Gathering evidence of climate change and listening to local people, Latvian Television’s (LTV) programme “Environmental Facts” (“Vides fakti”) started the new season with a trip to Honduras – one of the poorest countries in Central America, and home to around 10 million people. With coastal areas flooded and no longer habitable, and damage to infrastructure and agriculture, Honduras is experiencing the full and varied effects of climate change, which has had a huge impact on the country’s economy and the daily lives of its people. - Author: Uldis Birziņš
The story of Cedeño
Cedeño might seem like an ideal place to live in. The sun is shining, the ocean is just around the corner. All you have to do is enjoy life, catch fish and rejoice at the mangroves, a species of tree and shrub that thrives in salt water and grows in the surrounding areas. These plants play a huge role in the natural ecosystem. Their dense root system slows the flow of water, helping to hold the soil together, weakening coastal erosion and absorbing storm and tidal waves. Now there are far fewer mangroves left, because of both climate impacts and human activities.
A local resident, Frances, talked about how climate change has affected her life: she has lost her house and the rooms she was renting. They were taken away by waves and tides. Tourists rarely visit this place now. Everything is ruined. Locals pointed out that about fifty years ago things were very different. Yes, there were waves and tides then as well, but people were used to it.
“The only problem was that water was getting into the houses. But the waves are different now. When the tide comes in, it destroys everything in front of it, whether the structures are made of wood or concrete,” said Carlos, a resident of Cedeño.
Roberto, whom we met on the beach, tries to maintain his usual way of life by going fishing every day. Fish feeds the whole family. What is left of the catch is sold. After the hard work, he always remembers to protect his boat and its engine from water surges.
Roberto told us how much the ocean has taken from this place:
“If I remember correctly, four blocks. I’m talking about 400 metres, which no longer exists. Many, many houses, many hotels have been lost during this period.”
His house is built on wooden poles so that water can run underneath. Each tide brings a new load of sand under the house, bringing the house closer and closer to the ground. Moving to the city is problematic because you need money for it. He doesn’t earn enough money to rent a home.
This place is expected to become uninhabitable in the next few years.
The story of Tegucigalpa
The country’s capital, Tegucigalpa, home to around one million people, is also not protected against climate change. Some of the buildings here are located on the slopes of the mountains. The views of the rest of the city from the heights are stunning, but living in such a place has its risks. About a year ago, the prolonged and heavy rains triggered a major landslide, pulling everything in its path along with it.
The programme creators met people who had been evacuated from the dangerous neighbourhood. In total, around 300 people were evacuated from the neighbourhood known as La Guillen. 160 houses were affected by the landslide.
With tears in her eyes, 72-year-old Victorina said she had lived here half her life: “I raised my children and grandchildren here. I had a small business, a small shop, from which I earned money for living. Now I have nothing.”
There was virtually no help from the state; the city provided relief to cover the rent. But as rents have skyrocketed since then, it is not enough.
Local pastor Rigoberto Colindres told us about the kinds of prayers the children now have during the rainy season: “The children hope it will rain during the day so they can see where to run. It is impossible to see at night.”
Cities and governments have limited capacity to help the victims, as for safety reasons thousands of people would have to be relocated to new, safer homes. New villages are being built near cities for people who have lost their homes, however, many of them do not want to live there. They are small, terraced huts without a plot of land on which to grow something and earn a living.
The story of Zazagua
Zazagua is one of the rivers in Honduras. While in one part of the country people are struggling with floods, in the midland it is the other way around. Those with the right to manage water resources have money.
Augustina, 64, has raised ten children. All her life, her income has come from the river and the mountains, where her husband cut trees and sold them. The river has generously provided fish resources. Now, a dam has been built here. The trees are gone, and instead of the big river a small river is left downstream of the dam.
“We have to buy water now. Before, we had everything, because the river supplied us. But now we have to buy everything,” said Augustina. “The water in the river was very clean and clear. We were very happy at that time.”
Now, the river water is turbid and not fit for consumption. Augustina’s lifestyle has completely changed. There is nothing to do but try to grow something on the small plot of land, including livestock, but it is only enough to survive, and there is a constant shortage of water. There are drainpipes above and along the house that drain rainwater into special tanks.
10–20 years ago, the area received more rainfall and had shorter droughts. Augustina’s story is the opposite of what we have seen before. This just goes to show how climate change can manifest itself in many different ways and the huge impact that ill-considered decisions and people’s desire to change the local ecosystem for the sake of business can have on local communities.
The story of La Reina
La Reina is located in western Honduras. Three years ago, on 24 November, a neighbourhood of around 400 families was literally buried by the massive La Correa mountain slide during the rainy season. Nothing was left. All the houses were swept off the ground, along with a huge mass of mud.
Omar, 58, has lived here all his life. Before the landslide, he had been up the hill with the villagers and noticed bad signs: the trees were horizontal instead of vertical, and the ground was slowly slipping down. These observations saved his life and the lives of others. Omar managed to take some of his belongings with him, but his three houses were lost. Omar himself lived in one of the houses, and his sons lived in the others. Within six hours, several hundred homes were destroyed in this disaster. Now, Omar lives further away from the danger zone, in the home of one of his sons, who has emigrated to the USA in search of a better life. That night, everyone escaped. Human lives were spared.
“But we lost ten people from our community later,” said Omar. “Some of us were very depressed. Someone had a very nice house here. When he arrived and saw what had happened to it, he fainted. Two months later, he died of a heart attack. Another young man committed suicide. Sometimes, when I’m driving, I forget, my mind is somewhere else. These are the side-effects of the catastrophe we went through.”
