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.
finca de mariposas means butterfly farm in spanish.
finca de mariposas
eddy bodden y marlene rias
butterfly farm? for what, to feed larger animals? actually yes, if you count international tourists.
recently, large zoos, specialty museums and parks have begun to offer "insectariums": giant rooms filled with trees and plants, natural habitats for the loads of bugs that they import weekly from central america. there are now reportedly over 250 such spaces in the world today.
it's really quite a wild business - butterflies might cost anywhere from just under a dollar to over 10, with the average around $1.50. every week, each butterfly park needs hundreds of butterflies, just barely unborn, in pupa stage. so across costa rica, and now honduras, people are regularly rushing off boxes of tiny winged ambassadors with only a week to live.
i encountered honduras's first finca de mariposas in raista, between a well-tanned austrian man and a skinny woman from switzerland with too many mosquito bites on her calves. they were on their way from an ecotourist adventure in las marias, down the river platano, stopping over here before continuing on west out of la mosquitia. it's a nice arrangement: boatmen bring their guests up from the jungle attraction to the most notable tourist stop between the jungle and the garifunas; this farm for making and exporting the butterflies of the region.
our tour was at the hands of marlene. a young woman from puerto lempira with some management and finance experience, she was recently brought to this operation by mopawi to help eddy, the technical director, achieve some accountingability. she wears clothes one level, maybe two levels better than people need to in this area - she seems just a bit of a city girl.
before he became involved with this farm, eddy was working as a diver. diving here is lucrative and dangerous. for his family, he was making good money, but what would happen if his health failed? april of 1995, robert gallardo, a volunteer for the peace corps, was in the area working to develop butterfly farming as a sustainable source of income for the local people. after a few brainstorming sessions, and much persuasion, robert managed to convince eddy's family, the boddens, to lease the land, and eddy to donate ten months of free labor to start the butterfly farm in raista.
after robert left in may 1996, the finca hit the big time - exporting that june hundreds of butterfly pupas for near 1000 dollars in the first month alone. but after this initial success, things soon fell off. butterfly pupa production slackened noticeably, and by june 1997, this finca de mariposas sent out not one pupa.
when i visit, past the barbed wire cow gate, past the large green welcome sign, acknowledging the assistance of mopawi, the peace corps, and the san diego zoological society, the finca consists of three small buildings, a field and some soil tables in the forest.
a few days after my tourist tour, eddy and i begin by checking the butterfly trap they have set up near the forest. two butterflies sit inside, one flutters about madly. one of these three might be valuable to breed in the future - it's a female of a species indigenous to the region, but not currently bred by the farm. i convince him to let me hold this fluttering black and blue treasure, but i can't keep it between my trembling fingers; i let it go, apologizing profusely, eddy shrugs - maybe another tomorrow.
before you reach the buildings, off to the sides are fields and soil tables. here eddy is raising the species of plants that feed his butterflys, and provide a place for them to date and copulate. bags and bags of soil, shutes and small flowering plants. eddy sez he's going to hold back on some of his growth efforts - so much grows in the forest near the finca that it's easier to cut it from there.
past these are three buildings; two house the pupas and larva before sending, we skip them for now to visit the farm edifice itself.
the building is a large net, supported by a wood skeleton. sixty feet on the longest side, twenty feet across, with a sloped the roof from eight feet on up to twelve. this is the heart of the project. inside, around narrow lanes for human traffic, brilliantly coloured butterflies flit between the plants that support them. each species has its own - it's an inhabited tropical garden. while we talk, it's fairly magical - there's constant motion from astonishingly attractive creatures all about you.
the prettiest, or perhaps just the easiest to notice, are the blue morphs. recognizable and famous in central america, they are an irridescent blue, like butterflies with blue aluminum foil on their wings. these butterflies command four dollars per pupa - a more valuable species. but there are others between; smaller, harder to notice, but no less brilliantly coloured - dryadulas, with saturated tiger stripes, julias of a brilliant orange, cenae and argante of a bright yellow, and buhos, larger than the morphs with wonderful subtle brown shading; when they close their wings, there appear the eyes of a meanacing owl. other species, agraulis, zebra, obsifanis, harcheoprepona, ecali, erato, denaus, batus, parides, biblis; of these 16, eddy estimates 60 or 70 butterflies in the cage with us at that time. but, he adds, butterflies are hard to count.
in the wild, most of these insects live up to 30 days. here, in this small space, you can see them flying repeatedly into the screens, hanging out in the corners, trying to leave; their lifespans are shorter, 10 days. but in their foreign insectarium homes, most butterflies live only 3, perhaps up to 10 days. that's fine for eddy - since the US department of agriculture forbids butterfly breeding in us insectariums, brief lifespans insure repeat customers.
