Honduras

In debt to disaster: What happened to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch

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Executive summary

Natural disasters are never just about the forces of nature; they have human causes and effects. When Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in October 1998, 15,000 people died and a million were left homeless in underdeveloped Honduras, the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere. What turned Mitch from a natural hazard into a human disaster was a chain reaction of social vulnerabilities created by long-term climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, social inequality, population pressure, rapid urbanisation and international debt.

Poverty is the most persistent cause and the most pernicious effect of human disaster. Hurricane Mitch plunged millions of people in Honduras into a life-or-death struggle with deepening poverty. It raised crime rates, pushed up domestic violence and drove up to a million people from their homes, because their farms or their jobs could no longer sustain them. Thousands of others were forced to return to environmentally unstable homes and fields because they were too poor to buy their way out. Christian Aid went back to speak with some of Mitch's victims, one year on, to understand the hurricane's legacy more clearly.

Hurricane Mitch had two unexpected consequences say Honduran civil society organisations. It sparked an intense national debate on the need to rebuild the country's democratic institutions as well as its bridges. It also rekindled a global debate on the morality of international debt, and whether poor nations stricken by natural disaster should receive special help. Both these concerns were prominent at a major international conference in Stockholm in May 1999, where the international community pledged $9 billion in post-Mitch aid to Central American countries $2.5 billion of it to Honduras. Goals and principles adopted in the conference declaration sought to reduce the region's social and ecological vulnerability and to transform its politics by promoting decentralisation and democratisation.

But democratic transition has a long and painful history in Central America. Natural disasters have a way of shaking up its politics but not often permanently. One year on, Honduras remains locked in a post-colonial plantation economy, where patronage politics rule, corruption is described as a chronic infirmity and the military still casts an ominous shadow. So far the country has received little of the $2.5 billion pledged at Stockholm, reportedly because of continuing doubts about financial management. A poorer, more polarised Honduras will be even further away from the democratisation that the Stockholm Declaration seeks. This report calls on the international community, the government of Honduras and Honduran civil society to adopt an action plan of implementation to make the Stockholm Declaration achievable and to build a better, fairer life for the people of Honduras.

Honduras' ecology as well as its politics will leave it deeply vulnerable for years to come. Commercial logging, peasant farmers pushed onto marginal lands and rapidly expanding urban slums on the hillsides surrounding its major cities, make the country a perennial prisoner of flood and landslip. A year after Mitch, seasonal rains killed 30 people and displaced thousands. The World Bank has helped Honduras develop a new National Emergency Strategy with large-scale flood diversion projects planned. It also needs more people-centred strategies for early warning and mass evacuation, as well as designated safe haven areas in every locality.

The principle of debt relief for poor states was agreed at the annual World Bank/International Monetary Fund meeting in September 1999. But it remains unclear who will benefit and how.

Christian Aid and thousands of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) linked in the world-wide Jubilee 2000 campaign believe that the cancellation of unpayable debt, rather than a conditional moratorium, is a more just and effective tool to eradicate poverty and to achieve sustainable development and equity in the South. Under the present agreement, Honduras will not qualify for debt relief for four more years, by which time it will owe another $2 billion in debt servicing the same amount that the World Bank estimated that Mitch-related damage in the public sector would cost to rebuild. If we continue to give with one hand and take away with the other, Honduras is likely to remain perpetually in debt to disaster.

Hurricane Mitch also has a global message and a universal relevance. Climate change and global warming are making the world more vulnerable to natural disaster. Poor people in vulnerable habitats will be exposed to higher levels of natural hazard. Mitch is a wake-up call, a portent of a larger deterioration in our biosphere. The poor will pay first and we will pay later. In a globalised world, poverty remains the greatest moral and practical problem of our time. We walk away from it at our peril.

How fragile we are...

This is the story of a poor country that suddenly got poorer. In late October 1998, Hurricane Mitch dumped a year's rain on Central America in 48 hours. Flash floods and mudslides down deforested slopes wreaked devastation on a vast scale, leaving 10,000 people dead, almost 20,000 missing and over 2.5 million temporarily dependent on emergency aid.

It was the worst hurricane in the Americas for 200 years. Honduras, the second-poorest nation in the western hemisphere, was the hardest hit. Almost 6,000 people were killed and another 11,000 declared missing, presumed dead, as communities, roads, bridges and factories were swept away. Honduras had a population of six million. Of those, nearly two million were affected, one million made homeless, and 70 per cent of the country's productive infrastructure damaged or destroyed. The government's initial estimate of the cost of reconstruction was $5 billion.

Mitch was officially described as the western hemisphere's worst-ever disaster. But it was part of a bigger picture. The 1999 World Disasters Report, an annual global survey of humanitarian trends, said last year's natural disasters were the worst on record, with 25 million new environmental refugees fleeing drought, flood, deforestation and eroded land, outnumbering refugees displaced by war for the first time.1

Astrid Heiberg is President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies which launched the report in June. 'Everyone is aware of the environmental problems of global warming and deforestation on one hand and the social problems of increasing poverty and growing shanty towns on the other,' she said. 'But when these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe'.2

Biological or natural hazards like floods, coastal storms and earthquakes become what we call 'disasters' according to the extent of their impact on people. Scholars like Piers Blaikie argue that the social, political and economic environment is as much a cause of disasters as the natural environment. Nature creates hazard, says Blaikie, but it is humans who create vulnerability, through social inequality and unequal access to resources. So a disaster is a collision between human beings and their environment: those social processes generating vulnerability on the one side, and physical exposure to a hazard on the other.3

Poor people in poor states are the most vulnerable to natural hazard and the least able to cope with it. Those who are economically marginalised are most often physically marginalised in slums and shanty towns, or in arid or forest ecosystems, and are of marginal importance to those who hold political and economic power.

Hurricanes are as prevalent in North America as they are in Central America. But it is 25 years since a hurricane claimed more than 100 lives in the north of the continent. In impoverished Central America and the Caribbean, it happens with chilling regularity. Likewise, after the catastrophic 1970 storm in the Bay of Bengal, which killed 300,000 in Bangladesh, Australia suffered two similar cyclones. Yet the death toll in Australia was less than 100. In 1974, when cyclonic storms created equivalent amounts of rain and wind in Honduras and Darwin, 8,000 people were killed in Honduras but only 49 lives were lost in Darwin, says Blaikie.

Poverty is the deadly difference that manufactures such vulnerability. The Washington Post explained it this way: 'Anywhere it struck, Mitch would have been deadly. But only poverty can explain why it was so deadly. In poor countries, people crowd onto marginal land, in flood plains or on the slopes of menacing volcanoes. They denude the hills making mudslides more likely. Their flimsy houses have no basements or foundations. Upriver, dams are old, poorly built, infrequently inspected. Poor countries lack the technology to track coming storms, the communications systems to send alarms, the resources to stage large-scale evacuations. There are few helicopters, boats or bulldozers for rescue; scant telecommunications equipment to pinpoint the greatest areas of need; poor or no medical care to save the injured.'4

What turned Mitch from a natural hazard to a human disaster was a chain reaction of social vulnerabilities created by long-term climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, social inequality, population pressure, rapid urbanisation and international debt. Poverty is the most persistent cause and the most pernicious effect of human disaster. Mitch plunged thousands of people in Honduras into a life-or-death struggle with deepening poverty. It raised crime rates, pushed up domestic violence and drove up to a million people from their homes because their farms or their jobs could no longer sustain them. Thousands of others were forced to return to environmentally unstable homes and fields because they were too poor to buy their way out. Christian Aid spoke to some of them, one year on.

Cyclone, hurricane and typhoon are different regional names for one of nature's most powerful atmospheric phenomena the tropical coastal storm. A fully developed hurricane releases the energy equivalent of many Hiroshima-sized atom bombs.5 These storms arise seasonally over various oceans in a belt north and south of the equator. In a hyperactive period in August and September 1998, ten tropical storms had already formed in the Caribbean.

When Mitch appeared off the north coast of Honduras in late October, driving winds of 290 km per hour, it appeared to be heading for Belize. The capital was evacuated in anticipation. Then it veered unexpectedly south, across central Honduras where high mountains cooled its moisture-rich air, unleashing torrents of rain. By the time Mitch reached Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, it had slowed to 65 km per hour but had jettisoned water 1.5 m deep, the equivalent of a year's rainfall. The rainstorm ploughed on into Nicaragua and just as unexpectedly veered north across El Salvador and Mexico, passing over Florida and out into the Atlantic on 5 November.

In its wake, 17,000 people were left dead or missing in Honduras, and another 3,000 in Nicaragua, many of them killed when a giant mudslip from the Casita volcano engulfed ten villages and the town of Posoltega, 100 km north-west of the capital, Managua. Over 400 people died in El Salvador and 450 in Guatemala, and thousands more were evacuated as the storm sped on into Mexico. Across the region, two million people were homeless and destitute, without food, shelter or possessions.

In Honduras, with the rain came a sea of mud as the torrent washed away the topsoil from uplands denuded by decades of deforestation. The US Geological Survey estimates that over a million landslips and mudslides followed the deluge, causing much of the death and destruction. In Tegucigalpa, hundreds of houses in Colonia Soto, one of its many hillside shanty towns, vanished in a landslip that moved 7 million cu/m of soil and rock. The slide killed many people and blocked the River Choluteca, creating a new health hazard in an eerie lagoon of untreated sewage and chemical effluents in which corpses floated by.6

On the coastal plains of Honduras, in the second city, San Pedro Sula, to the north, the flooding was 15 km wide, devastating the vital banana-growing industry. In the south, the River Choluteca burst its banks downstream of the country's third-largest city, Choluteca City, to revert to its former delta area and destroy a coastal belt of export-oriented shrimp farms, employing 20,000 local people. Along the border with Nicaragua, the floods unearthed hundreds of landmines, a legacy of the US-backed Contra war, causing more deaths and injuries. At remote Puente Guasistagua in central Honduras, the Hamuya River rose 30 ft and widened by 1,500 ft, ripping up 80-ft trees, picking up boulders the size of cars and smashing the 200-ft-long bridge. Over 92 major bridges in Honduras were officially recorded as destroyed by Mitch. This one was not even important enough to register.7

Over 60 per cent of the country and hundreds of towns and villages were engulfed by mud and water. Journalists spoke of the eerie stillness of a Pompeii, of a moonscape, of Choluteca City as 'a silent monochrome city of collapsed buildings.'8 And in the aftermath came the threat of disease: dengue fever, diarrhoea, typhoid and cholera. Most floods kill through lack of clean water rather than drowning.

Over 70 per cent of the agricultural sector of Honduras was wiped out, creating immediate food shortages and decimating the vital export crops of bananas, coffee and shrimp, responsible for half the country's annual export revenue of $3 billion. With government ministries, hospitals, water mains and prisons badly damaged, soldiers patrolled the mud-strewn streets of Tegucigalpa. Panic grew in several cities over basic food supplies, with hundreds of people arrested for looting.

The President of Honduras, Carlos Flores, immediately declared a state of emergency and appealed for international aid. The history of Honduras was now seen in terms of 'pre- and post- Mitch', Mr Flores told the nation in an emotional TV address. In 72 hours, the hurricane had destroyed 50 years of development. `This is not a time to expect the nation to help you; it is a time for you to help the nation,' he said in a speech reminiscent of former US President John F Kennedy.9

Ten days later, the international community had pledged over $100 million in assistance, including $2.5 million from Britain, but for many inside and outside Honduras, it was too little and too long in coming. President Flores told US ambassador James Creagan that his country must do more and compared Washington's aid effort unfavourably with that of Mexico. The London-based newspaper The Guardian contrasted the morals of what it described as 'a tale of two catastrophes' how the West raised a $3.5 billion rescue package for a Wall Street hedge fund but struggled to find 3 per cent of that for the millions of homeless people in Central America.10

What was needed as urgently as money was help in kind: air transport, medicine, temporary shelter and food for a country 60 per cent under water. Following appeals from Christian Aid and other British development agencies, the UK government diverted three warships with a 15-helicopter capacity to reach remote areas such as the Aguan River valley in northern Honduras. The frigate HMS Sheffield carried out a dramatic rescue of a woman who had spent five days drifting at sea.11 British NGOs launched individual appeals for public donations, as well as through the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a joint agency initiative set up to channel the British public's response to disasters worldwide, which raised over 9 million.

