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Honduras: fishing for a brighter future, overcoming adversity along the way

Portrait of Maria Magdalena Rivera, a tilapia farmer in Honduras.

Magdalena and her family have endured hurricanes and COVID-related disruptions and are now rebounding strongly. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

Magdalena and her family have endured hurricanes and COVID-related disruptions and are now rebounding strongly. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

“Doors are closed to us. We are seen as weak. We are seen as incapable. Society itself has taken care of giving women that reputation, but I think that this should be left in the past, because women have a lot of strength spiritually.”

These are the words of Maria Magdalena Rivera, a young mother of two and tilapia farmer in Santa Cruz de Yojoa, in central Honduras. Once a solo producer, three years ago she helped form the CARE-supported, Cargill-funded Asociación de Acuicultores El Achotal (El Achotal Aquaculture Association), expecting her fortunes to improve. They did – eventually. But first she was put through a series of events that put her spiritual strength to the test.

Scenic photo of one of the growing ponds at El Achotal Aquaculture Association.
El Achiotal Aquaculture Association, a cooperative tilapia farm near Santa Cruz de Yojoa, unites formerly independent solo producers and creates economies of scale in both production and marketing. Photo: Laura Noel/CARE

Beauty and struggle

On a bright, sunny, warm November day, the series of ponds and holding tanks belonging to the cooperative seem idyllic. Lush vegetation surrounds the water, with thick grass and flowers blooming everywhere.

But above the ponds, vultures circle.

On harvesting days, it’s easy to swoop down and get a meal without much work when pond levels are lowered, explains Elías Ramirez, who leads the association.

Almost as soon as this organization of 22 independent producers was founded, and used its combined resources to build this centralized facility, it was faced with the disruption of COVID-19 in early 2020, followed by the one-two punch of hurricanes Eta and Iota at the end of the year.

Portrait of Magdalena with her husband surveying storm damage
Magdalena and her husband survey the damage to their fishery following Hurricane Eta in November, 2020. Tropical depression Eta hit Honduras Nov. 3, ripping apart roads and bridges and causing massive landslides and major flooding before moving across Central America and the Caribbean. Photo: CARE

Category 4 carnage

“Eta and Iota hit us very hard,” recalls Magdalena, the organization’s secretary, co-founder, and one of its key leaders. “We don’t have machinery to be able to extract water from the ground in this place. We have a 2 km [1.2 mile] pipeline upstream, so that the water comes down by gravity. Those pipes are on the riverbank. When there are hurricanes, the river floods, [and] all those pipes were carried away by the river. The cost per pipe is around 2,000 lempiras [about $81]. So, imagine losing 175 pipes or more.”

The storms flooded the ponds, and much of the product – the adult tilapia awaiting harvest – went into the river or creek. Honduras is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, which affects the quality and quantity of available water while worsening extreme weather events and creating increasingly difficult conditions for agriculture and livelihoods.

Meanwhile, COVID didn’t just bring about business closures and disruption for El Achotal, it ultimately took the life of Santiago Castro, the organization’s founder. Magdalena gets emotional, speaking through tears as she recalls the loss.

“The loss of our partner, who, more than that, was part of our production family, still hurts us,” she says, voice shaking. “He just passed away a year ago.”

Strength in numbers

Despite recent adversity, co-op members are now experiencing brighter days. For these independent producers, the simple act of banding together has brought easier access to markets, lower negotiated input prices, legal representation, regulatory assistance, and economies of scale. This operation’s sophistication attests to the latter point. On one site, the association manages breeding, hormone treatment (to ensure male fish since they grow bigger), and several large growth ponds. They also recently built a warehouse nearby to store feed for the fish.

The ability to sell as a group, rather than as individuals with far less market power, has helped provide stable and independent incomes to producers.

“We feed the fish,” Magdalena says. “We take care of them at night. It’s a 24-hour-a-day, 7 -day-a-week job. We do it, and we are demonstrating that women can do it; we are capable.”

Not much about the environment can be called “easy.” Across Central America, prices for feed are on the rise, and fuel prices have risen as much as 40 percent, driven by conflict in Ukraine. This has resulted in lower production volume for many agricultural organizations, and reduced income in households of small producers. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the prevalence of hunger in the region is the highest it has been in the last 15 years.

Meanwhile, not much about the environment for women can be called “easy” either. Magdalena calls the culture “macho,” but says that her family dynamic has changed because of the gender equality training sessions both she and her husband have attended.

“There are benefits, because in my home there have been positive changes. I know that there is a lot of work to be done, but I know that, little by little, it is moving forward.”

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