Death Looms Over Indian Divers
By Giovanna Tassi*
Thousands of Miskito Indians have been physically disabled as a result of the dangers of lobster diving. The Honduran government is considering new fishing regulations for this lucrative export.
WASHINGTON - Lobster fishing in La Mosquitia, in the Honduran Caribbean, is a source of livelihood, but also death: the lack of safety measures for diving for lobsters has left nearly half of the Miskito Indian lobster divers physically disabled.
This indigenous community lives from the lobster catch. The export of the Panulirus argus is also one of the most profitable of Honduran exports, especially to the United States.
In 2002, according to sources of the Honduran Central Bank, lobster exports brought in 31 million dollars in state revenues. Most are sold to the U.S. restaurant chain Red Lobster, whose spokesman assures that the company purchases only trap-caught lobsters, not dive-caught.
During the lobster season, from August to May, most of the Miskito men dive, while younger males accompany them in small boats known as 'cayucos', floating alongside the bigger lobster boats. Moving from the cayuco to diving is the rite of passage to adulthood for the Miskito culture here.
A study by the special ombudsman for ethnic groups and cultural heritage, sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), based in Washington, found that there are 4,200 divers living with injuries, nearly half the total Miskito diving population of 9,000.
The working conditions of these lobster fisherman violate the most basic safety regulations of professional diving, say the authors of the study.
The Miskito men work 12 to 17 days in the open sea, in exhausting five-hour diving sessions at depths of 43 meters and with equipment of poor quality, they said.
This information was confirmed by Oswaldo Munguía, director of the non-governmental organization Mopawi (an acronym in the Miskito language for La Mosquitia Development Agency), who has been in charge of issues involving the lobster fishermen since the late 1980s.
For many Miskitos, the fact of being an injured diver is the consequence of breaking the taboo of the sea, Munguía told Tierramérica.
According to this community's traditions, the sea depths are inhabited by Liwa Mairin, similar to the mermaids of other mythologies, who takes care of the marine resources and punishes those who take too much by casting a spell so they become injured.
Munguía mentioned the failed attempt to open a mobile diving school as a solution to the terrible situation in which the Miskito divers live.
That experience "began with 1,500 divers, and the idea was to create a solid and unique organization, with branches in other areas of La Mosquitia," whose communities are quite isolated from each other, he said.
"But the school failed due to the irresponsibility of the Miskito divers. Some of their leaders illegally appropriated the quotas of their fellow divers, and that undermined morale -- and killed the initiative," said the activist.
The ombudsman's report states that each diver receives 2.5 dollars for every pound of lobster caught and weighted. The weigher subtracts five percent of the weight because it is assumed that the fresh crustaceans hold excess water.
In turn, each diver is to pay around 80 cents per pound to the 'cayuquero', the one at the helm of the cayuco.
Out at sea, the one dictating the rules is the captain of the boat. It is he who decides where each crew member will sleep and who controls the distribution of food (biscuits), alcoholic beverages and even illegal drugs, in exchange for snails and fish that the divers catch while they are looking for lobsters.
The "Green Guide for the Professional Diver", published by Mopawi and the Moravian Church (which in a joint effort with a language institute established the written Miskito language and a translation of the Bible), warns that the use of drugs like marijuana and cocaine is extremely dangerous for the divers.
These illegal drugs, mixed with the air breathed by the divers, and absorbed into the blood, prevent the adequate elimination of nitrogen, and can thus aggravate decompression syndrome.
The syndrome is caused by diving too deep or returning to the surface too quickly, which causes a lack of oxygen in the brain and chronic pain, neurological disorders, partial paralysis or even death.
According to Marcio Castellón, director of fishing at the Honduran Secretariat of Agriculture and Livestock, budget restrictions stand in the way of effectively resolving the problem of the Miskito divers, but the agency is working "on a strategic plan for new fishing policies" and revising the "obsolete" law of 1959 that is in force.
The fishing industry has expressed willingness to help train the divers, said Castellón.
The report from the ombudsman says there are only two decompression chambers in La Mosquitia, but the cost for such treatment is around 300 dollars -- far beyond the means of most lobster divers.
* Giovanna Tassi is a Tierramérica contributor. Thelma Mejía (Honduras) contributed to this report.