Counting the Souls
Bay islanders comply with a census and face some hard questions

June 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] An the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day the taking of Bay Islands census begins. How many people live on Roatan and who are they?

On December 13, 2006, Bay Islands department received a presidential signature putting it on the path towards of a Freeport status. Some of the conditions for this were that the ZOLITUR commission write bylaws of the investment zone and conduct a census of its population. This was to be done within 120 days of publishing the ZOLITUR law in La Gazeta, Honduras’ government publication. On January 28, the 120 day hourglass began its count. Still 106 days passed before anyone began the process of counting the archipelagos residents, let alone sending the bylaws for approval to many Tegucigalpa ministries and governing bodies.

v5-6-Feature-CencusThe Technique

The CURLA, Centro Universitario Regional del Litoral Atlantico, designed and administered the Roatan census. The over 100 census takers, who were divided into ten groups, 10-12 people each, went door to door counting each dwelling and person living there. The census takers were divided into four sub-groups, focusing on different types of dwellings: rural, business and urban. A chalk sign was written on the walls or door of each structure that was surveyed.

The census teams worked with the idea of Roatan Municipal having around 60,000 and 80,000 inhabitants and around 20,000 households. The groups worked every day, from 8 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 4 pm, allowing for some Santos Guardiola high school students working on the census to attend classes. “We want to give the students a chance to attend classes at 6pm,” said Ing. Manuel Canelas, executive director of the project who teaches logistics at CURLA.

Since the census asked each participant about a household, some family members were shown on the census twice. If the mother, father and adult children answered the census at their respective place of work, then again at home a day later, the census takers would take the entire family several times. On the other hand, other families, living in the bush away from the beaten tracks were not canvassed.

The Census Takers

Twenty-four professors, staff and several students from CURLA University in La Ceiba worked side by side with around 100 Roatan surveyors. A dozen people entered data into a computer database and four field directors oversaw the entire process. “CURLA is guaranteeing the accuracy of the census data,” said Julio Emilio Lino, regional coordinator for CURLA and Roatan census director.

The 11 day Roatan Municipal Census was an eye-opening experience for over a hundred surveyors and Roatanians alike. “I love asking them: ‘Do you own a gun?’ and they tell me: ‘Yes, a bible,'” said Artina Forbes, 50, a schoolteacher from Coxen Hole. From the 180 or so people Forbes interviewed, three admitted to serving time in prison and four said that they owned a firearm.

While Forbes collected around 20 surveys a day, other surveyors topped at over 40. The census takers ranged from 16-year-old high school students to a 50-year-old teacher born in Santa Helena. The number of surveyors varied between 80 and 120, depending on a day. “The hardest thing is doing all that walking,” said Forbes who looked at the work as an opportunity to “get more involved in social work as a teacher.”

Roatan Municipal

The work paid for by Roatan Municipal was coordinated by Vice-Mayor Delcie Rosales, Logistics coordinator Carlos Santos and Environmental director Lidia Medina. On May 10, Roatan Municipal asked for help in funding the work in a Municipal meeting with some of the island’s business owners. Governor Arlie Thompson and Vice- Mayor Delcie Rosales appealed for the assistance to the business community.

While several businesses volunteered some of their employees for the 10-day census, the Roatan Municipal and several businesses paid the census takers Lps. 200 per day, provided 150 daily lunches, water and four buses for transportation.

The cost of the census should be recuperated over time as each canvassed person will have to pay a one time Lps. 50 fee. With early estimates showing 50,000 souls canvassed, this should bring over $130,000 into Roatan Municipal coffers.

Some business owners who volunteered employees for the census raised issues of concern. “I need to be honest with my employees-who is going to have their information?” asked Andy Arcaya, American-Chilean owner of Inn of Last Resort, who ended up contributing Lps. 7,000 towards the census.

The Rumors

As people tried to figure out the implications of the census, rumors ran amuck.
There were people who abandoned their work place and even left the island afraid of consequences if their criminal records were revealed. “We had two people leave our workplace,” said Delcie Rosales, owner of West End Rentals and a Roatan Vice-Mayor, who later found out that one of her workers had a rape charge on the mainland.

After a shaky first day of census taking in Flowers Bay, the ratio of people who refused to be canvassed settled at around 5%. The highest rate of people refusing to take part in the census took place in Coxen Hole’s El Swampo. “It was also difficult in Flowers Bay, but not too bad in Los Fuertes,” said Lino. The 15% refusal rate in one of the Roatan Municipal’s poorest neighborhoods was triple that of the overall average.

One of the people who refused to be canvassed was Kevin Wesley, a boat captain and builder from West End. “I was working all day and I was tired. I told them that if they wanted to census me they would need to bring policemen,” said Wesley.

