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Jorge Varela
South/Central America (Tegucigalpa, Honduras)

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In coastal communities around the world, a groundswell of discontent has developed regarding the adverse effects of industrial shrimp aquaculture. Worldwide, shrimp farms have destroyed thousands of miles of critical coastal wetlands, displaced traditional fishing communities and contaminated fresh water supplies. Meanwhile, the industrial shrimp farms have been plagued by disease, due to overcrowding and poor water quality. Scientists have raised concerns that these viruses might spread to wild stocks. Jorge Varela, 51, a Honduran conservationist, is recognized internationally as an important figure in the global struggle to contain this unsustainable model of development.

In Honduras, the feverish proliferation of industrial shrimp aquaculture since 1986 has led to extensive clearing of coastal mangroves (which serve as vital nurseries for young fish), irresponsible fisheries management and the destruction of estuaries. This has resulted in tremendous pressure on the once rich fisheries of the Gulf of Fonseca. Located on the Pacific coast, the Gulf of Fonseca is shared by Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The shrimp raised are primarily for export and local fishermen have been increasingly restricted from common fishing grounds as the coast is privatized.

The Committee for the Defense and Development of Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Fonseca (CODDEFFAGOLF) was co-founded by Varela in 1988 as part of an emerging grassroots movement challenging the appropriation of natural resources. Representing ten thousand subsistence fishermen, farmers, salt extractors, grade school children as well as local men and women, CODDEFFAGOLF is today one of the most effective and most respected NGOs in all Central America. As the organization's executive director, Varela has contributed significantly to containing the expansion of shrimp farming in the Gulf of Fonseca's coastal wetlands. He successfully pressured the Honduran government to establish protected wildlife and fishing refuges in the Gulf's coastal lagoons and since has been working patiently with the government to implement an on-the-ground strategy for enforcing protection of these sanctuaries. In 1996 CODDEFFAGOLF members persuaded the government of Honduras to enact a precedent-setting moratorium on the construction of new shrimp farms. After the organization's members exposed 60 instances where shrimp farmers violated the moratorium and marched on the capital city, the government increased enforcement measures and extended the licensing moratorium for a second year. These accomplishments have not come easily. Varela and CODDEFFAGOLF are challenging powerful interests and several years ago two of the organization's members were killed. Meanwhile, Varela has had his life threatened repeatedly.

In May 1995 CODDEFFAGOLF together with groups from El Salvador and Nicaragua formed the Trinational Civil Association for the Conservation of the Gulf of Fonseca. Varela served as the commission's first head. Varela and CODDEFFAGOLF are also founding members of the Industrial Shrimp Action Network (ISA Net), an international effort to support the efforts of coastal communities that are resisting the introduction or expansion of industrial shrimp farming. In November of 1998 Varela participated in a successful public education tour across Canada to alert North Americans to the high costs associated with eating industrially raised shrimp.

Last fall Hurricane Mitch left a devastating wake of destruction in Honduras. CODEFFAGOLF mobilized their extensive network and became a de facto relief agency in the western region of the country. Siltation from erosions and flash floods continues to pose serious problems for fishers in the Gulf of Fonseca.

Varela states that, "When destroying nature in the present, the expectation of a better quality of life in the future and indeed of survival are decreased."

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