A plethora of international NGOs and UN organisations arrived with material and personnel, but the challenge of assisting a million people without homes or hot meals remained daunting, especially in remote rural areas, with most of the country's roads and bridges washed away. There were reports that the minority communities on the Atlantic Coast of Honduras, such as the Garifuno (descendants of black slaves), and the indigenous Miskito people, were discriminated against and denied assistance.12

There were also fears of corruption and diversion of aid, especially involving the military, which was implicated in large-scale profiteering after Hurricane Fifi in 1974. Honduras remains very sensitive about corruption. In the last five years, it has struggled to cast off its caricature as a 'banana republic', dominated by the army and with a civilian government in name only. Since then, the military has been stripped of some of its power, a new civilian police force has been set up, and institutions have been created to protect the rights of women, consumers, indigenous peoples and the environment.

There was outrage when, a month before Hurricane Mitch, Geneva-based NGO Transparency International described Honduras as the third most corrupt country in a survey of 89 countries worldwide, a conclusion condemned as 'below the belt' by Tegucigalpa's Roman Catholic Bishop, Oscar Andrs Rodrguez, the chairman of Transparency International in Honduras.13

All incoming aid to the Honduran government was channelled through the military-controlled Permanent Contingency Commission (Copeco), to organise disaster response under the close scrutiny of the Auditor General's Office. A new Agricultural Development Commission (CODA) proposed an emergency plan to supplement basic food supplies and control prices. The Public Prosecutor's Office established a telephone hotline for complaints about aid abuse. But there were continuing fears about patronage and political bias. Persistent reports from the north-west said local communities headed by opposition National Party officials were being denied effective assistance. The military, long associated with the National Party, was accused of blocking aid to communities run by the ruling Liberal Party.

With industry crippled and hospitals, bridges and sewage systems destroyed, reconstruction was an immediate priority and, potentially, the source of huge profits. Replacement costs for the country's infrastructure were estimated at $756.2 million and for social sectors like housing, health and education at $589.4 million.14 Foreign Minister Fernando Martnez resigned in protest from a special reconstruction cabinet over emergency legislation which made it unnecessary for government contracts to be put out to competitive tender.

American marines arrived to rebuild bridges, teams of doctors came from 25 countries and UN and international NGOs established relief programmes directly and through local partner organisations. The government's target was enough international assistance donated to ensure a year's food supply for every Honduran citizen in distress. The implication was that it would take that long to get the country back on its feet.15

But concern about corruption would not go away. President Flores first stripped Copeco of its powers, reassigning responsibility for relief delivery in different regions to individual cabinet members. Then, a month on from Mitch, with over 200,000 people still living in temporary shelters, the government turned to the Honduran churches to take over the task of caring for them. 'Faced with the widespread image of corruption, Flores turned to the only institution in the country with any moral capital,' said Thelma Meja, editor of el Heraldo, a newspaper based in Tegucigalpa. 'But he just threw the hot potato of assistance into the lap of the church.'

It was a shrewd political move. Churches were already full of refugees. They had ready-made local networks to deliver relief even in the smallest, most isolated communities. They were part of international networks that would generate more assistance. They had credibility and they were close to the people. But in taking on the role, the churches quickly found they faced a more profound challenge. 'We are not just handing out rice and beans to people who are victims,' said Noem de Espinoza, executive president of the Honduran Christian Council for Development. 'We're working with leaders of rural communities, including the women and children, helping empower them to become subjects of their own destiny, and not simply objects of someone else's history. Hurricane Mitch gives us the rare opportunity to rebuild not just the physical infrastructure of the country, but also the human structures of power and decision-making.'16

Mitch achieved something that two generations of struggle for social and political change in Honduras had not a threshold of possibility that the world could and should be made anew. There was an almost millenarian fever of renewal which in turn fuelled intense national debate. Global as well as local relationships were to come under scrutiny. Central American church leaders, prominent politicians and civil society were swift to point out the unjust and unsustainable foreign debt that assailed states like Honduras whose economies now lay decimated by Mitch. Members of the Honduran Christian Youth Association joined hundreds of demonstrators in the still debris-strewn streets of Tegucigalpa on 19 November 1998, demanding action from the visiting managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Michel Camdessus.

In Britain and Ireland, Hurricane Mitch did two things. It prompted a swift and generous response from the public and it opened up a new and powerful debate about the morality of international debt. The first of these took on an unusual and novel form. When the boat comes in...

Honduras was the original 'banana republic', a disparaging term coined to depict its dependency on one export crop owned and manipulated by foreign conglomerates. It was one of the few Latin American states that failed to develop an indigenous landholding elite and its economy and politics were dominated for many years by two major US-owned fruit companies.17 But it was another banana company, Fyffes plc, which played a major role in transporting aid from British churches to Honduras.

Christian Aid is the official relief and development agency of over 40 churches in Britain and Ireland, working with communities overseas through their local organisations. On 2 November 1998, with 60 per cent of the country under water, the Christian Commission for Development (CCD), Christian Aid's major partner in Honduras, appealed urgently for food, clothing and medical supplies. Using money from the UK government's Department For International Development (DFID), Christian Aid bought medicines, a generator, jerry cans, blankets and other items for immediate dispatch.

But air and sea freight routes were fully booked for the next 14 days. As press coverage of Hurricane Mitch heightened and public concern in the UK grew, two things happened. Supporters and local churches approached Christian Aid asking what they could do, and Irish-based fruit company Fyffes offered Christian Aid free cargo space on boats returning to Honduras after exporting bananas to the UK.

On 4 November, Christian Aid launched an appeal to its grass-roots constituency through churches and local organisers, for goods to fill the Fyffes banana boats. Director Daleep Mukarji took the unusual step of writing to supporters to ask for tinned food, dried beans, flour, sugar, salt, cooking utensils and blankets, and asking them to deliver it themselves directly to a shipping agent in Portsmouth. The response was overwhelming: `the most heartfelt we have seen,' said Dr Mukarji. Schools and churches organised collections and outings to supermarkets and arranged delivery to the dockside. Volunteers helped to box and crate the supplies. People got involved and felt involved. One local Christian Aid group in Leeds persuaded the supermarket chain Asda to lend them four 20-tonne trucks to transport relief aid to Portsmouth.18

In all, five Fyffes banana boats carried 3,000 tonnes of British and Irish churches' aid to Honduras. With special customs clearance on the Honduran side, CCD utilised offers of military helicopters and trucks for speedy delivery to affected areas, working through the network of local and regional emergency committees. Honduran churches, schools and community buildings were already converted into emergency shelters.

There was an equally overwhelming response from Honduran volunteers, assisting CCD to unload and sort relief supplies, forging an environment of solidarity and purpose, according to Noem de Espinoza of CCD. Christian Aid worker Rob Rowley described the scale of the operation at San Pedro Sula close to the North Atlantic Coast of Honduras. 'Inside the warehouse, we've got containers arriving from Puerto Corts about an hour away and basically it has to be sorted. That's a major problem at the moment because everything is in English, so we have a little bit of interpretation to do. Goods are being classified into groups; we have sugar, we have rice, we have meat in tins, we have fish in tins, we have flour these are what the people are asking for.'19

CCD delivered $8 million worth of food, blankets and tents and another $8 million worth of medicine and medical aid through the banana boats and from generous donations from other churches in Europe and the United States. Thousands of people in Honduras, Europe and the United States were linked in a chain of human solidarity. Was aid in kind the right answer? Was it fast enough? Was it efficient? Was it effective? Noem de Espinoza believes that it was: 'Immediately after the emergency, it was impossible to buy food, there simply wasn't any available... and that is why we asked for material aid. It is not always the best solution, when in other emergencies there may be the capacity to buy locally. Given the enormous dimension of the emergency, this was the best response.'20

Before Mitch, CCD was working in 130 communities with integrated rural development programmes, incorporating work on health, education, agriculture and pastoral work. Since Mitch, CCD has been active in 410 communities, rebuilding houses and schools in 200 of them. Some of its work is focused on training more than 2,000 community leaders across the country, assisting them to analyse the morality of structures that bind their communities to the locality and to the world.21

In Western Honduras, the Development Association for the Western Region (ADROH) is a Christian Aid partner comprising an amalgam of 88 peasant associations working with the indigenous Lenca people. Utilising funds raised from the British public in the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal, ADROH was able to rebuild homes and livelihoods for 3,500 families in rural areas of La Paz, Intibuca and Lempira. Other Christian Aid partners such as Water For The People repaired water systems for 15,000 people in Francisco Morazan, while the Honduran Women's Study Centre, CEM-H, assisted over 1,000 vulnerable women in community shelters across the country.

There is renewed interest among many community organisations in Honduras, in disaster prevention and mitigation, in strengthening local institutions, in appropriate building technologies, in sharing local coping strategies to reduce future vulnerability. The talk is of the future, but everyone is aware of how fragile the process of rebuilding is, and its marathon time scale.

Emergency food, shelter and medical care can be provided for a disaster-hit population in a matter of days. But weeks and months are required to rebuild infrastructure, community centres, schools and rural health clinics. What makes the first year critical to disaster recovery in many developing countries is the struggle to re-establish the agricultural cycle in a nation of peasant farmers. Cultivators must have seeds to plant at the right month if a new harvest is to release the population from dependency on food aid and kick-start the economy. But it may take many more years to restore economic confidence, encouraging public and private investment to allow Honduras the relative prosperity to spend the necessary money on its citizens' health and education. That also requires a new, more just, more equal Honduras to be rebuilt from the inside, say NGOs.

Disasters create long-term effects and vulnerabilities, which like their causes are not immediately visible. The most pervasive effect is that the poor get poorer because they lack the money or the social capital to rebuild. 80 per cent of Honduras' population already live below the poverty line. With malnutrition and illiteracy rates higher than many African countries, Mitch will hold Honduras' next generation to ransom for many decades.

If there is to be real recovery, the capacity of local people to withstand such disaster shocks must be strengthened economically as well as technically. Those who are most vulnerable are also those who find it most difficult to reconstruct their livelihoods after disaster. They become even more vulnerable to subsequent disaster events. The slopes of recovery are steep and subject to their own landslips. Many of the poor will not make it.

Lost causes...

Long-term climate change, environmental degradation, population pressure, unplanned urbanisation, poverty, social inequality, international debt... how do these create the vulnerabilities that Mitch revealed? Are they really responsible for the impact of a tropical coastal storm? Or, in a society perennially hit by hurricanes, do more prosaic rationales like lack of disaster preparedness and ineffective national disaster plans reveal more about impact? Let's examine the evidence.

Long-term climate change

The El Nio cycle is a fluctuation in the distribution of sea-surface temperatures and of atmospheric pressure across the Pacific Ocean leading to worldwide impact on regional weather patterns. Recent climate computer-modelling suggests the strength and frequency of both El Nio and its sister effect La Nia are increased by global warming and 1998 was by far the warmest year since worldwide records began 150 years ago.22

Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was also the culmination of a period of unprecedented hurricane activity. There were 33 in the North Atlantic between 1995 and 1998 an all-time record, says the World Disasters Report. Such hyperactivity is being linked to La Nia, because it creates anomalies in the upper air circulation that divert the tropical jet stream and raises sea temperatures above 27C two of the key determinants of Caribbean hurricanes.

