The Walton Family Foundation invested in a Honduran lobster fishery, targeting its sustainability and touting its success. Ten years later, thousands of workers have been injured or killed.
The Walton Family Foundation invested in a Honduran lobster fishery, targeting its sustainability and touting its success. Ten years later, thousands of workers have been injured or killed.
December 6, 2023
Próspero Bendles Marcelino was 15 when he began diving for spiny lobster in the Caribbean waters between Honduras and Nicaragua. That was in 1965, and if he caught an average of 10 pounds of lobster, he earned the equivalent of $30 in today’s terms. A member of the Indigenous Miskito community, he was born in rural Ahuás, Honduras, 29 miles from Puerto Lempira, the capital of the Gracias a Dios region, in the most remote and biodiverse part of the country.
Since childhood, during the eight-month lobster season from July to February, Marcelino would wake at dawn with 20 Miskito divers, slip out of his tomb-like bunk on a 40-foot dive boat, and gather the diving equipment: rusty air tanks, cracked fins and goggles, hammers, and the metal rods with hooks used to pry lobsters from their lairs. He would hand the equipment to a friend, who waited in a cayuco, a canoe carved out of a tree trunk. The cayucero, usually a family member or friend, paddled the cayuco with the diver and gear and waited for Marcelino to surface between dives to throw the lobsters into the dive boat. All around it, cayuceros paddled in a constellation of effort, positioning divers to descend to lobster lairs.
The sea, a deep blue from above, was darker 70 to 130 feet below where the lobsters hid in lairs. Marcelino navigated swift, cold currents and poor visibility to reach them. They used their sharp spikes to anchor themselves in their lairs. He pulled them out with a hook, putting them into a bag. Hooking the lobsters by their tails was easier, but dive boat captains discouraged divers from leaving marks on the lobster that would indicate how it was caught. This allowed captains to sell their lobster as if it were trap-caught and for that lie to be told all the way through the supply chain, until it was comingled at processing facilities.
Honduran spiny lobster is a $46.7 million industry, exported almost entirely to U.S. markets. While some of the lobster is trap-caught, it is cheaper to rely on divers. But dive boats and the processors that buy their catch do not invest in training or equipping divers. In the remote region with few jobs, the owners of the lobster boats save money at the cost of the divers, paying poverty wages, offering no protective gear, demanding an unsafe number of dives per day, and sometimes offering divers drugs to increase their tolerance for pain and weariness. When divers are injured, most dive boat owners do not want to pay for their care.
Marcelino, like most divers in the region, always dove without a wetsuit, air gauge, or depth gauge. If his air ran out and he had to ascend quickly or he dove beyond the 130-feet limit for single-cylinder diving, he could get decompression sickness, also called the bends. Of the 9,000 divers in the region, 97 percent have suffered from the bends after ascending too quickly and breathing compressed air that contains nitrogen gas, which can accumulate in the diver’s body tissue, according to the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a nonprofit human-rights organization that has worked with the divers and their families. Trained divers make safety stops while ascending, the length of which are usually calculated by their dive watch, taking into account their maximum depth. If divers are not taken to a decompression chamber within 24 hours of getting the bends, they can suffer numbness, impaired coordination, paralysis, and cerebral disorders.
The U.S. companies that import spiny lobster and the U.S. organizations that are active in fisheries in Honduras try to avoid the labor rights issues inherent in lobster diving. They say that they only source from and work with trap-caught lobster. Some, including the Walton Family Foundation and Darden Restaurants, the former owner of Red Lobster, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to turn this lobster into a success story. For the people that live here, it isn’t.
When sharks circled too close, Marcelino would hit them with his air tank. He completed 12 to 18 dives per day for 12 to 14 days in a row, although experts recommend a maximum of three dives per day. He dove for many years, an Olympian athletic feat, surviving conditions that few could, until he could not.
“In Gracias a Dios, most men live from this work; there is no other work. . . . This work is so difficult that my husband never slept well.”
