Human Rights Consequences

The Human Rights Consequences of Inequitable Trade and Development Expansion: Abuse of Law and Community Rights in the Gulf of Fonseca, Honduras.

by Jorge Varela Marquez*

*Director of a community-based, grassroots organization named the Comité para la Defensa y Desarrollo de la Flora y Fauna del Golfo de Fonseca (CODDEFFAGOLF) in Honduras.

Honduras is an example of the way in which laws are ignored and violated and human rights broken in order to satisfy the demands of a major industry created to serve the interests of the globalized economy. The human rights problems in this case center on the shrimp farming industry. The human rights consequences of inequitable trade and development caused by the explosive growth of the shrimp farming industry in Honduras are increased when the large-scale shrimp producers are allowed to expand into coastal wetlands on which thousands of local people have long-depended for their livelihoods. In Honduras, in 1973, the shrimp industry established itself on 80 hectares which is equal to 200 acres. In 1989 the shrimp industry reached 5,500 hectares of shrimp farms on the coastal wetlands. By 1995 the expansion reached 12,000 hectares and by 1998, 16,000 hectares.

The Gulf of Fonseca borders the Pacific Ocean through an area shared by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The Gulf forms a marine area of more than 3,200 square kilometers, with a coastal length of 261 kilometers. Of this coastline, 29 kilometers are in El Salvador, 47 in Nicaragua and 185 kilometers in Honduras. The population that relies directly or indirectly on the resources of the Gulf of Fonseca is more than a million people.

The Importance of Coastal Resources for Local Communities

The coastal-marine resources, including rich mangrove forests and seasonal salt flats and lagoons, have sustained a growing population for many years. The seasonal lagoons are called that because in the rainy season they turn into beautiful lagoons that play an important role in the hydrologic balance of the coastal and estuarine waters. They serve as habitats and breeding sites for a wide biological diversity that plays an important role in the coastal marine environment and provides food and a source of income to local communities. During the dry season, while these productive ecosystems continue their important role in the area�s hydrology, they become dry during the day and are called playones. These dried lagoons have traditionally been used to sustain the salt industry, but since 1973 the shrimp farming industry, supported by international financial institutions (IFIs) and the U. S. Agency for International Development, has converted many of the playones and seasonal lagoons into barren shrimp farms.

In 1987, 47,000 hectares of mangrove forest ecosystems existed in the Honduran coastal zone. Mangrove forests are comprised of a variety of species of trees or shrubs that have adapted to a salty environment such as is found in estuaries where salt and fresh water mix through tidal action. Periodically irrigated by the tides, mangroves are viviparous species and can reach heights of more than 15 meters. They have leaf coverage the entire year and help against global warming. Along the coasts and estuaries there were also more than 24,000 hectares of seasonal lagoons generally located adjacent to mangroves. Until 1987 there were found in Honduras’ coastal zone 70 species of resident and migratory birds; 50 commercial fish species; 22 mammalian and reptilian species and various mollusks and crustacean species. All of them interacted with the five different mangrove species then found in the Gulf of Fonseca area.

It is important to understand the significance of the Gulf of Fonseca for those who live nearby. Coastal wetlands made up of mangrove forests, lagoons and estuaries contain a wide array of biological resources that satisfies the needs for food, income, shelter and economic well-being for thousands of fishermen and farmers. At the edge of estuaries and within the mangrove forests and lagoons can be found firewood, timber, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, reptiles and others. This suggests a great amount of traditional economic activity, and harvesting for sustenance is carried out near and inside the mangrove forest as it has been done for decades.

The Gulf of Fonseca is the area where shrimp aquaculture has been stimulated most strongly in Honduras and supported by institutions such as the World Bank. This has caused much harm to local communities and to the coastal marine environment on which many people depend for their livelihoods. A result has been increased poverty for many of the people living in the area. At the same time the national elite and international investors have been enriched at the expense of many local people.

International financial organizations, international aid agencies that seek to stimulate economic development, and organizations concerned with issues of food security tend to work with the national elites of developing countries to enrich them. They also tend to support the production of cheap food for export and the generation of high incomes for investors from the developed countries. The problem is that the trade and development institutions such as the World Bank, InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) and U.S. AID (Agency for International Development) very seldom consider the problems of communities’ loss of their local culture and quality of life, of the population migration that results when an area is altered, and the serious environmental degradation their projects cause. This failure to consider the human and cultural consequences of their activities in the context of the rapid expansion of large-scale shrimp aquaculture projects has had significant impacts on Honduras as well as many other nations.

The rapid and uncontrolled expansion of the shrimp aquaculture industry on coastal wetlands throughout much of the world has been stimulated by financial institutions concerned with the food security of developing countries in the South. However, the tragic lack of planning for the development of the shrimp aquaculture industry has caused serious consequences for countries’ environments and local communities. Many of the mangrove forests of the world are disappearing quickly as are other critical coastal wetlands, mainly because of the uncontrolled and explosive growth of industrial shrimp aquaculture. The efforts of local people and fisherpeople who are dependent on access to the areas being destroyed by industrial aquaculture and have attempted to resist and protest the expansion of this industry have generated murders and injuries among fishermen or other inhabitants of the coastal zone.

