- Powerful drug-traffickers and landless farmers continue to push cattle ranching and illegal logging operations deeper into the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in eastern Honduras.
- Satellite data show the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve lost more than 10 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2017, more than a third of which happened within the last three years of that time period. Preliminary data for 2019 indicate Río Plátano is experiencing another heavy round of forest loss this year, with UMD recording around 160,000 deforestation alerts in the reserve between January and August, which appears to be an uptick from the same period in 2018.
- Local sources claim the government participates in drug trafficking, and those involved in the drug business are allegedly the same people who are involved in illegal exploitation of the land for cattle ranching and illegal logging of mahogany and cedar.
- Deforestation in Río Plátano means a loss of habitat for wildlife and a loss of forest resources for indigenous communities that depend on them. But another threat is emerging: water resources are becoming increasingly scarce as forests are converted into grasslands.
Powerful drug-traffickers and landless farmers continue to push cattle ranching and illegal logging operations deeper into the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in eastern Honduras.
The Mosquitia region, straddling the border of Honduras with Nicaragua, comprises one of the largest contiguous rainforest regions in Latin America north of the Amazon Basin, and the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve holds some of the largest tracts of old growth rainforest remaining in the region.
From 2001 to 2017, satellite data from the University of Maryland shows the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve has lost more than 10 percent of its tree cover, more than a third of which happened within the last three years. Preliminary data for 2019 indicate Río Plátano is experiencing another heavy round of forest loss this year, with UMD recording around 160,000 deforestation alerts in the reserve between January and August, which appears to be an uptick from the same period last year.
Satellite images show deforestation has expanded through the reserve’s buffer zones since 2018, entering the dense forest of the core zone. The reserve serves as an important biological corridor for species such as jaguars, giant anteaters, scarlet macaws and the endangered Baird’s tapir. Further, the reserve covers ancestral territory belonging to Miskito indigenous communities, who make up nearly half the population in the reserve, and smaller populations of Pech, Tawahkas and Garífunas.
Drugs and death squads
Environmentalist activist Darwin Ramos Antunez, who is from the city of Catacamas, Olancho near the Río Plátano Reserve, said that narco-traffickers aligned with the government are the main parties responsible for the deforestation.
“The problem is the State under which we live, a narco-government, for the past 10 years,” Ramos Antunez said. “The Mosquitia region is a zone where organized crime, drug cartels control everything with help from the government.”
According to Ramos Antunez, the government participates in the drug trafficking and illegal destruction of the region’s biodiversity. He said those involved in the drug business are allegedly the same people who are involved in illegal exploitation of the land for cattle ranching and illegal logging of mahogany and cedar.
“The large-scale cattle ranchers and illegal loggers are narco-trafficking landowners who set up shell companies protected by the State. They don’t have permission to exploit the forests but the State allows their operations to continue because they collaborate together,” Ramos Antunez said. “The [landowners] profit from cattle ranching and wood harvesting, but the real business is in the drugs.”
Olancho offers access to Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve from the south, and is a hotbed of illegal timber harvesting as the highways provide a pathway for heavy cargo trucks to carry illegally harvested timber to markets in the more densely populated regions of the country.
Ramos Antunez said he was part of a once powerful activist network known as Environmental Movement of Olancho (MAO) that successfully mobilized popular resistance against illegal logging operations in Olancho and Río Plátano Reserve from 2003 to 2008. However, MAO has almost disappeared after a series of prominent activists were killed, and the group’s leader Father Jose Andres Tamayo was exiled after a coup d’état in 2009.
“Since 2009, they’ve planted terror by killing so many of our leaders,” Ramos Antunez said. “Today, nobody wants to speak up because there are death squads that will not think twice about killing anyone who gets in the way… If I were still in Honduras, I wouldn’t be able to talk about this.”
For his work exposing the drug cartels and illegal timber harvesters, Ramos Antunez said he received death threats and was tortured by death squads before he left the country in late 2018 with the so-called migrant caravan heading north toward the United States. Once he arrived in the U.S. to seek political asylum, he was detained by ICE and held for 8 months at the Adelanto Detention Center, run by for-profit prison contractor GEO Group.
In addition, Ramos Antunez said he worked with indigenous Tawahka, Miskitos and Pech communities in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve through a collective called Los Que Callan. He said that the Tawahka, who number around 2,000, are endangered by ongoing settlement in their ancestral lands as well as the construction of a 104-megawatt dam known as “Patuca III,” which was promoted by the government.
Ramos Antunez said that before leaving Honduras he had worked with the leftist political party Liberty and Refoundation. Working with Tawahka guides, he said he helped photograph tractors used for building landing strips and wood harvesting deep in the rainforest. Ramos Antunez claimed that because there were neither roads nor waterways that could accommodate such large machinery, tractors must have been flown in by military helicopter, suggesting powerful people were involved.
According to a source in the Honduran military who spoke to Insight Crime, President Juan Orlando Hernández’s brother and former congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who was arrested by U.S. authorities on drug trafficking charges in November of last year, commanded criminal economies ranging from drug to timber trafficking in Olancho and eastern Mosquitia.
New York’s Southern District prosecutors have implicated President Hernández as a co-conspirator in the drug trafficking and money laundering case against his brother, according to documents reported on by Univision.
In response to the allegations published in Univision, President Hernández issued a statement that said the president “categorically” denied accusations that he financed his presidential campaigns with irregular money or leveraged drug trafficking to enhance his political power.
Forestry cooperatives under continued threat
Toward the north in the Sico and Paulaya Valley, several communities operate forestry cooperatives in the Río Plátano buffer zone. The forestry cooperatives are supposed to protect a section of the forest where the harvesting of mahogany wood is allowed. The agroforestry cooperatives use mules to transport the wood, which has a lower impact than building roads.
In this part of the Mosquitia, illegal timber harvesting is reportedly less prevalent than in Olancho due to a lack of road and river access, but deforestation is still a problem due to ongoing invasion by cattle ranchers.
The cattle ranchers who are taking over the land are often landless farmers from interior regions of the country, who are attracted by the opportunity to escape poverty and achieve greater economic and food security. Conservation groups say that in addition to the landless farmers, large-scale landholders encourage the migration to set up massive cattle ranching operations. The landholders can use cattle ranching to secure territory and to launder illicit drug money into the legal economy.
The Honduran government promotes meat exports as a way to grow the economy. Each year, the country produces 60,000 metric tons of beef, exporting 1,500 metric tons to earn $9 million in foreign exchange dollars.
In November 2018, President Juan Orlando Hernandez announced a program called “SOS Honduras” as an emergency measure to stop illegal, mafia-promoted deforestation in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.
Pedro Romelo, who has inside knowledge of the forestry cooperatives but asked for his name to be changed for safety considerations, said that since the president’s announcement there has not been any significant actions or changes in the Sico and Paulaya Valley. He says that agroforestry cooperatives continue to be overrun by cattle ranchers who cut down forests to claim pasture.
“SOS Honduras was simply a media show,” Romelo said. “The grasslands grow at an accelerating rate while the forest shrinks faster and faster. There are no consequences for advancing cattle ranching into the biosphere, so they keep coming.”
Mongabay reached out to the Honduras government for comment, but had not received a response by the time this article was published.
Deforestation in Río Plátano means a loss of habitat for wildlife and a loss of forest resources for indigenous communities that depend on them. But another threat is emerging: With the expansion of grasslands into the biosphere, Romelo said that water resources are becoming increasingly scarce.
“The only good thing about the lack of water is people are becoming more conscious about the environmental problems as time goes on,” Romelo said.
Banner image: Deforestation in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. Image by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay.
Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.
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