Marcelino perhaps believed, like many Miskito, that when the sickness struck them, they had seen Liwa Mairin, the mermaid spirit of the sea. Liwa Mairin punished them for taking too many lobsters. And yet, to dive or work in the lobster industry was the only way for many of the 78,000 Miskito to make a living. Like their fathers and grandfathers, many Miskito divers end up paralyzed, disappeared, or dead. Like Marcelino.
Marcelino died in 2003. His death occurred in the fishery that conservationists funded by the Walton Family Foundation later called a “success story.” Ten years ago, the foundation announced, to much fanfare, that it would create a fund to improve Honduran lobster management with Darden, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company. Announced at the Clinton Global Initiative, a gathering where world leaders discuss global challenges, the effort received a steady stream of congratulatory press coverage, including from preeminent seafood publications like Intrafish, Undercurrent and Seafood Source, as well as from mainstream press like GreenBiz and Yahoo Finance. All celebrated the news as corporate do-goodery.
Walton and Darden put hundreds of thousands into a fund for Honduran fisheries, managed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). About $220,000 was used to execute a fishery improvement project (FIP), intended to improve fishing practice or management, in this case to benefit the lobster. Over the next several years, grantees tasked with addressing overfishing of the lobster undertook work under the FIP to slow the catch to an ecologically sustainable rate. It eventually turned spiny lobster in Honduras into the first fishery in the world with the potential to trace seafood from boat to plate.
A report about the work later described how it “achieved significant results,” noting a “full digital traceability system is now installed in 80 percent of the packing plants and 60 percent of the commercial fleet—not only for lobster but for all commercial fisheries.” The FIP encouraged trap use. However, while investing in a landing data collection system and vessel monitoring system to prepare the fishery toward an eventual sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, the FIP also licensed boats in the program, including the ones that demand 12 dives a day, day after day, from workers like Marcelino. Thousands ended up paralyzed or dead.
The Walton Family Foundation has since distanced itself from the FIP, writing in an email to Civil Eats that it only contributed funds—$300,000 to Honduran fisheries generally, a rough third of that to the lobster FIP—and that the purpose of the fund was to “encourage corporate actors to make sure their seafood was more sustainable,” according to a statement from spokesperson Mark Shields. “NFWF had ultimate control over the selection of all subgrantees of the fund,” Shields said. When searching for a pilot project to attract more corporate actors, he said NFWF and Darden recommended spiny lobster “because of Darden’s interest and offer for matching funding at the time.” Darden contributed $125,000, according to Rich Jeffers, a senior communications director at Darden Restaurants.
Families of fallen lobster divers, including Marcelino’s, had already filed a lawsuit against the Honduran government for failing to protect the divers through labor law before the FIP began—a lawsuit they would eventually win. Today, the Miskito community is one where paralyzed former divers can be seen from house to house, lying in outdoor hammocks, unable to move, and former divers walk the streets with crutches because of partial paralysis. But while the fishery is widely recognized for its horrific labor conditions, the money invested in improving conditions for the lobster in Honduras wasn’t directed at improving conditions for the divers that catch them. The situation underscores how investments in sustainability, and the attending publicity, can obscure significant labor problems, sometimes to the detriment of workers.
Marcelino did what he could to stay alive during his two-week stints on the 40-foot fishing boat. Like other Miskito divers, he was mostly illiterate and had no dive training, but he knew that when he was anxious or scared underwater, he used his air tank faster. So, he tried to remain calm while doing strenuous physical work and fending off sea creatures like sharks. Each tank lasted roughly a half hour, but he never knew when it would run out, endangering his life. And if he didn’t return to the fishing boat with enough lobster, the captain would berate him, or, worse, abandon divers in the water as punishment.
Lobster lairs were deceptive, often looking closer than they were, which caused Marcelino to take risks. He needed to deliver as much lobster as possible since he was paid by the pound. And when he ran out of air, he had to speed to the surface. He did not know to make safety stops along the way.
