Bryn Wolfe

Interviewees: Bryn Wolfe
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Date: Wed. 18th August 2010
Theme: General human rights situation in Honduras; palm oil cultivation and Miguel Facussé; free trade treaties
Keywords: TBC



Martin Mowforth (MM): Martin explaining book, especially Re. African Palm cultivation and Miguel Facussé.

Bryn Wolfe (BW): I wonder what the connection is – who’s buying it? I assume he’s growing it for fuel.

MM: Yes, although I’ve just read an article today which quoted him as saying that we’re trying all kinds of new margarines and that kind of thing; but I think that’s a cover.

BW: Most of the cooking oil is African palm.

MM: Well that doesn’t surprise me, but then there’s so much African palm, you could have enough cooking oil for the whole of the Americas. [3:46]

BW: Do you know about Sam Zamuri, the banana guy? He’s really interesting. That guy also created the Zamorano, the research institute. And he virtually introduced the African palm to diversify. He was an odd guy. He was a Russian Jew who emigrated to the US in 1870 – 1880, and then he was very clever. He worked out that he could buy the over-ripe bananas or rotting bananas cheap to supply ice cream parlours, and he  …. that from almost nothing into 20,000 dollars, and when he’d made that money, he then started getting interested in the production. So he made the connection early in the  …. And he actually financed President Bonilla’s coup in the early [19]20s. He got 50 mercenaries on a boat, eluded the US government officers, or paid them off and they sailed in; and he got a five year concession on taxes. But apart from that he introduced the African palm. Even more bizarre, apparently he gave a grant to found one of the universities in Louisiana, which apparently has a very liberal reputation. But of course his actions with the United Fruit Company and everything else were ….

MM: Zamorano I find a strange institute – on the one hand, there’s very serious work on GM crops and on the other, there’s work on things like biopesticides and IPM (integrated pest management). [5:57]

BW: Is it actually integrated with the agricultural production on the famous Zamorano  ….?

MM: Well, I think only on the Zamorano-owned land, but they have various places – for instance, they have some bases – I’m not sure whether they own them, but I suspect they do – down in Valle and Choluteca where water melons are grown.

[More  re. African palm]

MM: It is of course related to the global issue of alternative fuels – an appalling solution if ever there was one.

BW: Yes, when I first read about Malaysia, with the environmental disaster and the human rights stuff. And then I thought they were growing a little bit of it, or they were just introducing it. But when I researched it – I mean they started growing it in the late [19]40s.

MM: More explanation of book. ….

Discussion of the research for the book and research assistants.

BW: Discussion re. Noelia / did Masters at Essex / Noelia Jover / working on climate change / also on Mexico /

Much general discussion. ….. lasting a long time.

Elly talking too, but very difficult to hear her.


BW: The coop is very interesting. …. The Red Comal is a cooperative which is really … The analysis of the whole problem of the agricultural situation they find themselves in. … Their analysis of everything that was happening was really impressive … And then they got raided. On election day, the police came in and yanked the hard drive out of all their computers. …

[MM on the book again.]

BW: [23:26] How do you feel about Costa Rica? Do you think it’s the Switzerland of Central America?

MM: Well, not really. You can see that it’s so much better than … with lots of nice places, but  scratch the surface of course and you will find plenty of environmental and social problems as well.

BW: Like any place, even developed places, the affluence and the relative deprivation. In terms of the different countries, it’s not that richer.

MM: No. the poverty there is less than in Nicaragua and Honduras, of course, but …

BW: But the general output and the level of people who are making money is greater.

MM: Yes, that’s right.

BW: Up to about two years ago when the TLC came in. I love the initials – TLC – Tender Loving Care in English. The same acronym. But I was fascinated – I’d visited Costa Rica a couple of times before – I’d never worked there. [25:08] After a while I started asking a few Costa Rican friends ‘What’s the difference?’ Because if I look at the geology and topography of Honduras and Costa Rica, there a few more volcanoes; and most of the Costa Ricans who gave me a good analysis said that they thought it was during the first Arias regime in the eighties that their government invested big time in education; so they got a jump in that they had more English, so that it was attractive to foreign companies to come in and then maybe start to ….

MM: I’m sure there’s some truth in that, but also it was earlier than that wasn’t it? I think in the late fifties and early sixties they invested quite a lot in their social systems and social welfare system, and health. And at that time there was no equivalent investment in places like Honduras or Nicaragua or Guatemala. And so it got a jump on the others there as well. …

It was only in the mid-1990s when tourism took over as the number one from coffee, or was it bananas?

BW: Apparently the development of coffee was different there from Honduras, in that there were a lot of small producers who were quite viable. So it made a difference too that they were all affluent. I always find it bizarre if you travel during the daytime and you see all those big cattle ranches with the Brahmin cattle.

MM: But then you go to the area you went to, Cartago, and you go past all these small farms growing vegetables and coffee too. You know they’re small – they’ve all got their little stalls out by the side of the road. [27:38]  In a similar way, its tourism developed like that to start with, and it still has a reputation for that – great reputation for relatively small-scale, relatively low-impact, sensitive tourism development  with lots of little lodges.

