[This is the second blog in a series documenting the 5,000-mile “megaflyover” by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to survey Central America’s extraordinary forests via airplane.]
By Jeremy Radachowsky
The Spanish-language news from the small TV echoes off of the hotel’s cement walls: “Today would have been Berta Cáceres’ 45th birthday. All of Honduras mourns her death and denounces her assassination.”
As I finish my coffee and papaya, I contemplate the veil of violence and tragedy that hangs over conservation in Honduras.
Berta Cáceres was one of Honduras’s renowned environmental and human rights defenders, having stood up to promoters of a hydroelectric dam that threatened the natural resources within the Lenca indigenous territory. She was shot in her home at 1:00 a.m. the night before last and everyone suspects that her murder was related to her activism.
Tragically, Honduras is the country with the greatest number of environmental-related murders in the world – an astounding 110+ assassinations in the past 10 years.
Today I am joining colleagues from the Honduran park service, ICF, for a flight over the Moskitia – the second largest forest in Central America and the largest protected areas complex in Honduras. We are also here to help ICF with strategies to protect the cornerstone of this vast forest – the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated as “In Danger.”
Likewise in danger are the reserve’s rangers and the indigenous Miskitu, Tawakha, and Pech communities that hold territorial rights in the reserve’s cultural zone.
We drive to the air force base at the far end of Tegucigalpa’s international airport and meet up with ICF staff on the tarmac. Since our strut mounts won’t fit on the military’s large Cessna Grand Caravan, we affix makeshift mounts created from steel T’s with wingnuts and hope our engineering will hold our cameras amidst 200 km/hour winds.
As we begin our flight, we follow our track on a GPS-enabled tablet. It tells us we’ve just entered Patuca National Park, but looking out the window, we can’t tell the difference between the park’s buffer zone and surrounding unprotected areas – the degradation due to cattle ranching is omnipresent.
Refreshingly, we soon enter the verdant hills and winding rivers of Río Plátano’s core zone, where jaguar, tapir, peccaries, scarlet macaws, and even giant anteaters roam. Somewhere down there is the ancient “City of the Monkey God”, recently rediscovered by archaeologists though local Miskitu indigenous people were aware of the site all along. The misty emerald forest is magical.
But we pop all too quickly out of the intact forest to another vast stretch of devastation – cleared land, land in the process of being cleared, and cattle… but not quite enough cattle to make sense. At this extremely low stocking density, the cattle are clearly not being grazed to make a profit. More likely they provide cover for illegal land grabbing by powerful absentee speculators.
Curiously there is also almost no small-scale agriculture except for a few very small home gardens. At least 95 percent of the deforestation is due to large-scale illegal ranching. We come upon an illegal oil palm plantation. The industrial-scale squatter is likely testing both the soil for productivity and the government’s resolve to enforce the law and remove powerful individuals.
Accompanying us is Marcio Martínez – the ICF official in charge of protecting Río Plátano. I ask him about the risks he faces in his work.
“In Río Plátano, one of our technicians was shot in the back and killed a few years ago,” Marcio responds. “There’ve been no major threats since then. However, we had to close a few of our field stations due to the risk.” Looking down, Marcio adds matter-of-factly, “This is one of the parts of the reserve where ICF simply can’t go.”
I may be emotionally vulnerable due to a lack of sleep, but I have to hold back a tear. The combination of ecological devastation, violence, and helplessness hits me deep in my soul.
Tropical forest destruction is often portrayed as the product of tensions between conservation and local development. But this is often not the case. In the Moskitia, indigenous communities have lived for centuries from the forests, rivers, and sea. More recently, however, powerful elites and organized criminals – with cows and oil palm – utilize local people as shields as they pillage resources, threaten local forest-dependent livelihoods, and devastate the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
At once I am awed by this great, magical wilderness and deeply saddened by the menace to the forest and to those who put their lives at risk to defend it. We need to work together to protect the forest, its wildlife, and its people. That is why WCS is partnering with ICF through a 10-year cooperative agreement to help strengthen both governmental and local community management of these threatened protected areas.
Humbly, we head off to the next great Central American forest at the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border.
Postscript: Since the drafting of this piece, Honduran environmental defender Nelson García, and community forest leader Walter Méndez – based in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve – have been assassinated.
Dr. Jeremy Radachowsky is Director of the Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean region at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
Read Jeremy Radachowsky’s first blog in this series: