Eco tourism is a word that is widely used, often times in the wrong context. In this article, we will examine Indigenous eco tourism in Honduras. From the Native people known as the Miskito, to the Garifuna, who for all intents and purposes, aren’t considered native.

Honduras is located in Central America with Guatemala situated to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east and north. El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean border the southern part of the country.

There are over six million people who live in this beautiful, but underdeveloped country. Over 700,000 people live in the nation’s capital, Tegucigalpa. The largest industrial city, San Pedro Sula, is home to approximately 350,000.

This country used to be part of the vast ancient Mayan empire that stretched across southern Mexico to northern Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and western Honduras.

The most prominent city at the time of the Mayan rule over Honduras was Copan, whose ruins house one of the longest Mayan Hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found.

At the height of the Mayan civilization, Copan was apparently abandoned, with the last recorded hieroglyph dating back to 800 A.D. Much of the population evidently remained in the area after that, but the educated class had suddenly, and mysteriously, vanished.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, there were between I million to 2 million Indigenous peoples in Honduras. This included the Chorotega, Pipil, Jicaque, and Sumu nations. Today, there are roughly 500,000 Indigenous peoples scattered all over the country.

The country’s currency, the Lempira, was named after a Lenca Chief who first attempted to revolt against Spain’s forced enslavement of his people, and then while negotiating with the Spanish for better living conditions, was murdered.

The defeat of Lempira’s revolt accelerated the decimation of the indigenous population. In 1539 an estimated 15,000 Native Americans remained under Spanish control; two years later, there were only 8,000 left.

Most of those that were left were divided into “encomiendas,” a system that left the native people in their villages but placed them under the control of individual Spanish settlers. Under this system, the Spaniards were supposed to provide the indigenous people with religious instruction and collect tribute from them for the crown. In return, the Spaniards were entitled to a limited use of indigenous labour. This arrangement did not always work out in the Native peoples favour.

As the native population declined, the settlers exploited those remaining even more ruthlessly. This exploitation led to constant clashes between the Spanish settlers and authorities on one side and the Roman Catholic Church on the other. Ultimately, the Native people’s interests could not be protected. A lot of Natives lost their land as well as their lives.

The country’s rustic beauty and location brings with it a certain amount of natural danger. In 1998, the country was devastated by Hurricane Mitch. At its peak, Mitch was considered a category five storm with winds gusting up to 180 MPH. Tens of thousands of people were left homeless. Hurricane Mitch was responsible for approximately 10,000 deaths in Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

The carnage caused by Mitch is still visible in some areas. Rebuilding has been a slow process, especially when the strength of the local currency (Lempira) is at an all time low. Financial aid from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) totaled just over $78 million for the country, and $ 100 million overall to all the countries affected.

At the time of our visit to Honduras, the Canadian dollar was equal to about 12 Lempiras.

The Mosquito Coast

During our trip to Honduras, we visited the infamous Mosquito Coast, and learn more about the eco tourism ventures in this remote area. Much has been said about this rustic part of the country, yet few have had the privilege to visit it. There was even a movie made about it in 1986, starring Harrison Ford, aptly named The Mosquito Coast.

The shores of the Mosquito coast are home to an interesting mix of Native peoples, and descendants of slaves who escaped from British trading ships, and came ashore to their freedom. These former slaves began breeding with the Miskito Indians, which changed their appearance so much that they could pass for African Americans.

The Mosquito Coast got its name from the Miskito Indians, not from the number of pesky mosquitoes there, contrary to popular belief.

The area is relatively inaccessible, and can only be reached by plane and boat. Our journey brought us to Raista, which was only accessible after landing on a grassy runway at Palacios, and then heading out on the water for an hour-and-a-half ride to Raista.

Raista is a quaint little town of a mixed people who resemble African Americans more than they do Indians.

There is no electricity, running water, or any of the amenities that North Americans have become accustomed to.

The terrain is rugged, and at times our guide, Eddie Bodden, had to get out of the canoe in order to safely navigate shallow waters. His knowledge of the water is unbelievable, as we had to leave under cover of heavy darkness in the early morning to catch our plane from Palacios, back to La Ceiba. He was able to negotiate the lagoon solely with the help of a flashlight.

The boat that we were traveling in was very similar to North American dugout canoes. Powered by a 20 horsepower motor, and due to the shallowness of the water, we never went faster than 15 miles an hour.

The children are taught at a very young age how to use these types of boats. Some grow up to be guides, or lobster divers, while others prefer to fish in the conventional way, by using a net or a traditional rod.

Boats from all over the world come here looking for experienced lobster divers, and have used the Miskito Natives for many years. The people on the boats would hire the Natives to dive for a specified amount of time, pay them a certain amount, and then take their catch back to their country and sell it at a high price. Unfortunately the main hazard to this type of job is decompression sickness (the bends), and a fair number of them succumb to it. This can result in paralysis, or worse, death.

The villages along the Miskito coast are very small, with Raista itself being home to only about 60 or 70 inhabitants.

The current population of the Miskito Indians is guessed to be around 1,500, although a formal census has never been taken.

