Monday, June 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Environments

Just about a week ago we wrote about the return of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve to the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list.

"Proposed dam construction on the Rio Patuca river", described as a current threat in the UNESCO press release, doesn't come from some alien force: it is a project of the current Honduran administration, acting against the protests of the indigenous peoples of eastern Honduras, who have not been consulted as they should have been under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO 169, both international agreements signed by previous Honduran governments.

As we predicted, there has been little English language coverage of this threat, and what there has been focused on illegal logging and drug trafficking, the issues that the Honduran government prefers to emphasize.

Contrast the lack of analysis of threats to the Rio Platano Biosphere with coverage of the Honduran government's well-timed PR release about new protection of sharks in its waters, sent out two days after the UNESCO action, with the blessing of the Pew Environmental Trust.

No less a venue than the New York Times (albeit in a blog) covered this announcement, and other English language coverage has begun to follow, all faithfully following the lines of the original press release, congratulating Porfirio Lobo Sosa personally for leadership on shark preservation.

Predictably, no mainstream media are taking a critical look at the overall policies of the Honduran government with respect to environmental issues.

The CIA World Factbook, a fairly sober source, summarized current environmental issues in Honduras in 2010 succinctly:
urban population expanding; deforestation results from logging and the clearing of land for agricultural purposes; further land degradation and soil erosion hastened by uncontrolled development and improper land use practices such as farming of marginal lands; mining activities polluting Lago de Yojoa (the country's largest source of fresh water), as well as several rivers and streams, with heavy metals.

In the aftermath of the coup of 2009, we documented an acceleration in processing of petitions for environmental licenses by SERNA, the Secretariat of Natural Resources and Climate. By September 2009, SERNA had authorized 320 projects, valued at $368 million, for piers for cruise ships to dock on the Bay Islands, housing, pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies, hotels, and restaurants.

Under the Micheletti regime and the successor Lobo Sosa government Honduras has seen renewed advocacy for continued mining concessions. For years, people in the communities affected by mining, assisted by international NGOs, have fought government mining concessions that have caused environmental damage and health threats.

What is at stake in the Rio Patuca is well understood in Honduras, if not elsewhere.

An article in the June 26 edition of La Tribuna helps explain why the indigenous people of the Rio Platano Biosphere-- who are not intruders, but are supposed to be beneficiaries of its designation as UNESCO World Heritage-- are opposed to the Patuca dam projects. This article describes the Rio Patuca as comprising part of
the hydrological basins of the Patuca and Coco or Segovia rivers, which are a fundamental part of the hydrological balance at a national level and especially for the residents located within the park, since it is thanks to those rivers where the sources of water originate that provide them this liquid, they use them as a means of transport, for obtaining water for the irrigation of their subsistence fields and for the development of their productive activities.

The Patuca river has a great force for what was visualized many years ago as the construction of hydroelectric dams on it. Currently there is beginning the construction of the Patuca Dam III, which is not located within the protected area but is upriver so that the positive and negative impacts will affect this National Park.

These carefully worded paragraphs, while suggesting that any "negative" impacts will be balanced by positive ones (presumably, not including wiring the indigenous settlements in the reserve, and so somewhat difficult to imagine), are still better reporting on the danger posed to the Rio Platano biosphere than anything that has appeared in mainstream English language press.

The "pobladores" (residents) mentioned are members of specific indigenous groups, and they have made their objections known eloquently, as a plethora of activist websites document. Cultural Survival, to take just one example, states that
Dams would obstruct commerce and trade for thousands of people. On stretches of river between the dams, the flows, currents, and channels would be altered; people whose knowledge of the Patuca has sustained them for centuries would no longer master the river. Fish would disappear. