Monday, January 3, 2011

The Politics of an Airport

Nelly Jerez, Minister of Tourism, announced that the construction of an airport in the valley of Rio Amarillo, to provide access for tourists close to Copan, would be her priority this year. This reverses a decision made under the Zelaya administration to locate the airport at Concepcion, Copan.

This airport was first proposed in 2003 during the Maduro administration. At that time the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia opposed locating the airport in the Rio Amarillo valley.

The World Heritage committee of UNESCO studied the issue in 2003, and again in 2005. Its study, and decision, are both available at the UNESCO website here. They reference the Institute's report opposing the Rio Amarillo site, dated to 2004.

In 2003, ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, recommended closing the airstrip that up until then was located at La Estanzuela, less than 2 km from Copan ruins. Nonetheless, the government continued to allow it to function, with 187 flights recorded in 2004.

At the time, ICOMOS noted that Honduras should develop the ruins of Rio Amarillo for tourism, as it is the second-largest Classic Maya city in Honduras.

Finally, ICOMOS noted that the government maintained a helicopter landing strip within the Copan archaeological park, where 23 helicopters landed in 2004, something that raised their concern.

So in 2003, ICOMOS recommended that Honduras
1. establish a no fly zone over the core area of the Copan Ruins.

2. close the airstrip at La Estanzuela

3. reconsider the location for a replacement airstrip.

They were clear about their concerns and what was at risk:
ICOMOS adds to this that the properties of Piedras Negras, Rio Blanco and Rio Amarillo must be protected due to their important scientific value for the overall understanding of the the cultural system of Copan and its potential role as a state.

In 2005, the committee again
1. reiterated its call for establishing a no fly zone over the core part of Copan Ruins.

2. encouraged the government to reconsider its decision to locate an airport at Rio Amarillo

3. requested, should the government decide to ignore the relocation request, that it conduct an environmental assessment and develop a comprehensive Public Use Plan for the world heritage site of Copan and submit that plan to the committee for consultation.

4. requested the government update the committee with a progress report by 1 February, 2006.

The Río Amarillo airport plan was subsequently approved by the Maduro administration. SICA reported on July 11, 2005 that the BID approved financing for the airport at Rio Amarillo. Press reports linked the dismisal of archaeologist Carmen Julia Fajardo from her position as Head of Investigations of the Institute of Anthropology and History to her opposition to this plan.

In the election of 2005, of course, Manuel Zelaya Rosales was elected president, turning out the Partido Nacional and replacing it with a Liberal party administration when he assumed office in 2006.

Under Zelaya, the new government decided the airport should be built at La Concepcion, Copan, instead of the previously favored Rio Amarillo site. The advantage of the La Concepcion location is that it can both serve business development around Santa Rosa de Copan, while also providing access for international tourists to Copan Ruins.

In 2007, Zelaya promised an 18 month time frame for the construction of the airport. To make the Concepcion location work, Honduras would have to pave 8.75 km of road from Santa Rosa de Copan to the airport, and a further 29.5 km of road from the airport to Copan Ruins.

The airport itself was to be financed by the government of Taiwan, with funding contingent on Honduras building and paving the roadways. The Zelaya administration began the grading of the road from Santa Rosa to Concepcion, and then everything stopped. Nothing more happened.

Now Nelly Jerez, the Tourism Minister, wants to resurrect the Rio Amarillo location yet again.

It's still a bad idea. And it seems unlikely to be a coincidence that it is being revived under the first National Party government since Maduro left office.


John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the group that has been formed to promote the Concepción site. It includes, believe, various mayors and other officials, from both parties, as well as Bishop Luis Alfonso Santos of Santa Rosa.

It might be interesting to also see the politics related to the airport and the drug trafficking in the corridor from Florida to Copán Ruinas where the Rio Amarillo airport would be sited. The presence of drug-trafficking interests is strong, including - it is suggested - in some governmental bodies.

On a slightly related point. The road from the international highway to Dulce Nombre has been evened off a bit and, according to Minister Miguel Pastor, they'll be working on paving beginning in February.

But what is interesting is that there is now a sign at the turn-off to Dulce Nombre touting this effort: "Emergencias en tramos de la red vial no-pavimentado del tramo CA-4 Dulce Nombre", complete with the symbols of the NAtional unity Government, Fondo Vial, and SOPTRAVI, with the names of Pepe Lobo, Miguel Pastor, and the director of Fondo Vial. How the politicians love to show off their "efforts."

RNS said...

Yes, after I posted I found Bishop Santo's letter dated December 2 to Porfirio Lobo Sosa detailing the local unanimous support for the Concepcion location for the airport and that Bishop Santos had been appointed the group's chairman.

I had heard that the proponents of the Rio Amarillo location included drug trafficking interests, but also the strong Copan tourism businessmen.

The "logic" behind the airport is to make it possible for cruise ship passengers to get off the ship in the bay islands and take a day trip to Copan. The airstrip design is for a 1200 meter landing strip. That's too short for Embraer ERJ jets or Boing 737s. We assume they're planning to use Fokker F27-500s or similar, a twin prop, 50 passenger aircraft. This means the airstrip will need to handle tens of flights daily to accomodate the passengers of just one cruise ship. These aircraft are loud.