Human Rights Abuses

The abuse of law and communities’ rights in the area of the Gulf of Fonseca, Honduras, is also manifested by a series of murders that have been committed between October 1992 and May 10, 1998. Over that time at the estuaries near shrimp farms operated by companies such as Granjas Marinas San Bernardo, Promasur, Acuacultura Fonseca, Cumar, Crisur, and Sea Farm, eleven fishermen have been found dead by shooting or by machete. Those murders were reported to the corresponding authorities, to the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CODEH), and to national press media. Several public protests were held but no one has ever been brought to justice.

When the large-scale shrimp farm industry first appeared the farms were established on the seasonal lagoons and in the mangrove forests. The lagoons were surrounded by dikes and converted to large earth-walled ponds with barren borders. The large ponds spread across the coastlines for long distances, altering the hydrology and blocking access to the Gulf for fishermen and other traditional users. A significant amount of pollution was also produced. The mangrove forests were typically clear-cut, leaving stark wastelands that were made into shrimp farms.

This destructive incursion by the large-scale or industrial shrimp producers caused the local residents to lose food sources, incomes, access to firewood, loss of access to timber for construction; loss of access to traditional fishing places; loss of health of the coastal-marine ecosystems; and loss of personal security with the shrimp companies employing armed guards and bringing in outside workers. This was a violation of the human rights of these local people. The sudden incursion of shrimp farms and the destruction of the productive mangrove and lagoon ecosystems on which they depended destroyed the quality of life for thousands of people who had no voice in what was done to them.

The spread of the industry across the coastal wetlands of the Gulf of Fonseca does not even mean there was an increase in the efficiency of production. Shrimp farming is a destructive industry subject to frequent onset of diseases among the farmed shrimp and often declining productivity over a relatively short period of time as the quality of the environment declines. Increases may be obtained in the short term through territorial expansion into new farms, the increased use of chemical inputs and improved cultivation techniques aimed at improving production, but over the long-term, aquaculture is profitable and therefore sustainable only if the environment is preserved. But, without planning for sustainable development the shrimp industry tends to degrade its productive environment and to cause social problems as well.

A. Violation of Existing Laws to Protect People

These concerns about violations of peoples’ human rights are not based on a need for Honduras or the international community to create new laws. Honduras already has laws reflecting the human rights of its people. The problem is a lack of enforcement of existing laws. The Honduran Constitution provides in Article 59, for example, that the human person is the supreme purpose of the society and the State. Everybody has the obligation of respecting and protecting the person. Article 61 states that the Constitution guarantees to the Honduran people and foreigners resident in the country the right to the inviolability of life, individual security, liberty, and equality before the law. Article 65 sets out that the right to life is inviolable. Article 66 forbids the death penalty. Article 83 requires the State to appoint attorneys for the defense of poor people. Article 84 states that anyone found infringing the law can be apprehended by any person and taken to the appropriate authority. Article 90 concludes that no one can be judged except by a judge or a competent court with all the formalities, rights and guarantees Honduran law provides. Even if some of the fishermen who have been killed near the shrimp farms had been engaged in the taking of the farms’ shrimp (and no one knows this to be true) if they were killed by the producers’ security guards the Constitutional protections were violated by the imposition of summary capital punishment by private interests without any arrest or trial or the opportunity to be represented by a lawyer.

B. Violation of Laws to Protect Property

The Constitution of the Republic of Honduras created in Decree 131, January 11, 1982, provides in Article 107 that the lands of the State located in the bordering zone to the neighbor states, or at both seas littoral, on a extension of forty square kilometers to the inside of the country, only will be owned at any title by Hondurans by birth, by societies created by Honduran people and by state institutions, under the pain of the respective act or contract being declared null and void. The bigger aquaculture companies of Honduras, such as Sea Farms Inc., Granjas Marinas San Bernardo, Cumar and Acuacultura Fonseca have many investors and owners from the United States, as well as Culcamar from Ecuador. These ownership laws are ignored. But there are numerous other laws that are also ignored without consequence to the violator. For example, the law concerning fisheries provides for peoples’ freedom for fishing and for the use of the beaches. Article 12 of the General Law of Fisheries provides that in no case will there be conferred rights that make it difficult to fish or obstruct access to fishing for the purpose of domestic food consumption of a region’s inhabitants. Shrimp aquaculture produces almost exclusively for export purposes and clearly interferes with the food security rights of local people. Article 23 requires that the owners of lands contiguous to a beach will be not permitted to erect fences or construct or cultivate within 50 meters from the high tide line. Such land users are required to leave adequate space for fishing. Shrimp farms commonly violate this law.