His life unfolded against this backdrop. In 1975, nearly 10 years into lobster diving, he met and married Melvia Cristina Guerrero. They lived in Puerto Lempira in the Gracias a Dios region and had six children. His diving was their only source of income.
On March 30, 2023, Guerrero, now 65, met me at the door of her home, her eyes dark and sad. She wore a gray and white head wrap and a dark blue dress. She ushered me into the house and said of lobster diving, “There are many boats and divers, each with 40, 30, or 25 divers. In Gracias a Dios, most men live from this work; there is no other work. . . . This work is so difficult that my husband never slept well.”
In 2003, Guerrero—who, like many women in the area, never finished elementary school—was home when she answered a knock on the door. She opened it to find the sacabuzos, a woman in the community who recruited divers, standing before her. The sacabuzos said, “I came to see how you were doing. All the men are fine, but your husband is slightly sick.” The sacabuzos said nothing more. Panicked, Guerrero decided to search for her husband by the dock and found eight men putting his body into a car. “That is when I fainted. My husband was already decomposing. I felt half dead, half alive,” Guerrero said. In recent years, roughly 4,000 Miskito divers have been disabled; many are paraplegic or quadriplegic. At least 400 have died.
As divers and their families do, I had traveled to Puerto Lempira by motorboat to meet her. Although the city can be reached by tiny plane, the cost is out of reach for divers. To get there, photographer Jacky Muniello and I boarded a motorboat in Brus Laguna, on the same route as the divers take, to Puerto Lempira. The motorboat was small, a piece of tinfoil compared to the ocean we needed to cross. We sat with a dozen people spread across wooden planks. Several large tires weighed down the bow.
When we reached the open ocean, the waves were higher than the boat. The captain, his boyish face looking out to the horizon, sped into the waves. The boat went almost vertical as passengers gripped the sides. And then there was a moment at the top of the wave when we all felt a pause. We fell, and the boat smacked the water. The next wave loomed over the boat, covering us in water. Someone, probably the captain, threw a black plastic tarp over us to protect passengers and their goods from getting soaked, surrounding us in darkness as gasoline fumes became our air.
Over seven hours, passengers screamed, cried, and prayed. Muniello passed out and vomited, and I held onto her limp body. I don’t know how much time passed before she opened her eyes and squeezed my hand. The captain removed the tarp, and we found ourselves in a tangled mangrove forest. We made our way slowly through the narrow waterway to the Caratasca Lagoon. Arriving in Puerto Lempira, originally called Ahuya Yari in Miskito, near the dock, we saw men hobbling on crutches, paralyzed from the waist down, their eyes vacant. To travel in the region to access the hospital or clinic, injured divers had to take these same boats, limiting their access to medical care.
There are other limits to surviving here, mostly economic ones. There is no road to Puerto Lempira, which feels abandoned. The region is vast and wild, the territory of drug traffickers like Juan Mata-Ballesteros, an infamous Honduran trafficker who moved cocaine in this region, and who appeared in the Netflix series Narcos.
The Miskito inhabit the area from Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast to Honduras. Christopher Columbus encountered them in Honduras in 1502, and the myth is that he was so thankful to reach the land he said, “Gracias a Dios.” Gracias a Dios, known by locals as la Mosquitia, has 94,450 inhabitants, mostly Miskitos, who speak their Indigenous language, and often Spanish, English, and Garifuna.
Of those, 22 percent, like Marcelino and his wife, live in extreme poverty and cannot read or write. Honduras has invested little in the region, leaving the Miskito with poor schools, no universities, and few options for work aside from diving for lobster, sea snails, and sea cucumbers. Puerto Lempira, the site of the region’s only hospital and a hyperbaric chamber that helps divers recover from decompression sickness, has 6.5 inhabitants per square kilometer. Of the deaths in the area, 37 percent are due to diving accidents.
