Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Tierramerica

ENVIRONMENT-HONDURAS: Forest Corruption a Major Challenge

Thelma Mejía* - Tierramérica

TEGUCIGALPA, Feb 17 2010 (IPS) - The effects of climate change in Honduras have a local accomplice. Not only are forests suffering from global warming; they are also the victim of illegal logging.

Illegal logging continues unchecked in Honduras. Credit: Courtesy of Democracy without Borders Foundation

Illegal logging continues unchecked in Honduras. Credit: Courtesy of Democracy without Borders Foundation

More than three-quarters of Honduras is mountainous, and over 50 percent of the territory is wooded.

Government reports indicate that forests are the most valuable natural resource for development of this Central American country. They could generate more than 25 percent of GDP, estimated at 12.7 billion dollars following the crisis triggered by the Jun. 28, 2009 coup d’état that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya.

However, currently the forest sector contributes just five percent of GDP.

The decline of the country’s forests has four main causes: changes in land use, consumption of firewood, fires and illegal logging, according to a report by the independent forest monitoring unit of the ombudsman’s office.

Although there is little data on the illegal trade in timber, it is estimated that 80 to 100 “rastras” or timber containers pulled by trucks circulate in Honduras every day. The concentration of such activity is heaviest in the northeastern department (province) of Olancho, one of the most deforested areas in Honduras.

Annual consumption of firewood amounts to six million cubic metres, 70 percent of which comes from broad-leaf, hardwood forests. Firewood is an essential source of energy in Honduras, and the only option available to much of the rural population.

According to ombudsman Ramón Custodio, there is a sort of “forestry whitewashing” in which legal and illegal activities are “the two extremes of a spectrum in which the lumber is legalised using different mechanisms.”

These mechanisms, Custodio told Tierramérica, can be brought to bear by the criminals at the point of cutting, transport, sale, industrialisation or illegal traffic of forest products or byproducts, or appropriation of public lands through deforestation or farming activities, among others.

Illegal logging “enriches the corrupt individual while impoverishing the community,” in addition to fomenting destruction of forests, which has repercussions beyond the forestry sector, said the ombudsman.

Every year, the Honduran government loses six to eight million dollars, and the municipalities around 1.6 million dollars, in unpaid taxes resulting from the illegal timber trade.

Forestry expert Rigoberto Sandoval told Tierramérica that the forest mass and rich diversity that existed two decades ago in this country “have been reduced substantially due to the lack of clear policies.

“The government must urgently take responsibility for its failure to study and inventory the nation’s natural resources. As long as the prevailing attitude is that research funds are an expense rather than an investment, we will continue groping our way blindly with respect to the environment, without stopping to consider that we are losing the country’s natural wealth,” he said.

“Illegal logging means genetic and environmental losses for some species, as well as the loss of biodiversity resulting from the shrinking forest cover,” said Sandoval.

The independent forest monitoring unit report states that illegal logging leads to greater environmental vulnerability and social conflicts.

The illegal timber traffickers often fail to comply with technical standards for logging and measures intended to preserve the soil, and usually fell more timber than authorised for legal extraction.

Illegal activities include logging in protected areas, such as near water sources; the felling of trees beyond the areas to which permits apply; the removal of more trees than the authorised quota; and irregularities in approval of timber sales.

Fausto Mejía, head of the independent forest monitoring unit, pointed to cases of fraud in invoicing lumber used by industries – a tax evasion crime.

Many companies also use illicit documents to misappropriate land titles, in conspiracy with forest cooperatives and public officials, to take timber from areas beyond their original permits, committing crimes like falsification.

Of the 86 reports made in the last three years by the independent forest monitoring unit, only 19 did not involve irregularities. The rest document abuse of power, adulterated technical reports, pressuring local groups in order to obtain logging permits, logging in protected areas, tax fraud and complicity.

The regions where most of these crimes are committed are Olancho, the Atlantic region, the northern department of Yoro, the central departments of Francisco Morazán and Comayagua, and, to a lesser extent, El Paraíso and the rest of the southern region of Honduras.

In Olancho, the city of Juticalpa and the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve are the areas with the highest levels of forest corruption.

Monitoring by officials has led to the identification of abuses and implementation of sanctions, especially fines, said Mejía.

But at the 15th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, held in Copenhagen in December, Honduras drew attention for the government’s failure to crack down on such crimes.

(*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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