According to Lino, the media exposure and megaphone announcements undertaken by patronatos helped in raising awareness of the goals of the census and in dispensing with misconceptions as to the goals of the census.

Mayor Dale Jackson is interviewed for the census by Julio Emilio Lino, regional coordinator for CURLA and Roatan census director.

Mayor Dale Jackson is interviewed for the census by Julio Emilio Lino, regional coordinator for CURLA and Roatan census director.


While the census was promoted and advertised as confidential, it was far from being so. The information gathered about each participant was to be limited access, but not confidential. The personal data gathered in the census-person’s names, ID and passport numbers, fingerprints, gun ownership and criminal records-is planned to be distributed to each municipal, ZOLITUR, DGIC, Preventiva Police, Interpol and to be available to air and sea carriers.


One of the most important goals of the census is to identify areas ZOLITUR can focus on for development. The census should provide a base for distribution of income for projects and show where those projects are most needed.

One of the more startling realizations of the census takers was the lack of sanitary facilities throughout the island. “We have areas, urban areas, where people don’t even have latrines here. They do their business in bags,” said Lino.

Another idea ZOLITUR is looking into is giving preference to locally available labor before bringing in workers from outside. At this point it is unclear if Bay Islands resident IDs, or Bay Islands census IDs would be issued. Still, the database will provide a snapshot of not only how many people live in each municipal, but who they are and what they could offer as far as skills.

Migration Control

The task of controlling migration to Bay Islands runs into a basic conundrum: the Honduran constitution guarantees all Hondurans freedom to move freely about the country and settle wherever they wish. The Bay Islands authorities cannot hamper access to the archipelago to any Honduran; they can only indirectly affect the attitude of potential migrants.

The ZOLITUR commission hopes that the database will in some form control the desire of mainlanders to come and move to the archipelago en mass. According to Governor Thompson, vice-president of ZOLITUR commission, a framework is being worked out to implement the security and control elements for coming and going to the Bay Islands. This framework is far from being complete, but a list of all canvassed people will become a database file available for cross reference at the points of entry to the islands.

Each thumbprint taken during the census was to be scanned in and placed in a database. The information was to be available to Interpol, Honduran Preventiva and DGIC police, Municipal and transportation companies. “The island needs to fund a super efficient mechanism at security control,” said Lino.

There is a lot of work to be done to just begin improving the security issue on the archipelago. For example, Hedman Alas Bus Company has for several years been following the technique of ID number verification to ensure security for their passengers. Sea and air travelers to the Bay Islands ID’s are not cross checked before they are allowed to travel.

Two questions in the census focused on security issues: gun ownership and incarceration. According to Lino, only around 5%-6% of people admitted to owning firearms and around 3% disclosed their prior incarceration.

“One man told me he was a rapist, but he served his time,” said Forbes about one of her interviews. Since the questionnaire was not using a blind method it is expected that only a small percentage of people admitted to owning a weapon or having been incarcerated. “If this was true Roatan would be one of the safest places to live,” said Lino.

Utila, Gunaja, Santos Guardiola & what about Cayos Cochinos?

On Utila the census taking began on May 21, a week after Roatan. The Utila municipal used the same forms, designed by CURLA University, as used in the Roatan census. Michelle Fernandez, coordinator of the Utila census, spent several days on Roatan learning the technique of the data collection. The relative small size of the Utila municipal allowed 20 Utila survey takers, paid Lps. 400 a day, to go house to house and avoid the potential pitfall of also surveying people at their place of work.

Preliminary estimates show that the island’s population might not be as big as the 2001 government census showed-7,607. According to Mayor Alton Cooper the Municipal, divided into two “aldeas” of Eastern Harbour and the Cays, should show around 3,500 and 4,000 people.

The census on Guanaja was expected to begin on May 28, and Santos Guardiola soon thereafter.

The Conclusions

The 11-day census covered almost the entire Roatan Municipal. According to Lino the experience in conducting the Roatan census will allow CURLA to make a better questionnaire for the remaining three municipals. The Santos Guardiola Municipal census should cost, according to Lino, around $20,000.

“We have gathered vital social and environmental statistics important to the island,” said Lino. While there was a feeling that Bay Islands have had one of the more economically developed departments in the country, the census began exposing the high illiteracy rate and low education rates of the Bay Islanders. These ratios could be similar to the national average, rather than what some considered to be one of the more developed departments in the country.

An average Honduran receives 4.8 years of schooling. The average rates shown in the census could be little higher. The majority of people with college degrees on Roatan are either foreigners, or come as hired, technical and managerial help from Honduras’ mainland. “All the people here have focused themselves on the economical sustenance,” said Lino. “Few people focus on the environmental existence of the island.” [/private]

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