Inside Honduran forest’s ‘last redoubt’


Rev. Andrés Tamayo points with sadness and anger at the sparse scattering of pines on hills that just two decades ago were densely forested. Streams that once flowed from those hills to the fields around this small town now run only during the rainy season, or have dried up altogether.

“For the people here,” he says, “this is a matter of life and death.”

Tamayo doesn’t make such statements lightly. His name is rumored to be one of 14 on a hit list targeting local leaders who are fighting logging here in the eastern department of Olancho. One of those on the alleged hit list—23-year-old Carlos Arturo Reyes, a member of the Catholic priest’s parish team—was murdered July 18 at his home in nearby El Rosario. No one has been arrested or charged in his death, though police are investigating.

The murder came just three weeks after thousands of people staged a six-day march from Olancho to the office of Honduran President Ricardo Maduro in Tegucigalpa to demand that the government take steps to stop illegal logging. Action has been slow to come, however, and environmentalists in Olancho are edgy. Tamayo seldom goes anywhere alone and avoids traveling at night along the department’s dark, isolated roads.

“Olancho is a disaster,” says Rafael Ulloa, former mayor of the nearby town of Gualaco, whose name is also reported to be on the list. “But it’s not a new problem.”

Nor is it simple. The dispute in the region pits logging companies against local communities, with the government often accused of collusion with loggers, and features frequent wrangling over land titles. It is complicated by rural poverty, endemic corruption (last year Honduras ranked 71st out of 102 countries on the Transparency International index of citizens’ perceptions of corruption) and the difficulty of tracking the clandestine timber trade.

What’s clear, however, is that deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate. According to the governmental State Forestry Administration-Honduran Forestry Development Corporation (Afe-Cohdefor), the country has been losing 200,000 acres (80,000 hectares) of forest a year to urban growth, logging and land-clearing for such purposes as coffee cultivation, ranching and shrimp farming.

No small amount of the deforestation has been due to illegal logging in ostensibly protected areas, experts say. Virtually all protected areas in and around Olancho are threatened by illegal cutting, according to Marlon Escoto, an agronomist who heads the research department at the National Agricultural University in Catacamas. “I wouldn’t even say illegal logging, because it’s being done under the nose of the people responsible for supervising, when logs are floated down the river and loaded onto ships headed for the Caribbean, which is where most of the colored wood [from tropical broadleaf species such as mahogany] goes,” Escoto says.

Between 1997 and 2002, Honduran timber exports totaled more than US$193 million. Last year, Honduras exported over $19 million worth of timber to the United States, $4 million to other Latin American countries and nearly $1.3 million to the Caribbean, according to Afe-Cohdefor.

Officially, logging of broadleaf forests is severely restricted. From 1993 to 2002, Afe-Cohdefor authorized the annual cutting of 109,408 square meters of broadleaf—all of it in state-owned forest—compared to 2,212,039 square meters of pine.

But experts here agree that cutting goes far beyond allowable bounds. Among the conservation areas threatened in and around Olancho are the 52,000-acre (21,000-hectare) La Muralla National Park in northern Olancho and just to the east, the two-million-acre (815,000-hectare) Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, the 927,870-acre (375,500-hectare) Patuca National Park and the 576,095-acre (233,140-hectare) Tawahka Biological Reserve.

“Olancho is the last redoubt of forest in this country,” Escoto says. “When logging began in other departments, Olancho was isolated. Now it’s not so isolated, so the pressure has been greater in recent years. Río Plátano could be in danger of losing its biosphere status because the Honduran government has not been able to guarantee its protection.”

A recent study funded by Britain’s Department for International Development, the World Bank and the Canadian Agency for International Development estimates that 30% to 50% of pine timber and 75% to 85% of broadleaf evergreen timber harvested here is cut illegally, costing the government US$8-12 million a year in lost revenues. The cost is far higher when the accompanying decline in environmental services provided by watersheds—such as regulation of the hydrological cycle—is taken into account.

Afe-Cohdefor manager Gustavo Morales is cautious about blackmarket statistics. “It’s a very subjective figure,” he says. “If the trade is illegal and the wood is taken out clandestinely, it’s very difficult to come up with an accurate estimate.”

But Morales acknowledges that illegal logging occurs, and says his office is trying to curb the problem as well as the corruption that has plagued Afe-Cohdefor. Since taking over in February 2002 with the inauguration of Maduro as president, Morales has cut the staff in half.

“I can’t say I’ve cleaned the agency up completely,” he says, “but our goal is to ensure that this is a modern, transparent institution.”

Clarisa Vega, who until August was the government’s special attorney for the environment, says her office has identified three types of logging. The first involves cutting in areas where timber may be felled legally. The second involves what she calls “legalized” timber—wood that has been cut illegally, but for which documentation has subsequently been obtained through bribery or some other form of corruption. The third is illegally cut timber.

Pio Voto, a member of the Honduran Loggers Association’s board of directors, denies illegal logging is widespread among sawmills and timber companies. He questions Vega’s assertion that loggers acquire legal documents for illegally harvested wood.

