The Republic of Honduras is home to abundant nature including vast forests and the world’s second-largest coral reef, as well as ruins from the prosperous Maya civilization and other ancient historic sites. Toshio Motoya spoke with Charge d’Affaires ad Interim Carlos Onan Mendoza Tovar about Honduras’ trade policy efforts and the development of transport routes from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, which are becoming increasingly important due to shale gas.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today, and also for attending my publication and birthday eve party in June. I was friendly with the previous Honduran ambassador. You and I have also formed a close bond – your Japanese is very good and you are easy to talk to (laughs).
(T) Thank you for inviting me. I look forward to speaking with you today.
(M) I think that many readers are unfamiliar with Honduras, so can you start by sharing some basic information about your country?
(T) Yes, Honduras is right in the middle of the isthmus connecting North and South America. It shares borders with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. The wide, northern part of the country touches the Caribbean Sea, while the Gulf of Fonseca is on the Pacific Ocean. The area is roughly one third of Japan and the population is approximately eight million people. In terms of religion there have traditionally been many Catholics, but freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. The head of state is the president, who serves a four-year term. Juan Orlando Hernández has filled that role since 2014 and a presidential election will be held this November. In 2015 the Supreme Court indicated a decision to allow presidents to be re-elected, so Hernández will run again from the National Party of Honduras, the ruling party at the moment.
(M) Everyone basically speaks Spanish, is that right?
(T) That is correct. Most people can also speak English in cities like Tegucigalpa and beach resorts like Roatán Island, but I think Spanish is the only language understood in rural areas.
(M) I see. I visited the Panama Canal on a previous trip to Central and South America. It has a very interesting structure with locks, which are also called “water stairs.” The water levels are changed in the spaces (lock chambers) with gates at each end, allowing ships to travel waterways with different elevations. Gatun Lake in the center of the canal is the highest point with an elevation of 26 meters. The water level is raised or lowered in three levels of lock chambers to allow the passage of ships both from the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. I heard that work was completed in 2016 to expand the canal for even larger ships. Honduras is farther west than Panama, but it is also surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. I heard about plans to build large ports on each coast and connect them via an overland route. Has that been completed?
(T) You are very well informed! Honduras has three major ports, one on the Pacific Ocean and two on the Caribbean Sea. They are connected by regular roads, but we are planning for a project to link them via railway. It should be a joint project with railway technologies from the Japanese company Hitachi (which made a presentation to the president in 2015) and other support from Europe, but is still not being implemented.
(M) Japan and other countries are importing American shale gas, increasing the importance of routes from the American East Coast via the Caribbean Sea and through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal was expanded to meet these needs. I think the project in Honduras is drawing global attention for the same reason. By the way, what’s going on with the Nicaragua Canal plan by a Chinese corporation?
(T) I don’t know much about it, but I have heard that the project was halted…
(M) At one time I heard they were thinking of using a nuclear bomb for excavation, which sounds like a clear violation of international law (laughs). The Honduras project seems very feasible, and I look forward to seeing how it turns out.
(T) The Isthmus of Panama in Central America is very narrow – just 64 kilometers – which is why a canal could be built there. In Honduras there is more distance between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, so we have long struggled with how to connect these two bodies of water. Hernández has set forth a policy of enhancing our infrastructure, and he is also working on building a “dry canal” (distribution corridor) with a planned completion date of 2020. This plan is for an expressway linking the Port of Puerto Cortés on the Caribbean Sea with the Port of La Unión in El Salvador on the Pacific Ocean. When it is completed, one-way travel between the ports will take just three hours.
(M) I saw in the news that experiments are being conducted on creating “convoys” of self-driving trucks, linked in a row, that travel on expressways. If this method is established in the future, I think that efficient transport routes will be created rather than spending enormous amounts of money to dig canals. One downside of the Panama Canal is that ships must pass through six lock chambers, which takes 24 hours – a very long time. Roads and railways have smaller transport volumes, but they are definitely better in terms of speed.
(T) As you say, I think that dry canals offer the advantage of speed. I believe that dry canals and the Panama Canal will not be in competition, but that the strengths of both will be leveraged to complement each other. There are major transport cost differences between the two as well. There are no customs on goods transported through the Panama Canal, but with dry canals – which are land routes – these goods must clear customs each time they are unloaded or cross a national border. This takes time and money. Honduras is attempting to create a new law to unify its customs-related laws for simpler customs clearing. We are also thinking of entering into treaties with Nicaragua and El Salvador to integrate customs work in these nations, and have already entered into one with Guatemala.
(M) So you are promoting free trade. Has anything changed with the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, who espouses an “America First” policy?
(T) Trump has had absolutely no impacts on our trade volume. In fact, our exports to the United States have increased. We are constantly exploring for ways to spur on trade, and we remain committed to free trade.
(M) What are Honduras’ main exports?
(T) In addition to the traditional coffee, we also export tilapia, melon, cacao, tobacco, and other goods.
(M) Does it have any mineral resources?
(T) Tegucigalpa, the capital, means “Silver Mountain” in an indigenous language. Large amounts of gold and silver have been produced since ancient times, and during the colonial period the Spanish took these goods to Europe. Today silver remains an important mineral resource. Precious metals are excavated in Santa Bárbara, and we also produce lead, iron, copper, etc.
