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“New oil palm plantations appear in the park almost every week. Small farmers - some of whom live legally within the park boundaries - are clearing sections of forest deeper and deeper, making it difficult to know to what extent the problem has worsened, much less how to stop it ” .
On February 6, 1995, an unidentified white van drove to the home of environmental activist Jeanette Kawas. It was a quiet Monday night in the small Honduran town of Tela, located on the Caribbean coast in the north of the country. Two men got out of the truck and made it through the main entrance. They walked along the side of the house to a window through which they could see Kawas sitting at the kitchen table with her assistant, Trinidad Marcial Bueno Romero, the last person to see her alive. One of the men shot Kawas in the neck, killing him instantly, and they both fled in the middle of the night.
Kawas was the founder and president of the Foundation for the Protection of the Lancetilla, Punta Sal, Punta Izopo and Texiguat National Parks (PROLANSATE), an organization dedicated to the preservation of natural resources in the Bahía de Tela area, which on It was all about preventing the development of oil palm plantations from destroying tropical forests and mangroves.
Two days before his death, Kawas had organized a protest against a government plan to sell land in Punta Sal National Park, much of it to large companies in the oil palm sector. For many, these two events are undoubtedly connected, and in 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights confirmed this in a ruling that held the Honduran government directly responsible. The court found that not only had not a sufficiently extensive investigation been carried out after the murder, but that an army colonel could have helped plan it.
The Punta Sal National Park was renamed Jeanette Kawas National Park, and PROLANSATE occupies its former home as a full-time office. However, efforts to control deforestation caused by oil palm have not gone as planned. Jeanette Kawas and Punto Izopo parks are suffering exactly the kind of damage Kawas noticed nearly 25 years ago, and on an unimaginable scale in its lifetime.
"The situation is becoming critical," Jesús Márquez, director of the municipal environmental unit of Tela, told Mongabay. “It is more delicate. It is getting worse. We see more deforestation and at the national level there is no clear policy on how to proceed ”.
New oil palm plantations appear in the park almost every week. Small farmers - some of whom live legally within the park boundaries - are clearing sections of forest further and further inland, making it difficult to know how much the problem has worsened, much less how to stop it.
By 2010, the Jeanette Kawas National Park had lost approximately 40 square kilometers to oil palm plantations, according to a report from the Escuela Agrícola Panamericana (Universidad Zamorano). It loses about 6 square kilometers every year.
By mid-March of this year, some 1,900 deforestation alerts had been recorded, according to the University of Maryland's Global Land Analysis and Discovery Laboratory (UMD), which uses satellites to detect the loss of forest cover. Calculating the monthly average, that figure represents a jump from 2018 numbers.
Further east, the Punta Izopo National Park lost more than 8 percent of its forest cover between 2011 and 2017, according to UMD data. In addition, the data shows a loss of more than 4 percent in the Cuero y Salado National Park.
The National Institute for Conservation, Forest Development, Protected Areas and Wildlife (ICF) counts these areas among the most biodiverse in Honduras, so there is a lot at stake with each fallen tree. Jeanette Kawas National Park circles the Caribbean coast to a slim, rocky peninsula surrounded by coral reefs and turtle nursery grounds. Manatee live in small coves. Four species of mangrove trees lead to Los Micos lagoon, home to 48 species of fish, according to municipal park management reports. Further inside, it is common to see howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) and Panamanian white-faced cappuccinos (Cebus imitator).
While some oil palm advocates argue that some animals eat the palm fruit, critics claim that these animals will not live long if oil palm replaces their natural habitats.
A divisive industry
The African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is a species of palm native to West Africa. It takes about four years to reach maturity, after which it produces clusters of red, hard fruits twice a month. The fruits can be processed to obtain oil, which is used in everyday products such as soap, makeup and margarine, as well as in bakery products, sweets and biodiesel. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 150 million metric tons of vegetable oil are consumed each year, and one third of this is palm oil.
Since Kawas' death, oil palm production has increased by almost 560 percent, making Honduras the eighth largest producer in the world and third in the Americas, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Small farmers in northern Honduras earn about $ 73 per ton from palm fruit, and considerably less labor is required than for bananas or livestock. However, oil palm requires large amounts of water and has to be grown as a monoculture. An independent farmer needs to plant at least 10 hectares of oil palm to make a profit, clearing huge swaths of forest in parks.
"People come, set fire and leave," said Márquez. “They do it to clear the area. Then you come back a little later and it's all covered in palm. "
Deforestation already shows permanent effects on the park's overall biodiversity, especially in areas where mangroves used to grow. The long and exposed roots serve as a refuge for the reproduction of many species of fish, in addition to slowing down the erosion of the coast. Without mangroves or other coastal vegetation, there is nothing to prevent fertilizers from reaching the nearby waters. Each hectare of oil palm requires about 300 kilograms of fertilizer per year, which in 2017 contributed to an 80 percent decrease in the fish population of Los Micos lagoon, according to PROLANSATE.
