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The Myth of Nature

02.07.2003 | ENVIRONMENT

In Latin America, the economy and the environment rarely get along. Honduras, tucked away between Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, is no exception. Exploitative resource activities there, such as cattle ranching, slash-and-burn agriculture and timber extraction, are rapidly destroying one of the last swathes of tropical forest in Central America. Displaced people are pushing farther into the forest lands of eastern Honduras and threatening conservation initiatives in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site that protects approximately 800,000 hectares of forest in northeastern portion of the country. Created in 1980 to protect a crucial section of the Mesoamerican biological corridor (a 3 million hectare area that encompasses some 40 percent of the Atlantic slopes from southern Mexico to the Isthmus of Panama) the Reserve is failing to meet its dual objectives, which are to conserve biodiversity and provide for the indigenous populations living in the area. In 1996 a report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Reserve a World Heritage Site in Danger.

While there is no single source of the Reserve's troubles, one of the prime culprits is intra-country migration onto environmentally fragile land, or what academics the call the "colonization process." Whatever the name, it is taking its toll. Aerial and satellite images show the colonization front eating away at the Reserve's western edge, and a population survey in 1998 revealed that the number of non-indigenous (ladino) residents in the Site had tripled, from 7,000 inhabitants in 1990 to 21,000 in 1998. Despite international attention and renewed efforts to remove people from the park, the destruction continues.

What is happening in the Rio Platano is characteristic of colonization processes throughout Latin America, where the scarcity of land--along with the relatively the few people who control it--often leads to environmental destruction. As large-scale agribusiness (which is by itself harmful to the environment) expands, it pushes small farmers off the land and forces them to live as migrants. To survive, they practice slash-and-burn agriculture, compete for and occupy land belonging to indigenous groups, and clash with both property owners and conservationists. The result is a messy web of interested parties, most of whom are working against each other, all of whom are at least partly justified in their actions, and few of whom are interested in cooperating with each other.

This story is probably at least mildly familiar to many readers. Agricultural expansion first gained international disrepute in the Amazon Basin of Brazil, where conflict between environmentalists, landless peasants, indigenous groups, and cattle ranchers appeared to threaten the natural and cultural sanctity of the region. But while the rainforest media craze, like all media crazes, came and went, the problems of land distribution and environmental destruction in Latin America have not gone away. Since the late 1980s landless peasants in Central America have increasingly pressured their governments to open up forests for settlement. Southern Mexico, eastern Guatemala and eastern Honduras are just a few of the regions where peasants seek out arable land in the last remaining forested areas.

There was a time when many observers thought--and, indeed, many still do think--that the needs of all these competing interests could be satisfied. In the late 1980's and early 90's, after a decade of relative apathy, the state of the environment began to receive international attention. In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development released "Our Common Future" (also known as the Bruntland Report) and laid out within it the doctrine of sustainable development. Now a near-ubiquitous buzzword, sustainable development was billed as the best chance for balancing the needs of environmental health, social justice and economic growth. The report defined sustainable development as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Lauded as the silver bullet for resolving the world's social, economic and environmental woes, sustainable development sought to wed previously opposing policy objectives: economic development and environmental conservation. New proposals spilled forth, and people talked eagerly of the promises of eco-tourism, as well as of a renewed respect for the untrammeled parts of the Earth.

Building on the premise that conservation and development could progress hand in hand, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro highlighted the plight of the world's forests, and the Fourth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas (CNPPA) requested that each country designate a minimum of 10 percent of each biome under its jurisdiction (oceans, forests, tundra, wetlands, grasslands) as a protected area. Many countries signed the major treaty that emerged from Rio--the Convention on Biodiversity--and pledged to protect their ecosystems. (The United States, perhaps depressingly but not surprisingly, chose not to sign it). But subsequent events, and in particular the troubles in Honduras, raise important questions about the effectiveness not just of the treaty but also of protected areas in general. Can parks actually protect forests? And more specifically, are we even correct in pursuing our dreams of "pristine" nature--of chasing people out of some areas to satisfy a romantic image of a world untouched? And what happens to the people we chase out? What price do they pay for our conception of nature?

* * *

This past spring I had the opportunity to visit the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, where I interviewed local residents, Reserve planners and park guards. Under orders to figure out why migrant farmers continue to encroach on the Reserve, and how to improve enforcement mechanisms, I quickly realized that the problem was well beyond anything an eco-tourism project or a slap on the hand could fix. In talking with Reserve guards and forestry technicians, long-term residents and recent settlers, I caught a glimpse of the complex forces that promote frontier expansion, and also saw the inability of current protected area policies to effectively address the links between poverty and environmental destruction.

In the 1980s Honduras had one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, losing 2.3% of its forest cover annually. The problem continues today, and much of the loss is caused by the government's encouragement of Agro-industries. This is, by itself, a rather wrongheaded policy. Honduras does not produce enough food to feed itself (it is cited by the United Nations as a "food priority" country) and the government's support for cattle ranching and agro-industries that produce non-traditional crops only further endangers the nation's food security. It also leads to environmental destruction, because land-intensive agribusiness pushes small farmers off the land, and the small farmers in turn resort to hillside farming, which accelerates deforestation. At the same time, the displacement of small farmers helps compound what was already a horribly unequal system of land ownership. The 1993 census reported that 27 percent of the country's farmers had no land, while 4 percent of the producer population owned over half of the total lands in Honduras. Unable to make a living in their hometowns, young families migrate to the remaining forests, looking for land and a way to earn a livelihood. In this way the colonization and deforestation processes feed on themselves.

Honduran environmentalist Jorge Salaverri notes that the scarcity of arable lands--and the government's indifference to its peasants' plight--motivates many to move into the Biosphere reserve. The government's response has been inadequate at best. It has oscillated between a series of ad-hoc agricultural reform programs and largely turned a blind eye toward the deeper problem, which is the colonization process. Park guards and local conservationists estimate that given the current rate of deforestation, the Reserve has approximately 10-20 years left.

Traveling by bus, foot, and boat, many families head to Sico-Paulaya, a remote region lying along the northwest edge of the Rio Platano Reserve. It is not easy to get there. While most migrants reach the Reserve by riding in the back of a pickup and then bushwhacking through the dense forest and mud, I skipped the cross-country excursion in exchange for a small plane ride and a five-hour trip upriver in a dug-out canoe. This is not an option for most migrants. That they continue to come, and do so in large numbers, is a testament to how desperately they are looking for opportunity. According to an investigation conducted by a non-governmental agency in the region, in 1997 Sico-Pualaya had 5,019 people, but the population was expected to exceed 10,000 people by the year 2000, due partly to internal population growth and mostly to migration.

Such a large influx of new people has been disruptive to the region's traditional inhabitants. Sico-Paulaya was previously populated by the Miskito Indians, and by a small number of ladino (non-indigenous) farmers. The newcomers are upsetting the delicate social and environmental balance, and upsetting the locals as well. To make matters worse, the region has few established processes for justice, and in this atmosphere land disagreements can quickly turn lethal.

With a Wild West reputation and a pistol packing populace, conflicts in Sico-Paulaya are often resolved by a few quick shots from a gun, and the local law is "la ley de cada quien" or "la ley del mas fuerte" [the law of every man for himself, or the law of the strongest]. Exact records of recent violence are difficult to obtain, but residents recall the years between 1997- 2000 as a time of land wars. Although violent conflict has subsided in the past year, tensions are still very apparent, and groups are quick to blame their troubles on others. "Los ladinos," One Miskito leader told me, "son un virus mas peor que el SIDA" [the ladinos are a virus worse than AIDS]. Echoing this unease, one long-time ladino resident commented that tensions are rising and with many young people uncertain about their access to land, he believed it only a matter of time until conflict reemerged.

Despite both Reserve regulations and local animosity, migrants continue to settle in Sico-Paulaya. Although they are often portrayed as ruthless land speculators, blazing through the forests and infringing on the cultural sanctity of indigenous groups, many of the migrants are poor peasant families who want a piece of land for subsistence farming. Many come to Sico-Paulaya as part of an agricultural cooperative. The cooperatives are organized by farmer's associations, which began in the 1960s and continue to strongly influence Honduran land reform initiatives. The farmer's associations are a driving force for the redistribution of land, and also a driving force behind the colonization process in Sico-Paulaya. Organizing farmers from all over Honduras into agricultural cooperatives, they encourage groups to occupy lands, often by any means necessary, on the condition that the group work the land communally and make quarterly payments to the respective association for the next twenty years. Strange people in strange lands, the associates must learn how to work together and farm in an unfamiliar environment so that they can support their families and pay the mortgage on the land. It is rare that they are able to do so. In many cases the cooperatives break apart, as individuals leave the system to seek out their own plots, or as groups are dispersed, unable to pay the mortgage.

The migration and its fallout are extremely harmful to the forest, but it would be a mistake to lay Honduras' environmental problems at the feet of the peasants. While the migrants do often engage in destructive forest activities, they do so largely from absence of other options, and the agenda that leaves them so few choices is not one of their own making. Geopolitics and elite interests are the true hands behind much of this destruction.

As it does in many colonization narratives, the cattle industry plays a significant role in encouraging migration and deforestation in Honduras. Cattle farming requires a tremendous amount of land (for grazing), and the market for pastureland invites speculation and shady transactions. In many cases a rancher will pay a small farmer to clear a plot, allow the farmer to harvest a season or two, and then set his cows to graze in the opened area while the farmer moves to another spot. In other cases, landless farmers clear land in the hope of selling it to ranchers. Technically a person cannot buy and sell state property, but illegal land transactions are rampant throughout the region.

