On the Honduran Miskito Coast, Dr. Benno Marx is the latest American physician to lend his services to the cause of halting the injustices put upon the indigenous people by free-wheeling multi-national interests. A family physician that also practices in obstetrics, Dr. Marx is very mechanically and electronically gifted—an avid adventurer, he flies his own plane, drives his ancient Mercedes on homemade biodiesel and is a renowned beekeeper. Beneath his grey beard and tousled hair, the physician-engineer first stepped foot in Honduras a few years back to work at a faith-based mission called the Moravian Clinic in Ahuas. Started in 1930, and a beacon to the indigenous peoples throughout the years with many renown American doctors, from Dr. Gerard Rudy and Dr. Norvelle Goff to the current director Dr. Ovelio Lopez, lending their expertise, the clinic is chiefly concerned with treating divers afflicted with Decompression Sickness. Since the Mosquito Coast is primarily a diving culture—there isn’t any other industry there—the condition has reached almost epidemic proportions regionally, denying many Miskito natives of their livelihood.
Because new technology is essential to treating this condition—and is obviously hard to come by in an impoverished outpost like the Miskito Coast—the technology company Tekna, urged on by Dr. Marx, has donated a hyperbaric chamber to improve treatment methods. Despite this, however, the question remains—are the exploitative practices by these multi-national corporations making the lives of the Mosquito natives more dangerous?
When Dr. Marx first arrived to the mission, he was treating divers with a chamber from 1961. Photos of the original one show a burned-out hull and frayed wiring which was obviously a concern to Dr. Marx. He asked Phillip Janca of Tekna if he could fix the chamber. After putting a cotton-tipped applicator in one of the hoses in an attempt to clean it, Marx wrote to Janca: “It came out black. I’m rather embarrassed at seeing that. When I looked at the filters last week, after the control panel stopped working, both the carbon and the coalescing filters themselves showed a bit of dirt but there was definitely no soot or black spots. Our maintenance fellow told me that the filters had been changed last December—but I have no idea of the maintenance over the previous 20 years. It is clear that somewhere in that time those filters were not adequately changed. It was in very poor condition.”
After much back-and-forth between the two men, including extensive analysis of the various chambers (which revealed the offending acrylic tube should have been taken out of service in 1973), and Marx’s continued emphasis on the unit’s technical deficiencies, Janca was so concerned about the obvious failure risks of the old chamber, even if it was repaired, that he, out of the blue, offered to donate a state-of-the-art chamber to replace the old one. That offer was a wonderful gesture of goodwill to the Miskito People. But it still didn’t entirely solve the problem of the exploitative practices driving the natives of the region to undertake such a dangerous mission in the first place.
There have been 352 diving-related Miskito deaths since 2013. But that’s still not enough to thwart local divers like Ruis Elopio Gonzalez, who explains: “That’s all the work there is, so I still have to go out, even if it means death.”
Despite story after tragic story, as Gonzalez says, diving is more or less the only work available on the coast. The people of the Honduran Miskito Coast speak Miskito and Spanish, with a few speaking English (a remnant of one-time British colonization). Long a source of cheap labor, the Miskito natives have been enticed by such American corporations as Red Lobster, a popular restaurant chain, and Sysco, a wholesale food distributor, to continue to dive deeper and deeper in search of the prized Caribbean rock lobster, the succulent crustacean most commonly found on American menus in the south, southwest, Midwest and other regions where lobsters are not indigenous. In the past two decades, lobster fishing has exploded into a $50 million industry in Nicaragua and Honduras. Lobster now accounts for nearly 10 percent of Nicaragua’s foreign trade. Roughly 90 percent of that harvest ends up in North American restaurants. Despite the fact that these companies claim they only purchase lobsters captured in traps, there is startling evidence to suggest otherwise, and the lack of adequate worker protection laws in Honduras makes such statements unlikely.
In fact, the dangers of this kind of unregulated diving are so pronounced that, statistics have shown, for every 1000 pounds of Caribbean rock lobster pulled up from the cold murky depths of the Atlantic Ocean, at least two Miskito divers have died. Part of the problem is, they are not adequately trained, and end up diving deeper and deeper in search of what has come to be known as “red gold”—mainly, the spiny lobsters that end up on American dinner plates, making these delicacies affordably priced and plentiful. Overfishing has made the lobsters descend even deeper, meaning that the risk level has increased for the divers, and they are generally given outdated equipment which increases their chances of being afflicted by the bends. When a person descends below the water’s surface, the increased pressure forces more nitrogen than usual from the respiratory system into the tissues. If the diver resurfaces too quickly from anywhere below 30 feet, the nitrogen is released in the form of gas bubbles that can block small blood vessels, cutting off oxygen to the brain and other body parts. The end result can be severe pain in the joints, nerve damage, paralysis, even death.
Despite the claims of corporate giants like Red Lobster that they only purchase lobsters caught in traps—a far less dangerous method of capturing the crustaceans—the opportunities for exploitation are great. Ships pull into town and tell the natives that, if they come up with $800 in US dollars, they can purchase a scuba tank and regulator, and make up to $300 a day, quickly recouping the fee. On the ship, the company store keeps the natives plied with candy, Coca-Cola, beer, cigarettes and, rumor has it, even cocaine to not only satiate the locals’ addictions for these substances, but also to fuel the economics of the industry, making the divers, despite the promise of big profits, actually nothing more than indentured servants.
But with little other industry available in the region, the practice is likely to continue. Enter Marx and his ilk, whose efforts are not only bringing attention to this massive affliction—and the possible exploitative causes of it—but who, with the help of technological innovators like Tekna, are trying desperately to improve both conditions and treatment. While Tekna has donated the refurbished state-of-the-art hyperbaric chamber for the Ahuas Clinic, and has contributed many, many hours of labor, and is assembling the components of the entire system, the “Ahuas Chamber Project” has also benefited from dozens of individuals who have donated, through the Moravian Church and Reform Church in America, about $65,000 to help buy the auxiliary equipment for the chamber project: items such as the air compressors, filters, air receiver, oxygen concentrator, etc. The Project therefore has enjoyed the superb efforts of Tekna and many individuals who hope to help treat the many Miskito affected by decompression illness.
The treatment for this type of sickness is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. The American College of Hyperbaric Medicine is donating a 40-week training course in treatment methods, and Tekna, following up on its initial contribution of the new hyperbaric chamber, is currently in the process of donating $200,000 worth of new equipment, and they also have $43,000 to create a self-contained treatment facility using a generator in a building, constructed out of a massive shipping container, that has been converted from electricity to gas. Despite these efforts however, the perilous practices continue, and probably will as long as the impoverished region has to rely on diving for lobster as its sole economic driver—and as long as multi-national companies seek to increase profits at any cost.