Wednesday, June 22, 2011

UNESCO World Heritage Endangered For Profit

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has added the Rio Platano Biosphere in Honduras back onto its list of "World Heritage in Danger".

Rio Platano had only come off the list in 2007, after being listed as in danger from 1996 on.

Coverage of the action taken cited "lack of law enforcement" allowing a host of dangers to the biosphere:
illegal settlement by squatters, illegal commercial fishing, illegal logging, poaching and a proposed dam construction on the Patuca River...

Notice anything in that list that seems different? the first four are all things that are against Honduran law, but are happening anyway (settlement, commercial fishing, logging, and hunting).

But the final danger listed is different: it is actually a project being promoted legally.

While UNESCO applauded the Honduran government for asking that the biosphere be put back on the danger list, it would seem someone in that very government might have some influence on the threat coming from the proposal to construct dams on the Patuca River.

The environmental NGO International Rivers describes this threat simply and clearly:
On 17 January 2011, the Honduran National Congress approved a decree for the construction of the Patuca II, IIA, and III dams on the Patuca River... The proposed development involves flooding 42 km of intact rain forest, all of which was on the legislative track to either become part of the Patuca National Park or the Tawahka Asangni Biosphere Reserve.

Note the wording here. The threatened land was on the legislative track for protection. This is what activists mean when they point out that environmental conditions have deteriorated since the coup of 2009. Business interests rule, and dams and power generation outweigh other interests.

Among those other interests: indigenous peoples.
For more than a decade, the Indigenous peoples of the Tawahka, Pech, Miskito, and Garifuna tribes have steadfastly opposed dam construction on the Patuca River, and they continue to do so, fearing the impacts to their survival and to the river ecosystem within the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.

International Rivers notes that this represents a failure of the Honduran Government to comply with the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO 169.

As proponents of a constitutional assembly from within indigenous groups have noted, one of their goals is to ensure that the Honduran Constitution will recognize the rights enshrined in the international agreements that it is supposed to be following.

In a particularly feverish endorsement of the project, earlier this week Israel Turcios Rodriguez published an editorial opinion in La Tribuna lauding Porfirio Lobo Sosa for his visionary leadership in inaugurating the project, financed by the International Development Bank and to be carried out by a Chinese company.

Turcios Rodriguez, remarkably, says nothing explicit about the objections of the indigenous peoples who are united against the Patuca dam projects, unless they are the subject of this somewhat less than clear sentence:
Doubtless, in these cases some few citizens will come out damaged, but others in the majority will come out highly benefited.

This is precisely the kind of logic that makes constitutional protections for the rights of endangered minorities so necessary. Pity that it is only the danger to the landscape that has any likelihood of coverage in the English language press.

And for the press, unfortunately, the UNESCO Committee offers a glittery distraction from the real, human-made, avoidable threat to both the livelihood of indigenous people and the continued existence of a viable biosphere: "the presence of drug traffickers", mentioned in comments after the committee decision. But it is not drug traffickers financing, building, or profiting from the Patuca dam project.

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