Guerrero, whose house was bare except for a bed and a couch, held up her phone to display a photo of Marcelino, inscribed with the message: “We can’t see you or touch you, but we miss you.” After his death, she spoke to divers who worked with her husband. They said that when he surfaced from a dive, he felt the sickness, and “he told other divers that he felt almost dead. He said that when he died, he didn’t want the boat owner to abandon his children.”
Eighty-six percent of Honduran spiny lobster still lands in the U.S. market, according to trade data from the United Nations, capturing imports between 2018 to 2022. The lobster is imported by a handful of customs brokerage firms in America. Among the largest are Concept Brokerage, Inc. of Miami, which did not respond to inquiries about which restaurants and grocers buy the lobster, and All Ports Air & Ocean Consolidators, also of Miami, whose spokesman said they did not know who buys the lobster. A man who answered the phone at a third brokerage firm that also imports the lobster, New York Customs Brokers, Inc., said their work is akin to filing taxes, and that by law they could not discuss the imports unless authorized.
Despite the continued risk of injury to lobster divers—the pursuit for Honduran lobster maimed more than 100 divers last season—early efforts at improving the fishery did not address the safety of divers. Jeffers, the senior communications director at Darden Restaurants, said in an email that a year after the company donated $125,000 in 2013 to help create the fund for Honduran spiny lobster, Darden sold Red Lobster and ceased involvement in the lobster work. Jeffers said the company had never been involved in implementing projects, but confirmed the fund had been intended to improve management of trap lobster and did not address dive-caught lobster.
“We have found fishery improvement projects to be most effective when communities, governments, and supply chain partners all work together over time.”
In a request for proposals, NFWF instead sought to work with local buyers and other supply chain participants “to implement a traceability system that distinguishes trap-caught from dive-caught lobsters.” Potential grantees for the $220,000 in projects were asked to acquire traps best suited to protect the area’s habitat and “provide incentives to fishermen for their use.”
The Walton Family Foundation is a long-time supporter of such FIPs, arguing that they shift government’s management of fisheries “to ultimately ensure a sustainable global seafood supply for future generations.” In 2013, when it announced the Honduran fund, the organization estimated that more than 400 FIPs were needed to meet buyer demand for seafood worldwide.
“To protect fisheries and the communities who rely on them, there needs to be long-term, large-scale support. This grant was an attempt to attract other funders and corporate partners to the table,” said Teresa Ish, the senior program officer and oceans initiative lead at the Walton Family Foundation. She later told Civil Eats that the fund never attracted other corporate partners, however, and that it fizzled after Darden sold Red Lobster and no other corporations showed interest.
The Walton Family Foundation has since become involved in dozens more FIPs, which foundation spokesperson Shields said account for millions in spending. “We have found fishery improvement projects to be most effective when communities, governments, and supply chain partners all work together over time,” he said. He added that it takes years to be effective.
Katrina Nakamura, a responsible seafood advocate who runs the Sustainability Incubator and is a planner at the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, however, characterized FIPs as a market tool that allows retailers and grocers to call seafood products “sustainable” to satisfy corporate sourcing policies. “A FIP is just something the retailer needs, the supermarket needs, to sell fish,” she said.
Divers have the best chance of survival and recovery if they reach the hyperbaric chamber at the hospital in Puerto Lempira within 48 hours of surfacing. But dive boat captains don’t want to waste the gas money required to send injured divers to the hospital on the skiff they carried—the richest lobster banks were often three to four days by sea from Puerto Lempira.
“The captain was evil, and he would withhold food, scold them, and insult them,” Guerrero said of her husband’s boat captain. Some captains put injured men in row boats, saving gas money but ensuring the divers would be paralyzed, dead, or their bodies decomposed by the time they reached the shore. Stories abounded of boat captains who abandoned divers in the ocean to punish them or gave them drugs to make them more apt to endure abusive conditions.
