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In the Honduran Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, an illegal road for cattle and drugs

Stills taken from a video of the road's construction in Tawahka territory last summer.

  • Multiple sources, backed by satellite data, say an illegal road is being cut through the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Sources say the road will facilitate land invasions into the biosphere and is likely to be used as a drug-trafficking route.
  • The road has created divisions between Indigenous groups, with the Bakinasta Miskito denouncing its presence and demanding the government step in to halt it.
  • Despite knowing about the road for more than a year, the Honduran government has not taken definitive action to enforce the law.

Beginning along Honduras’s northeastern coastline and stretching south into its dense interior rainforests lies the Río Plátano Biosphere. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, the Río Plátano is one of the most impressive ecosystems on the planet. Rivers swoop in wide arches through the forest, which is home to more than 721 known species of vertebrates, including jaguars, giant anteaters, and great green macaws. To its far south, the Río Plátano overlaps with Indigenous land reserves that spill across the border into neighboring Nicaragua’s Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.

In all, the 630,000-hectare (1.56-million-acre) protected reserve, along with its 200,000-hectare (494,000-acre) buffer zone and adjoining Indigenous territories, comprises some of the last intact remnants of the Mesoamerican rainforest, which once encompassed wide swaths of Central America. In recent years, the Río Plátano has also suffered from skyrocketing rates of deforestation, as illegal invasions by cattle ranchers, loggers, and drug traffickers have threatened the integrity of the biosphere.

Now, Mongabay has obtained evidence of an illegal road being cut directly through the Río Plátano’s buffer zone and into the heart of the Indigenous territories. Indigenous leaders in the area say the road is the “greatest threat in the Río Plátano” and accuse the Honduran government of turning a blind eye to their legal obligations to halt it.

“The road has been built as a tool for illicit actors, and will be used to traffic drugs, wood, and other products,” one leader told Mongabay.

Aerial view of Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. Image by Panthera.

Mongabay verified the existence of the road through multiple sources in the region, including officials who work for agencies with supervisory authority over the biosphere. According to those sources, the financiers of the road are powerful local businessmen and politicians with purported ties to drug traffickers. Due to the risks associated with speaking publicly about the road, Mongabay agreed to protect their identities.

“We know that very powerful people are among those building the highway, including drug traffickers and large cattle ranchers,” said one Honduran government official with direct knowledge of issues related to the Río Plátano.

According to Mongabay’s sources, the construction of the road picked up steam beginning early last year and accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Satellite data show that the road begins in Honduras’s central department of Olancho, and has now crossed Indigenous Tawahka territory, extending east through the Río Plátano’s buffer zone and into Bakinasta lands owned by the Miskito Indigenous group in the department of Gracias a Dios. Conservationists who work in the region say that its presence is an immediate threat to the Río Plátano biosphere and will provide easy access to land speculators seeking to establish cattle ranches and agricultural operations.

“This road will inevitably both create a deforestation corridor across the entire Miskito forest, be used as a conduit for drugs and other illicit goods, and put at risk Indigenous territories all the way from east to west,” said an advocate with experience working in the region.

The initial portion of the road was built in 2008, but sources told Mongabay that it was rapidly extended through the Río Plátano during the pandemic, as Indigenous leaders have been pressured to sign illegal agreements permitting its construction. While some elements of the Tawahka group are said to be supportive of the road due to the access it opens up to health facilities and economic opportunities in nearby cities, documents reviewed by Mongabay show that the neighboring Miskito are staunchly opposed to its presence, fearing that it will lead to a flood of land grabs and violent incursions onto their land.

“This assembly declares the interdepartmental highway project unwelcome and considers it a direct threat to our territory and natural resources,” wrote the Miskito Bakinasta’s territorial council in a declaration sent to the Honduran prosecutor responsible for Indigenous affairs last year.

A satellite image of the southern buffer zone in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve from January 4, 2020.
A subsequent image of the same area taken on April 23, 2020. The newly constructed road is visible as a thin blue line below the river.

Despite the clear illegality of the road and the threat it poses to the integrity of the Río Plátano, so far the Honduran government has failed to halt its construction despite having incontrovertible knowledge of its presence, Mongabay’s sources said.

“The government’s authorities have moved very passively,” said the Indigenous leader. “They haven’t acted although there is a legal framework that empowers the armed forces to institute forest conservation and protect life in the Río Plátano because it is a world heritage site.”

Lands owned by the Miskito group have come under threat from speculators and colonos, or “settlers,” in Honduras as well as neighboring Nicaragua. Last year, the Oakland Institute published a report indicating that at least 40 Indigenous people have been killed in land disputes in Nicaragua since 2015. Advocates say they fear the road will accelerate the presence of similar threats in Honduran Miskito territories. At least four killings have already taken place in communities along its path since last year, with the assailants arriving on motorized ATVs and leaving via the newly constructed portion of the road.

“The danger is very, very clear here,” said the advocate. “These are not people to be messed with.”

The presence of the road and the Honduran government’s refusal to shut it down is a window into the country’s struggles with corruption and impunity. In 2019, President Juan Orlando Hernández’s brother was convicted of drug trafficking in New York, and evidence presented by prosecutors in a separate trial implicated Hernández himself in the illicit trade.

“It’s very clear that political elites who can also be connected to the illicit trades exert a lot of influence on the attorney general’s office,” said Stephen Dudley, co-director of Insight Crime. “We did a story that was chronicling all the different ways in which members of the national party were connected to illicit activities, everything from embezzling funds for their own campaigns to drug trafficking and illegal timber trafficking. And all of these interests are being serviced by a weak and corrupted state.”

The Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve is home to wildlife like jaguar. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.

According to Insight Crime’s research, drug trafficking through Honduras and the Río Plátano has spiked in recent years, as smugglers lean more heavily on routes that head inland from the coastline through the rainforest and northward into Guatemala and Mexico. A road traversing the Río Plátano would be a boon to traffickers, allowing them to more easily transport shipments through the remote region away from prying eyes and interdiction efforts.

“This is a dangerous subject,” said Mongabay’s source in the Honduran government. “There have been big drug traffickers in the northern part of the Río Plátano, including the Amador, who we believe are behind the road because the access route is faster.”

The ICF and representatives of Honduras’s environmental prosecutor’s office are said to have made repeated visits to the road, but so far the political willpower to execute arrests or take strong action has not been present. Neither the ICF nor the public prosecutor’s office responded to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

“We know that some deputies or politicians of the current government have properties in Río Plátano or the Tawahka biosphere, so the road is obviously convenient for them,” said the official. “We believe that there are strong political links between the opening of the road and cattle ranchers, because many politicians in Olancho are themselves cattle ranchers.”

Location of the road. Satellite image credit: Planet.

As the Bakinasta Miskito continue to lodge protests without follow-up action by the authorities, fears are growing that elements within the Honduran government have decided to allow the road to remain despite the threat it poses to the Río Plátano.

“It seems like they are expecting or waiting for some political decision,” said a Tegucigalpa-based conservation advocate. “They may leave the case there forever without doing something. That would be the worst-case scenario.”

For forests and wildlife inside the Río Plátano, along with the Indigenous communities living on its edges, that could spell disaster.

“This is happening because of institutional abandonment,” said the official. “Now these cattle ranchers, drug traffickers, and politicians have done what they want in the Moskitia area and as a result of that we have this road.”

Banner image: Stills taken from a video of the road’s construction in Tawahka territory last summer.