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.

deadly diving for long term lobster
proyecto de buzos

diving came to la mosquitia toward the end of the 60s. companies like red lobster in the states, and other purveyors of cheap seafood, rely on these waters, and these divers, for cheap shrimp, lobster and crab.

as the rate of diving increased, divers with only masks and their lungs full of air were being asked to dive to greater and greater depths. eventually, the lobsters moved beyond normal human range, and the divers began using scuba equipment, or worse - paint compressors feeding dirty air into garden hoses. with these breathing means, and lucrative lobster below, divers began making as many as 5 dives a day, going below 100 feet for a long time, coming up quickly, grabbing another tank, and going back down.

of course it wasn't long before an epidemic of dive illnesses cropped up - incontinence, impotence, paralysis: all effects of decompression sickness; the bends. human bodies can't dive that much, to those depths, for that long, and come up that quickly, without eventual illness. one fellow i met illustrated it this way - boats returning with loads of lobster cargo, and dead bodies in storage; the crew, by the end of two weeks of endless diving, brain damaged and likely deranged.

bon appetite.

today, besides farming, diving employs the greatest number of miskitos. there are families where all of the sons and fathers and husbands and brothers work in the dive industry. they range in age from 15 to 40, but there's not too many old divers.

since 1993, mopawi has worked with the moravian church in la mosquitia to educate divers on safer diving. volunteer robert armington from the states developed a curriculum and a certification system; by 1997 the miskito instructors claim to have taught 80% of the over 5000 divers how to better handle their diving. divers spend five days, five hours a day learning about scuba equipment, diving illness, time and depth tables. when they finish, they will recieve a certificate of graduation, professional diver level c.

i talked to hermenio smith in belen. on the back porch of the mopawi office, he shared his experience as a teacher. he has 150 hours of certification. he feels strongly that as a diver, and a miskito, he is best qualified to talk to the divers here (since according to him, 90% are miskito).

mopawi currently funds the project by paying the teachers expenses as they travel, and the expenses for teaching equipment (books, pens, paper, certificates). recently, hermenio hasn't taken so many voyages with mopawi money - only with money from the moravian church, the cosponsor of the project. mopawi is being cautious with their support as they consider a future direction for this program. says carlos molinero, mopawi point man in belen, the program has some years behind it, and now there are some new problems.

mopawi doesn't pay for programs ad infinitum; they should be self-sustaining after a number of years. mopawi wants to find, wants them to find, other sources of support. as carlos puts it, one way to develop self-sustainability is to limit funding. in this case, perhaps these dive instructors can turn to the government, or the owners of the lobster boats to donate funds to educate divers.

but moreover, diving has come to impact la mosquitia in ways far more serious than originally understood in the scope of this program.

reports carlos, lobster continue to be overfished. there are 6 month mating season moratorium periods that are not well enough enforced. boats have more and better equipment, coming out of roatan with radars and computers and advanced navigation systems; all manner of fancy stuff that allows them to go after the big catch, deeper down, all over the moskito coast.

entonces, the divers are diving deeper.
and there will be fewer and fewer lobster.

and it means that these boat captains, these boat companies will likely continue to take drugs and drug money to supplement their operations. as reported in the economist, in march 1997, la mosquitia is a popular "staging post" for peruvian and columbian cocaine runners. the lack of government presence and open land make this prime real estate for jungle landing strips; planes drop bales of coke for waiting lobster boats to pick up and run up towards the states. or, in many cases, they trade to other boats, to other divers for their catch.

there's something of an urban myth on the coast: bales of cocaine began washing up on the beaches here as boats approached by DEA agents tossed their drugs overboard to avoid being caught. people on the mosquito coast discovered it and didn't know what it was, so they used it for flour.

well, by now, there's no doubt what it is, and a drug problem has here washed up on the beaches. as anthropologist david dodds put it, people would sell drugs before, when they found the bales in the sand; but now, people are actually using the drugs. it's a commonly accepted fact here that all divers drink and do drugs (hermenio thinks its less than 100%, closer to 70%). it's partially understandable as a means of dulling the senses after so much intense work in intense conditions, and perhaps to numb the effects of nitrogen narcosis, of the bends.

diving is a lucrative business. it's possible for a diver to make over 5000 lempiras (more than $350) each 15 day trip, with at least 9 trips possible in one 6 month season; that's a lot more than the average yearly honduran income: less than $100. but as one woman told me, there are many villages that don't see that money, houses of divers that are in shambles, wives of divers without any support - money spent instead on drugs and alcohol, or given away to friends and family; nothing saved or invested.

miskitos have a history of boom and bust relationships with external industry. at various times in recent centuries, gringos (or "miriki"s in miskito, from "american") have entered the area hunting gold, otters, wood, rubber, lobster, oil - each yeilding tall piles of money for the community for a short period of time. the miskitos work it as long as it's around, as soon as the business leaves, ie when the lobster is gone, they'll move on to the next thing, or go back to farming their land. as david dodds says, "that's is how it works, but it's hard on the people." with additional recent prohibitions on growth of agricultural land use, and the increase in population, a vacating lobster industry could have a calamitous effect. families dependent on diving to put food on the table could be suddenly left in the lurch by shifts in the international seafood markets, or further decrease in the number of available crusteceans.

besides the impact on the human race, the diving and fishing industry here has severly depleted the stock of conch and lobster. the boats are running their divers deeper and deeper; this business is chasing these shellfish into endangerment. disappearing species will not only put an end to the human income therefrom, but could also severly impact the ecosystem of la mosquitia.

so mopawi is currently investigating long term economic alternatives to lobster diving, both in the sea and on land. for example, the coast here has sea cucumbers, in shallower, safer to dive waters; perhaps there is an overseas market for them, or other such untapped seafoods.

during the sixth month off season, those divers who are not habitually inebriating themselves have farms. mopawi is encouraging local, year round production of cacao, amongst other things - healthy, sustainable, dependable small industry to compensate for the insane pace of diving.

when drugs, disease and so much squandering present themselves as problems, perhaps there is a sick spirit at the root of the situation. since mopowi considers spiritual development within its purview, it is considering how to promote a stronger sense of attitudinal health among the divers, and their impacted communities. this year there will be a meeting of divers, where mopawi will encourage them to start asking these questions - how long will this last? what can we do instead? how can we be healthier?; to begin planning some long term alternatives to lobster diving.

SubOceanSafety has an article about Honduran divers: "Against All Odds" by Robert Izdepski

mopawi | hondo | trip | life

justin's links by justin hall: contact