Guerrero remembered one captain who, upon seeing a paralyzed diver who had worked for him, yelled, “I wish you had died!” Boat captains often resisted pressure from families to provide money to injured divers, but had to live with the constant reminder of their actions when they saw the paralyzed divers.
Guerrero recommended we visit the Puerto Lempira hospital to understand the situation better. It was painted bright yellow, and a concrete entry walkway led to a small blue and white rehabilitation room littered with used exercise equipment. A dozen partially paralyzed divers worked on different exercises in the afternoon heat.
A diver paralyzed from the waist down gripped two rails, moving forward as his legs hung limp. Porfirio Valeriano Carrington, 32, had experienced partial paralysis in his legs after a diving accident. During lobster season, he spent six to seven hours per day below the water, saying, “I had no watch, nothing to mark the air levels in the tank, no wetsuit.” He lived on a boat with 47 other divers.
When diving, he said, “You don’t know where you are going or where you are,” adding, “That is how I got sick. I thought I was at 115 feet, but I was at 137. The pressure got to me. The company doesn’t provide food for me or anything. The day after I got sick, another guy died. He was very young. And the next day, another died.” The doctor told Carrington that if he dove again, he would die. But he had no other way to support himself, so like many other injured divers, he would return to the sea.
Dr. Henzel Roberto Pérez, the deputy director of information management at the hospital, sat at a large desk, sweating. He said, “Sadly, we don’t have a diving school here. There is no training.” The hyperbaric chamber at the hospital, which fits up to four divers simultaneously, costs $100-$300 per session. Each session lasted 20 minutes to four hours, allowing the diver’s tissue to degas the nitrogen slowly by simulating a very slow ascent. Divers often needed multiple sessions to recover. Although boat captains were supposed to cover those costs, they often didn’t.
Pérez explained that when a diver was injured, “The person who delivers the injured divers is the sacabuzos. Sometimes, they tell us the captain’s name; sometimes, they don’t.” Many divers knew their captains by their first names only and were afraid to talk about them for fear of retaliation. Pérez noted that many young divers became paralyzed and lost sexual function, and their wives left them. The hospital couldn’t afford to provide follow-up care to paralyzed divers, many of whom lived in communities that were hours away by boat. For those divers who recovered, “Even though you tell them that they can’t dive again, they always do,” said Pérez.
Today, Chris Williams, a fisheries expert at the International Transport Workers Federation, said that dive-caught lobster is still sold as trap lobster in Honduras to avoid those labor concerns. Williams spent a year and a half working on a project about lobster divers in Honduras. He said dive and trap-caught lobster is still commingled at processing facilities, and captains continue to pressure divers to avoid hooking the lobster, which marks it as dive caught.
“How many men are walking with crutches in the street, wretched as if they were dead because they can’t do anything?”
Following the FIP effort, a 2016 report to NFWF co-authored by Smithsonian and World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) said grantees had nevertheless been optimistic about what they’d achieved. “Our science-based approach combined with sustained commitment to problem solving has catalyzed a sea change in the lobster fishery in Honduras, which has dominoed into other sectors. Honduras is now positioned to be the first country globally to have all its marine fisheries fully traceable from boat to consumer,” reads the report.
According to the report, 80 boats from eight plants had been brought into the traceability system and numerous vessels had been licensed. Grantees had also outlined a reserve network of cays around the Miskito area, where fishing would not occur to help support lobster habitat, and pushed for a rights-based fishery management system that would privatize the fisheries.
The privatization policy is controversial for its potential to deepen social inequities and empower the wealthiest actors on oceans, no matter their treatment of resources and workers. Many philanthropies and supply chain entities support it, however, in part for its ability to make it easier to predict the catch of wild fish and stabilize prices. The policy had passed Congress and was awaiting ratification by the executive office of Honduras at the time of the report. The work stalled, however, for lack of support from the Honduran government.
