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HONDURAS: Greasing Palms to Plunder Forests

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Nov 3 2005 (IPS) - Illegal logging by corrupt interests tied to major political figures is devastating the rapidly disappearing pine and mahogany forests of Honduras, particularly in northeastern Olancho province, according to a major report released here Thursday by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Centre for International Policy (CIP).

The report is based on a series of trips to Honduras over the past year in which EIA investigators posed as investors or buyers of illegally logged timber. It identifies the major companies involved, foremost among them Jose Lamas S. de R.L., a major supplier of pine products to the U.S. home-furnishing giant, Home Depot.

At the current logging rate, mahogany in Honduras may become all but extinct within 10 to 15 years, according to the 45-page report, which added that illegal operations now threaten the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Meanwhile, the Honduran government, which has failed to provide adequate funds to enforce logging laws, is losing as much as 18 million dollars a year in lost stumpage fees and other forest-based revenue, according to the report, “The Illegal Logging Crisis in Honduras”.

“Illegal logging is creating an environmental disaster for Honduras. Exports of this illegal wood increase poverty, fuel corruption and devastate poor communities,” said CIP president, retired Ambassador Robert White. “As much as 80 percent of the mahogany from Honduras is illegally cut.”

“Because we in the United States are the leading importer of this illegal harvest, we should use trade law authority to crack down on these products, if Honduras can’t or won’t,” he added.

Indeed, 80 percent of the mahogany and up to half of the pine that is harvested in Honduras is being exported to feed voracious demands by retailers, such as Home Depot, in the United States, as well as the European Union (EU), despite a two-year-old pledge by President George W. Bush to take stronger measures to stop the trade in illegally cut timber and wood products.

“Demand for cheap wooden products – broom and mop handles, tomato stakes, fence posts, sawn timber, doors, windows and even kindling – is driving deforestation across Honduras encouraged by a lack of U.S. and EU import controls to identify and exclude illegally logged wood entering the country,” noted EIA president Allan Thornton.

Thornton said his investigators had found that mahogany doors that were specially fashioned for New York tycoon Donald Trump’s wedding at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Miami and mahogany products purchased for use in the U.S. Capitol building originated in Honduras.

“Although it may have been unwitting on their parts,” according to Thornton, “this report links the mahogany door producer and exporter to illicit mahogany cut in the Rio Platano Reserve.”

Described in the report as a “massive, nationwide, resource rip-off by major timber and wood-products producers and their high-level political backers”, the illegal timber trade is made possible by the actions and complicity of politicians, the State Forestry Administration, timber companies, sawmills, transporters, loggers, and local government and police.

For years, local activitists, led by Father Andres Tamayo, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize earlier this year, have tried to draw international attention to against the illegal trade in Olancho, Honduras’ most heavily forested region, and beyond.

Tamayo heads the Environmental Movement of Olancho (MAO). For their efforts, the activists, most of whom are small farmers, have been on the receiving end of threats, intimidation, assaults, and even murder.

Olancho town council member, Carlos Luna, was gunned down in 1998 while investigating claims of illegal logging in his municipality. Among those implicated in his death was timber magnate and former member of the notorious CIA-trained Battalion 3-16 death squad, Jorge Chavez, whose father-in-law, Rafael Pineda Ponce, once served as president of the national Congress.

Environmentalist Carlos Roberto Flores, a community leader in the municipality of Gualaco, was shot to death in 2001 by guards employed by Energisa, a private company building a dam in Olancho’s Sierra de Agalta National Park.

In July 2003, another activist, Carlos Arturo Reyes, was murdered at his home in El Rosario, Olancho, after his name appeared on a purported death list obtained by Amnesty International following a seven-day “March for Life” that attracted hundreds of participants and demanded a moratorium on logging.

Illegal logging in Honduras is made possible primarily through corruption, bribery and a systemic failure to enforce the law, particularly by the State Forestry Administration (COHDEFOR) and police. While Honduran law permits the extraction of 1.2 million cubic metres of lumber each year, according to former COHDEFOR director Gustavo Morales, the true volume is much higher “because there is no control over illegal logging”.

Most timber extraction and export are conducted by a small number of large, powerful and well-connected companies which guard their interests in part by providing generous campaign contributions to Honduran politicians.

The most powerful timber businessman and reputedly the richest man in Honduras, Cuban-born Jose Lamas, owns the largest company, as well as Florida-based Aljoma Lumber Company, which is a major supplier for Home Depot.

A second major player is Comercial Maderera Noriega, which is owned by Guillermo Noriega and co-managed by his daughters, Gilma and Rosibell. Its main production consists of sawn pine for export. The report quotes Gilma as telling EIA investigators that the company specialised in old-growth forests in Olancho and routinely pays off local officials to gain access to a virtually unlimited supply of logs.

The report said Noriega is particularly close and a major campaign contributor to Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the current president of Congress and a leading presidential candidate.

While these companies deal mainly in pine, mahogany, which is protected by the U.N. as an endangered species and can no longer be found outside Honduras’ national parks of the Reio Platano Biosphere, is somewhat more tightly regulated.

The demand for mahogany, which fetches 1,300 dollars per cubic meter on the international market, is driven largely by demand the U.S. for furniture manufactured in San Pedro Sula. EIA’s investigators found that Honduras’ two biggest manufacturing companies, Milworks International and Caoba de Honduras, received most of the mahogany that comes from the biosphere.

The report said it had no direct evidence that any major U.S. retailers, including Home Depot, have knowingly bought wood products from timber that had been illegally harvested.

However, it called for the U.S. and EU to take stronger action to stop prevent the imports of such goods in line with the July 2005 Group of Eight (G-8) summit commitments. It urged the listing for international protection of Honduras’ two main pine species and the upgrade of those that already exist for mahogany.

It also suggested tying aid and pending debt relief for Honduras to progress in better protecting civil-society groups from intimidation and violence, and building capacity for forestry management and the enforcement of logging laws and regulations, particularly in the country’s nature reserves.

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