100% of the inhabitants of La Reina are farmers. Although he no longer has a house, Omar still comes here and farms because he has no other income. He confirmed that he is experiencing the impacts of climate change first-hand. However, heavy rainfall causing landslides is not the only evidence of change. During the dry periods of the year, Omar feels that it has become much hotter than it used to be.
The story of La Lima
Honduras was once well known around the world as the banana republic. The reason is simple: it exported huge quantities of bananas all over the world. Climate change has changed this.
La Lima’s history is closely related to banana plantations, but there are no more plantations. Three years ago, storms Eta and Iota swept across La Lima. Since then, everything has changed in La Lima, home to around 80,000 people, said the mayor. It used to be one of Honduras’ model cities, with developed infrastructure, businesses and jobs. There is even an airport.
“The truth is that climate change is affecting us very much because we live in the most vulnerable municipality,” said the mayor of La Lima. “99% of our community was flooded by Iota and Eta. All the banana plantations were lost.”
The locals were used to the fact that the area would flood now and then during the rainy season. Banana plantations were not particularly disturbed as the water level was not very high. In storms such as Iota and Eta, water levels reached 5-7 metres. La Lima is surrounded by several rivers, and the city itself is located in a valley.
“For example, the River Chamelecón has a normal flow capacity of around 1900 cubic metres per second. Hurricanes Eta and Iota each produced about 5000 cubic metres per second. More than twice the maximum capacity,” said Humberto Calderon, representative of the Centre for Studies and Development in the Sula Valley. “In Eta and Iota, we saw 800 millimetres of rainfall in 24 hours. That’s a huge amount of water to fall in such a short time.”
By comparison, in August, Latvia receives 80 millimetres of rainfall. And that’s per month, not per day.
Instead of banana plantations, La Lima now grows palm trees and extracts palm oil from them. The damage from the two storms is estimated at more than 1 billion euros. La Lima has still not recovered from the floods.
Gladis Patricia Leiva Molina, a mother of six, has lived here all her life. She remembers Hurricane Iota very painfully, as her grandfather died during the storm.
“He died because he was desperate when he saw there was nothing left,” said the woman. “It had a big psychological impact on us. The USA offered help from psychologists. My daughters took it, because as soon as it started to rain, even if it wasn’t heavy, they thought the storm was coming back and there would be a flood.”
The house of Dunias Rodriguez is nearby. With the support of the USA, Dunia was rehoused six months ago. Until then, for almost a year she lived as best as she could.
“It was built from the remains of trees I found. I built my house – you can say it just like this – out of rubbish. This is my house, and I built it with all my love,” said Dunia.
Another shelter has been built in a nearby palm tree in case another flood occurs so that there is somewhere to shelter from it. Rosa confirmed that something like this could indeed be useful, recalling the events when the neighbourhood flooded. Because her house was on higher ground, 11 families gathered there. One man rescued a total of 36 people in his boat. Not only were the outskirts of the city flooded, but the whole city, including the airport and the football stadium. Now La Lima is a risky place to do business.
Enrique Contreras, a businessman and spokesman for the La Lima Chamber of Commerce, told the programme that floods used to occur once every 20 years, but now the strength and frequency of hurricanes have increased significantly. This has a huge impact on local business, as everything is lost in a flood and it is difficult to start again and rebuild. Insurance companies also refuse insurance because of the risk of flooding.
“If you build something after a flood, they won’t insure it,” he explained. “The same applies to banks. If someone applies for a loan in another city where there is no risk of flooding, they will get a loan. But if you’re trying to get a loan in La Lima to build a house or start a business, it will be much, much harder to get financing. Because of the floods, we don’t have the opportunity to develop our city in the way we could.”
Hurricanes Eta and Iota claimed a total of 100 lives in Honduras from different regions of the country. 80,000 people had to be evacuated. People in La Lima are now wondering what to do because it is no longer possible to live like this. Enrique pointed out that it would be necessary to reforest the mountains and build dams in the middle of the river to help retain water. Canals are also needed to channel water to areas that are not inhabited.
The dam has been talked about for decades, but there is no funding for it. Construction would cost around 260 million euros. The dam is not an electricity generation business project.
“This dam can only generate eight megawatts of electricity. It’s not enough for anyone to build it, because it’s not profitable,” said Enrique. “But we don’t need to make a profit, we don’t need to generate electricity, we need to protect our homes.”
As explained by a representative of the Centre for Studies and Development of Sula Valley, some of the solutions, such as canal widening, will involve the partial or total relocation of some communities. But people are used to living in a certain place and convincing them to move elsewhere is very difficult. There are political reasons for this, as well as huge costs.
To those who see benefits in climate change or don’t believe that humans have a role to play, Hondurans want to say: “Climate change is not just about temperature change. It is also about the environment, which is very fragile.”
“Small changes in temperature can melt glaciers, which then affects water temperatures in the oceans. The water temperature of oceans being affected has an impact on the hurricane season. You just have to see it. We have more hurricanes around the equator now, and each time they are more and more powerful. Every year we see records being broken compared to the previous year,” said Enrique Contreras.
“Climate change is happening because humans have destroyed the ecology, and there is pollution everywhere. It affects the nature. The trees and forests we had 50–60 years ago are no more. The land has been left unprotected,” added Santiago, a Honduran.
Honduras is now facing a rainy season, which is awaited with worry. Lots of food for thought on whether we are really doing enough to mitigate climate change.
Photos: Uldis Birziņš