Industry: unlikely players in emergency food distribution
By Peter Silverman
Peter Guy Silverman is the ombudsman for CityTV, Toronto. He has recorded the needs and relief efforts for a variety of organisations. These documentaries have been aired on CityTV. This article is based on a mission Peter undertook with the Canadian Disaster, Assistance and Response Team (DART) at La Ceiba. Their mission was to provide immediate medical, engineering assistance and drinking water. Dole (a commercial fruit company) provided the DART with a base of operations at its facility at Sonaguara as well as first hand knowledge of the area.
The destruction brought by the violence of Hurricane Mitch from October 26-27th of l998 has been well documented. No country was harder hit than Honduras, a nation of 5.8 million. Eighteen thousand people died, 1.4 million were made homeless, 600,000 displaced. It was the worst natural disaster to hit Central America in 200 years. By the time the 180-MPH winds had subsided three quarters of the Honduran agriculture sector was in ruins and 80% of its infrastructure destroyed. Mitch was not only wind, it was rain. Rain of almost biblical proportions. Deforestation, leading to wholesale erosion. There was nothing to stop the torrents of water as they roared down the mountains into the valleys. Rivers rose l4 feet in hours sweeping away all before them.
Honduras, like most third world nations was singularly ill equipped to cope with this wrath of nature. Corruption, a lack of resources, a military that was then a law unto itself meant that anything resembling a disaster or crisis plan was non-existent. There were no standby reserves of food or drinking water and no caches of medical supplies. There was just a hope that the storm would pass. It didn't and an inefficient and overwhelmed civil authority found that it could not cope. The problem of organising any form of a relief effort was further hampered by terrain. Honduras is mainly mountains sliced by a series of rivers. With the majority of bridges down and many roads washed out, getting food, medical supplies and water to the affected population became a logistical nightmare.
However, as I found out there were some unlikely administrative and logistical structures that were able to fill the vacuum and provide the foundation for a relief effort. I say unlikely, as these were the huge agricultural companies of United Fruit (Chicita Bananas) and Standard Fruit (Dole).
Dole's major operational and administrative hub is the third largest city in Honduras, La Ceiba on the northern coast of Honduras. From there it controls its huge plantations that stretch among the coastal plane and down the rich fertile land of Aquan valley. Nature determined where the plantations and villages would be, it also determined that it was those plantations and villages that would take the brunt of the storm. The rivers like the Aquan, The Cangrejal (which bisected La Ceiba) and the Bonita became terrible water bulldozers, smashing all that were in their path. As the water receded, little remained. Those towns and villages that survived were buried in four to six feet of mud. Drinking water was a stinking cocktail of drowned animals, sewage and rotting food. The usual conveyors of disease, flies and mosquitoes added to the misery. Some villages that survived the worst had to be evacuated because of the fears of a malaria or dengue fever outbreak. People flooded into the town seeking shelter, straining already meagre resources.
Faced with this catastrophe, the civil administration allocated some municipal buildings as temporary shelter. However the immediate problem was food and water, not only supplies but also a distribution mechanism. The central government had little to offer. Politics demanded that the capitol Tegucigalpa got first call on resources. The area also benefited from the presence of the large American Base at Palmerola. This meant that the Southern part of Honduras was an American sphere in terms of aid after Mitch, leaving little for the rest of the country. Overall the area around La Ceiba was not faring well. The 4th Infantry regiment of the Honduran Army seemed unable to respond, unlike the units in the capital that did take part in rescue and relief. The Airforce with its usual elan deployed three helicopters to haul food and water over the mountains to now isolated villages. It was a band aid operation. I can attest that rains and cloud made the missions 'seat of the pants.' Canadian helicopter crews thought we were mad to fly with the Hondurans citing a lack of maintenance. In the end all three machines were grounded or crashed.