Grantees in the Walton/Darden-funded FIP had had other hopes. At the close of their round of projects in 2016, the NFWF report said that the project had a “strong partnership with the government of Honduras” on lobster, and that the FIP had led to sustained engagement and “truly important outcomes for the sustainability of Honduran lobster and the fisheries sector as a whole.” The Honduran government was drafting legislation to make the traceability system mandatory at the time, the report said, and a committee for the control and monitoring of fisheries had been established with better coordination between the fisheries department, navy, and port authority in Honduras.
Lobster importers in America were optimistic enough that 10 businesses signed a pledge to adopt the tracing system for Honduran lobster in the seafood supply chain as a result of the FIP, including Red Lobster and Chicken of the Sea. At LobsterPledge.com, all said they supported efforts to transition the fishery toward fishing techniques other than diving and were using their buying power to “provide an incentive to establish and maintain high standards for environmental and social welfare.”
Despite those words, dive-caught lobster remained in the supply chain, and practices to exploit divers continued. “The vast majority of the landings do still come from diving,” said Williams, with divers delivering lobster to those larger, 40-foot boats whose captains can claim to have caught it in traps. He emphasized that Honduran factories are aware of the practice.
While the supply chain continued to obscure dive catch, and divers continued dying, Guerrero had more success than many widows of divers. A widow at 46, she had limited education, no job, and six children to support. She requested financial support from her husband’s boat captain, who gave her 40,000 lempira ($2,365). She survived her husband’s death and educated her children so they would not follow in their father’s footsteps and become divers. Now, she runs into injured divers daily when she leaves her house. “How many men are walking with crutches in the street, wretched as if they were dead because they can’t do anything?” she lamented.
To understand the lives of paralyzed divers in the region, we traveled with Víctor Arias, 30, to the village of Cauquira, about an hour by boat from Puerto Lempira. Arias, who is Miskito and a nurse whose father was a diver, works at the Center for Integral Treatment for Disabled Divers. As we crossed the Caratasca Lagoon and neared a village lined by mangrove forests, Arias said, “I am proud of who I am, of who my father is, and what he had to do to raise us. Everything we have suffered is because we are a small Indigenous group of Miskitos. The only thing the fishing companies have done is exploit us. The state has abandoned us.”
Landing in Cauquira, we walked down sandy lanes through a village of tiny wooden homes, past porches with one or more wheelchairs visible. Rosendo Teodoro Calderón, 60, wearing jeans and a striped shirt, sat in a wheelchair outside his one-room house. As he spoke, an injured diver in a wheelchair could be seen in the distance. Arias, who had treated Rosendo, greeted him and began translating from Miskito to Spanish.
“I spent my entire youth in a wheelchair,” said Calderón. When he was 25 and working on a lobster boat, he experienced decompression illness. He was over 100 feet down, and something blocked his air supply. Calderón had to reach the surface quickly, and although he could have done that by dropping the lobsters in his hand, he didn’t. He said, “There was no hyperbaric chamber at that time. The captain threw me away like a piece of trash. The owner was named Kenny. The company did nothing.” Calderón’s twin brother sent him money to build a house and help him survive.
Calderón wheeled inside his home, his face half in the shadows, and said, “I don’t have hope of walking again. I’m completely paralyzed. We never receive money; we never receive help. The government should do its part to aid the injured, poor, and suffering.” His house was spare with concrete floors, a bare mattress in one corner, and a bathroom in another. As we left, Calderón said, “I felt good being a diver because it was how I supported my family.”
From his father’s experience, Arias knew the difficulties of lobster diving. He said, “The physical force required to hook the lobster, kill it, and return to the surface with damaged fins and masks and without a wetsuit is incredible. I don’t know how those men survive. They work like mules and have to go deeper and deeper to find lobsters.” Arias said, “The death of a diver here is nothing; it is normal. The state has to prevent this from happening.”
