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.

do you need community support for a communal project?
proyecto comunal forestal
Arnulfo Messen and Daniel Torres

four campos there's a danger, when you're writing about an organization, to only talk to the people who work there; they've got all the data, they've got the right answers. in mocoron, I was finally talking outside of an office, outdoors, with dionicio, a campesino. he opened up quickly with a deep seeded sense of frustration. for three years there had been too much rain, the crops had been failing. there hadn't been enough harvest to feed the village, he reported, let alone surplus to sell for money to send children to school in tegucigalpa. there's not enough food in the village, and there's no work to make money. if he can't support his son at school, his son will have to return, and there's no work for him here either. his sense of the present, of the immediate future, was bleak.

so how about the mopawi project? to manage the forest with its abundance of resources so that a community based business might both exploit the resources sustainably, and share the profits there from?

he retorted: but where is the help now, when we need it? we're hungry, our kids need education now! when will this project start?

bad harvests can't be a new problem; what did his parents do when times were tough?

they could sell wood, products of the forest! now the goverment has prohibited it!

dionicio speaks here of the troubled history of mocoron; a tiny pueblo in the seventies, barely a dot on the honduran map near the nicaraguan border. in 1981, when the contra war broke out, thousands of nicaraguans, miskitos and sumus, flooded across the border to swell this town to a population above 10000. anthropologist david dodds, currently collecting population information on the coastal region west of the rio platano, was a volunteer working with the refugee camps there in the early eighties; he reports that "thousands of people walked there from nicaragua with nothing. people were dying." the US, in efforts both to relieve suffering and support the contras, plunged millions of dollars into the region. most of the international money to relieve the suffering of refugees went to nicaraguans, with little set aside for the impacted miskitos of the region.

this was the crisis out of which mopawi formed, with money and a charge from world relief to find a way to strengthen the position of the honduran native miskitans in the war impacted region.

the impact hit across the board - the forests, both broadleaf rich with mahogany, and pine filled with deer, were overtaxed by construction, hunting and farming. towns, particularly mocoron, grew overnight and stayed larger than they could be naturally sustained through existing local industries. money from the US, the UN, and international relief organizations propped these people up, until the war ended; then the bottom dropped out. the forest stripped was now protected by government mandates - no wood cutting without permit, and besides, without money from abroad, the local infrastructure for large scale wood exports fell into disarray (i definitely had my doubts about riding a four seat pickup across the leaning bridge of mocoron).

with no direct handouts, people were stuck trying to make ends meet. what's worse, many people were waiting to meet someone else's ends.

i rode two hours into the forest near mocoron over that shaky bridge, with two miskito campesinos, casanova and wayano. we rode in the mopawi toyota, with the necessary 4 wheel drive and the mopawi driver, vidal grean. mopawi does provide some direct assistance to the townspeople; in this case lending a pickup and gasoline to drive farmers out to pick up yucca (manioc) to supplement the town's insufficient supply.

after a half hour walk through the most fly infested forest i met in la moskitia, the two campesinos and i came across a small finca. cleared ground, tree stumps, a scattered planting of some unrecognizable plants, animal pens. in the midst of this, a house, built of leaves and wood, much like the houses in mocoron. the difference; this house was filled with hardware and plant products - a dozen machetes, cans, canteens, gourds - it looked a bit like a hideout for honduran survivalists.

it was "casa sola," the home of the Cardona family: the father, must have been in his 60s or 70s, and his three or four sons. there were reputed to be women in residence as well, but they were all in mocoron the day i visited.

francisco, one of the brothers in his 30s, lead us further into the forest to his small fields, carved out of disparate parts of the jungle. i pumped him for information. the family had been farmers in olancho; when too many cattle ranchers and other land poachers moved in on their territory, they headed up north to have access to more land. it's a hard life ("una vida dura"), he acknowledged, but he likes it. what does he do for fun on the weekends? hunt, so that there's something to eat other than plant-food. they live a six hours walk, straight through the jungle, from mocoron. their nearest neighbor is two hours away.

their forest homesteading is illegal - they had no claim to the land, and they are settled on protected territory. also not sustainable, if everyone in mocoron headed out to the forest for their parcel of property, there wouldn't be enough to go around.