male butterflies can impregnate as many females as they can lay their abdomen on; each female butterfly can lay 30 or 40 eggs once during its life. if those eggs can be brought to timely fruition, that's quite a rate of production, considering the one to two dollar average per pupa price. when they are shipping, marlene and eddy can expect to send out over 100 pupas in each box, for an average return of $218 per order. with several orders per month, that's serious miskito money.
but the big money for eddy and company here in raista may not be in sending out these butterflies - it could come from their own butterfly tourists. from april of 1996 until december, 423 people paid around 2 dollars to visit the farm. already this year, between january and june, 271 more folks have come by; if that continues, the finca will see a more than 20% increase in tourism this year. another way to look at it, from april 1996 until december, the farm made 7110 lempiras from tourists. this year already, 6570. but like hard rock cafe, the money is not in the visitors, it's in the t-shirts. butterfly farm t-shirts raised 9990 lempiras in 1996, and 16522 lempiras so far this year.
rough calculations, with a solar powered calculator in the shade, put a regularly pupa producing farm, with an average flow of t-shirt buying tourists, making 7900 lempiras per month (a little over 600$). current per month expenses: two salaried employees, marlene and eddy, 4340 lempiras, 1000 for four 4 lempira/hour assistants, 862 for supplies, tools, fruit, postal costs - around 7200 per month. according to these calculations, they should be making a small profit now, or at least breaking even.
but that is all averages and assumptions. this farm is beholden to seasons - tourists seasons, breeding seasons, seasons of plagues. accordingly, eddy identifies three sources of frustration: bugs, reproductive irregularity, and fickle customers.
after robert left, and after the initial months of success, the high butterfly yeild abated, as certain species started their multiple month reproductive off season unannounced. the young farm was not prepared with new species to compensate.
as well, in 1997 they were hit hard by ants and tiny white wasps, which love butterfly eggs. to retaliate, eddy tried washing the leaves with a solution of drops of chlorox in water. the mixture he used was too strong, and between the eating wasps and the burning chlorox, no pupas made it to the states in june.
since they started, the butterfly farm has had three clients: the butterfly pavilion and insect center in westminster, colorado; san diego wild animal park; and moody gardens in texas. of those, texas and san diego want $250 a month of butterflies (probably over 150 pupas), and colorado wants as many as the finca can send of certain species. the short list of clients he has makes it difficult - some weeks they'll want 300 buhos, some weeks 30. what's he to do with 200 extra butterflies, all of whom will be dead in two weeks?
it is a back and forth struggle - the type of trial and error that comes with isolated independence. eddy can't get online and email somebody for advice on plagas; he doesn't have telephone access to other butterfly farmers in costa rica. he needs friends who know something about butterflies, and currently mopawi is trying to figure out how to help him have that expert access.
soon eddy hopes to start working again with robert gallardo. robert is starting his own butterfly farm near la ceiba. eddy can send him the overstock at reduced prices for his own breeding, or robert's scientific customers, while robert can exchange with eddy those species that only he can dig up around la ceiba. an example of this might be the morpho polyphemus catarina - a relative of the shiny blue morpho, this one is irridescent white with black spots, and it lives near la ceiba. these pupas sell for $12 on the butterfly market.
marlene is the accountant and businesswoman, eddy has to be a gardener, a construction worker, an entymologist, an exterminator. between them they're trying to share skills, should one of them leave the business (as marlene is scheduled to in the year 2000). mopawi is helping with expertise: contacts with the san diego zoo, roberto gallardo, and just as i was leaving, an butterfly biologist from the states was going to visit for a day of consultation.
maybe that will help eddy and marlene turn the farm around; for now, mopawi is also helping out with around $400 a month to keep it running. carlos molinero asked me what i thought of this venture, i said, "i think it's a business of the future." he liked that idea - it's why mopawi is helping eddy; there may not be immediate profitability in this finca, but the learning process of setting up this kind of business, the wisdom of how to raise butterflies in this region - these will be the valuable output. or, as alan robinson put it to me, the most valuable thing about this finca de mariposas for mopawi will be the resulting intellectual property - how to help other miskitos start their own. as a respectful use of the environment, preservation and development of forest species, this could be the best type of alternative small business to industries that risk their resources.
visit robert lehman's excellent, stupendous, loving butterfly and insect museum in ceiba. it's got a wonderful personal touch to it, and the insects are both stunningly beautiful and eerie.
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