A small fish native to Nile River is now served daily around the world.
In many ways, the overnight boom of tilapia farming in Honduras is a feel-good story. Rural communities are more food secure; harmful coastal fishing has been mitigated; and one of the world’s most sustainable aquaculture companies is investing heavily, bringing high-tech, high-paying jobs to an increasingly destabilized economy.
But for the women behind it all, the story is more complicated.
Aquafinca St. Peter Fish is the largest tilapia operation in the country and was at the top of my list when I began reporting. Aquafinca is largely known as an oasis of corporate responsibility in a region known for greedy business and exploited labor.
And almost 70 percent of their workers are women.
The Aquafinca facility is a 90-minute drive from San Pedro Sula, famous for being the “murder capital of the world” in 2013. I pass by sleepy towns, like Rio Undo and El Zapote, where pot-bellied men loiter outside convenience stores. High-tension power lines and cornfields follow a wide unpaved road. The occasional 18-wheeler passes, kicking up dust, the only visible sign that I am nearing any sort of corporate hub.
I’m later told that the fish filet’s on those trucks passing will be exported to Costcos throughout the United States. The trucks also carry leftover scraps; dried scales are shipped to Europe and used in cosmetics.
Inside the royal blue gates, the facility looks like a manicured college campus. Tall palm tress with painted white bands line the brick-paved roads.
One building has mural of a giant red tilapia fish wearing a nurse’s hats: the 24-hour clinic. The building next door has a playground where employees can leave their kids during shifts for free, on-site childcare.
This place indeed had all the trappings of an oasis. But outside of the gates a gender war is escalating.
Sex-based violence and retaliation is rising across Honduras, notably in its two largest cities. But the women I photographed and interviewed told me that in the rural villages surrounding the Aquafinca plant it seems especially pronounced. The 28-year-old head veterinarian, tells me that she is always afraid walking around with her friends. Is that fear getting worse? She winces, “Si. Lo aumenta.”
I spent an entire day photographing plant operations and interviewing women who participated in a company-sponsored gender equality training. The more I talked to them, the more I learned about what is playing out in the communities where they live.
Many women are making more money than the men in the nearby villages — a lot more. Many men are unemployed. The women, in turn, experience very high rates of street harassment, domestic violence, and abandonment.
More than a third of the women who work at the Aquafinca factory are single mothers — left by their husbands because of their well-paying jobs and a type of gender-based jealousy and retaliation often referred to as “la machista.” Five women told me that their partners left them in this manner. The plant’s head engineer, a woman, confirmed that this indeed was an increasing trend across the plant.
Their narrative is one that’s often left out in an otherwise glamorous story of empowerment.
The faces and words of Aquafinca’s working women living through violence and retaliation are part of the global seafood story.