Years before, others had tried. In 2004, Guerrero, wanting to convert her pain into justice, joined the families of 41 divers who had been injured or died and filed a case against Honduras at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. They argued that the Honduran state had shown indifference to dangerous working conditions for divers and permitted labor exploitation by national and international fishing enterprises. In 2007, CEJIL, a nonprofit human-rights organization, began working with the divers and their families to present the case before the court.
Though the lawsuit was headed to court as the Walton/Darden-funded FIP got underway in Honduras, the work wasn’t structured to benefit the health and safety of the divers in the lobster industry, only the health of the lobster and buyers’ ability to avoid the divers’ labor issues.
“They’re doing a dangerous job without the right training, the right kit, out of desperation, basically. And their misery is used to produce a luxury product for American diners, and that is wrong.”
“FIPs were first created to address environmental issues, but that has changed significantly in the last five years,” Walton Family Foundation’s Shields said in a statement to Civil Eats. “There is no evidence that [FIPs] worsen labor issues in supply chains. However, it is clear that programs designed to address environmental issues often fail to address, or even catch, labor issues.”
He said the Walton Family Foundation is now working to remove forced labor from seafood supply chains, supporting fishing communities and Indigenous fishing groups building co-management programs, and supporting research “to understand the value that small-scale fishers retain (or don’t) in global supply chains” in other regions. He added that vessel monitoring, enforcement, and a credible traceability system would address the comingling of dive-caught and trap-caught lobster in Honduras. “Companies sourcing from Honduras should be insisting on this level of transparency to ensure that they’re not buying fish that harms workers,” he said.
No such insistence continued, however. Chicken of the Sea and Red Lobster did not respond to requests for comment. The effort they joined to improve conditions in Honduras, LobsterPledge.com, became a defunct URL. Circumstances for the divers have since been left to the litigation.
“They’re doing a dangerous job without the right training, the right kit, out of desperation, basically. And their misery is used to produce a luxury product for American diners, and that is wrong,” said Williams, the fisheries expert. “The supply chain and the government should be investing in those regions and making sure that people are trained properly and that the law is followed and that they have rights at work and that they are not dying and paralyzed and then just left to rot.”
The lawsuit wound its way through the court for years. As it did, the most severely injured divers, who had paraplegia and lived in remote fishing villages like Cauquira, didn’t have the financial means to participate in the case.
Nixon González Flores, 55, a diver paralyzed from the waist down, lived in a wooden house on stilts surrounded by trees upriver from Calderón. He lay on a hammock below the house when I visited, and his youngest son sat in Flores’ wheelchair. Flores became a diver because “there is no work here in La Mosquitia. The only thing is to work in the fishing industry. Diving is dangerous and terrible work.” He was paralyzed at 37 after a 150-foot dive in which the pressure got to him. After the injury, the fishing company didn’t provide financial support. He said, “I have many problems. My body needs a lot of care. I need food, soap, and Pampers. I urinate on myself day and night.”
On the muddy banks nearby sits the house of Nixon’s brother Martín González Flores, 61. Walking up the steps to the porch of his house, I saw Martín lying in a hammock, his body stiff, his hands gnarled but shaking. His wife exited the house, reached down, and smoothed his clenched fingers. It was a gentle, practiced gesture. He spoke in a whisper, his lips barely moving, his eyes on the ceiling. At 45, after a deep dive, he experienced a brain hemorrhage. “He took me to the shore and left me,” said Martín of the boat captain. His wife had become his full-time caregiver since the accident. The couple had two children, but one had died in a diving accident.
Martín’s son-in-law, Jony Anisal, 36, sat quietly nearby, his feet dangling off the porch. He looked into the distance as he talked about working as a lobster diver. He said of the Miskito community, “We don’t have work. We have to feed our children, our wives.” He got up, went inside the house, and returned with a small, rusted hammer and a rod with a hook—the tools for catching lobster and nearby snails. In addition to his father-in-law, he knew many divers who had been disabled or died, including his own father. Anisal’s brother was a diver, and they often worked together. Their boat captain called them cowards if they got sick and offered them injections, pills, and drugs to keep them diving. “Why did you come if you don’t want to work?” Anisal remembered the captain shouting at him.
