Honduras has managed to retain such valuable natural patrimony not because of any far-sighted planning on the part of the government or a particularly enlightened eco-consciousness on the part of the inhabitants—far from it, in fact. Rather, it has been the country’s daunting topography, lack of arable land, and comparatively low population density that have spared the forests. But as in many other poor, underdeveloped countries, Honduras’s population is growing explosively, and the consequent pressures on the remaining forests are increasing hand in hand with it, at a vertiginously accelerating rate and in a variety of ways. Most obvious is logging, a notoriously inefficient and wasteful industry in Honduras.
Modern forestry techniques are practically unheard of, and with lax, corrupt forestry officials and little police support, loggers pretty much cut as they please. The government estimated in 2004 that some 100,000 hectares of forest are lost each year, or about 2 percent of the forest cover. Formerly concentrated on the pine forests of central Honduras, loggers have in the last couple of decades mounted an invasion of the southern edges of the Mosquitia’s rainforests, where they destroy entire stands of forest just to get at a single mahogany, worth a pretty penny in wealthy western countries.
A 2005 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, The Illegal Logging Crisis in Honduras, details with damning evidence the rapacious practices of several well-connected lumber companies, particularly in Olancho and the Mosquitia, to export mahogany, pine, and other woods to U.S. companies, Home Depot among them. So next time you buy lumber, check the tag to see where the wood comes from, and if it’s from Honduras, don’t buy it.
Close on the heels of the loggers, at least in Olancho and the Mosquitia, invariably come an army of colonos, invading peasants determined to hack out a small farm and later try to convince the government (often successfully) to regularize their de facto holdings. Large-scale ranchers are often next in line, snapping up huge holdings from the colonos. Because Honduran ranchers use very elementary cattle-raising techniques, their productivity is remarkably low, wasting huge amounts of land.
The 30-odd patches of cloud forest in highland Honduras face their own variety of threats. While the smaller trees don’t attract loggers, their wood works just fine for the carboneros, who chop down whatever tree happens to be at hand to make charcoal. Just as ominous is the continual encroachment of coffee plantations into the lower reaches of the cloud forest, which provide the perfect climate for high-quality arabica coffee beans. The mangrove wetlands on both coasts are a prime source of firewood, and those in the Golfo de Fonseca are ceding to the expansion of coastal shrimp farms.
In the face of governmental apathy (not to say complicity), dozens of grassroots environmental groups have sprung up across the country, most dedicated to protecting a specific local natural area. True, some NGOs receive criticism as being little more than sponges for foreign aid money. But others are well-organized, noisy defenders of the environment, not afraid of speaking up against the wealthy interests often behind environmental destruction. And this has not come without a cost, as these interests invariably have well-armed young thugs ready to make threats or carry them out. Just two of the better-publicized cases in the 1990s involved the still-unsolved murders of activists Jeanette Kawas and Hector Rodrigo Pastor Fasquelle. More recently, Padre Tamayo in Salamá, Olancho, has risked his life to take brave public stands against the illegal logging and drug-running by well-connected people (and was nominated for the 2008 Front Line award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, in recognition of his efforts). His colleagues from the Movimiento Ambientalista de Olancho (Environmental Movement in Olancho), Heraldo Zuñiga and Roger Ivan Cartagena, were killed execution-style in 2006 by members of the national police, after having received death threats for their environmental work.
A more recent development in Honduras has been the increased participation of individuals, groups, and government missions from other countries in protecting the environment. Because suspicions of Honduran corruption run (justifiably) very high in other countries, many donors are paying close attention to environmental programs and even getting involved themselves. Two examples are Finnish foresters sent to help replant the island of Guanaja, which lost most of its vegetation when Hurricane Mitch ran over it, and the binational German-Honduran projects in the Río Plátano and at Celaque. Private foreign groups are involved also, such as Proyecto Aldea Global from the United States, to which the Honduran government has turned over administration of Parque Nacional Cerro Azul/Meámbar. One can hardly expect foreigners to be the miracle cure for Honduras’s environmental problems, but they can use their aid money in a persuasive fashion, act as witnesses to what’s happening in the countryside, and help curb some of the worst abuses.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition