Thursday, June 23, 2011


Me and Simon Olaleye with Jader and Zahid in Las Mangas, Honduras
photo by Mari Whilkolm 2008

I left Honduras three years ago and it broke my heart. The kids I taught were so far along in their learning and were just coming of age. I had never learned community in the way they showed me community and leaving my small river village of Las Mangas after two years was one of the hardest things I've ever done.

Over the years I've kept Las Mangas and the kids close but only so far as phone calls, facebook, and skype allowed. From their first encounters with a mouse and keyboard, they've come a long way. Now, I get monthly updates from my top photographers who send me Photoshopped images over email. I'm so proud and impressed with the way they continue to grow and yet saddened I can't be there to see it. Last month my schedule cleared up enough to spend a week in Honduras with my old students and help Guaruma (the non-profit that employed me) with its mission. Mostly, however, I went to reaffirm my roots.

Camilo Lopez enjoying one of the many water holes of his community

I had seven days without a schedule in a tropical forest ecosystem. Having already spent two years photographing and living in Las Mangas, I needed new subjects, so I turned to the kids. Finding adventurous spirits was not a problem, neither was finding a setting to put them in. 

School children walk by a stand of palms in Las Mangas, Honduras

Las Mangas is my Macondo. Instead of the Buendia family, the Lobos are the central social and genetic pillar of the village as everyone seems to have an uncle, cousin, or brother within the family. The dirt road winding up the Cangrejal River valley cuts through several villages just like this one, but Las Mangas is unique. The streets are clean, the houses are beautifully adorned with wildflowers, and primary tropical forest still remains on both sides of the class five river. While the people struggle just to put rice and beans on their plates you would have to pry the indomitable smiles off their faces to find any bit of shame or remorse underneath. If Las Mangas breeds anything as successfully as more Lobos, it's pride.

This photo would be impossible in the wet season when the Cangrejal River
climbs its banks as surges towards the Caribbean 

Nestled between two national parks, the village is an ecological hotspot for insects, venomous reptiles, birds, amphibians, and several rare or endangered mammals. Precious hardwoods make up the canopy and provide ample habitat for diverse wildlife. Potable water rushes down the mountains through granite-laden creeks giving way to lush tropical life in every direction. But Las Mangas as well as the other communities along the watershed are not safe from the ever-growing needs of the population.

Camilo Lopez climbs the vines next to a large hardwood in the protected area of the forest

As you might infer, there is quite a bit of exploitation that goes on along the Cangrejal River. Large tracts of dense forests are slashed and burned to make room for black beans and other crops. Jaguars have been nearly extirpated from the region as well as iguanas, monkeys, deer, and tapir. The dollar speaks, as they say, and in a bad economy there is no taboo when it comes to putting food on the table.

Growing up Mangas means a barefoot youth spent boulder hopping, waterfall climbing, and the reassuring ever-flowing sound of water. It's the same freshwater that balances the estuaries along the coast, attracting tourists from all over the world. The same freshwater that keeps tidal ocean flows from rushing into the aquifers and contaminating the water supply. It's the same freshwater that gives life to endemic fish and makes the Cangrejal River so unique. But there's another plan for this water.

The Cangrejal River overlooked by Pico Bonito National Park

Energy companies backed by contractors, government officials, and teams of engineers have determined the mighty torrent of the Cangrejal is the perfect place for a hydroelectric dam. The communities are confused because while promised employment, they would be placing the fate of their natural heritage in an on/off valve.

This water line is what attracts energy companies to the region. The promise of a
raging river in the wet season may provide enough energy to power the city of La Ceiba

It seems no matter where I go, water management is a prevailing force. In the Everglades, we're shamefully backpedaling because a lot of money was to be made by controlling water. I would hate for the same regret to fall upon Las Mangas and the families of the Cangrejal River.

Orlin Murillo, past winner of the NANPA high school photography scholarship
frequents the river in hopes of communicating the beauty of the watershed 

Despite the difficult decisions and hardships on the horizon for the watershed communities, they remain optimistic. While I was visiting, the heads of each village met at Guaruma to draft a petition in unified opposition to the hydroelectric dam. A few of my old students even promised to fight for their water, using imagery to remind others of what is at stake. 

Over the seven days I spent in Las Mangas I thought about water constantly. I thought about how it sculpts our landscapes as it does our cultures. I thought about the millions of artists and poets who spent lifetimes trying to give it a voice. And regretfully I thought about our slow disconnect from it, much as we have disconnected from what we eat. I don't claim to know all the benefits or risks of building a hydroelectric dam. Maybe in the long run more jobs for the citizens of the river and "cleaner" energy for the people of La Ceiba will be worth the trouble. What I do know, however, is that the Cangrejal is beautiful as it is and doesn't need our improvements.

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