All of these phenomena are linked to global warming because they are driven by warmer ocean waters. Only days after Mitch, UK deputy prime minister John Prescott told the Buenos Aires conference on the Climate Change Convention (held to draw up ways of implementing cuts in emissions of the gases that cause global warming) that Hurricane Mitch and the recent flooding in China were warnings that the world ignores at its peril.23

The reluctance of rich industrialised nations to limit global warming emissions means that poor people in poor countries, with higher levels of vulnerability, will pay through their exposure to higher levels of natural hazard. Hurricane Mitch is a wake-up call, a portent of a larger deterioration in our biosphere, that we still do not take seriously. The poor will pay first and we will pay later.

Environmental degradation

Environmentalist Fred Pearce, writing about Mitch in the World Disasters Report, says local people drew attention to two adjacent hillsides outside Tegucigalpa in the aftermath. On one, where trees had been removed, there was a landslip. On the other, where the trees remained in place, there was no slip.24

There is still heated debate in the international research community about the role of deforestation in natural disasters, in causing floods and landslips. A tree can absorb 200 litres of water an hour. The soil that holds it in place may absorb even more. If the tree is gone, the water runs off the land into gullies and rivers and eventually into human settlements. The impact of the rain and the loss of binding tree roots contribute to hillside instability that in turn leads to landslides.

Ed Harp of the US Geological Survey is not so sure. Aerial surveys by Harp and others after Hurricane Mitch reveal that many of the landslips occurred on fully forested hillsides while many steep deforested hills were intact. The natural forests of Honduras are principally pine with limited ability to bind soils together. Besides, many slips take place far beneath the root zone, says Harp. Scientists have consistently failed to find a quantifiable link between deforestation upstream in large catchment areas and flooding downstream but concede, that in smaller catchments like those flooded in Honduras, there is a clear link. The lesson is that providing tree cover may not prevent landslips, says Pearce.25

Biologist, and former environment minister of Honduras, Carlos Medina believes that extensive deforestation compounded the impact of Mitch by some 30 per cent.26 Since 1960, Honduras has lost 25 per cent of its forest cover, which is now reduced to 36 per cent of its land area and it continues to fall. Three kinds of deforestation have destabilised habitats; commercial logging, peasant pioneer farming and the growth of urban slums. Allegations of corruption in COHDEFOR, the state forestry authority, led to its privatisation in 1985 by USAID demand. But, with tributary uplands in the hands of private sawmills with little regard for official quotas, commercial logging remains a real threat to environmental sustainability in Honduras.

In 1992, after widespread popular opposition, the Honduran Congress forced former President Callejas to cancel a 40-year concession to the Chicago-based Stone Container Corporation to extract 1 million hectares of pine forest in remote La Mosquitia, about 20 per cent of the country's forest cover. The Stone case demonstrated the capacity of civil society organisations to force the government to change course on important issues. It also thrust environmental issues to the forefront of the national political agenda, where they remain today.27

Just as fierce as the battle for timber is the battle for land. When Hurricane Fifi struck Honduras in 1974, landslides on denuded slopes along the Caribbean coast buried entire villages, leaving 8,000 dead. The Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) report on the aftermath concluded that patterns of landholding were a major contributory cause.

Some 63 per cent of the farmers of Honduras have access to only 6 per cent of its arable land. Large-scale beef ranching and banana plantations have displaced poor peasants over decades into isolated valleys, river banks and steep hillside farms. Forced to the margins, their efforts to carve out subsistence farms have made surrounding hillsides and river banks even more unstable.28

Population pressure and unplanned urbanisation

Half the populations of the largest cities in the developing world are in unplanned or illegal squatter colonies with no access to community health, sanitation or fire services, this year's World Disasters Report reminds us. Honduras' burgeoning birth rate means growing pressure on land, pushing migrants to the city, forced to live in unsafe areas, in unsafe conditions.

Honduras has the most rapid urbanisation rate in Central America, rising from 18 per cent of the population in 1950 to 44 per cent in 1990, and projected to reach 60 per cent by 2010.29 Tegucigalpa has grown from 75,000 people in 1950 to over 1.5 million today. The pine-clad hills surrounding the capital have been occupied by tens of thousands of wooden shacks as successive generations of squatters stripped the terrain bare for shelter and fuel, rendering the hills increasingly unstable.

These were some of Mitch's most fertile feeding grounds. El Monstruo or 'the beast' as many local people called the hurricane, clawed away four of Tegucigalpa's shanty towns. Over 1,000 people in Colonia Miramesi lost their homes, and many of them lost their lives. Aid worker Andrew Maskrey concluded that the only 'choices' available to the poor in squatter settlements are 'between different kinds of disaster... people seek to minimise vulnerability to one hazard even at the cost of increasing their vulnerability to another'.30

Poverty and social inequality

It is ultimately poverty that puts more people in more risk-prone places, creating more potential for disaster. Vulnerability to natural hazard is socially constructed. It arises out of the socio-political realities of everyday life and reflects the distribution of power and resources in a society. People who are economically marginal are forced to the physical margins of our world where their presence creates new physical hazards.

Income and wealth are unevenly distributed in Honduras, with almost 80 per cent of the population living in poverty and 32 per cent in extreme poverty. Poor households are divided almost equally between rural and urban habitats, but two-thirds of the extremely poor are rural. Over 60 per cent of urban and 40 per cent of rural children do not attend school, mostly because they must work to supplement their family's meagre income. Infant mortality is 38 per 1,000 and over 12,000 children die every year from preventable illness.

Some 26 per cent of Honduran children suffer from moderate or severe malnutrition and 36 per cent from chronic malnutrition. Widespread malnutrition and lack of access to clean water are the main factors in the country's low life expectancy (62 years). Many of these malnutrition-related deaths do not show up in the statistics, say health workers, especially in the rural areas. There are families who are too poor to afford the bus fare to the capital for specialist treatment or do not have the money for the doctor's visit.31

International debt

What a country can afford to spend on its people depends on its place in the international economic order, and for most developing countries that depends on its debt burden to international financial institutions and others. Latin America as a whole owes almost $700 billion in debts to other countries and international financial institutions 36 per cent of what it produces (its Gross National Product, or GNP).

Honduras owes $4.6 billion. Its annual repayments just to service the debt are $505 million or $1.38 million a day, around 40 per cent of its annual budget. That leaves 40 per cent less to spend on the health and education of each citizen and on their safety, when 80 per cent of Hondurans already live below the poverty line a third of them in extreme poverty. Major improvements in disaster management have been concentrated in the world's richer countries and those with sustained growth rates. Honduras, as the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, had four helicopters available to rescue a million people when Mitch struck. Now it has another $5 billion hole in its economic ozone layer that will suck sustainability away from its citizens.

Disaster preparedness

All of the above create vulnerabilities, but is it not simply poor preparation, bad disaster management and the severity of the storm that explain the devastating impact of Hurricane Mitch? 'Unprepared' ran the banner headline in the Tegucigalpa daily La Tribuna on 10 November, as a front page editorial condemned the country's leaders for failing to learn the lessons of Hurricane Fifi in 1974, when 8,000 died. Mitch caught the country off-guard. Stocks of food and water were low. Medical reserves and transport were inadequate, and there was no serious emergency plan, said La Tribuna.32

But how far can a poor state go to prevent disasters? This year, the United Nations International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction (UNIDNDR) will close the book on its own catastrophic track record, says environmental writer Geoffrey Lean.33 In the ten years since 1989, the number of disasters has risen threefold, and their cost, even after inflation, has risen by 900 per cent. It simply costs too much to erect structures and put in place procedures that are 100 per cent disaster-proof. As the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation (UNDRO) soberly admitted in 1991, 'It is false to suggest that infinite risk can be matched by infinite resources.'34 Disasters can be mitigated, not prevented, but UNIDNDR shows we are losing that battle too.

Since the 1960s, planners have increasingly turned to non-structural or social strategies like flood warning and evacuation in the absence of a technocratic solution.35 There have been relative success stories like that of Bangladesh, where 30,000 radio-equipped volunteers carry flood warnings to local people, who then retreat to reinforced mounds, already stocked with food, water and shelter.

Better mapping of vulnerability holds the key to better hazard avoidance, says Fred Pearce. The Honduran government has drawn up a National Emergency Strategy based on new US Geological Survey (USGS) reports, and a World Bank proposal modelled on a similar intervention in the Bahamas. Expertise for the project will come with a $625 million aid package from the World Bank. One of the key proposals uses satellite imaging to build floodwater diversions to save downstream towns.36

What Honduras now needs is a more effective mix of hi-tech interventions and community-based strategies. What is also required is the political will and foresight to make it work. It was the North Atlantic Coast of Honduras, ravaged by Hurricane Fifi in 1974, that responded to Mitch most effectively. In the intervening years, San Pedro Sula, the country's second city, reforested hillsides, rebuilt drainage channels and devised an evacuation plan with 250 shelters to receive 60,000 people from high-risk areas. Over 40,000 people were affected by Mitch, many of them from the hillside shanties that surround the city. Now mayor Roberto Silva plans to spend part of a $48 million World Bank loan to eradicate the slums and build decent low-cost, low-altitude housing for the poor.

If the scheme succeeds, it will create a new model of social partnership where the low-waged will participate in building their homes with materials from the private sector and the municipality. But the city already owes $55 million to international banks and can barely afford to repay that. 'We may have to raise taxes,' Mr Silva told journalists after Mitch, `but people here will understand why.'37

Natural disasters are never just about the forces of nature. It is poverty and unsustainable livelihoods that push people to the physical margins of society, making them and their surroundings even more vulnerable to environmental hazard. Long-term climate change, environmental degradation, population pressure, unplanned urbanisation, poverty, social inequality and international debt all play a more important role in creating the social conditions for natural disaster than do inadequate national emergency strategies.

Many of these causes get 'lost' when policy makers sit down to address disaster mitigation. The poor and the root causes of their poverty often get left out in a similar way when many states 'do' development. As Blaikie feared, the UN's International Decade for Disaster Reduction got stuck at the prestige end of the problem, in the domain of 'big science' and technocratic solutions. These overshadowed the equally important work of understanding and alleviating vulnerability from the bottom up.

Jesuit Father Joseph Mulligan told the UK Catholic newspaper The Universe that if Mitch served any useful purpose, it was to put the poor in the limelight for a moment. The limelight moved on, but the poor are still there.38

Personal effects...

The most immediate effect of a natural disaster is that the poor get poorer. As many Christian Aid partners in Honduras described it, there was also a Social Mitch that accompanied the hurricane an economic landslip that has dragged many thousands of families below the poverty line. For most of them it has become a life-or-death struggle.

Over 220,000 people lost their homes during Mitch. More than 35,000 houses were destroyed and another 50,000 badly damaged. A year on, more than 26,000 people still live in refugee camps comprised of communidades habitacionales de transicion ('CHATS'), concrete blockhouses housing four or five families separated by plastic sheeting, with communal kitchens and toilets. Each family qualifies for a $600 government voucher for a down payment on a new home but the final cost on most house-building schemes is ten times more. 'And where am I going to find the money for that?' asks Vilma, who is unemployed with five children to support. She is one of the lucky ones who escaped when the shanties of Colonia Soto fell into the River Choluteca. But she is increasingly desperate to leave the blockhouse she has shared for a year with 15 others at La Villa Ol�mpica camp in Tegucigalpa.39

Some 200 families have left the CHATS and have erected shacks on El Mogote, a small hill overlooking one of the capital's middle class suburbs. Despite hostility from the residents below, they are determined to stay. Many are traders in the central market, and say the sites they have been offered for rehousing are too expensive and too far away. They claim El Mogote was promised them by Tegucigalpa's charismatic mayor, Dr Caesar Castellans, who died in a helicopter crash while inspecting hurricane damage in the first days of Mitch. With a children's nursery and a community centre under construction, Tegucigalpa's newest slum colony is nearing completion.40

One year after Mitch, another 100,000 people are still living with friends or relatives or in makeshift shelters until they can afford to rebuild. Earlier this year, home for Isselmy Furcio and her three children was the Monseor Turcios school in El Pespire, with a population of 4,000, some 60 miles south of Tegucigalpa. Mitch destroyed 324 houses in the town, leaving 3,000 people homeless and 41 dead. 'My husband is building us a new house on land where a friend has said we can stay for a short while,' says Mrs Furcio. 'It is not much: it is made out of plastic sheeting nailed to a wooden frame. But it will have to do.'

