Editorial - October 15, 2003

Private Interest and the Public Good

Tela sits astride a slow, meandering river of the same name. It looks out over a rim of white-sand beaches onto Tela Bay. A warm Caribbean sun forces you to lather up with sunscreen,and nolch back your pace a couple of strides per minute as you stroll around this small Honduran town.

A mixed population of Garifuna -or more prop­erly Garinagu - a people with a unique blend of Carib Indian and African roots, and folk of Spanish ancestry call this century- old, clapboard,. tin-roofed port town home. It holds about the same pop­ulation as the whole of the Yukon.

Bananas made this town. The Tela Railroad Company, a subsidiary of the infamous United Fruit Company, along with Standard Fruit, received government grants of large tracks of coastal land in the late 1800s and the early part of the last century. In return for these rich banana-growing lands the US-controlled fruit companies promised to build badly needed railroads. shicoinv and port facilities.
The Tela Railroad Company did build a port here. It also built the railroad that fed the waiting ships with mil­lions of sterns, and then, boxes of bananas. The railway, however, did not link the coast with the inland capital of Tegucigalpa as had been promised.

This left coastal communi­ties like Tela more closely linked to New Orelans thantheir own national capital. It also marked out what has become a very rough and uneven development path for Honduras. Twice a week, a train still pulls out of Tela bound for that country's main port, Puerto Cortes, or so said the guide­books.

A friend and I decided to check it out this remnant'of the heydays this 'banana republic' during a visit there in ­August. Four blocks south of the Plaza Central half buried, rust-covered, more-or-less parallel lines of steel wobbled to an end in front of a seemingly abandoned station.

Sure that no train had come this way in many a month, we asked some nearby street side vendors whether the train still came to town. They assured us that it did. It seems that when the Tela Railroad Company, now a subsidiary of Chiquita International, suspended their operations in Tela, they abandoned the railroad.

Many isolated banana plantations and the communities that had grown up around them had only the rail as a link to the rest of the country. Twice a week, villagers along the rail between Tela and Puerto Cortes continue to enjoy rail access to markets and services.

At the appointed hour, a train pulling 10 cars - that ranged from open 'cattle cars' to coaches like those of the White Pass railway filled up to near capacity. Garinagu women and children hawked 'pan de coco', a bread made with coconut milk, and distinctive 'tabletas', a rich coconut molasses sweet mould­ed into centirnetre-thick sheets, at train side.

When the banana company left Tela, besides abandoned buildings and broken-down infrastructure, they also left many Garinagu families with no alternative source of income. Slowly the town and ..the Garinagu are making the transition from a resource-based economy to one centered on tourism.

But governments, seduced by promises of eco­nomic-development opportu­nities, are handing over control of essential services from rail­ways to water and health care to private corporations and placing the people at risk.

Since the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programs by the World Bank and the IMF in the 1980s, the pri­vatizaticn of public goods has become a mantra of the global­ization ethic that places profit before people's needs.
This month, the Halifax lnitiative, a coalition of devel­opment, environment, labour, human rights and faith-based groups is con­ducting a cross-country tour called On Private Interests and Public Goods here in Whitehorse.

Rudolf Amenga-Etego, with the National Coalition against Privatization from Ghana, and Virginia Setshedi, a South African with the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, will be speak at 7 p.m. in CYO Hall at Fourth aud Steele. All are welcome.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net