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.
Brus Laguna, on the northern coast of Honduras, is the last miskito home to the green iguana. A hurricane came through in 1978 and clogged the river branch leading from the rio patuca to the laguna; since boats still can't travel through, the iguana population there had a chance to flourish. Around 1985, the people got wise: once the forest was thick with them, now fewer and fewer forests support fewer and fewer iguanas. They taste too good; there's been a sharp growth in the (iguana eating) population, and the reptile flesh prices outside of La Mosquitia are quite high: last year, boats laden with as many as 8000 iguanas each left here for the Bay Islands, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica.
proyecto de iguana verde
One of the best things that is happening on behalf of the iguanas is the activation of the city's youth in an effort to educate the populace, and perhaps create a generation that will see in the iguana a sense of local pride, heritage, connection to their environment, and perhaps even a lucrative business opportunity.
Down the mainstreet of Brus Laguna, a few blocks from the laguna itself, is the Instituto Tecnico Vocacional Evangelico Moravo (ITVEM). there local high school students have been working with visiting honduran forest service and Mopawi funded experts to establish a small iguana farm. Spitting distance from the soccer field is a circle of chicken wire, covered by fishing nets - inside, small iguanas in cages. The project is young yet - the first mother iguana arrived in April 1997. From 600 eggs came near fifty iguana babies; a few have since been stolen, killed, stones and sticks thrown at others, and a few have died from the stress of being in the center. But as Suanny Wood, a biology teacher at the school, reports, the few small iguanas that remain are attracting the interest of the community. Why would anyone go to this trouble over these things? And they are lining up to watch them (wait for the people to leave so they can) eat rabbit pellets and try to make it - little iguanas, new to the big city.
These students working this first carribbean coastal honduran finca de iguana will take their show on the road as well, bringing small mascot iguanas to younger kids, and teaching them, hopefully, to love their neighbor. Picture a group of seven year olds who've never touched a lizard, living, not marinated in coconut milk and served with rice. They meet Bruce, the sturdy young iguana mascot with his informed crew of cool high school kids. They know all the important stuff about iguanas (at least for seven year olds) - what does it eat, how does it go to the bathroom, will it bite me. What's more, they can touch it. They can let Bruce climb on their shirt; sit under their armpit, cuz that's where it's warmest.
Then they go home. Daddy's bringing home a fresh iguana steak for the family dinner. "No! Daddy, don't kill it!"; with an understanding and compassion for the creature born of direct contact, routine consumption might diminish to a more manageable rate. And things that so drastically, negatively affect the population, such as eating iguana eggs, will take on an added dastardly tone.
So towards this end, the high schoolers are being educated by biologists and veternarians, and as well, Mopawi is financing the developement of the farm. This has all the makings of the best kind of program - young people, small budget, self-starting, self-sustaining, involving the church, the school in a grassroots campaign.
But much of the excitement about iguanas in Brus Laguna, at least for this gringo, was provided by Salomon Bordas, and his Iguana Vigilantes.
One small center of gravity in Brus Laguna is the corner store, Comercial Vanessa. On the main street, near the laguna, visited by folks who wants more than the cigarettes, candles and flour that the sidestreet vendors have. Ask people there about the status of the green iguana, and you'll hear that people like to eat them. Especially the eggs, the pregnant mothers - bien rico.
Ask Salomon Bordas about the status of the green iguana and you'll be in for a solid two hour pitch - current and future efforts to educate the populace about this indiginous tasty treat near extinction, the incredible effects of that education already visible, and the pressing need for a motorboat and money to pay vigilantes for direct protection in the forests.
Salomon is a fast talking, cigarette smoking, smoothly dressed well connected man about town. I found him excruciatingly businesslike with me, poised, especially contrasted to his easygoing manner with people who weren't reviewing his program.
