Fighting for Dignity: Honduras’ Forgotten Miskito Buzos

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“Es una situación de completo abandono.” Few people know of the struggles experienced by the miskito buzos of Honduras, a group of indigenous scuba-divers forced to work under terrible conditions to harvest lobster and shrimp. These divers—ranging from young boys to elderly men—dive into depths beyond what is safe for the human body, with little to no protective equipment and at great risk to themselves.

Feliciano Kirinton, a member of the Asociación Miskita Hondureña de Buzos Lisiados (AMHBLI), came to CEJIL on October 25th, 2011 at an event co-sponsored by the Latin America Working Group, to discuss issues impacting the buzo community of Mosquitia. Kirinton brought with him Amistero Bans Valeriano, a stoic elderly man whose weather-worn face revealed years of hard labor and struggle under a hot sun and in the unrelenting waters of the Caribbean coast.

Though seemingly reserved, Amistero spoke passionately for the buzo families impacted by the despicable conditions in which these men work. Hailing from Mosquitia, an area in northeast Honduras accessible only by water or air, Amistero says the miskito have limited employment opportunities. Many of them work as seasonal divers with little to no training. Their equipment consists of nothing more than a mask and flippers.

Amistero said boats used to transport divers are meant to hold 25 passengers, but are filled with up to 80 buzos. These men are then forced to sleep on cardboard boxes because there aren’t enough beds. He said buzos get very sick and paralyzed from the compression changes their bodies experience.

Many buzos have serious disabilities because of these appalling conditions. Amistero himself is semi-paralyzed. According to the Panamerican Health Organization, out of 9,000 buzos, 97% demonstrated symptoms of decompression sickness. To make matters worse, at least 4,200 miskitos are either fully or partially disabled.

Once incapacitated, most buzos receive no compensation for their injuries. Because there are no roads to take them to the nearest municipal office in La Ceiba, and since alternative transportation is expensive, most buzos must go to great lengths to have their voices heard.

Fishing for lobster and shrimp became industrialized in the 1980s to meet increasing American demand. Today, it is one of the country’s most profitable industries. Unfortunately, there are hardly any regulations for boats transporting buzos or for protecting their safety.

The wives and children of miskito divers are also adversely affected by these abuses given that disabled or deceased divers cannot contribute to the family income. This leads to lower education rates and poor nutrition among miskito families. However, because diving is the main source of employment in the region, simply taking away this choice would force many to participate in prostitution or narcotrafficking. A moratorium on the fishing industry would not necessarily improve the lives of buzos or their families. We need greater safety measures to ensure better working conditions. But the first step is raising awareness.

For more information, see a New York Times article about a doctor’s efforts to treat incapacitated buzos and a CEJIL article on the Inter-American Commission’s report on the buzos.