Eco tourism in La Mosquitia

According to Oliver Hillel, the tourism program coordinator for the United Nations Environment Program, true eco tourism contributes to society in many ways:

1. Helps in the conservation of biodiversity.

2. Sustains the well being of the locals.

3. Involves responsible actions on the tourist’s part.

4. Is delivered to small groups by small-scale businesses.

5. Requires the lowest possible consumption of non-renew-able resources.

6. Stresses ownership by the locals (in most cases,

Indigenous peoples).

In Raista, there is a perfect example of a true eco tourism venture, in the form of a butterfly farm owned by a local Miskito man, Eddie Bodden. On our visit, he also acted as our guide, boatman, and local historian.

The farm itself has been in operation for eight years, although at the time of our visit, it had shut down for various reasons. The principal reason for the shut down is the lack of funds available to keep it going.

There are over 800 species of butterflies in Honduras. When the farm at Raista first started off eight years ago, they were managing 28 species. Presently, they have up to 46, 18 of which are exported to the U.S.

The farm has exported the larvae produced there to places like Texas, Colorado, and California (San Diego Zoo).

It was started back in 1995 by a Peace Corps volunteer named Roberto Gaillardo. Bodden worked with Gaillardo for a year to get the necessary training on how to run a butterfly farm. The project was managed and organized in collaboration with a local non-governmental organization called Mopawi. After the year was up, Bodden was left in charge of managing the technical side of the butterfly farm.

The idea to start the farm had been floating around for quite some time before it became a reality, according to Gallardo, “Around 1992, the San Diego Zoological society came down to do a project feasibility study in conjunction with Mopawi. They were looking to buy butterfly pupae if they could install a butterfly farm,” he said.

‘The report sat in a filing cabinet for some time, until another peace corps volunteer ran into it, and told the executive director of Mopawi, Osvaldo Munguia, that he knew a ‘butterfly guy.’ Osvaldo got a hold of me and I did a feasibility study along the Mosquito Coast to find the appropriate conditions for a farm. On my second trip, I picked Raista as the site for Honduras’ first butterfly farm.”

There was a chain of processes that Gallardo, and Mopawi had to go through to get the permission to set up the farm in Raista. First they had to go through the local governmental forestry service (CODEFOR). There was a permit that they had to acquire to actually produce the larvae.

Once CODEFOR gave the permit for production and exportation, they required it to be matched with a permit from the San Diego Zoo saying that the zoo could actually import the larvae as well.

Gallardo did not stop there, he was also responsible for starting a second butterfly farm in Honduras, located at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, and a third farm in the ancient town of Copan.

Running a butterfly farm is a very meticulous business. Bodden would go in every day and collect the eggs off of the leaves. If the larvae are not taken off the leaves, ants come in and feed on the eggs. He would then put them in a plastic container, and keep an eye on them so that when they hatch, he could take them and place them on the leaves with the correct species to feed.

When the pupae are ready, they are distributed as follows;

40% are exported, 20% remain for the farm to continue, and the remaining 40% are reintroduced into the forest.

It is a priority of Bodden’s to make sure that there is something to put back into the environment.

In the natural environment, the butterflies only achieve about 10% of production because they have a large number of natural predators that eat the eggs, larvae, and pupae. By introducing them back into the forest, he hopes to help the population to grow.

Luring Bodden away from his job of 15 years as a lobster diver wasn’t easy. Gallardo managed to gain Bodden’s trust, and bring him under his tutelage, despite stiff opposition and ridicule by the townsfolk. The people told him that he was foolish to leave his job as a lobster diver, that he would lose all his money, and that this foreigner would trick him. This, of course proved to be false. Gallardo was there to help the area expand, and to make it more inviting to tourists.

Eight years after meeting Gallardo, Bodden is still managing the farm, while trying to teach his family more about it in case something happens to him. His sons, William, 21, and Dueto, 19, are being groomed to eventually take over the technical aspects of the farm.

When the farm was still operating, they would receive upwards of 700 visitors a year, an astounding number when the inaccessibility of the village.

Along with the farm, Bodden’s wife, Elma, runs Elma’s Kitchen, which is frequented by peace-corps workers as well as some locals. People can eat very affordable, healthy meals-alongside great company.

Traditional Miskito meals include a food called Capao. It consists of beef with banana and malangua, cooked together and eaten with coconut milk. There is also something called Waboo, which is made out of bananas that are left to mature, pounded, and added to coconut milk.

The town of Raista literally revolves around the Bodden clan. When expeditions come up the river, they usually spend a night at the Bodden clan’s hospedaje (hostel) before heading further up river to one of the bigger towns, Las Marias. There are only a couple of rooms at the hospedaje, but if the expedition numbers more than four, the alternative is to stay with a family in the village.

Despite being isolated from the rest of the world, the Bodden family has a lot of experience in dealing with tourists. The Miskito coast has long been an attraction for tourists looking to ‘rough it’ a little more than usual.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the next Nation in two weeks time, where we’ll conclude our look at Honduras’ indigenous eco tourism ventures. Beesum communications, and The Nation magazine would like to thank the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for their support in making this project a reality. Without them, this story would not have been possible.

Steve Bonspiel recently traveled to Honduras to study indigenous economic initiatives, eco-tourism projects in particular.

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)