(M) The growth of the sharing economy is a global trend because more and more people are using the Internet. For example, people are using Airbnb to rent out their homes and turning their own cars into taxis with Uber. More people are choosing car sharing instead of owning individual automobiles, and flea market apps like Mercari are lively marketplaces for used goods, resulting in fewer sales of new products. It is thought that this will certainly shrink the economy. Interest rates are also falling, so money isn’t flowing to stocks and financial products but is being directed to land and other assets. Land prices in the center of Tokyo have increased by three times over the past five to six years. What are the land price trends in Honduras?
(T) You say that land in central Tokyo is three times more expensive, but in Honduras the price has risen by four or five times. Honduras has many mountains like Japan; more than three fourths of the country is mountainous and there is very little flat land. Honduras is also a forested country, with 46% of our area covered by woodlands. Eighty percent of this is protected forests, which we work to conserve.
(M) It sounds like a very green country. Do you have many sightseeing spots that leverage these resources?
(T) Many Japanese people enjoy bird watching tours in the forest to see colorful, beautiful birds. One of our two UNESCO World Heritage Sites is the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a natural heritage site that is home to Honduras’ largest tropical rainforest area in the Plátano River basin that is 100 kilometers long. There you can see many animals including the Baird’s tapir, jaguar, West Indian manatee, and other mammals as well as the American crocodile and macaw. Honduras also has internationally renowned beach resorts. The word’s second-largest coral reef is in the vicinity of Roatán in the Caribbean Sea, which attracts divers from across the world. There are diving schools where you can become certified while enjoying the magnificent underwater scenery. It has a wide range of other water sports facilities and resort hotels, and is Honduras’ top sightseeing spot.
(M) I went diving when I visited Cuba. Diplomatic relations have been restored with the U.S., so I think Cuba has become a possible travel destination for Japanese people as well. However, it seems like many people are holding off since Trump became president. Roatán looks wonderful, so perhaps it will be an alternate Caribbean island for Japanese visitors.
(T) I hope so. To history lovers I also definitely recommend Copán, an archaeological site that is part of another World Heritage Site. You can walk to it from Copán Ruinas, a town near the border with Guatemala. This site is from the Copán dynasty of the Maya civilization, ruled by 16 generations of kings from the 5th century, and shows how prosperous this ancient civilization was. There are buildings thought to be aristocratic residences, a ballgame court, the Hieroglyphic Stairway engraved with the history of the dynasty, temples, and more.
(M) I have visited Maya ruins in Mexico…
(T) The Maya civilization was centered on the Yucatan Peninsula, spanning today’s countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
(M) I would like to go to Honduras someday. Do you have to change planes in the U.S.?
(T) Yes, I think so. There are flights from Miami and Dallas to Tegucigalpa. From Japan, you have to transfer at least twice.
(M) How are Honduras’ relations with its neighbors?
(T) They are good. In the 1970s civil wars broke out in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and it looked like all of Central America would become a war zone. Yet there was no civil war in Honduras, and we have always worked to lead the region to peace.
(M) What issues does Honduras face today? Unemployment?
(T) The unemployment rate has constantly dropped since 2009, but it is still around 7% today and needs to be cut further. I think the biggest issue is our still-insufficient educational system.
(M) Education is the key to lowering the unemployment rate and creating an affluent nation.
(T) Today some university teachers are studying in Japan to create a new, Japan-related master’s course at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. I think we will first improve our education, boost our laborer level, and create an employment environment.
(M) How were you educated?
(T) I studied agricultural engineering and have a doctoral degree. Agricultural production is my specialty, but I also continued learning about political circumstances. Honduras began exporting melons to Japan in May of last year. This project came about at the end of my predecessor’s term, and then I took it over. My specialized knowledge has proved to be fairly useful.
(M) So you were not originally a diplomat?
(T) No, I wasn’t. This is my third year working at the Embassy of the Republic of Honduras in Japan, and I studied for my doctoral degree in Japan for four years before that.
(M) That is why your Japanese is so good. Have you traveled around Japan?
(T) I’ve only gone west from Tokyo to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Nagoya. I want to visit Hokkaido but I don’t like cold weather. Perhaps I should go in summer, but that’s the vacation season so I often return to Honduras.
(M) There are nine APA Hotels in Sapporo. I hope you will go to Hokkaido and stay at one!
(T) Yes, I would definitely like that.
(M) At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(T) As a message to the next generation, I would like to tell them to have an open mind and learn all sorts of things. Learning from elderly people is extremely important, since inexperienced young people should learn from the experiences of others. If an older person speaks or acts in mistaken ways, you should accept that and learn from their mistakes. No one is perfect (laughs).
(M) I advocate for the return of the extended family and have constantly stated the importance of passing down wisdom and knowledge within the family, from grandparents to grandchildren. The Japanese society is entirely fragmented today, with increasing numbers of nuclear families and family members who live apart from each other. It’s impossible to have an affluent life that way, no matter how high your income is. I believe we should change the inheritance system, which is based on equality, and revive the family headship concept.
(T) Honduras has an extended family system, so I understand well what you are saying.
(M) Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me.
(T) It was fun. Thank you.
Carlos Onan Mendoza Tovar
Dr. Carlos Onan Mendoza Tovar was born in Tegucigalpa city, the capital of Honduras, in 1984. After graduating from the Escuela Agrícola Panamericana, El Zamorano, one of the most prestigious universities of agriculture in Latin America, he worked as a consultant for government agencies and the private sector. After earning a Master of Science degree in marine sciences and resource management from the National Taiwan Ocean University, as well as a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Agricultural Engineering from the Tokyo University of Agriculture in Japan, he now works as the charge d’affaires a.i. at the Embassy of the Republic of Honduras in Japan, using his knowledge of agriculture and training to learn from experience, which is Zamorano’s motto (learning by doing).