Creado en 09 Abril 2014
Escrito por Aury Rodriguez
Lawlessness Is Undoing Effort to Save Honduran Forests
By ELISABETH MALKIN FEB. 12, 2014
Nine men were harvesting mahogany deep in thewoods here when Alonso Pineda and his son appeared, carrying shotguns.
An arrest warrant hangs over the two for clearing the forest illegally, but on that day they posed as its protectors. “This is private property, and that tree is contraband,” Mr. Pineda shouted, witnesses recalled. Mr. Pineda’s claims were not true, presumably part of a ruse to seize the wood for himself. In fact, the men cutting the timber that day belong to a legal cooperative that has been managing the forest for almost 15 years under government agreements that include permits to collect valuable mahogany while leaving the rest of the woods virtually untouched. “You’ll have to take me out of here dead,” replied one man. Someone else buzzed a chain saw, recalled another member of the group, Luis Ruiz, and the outlaw pair vanished among the trees.It was just a fleeting glance of Mr. Pineda, who has led settlers into the woods to cut down trees and replace them with corn plots and pastureland, which can eventually be sold, forestry experts and residents say.
The communities conserving the forest, which is owned by the state, say they are losing their livelihood because of such incursions. “We have the rights, but we are incapable of exercising them becausethere is no law,” said Eliberto Barahona, the president of Brisas de Copén, one of several cooperatives working legally in the Sierra Río Tinto National Park. “There is no support, and we’re unprotected.” If the government cannot enforce its own contracts, Mr. Barahona added, “all the effort we have made for all this time is destroyed.” What is happening here in the remote northeast of Honduras shows how quickly the most successful conservation efforts can be reversed when state structures collapse.
The rule of law has always been fragile in Honduras, but since a 2009 coup, it has disintegrated even faster under the pressure of corruption and drug trafficking. Illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and land speculators have long laid waste to the shimmering greens of the forest canopy here at the edge of the country’s eastern wilderness. Now, as Honduras has become a central transfer point for drug shipments to the United States, there is more money to pay — and arm — land invaders, who strip the forest and transform the land into businesses like cattle ranching that can be used to launder drug money. Kendra McSweeney, a geography professor at Ohio State University, called drug trafficking “a game changer,” saying that “it allows the forests to be converted so quickly because they get so saturated with money and violence.” In a recent paper in the journal Science, Ms. McSweeney, who has been studying forests in eastern Honduras for two decades, and other researchers found a clear correlation between increased drug shipments into eastern Honduras and the loss of forests. It took more than a decade and considerable international support for Copén and a few other villages on the edge of the 1.3-million-acre Río Plátano biosphere reserve to become models for forest conservation.
The Honduran government allows the communities here in the Sico-Paulaya Valley to sell a limited amount of big-leaf mahogany from the forest, giving them an incentive to protect and manage it for years. GreenWood, a Maine nonprofit organization that works closely withthe cooperatives, found a customer for its mahogany in Bob Taylor, the president of Taylor Guitars in California, who is willing to pay in advance and wait for shipments delayed by the Honduran bureaucracy. “Everybody talks about sustainable development, but it’s a long-term gig,” said Scott Landis, GreenWood’s president, ticking off everything forestry has paid for in Copén, including a microhydroelectric plant and school improvements. “All of that will go down the tubes if these illegal invasions are not stopped. ”The communities are waiting to see if Honduras’s new president, Juan Orlando Hernández, will make any difference. He promises “iron fist” policies to confront drug-trafficking and lawlessness, but foresters say that approach fails to deal with the underlying problem. “The future of this project depends on governance,” said Melvin Cruz, the director of the Madera Verde Foundation, GreenWood’s Honduran counterpart. “We feel that we are alone on this issue. Nobody has spoken about policies directed at natural resources.” On paper, there seems to be forest protection: a strong 2007 forestry law that provides for community involvement, a special government committee for the biosphere reserve and its buffer zone, even a separate environmental military unit that promised to set up 100 control points around the giant reserve. But in 2011, the Honduran government asked Unesco to put the reserve, a World Heritage Site, on its “in danger” list, acknowledging that it could not enforce the law under the threat of drug trafficking. The local authorities, including officials from the government’s National Institute of Conservation and Forest Development, feel powerless.
Anibal Duarte, the mayor of Iriona, the municipality encompassing the area, said that he had met with the environmental military unit, but that the commanders were frequently rotated and did nothing. “The strategies have not worked,” Mr. Duarte said. “We need another strategy. I don’t know what. But we need one.”The 2012 arrest warrant against Mr. Pineda, his wife and their two sons has been the cooperatives’ only victory so far, although first the communities had to bring in the prosecutor to see the damage. Since then, more settlers have arrived, and even members of the cooperatives have quit and started cutting down trees.“There is a strong culture that national land is there to be occupied and made private,” said Filippo Del Gatto, who helped set up the first cooperatives in the 1990s. Giving communities title over the land they manage would be an essential first step against the invasions, he said. In September, the Honduran government granted land rights to almost 7 percent of its territory in the far eastern wilderness to indigenous Miskito groups living there. Hiking through the woods here, Jaime Peralta, a forester for Madera Verde, came to a patch of land choked with scrub, once forest that the cooperatives had seeded with mahogany. The settlers burned it down three years ago. “They just cut down the trees to take over the land and sell it,” Mr. Peralta said with disgust. The Copén cooperative estimates that about 10 percent of the 10,600 acres it manages has been cut down by settlers. The neighboring Río Paya cooperative may have lost anywhere from a quarter to half of the 4,200 acres it manages.
Even if the authorities arrest the Pinedas, there is no guarantee a judge would keep them in jail. Mr. Pineda may not even be the source of the problem. “It is likely this man has somebody very economically powerful behind him,” said Mr. Del Gatto, now a consultant for Forest Trends, a conservation group. “Somebody with the capital to support the people in the area. ”Challenging those illicit interests can be lethal. A year ago, Carlos René Romero, one of the top officials of the national forest institute, waskilled in his home in the capital, Tegucigalpa. He was a respected forester with a reputation as a stickler for enforcing the law. There has been no arrest in that case. Impunity, heightened by the drug trade, has a chilling effect, said Alexandra Zamecnik, Mexico and Central America program manager for the United States Forest Service, which works with the Honduran forest institute. “People are not going to act for environmental causes as they would, say, in Panama. ”The settlers, mostly poor farmers themselves, have begun to put down roots, even trading with people in Copén. In a clearing of the forest stands a log cabin surrounded by a tended garden. There is a census sticker on the door. The family living there is now official. Catalino Urellana, one of the Copén workers, surveyed the neighboring hillside shorn of trees and planted with corn. “You see that and you just want to grab a plot for yourself,” he said. “We’re the ones looking after it. We plant mahogany, and they pull it out.”