World Rainforest Movement

Honduras: Rio Platano Reserve questioned

For most of the population of Honduras, the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve is a motive for national pride. Added to the scenic beauty of this zone is its biological and cultural wealth with its conservation ensured for future generations. However, another part of the population – the most important one – is not of the same opinion.

The reserve is located in the Atlantic zone of Honduras, in the territory of the Miskito Indigenous Peoples, who live alongside smaller percentages of Pech Indigenous People and Garifuna populations. As in other Biosphere Reserves in the world, its 830,000 hectares (7% of the country’s territory) are divided into a core (untouchable) zone, the buffer zone (having restricted use) and the productive use zone. The area is characterized by enormous wealth in terms of plant and animal diversity and by considerable cultural diversity.

As with other similar reserves, the local population was never consulted about the establishment of the reserve and still less informed about the restrictions this would impose on its use. To understand the injustice this implies, two facts need to be highlighted:

– That the area was inhabited by Miskito populations long before the creation of the Republic of Honduras
– That by means of sustainable use of natural resources, the Miskito and other native inhabitants of the zone ensured an excellent state of forest conservation.

That is to say that, in addition to ignoring their ancestral rights to the land, they have been awarded a “prize” for forest conservation, by declaring it a Biosphere Reserve and imposing them restrictions on the use of their resources.

However, the same restrictions are not placed on those who have destroyed the forests of the region and who continue to do so, extracting mahogany and other valuable wood from the area declared a reserve: the timber loggers.

A local Miskito inhabitant – who preferred to remain anonymous – emphasized the presence of many logging companies in the zone, which obtain permits from the Honduran Corporation for Forest Development (Corporación Hondureña de Desarrollo Forestal – COHDEFOR). However, “native people cannot obtain permits and every so often go to jail for cutting down a tree.” This contrasts with the fact that “the State never arrested anyone linked to the logging companies.”

The reason the person interviewed did not want to give his name is explained by the fact that “there have been murders and constant threats to leaders who make complaints against the logging companies. One of those threatened is the Miskito leader, Aldo Allen.”

While the logging companies continue their business with the explicit or implicit support of the authorities, the local inhabitants are forbidden to access certain zones and restrictions on hunting, fishing and wood and plant extraction are enforced.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising that sources of labour are scarce and poverty is increasing. The State centres its action on forest protection, but at the expense of the local population. The situation is summed up by our interviewee, who stated, “we are rich, but we manage poverty. The Reserve did not generate employment except for outsiders.”

However, the State obtains funds through the reserve, an important part of the Meso-American Biological Corridor. Among those providing financial resources, are the following: the World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, GTZ (the German International Development Agency), the US Department of the Interior and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency.

Unfortunately, these financial resources are not being used to improve the local peoples’ situation. On the contrary, the reserve has led to a worsening of their living conditions. “People are afraid of the word ‘reserve’ because the result is that they have been deprived of all their rights. Many do not even know they are in a reserve.”

In spite of the difficulties, the Miskito and other local populations are developing actions towards recognition of their rights. Among these is the issue of obtaining land tenure deeds. The people are demanding that the communities be granted deeds (and not individually). Added to this claim, they demand that the Reserve and its management be placed in the hands of the Indigenous Peoples – which is only demanding justice.

Article base on information from an interview with an anonymous Miskito Indigenous person, July 2003, Eco-Index: Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve Integrated Management Program

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