In the village where Martín and Nixon lived, Arias said there were 60 paralyzed divers “without counting the dead, the many dead.” Martín wanted to tell the lobster companies they shouldn’t have abandoned him after so many years of work. He wished he could have formed a part of the legal case with the other injured divers, but his level of paralysis and lack of resources prevented him from doing so. Arias said, “As a person, human, and Miskito, I think this lawsuit must change things.”
WWF continued fishery improvement projects in other Caribbean lobster markets. And the organization’s Honduran work was soon outpaced by success in a very similar project in Nicaragua, launched the same year with a similar amount of funding. Government engagement and capacity, it turned out, were the primary difference. As Walton Family Foundation’s consultants would later note in a subsequent academic review, FIPs require buy-in from foreign governments when executed abroad, and “government capacity and engagement in FIPs are essential for success; most FIPs in low-governance settings cannot make progress without government action.” The same report noted that, as of 2020, “Nicaragua has completed 73 percent of its FIP actions, but Honduras has completed only 13 percent.”
In 2022, the Miskito divers won their case against the Honduran government. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights declared that Honduras was responsible for the lack of prevention, supervision, and oversight of working conditions for the Miskito divers, which had resulted in injury, disappearance, and death for many. It was the first case before the court in which a country was held responsible for the labor conditions of companies working in its territory. The court held Honduras accountable for providing monetary compensation to the families of the 42 divers and for creating training and regulations for diving conditions.
On the afternoon of March 30, 2023, in the heat of the day, Guerrero walked 10 minutes from her house to Pawaka Auditorium, a series of circular concrete benches around a dusty, red patch of ground. I accompanied her to the ceremony in which Honduran authorities apologized for their role in the divers’ injuries, deaths, and disappearances. Walking down the dirt road, we saw a man in a wooden wheelchair, his hands gripping a gear to move it forward. I asked him his name, looking over his wheelchair, built from wood scraps. He introduced himself as Filemón Cesión Gómez, a former lobster diver. “I was injured in 1980 at 25. Many men are dead or disappeared at sea,” he said. As we spoke, another injured diver limped by on crutches.
Government officials who flew to Puerto Lempira that morning stepped out of an air-conditioned building, the men in crisp suits and the women in thick layers of makeup and heels. Officials from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Human Rights took their place on a raised podium.
In compliance with the 2021 Inter-American Court of Human Rights judgment, Honduran officials vowed to adopt legislative measures to prevent further human rights violations, strengthen regional public health programs, create a program to inspect and supervise diving and fishing, and identify victims and prosecute those responsible. Among the officials was Ítalo Bonilla Mejía, a biologist at the General Directorate of the Merchant Marine of Honduras. I wanted him to tell me what none of the divers or their widows could: Who was still buying all the lobster?
“Darden,” he said. After selling Red Lobster, Darden still supplies 1,900 restaurants in the U.S., including Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, generating over $9.63 billion in annual sales.
Darden’s Jeffers disputed it was the buyer. “It is entirely possible that Red Lobster is the buyer and the person said Darden since Darden and Red Lobster were synonymous for so long. There are still people today who believe Darden owns Red Lobster, even though we sold the brand nearly 10 years ago.” Red Lobster, which was bought by private equity firm Golden Gate Capital in 2014, did not respond to requests for comment.
Guerrero, who had never heard of the Walton Family Foundation or Darden Restaurants, sat among rows of disabled divers, many resting quietly in their wooden wheelchairs. One of them held a sign that read, “There are more than 1,982 injured divers, not just 42,” referencing that only 42 divers formed a part of the lawsuit but many more deserved justice. Guerrero sat for hours as the sun beat down, listening to the government officials, remembering the day she married her husband when he was lean and strong, untouched by the pursuit of red gold.
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