Her husband's single-pump petrol station was washed away with the house. Mrs Furcio, like many other women, makes local snacks to sell on the streets or takes in washing from wealthier families. Reina Oseguera, secretary of San Francisco de Asis, the town's 200 year-old Roman Catholic church, explains how, in the wake of Mitch, the government wants people to rebuild homes away from river banks and basins. But that means buying land on higher ground land that is either non-existent or too expensive.

'In the end, I expect we shall have to rebuild our house in the only place we can where it was before,' says Mrs Furcio. She means on the banks of the same Rio Grande, which rose 40 feet to swallow most of El Pespire. When the next hurricane hits town, the Furcio family will be among the most vulnerable. Thousands more have returned to environmentally unstable habitats and marginal livelihoods because they have no economic alternative. The government has introduced new laws and zoning regulations prohibiting building on river banks and environmentally sensitive areas, but they go largely unenforced.41

In the 1980s, the Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future highlighted the importance of sustainable livelihoods in coping with vulnerability, protecting the environment and fostering longer-term development.42 For many of the peasant farmers of Honduras, their sustainability was washed away with Mitch literally.

Half of the population of Honduras lives in the countryside. But 60 per cent of its farmers have access to only 6 per cent of the arable land. It mostly consists of low-lying valleys and coastal plains dominated by agro-export companies and transnational banana corporations. Food for local consumption is produced on small peasant plots carved out of rocky hillsides and river banks. Over 50 per cent of the farmers work plots of less than five acres, generating a net per capita income of less than $70 a year. And only one in five farms is worked by its owner. Sharecroppers, tenants and squatters predominate. Credit from banks has a prohibitive interest rate of 38 per cent, and rural moneylenders extort equally usurious rates for seeds and tools on the promise of future harvests. Half the rural population is considered landless, with land too small or soil too degraded to meet even subsistence needs.43

Hurricane Mitch washed the remaining topsoil from hillside marginal farms down on to the valley plantations of agribusiness. Where rivers burst their banks, they left sand two metres deep, destroying or degrading many small plots. Beans and other staples, ready to be picked, were destroyed and, with them, six months income and the seed for the next crop. 'The flood didn't just take the plants,' says Manuel Hernndez, as he inspects his six acres in Comayagua after the hurricane. `It took the fences, the irrigation equipment and, finally, all the soil.'44

Many small farming communities in rural Honduras have disintegrated since Mitch because their homes or their fields are no longer sustainable. Others have rebuilt a slow and arduous route to recovery. High in the remote mountain valleys of Santa Barbara, south-west of San Pedro Sula, part of the community of Los Corralitos has re-established itself a few miles away, near Las Delicias, living in tents while rebuilding 42 homes with the help of a food-for-work scheme implemented by the Christian Commission for Development (CCD).

A year on, and the houses are only half-completed. It's been a struggle, says Edmundo Madrid, 56 year-old community leader, for people to find the land, raise the money to buy it, and to build houses two days a week, while working on the local coffee plantations and on their own meagre coffee plots. In much of Honduras, the harvest has been good, and another important hurdle has been crossed, because recovery will ultimately depend on restoring the productive capacity of peasant smallholders in this predominantly agrarian society.

'The most beautiful thing is that men and women are working side by side,' says Edmundo. CCD has spearheaded development in isolated communities without electricity, running water or access roads, providing training in sustainable agriculture, microcredit schemes and gender awareness. Committees of the villagers decide themselves what they need and how to make it a reality with loans from CCD. 'We're not giving handouts to people,' says CCD's Noem de Espinoza. 'We're supporting people as they make decisions about their communities and get to work putting their lives back together.' The Los Corralitos mud-wall shacks are painstakingly being replaced by cement block houses with running water and electricity, which the villagers will draw lots for on completion. 'No politician has shown up here to see how we're faring,' said Edmundo Madrid. 'When they want your vote at election time, then they come. But when we're screwed out here, they forget they know us.'45

Benjamn Sabilln Reyes, the mayor of La Proteccin, the nearest town, tried to get government assistance and land for the Los Corralitos community, suggesting they merge with three other displaced groups and squat on private land, but the plan foundered and Edmundo and the others have lost confidence in him. The mayor is equally disillusioned but his dissatisfaction is with the government, which asked all mayors to identify and coordinate local reconstruction after Mitch.

Mr Reyes has made the arduous trip to the capital seven times since the hurricane and all he is given is application forms. 'They say the money's already spent but it's really because this area is identified with the opposition National Party. Although, if we were in power, we would do just the same thing,' he says thoughtfully. The next elections are in 2001.

On paper, Honduras has a progressive system of decentralised government, where 3 per cent of all government funds are devolved to local mayors. In practice, patronage politics pervades, and government institutions remain rife with cronyism, corruption and inefficiency, says Edmundo Jarquin, head of the Inter-American Development Bank's State and Civil Society Division.46 In April, the Honduran human rights ombudsman, Leo Valladares, published a report citing 17 cases of significant mismanagement or misuse of international funds since Mitch. The ruling Liberal Party first tried to strip him of his mandate and then backed down after a public outcry.47

Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest who co-ordinated the post-Mitch emergency committee in El Progreso, a prominent town south-east of San Pedro Sula, is critical of the politicisation of aid after Mitch. 'The daily reality of the people is also clear: authoritarian imposition, deception and political calculations, party loyalties, a pattern of following orders that prevails from the highest levels of the country down to the president of a neighbourhood or village association. In this time of calamity, there's a risk that international assistance will perpetuate the arbitrary use of public institutions, of public delinquency disguised as legality and immunity... and greater controls, both open and subtle, of democratic spaces.'48

Since Mitch, thousands of Hondurans have also lost their jobs many in the export agricultural sector. The country lost 25 per cent of its coffee and 50 per cent of its banana plantations, in all 15 per cent of last year's exports. The two major banana-producing companies, Standard Fruit and Chiquita, laid off 25,000 workers for 12 months, claiming the banana crop would not recover until 2000. Reconstruction at Cobb Plantation, near El Progreso, only began when President Flores planted the first banana plant on 20 May 1999, after seven months of Chiquita pressure on the government and the unions for new concessions.

'Mitch was a blessing for Chiquita,' says Cobb Plantation banana worker Fidel Chavarr�a. 'The company has wanted for years to undermine the rights we workers have fought to win.' Union members picketed the Cobb plantation for weeks as Chiquita used higher-paid non-union labour, in a bid to lure workers away from the union. Banana workers live with their families in company camps in the banana groves, in what seem like the last vestiges of a colonial plantation economy.

Chiquita has offered to build new homes for some workers, but in nearby La Lima. Workers fear that dismembering the banana communities will undermine their right to strike effectively.49 Both Standard and Chiquita will use huge insurance windfalls to modernise their operations and increase their global competitiveness. They will emerge from the disaster as winners. Yet it would have cost Chiquita just $6 million, from the profits on 40 million boxes of bananas it exported from Honduras last year, to pay its workers their $85- a-month wages for the year while they rebuilt the plantations.50

It also highlights another important differential in vulnerability. Insurance should have provided an important life-raft for many Hondurans, to build new homes, sow new crops and start new businesses. Of the estimated $5 billion estimated cost of Hurricane Mitch, only $150 million worth was insured. For the 80 per cent who already live below the poverty line, insurance is an unthinkable luxury.51

Between half a million and one million of the 6 million population of Honduras will have left their homes one year on from Mitch, because their livelihoods their homes, their fields, their jobs are no longer sustainable. They join an invisible 25 million environmental refugees worldwide people who have literally lost their 'place' in the world.52

In Honduras, as elsewhere, many of them will head for the cities, swelling the ranks of plywood shanties climbing the surrounding hills. Their presence will boost crime, disease, infant mortality and drug abuse. Growing cities in developing countries concentrate disaster risk in their slum peripheries, soaking up those who are already most vulnerable. Many are heading for the industrialised North Atlantic Coast, seeking work in the maquila sector, in the Honduran export manufacturing zones, which mostly employ women on low wages.

Others have struck out for El Norte (the north), in the decades-old trek of illegal immigration to the promised land that Miami and Los Angeles represent. Family remittances to Honduras from the United States already equal $400 million. Some observers believe that there is now the threat of a new Central American diaspora to rival the refugee flows from civil conflicts in the 1980s.53

Many Hondurans cross into Mexico at Tapachula or Little Tiajuana, the gateway for Central American migration, where a fifteen-hour illicit freight train ride takes them north. Many are attacked and robbed or exploited by immigrant smugglers. Most travel with only the clothes on their backs, a little money, and a scrap of paper with phone numbers of friends and relatives in the United States.

Jos Juarez and two other men left Olancho in mid-January 1999 with $30 each, taking local buses across Guatemala. 'This has to be the most sad experience a person could live, leaving your children. There are no words to describe that kind of pain. But I must make this sacrifice for them,' said Jos. Forty-seven year-old Jos Elias Prez, whose taxi disappeared below the mud during Mitch, told journalists, 'I am past the years when I want adventures. I am doing this because I have no options. In Honduras, I had no way to make money. I had no house, I had no transportation. And I had no food for my family.'54

Increased vigilance at the eastern end of the US border by the migra (agents from Mexico's National Immigration Institute, or INM), has pushed the refugees west to swim the turbulent Rio Bravo. The same number are detained and returned as those that make it across the border. In the first two months of 1999, the INM returned 20,000 Central Americans, most of them Hondurans, to Guatemala three times the previous year's figures. Some become desperate. Several hundred Hondurans fought a pitched battle with soldiers and migra agents in southern Veracruz in February, to avoid being sent back. Over 150 escaped into the surrounding jungles.55

After Mitch, a two-month amnesty for illegal immigrants from Central America by the United States swelled the numbers, many believing that they would be offered refuge. 'We read it in our newspapers,' said 21 year-old Carlos Cabrera, waiting to hop a freight train in Tapachula's railway yard, `They said that Hondurans who are victims of Mitch will be allowed to come and work in the United States.'56

The term 'environmental refugees' conjures up images of both cataclysm and concern, of lives blighted by an unfeeling force of nature, of fellow human beings who need our help. As soon as they cross a national border, however, they become 'economic migrants' illicit invaders driven by greed who threaten our jobs, our culture, our children or our creed.

On 8 March 1999, while President Clinton scattered flowers beneath the Posoltega volcano in Nicaragua in memory of Mitch victims, dozens of refugees staged a hunger strike at the Bay View Detention Centre in Los Fresnos, Texas, demanding freedom to work to support their families back home. The sub-text of President Clinton's Central America visit was immigration. A $900 million aid package and another $500 million in emergency assistance were designed to restabilise Central America's paralysed economies and stem the flow of migrants to the United States, where immigration is again a hot political issue.57

A recent US government study says over 150,000 Hondurans have left their country for the United States in the first six months since Mitch and estimates that 12 months on 320,000 will have travelled north.58 Others, like Paul Jeffrey of CCD, believe the figure may be as high as 500,000. The United States is stepping up forcible returns, especially of those young Hondurans convicted of crimes. Many were stigmatised on their return and displayed publicly on television by an unsympathetic Honduran government. Intercessions by NGOs like FONAMIH, the National Migrants Forum, and Caritas have helped to develop a support and reinsertion programme for deportees which seeks to stem the growing criminalisation of migration from Honduras.

But what happens to those left behind? It is mostly men who migrate, and women who are left behind to shoulder the burden if homes and families are to survive. The Honduran Women's Study Centre (CEM-H), a Christian Aid partner, provides food aid to 458 families in Tegucigalpa's slum colony of La Nueva Esperanza, and runs shelters for vulnerable women. Domestic violence and sexual abuse have soared in the wake of Mitch, say Maria Elena Mendez and Mirta Kennedy of CEM-H, but these are now openly acknowledged and discussed as social problems. Mitch has made more visible the wrongs in Honduran society and the struggle for women's rights. It has strengthened, and, in an unexpected way, validated the call for social justice and social change. 'What Mitch really did was to reveal Honduras to ourselves as well as to the outside world,' says Noem� de Espinoza of CCD, 'but it also revealed a world of possibility.'

However, stubborn reminders of the former Honduras still persist. Death squads calling themselves the 'Lawmen of the Night' have murdered more than 200 young men in Tegucigalpa this year with a single bullet through the head, reports the London-based newspaper The Independent.59 Most of the victims appear to be gang members recently returned from Los Angeles, where their families fled after Mitch. The killing of these young people many of whom bring home with them the automatic weapons, as well as the brutality, of Los Angeles street gangs is seen as a form of social cleansing of US influence. Paramilitary groups who killed or removed hundreds of political opposition supporters in the 1980s are said to be responsible. President Flores himself only narrowly avoided a military coup on 30 July by promoting a number of disgruntled and influential army officers.

A year after Mitch, Honduras is a poorer and a more violent place. Its city slums are less safe and less sanitary. The sustainability of its environment is buckling. Its rural poor are deserting the countryside. Its birth rates, infant malnutrition figures and urbanisation are rising as relentlessly as Mitch's flood waters once did. Its culture of government remains mired in traditional grandee politics where patronage matters more than people, and the military still throws an ominous shadow. What happened to the dream of social renewal and transformation that the Honduran government, civil society and international donor governments all pledged to make a reality in the months after Mitch?

States of transformation: the politics of reconstruction

Hurricane Mitch created a kind of cultural aftershock in Honduras. There was a determination among civil society organisations that democracy must be rebuilt, as well as the bridges a Honduras with less poverty and more transparency, participation and equality. It was a vision seemingly shared by almost everyone, including the government. But how was it to be done and who was to do it?

One of the potential generators and guarantors of this process was the Consultative Group meeting organised by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank in Stockholm in May 1999 to facilitate funding of post-Mitch recovery in Central America by the international community. A 'consultative group', in World Bank parlance, is a form of pledging conference at which donor states and international financial institutions meet to coordinate international development strategies in a developing country. This often involves restructuring its external debt. This particular Consultative Group was unique in that it called for the transformation, as well as the reconstruction, of Central America.

Central America's leaders had lined up to tell the Consultative Group's inaugural meeting, in Washington DC in December 1998, that Mitch was a unique opportunity to rebuild not the same, but a better Central America. President Flores of Honduras also warned that the catastrophe could jeopardise the region's peace and democracy, and urged immediate assistance to avoid a relapse into instability. The 46 member states of the IDB agreed that all recovery inputs should be framed in a long-term development and democratisation perspective.60

In the Stockholm Declaration, released on 28 May 1999, donor states and Central American countries agreed on a series of goals and principles to address the impact of Mitch: to reduce the social and ecological vulnerability of the region as the overriding goal

to reconstruct and transform Central America on the basis of an integrated approach of transparency and good governance

to consolidate democracy and good governance, reinforcing the process of the decentralisation of government functions and powers, with the active participation of civil society

to promote respect for human rights as a permanent objective. The promotion of equality between men and women, the rights of children, ethnic groups and other minorities should be given special attention

to co-ordinate donor efforts guided by priorities set by the recipient countries

to intensify efforts to reduce the external debt burden of the countries of the region.61 As such, the declaration set out a diagnostic rather than a cure for Central America's ills, but there was an overt recognition in the declaration of the damaging role of debt. Over $9 billion was pledged to the region in assistance, with some $2.5 billion directed at Honduras. Honduran civil society organisations came away with three continuing preoccupations: democratisation, disaster prevention and debt cancellation.

Democratisation

In preparation for Stockholm, a 500-strong coalition of Honduran NGOs called Interforos set out a vision for rebuilding the country with sustainability and equity. In a detailed proposal, Interforos called for greater local empowerment and territorial decentralisation to democratise access to productive resources, markets and development. It called for social, agricultural and judicial reform to drive an authentically national reconstruction process. And it proposed an exchange of debt for development, suggesting that resources freed by debt conversion be used for reconstructing Honduran sustainability through a National Fund financed by at least 40 per cent of converted debt.62

The government largely ignored the initiative, saying it had consulted with FONAC and Foro Cuidadano, two other civic coalitions that it controls. Interforos was refused a place on the official Honduran delegation, but it attended as one of the many civil society organisations present.

In his keynote speech to the Stockholm meeting, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan highlighted the struggle of Central American peoples to address 'contentious issues' such as the structure of the state, the reform of electoral, justice and land tenure systems, and the participation of civil society in decisions affecting their lives. There was an unfinished social and political agenda if genuine transformation was the goal, said Mr Annan.

Nevertheless, it was a shocked President Flores who heard the conference conclude that his government's reconstruction plan lacked precisely the decentralisation and democratisation that Interforos proposed. After an 11th-hour meeting with Swedish diplomats and Interforos in the President's hotel room, he promised to incorporate many of the demands of Interforos. 'We want transparency, not just to avoid theft, but to ensure the resources are used for real transformation,' said Interforos leader Mauricio D�az.63

Five months on, little has happened, says Carlos Ixaguirre, head of Planning and Project Implementation at the Association of Honduran NGOs (ASONOG). 'ASONOG and Interforos believe that reconstruction proposals should come from the community in a kind of spiral, from the grass roots up, not in a top-down way from the government. You don't give people a bridge when they want a health clinic.'

Oscar Lpez should know. He was one of 60 Hondurans who attended Stockholm, and the only peasant farmer in the NGO delegation perhaps the first ever peasant farmer to attend a World Bank meeting. Summit participants, he said, 'talked a lot about and for the victims, but the voice of the victims themselves, the people who are most vulnerable, was hard to hear'. Almost a year after Mitch, the 100-metre gap in the flood dyke behind his farm in La Compuerta in the northern Yoro department has not been repaired, despite repeated government promises. He will not plant corn this year, he says; the risk of losing it to flooding is too great.64

Like Benjamn Sabilln Reyes, the mayor of La Proteccin, disillusioned by his seven fruitless visits to the capital since Mitch, many NGOs believe that it is not that the government cannot hear, but that it is not listening. A government advisory committee on national reconstruction, set up with Interforos after Stockholm, has yet to call a meeting. Stung by criticism, the government summoned NGOs to a meeting at a major Tegucigalpa hotel in August, but no plans for cooperation have emerged. The politics of Honduras were never likely to change overnight, but if civil society is to play a participatory role, then the commitments made at Stockholm must be revisited.

Disaster prevention

For decades now, the politics of Central America have colluded in stripping bare the environment, say scholars like Daniel Faber.65 A report issued by the Central American Commission on Environment and Development just as Mitch struck Honduras, entitled The State of the Environment and Natural Resources in Central America, charts deforestation rates of 388,000 hectares a year or 45 hectares an hour across the region. 'Mitch showed that Central America was sitting on a time bomb caused by environmental abuse,' says Miguel Martinez, operations manager for Central America at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).66

In Honduras, deforestation will continue at an unsustainable rate unless COHDEFOR, the national forestry agency, is strengthened, and unless there is effective regulation of the auctions at which large areas of timberland are illicitly purchased by business interests, say many NGOs.

Limiting deforestation is the key to limiting flooding and disaster prevention, according to Steve Maber of the World Bank's Honduras office. The country's three major river systems are always going to flood, filling the valleys with rich alluvial silt and creating a magnet for human settlement and agriculture in the most vulnerable tail-end of the system. Where disaster threatens is in the severity of the peak of the flooding which increases every year. Mitch had a tsunami-like effect on Tegucigalpa when a wall of water crashed down on its poorest slums, because a series of upstream dams and reservoirs were overwhelmed by the hurricane's torrential rains.

Maber's solution is to curb deforestation and to build a series of 'attenuation ponds', or run-off reservoirs, to bleed the annual flood waters out of the river systems upstream. In the Sula Valley, there are three sites already earmarked for small multi-purpose dams. But what will disaster prevention mean for the poor? In Tegucigalpa and other cities, the authorities have introduced new zoning laws but have not enforced them, which means the same ramshackle slums are being rebuilt in the same vulnerable areas. According to NGOs, the government has not set aside enough new land in urban areas to give the poor a viable alternative.67

The rural poor, in their isolated valleys and hills, are less visible. Oscar Lpez still waits in La Compuerta for his flood dyke to be repaired. Caroline Clarke, an IDB disaster prevention specialist, says that every Central American village should designate a nearby building or high ground feature as a safe haven against flooding. If necessary, simple earth platforms or berms can be built cheaply with local manpower, a strategy that continues to save many lives in flood-prone Bangladesh. Ironically, Oscar Lpez's house, which sits astride a dyke, became just such a safe haven for hundreds of neighbours during Mitch. When flooding strikes again, they will have nowhere to run.68

But, when a hurricane hits, running still seems the safest thing to do; or, in the language of disaster mitigation, large-scale evacuation. Over 2.5 million people were evacuated in September 1999, when Hurricane Floyd scourged the east coast of the United States. In the language of the UN Natural Disaster Reduction Decade, 'infinite risk cannot be matched by infinite resources'. Hurricane-proof homes are simply too costly for families or governments to build. Even at the affluent end of America, it is safer and cheaper to cut and run.

In hurricane-prone areas, information provision becomes a vital resource where locally-based emergency broadcasting alerts can reach even the smallest villages. 'There are dozens of radio stations in rural Honduras and every family owns a transistor radio,' says Bruce Baird, a veteran of Hurricane Fifi (1974) and now a disaster specialist with the state of California. 'It should be possible to develop a low-cost procedure for using this existing infrastructure to let villagers know when to evacuate.'69

Steve Maber of the World Bank cites the example of a radio network, set up for a health information campaign, that was successfully used during Mitch to warn remote villages such as Orlancho in La Mosquitia, where there are no telephones. In La Ceiba on the North Atlantic Coast, many lives were saved by prompt evacuation organised by the local Red Cross. 'We had the experience of Hurricane Fifi to draw on,' says Atlntida branch vice-president Rosario Arias. 'We got 10,000 out before Mitch struck, and that's why only nine people lost their lives here.'70

According to Honduran NGOs, these elements need to be articulated into a national strategy that avoids the centralised top-down approaches that have failed in the past, and prioritises people-centred strategies. An Inter-American Development Bank regional workshop of 130 government officials and disaster specialists, held in San Salvador in March 1999, reached the same conclusions, and also called for the strengthening of CEPREDENAC, the regional co-ordinating organisation for disaster preparedness in Central America.

Among the potentially key intermediaries in driving forward both democratisation and disaster prevention in Honduras are the alcaldes (mayors), who hold a pivotal position in implementing local government measures, controlling 3 per cent of the national budget. In practice, many receive less than 1 per cent, say sceptics, but Mayor Marln Lara of Puerto Corts, on the North Atlantic Coast, offers at least a role model. Like mayor Roberto Silva in San Pedro Sula, Marln Lara learned the lesson of previous floods, clearing slums and installing storm drains, and raising money from the World Bank to do it. Mitch claimed no lives in Puerto Corts. The town's local administration exhibits much of the decentralised participatory drive that the Interforos coalition called for in Stockholm. Mayors in Honduras can play an important role in linking the local not only to the national, but to the global.

The Honduran government is clearly more disaster-sensitive, anxious to show that it has learned the lessons of Mitch. But the country's fragile ecology and its divisive politics will leave many people vulnerable to flood and landslip for many years to come. On 18 September 1999, President Flores declared a 45-day State of Emergency as heavy rains washed away the Bailey bridge on the River Ula in remote Santa Barbara, and flooding threatened the homes of 400,000 Tegucigalpa residents and the stability of the massive El Cajn dam, providing 60 per cent of the electricity of Honduras.

