Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Natural Heritage of the Honduran Caribbean on a Tightrope

TRUJILLO, Honduras, Jun 21 2010 (IPS) - The great biodiversity of a protected area on the Honduran Caribbean coast is at risk, despite the efforts of a handful of residents and local institutions.

Howler Monkey in the Capiro Calentura jungle. - Sonia Edith Parra/IPS

Howler Monkey in the Capiro Calentura jungle. - Sonia Edith Parra/IPS

The biodiversity of Capiro Calentura National Park, on the northern coast of Honduras, could disappear as a result of tourism, agricultural expansion and drug trafficking.

Capiro and Calentura are two mountains in the foothills of the Nombre de Dios Sierra, close to Trujillo, capital of the Caribbean coastal province of Colón. The park has 7,542 hectares of tropical and subtropical rainforest, and in it are 20 micro-watersheds that supply water to 32 surrounding communities, including Trujillo.

The park was established after a push from a group of teachers from Trujillo. It forms a natural complex with the neighboring Guaimoreto Lagoon Wildlife Refuge, covering 10,387 hectares along the ocean.

In the last three years, a new threat has emerged here, as it has along the entire northern Honduran coast: drug trafficking.

The natural canal that connects the sea to the lagoon is now a drug transit route — nobody who is not involved in trafficking dares venture there. In the refuge's buffer zone there are several clandestine aircraft landing strips.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Central America is one of the most important corridors for moving narcotics. In 2007, of the 700 tons of cocaine seized around the world, 91 were intercepted here.

National and foreign drug traffickers buy up land around the wildlife refuge to more closely control their illicit transactions and make use of valuable natural resources.

“It's sad to see how we are losing the most valuable thing we have in the region: our parks and our water sources. So far we have been able to survive, put food on the table, but tomorrow — I don't know,” said a rural worker from the area who asked not to be named.

In fact, nearly everyone interviewed for this article spoke with this reporter only on condition of anonymity.

Living in this area are the Garífuna (descendants of African slaves and indigenous Caribs), the indigenous Pech peoples and small farmers who migrated here from other parts of the country. There are more than 60,000 inhabitants, according to the park's 2007 environmental management plan.

The Calentura and Guaimoreto Foundation (FUCAGUA), created in 1991 to preserve manage these sites, worked with the communities to develop an agro-forestry project in order to diversify crops.

The project includes gardens to produce healthy seeds of coconut palms, decimated by hurricanes and disease, and develop fruit crops and tubers like the ñame, and legumes like the balú — staples of the local cuisine.

Thanks to this initiative, which reinforces food security, next year the Garífuna will harvest their first healthy crop of coconuts.

But all is not good news. There are sectors of the park where the howler and white-faced monkeys, jaguars and deer can no longer be found. As for the park's flora, valuable timber, like mahogany and ceibo seem to have disappeared.

FUCAGUA's actions have been successful in protecting part of the park and the refuge. The foundation utilizes the 1992 Presidential Pact 1118, which established these protected areas.

In November of that year, an executive order banned resource exploitation and exploration in the area and instructed government agencies to delineate the borders and preserve them. But that hasn't happened.

Nearly 20 years later, the ambiguous legal situation continues. Although the borders were drawn up several times — the latest in 2006 — there was no decree to make them legal, meaning that the protected area loses ground day by day.

In the park's buffer zone, land is sold without title, or the titles are issued irregularly by the National Agrarian Institute. As such, cattle ranching and food crops continue their encroachment.

Although Honduras does have a Natural Resources and Environment Secretariat (Ministry) and Forest Conservation Institute, the protected areas are administered by non-governmental organizations through contracts with the state.

But they don't have state financial support, and often lack even technical and legal backing.

Meanwhile, the expansion of tourism continues unabated as well.

The Canada-based company Life Vision Properties is building the Alta Vista and Campo del Mar Nature Park tourism complexes, complete with private neighborhoods in the mountains or on the beach, in the Capiro Calentura and Guaimoreto buffer zone.

“Before, foreigners could not buy land less than two kilometers from the beaches,” a FUCAGUA source said. But that rule changed with legal reforms in the late 1990s.

According to Randy Jorgensen, executive director of Life Vision, the project promotes economic development in the area. A few weeks ago, a bulldozer belonging to the company turned an old ecological path into a highway.

On Jan. 22 and 25, the government issued environmental permits to the two projects. At the time, the country was still under control of the government that took power in the June 2009 coup.

FUCAGUA is now trying to get the Forest Conservation Institute to present the demarcation of the zone to Congress to make it legally binding.

To do so, it will use some of the financing from the sustainable resource management project of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor in the Honduran Atlantic, provided by the European Union.

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