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On a remote island, Honduras plans mega-prison in an unstudied reserve

  • To address the country’s ongoing security crisis, Honduras is preparing the construction of a maximum-security prison on the uninhabited Islas del Cisne (Swan Islands), part of a protected archipelago.
  • Because the three-island archipelago is so far from mainland Honduras, it has a unique ecosystem yet to be completely studied.
  • The prison is set to begin construction later this year even as environmentalists speak out about the archipelago’s rich biodiversity.

Honduras is preparing the construction of a maximum-security prison to address the country’s ongoing security crisis, which continues to suffer from widespread gang violence. But the prison happens to be located on a remote Caribbean island designated as a protected area, and conservationists say the project could destroy its ecosystem.

The prison could threaten the uninhabited Islas del Cisne (Swan Islands), an archipelago recognized as a national marine park. Because the three-island archipelago is so far from mainland Honduras — approximately 250 kilometers (155 miles) away — it has a unique ecosystem yet to be completely studied.

“All human activities, even the smallest ones, have an impact on the environment,” said Ilia Rivera, president of the Honduras College of Biologists. “So thinking about building a prison in a place so far from the mainland — obviously it’s going to have an environmental impact on the island’s terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.”

One of the islands that make up the Islas del Cisne archipelago. Photo courtesy of ICF.

The project comes amid a human rights crisis largely tied to Honduras’ longstanding gang problem. In 2022, the government announced a state of exception that allowed it to bypass some constitutional rights while conducting searches and making arrests. But the people they arrest have to be put somewhere, and the country has a problem controlling violent inmates.

Islas del Cisne, covering a total area of approximately 410 hectares (1,013 acres) doesn’t have permanent inhabitants. But around a dozen members of the Honduran Naval Force are often present on the largest island, arriving by plane to a lone landing strip. The new prison would hold around 2,000 people, increasing the island’s population by over 16,000%.

Besides members of the navy, only flora and fauna live on the island, much of it believed to be endemic. Bird species include the vitelline warbler (Setophaga vitellina nelson) and brown booby (Sula leucogaster) in addition to many migratory birds. There are also believed to be dozens of species of corals around the island.

“It’s mostly made up of pure nature,” Rivera said.

Tourism and other development are banned on the island because of its status as a reserve, but even the research that’s permitted is hard to carry out because the island is so hard to reach. Most scientific institutions lack the funds to travel there, Rivera said.

Not even members of the Honduras College of Biologists, which oversees provisions related to conservation in the country, has managed to carry out consistent monitoring of the islands. That makes prison construction even more frustrating for conservationists, as they aren’t entirely sure what will be lost.

“It shares some characteristics with Cuba, the Cayman Islands and other islands in the Caribbean,” Rivera said. “That makes it a unique place for our country. That’s where our concern comes from as biologists — because we have to defend it and do everything possible to conserve the ecosystems of this unique wildlife.”

The vitelline warbler. Photo via Wikimedia.

In response to backlash from conservationists, government officials called the prison a national security measure and reiterated their intention to move forward with the project, which is scheduled to break ground at the end of the year. Lucky Medina, the minister of the Secretariat of Natural Resources and Environment (SERNA), told local media that the prison would have minimal ecological impact and that the government was complying with all environmental impact studies.

But running a prison so far out at sea comes with a lot of logistical challenges, too. Critics say the island doesn’t have a freshwater source or food. It also reportedly lacks the infrastructure for standard long-distance communication, so the only way to contact the island is via radio.

In addition to the prison itself, building food, water and communication infrastructure will likely result in additional environmental impacts, critics warned.

“We’re on high alert right now because the construction of this project means quite strong environmental damage,” she said.

Banner image: Brown boobies. Photo via Wikimedia

See related from this reporter:

Honduran environmental defenders hit hard by human rights crisis, report says

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