The Committee for the Defense and Development of Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Fonseca (CODDEFFAGOLF) was co-founded by Varela in 1988 as part of an emerging grassroots movement challenging the appropriation of natural resources. Representing 10,000 subsistence fishermen, farmers, salt extractors, grade school children, and local residents, CODDEFFAGOLF became one of the most effective and most respected NGOs in Central America. As the organization’s executive director, Varela contributed significantly to containing the expansion of shrimp farming in the Gulf of Fonseca’s coastal wetlands.
Varela successfully pressured the Honduran government to establish protected wildlife and fishing refuges in the Gulf’s coastal lagoons and worked patiently with the government to implement an on-the-ground strategy for enforcing protection of these sanctuaries. In 1996, CODDEFFAGOLF members persuaded the government of Honduras to enact a precedent-setting moratorium on the construction of new shrimp farms. After the organization’s members exposed 60 instances in which shrimp farmers violated the moratorium and marched on the capital city, the government increased enforcement measures and extended the licensing moratorium for a second year. Such accomplishments did not come easily. Varela and CODDEFFAGOLF challenged powerful interests and, in the mid 1990s, two of the organization’s members were killed. Varela has had his life threatened repeatedly.
In May 1995, CODDEFFAGOLF, together with groups from El Salvador and Nicaragua, formed the Trinational Civil Association for the Conservation of the Gulf of Fonseca. Varela served as the commission’s first head. Varela and CODDEFFAGOLF are also founding members of the Industrial Shrimp Action Network (ISA Net), an international effort to support the efforts of coastal communities that are resisting the introduction or expansion of industrial shrimp farming. In November of 1998, Varela participated in a successful public education tour across Canada to alert North Americans to the high costs associated with eating industrially raised shrimp.
In the fall of 1998, Hurricane Mitch left a devastating wake of destruction in Honduras. CODEFFAGOLF mobilized their extensive network and became a de facto relief agency in the western region of the country.
Since then, community action by members of CODEFFAGOLF has seen over 1,200 hectares of mangroves restored while artificial reefs have increased fish stocks by 36%, benefiting over 7,000 families. To date, the organization has established nine protected areas, and secured 70,000 hectares as a Ramsar site.