About the Location
Honduras, with a population of at least 7 million, is about the size of Tennessee. Its broad, relatively flat northern coastal plain gives way to a topography dominated by high, steep mountains in the interior. Travel through this rugged terrain has traditionally been difficult, most roads following the narrow valleys cut by north-south trending major rivers such as the Chamelecon, Ulua, Humuya, Sulaco, Aguan, Negro, and the Patuco. These communication and transportation problems frustrated efforts to integrate the nation for more than a century after its independence from Spain in 1821. Exacerbating obstacles to unity was Honduras's low population density; by 1930 there were approximately 854,000 people in all of the country, 40,000 of whom were concentrated in Tegucigalpa, the capital. Even as late as the 1970s there were large parts of the country, especially in the east, that were almost completely unpopulated. Both of these situations have dramatically changed over the last four decades. A paved road system now links most major cities and an extensive bus system provides access to even remote villages. Population has skyrocketed and is only very recently showing signs of slowing its rate of growth (an estimated 42% of the population is under 15 years old - down from 46% a few years ago). Despite these recent, major shifts, different parts of Honduras retain their distinctive characters, resulting from different settlement histories and reinforced during long periods of semi-isolation. The Bay Islands, off the north coast, are very much a part of the Caribbean whereas the area around the port of Trujillo is home to the distinctive Garifuna culture whose members are heirs to a rich tradition combining Carib, African, British, and Hispanic elements. The casual, bustling air of San Pedro Sula on the northern coastal plain, Honduras's commercial center and second largest city, contrasts with the more formal ambience of Tegucigalpa located high in the mountains to the south. The eastern half of the nation is still largely rural, much of it covered by tropical rainforest now under government protection. Indigenous populations were ravaged by the combined affects of disease and dislocations following the Spanish Conquest in the early 16th century. Native peoples did weather these terrible storms, however, and are still found in the northeast (Mosquito, Suma, and Payas [or Pech]), west (Chorti Maya) and central portions of the country (Lenca and Jicaque). Over the last several years, these groups have organized themselves to assert both pride in their heritage and claims for just treatment by the government.
The climate also varies markedly within so small an area. The north coast tends to be hot and muggy, rainfall levels increasing from west to east towards the Nicaraguan border. Moving south into higher elevations, temperatures also drop. In some of the highest areas, frost is recorded and such crops as peaches and strawberries are grown in what amounts to temperate climates. Honduras's limited expanse of southern coast is hot and dry throughout most of the year.
Honduras has been characterized as a "banana republic" in reference to what was its principal export crop for so many years. Though such a designation unfairly simplifies the richness and complexity of Honduran culture and commerce, it does highlight the importance of export agriculture, and the banana in particular, to the local economy. Bananas are well suited to Honduras's very fertile and humid north coastal soils and are easily shipped abroad from the deep harbors that dot the Caribbean littoral (thus overcoming transportation problems that bedeviled development in the nation's interior). Consequently, banana plantations came to dominate Honduras's northern landscape, and commerce, throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. After World War II, efforts were made to diversify the economy, and bananas are now one of several agricultural exports which include coffee, sugar, cacao (for making chocolate), meat, and a variety of specialized vegetables. Multinational corporations have also joined a growing number of local entrepreneurs in establishing factories largely devoted to producing goods, especially clothing, for export. Throughout all of these changes, Honduras remains primarily a supplier of raw materials to the world market. The primacy of subsistence farming as a way of making a living is rapidly giving way to wage-labor in factories.
Honduras was governed by heads of state designated by the military from 1963-1982. Since that time, there have been five presidents who gained office through free and open elections. Unlike some of its neighbors, Honduras's military is powerful but generally maintains a low political profile. The nation is also involved in a long-term process of better integrating military and political facets of the government, creating a more stable basis for directing Honduras in the years to come.
Despite these very real political reforms Honduras suffers from severe economic and social dislocations related to natural disasters, such as hurricane Mitch which ravaged the country in 1998, and human-caused problems most prominent of which are those related to battles over the illicit drug trade. Honduras is not alone in facing these difficulties--in fact, the experiences of its residentstypify much of what people throughout the world are facing on a daily basis.