Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Tierramerica

HONDURAS: Inventory of Mitch’s Cultural Destruction

Thelma Mejía* - Tierramérica

TEGUCIGALPA, Nov 21 2008 (IPS) - When Hurricane Mitch thrashed Honduras and a large portion of Central America in 1998, the scale of the disaster clouded awareness that the winds and rains had also taken a heavy toll on cultural, artistic and historic heritage.

The Honduran capital.  Credit: Photo Stock

The Honduran capital. Credit: Photo Stock

From Oct. 22 to Nov. 5, 1998, Mitch churned across the Caribbean, Central America, southern Mexico and the southern United States. In Honduras the hurricane left 6,500 people dead and 9,000 disappeared, more than 300,000 people without homes, 60 percent of the road network destroyed and four billion dollars in economic losses. In the years of recovery that followed, there was no space to think about other types of damage.

“We forgot about the calendar of historical events, especially the ones that remind us who we are, where we come from and where we are headed,” historian Darío Euraque, director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), told Tierramérica.

Euraque and a group of historians, restoration experts, filmmakers and geographers have dedicated themselves to the task of investigating and documenting Mitch’s impact on Honduras’ cultural heritage, one decade on.

It is not easy, “because there are almost no texts, the local literature is very scant, and that poses an enormous challenge for how to recover what was lost in order to begin to rebuild memory for the future,” he commented.

What the team has determined so far is that the greatest damage was the destruction of historical documents.


Historian Daniela Navarrete told Tierramérica that “it is normal for us to focus on human lives, roads, housing and the rest,” but “a multidisciplinary reflection on our vulnerable cultural wealth must also be carried out.”

The old Tegucigalpa neighbourhoods of El Edén, Concordia, Miramesí, El Jazmín and Barrio Abajo were hit hard by Mitch. Last month, when heavy rains fell, causing 100 million dollars in damages, the residents of those areas had to be evacuated because geological faults were detected.

The San Cayetano church in El Edén came tumbling down before the astonished faces of local residents, who tried to return home despite the cracks in the ground and in their homes.

El Edén, Miramesí and Concordia, part of the historical city centre and home to vast cultural wealth, have had faults running through them since the early 1900s.

On Nov. 7, IHAH presented “A Qualitative Summary on Hurricane Mitch,” by Honduran author Leticia Oyuela, who passed away less than a year ago.

In the book, Oyuela points out that Tegucigalpa was originally a mining centre – founded by the Spaniards in 1578 on top of an already existing town -, which is why it was built in the mountains, where its steep, narrow streets were once surrounded by pine forests.

The forests no longer exist, replaced by impoverished suburbs. The deforestation meant the loss of a cool climate and clean air in the capital, located 990 metres above sea level.

The spread of shantytowns grew more acute after the hurricane, says Navarrete. Today they are known as “Mitch colonies” and they demonstrate the lack of urban planning and the weaving of a new social fabric that has not yet been studied.

As a result of the hurricane, eight out of 10 urban centres in the country suffered severe damage, deterioration of cultural heritage and, especially, the loss of archives.

The flooding of the Choluteca River, which crosses Tegucigalpa, destroyed libraries, family histories, antiques, 17th century colonial homes (emblematic of the Andalucian neighbourhood La Joya), and the art museum of poet and author Clementina Suárez (1902-1991).

Just 20 paintings were salvaged from Suárez’s collection, including valuable works by Salvadoran, Honduran and Costa Rican artists. IHAH is restoring five of those pieces.

Flooding destroyed the historic centre of the city, where the walls of the national power company were torn from their foundations. A mural by artist Arturo López Rodezno, depicting the relations between production and labour, was saved, but today the site has been abandoned and now serves as a refuge for the homeless.

Only now “do we understand that hurricanes don’t stay on the coasts. We have to educate ourselves about the threats and about how to protect our cultural heritage or we will be left without history,” said geographer Ramón Rivera, of the Autonomous National University of Honduras.

Natural disasters could have caused the disappearance of the Maya empire, which had one of its main settlements in western Honduras, noted Navarrete. “We don’t want that to happen again,” she said.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

 
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