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HONDURAS: Miracle in the Mangrove Forest

Thelma Mejía* - Tierramérica

GUAPINOL, Honduras, Nov 27 2009 (IPS) - The beating sun in southern Honduras doesn’t stop a group of women from throwing themselves into the task of protecting and recuperating a mangrove forest on the Pacific coast.

Mangrove forest in Guapinol, Honduras. Credit: Courtesy of GEF Small Grants Programme

Mangrove forest in Guapinol, Honduras. Credit: Courtesy of GEF Small Grants Programme

The area around the village of Guapinol, located in Marcovia municipality in the southern department of Choluteca, naturally serves as refuge for birds and many marine and coastal species. It is located in the stretch of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that runs through Honduras, part of a chain of ecosystems that extends from southern Mexico through the seven countries of Central America.

Guapinol’s biodiversity is why it is a protected site inside the 69,711 hectares that make up the Honduran portion of the Gulf of Fonseca, a marine border shared with Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The wetlands system of southern Honduras is included in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (signed in 1971, in force since 1975), and in it, several species of mangrove are predominant.

But these wetlands are in danger due to the deterioration of the mangrove forests and the chemical waste from sugarcane and shrimp farming. This has prompted the impoverished residents of Guapinol to try to save the mangroves and preserve the marine resources on which local residents have long depended for a living.

Guapinol, with a population of 2,768, was one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Mitch, which in 1998 killed several thousand people and caused billions of dollars in damages across Central America.

The residents of Guapinol’s four neighbourhoods spread along the coast are suffering from the sharp decline in small-scale fishing and are among the poorest people in Honduras.

In Honduras, 69 percent of the population was living in poverty in 2007 and nearly 46 percent in extreme poverty, according to the regional report published Nov. 19 by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), a United Nations regional agency.

“About 10 years ago, fishing gave us enough to more or less feed the family, and the sea was rich in different species. But now things have changed. The fire in my kitchen is almost always out: there is no food,” fisherman Heráclito Saavedra, 52, told Tierramérica.

Every day, Saavedra walks two kilometres to a farm to milk cows, for a payment of one litre of milk to feed his family of eight.

In Guapinol, just one out of 20 adolescents go to secondary school. The houses lack latrines, and respiratory illnesses and diseases like dengue are common, Saavedra says.

With other organised groups from Guapinol, Saavedra participated in a clean- up and recycling effort along a 15 km stretch of the coast.

“We want to show people that we can’t live surrounded by garbage. We are promoting environmental training because if we don’t take care of our resources and our homes, the sea is going to eat up the community with its big waves,” said a concerned Isabel Quiroz, promoter of the women’s group El Jordán.

The 22 women ages 19 to 45 in El Jordán serve as an example of determination and dignity. Two years ago they began to work with their own hands to recuperate 15 hectares of mangroves.

“We have reforested and recovered species like the titi shrimp, and we cultivated the black ark mollusc and the mangrove mussel,” Wendy Reyes, 22, the new president of El Jordán, told Tierramérica.

The women of El Jordán and the residents of Brisas del Sur and El Venado, two Guapinol neighbourhoods, have the support of the Small Grants Programme (SGP) of the Global Environment Facility, coordinated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “Before, when we used to swim across to clean up the mangrove forest, the people said, ‘There go the madwomen of El Jordán!’ But now that the SGP donated a motorboat and helped us build an office for our cooperative, people see us and say, ‘Look at those women, how they have excelled’,” says Reyes with pride.

The women say their eyes were opened when Hurricane Mitch nearly destroyed Guapinol, and they were determined that history would not repeat itself.

In El Venado, the fishers built a simple hotel in order to promote ecotourism, as well as a nursery to protect sea turtles and a refuge for preserving the habitat of thousands of threatened birds.

In September and October, the people of el Venado released more than 5,000 baby olive Ridley turtles. One out of 100 return to their beach of origin over an average period of 15 years. The turtle egg laying is one of the greatest natural events of the southern Honduran coast.

At dawn and dusk in the skies over El Venado one can see woodpeckers, gulls and storks soaring.

“Many of these birds are in danger of extinction, and they can only be found in the regions of southern Honduras,” biologist Carlos Cerrato, president of the SGP board, told Tierramérica. For a Honduran community to receive SGP aid, “it must take part in drafting the proposal, and comply with the pledge against corruption and for defending the environment, which is our main orientation,” he said.

The people of Guapinol feel that they are part of a “miracle.”

The happiness of El Jordán’s Quiroz, 48, was evident in her faltering voice: “Although we are poor, we are going to take care of these mangrove forests because they are our life. We want our children to know the sea turtles, the birds and the riches of the sea, so that they are not just tales in storybooks.” (*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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