“It’s not that easy for there to be corruption in the system. I doubt that it’s possible to legalize something that’s illegal,” he says. Timber companies, he points out, must file forest-management plans and operating plans with Afe-Cohdefor, and government inspectors must sign off on documents certifying the amount of timber harvested.

But both Vega and Ulloa say government officials ranging from mayors to Codhefor functionaries are involved in the chain of illegal logging. Ulloa says that while mayor, he suspected companies underreported the amount of wood they cut to lower their taxes.

Vega’s office has filed charges against private businesspeople and government officials, but she says judges usually suspend the arrest warrants, thwarting the proceedings.

According to Rev. Tamayo, the situation is complicated by a tangle of land titles. In Honduras, many rural peasants lack title to land their families have occupied for generations. In some cases, wealthy families have presented land grants from the Spanish crown to gain modern titles to lands that have been occupied by peasants and rural communities.

During his term as mayor, Ulloa found official registries of land titles had been changed—“8 hectares” to “80 hectares,” for instance—to give an owner more property than originally described in the title. Land disputes often pit one party’s word against another’s—and more often than not, the wealthier party prevails.

Critics say the same holds true when sanctions are applied. Environmentalists in Olancho complain that large timber companies and sawmills are never pursued, while carpenters are prosecuted for having small amounts of illegal timber in their shops. One young carpenter, who escaped arrest when his workshop was raided, says the confiscation of 600 board feet of illegal wood left him penniless.

Logging-company officials point out that small-scale, clandestine logging is often done by locals. Tamayo agrees, but argues it is only a small part of the problem. “Everyone is the product of a system,” he says. “The system creates poverty and poverty creates need. There’s almost no employment in Olancho.”

Vega maintains that the prosecution of craftsmen and small operators is symptomatic of corruption. “Large companies manage to get permission, even if it’s after the fact,” she says, adding that smaller businesses cannot afford to pay bribes. “Influence peddling is rampant in Honduras, and that’s what’s happening here.”

Fewer trees, less water

Meanwhile, local residents, most of whom depend on small-scale agriculture for survival, are seeing water sources dry up as runoff and erosion increase. Olancho water sources feed the country’s two largest watersheds—the Patuca and Aguan river basins.

Twenty years ago, deforestation was mainly confined to low-lying areas, but now loggers are stripping the tops of hills, which are vital to watershed survival. The rainy season in the area has shortened by about 40 days over the past 10 years, while in many districts only about 25% of the streams still run year-round, according to a study last year by Escoto of the National Agricultural University.

The Environmental Movement of Olancho and the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (Cofadeh), Honduras’ leading human rights group, have presented the government with a six-point plan for addressing illegal logging.

They are calling for a moratorium on commercial logging while a sustainable-forestry policy—developed with community participation—is put in place; an evaluation of the state of the country’s natural resources, land titles in forested areas, state agencies and policies related to forestry, watersheds, erosion, and people and companies involved in deforestation; the appointment of a broad-based oversight commission; community management of forests; suspension of plans for a settlement in Olancho’s Patuca National Park; and prosecution of illegal loggers.

Opposition to moratorium strong

Afe-Cohdefor’s Morales adamantly opposes the logging moratorium, however. Pointing to the various factors involved in deforestation—including coffee and livestock production and clearing of land for small-scale agriculture—he says it’s unfair of environmentalists to single out large-scale logging.

“They’re not asking for a solution to deforestation,” he says. “They’re asking for a moratorium on the sawmills. The problem of deforestation isn’t the cutting of wood by the forestry industry. More than 25,000 families depend on the forestry industry. A moratorium could have serious social and economic consequences for the country.”

President Maduro has come down against a moratorium. “A moratorium would not be fair to those who have legal permits in the area and are proceeding legally,” he said in a meeting with reporters earlier this year. “…[T]here have been abuses and deforestation for decades, but I don’t agree with a moratorium.”

Ulloa, who now works for Cofadeh, acknowledges the economic cost of a moratorium. But he asserts the number of residents in Olancho department who are employed by timber companies is small. He adds that many of those people could be put to work as forest rangers or in reforestation projects.

On the land around Salamá, logging does not appear to be the work of small farmers clearing land for crops. The muddy gashes that cause erosion, clogging streams and springs, are often seen on hillsides unsuitable for farming. And the cutting is large-scale. During a visit in July, this reporter saw 16 log-laden trucks thundering along the road to sawmills south of Olancho in a single two-hour period.

“They blame small farmers, but small farmers aren’t doing that,” says Rafael Romero, a local resident who identifies himself simply as an environmentalist. “With everything that has happened, we know we could be killed for standing up for our rights. But we’re going to keep fighting the loggers so that our children will have water.”

- Barbara Fraser

Gustavo Morales
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 223-8810
Rev. Andrés Tamayo
Salamá, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 885-0028 (community phone)
Rafael Ulloa
Assistant Officer
Human Rights and Citizenship Progam (Cofadeh)
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 220-5280
Clarisa Vega
Former Special Attorney for the Environment
Public Ministry
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Tel: +(504) 221-5620
Pio Voto
Board of Directors
Honduran Loggers Association
Tel: +(504) 232-3264