This time, the now civilian-controlled Permanent Commission on Emergencies (Copeco), ordered the immediate evacuation of 100,000 people living on the banks of the Ula and in surrounding low-lying valleys. By mid-October, thousands of people had again taken shelter in churches and schools, and 30 had lost their lives.

One year on, the authorities have failed to solve the problems that Mitch exposed, according to the Tegucigalpa Chamber of Commerce. Effective disaster prevention will ultimately depend on more effective environmental management and an end to the despoilation of the country's soil, water and woodlands.71

Debt cancellation

The brutal scale of devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch captured attention worldwide, and there was widespread public sympathy for the stricken populations of Central America. What became a focus for international debate was the region's ability to rebuild while being crippled by foreign debt.

According to World Bank figures, Latin America's debt was $60 billion in the 1970s. By 1980, it was $204 billion, and by 1990, $433 billion. By the year 2000, it is expected to top $700 billion, and Latin American governments will pay $123 billion this year alone in debt service. Between 1982 and 1996, the region sent $739 billion to northern banks and international financial institutions. Peruvian economist Oscar Ugarteche describes such debt bondage as a key element in the bleeding of resources from the South to the North. Between 1985 and 1995, he reports, the world's ten richest countries doubled their per capita gross domestic product while, in the ten poorest countries, it declined by 30 per cent.72

Honduras, with a debt of $4.6 billion, is the second-poorest nation in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Its annual debt repayments in 1997 were $505 million (or $1.38 million a day), some 40 per cent of its annual budget, while over 80 per cent of its population live below the poverty line. In the last ten years, Honduras paid $4.4 billion in debt servicing on money that was originally borrowed to finance roads, sewers and bridges sectors that were devastated by Mitch, pushing the country's development back 50 years. In the words of Mauricio Daz of Interforos, 'We are not beggars asking for money. We are asking for justice, for dignity. In gross terms, we have already paid off our external debt. You don't need to be an economist to see that it's immoral.'73

When NGO delegates from 17 Latin American countries met in Tegucigalpa for the regional conference of Jubilee 2000, the worldwide campaign to write off poor countries' unpayable debt, they were equally blunt. 'The debt is impossible to pay, there's no mathematical formula that makes it possible,' said their closing statement.74

Mitch transformed the debate in Europe about debt and aid says Christian Aid's director, Dr Daleep Mukarji. 'People felt compassion for the victims of Mitch, but they also felt angry that their governments were collecting over a million dollars a day in debt from the same victims. How would you expect a state to build an infrastructure to withstand hurricanes when so much of its limited resources are routinely diverted to rich countries like Britain, Germany and the United States?'75

While editorials in British newspapers were sympathetic, International Monetary Fund managing director Michel Camdessus was initially sceptical.76 On the eve of a key World Bank meeting in Paris on 10 December, the Honduran ambassador in London, Roberto Flores Bermudez, urged the international community to offer Honduras exceptional debt relief: 'Honduras has no money to pay for its debts and its reconstruction not because of bad policies or because it doesn't wish to, but because that capacity was crushed by a force majeure.77

At its Paris meeting, the World Bank offered Honduras and Nicaragua a new $1 billion in loans at concessional rates and a three-year debt repayment moratorium three years during which the interest clock would continue to tick. For the $349.4 million Honduras was due to pay in 1999/2000, the meeting agreed to cancel $224.6 million. The IMF could only offer Honduras a $55 million loan at commercial interest rates.

In the same week, Orlando Garner the Honduran director general of Public Credit told reporters, 'The future of Honduras depends on this week. We need hard currency loans... for our industry. We need to give funds to producers to start their plantations. We need to start planting at least before 15 December or we will lose the season. If not, we may have starvation in a few months.'78

The Paris moratorium was the brainchild of Britain's finance minister, Gordon Brown, who had proposed an emergency mechanism to freeze debt repayments by countries hit by natural disasters, to be included in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, an IMF/World Bank debt relief scheme, launched in 1996.

A strengthened HIPC was subsequently agreed by the G7 industrial nations' summit in Cologne in June 1999, and was confirmed by a larger group of rich and poor nations at the annual IMF/ World Bank meetings in Washington the following September. In what seemed like a victory for morality and common sense, a jubilant Mr Brown told waiting journalists in Washington: 'What we've seen today is decisive action that the richest countries in the world have joined with the poorest countries, facing the worst in debt and destitution in a new alliance against poverty to give us hope that we can enter the 21st century with the problems of poverty and the problems of debt tackled.'79

HIPC allows selected poor countries to use the money they would spend annually on servicing debts to strengthen basic services, particularly health and education which was also one of the proposals made by Interforos to the Stockholm conference. Honduran finance minster Gabriela Nuez, a former World Bank official, is optimistic that the country will be one of 26 admitted to the scheme by the end of 2000: 'Debt is driving investors away from Honduras. We need sound economic policies. We have ambitious plans to privatise ports and telecommunications. But we also have a new multi-investment plan for health in next year's budget. Look what happened in Bolivia: when they received HIPC, inward investment rose by 10 per cent. And HIPC of course means you have more resources to give to the social sector. 40 per cent of our population is under 14. We desperately need funds for education and training, especially for women.'80

But for many Honduran NGOs, privatisation is part of the problem, not part of the solution. They fear the IMF will demand a punishing programme of public sector retrenchment, tax hikes and subsidy removals in a three-year probationary period before countries qualify for HIPC debt relief a programme of 'enhanced structural adjustment facility' (ESAF), that will put thousands out of work and impoverish thousands more. Even by its own criteria, ESAF does not work. An internal IMF review of ESAF programmes in 1997 showed 75 per cent go off track because they are tied to unrealistic economic indicators unrelated to debt relief. At the Washington meeting in September 1999, the IMF announced however that ESAF would be replaced by a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility, without giving details of the new formula.

While welcoming the linking of debt relief to poverty eradication, Christian Aid and Honduran NGOs believe the present HIPC scheme does not go far enough or fast enough, and that it ignores the importance of sustainable development. The savings that countries will generate for health and education will only go one-third of the way towards meeting the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) target of halving global poverty by 2015, to which the G7 states are committed. Real debt relief requires wiping out unjust and unpayable debts rather than freezing them, if it is to lead to real development.81

There also remains some uncertainty as to how much of the debt service burden will really be freed up under HIPC. While individual nations are willing to forgive relatively modest export credit debts, it is unclear how much cancellation of multilateral debt to international financial institutions like the IMF, which hold 60 per cent of the Honduran debt portfolio, will take place. A recent World Bank/IMF document suggests that, 'in absolute terms, the [HIPC] Initiative may not be significantly reducing debt service from current levels paid.'82

After Mitch, the World Bank, along with the IMF and IDB, set up a Central America Emergency Trust Fund to channel bilateral contributions to ease the region's multilateral debt service burden. By October 1999, donor states had pledged only $137 million for Honduras, the equivalent of around $50 million towards its $303 million annual multilateral debt interest, due this year.83

At the Jubilee 2000 conference in Tegucigalpa, in February 1999, the Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, Njongokulu Ndugane, spoke movingly of forgiveness the biblical basis of Jubilee and cited the 1953 accords, which limited post-war Germany's debt repayment to 3 per cent of its export revenues. With 40 per cent of its national budget currently committed to debt servicing, surely stricken states like Honduras and their people deserve real help, rather than lending them more money in order to pay back more debt?

What is needed, say Honduran and other Southern NGOs associated with the Jubilee 2000 campaign, is a new kind of conditionality in the global financial system for a new millennium conditionality with a human face. Debt cancellation must be conditional on the proper use of money released, and this means financing poverty eradication and sustainable human development health, education, homes and jobs. Likewise, there must be a national debate on the ways in which freed-up funds are spent, with civil society organisations being involved in verifiable and transparent mechanisms for monitoring such spending.84 Finance minister Gabriela Nuez says that so far Honduras has received little of the $2.5 billion pledged at the Stockholm conference. Financial analysts claim donors have continuing doubts about financial management and progress on existing projects. Much of it will be tied up in long-term concessional loan agreements that the country will never be able to repay. Before HIPC comes good, Honduras will owe another $2 billion in debt servicing the same amount that the World Bank estimated that the Mitch-related damage in the public sector would cost to restore. If we give with one hand and take away with another, Honduras is likely to remain perpetually in debt to disaster.

Honduras at the crossroads

The Stockholm Declaration is a political instrument; at the moment, it is no more than an agenda. It urgently requires translating into a detailed action plan of implementation that unites the international community, the Honduran government and Honduran civil society, in an equal partnership. The international community has a key role to play in Honduras, as elsewhere, by using aid and debt relief strategically to facilitate democratic transition and poverty eradication.85

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Honduras is currently formulating a set of critical indicators to turn the terms of the Stockholm Declaration into concrete action. It's imperative that all of the actors endorse such a practical application at the next World Bank Consultative Group meetings for Honduras in February 2000.86

It's imperative because Honduras is at a crossroads. Hurricane Mitch has made it more vulnerable, not only environmentally, but socially and politically. Domestic violence, crime and alcoholism have surged; infant malnutrition and unplanned urbanisation are rising steadily. The poor are getting poorer. In the UNDP Human Development Report for Honduras, awaiting publication, one disturbing statistic leaps from the pages. The number of years a child spends at school makes no difference to his or her final salary. If you are born poor, you will stay poor, despite your educational attainments.87

Many other nations have achieved a degree of meritocracy, a key indicator of democratisation. Honduras, as its key exports of bananas, coffee and timber exemplify, remains locked in a post-colonial plantation economy and a socio-political system of clientism and surplus extraction, where its own internal elites hold sway. Finance minister Gabriela Nuez's cry for help is compelling. Over 40 per cent of the population is under 14, and education and training, especially for young women, is urgently needed, but social and political reform is equally indispensable.

The modern world is coming up hard on Honduras' shoulder. Dotted around the higher ground of Tegucigalpa, hotels, shopping malls and banks are springing up and thriving, with puzzlingly few customers. Inflation, despite Honduras losing 50 per cent of its export revenue to Mitch, has risen only 1 per cent in the last year to 14 per cent. Local people claim that Honduras is becoming a target for Latin America's drug lords, who are washing millions of dollars through its wounded economy as the heat turns up on them elsewhere in the region. There are claims that the country's North Atlantic Coast has become an important staging post in the drug route through the Caribbean to the United States and Europe.

In the words of one Honduran commentator, corruption remains 'a chronic infirmity.'88 President Flores has taken a strong personal stand against graft and nepotism, but unless there is a new political model for reconstruction that is inclusive, decentralised and empowering, as the NGO community of Honduras proposes through Interforos, then the transformation that Mr Flores and the international community seek will not happen. Mayor Benjamn Sabilln Reyes in La Proteccin will give up his fruitless visits to the capital in disgust, while Puerto Corts' mayor Marln Lara's innovative example will go unrecognised. Many donor nations are implementing reconstruction projects using business or NGO partners from their own countries because of an apparent lack of confidence in the inclusiveness of the Honduran government's plans and procedures.

The continuing debt burden of Honduras, and its $2 billion bill for entry to HIPC, is emblematic of the political ambivalence that can ensue when the international community attempts partnership with developing nations where democracy is fragile. The international community, the Honduran government and Honduran civil society must seize the opportunity of the Tegucigalpa meeting to make the Stockholm Declaration a working reality if Honduras is to be transformed. The international community can send a powerful signal of confidence by writing off the country's debts and re-dedicating the revenues to eradicating poverty, the cause of so much of its vulnerability.

