals have been living with narco-trafico for many years now in the Moskitia, and they’ve all learned how to pretend not to see it, how to adjust their daily routines to avoid the dangerous hours of commerce and the high-risk areas.
    But how can you tell a tourist not to take photos because they could be putting their own lives or those of others at risk? How do you ensure they don’t wander into a situation that they’d be well-advised not to wander into? How do you keep everybody calm when – unlike the locals - they’re not at all used to the sight of armed and largely unfriendly men, or even the balaclava-wearing military doing boat patrols? And how does one convey to the narco-traficantes that this is just a garden-variety traveller wandering by, not an undercover DEA agent looking for trouble?

    Well, you can’t. That’s the essence of the problem in the Moskitia. So much beauty, so much potential risk. Now the Honduran government has signed an agreement with a British company to allow massive oil exploration in the region - a cause for concern in any fragile environment, but especially worrying in an ungovernable area under the management of a government that doesn't care to manage anything at the best of times. 
    I hope a day is coming when the people of this amazing region can put all of their troubles behind them and welcome the world. But at the moment, that day seems a very long way off.   

1 comment:

Lynda Hundleby said...

Hi Jody - You are a brave and gutsy woman. Thank you for sharing a different world perspective with those of us who are not so courageous. I see your posts from time to time from friends who share yours. I would like to see more of your thoughts and writings. Safe travels. Lynda