Timber barons are another impetus to the migratory movement. Preying upon the poverty in the region, timber contractors pay peasants a few cents per board foot to cut mahogany and transport it from the Reserve to more central ports and access roads. While touring one section of the Reserve with a park guard, I came upon a man and his mule dragging mahogany logs out of the Reserve, and another group of young men floating freshly cut logs down the river to a port. These were blatantly illegal activities. Telling me of the economic necessity that drives the extractive activities, and of the numerous death threats he'd received, the park guard merely asked one man who the logs were for, and then continued on his way.

* * *

At the center of these competing interests is the Honduran government, which finds itself in a rather untenable position. In its attempt to satisfy elite interests, the needs of the rural populace, and conservation groups, the government has implemented a series of contradictory and confusing policies. In a controversial decision that aroused the ire of environmental groups, the government succumbed to pressure from the farmers' associations and opened up lands neighboring the Reserve to settlement. It also declared the northwest edge of the Reserve an "agricultural reform valley", and thereby supported the movement of thousands of families into the area.

But even as it has supported colonization projects in the region, the government has also complied (to a limited extent) with international demands to strengthen conservation there. In 1997 the government signed an agreement with the German Bank of Reconstruction and Development that created a joint venture for the protection of the Rio Platano reserve. The venture, El Proyecto Biosfera Rio Platano, is a shared project between the Honduran Ministry of Forestry (COHDEFOR), the German Bank of Reconstruction and Development (KfW) and the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). As part of the arrangement, the German government agreed to provide financial and technical assistance, but only if the Honduran government improved its protection and enforcement activities, and in particular resettled 117 families who had settled in the core zone of the Reserve. This resettlement has been a fiasco. The first problem was that there was no place for the displaced families to go. That seemed solved when a cooperative effort by the World Bank, the GTZ, the Honduran Ministry of Agriculture and a host non-governmental organizations convinced wealthy ranchers living on the edge of the Reserve to give up a portion of their land to the families, in exchange for a specified compensation. This was a rare concession, and it seemed that a victory of sorts was within reach. The government built houses, put in electricity and water, and then went to fetch the families. Before they could resettle anyone, however, the farmers associations organized and invaded the development project. Thus one group of displaced migrants deprived another of their land, and the elites--having bought into a program only to see it collapse--will no doubt be less likely to give up their land for similar efforts in the future. In the end the core zone families were evicted from their homes, but not resettled. Park guards in the Reserve report that many of them have since returned.

Little has improved since then. Current conservation initiatives focus on keeping people out of the core area, and do little to address the economic needs of the residents, nor the environmentally destructive activities that occur in the buffer zone and on the edge of the Reserve. Increasing enforcement and exclusionary mechanisms will only further contention in the area, and will not satisfy the needs of the rural residents, who view the protected area as one of the only remaining prospects for themselves and their children. The protected area segregates desperate people from opportunity, and is thus bound to fail.

* * *

So what's to be done??? Do we throw our hands in the air and let the laws of chaos determine the future?? No, but I would caution against searching for the one-size-fits-all solution. Sustainable development rhetoric and traditional protected area policies will not save our forests or the people that depend upon them.

Most protected areas are modeled after Yellowstone National Park, which means they are built on the idea of separating man from nature. This is a bit of a conceit. Very few places in the world remain untouched by humans; in Latin America approximately 80% of the parks have people living in them, and most of these people are poor. This not only gives the lie to any model based on pristine, unspoiled nature, but also makes the creation of untouchable preserves very harmful to the poor. In developing countries, access to land is a major determinant of rural welfare. Setting aside hectares of forest land as protected areas, available only for scientific or eco-tourist purposes, inflicts large and unreasonable costs on rural residents.

These costs are rarely carefully considered. Current protected area policies delude all who have a stake in the world's forests, and this needs to change. Conservationists should no longer shroud themselves in the belief that science is apolitical, or that environmental conservation a global good. Nor should they trap themselves in some mythical conception of nature, and commit to protecting a romantic notion that no longer exists, if indeed it ever did. Protected area policies have drastic social and economic consequences. The most recent World Summit on the Environment and Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, made minimal progress in addressing the links between poverty and environmental destruction. The implementation plan that resulted from that conference continues to praise the magic of sustainable development, and fails to examine the trade-offs and geo-political realities encountered when tackling poverty and environmental degradation.

Honduras is only one of a number of countries that must reconcile the dilemmas of environmental protection and rural impoverishment. There is no single blueprint for resolving these global problems, and no one should expect the answers to come easily. Trial and error is an important aspect of any policy making process, but we will only learn from our errors if we reconsider our preconceptions of nature and conservation, and evaluate the social and environmental costs and benefits of any given policy. Most of all, we should craft our initiatives to rescue an idea that does not now and may never have existed. We will save nothing if what we want to protect isn't there in the first place.

About the Author
Tanya M. Hayes is a PhD student at Indiana University, where she studies rural development and environmental policy.
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