However bleak the picture an unlikely source of help did emerge, Standard Fruit, Dole. More aware than the civil authorities, Dole had started preparations in anticipation of the Hurricane, though like everyone else they did not suspect its magnitude. Dole, through its local administration, started buying up - in the words of one of its managers - "every bean and kernel of rice we could get our hands on." The reason was, to avoid prices rocketing as a result of shortages and speculation. Once the storm ended, Dole shifted to aiding the relief effort. It was well equipped to do so. The company established a distribution centre at its concentrate plant in La Ceiba at Pinanta. The first priority was to sort and distribute food that was arriving by air from Canada, Mexico and the US. The first people to get help through the system were the displaced living in temporary shelters in La Ceiba. Kids from the Marzapan private school (on Dole property) initially helped with the distribution, later local volunteers joined in. However, the unfortunate lack of community and the fault line between rich and poor meant that this reservoir of good deeds soon dried up. Dole ended up having to do most of the work. Dole did have certain assets, An integrated logistical system and the resources to make it work i.e. ships' containers (which it allocated to any organisation which needed to transport relief supplies), a port facility at Cortez, trucks, a warehouse, forklifts, labour, computers and an administrative structure. Its staff knew the area and spoke Spanish and usually English. And it had contacts. Contacts that persuaded a US National Guard Air Force unit to fly C-130s loaded with food into La Ceiba.
The system as it evolved insured that the distribution was transparent and the food got to those who needed it. At the warehouse, large numbers of men and women, most getting paid 'food for work' would sort and bag the different food items. Each family would receive a large bag, usually weighing 50lbs of basic necessities, and if available some 'luxury items.' The basics were rice, flour, cooking oil, powdered milk and bottled water. The luxury items were canned foods, like tuna or coffee. Sometimes clothing would be included. Once bagged, the food was then donated to a vetted organisation that had to prove its legitimacy, and the need of its constituency. Most of the recipients were church groups who were running the food for work programmes. I was at the warehouse and watched as trucks and pick-ups arrived for the bags. Each was carefully scrutinised by Maria San Martin, a Dole manager assigned to supervise the programme. She did not hesitate to deny anyone who could not produce the required documentation. Dole also demanded proof of delivery to the legitimate recipients. Each person receiving a bag, usually for a family, had to produce their national ID, (picture and fingerprint) and sign for the bag. In one of the poor Barrios I watched as hundreds of mainly women, many clutching children, would wait patiently for their name to be called to receive a bag. There seemed to be an almost desperate intensity to ensure honesty and equality in the distribution process. But it was also accepted that people would barter or sell certain items. A tacit realisation that individuals and families have different needs.
The other element of Dole's relief programme was supplying food for field kitchens in villages where basic cooking equipment had been destroyed. Again it was a local functioning organisation, usually a church one, that ran the kitchen and controlled the distribution. I recall in one village near Boca a line of women and children clutching tin plates and mugs waiting with stoic endurance to obtain a meagre ration, and plastic bags of water from the Canadian Army Disaster Assistance and Response Team (DART)
There were some hiccups. A large donation from Texas of flour was shunned. It was wheat, not corn and unsuitable for making tortillas, or at least Honduran tortillas. This was solved by a Dole cook who worked out a recipe that could utilise the flour. A large donation of vacuum packed coffee in Christmas designed packaging was not greeted with enthusiasm. Not because of the Santa Claus but the Hondurans simply felt the coffee wasn't that good.
My own impression of the Dole effort based on three lengthy trips to Honduras (and watching similar operations in other parts of the world) is that regardless of the organisation, food relief after a major disaster is a complex business and not one for amateurs.
Regardless of Dole's motives which were not all altruistic (public image played a part) it had the machinery to do the job. A separate computer driven command centre was set up with a staff of 8 to keep track of the containers with relief supplies. Dole also had an international radio communications network and cell phones. Private industry in this incident showed that it not only had the logistical resources and equipment to do the job but also the business acumen to ensure it was done efficiently and effectively.
Taken from Field Exchange Issue 10, July 2000