C. Denial of Access Rights

The establishment of shrimp farms on areas that included mangrove forests, lagoons and tidal zones not only deprived local residents of their food, income and sources of wood for heating and cooking due to the cutting of the mangrove forests on which they depended, it also deprived them of the ability to have access to fishing sites. Along with this many people were expelled from the temporary houses they had constructed for provisional shelters, rancher’s, at the edge of the estuaries and near the mangroves where the shrimp farms were established.

D. Pollution and Destruction of Livelihood

Article 50 of the Fisheries Law strictly forbids the discharge of industrial wastes into the sea, rivers, streams, and gullies. It also prohibits the deposit of such wastes in places that might erode, channel or filter wastes to those protected water sources. Along with this is a ban on the discharge of any other waste, substance and detritus that could cause damage to fish and their hatchery areas. At present more than 16,000 hectares of shrimp farms discharge their polluting wastes directly to estuaries without any treatment. When the shrimp are harvested, all the waters used in the shrimp farming, which contain thousands of tons of detritus and chemical substances that are used by the shrimp producers to prevent and fight diseases or fertilize ponds also go directly into Honduran estuaries. All the shrimp farms and a major part of the shrimp packing companies pour their wastes directly into estuaries. As a result the Gulf of Fonseca is polluted with pathogenic microorganisms, many of them from other countries. This includes the Taura Virus from Ecuador and the White Spot Virus from Asia. There are frequently legal denunciations of the massive deaths of fish and crustaceans that are caused by these discharges.

The violations of Honduran law are not confined to the Constitution and Fisheries law. Honduras also has a General Environment Law that was effective May 27, 1993 pursuant to Decree 10-493. Article 32 forbids the discharge into continental or maritime waters where the State has jurisdiction, any kind of polluting wastes, solid, liquid or gaseous wastes capable of harming human or aquatic life, degrading water quality or disturbing the ecological balance in general. Article 66 requires that the solid and organic wastes coming from human activities will be treated to prevent alterations in rivers, lakes, lagoons and in waters in general.

Article 106 follows the “polluter pays principle” and requires in theory that the person who contaminates the environment and harms the ecological systems by failing to obey the requirements of the environmental law and other relevant laws will assume the cost of the environmental recovery to remedy such action or omission. That has of course not occurred and no one has been held financially liable for their actions. Article 52 of the General Fishery Law provides for the protection of mangroves, lagoons, estuaries, and biodiversity conservation. Article 52 forbids the cutting of mangroves and other trees at the river banks and their mouths, in estuaries, lagoons, at the edge of the sea edge and other places that can serve to fish and oysters as refuge. (Fishery General Law: Decree 154, May 29, 1959). The mangrove destruction by shrimp farmers has been widely documented, but no one has ever been punished or required to pay for the damage.

Article 78 requires the preparation of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by people such as shrimp farmers whose activities represent a significant alteration of the environment. While several companies have presented Studies of Environmental Impact Evaluation (EIA), none has fulfilled the recommendations about mitigation measures to protect the environment.

The Declaration of Natural Protected Areas (Decree 5-99-E January 20, 1999) places ten Natural Protected Areas in the Gulf of Fonseca under legal protection. Seven of the sites contain significant amounts of mangroves, lagoons and coastal wetlands. These seven areas are designated by the Honduran government as “Ramsar Site 1000” in the Ramsar Convention for Wetlands Protection. On April 3, 2000, Coddeffagolf denounced internationally the destruction of legally protected wetlands in order to construct shrimp farms in three of the Natural Protected Areas. Nothing has been done to protect the areas and the illegal shrimp farms remain.


The Constitution of the Republic of Honduras and the laws that relate to protection of coastal natural resources and conservation of the Gulf of Fonseca have been violated with total impunity. The systematic institutionalized failure to apply a nation’s laws justly is a violation of the human rights of its people. Nor can it be expected that the Honduran legal system can correct the violations because it is a contributing part of the violations. The problem is that the judicial power in Honduras works in favor of small groups of favored people that have economic power and that are indifferent or opposed to the concerns of poor people. International financial organizations and development agencies have only been concerned with the immediate economic benefit from large-scale “industrial” shrimp production. This has caused them to ignore and even appease those who have violated the country’s laws and caused environmental degradation, and the loss of the traditional quality of life of local communities. This serious disruption has stimulated the emigration of Hondurans to the countries of the North, including particularly the United States. The financial organizations must reevaluate their policies and the conditions of loans to include responsible measurements of citizens’ participation, social equity, and conservation. International financial and development organizations are not considering the concerns of equity, social participation and environmental protection in the projects they support. Nor is the situation in Honduras exclusive. The same situation, or an even worse state of affairs, exists in many other countries in which the shrimp industry has taken over the coastlines.


Varela, J. 2001. The Human Rights Consequences Of Inequitable Trade And Development Expansion: The Abuse Of Law And Community Rights In The Gulf Of Fonseca, Honduras. In: D. Barnhizer (ed.) Effective Strategies for Protecting Human Rights: Prevention and intervention, trade and education. Ashgate, Dartmouth, 2001. p. 155.