Hurricane Mitch

"We're screwed by the government, then we get blind sided by the hurricane, then the company lays us off"

LAST NOVEMBER Central America was hit by a devastating hurricane. The floods that followed were to claim thousands of lives as well as destroying huge amounts of agricultural crops, housing and communications infrastructure.

Honduras was the worst hit, and with 60,000 homes destroyed, the hurricane has been followed by an epidemic of disease: six weeks after the floods there were 20,000 reported cases of cholera, 30,000 cases of malaria and 208,000 serious cases of diarrhoea in Honduras alone. Clearly, the hurricane will have had a devastating effect on the lives of many people, especially the poor who can't afford basic food and medicines, never mind new housing.

Honduras is the original 'banana republic', vast expanses of its fertile flood plains are owned by two big U.S. banana corporations, Chiquita and Dole. Between them, they directly employ over 20,000 workers. Since the 1930's, when Chiquita purchased 3,000 acres for just $1, these corporations have wielded huge power in the running of Honduras. In addition to their plantations, these multinationals, through a network of subsidiaries, own much of the country's transportation infrastructure.

The natural disaster of Hurricane Mitch was followed almost immediately by another disaster, this time man-made. Chiquita and Dole announced the lay-off of almost their entire workforces. Banana plants die once their roots have been under water for more than 48 hours so a large proportion of the banana crop was destroyed. Although it would be possible to use some of the flooded land for small scale farming sooner, it will be another year before the land is ready for large scale commercial exploitation.

These huge lay-offs will mean that many Honduran workers will have to survive without any income whatsoever, at a time when these incomes are more desperately needed than ever. Furthermore the lay-offs will have a large knock-on effect on the industries which service the plantations and will effect far more people than the 20,000 or so laid off. The huge inequality of Honduras means that many people have no access to health or sanitation services. Thus for many the lost wages could be the difference between life and death. In times of trouble the ruthless logic of capitalism dictates that people's lives are sacrificed sooner than profit.

Some people feel that the agricultural practices of the banana companies shared some of the blame for the scale of the destruction. Efrain Diaz (1), UN agricultural envoy in the region, attributed the severity of the damage to 'deforestation, soil erosion and export-based intensive farming'. Yet "the workers end up carrying all of the burden" says Carlos Molina, a plantation worker. "We're screwed by the government, then we get blind sided by the hurricane, then the company lays us off" (2).

The relief efforts and foreign aid which have arrived in Honduras will not do anything to address the underlying problem. It is the hugely unequal capitalist system which has prevented Honduran workers from recovering after the hurricane.

The wealthy owners of the banana companies realise that a long period of economic crisis and public discontent is starting. They have launched a massive PR campaign in Honduras which aims to ensure that there will be no substantial changes. They fear that the human suffering in the wake of the hurricane could prompt the workers to take a fairer share of the land. For many Honduran workers, this could be the only hope.

Chekov Feeney

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 56 published in March 1999