The Honduran government can show it has learned the practical lessons of Mitch by re-engineering its National Emergency Strategy to include people-centred provisions as well as technical solutions: assisted relocation for those in vulnerable locations

a designated safe haven area for every local neighbourhood

a national radio network to facilitate early warning and evacuation. Democratic transition in Central America has a long and painful history. Civil society has an indispensable role to play in consolidating and guaranteeing democratisation, but it is also, as veteran Central American observer Jenny Pearce describes it, 'an arena of contestation, a space which reflects the divisions of society as a whole.'89

The struggle for a new Honduras will continue to divide as well as unite, as the prophetic role of NGOs in the wake of Mitch their struggle in the mudslides of remote Santa Barbara and in the austere conference halls of Stockholm exemplifies. One year on from Mitch, a resigned editorial in the popular daily, La Tribuna, lamenting Tegucigalpa's continuing fragility in the face of seasonal flooding, described its vulnerable poor as: `the children of improvisation in the absence of compassion.'90 Those who sleep tonight in the plywood and sackcloth shanties above the Honduran capital have only one patron saint poverty.

Epilogue: How fragile we are... reprise

Mitch also has a global message, a universal relevance, in its complex chain of multiple 'lost' causes and debilitating effects. Prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs, together with Felipe Larrain and Amina Tirana from Harvard's Institute for International Development, break it down into three urgent questions the world has to answer in the hurricane's wake: Are natural disasters getting worse and more frequent because of climate change and population growth?

Can we organise and finance more effective international disaster relief that considers the long-term effects of disaster?

Can we design new financial mechanisms that spread risk throughout the world's financial markets so that the impact of disaster is not solely borne by the poorest?91 How would you address such admonitions? They are meant not simply for development experts, but for all of us, and they are increasingly urgent. The world is running out of sustainability because of a surfeit of inequality. Mankind's amorality is on a collision course with the biosphere. A natural disaster and its social outcomes are a microcosm of that larger trajectory.

Are natural disasters getting worse and more frequent?

Evidence that climate change and global warming are making the world more vulnerable to natural disaster is steadily mounting, says the 1999 World Disasters Report. Gradual changes in world climate manifest themselves in extreme weather events. Earthquakes and hurricanes have sparked instant media attention and quick humanitarian action, says IFRCRCS general secretary, George Weber, but more worrying is the chronic and rapidly increasing vulnerability of poorer countries to extreme and recurrent weather events.92

A group of British scientists writing in Nature estimate the implications of a 1.39C temperature rise by 2050 as an additional 1,053 million people at risk from water shortages, 22 million people at risk from hunger and 23 million from coastal flooding.93

Such quantum numbers highlight the other factor in this deadly equation accelerating population growth. Between 1925 and 1975 the world's population doubled from 2 to 4 billion. This year it topped 6 billion, and estimates for 2025 are currently 8.6 billion. The world has never sustained such numbers. High birth rates among the world's poorest mean the most vulnerable will be increasingly put 'in harm's way' in the most vulnerable physical environments on the world's crowded margins. Over 96 per cent of all deaths from natural disasters already happen in developing countries.

Christian Aid believes that industrial countries, because of their responsibility for climate change and their ability to pay, should commit significant new resources and technology to help those poor countries that are affected by such an increasingly volatile global environment. Rich countries have triggered global warming by their reckless use of fossil fuels. 'The carbon debt' that these rich nations have incurred should be 'traded in' for the financial debt of poor countries, in a first step towards a transfer of resources from the North to the South to achieve the equity on which our future depends.94

Can we organise and finance more effective international disaster relief?

Closing the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (UNIDNDR) in July 1999, secretary general Kofi Annan was perturbed that the number and the cost of natural disasters continued to rise. It was vital, he said that the world switch from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention. That means better early warning, better policies for disaster mitigation, and above all redoubled efforts to reduce vulnerability in the first place. 'The term 'natural' for such disasters is a misnomer,' said Mr Annan, 'Today's disasters are sometimes man-made and nearly always exacerbated by human action or inaction.'95

For poor countries like Honduras, one of the most viable prospects is enhanced regional cooperation. Greek foreign minister George Papandreou's initiative to bring Greece and Turkey together in a joint disaster response programme after the devastating earthquakes of mid-1999 has a pragmatic as well as a political objective. Rather than duplicate resources on expensive standby, poor nations should effectively pool some response mechanisms using the framework of regional economic and security organisations. Such cooperation also potentially strengthens political relations between states in the region. In the wake of Mitch, the Inter-American Development Bank's (IDB) drive to strengthen, the Central American regional disaster response mechanism (CEPREDENAC), is a positive indicator.96

But as the IDB San Salvador workshop and the World Disasters Report make clear, 'thinking globally means acting locally.' Poor states must also be more resourceful in empowering 'barefoot' strategies like the local safe havens, so effective in Bangladesh, that IDB disaster specialist Caroline Clarke wants to see put in place in Honduras and rich states must help them pay for it. As Noem de Espinoza of CCD reminds us, 'We have to learn from this disaster. We have to change the way power is distributed and exercised so that the poor and forgotten can participate in rebuilding their lives, and not just be spectators as the international assistance is used to rebuild an economy for the wealthy. The poor possess a tremendous capacity to solve their own problems. Our task is to accompany them. If they're not the ones to rebuild their communities, to participate in decisions about their lives, then we have no future as a country.'97

If the UN Disaster Prevention Decade had concentrated less on 'big science' and big projects in Piers Blaikie's words, and looked harder at how to act locally, perhaps its success ratio would have been greater.

Can we design new financial mechanisms that spread risks throughout the world's financial markets so that the impact of disasters is not solely borne by the poorest?

To respond effectively to the third question posed by Sachs, Larrain and Tirana, which is perhaps the most global of all, let us stay with the local. Bottom-up strategies that are people-centred are just as likely to be effective in spreading risk than top-down measures, when major insurance companies like Munich Re remain so pessimistic over the escalating cost of natural disasters to come. What would spread risk best is redistribution, and globally that requires an improved system of global economic governance to address inequality.98

When Sven Sandstrm, managing director of the World Bank, addressed the United Nations World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995, he defined the twin pillars of the Bank's philosophy for development as: economic reform and investment in people.99 While, for many, the Bank's record in both these areas is mixed, investment in people through its most localised and direct route, microcredit, is one of the most effective ways to alleviate hazard, whether natural or man-made, for poor people.

Initiatives like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and BancoSol in Bolivia, as well as organisations like Opportunity International and Accion International all involved in loans to poor working people with little or no collateral have developed microcredit as a methodology and a partnership-in-action. The experience of Christian Aid and CCD in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, providing loans to help poor people rebuild their homes and their communities, confirms its efficacy as an agent of change empowering women, giving families back their dignity, strengthening local organisations and providing solidarity.100

It is not a panacea and will not alone end poverty; but as a heuristic, a participatory way of learning by doing, it can empower poor people by enabling them to design and implement their own disaster mitigation strategies, both physical and financial. And back at the global end of the equation, is it not now time, in an era of ethical investment, for major private banks, financial institutions and microcredit organisations to work together to create a quality rating system for not-for-profit loan disbursals, which will channel private capital to those who need it most?101

Why? Because in the end poverty is a moral problem, perhaps the greatest moral problem of our time, as Britain's secretary of state for international development, Clare Short, along with three other European development ministers in a declaration at Utsein Abbey, Norway, attested earlier this year. The Utsein Declaration proposes building stronger coalitions for change, in order to develop genuine partnerships between developed and developing countries, civil society and the private sector. Progress will remain an illusion while poverty and inequity persist.102

Recommendations That the international community, the government of Honduras, and Honduran civil society work together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to agree a detailed action plan of implementation, with critical indicators, to effect the Stockholm Declaration.

That creditor governments and international financial institutions provide an immediate debt amnesty to the government of Honduras and other Central American states affected by Hurricane Mitch, conditional on freed-up funds being spent on democratisation, disaster prevention and poverty eradication.

That the government of Honduras and other Central American governments promote a national debate, with the fullest participation of civil society, about the implementation of such social regeneration strategies.

That the government of Honduras and other Central American governments affected by Hurricane Mitch, rearticulate a National Emergency Strategy of disaster relief, that prioritises people-centred and community-based approaches such as local safe havens and a national radio network for early warning and evacuation. Local people should be involved and consulted in their implementation in different regions of each country.

That the Government of Honduras and other Central American states affected by Hurricane Mitch should work closely with donor governments and international financial institutions to strengthen regional disaster-preparedness networks such as CEPREDENAC, and inform their respective populations how, why and where they will work.

Appendix

Reunin del Grupo Consultativo para La Reconstruccin y Transformacin de Amrica Central Estocolmo, 25-28 de Mayo 1999

The Stockholm Declaration

Hurricane Mitch that hit Central America in 1998 with devastating effects, demonstrated the ecological and social vulnerability of the region. This natural disaster occurred when Central America had regained hope for a better future, after years of internal conflict, violence and deep economic crisis and had dedicated its efforts to the consolidation of peace, democracy and sustainable development.

Response from the international community was prompt and international concern was confirmed at the first meeting of the Consultative Group for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Central America that took place at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) headquarters on 10-11 December 1998, in Washington D.C. The Presidents of Central America made clear their view of the tragedy as a unique opportunity to rebuild not the same but a better Central America. They reiterated their firm commitment to continue to consolidate peace and democracy in their countries, and to seek higher levels of equitable growth. The Presidents referred to the progress made towards sustainable development and affirmed their wish to reinforce the foundation of this development. The Presidents also reiterated their support to the process of regional integration.

At this second meeting of the Consultative Group, held in Stockholm 25-28 May 1999, the Governments of Central America and the international community have committed themselves to sharing the responsibility for achieving the reconstruction and the transformation of the countries concerned, thus establishing a long-term partnership guided by the priorities defined by the Central American countries and based on the following goals and principles: reduce the social and ecological vulnerability of the region, as the overriding goal.

reconstruct and transform Central America on the basis of an integrated approach of transparency and good governance.

consolidate democracy and good governance, reinforcing the process of decentralisation of governmental functions and powers, with the active participation of civil society.

promote respect for humans rights as a permanent objective. The promotion of equality between men and women, the rights of children, of ethnic groups and other minorities should be given special attention.

coordinate donor efforts, guided by priorities set by the recipient countries.

intensify efforts to reduce the external debt burden of the region. To respond to the magnitude of the challenge faced by this new partnership, the partners agreed to provide all parties with continuous follow up and information on progress on Central America's reconstruction and transformation, with respect to the previously stated goals and principles. Initially Canada, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United States have agreed to begin the consultation to establish or strengthen a country-based mechanism working with each nation, including its civil society.

Other donors and international institutions are expected to participate in each country. Consultations will also be undertaken with the Secretary General of the Central American Integration System (SC-SICA) to include regional progress as well. It is anticipated that international financial institutions and international organisations will support this process.

This Declaration reflects the mutual understanding reached at this second meeting of the Consultative Group and will provide invaluable guidance for common efforts for the reconstruction and transformation of Central America. The historical importance of this meeting is expressed by the high-level representation from both Central American governments and the international community. With the challenges and the prospects of the new Millennium ahead of us, we welcome this Declaration as a substantial support towards securing a better future for present and coming generations of the peoples of Central America.

Agreed upon in Stockholm, 28 May 1999

References

1 World Disasters Report 1999, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCRCS), Geneva.

2 Brown, Paul (1999) 'More now flee environment than warfare', The Guardian, London, 24 June 1999.

3 Blaikie, Piers; Cannon, Terry; David, Ian; Wisner, Ben (1994) At risk: natural hazards, people's vulnerability and disasters, Routledge, London.

4 Editorial 'Why thousands die', Washington Post, 4 November 1998.

5 Milne, A (1986) Floodshock: the drowning of planet earth, Alan Sutton, Gloucester, UK.

6 World Disasters Report 1999. Op cit.

7 Vidal, John (1998a) 'Gentle river that became a flood', The Guardian, London, 11 November 1998.

8 Bellos, Alex (1998) 'We are not beggars asking for money. We are asking for dignity.' The Guardian, London, 9 December 1998.

9 Davison, Phil (1998a) 'After the flood', The Independent (Review), London, 7 November 1998.

10 Gunson, Phil; Elliot, Larry; Norton Taylor, Richard (1998) 'West under pressure to increase aid' and Elliot, Larry (1999) `A tale of two catastrophes' both in The Guardian, London, 7 November 1998.

