By Alejandro F. Ludeña
Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, loses millions of dollars annually as a result of illegal logging. According to the European Commission’s Country Strategy Paper for Honduras 2007-2013, the market value for illegally chopped timber is between US$55 and $70 million a year, in addition to undeclared taxes and wasted public investment, which amounts to $18 million more.
This is just one of the ruinous effects of the inefficiency with which the Forestry Law is applied in Honduras, where weak democratic institutions reached a nadir in June 2009 with a coup d’etat. But perhaps it isn’t even the worst consequence. According to Orlando Núñez, coordinator of the National Strategy for Illegal Logging in the Forest Conservation Institute, or ICF, Honduras is creeping dangerously close to desertification. In statements made to the capital’s newspaper El Heraldo, Núñez said the country loses 58,000 hectares (145,000 acres) of trees annually, representing more than 1 percent of its forests.
In Honduras, 80 percent of the land is suitable for forestry. But this potential, far from being harnessed for equitable development and poverty reduction, has been squandered to the benefit of a few. Reports from the National Human Rights Commission, or CONADEH, indicate that for every 2 hectares of woodlands the authorities allow to be exploited, three are cleared, meaning one of them counts toward the dramatic figures of illegal land clearing.
In addition to the criminal actions of timber traffickers must be added the effects of forest fires, cattle ranching and the pressure to extend the agricultural frontier. Another factor less visible yet lethal to forests is the popular demand for firewood. Due to limited electrification in rural areas, firewood is still a primary energy source for the impoverished rural population. Annual consumption reaches about 6 million cubic meters (212 million cubic feet), and 70 percent of this firewood comes from broadleaf trees.
The first Forestry Law in Honduras was enacted in 1971, which the objective of securing protection for woodlands, rationalizing the exploitation and commercialization of products derived from the forests. Three years later, the Honduran Corporation for Forest Development, or COHDEFOR, was established to allow for the optimal use of forest resources in Honduras, guaranteeing their protection, conservation, and good management. It was quickly seen that none of these instruments was fulfilling its mandate, but it was not until the mid 1990s, with the depletion of water and natural resources, that the discontent of local communities erupted in protests that helped expose the problem, exerting pressure to create a new legal and institutional framework.
Highlighted in this struggle are the communities in northern Olancho, the most forested department of Honduras and the hardest hit by illegal logging. Five local organizations united in 2000 to create a common front, the Olancho Environmentalist Movement, or MAO.
After nearly two decades of protests, a long process of consultation and participation driven by civil society with the support of more than 200 social organizations, in September 2007 Honduras’s Congress passed the Forestry Law for Protected Areas and Wildlife. Five months later it went into effect, generating enormous resistance from big logging firms and reasonable expectations for those who had spent years looking for a change in forest policy.
Hermilo Soto, national coordinator for the Lutheran World Federation, which supports environmental defense projects, told Latinamerica Press that the new law included at least 70 percent of the demands made by the social movements.
“Among other things, the law included the Social Forestry System, which provides for the incorporation of local communities into the management of natural resources, creating citizen participation,” he said.
But in 2009, the political situation changed dramatically with the coup d’etat by military forces, businessmen, and large swathes of the political class.
According to Soto, “the de facto government that established itself after the institutional breakdown failed to meet the commitments made by the government of [the ousted President Manuel] Zelaya Rosales [2006-2009] with respect to closed-off areas and the rights of local communities.”
Repression of the environmental movement
The defense of the woodlands, once championed by more than 200 grassroots organizations, is now disjointed, in large part by repression and institutional collapse following the coup.
“With the repression suffered following the coup d’etat in 2009, the environmental movements were disbanded,” Víctor Ochoa, former head of MAO, told Latinamerica Press.
In addition to the expulsion from the country of Father Andrés Tamayo — born in El Salvador but a nationalized Honduran — in November 2009 because of his participation in protests against the coup, there was also the assassination of environmentalist leaders like Adalberto Figueroa, MAO coordinator in the municipality of Guato, Olancho, in May 2010. Tamayo, one of MAO’s founders, had played an important role during the last decade in mobilizing communities to protect woodlands.
The lack of confidence in the state as protector of the forests is palpable. For Ochoa, the presence of the armed forces in woodlands, following the approval by Congress in 2011 of the creation of a Specialized Unit of Forest Soldiers, is aggravating the situation.
“When a truck carrying illegally cut timber is stopped, the owner needs only call a military officer he knows to get the order to allow [the truck] to pass,” he said.
For its part, the ICF, which was born alongside the new law to substitute the extinct CODHEFOR, is already known for its inaction. The Association of Forestry Professionals of Honduras denounced in July the lack of technical training in the ICF which, among other things, is allowing the amount of illegal logging to increase indiscriminately in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the country’s Caribbean coast.
In the face of criticism, Fredy Márquez of the ICF’s Department of Forest Protection, believes the institution “emerged to decentralize resource management and be a source of support rather than operations, but [it] does not have the financial resources to meet their agenda.”
Once again in Honduras, changes in legislation are of little use when the power relations that have hijacked the state for decades remain undisturbed. It seems that no law alone can change the culture of corruption and impunity that has plagued the nation for centuries and deepened in 2009.
For that reason, some activists emphasize the importance of continuing to educate people: “We’ve already made it halfway,” said Soto; “Now we just need to make the local communities aware of their obligations and rights, and we’ll continue in the fight to protect the environment.”