we picked up some pineapple (the best i had in honduras - fresh from the forest), yucca roots to eat and sticks of yucca cut to be replanted. all these sacks and more thrown in the pickup with another of the brothers, and we headed back to town to distribute the goods to the waiting mocoronians.

after the international relief pulled out, towards the end of the eighties, the united nations high commission on refugees (UNHCR) and Corporacion Hondurena de Desarrollo Forestal (COHDEFOR) started a program for reforestation in the region during 1987-1991. of that program, "agroforesteria" - to distribute seeds for farmers, remained strong towards the end. as people from the honduran interior began to head further and further east to create their own farms and ranches, the people used that structure, from the seed distribution organization, to manifest community power, for land rights. with organization assistance from mopawi, that became Federacion de Indigenas y Nativos de la Zona de Mocoron (FINZMOS). (when asked how he felt about this representative body, Dionicio said simply, "somos (we are) FINZMOS.")

around this time, Stone Container (giant of packaging) and Wellington Hall (a furniture company) saught to lay claim to much of the forest near Mocoron - 68,000 hectares, or approximately 167,000 acres, for wellington alone. in the early 1990s, wellington asked the honduran government for the territory. intense negociations ensued, between finzmos, mopawi and the government; in a rare moment of atypical reason, the government ruled that wellington needed first the permission of the people who lived in that region, through FINZMOS.

wellington endeavored to push and pay their way to owning the land, offering big dinero in exchange for ownership of forest products. mopawi worked through the deal with finzmos, who ultimately decided, in another rare moment of patience and prudence, that they would prefer to manage the forest; self employed exporting forest products, rather than selling all their rights in one deal.

this was wise thinking, of course - the prices on the open market, and over the span of some years will likely be far better than those in a single offer from a single company one single sale. if managed correctly, controlled exploitation of the forest could offer mocoron some serious sustainable industry, for generations to come.

the honduran government agreed. they gave finzmos, and the people around mocoron, a usufruct of 68,000 hectares for 40 years. 50,000 hectares protected; 18,000 hectares theirs to exploit, once they developed a management plan.

mopawi raised money from the world wildlife fund to sponsor three years developing the management plan. since then, they've raised futher monies from the government of Holland to extend their time administrating, and to offer the project to other pueblos beyond mocoron.

i sit in the mopawi office, trying to figure out their progress so far from a preliminary report in spanish. it's somewhere near the center of a small town. locals, kids and old people drop by. this used to be the relief office of a large international aid organization - there's a bit more space than mopawi needs; they share it with a community board: rooms filled with seeds (beans and rice), saws, picks, hoes, machetes. the report i'm reading identifies the following potential products from the forests of the region: maderas (wood): pine, mahogany, cedar, granadillo, walnut. rubbers. fibers. seeds. if they can build and maintain the facilities, perhaps finished wood products - furniture.

there is a hum of activity. there's even a computer, and glenda entering data into spreadsheets with miguel the accountant. arnulfo has a masters in forestry. mopawi has access to money, infrastructure, and technical know-how. but if mopawi needs more time, the people in this pueblo might not be at all forthcoming.

when i suggested to dionicio that maybe the people here need to make a sacrifice - a little of today for a lot of tomorrow, he was indignant; "we've been waiting all of our lives!" or "the future, what about the present?" later, at a funeral fire for a dead baby girl, similar sentiments are hurled at me by others; people in mocoron see that mopawi has money and they want at it, now.

instead, mopawi and finzmos have planned a local business to start in early 1998. local, because it will be run by people from the town. their company will be responsible for the forests, guided by the management plan. there will be no large corporate sponsors to set up infrastructure; i ask about logging roads or trucks to haul the wood; daniel replies that they plan to keep it small and more natural: traditional ways of logging for less environmental impact.

today the hunger of mocoron grows; perhaps not for want of food, much griping came from one gentleman quite portly. rather, they have resources staring them in the face: mopawi and its pickup trucks and computers, and the seemingly limitless supply of valuable wood in their backyard.

riding through the forest outside of mocoron, saturated green feilds broken by vertical lines of grey pines, burnt at the trunk from repeated forest fires, talking with casanova - he says "look at that forest, what do you see?" "i see trees." "dinero," he sez, "I see dinero."

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