11 Ibid.

12 Davison, Phil (1998b) 'Western aid fails to reach Mitch's victims', The Independent, London, 14 November 1998.

13 Gunson, Phil (1998) 'Honduras disaster aid should reach only the stricken', The Guardian, London, 3 December 1998.

14 Comision Economica para America Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL), quoted in the Economist Intelligence Unit Country Report, Nicaragua and Honduras, 2nd qtr, 1999 p33.

15 Economist Intelligence Unit Country Report, Nicaragua and Honduras, 1st qtr, 1999.

16 Jeffrey, Paul (1998) 'Central America turns to churches for help after Hurricane Mitch', Ecumenical News International Bulletin 22, p7, 2 December 1998.

17 Acker, Alison (1988) Honduras: the making of a Banana Republic, South End Press, Boston, Mass.

18 'Destination Honduras', Baptist Times, London, 19 November 1998.

19 Escribano, Judith (1999) Communications trip to Honduras, Christian Aid, London, internal document.

20 'What CCD really thought of the banana boats', transcript of a talk given by Neom� de Espinoza, executive president of the Christian Council for Development (Honduras), at Christian Aid, London 5 July 1999.

21 Commision Cr�stiana de Desarrollo (1999) Construendo el camino de la oportunidad, CCD, Cuaderno de Aprendizaje, Tegucigalpa.

22 World Disasters Report 1999. Op cit, pp44 & 86.

23 Lean, Geoffrey (1998) 'The Year of the Flood', The Independent on Sunday, 15 November 1998.

24 Pearce, Fred (1999a) 'Mitch: anatomy of a hurricane disaster', World Disasters Report 1999. Op cit.

25 Ibid.

26 Hamilton, Roger (1999) 'The worst in living memory', IDBAmerica, magazine of the Inter-American Bank, January-February 1999.

27 Norsworthy, K and Barry,'t (1993) Inside Honduras, Inter-Hemispheric Press, Albuquerque, Texas.

28 Coulter, Paddy (1974) Honduras, Anatomy of a disaster, Catholic Institute of International Relations (CIIR), London.

29 Kent and Norsworthy. Op cit.

30 Maskrey, A (1989) Disaster mitigation: a community based approach, Oxfam, Oxford, UK.

31 Department for International Development (1999) Central America, Country Strategy Paper, DfID, London. UNICEF (1999) In the eye of the storm, Central America's children after Mitch, UNICEF, New York. Kent and Norsworthy. Op cit. p 12.

32 Wilson, James and Lapper, Richard (1998) 'When catastrophe can be a catalogue for change', Financial Times, London, 11 November 1998.

33 Lean, Geoffrey (1999) 'Disaster aid? It was catastrophic', The Independent on Sunday, 11 July 1999.

34 United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation (UNDRO) (1991) Mitigating natural disasters: phenomena, effects and options a manual for practitioners, United Nations, New York.

35 Alexander, David (1997) 'A study of natural disasters 1977-1997 some reflections on a changing field of knowledge'. Disasters 21 No. 4.

36 Pearce (1999). Op cit.

37 Beaumont, Peter 'In the wake of the beast', Independent on Sunday, London, 5 November 1998. Vidal, John (1998b) 'Human wreckage damned by El Monstruo', The Guardian, London, 14 November 1998.

38 Lanchin, Mike (1999) 'Poor struggle to live in the wake of hurricane', The Universe, Manchester, 28 February 1999.

39 Escoto, Edgardo (1999) '26 mil damnificados del Mitch continan viviendo en albuerges', La Tribuna, Tegucigalpa, 19 September 1999.

40 'Making do' (1999), The Economist, London, 3 July 1999.

41 Sapstead, David (1998) 'Hurricane Mitch survivors live on with little hope', Daily Telegraph, London, 28 December 1998.

42 World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

43 Norsworthy and Barry. Op cit.

44 Heinz, Willie (1999) 'Farmers without soil', IDBAmerica, magazine of the Inter-American Bank, January-February 1999.

45 Jeffrey, Paul (1999a) 'Mitch, the anatomy of a disaster', Enlace, No 2, March 1999, CCD, Tegucigalpa.

46 Jarquin, Edmundo (1999) 'This time let's do it right', IDBAmerica, magazine of the Inter-American Bank, January-February 1999.

47 Economist Intelligence Unit (1999). Op cit.

48 Jeffrey (1999a). Op cit.

49 Jeffrey, Paul (1999b) 'Chance for a new start', Latinamerica Press Vol 31 No 27, 19 July 1999.

50 Gunson, Phil and Borger, Julian (1998) 'Jobs disappear like their homes', The Guardian, London, 10 November 1998. Davison Phil (1998C) 'No bananas, no homes, little hope', Independent on Sunday, London, 15 November 1998.

51 Estimates from insurance company Munich Re, quoted in World Disasters Report 1999. Op cit.

52 Myers, Norman (1995) Environmental Exodus: an emergent crisis in the global arena. Climate Institute, Washington.

53 Rosales, Carlos A (1998) 'Storm could trigger another diaspora', Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, 8 November 1998. Kettle, Martin (1998) 'Mitch's impact is brought home', The Guardian, London, 16 November 1998. Zadilla, Alan (1999) Mitch's Migrants , Newsweek, Washington, 1 March 1999.

54 Thompson, Ginger (1999) 'Now leaving Central America, the Hurricane Express', International Herald Tribune, Washington, 19 January 1999.

55 Ross, John (1999) 'New generation moves north', Latinamerica Press, Vol 3, No 19, 24 May, 1999.

56 Thompson (1999). Op cit.

57 Ross (1999). Op cit.

58 Economist Intelligence Unit (1999b). Op cit.

59 McGirk, Jan (1999) 'Honduran assassins claim 200 victims', The Independent, London, 24 September 1999.

60 Bate, Peter (1999) 'A future built on solidarity', IDBAmerica, magazine of the Inter-American Development Bank, January-February 1999.

61 The Stockholm Declaration (1999): Meeting of the Consultative Group for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Central America, Stockholm, 25-28 May 1999.

62 Espacio InterForos (1999) De la tragedia a una nueva Honduras. Plan de reconstruccin y transformacin de Honduras, May 1999, Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

63 Jeffrey (1999b). Op cit.

64 Ibid.

65 Faber, Daniel (1992) Environment under fire: imperialism and the ecological crisis in Central America. Monthly Review Press.

66 Central American Commission on Environment and Development (1998) The state of the environment and natural resources in Central America.

67 Interview with Steve Maber, World Bank acting resident representative, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 20 September 1999.

68 Constance, Paul (1999) 'Lessons learned or lessons lost', IDBAmerica, magazine of the Inter-American Bank, January-February 1999.

69 Ibid.

70 Pearce (1999). Op cit.

71 Andino, Leonarda (1999) '400,000 capitalinos estn en grave peligro', El Heraldo, Tegucigalpa, 19 September 1999. Vsquez, Kelssin (1999) 'A casi un ano de Mitch alcald�a no ha resuelto problema en la capital', La Prensa, Tegucigalpa, 21 September 1999.

72 Jeffrey, Paul (1999c) 'Debt debate more urgent after Mitch', Enlace No. 2, March 1999, CCD, Tegucigalpa.

73 Bellos (1998). Op cit.

74 Jubileo 2000 (1999) Campana Latinoam,ricana, i conferencia Latinam,ricana de cancelacion de la dueda, ASONOG/FOSDEH, January 1999, Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

75 Forever in your debt (1998) Christian Aid, London

76 'Fast track for debt relief', leader, The Guardian, London, 12 November 1999. 'Debt and disaster', leader, The Times, London, 9 November 1999. 'Mad Mitch, bad debts', leader, The Daily Telegraph, London, 10 November 1999. 'Hurricane's Wake', leader, Financial Times, London, 9 November 1999. Coyle, Diane (1999) 'Ignore the hysteria over debt', The Independent (Review), London, 11 November 1999.

77 Denny, Charlotte (1998) 'Mitch's victims call for relief', The Guardian, London, 9 December 1999.

78 Bellos (1998). Op cit.

79 Brown, Colin and Cornwell, Rupert (1998) 'Brown pledge on debt relief', The Independent, London, 11 November 1998. Elliot, Larry and Brunner, Alex (1999) 'Poorest nations to get $23bn debt relief', The Guardian, London, 28 September 1999. Transcript of interview with Gordon Brown by Andrew Walker, BBC World Service economics correspondent, broadcast on BBCWS Newshour, 2100 hrs, 25 September 1999.

80 Interview with Honduran finance minister Gabriela Nuez, Tegucigalpa, 17 September 1999.

81 Distant Targets? (1998) Christian Aid, London.

82 'IMF perspectives on the HIPC Initiative and options for change'.

83 Ibid.

84 Jubileo 2000 (1999) Op cit. The Lusaka Declaration (1999) Towards an African consensus on sustainable solutions to the debt problem , Lusaka, Zambia.

85 Robinson, Mark (1995) Political conditionality: strategic implications for NGOs in Stokke (ed) Aid and political conditionality, Frank Cass, London.

86 Interview with Zoraida Mesa, resident representive, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 21 September 1999.

87 UNDP (1999) Human Development Report, Honduras (forthcoming).

88 Bustillo, Jorge Erasmo (1999) 'La Corrupcin: una enfermedad crnica', La Tribuna, Tegucigalpa, 21 September 1999.

89 Pearce, Jenny (1997) 'Civil society, the market and civil society in Latin America', Democratisation, Vol 4, No. 2, pp57-83. Biekart, Kees (1999) The politics of civil society building: European private aid agencies and democratic transition in Central America, International Books, Utrecht.

90 'Vulnerabilidad', editorial, La Tribuna, Tegucigalpa, 21 September 1999.

91 Sachs, Jeffrey; Larrain, Felipe; and Tirana, Amita (1998) 'Central America needs help on a global scale', International Herald Tribune, Washington, 9 November 1999.

92 Weber, George (1999) 'Introduction', World Disasters Report 1999. Op cit.

93 Parry, ML; Arnell, N; Hulme, M; Nicholls, N; Livermore, MTJ (1998) 'Adapting to the inevitable', Nature, Vol 395, p741. (1998) 'Buenos Aires and Kyoto do little to reduce climate change impact', Global Environmental Change Vol 8, No 4, pp285-289.

94 Who owes who? Climate change, debt, equity and survival (1999) Christian Aid, London.

95 Houlder, Vanessa (1999) 'Why we can't blame it on the weather', Financial Times, London, 30 September 1999.

96 Greece, Turkey to offer UN use of Disaster Unit Reuters News Service, 20 September 1999.

97 Jeffrey, Paul (1999d) 'We have to learn from this disaster', Enlace No 2, March 1999, CCD, Tegucigalpa.

98 'Natural disasters cost insurers 45bn', The Daily Telegraph, London, 30 December 1998. Christian Aid (nd), Poverty and inequality: towards a Christian Aid statement (forthcoming).

99 Sandstrm, Sven (1995) Economic reform and investing in people: the keys to development, address to the World Summit on Social Development, Copenhagen.

100 Christian Aid (1999) Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal, November 1998, narrative and financial report on Central America/Hurricane Mitch. Bundell, Kevan (1996) Microcredit: small loans to meet the needs of the poor. Christian Aid, London. (1997) Microcredit and the needs of the poor; the limitations of small loans in ending poverty. Christian Aid, London.

101 Dokmo, Charles (1999) 'Loans to the world's poor can enrich everyone', International Herald Tribune, Washington, 10 August 1999.

102 Herfkens, Eveline; Johnson, Hilde F; Short, Clare; and Wieczoriek-Zeul, Heide Marie (1999) 'If we are serious, we do something about poverty' (The Utsein Declaration), International Herald Tribune, Washington, 4 August 1999.

This report was written by Malcom Rodgers. Comments were provided by Judith Escribano, Mark Farmaner, Matthew Lockwood, Dulce Maltez, Clive Robinson, Sarah Stewart and Carolyn Williams.