Rigoberto López Cruz, 62, a fisherman from the Marión community in the center of the park, said it is increasingly difficult to earn a living. He explains that not only are fish populations smaller, but authorities trying to combat the problem imposed strict regulations in 2017 that limit who can be in the water and when.
"It is much more difficult to live only from fishing," said López. "What we used to catch in one hour, now we may catch in two days."
Fifteen companies make up the oil palm industry in Honduras, which generated 365 million dollars in 2017 as the fifth most exported product in the country, according to the World Bank. Municipal reports show that five of those companies - Palcasa, Agrotor, Corapsa, HonduPalma and Dinant - operate within the Jeanette Kawas National Park because they owned land there before the park was established or were able to purchase land and obtain municipal, federal certificates. and international.
Their presence in the park has divided nearby communities. Some residents say that the discharge of dangerous sewage from palm oil processing plants creates ulcers on their children's skin. Other residents need the job opportunities these companies offer, such as picking the scattered fruit.
More and more residents cultivate their own oil palm plantations. They have developed an unofficial relationship with many of the companies, which has become a cause of great concern to PROLANSATE.
When companies fail to complete a shipment of palm oil, they have the option of purchasing the difference from a third party. Often that third party is a legally registered farmer working outside the park. But PROLANSATE and city officials say the companies also find ways to buy illegal oil palm fruit from unlicensed farmers within the park. None have municipal approval to operate, which allows them to farm without environmental supervision.
“There are producers outside the park who are registered with the companies,” says Nelbin Bustamante, executive director of PROLANSATE. “So what you have to do is sell the fruit to them and all of a sudden it's legal. It is money laundering but for the palm ”.
A spokesperson for the Jaremar group, which owns Agrotor's operations in the park and in the wider region, said independent farmers must meet strict requirements before being part of a company's supply chain. The spokesperson also said that the group is beginning to expand its efforts to detect the fruits that arrive from non-certified farmers and ask them to demonstrate that they have legal authorization to cultivate.
Mongabay contacted Palcasa, Corapsa, HonduPalma, and Dinant for comment, but did not receive a response at the time of publication of this article.
Meanwhile, residents who lived in the area before the park was founded say they are frustrated by regulations that force them to jump confusing bureaucratic hurdles or sell illegally, especially where there are so few income alternatives.
"The problem is that there is no will on the part of the majority of officials to do something," said Bustamante. "It has not been easy because there is no political will."
"The laws are of little use."
As executive director of PROLANSATE, Busdamente works in an office adjacent to the place where Jeanette Kawas was murdered. Every week, he travels through the park and crosses the most distant lagoons and coral reefs by boat on the Martinez Channel, which was forged by the Tela Railroad Company in the 1950s. Oil palms stand out in rows on both sides, in some parts block much of the rest of the vegetation.
Bustamante can do little more than document the damage. Those responsible for deforestation often live far from their crops to avoid confrontations. According to PROLANSATE, only 20 percent of the oil palm in the park has a known owner. Bustamante affirms that even if he knew who is the owner of each plantation, the legal paths are weak or nonexistent.
Removing oil palms requires the approval of a judge, but a blanket request cannot be made. Officials have to proceed on a case-by-case basis, gathering documents from each palm sector and investigating the names of the culprits.
"The laws are of little use in this situation," says Bustamante, "so people do what they want to themselves."
Even cutting down a single oil palm that has grown independently can put officials at risk of legal repercussions. Some small farmers have threatened to sue the ICF for interfering with their livelihoods.
Since 2016, only two petitions to remove oil palm have been delivered to a judge. Both were rejected. Not a single investigation of illegal oil palm by the prosecution has ended with a conviction or with the case closed, according to ICF, which is usually involved in the initial filing of lawsuits.
Organizations like ICF and PROLANSATE have started what they hope will be ongoing conversations with prosecutors and judges about how to speed up the legal process - or find a way to carry it out - before the situation becomes even less sustainable.
Meanwhile, there is not much that officials can do except carry out prevention strategies, such as investing in educational programs that highlight the importance of environmental preservation, and hope that people can be sensitized to the destruction that happens in parks. .
"We have come a long way," Bustamante said. “A lot of effort has gone into finishing the job that Jeanette Kawas started. His legacy will always live on. It is an inspiration for us to continue the fight ”.
"No matter how frustrating it is, we are not going to throw in the towel."