Imagine a place with the world’s highest homicide rate, where crimes are committed with impunity, a few powerful families call the shots, poor people get driven off land they have been awarded and prisons burn down. Sounds like the Wild West? Add in a couple more ingredients – a recent military coup and airstrips in jungle clearings which handle up to 80 per cent of America’s drugs – and it might be apparent that we are talking about Honduras, the most lawless country in the western hemisphere.
Let’s add in another ingredient. It turns out that in the north of Honduras, where people are poorest, struggles over land are at their most intense, where the central government has little legitimacy and where indigenous groups are fighting to retain ancestral lands, a group of economists and investors have presented a plan which they say will sweep away this lawlessness and restore government and prosperity.
All the plan requires is that the Honduran government give the investors carte blanche: suspend the rule of law, withdraw the police and the courts and hand over most constitutional powers to the businessmen. In return, they’ll bring in the money to build a new city. Not only will they construct it, they’ll run it and all the things which a modern city needs. Trust them – they’ll make it work. Have you been to Hong Kong or Singapore? – step up the so far unknown Puerto Castilla, it’s next in line to be a tiger economy.
As the Miami Herald reported (Honduras sets stage for 3 privately run cities, 4 September), $15 million has already been committed for new infrastructure and $4 million from South Korea for a feasibility study. The model city has been championed by economist Paul Romer of New York University and by Michael Strong of an organisation called Freedom Lights our World (FLOW). These are visionaries, but they are not technicians. They appear to be unaware of key weaknesses in their scheme.
No city planner should ignore the communities affected by their plans. Yet so far they seem to have done just that. As the article made clear, local people don’t support the idea and are deeply suspicious. What happens if the people who already live there simply don’t want to participate?
Law-making powers would be handed over to the new city, but it is far from clear who would write these laws, create the police force and train new judges. These are tasks which usually take decades. In a country where ordinary people don’t trust the police, how can a lawless vacuum be avoided?
New cities are usually planned cities, like Brasilia, Canberra and Chandigarh. Who will do the planning? The city is going to need basic infrastructure, which demands engineers, planning and investment, all before tax incomes have started to flow. $15 million won’t buy much of a new city’s infrastructure.
This is being sold as the ‘fastest and best way to eliminate poverty’. But in a region where most new jobs are in palm oil farms or clothing factories, isn’t the most likely outcome something like the ‘maquila’ zone along parts of Mexico’s border with Texas? – factories offering low paid jobs for workers who migrate there out of desperation, who live in shanty towns because their employers don’t provide housing. Hong Kong and Singapore, often suggested as models, have excellent public housing systems: Honduras does not.
Honduras faces enormous problems. Assassinations of political or social leaders who question the political establishment are common. It’s the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. High levels of casual violence in cities are related to chronic poverty and drug use. There is massive inequality, and it’s getting worse.
The biggest question about the model city idea is – how it would recognize and begin to tackle these issues? Unless its proponents show some understanding of the context they are working in, and reach out to engage with local people, the model city will simply reinforce and prolong the crisis which Honduras already suffers.