As if the palm trees and razor wire weren’t enough to remind us we weren’t in Canada anymore, the pistol on the hip of the bellhop did it. Life is not easy in Honduras. There are, however, some paths to prosperity, and Flavio Ali Yacub Tellez found one in wood when he started Muebles Ali in 1951. Although Yacub Tellez (Tellez) is still active in the business, it is now run by his son, Flavio Ali Yacub Bertrand (Bertrand). Honduras is a Central American country that bulges out into the Caribbean south of Mexico, pointing toward Cuba. It shares a long border with Nicaragua, which led in the ‘80s to its use as a base by the U.S. in its support against the Sandinistas. The undercurrent today is largely anti-American, blaming the States for having a drug hunger, but there is a great deal of pride in showing off the country’s infrastructure — especially the good roads and modern bridges, each of which was built on the backs of American taxpayers.
To most of the Hondurans we spoke with, the biggest barrier internally to success is corruption. It is almost impossible to move up the ladder without crossing the hurdle of corruption. The bitter joke in Honduras is that every president comes from one of five families, and they take turns winning the lottery. However, corruption also cannot exist unless there are ways to work with it. Every parasite needs a host, so the overall economy chugs along.
According to his son, Tellez started his small business as do many Hondurans, with nothing but a machine and a dream. However, one thing set Tellez apart, and that was his character. According to people we met in the community that directed us to Muebles Ali, Tellez was able to provide low-cost goods to the common people, flexibility and style for the merchant class, and custom-made, high-end products for the governing class. The minimum wage for workers in Honduras is about $250 Cdn. However, the unemployment rate is raging, calculated by the government at about 15 percent, but work is not as necessary in the tropics, and many people sleep, sell trinkets for cash or work in the drug trade. Those that have a job tend to cherish it, because if they lose it, even if it pays only $250, to replace the income would mean swinging a machete in the pineapple fields. And even the pineapples are better to a Honduran than the cane fields, where rats proliferate and attract one of the New World’s deadliest snakes, the fer-de-lance.
However, even in an environment where employees can be had for the asking, finding a stable, trained, skilled woodworker is a challenge.
According to Bertrand, business is good regionally in Honduras. However, as with other countries, he sees competition looming from Asia. This is interesting, in the sense that China has no significant forest resources, and is known to buy much of its imported tropical wood from Honduras, while Honduras can rival China in terms of labour costs.
We at Wood Industry have not done our regular profile piece on woodworkers in other countries before. We made an exception this time, and would like your opinion. Our main reason lies in the relative closeness of Honduras, and in the question of whether Canadian manufacturers can benefit from interaction. As a baseline, take a look at the hand-carved, solid-mahogany door (left). The approximate cost on the ground in Honduras for that door is less than $350 Cdn.
If you go, be sure to bring home some honey. Honduran honey costs about $3.00 per liter. However, unlike North American honeys that open up with a faint clover, buckwheat or even orange-blossom undertone, the honey in Honduras comes right out with a statement of tropical flowers and fruits that is almost overpowering. I am no gastronome. However, this accidental find is worth reporting.
Honduras has much to recommend it as a vacation spot, but you need to be on the rough-and-ready side. The incidence of violent crime is high, although tourists are fairly well protected. We felt safe, but then, there was always a pick-up full of police (two in front; two in back) armed with automatic weapons in sight somewhere. The wood industry is a substantial force in the national economy, although not on anything like the level we are accustomed to.
If you go, be sure to get some honey. And for heaven’s sake, tip that bellhop.