For Juan Angel Saravia, sustainable tourism is not just a catch phrase, it’s his livelihood.
Saravia, 56, supports an extended family of 15 primarily by selling souvenirs and household products to tourists, carved out of wood he collects from the forest floor and the river of the Cangrejal Basin outside La Ceiba. He claims to be the only artisan in the Basin with a permit from the Honduran forest management agency, COHDEFOR, to collect forest refuse inside the Pico Bonito National Park.
“We wait for nature to bring us benefits,” says Saravia. “We try to protect the forest, because we live off tourism.”
Saravia and his sons Pedro and Norberto hand carve furniture, ornamental items such as miniature cayucos (dugout canoes), salad bowls, spoons and serving platters from exotic woods such as mahogany, cedar, balsa, granadillo and redondo. The items sell for as little as Lps 50, mostly to visitors from Europe and North America who come to the Cangrejal for whitewater rafting and eco-tourism. The family also sell tree seedlings, mostly to day-trippers from La Ceiba, and a fermented juice derived from a local root called calaguala, which is said to be good for treating skin diseases.
“During high season we can sell about 10 pieces a week,” said Saravia. However, during the low season, such as when we visited in early September, he said he is lucky to sell two.
Saravia said he had been in the woodworking business going on 28 years, during which time he has raised nine children. One of his four daughers, Mayra Callejas, lives on Roatan with her five children. A son lives in La Ceiba, and another does itinerant day labor and stonework in the area. His son Darwin works during high season as a tour guide. The rest subsist on the handicraft business.
“We depend on this work almost entirely,” said Saravia.
Most of the wood he uses is found floating down the Cangrejal River, or on its banks (felling trees within the national park is prohibited). After a good storm, he said, he can collect enough wood to supply his shop for six months. When supplies run low, he buys scrap wood from industrial logging operations that operate outside the national park. He uses the rounded edge pieces that the loggers discard when they square the raw logs for sawing into lumber. He pays about Lps 2,500 a ton (US$120). The logging operations also have COHDEFOR permits, he said, certifying that the wood is harvested sustainably.
No part of the wood Saravia acquires goes to waste, he said. He uses the bark and leaves for compost and burns the wood chips he removes in the carving process for cooking fuel.
“It’s almost all foreigners who buy the artisanry,” Saravia lamented. “We (Hondurans) don’t value or appreciate what we have. We need to convince people that we were born here and we have to live here and appreciate what we have.”
Saravia has seen his business go through major ups and downs over the past three decades. He said business was good when he began in the late 1980s, because visitors to the Cangrejal Basin were on the upsurge. “They liked our articles a lot,” he recalled. “It was really good for about five years.”
Business slowed somewhat in the ‘90s, he said, then picked up after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, because foreign aid workers who came to the area to assist with reconstruction bought a lot of his merchandise. The next five years were his best ever, he said. “I sold a lot during that period. … 1999 was really good.” He sold as many as 15 pieces a week.
Saravia has had to overcome numerous personal obstacles and tragedies as well. In 2000 he was shot three times by thieves who ambushed him near the turnoff for the Basin from the main highway. One bullet just missed his heart. The thieves got Lps 100 (about US $5). “They almost killed me,” he said. But after six days in the hospital, he had to get right back to work to feed his growing family.
The following year, Saravia broke both legs below the knee when he was run over by a sand truck. He never received proper medical attention. His left leg managed to knit on its own, but the right never did. He still walks with a crutch.
Not long after that, Saravia’s wife abandoned him with the children, the youngest not yet one. The older children helped him care for them. Then in 2007 his shop burned down. He lost all his power tools in the fire.
But the biggest blow to Saravia’s business came in 2009, he said, when Honduras passed through political turmoil and gained worldwide fame for its high crime rate.
“(Business) fell a lot, because everybody was afraind to come to Honduras,” he said. “I don’t live off agriculture, from logging … nothing like that. I live from (tourism). … The crime affects those people.” Saravia said his business had improved somewhat since 2009 but has not yet returned to the levels of earlier years.
“We get customers from all over the world,” said Saravia. “The idea is to protect the people, the visitors, because they come to buy.”
Saravia is thinking of further diversifying his business by offering simple meals to people traveling through the valley. We bought some tortillas from his new partner, who has been with him four years, and ate them on his porch together with beans, eggs and cheese we brought with us – an experience we highly recommend.
But Saravia’s core business remained slow. We bought a small cayuco, which he said doubled his unit sales volume for that week.
“Today is Sunday,” he said, optimistically. “If there’s traffic, maybe we’ll sell two more.”