Salomon is the president of the Committee Vigilante de Iguana Verde (COVIV). Nine people, elected by the town; some teachers (Salomon himself teaches third grade), a farmer, a secretary, a housewife. Using money from Mopawi to purchase supplies, the committee first painted six signs; saying, basically: The iguana is our heritage, our future. We have to take care of it. These they posted in Brus Laguna, Mokabila, Cootap, Kiranata, Sup, Barra de Brus. In the last year, with support from Mopawi and COHDEFOR, the committee hosted three classes with a visiting biologist and iguana expert, Gustavo Cruz. These classes, Salomon reports, were attended by 70 people - not too many when you consider the population of Brus Laguna to be around 5000. I inquired after a more activist form of teaching - smaller classes with local teachers to reach more people. But Salomon replied that the funds required to provide refreshments (a necessity for attracting people) were too much to have smaller sessions.
It seems that if he were truly infected with green iguana gospel, he would be pounding the pavement and telling all comers to please kill fewer iguanas. But there is not yet a sense of crisis about the situation. There are not yet few iguanas, it is more there are fewer iguanas. Noticeably. And the population in the area, the body of iguana eaters, is showing no signs of falling off. As they eat more iguanas, and cut down more forests to farm and feed their families, the committee will either have to get off its haunches or the vigilante funding will have to come through.
This is where Salomon gets fired up; his, the committee's, vigilante plan. A person to live by the side of six major waterways, sites of major iguana trafficing, to enforce restraint and cohdefor limits on iguana exports (especially for people who aren't from Brus Laguna). Each day, the person takes note - which person hunted, which canoe, how many iguanas (under 20 a day for personal use). I observed that anyone employed in La Mosquitia in such a position will have countless cousins and friends who will beg favour, or simply ignore orders to release their thirty extra iguanas. Or they will unveil the whole story - the pregnant wife, the broken leg, the son in Tegus, all the reasons for to need extra income. Salomon proposes to additionally post at each station, a FUSEP officer, with authority to do something about violations, and a Peace Corps volunteer, to keep everybody else honest?
That's a lot of personel expense and a heck of a lot of paperwork and information for the vigilantes to maintain.
Salomon wants enough to pay the people to live there, and money for a motor/boat. Salomon presents two reasons for the boat actually - besides ferrying the vigilantes around, there will be gringos, like me, coming to town, and town officials and people who want to see the iguana. With a boat, Salomon can easily tour them around the reptilian hotspots.
This is where I saw the value of Mopawi's patience and caution - not directly turning over the money, and making the committee answer for funds. By asking them to expand their ideas and work out their program first, Mopawi encourages responsibilty from a committee that currently appears to lack focus and followthrough. Salomon was quick to emphasize that Mopawi had raised money for the committee from foreign sources, $2000 for his motor, but had not yet turned over the funds. He wanted me to put that in the article, "mention that they haven't given us our money." After lunch with Salomon, I wouldn't have paid him right away either - he still owes me 22 lempiras. Salomon interprets money raised by Mopawi for the Iguana project to be his to administer.
Mopawi instead has provided those resources to local students, to develop their understanding of iguana farming. While less than 5% of their babies lived, the students, and their teachers reported that it was a learning experience, "we'll definitely do better next year." If they can work out the right food, the right environment, the right nesting to raise baby green iguanas, then this iguana farm system can be exported around la Mosquitia, and iguana's could become a legal, nonthreatened export.
Natural resource laws are generally not well recieved in la Mosquitia. The governmental bodies responsible for administering them are underfunded and perhaps disinterested. Elected miskito officials are beholden to complex chains of family and cultural demands that keep them from being effective penalizers.
Perhaps continuous pressure and awareness at the point of direct iguana impact will help to keep down the more eggregious exploitation, as the ordinary citizen becomes aware of the physical limits of the species to repopulate and feed the many communities that enjoy this cooked reptile flesh.
The ideas are in place. Educate the youth. Develop an iguana conservation ethic. Turn farms over to those outlying communities that otherwise deplete the stock around Brus Laguna. Turn the community into vigilantes. You don't need a lot of money and a motorboat to do that - just some people to share their enthusiasm for those cuddly green scaly stoics.
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