BW: Now they’re talking of condos.

MM: Exactly.  Since the late 1990s when things like Papagayo and things like big condominia, far from sensitive – all down the Pacific coast, Jaco, up in the Guanacaste area, there are big developments, and more developments planned. And of course these take huge amounts of water, particularly for …. So, that’s an interesting one for Chapter 3, because actually there is a particular struggle in Guanacaste, which is a dry area anyway, there are three major players all fighting for the water. One is the tourism industry, particularly for its golf courses and for its big developments, hotel and resort developments; two is agriculture because that’s being developed more and more in that area; and then three are the local people. And you can guess who’s going to have least power out of those three.

BW: In the nineties, the biggest budget I got out of the European Union – close to half a million euros – was for a huge indigenous integrated project in the far south, places south of Puerto Limón. It was a huge integrated thing with the indigenous, and of course they were under a lot of pressure. I find it very sad.

MM: Last week, I was in Casa Ridgway, and there was a group of indigenous Costa Ricans there to protest against the withdrawal of the law which gives them a degree of protection. So there are quite a lot of things going on. Then there’s Crucitas, the gold mine in the north.

BW: You know about the controversy about the place called Valle here?

[MM explains re. Goldcorp and the Marlin Mine in Guatemala.]

BW: This is that place which is so complicated because the whole mountain is a watershed for this little town, and the people have all kinds of titles that they’ve held these areas in the mountains for years, and then some golpista family comes in and claims they bought all the trees, and they want to clear all the trees. And of course the mining corporation wants to come in and do a strip mine. So it’s destroying the whole environment of the area, it’s essentially destroying the village. And then there are title disputes – it’s not that different from Bajo Aguán.

[MM: explains re. cyanide heap leaching, acid rain, skin diseases, etc.]

[Then they move onto pineapple production.]

BW: Here of course all the rivers and surface waters are polluted. ….

Somebody told me years ago – I couldn’t figure it out about Chiapas – you know I grew up in Mexico – and where the Mayas and the indigenous people were living was in the marginal areas anyway on the mountains and the slopes. It didn’t make sense to me with the hacendados – what was the land grab? Then some Mexicans told me well, it was uranium – there’s uranium there. It wasn’t for agricultural purposes or anything else – they want the uranium.

[Mention then of Isabel MacDonald’s mention of uranium.]

[Then more on Pacific Rim, and other examples of gangsterism.]

[BW: gives example of women’s groups protesting against discrimination.]

BW: The big story here of course that has fascinated me – when I arrived in the first year or two, I used to talk about Honduras as the Big Sleep. Because you have the traditional left who would get 200 or 300 people marching once a year on the presidential palace. It was just a group – the women’s group was separate – and who heard of the indigenous? (There about the same number, I think – about 5 or 6 % like Costa Rica). And suddenly when everything happened – the coup – this group came together, the Frente [38:37] and the left wing groups amazed me, the traditional political parties, because they genuinely seem to have embraced the indigenous and the women’s groups. And they, the women’s groups and the indigenous, definitely had an effect on the Frente. And the indigenous groups had a voice, and suddenly these invisible people and the Lenca, have suddenly come forward.

[MM: explains re. ENCA and earlier interview with Berta Cáceres.]

BW: A month ago when the police arrested her. They didn’t give her a bad time, but then she had a lot of signatures for the Constituyente, and they robbed those. Bertha Oliva, …. But that’s the interesting story – the invisible people. But the water thing too – it hasn’t been much of an issue here up to now, but if you look at what happened with the water in Brazil and Chile – it’s a big deal.

[Various items of discussion.]

BW: Ten years ago or fifteen years ago in the north, there’d been 300 Honduran rice farmers. Then as the markets opened up and the US was dumping the subsidised rice, suddenly there’s like fifteen people growing rice. You can go to the supermarkets with your students and try to find Honduran rice – all of it is American. When I returned in 2005, where I had to catch a connection I was talking to a farmer who was saying there’s no money in frijoles, maiz, rice – there’s no money in it – the trade agreements and everything else.

[General chat.]

Sayeed arrives [50:15] – with semitas.

[66 mins.] Talk of food.

Talk also of book entitled ‘Pseudo Capitalism’. Bryn considers it very suspect because of lack of index and rigour.

[80 mins]  Much talk of computers – Sayeed helping Bryn with viruses.

[102 mins]

BW: [104:15] I’ve just got this article which I thought would be interesting by Annie Bird from Rights Action. It’s just a big change because she was saying that the US failure to get the votes in the OAS. First of all she said that Maria Otero tried to meet with the Frente, and I’ve not been able to get a straight answer out of the Frente people I know about whether they met with her or they rebuffed her or whatever. Annie Bird was saying that 1) the US has accepted that the Frente is a player – they have to talk to them. And the other thing they have accepted is that the Constituent Assembly is inevitable. That’s a big change because if the US accepts it, then the military and the oligarchy have to. But then they’ll try to control the process, which is why the Frente …. So it’s a big change.

[Talk of Sayeed’s car.]

[The rest is farewells and chit-chat, in the car.]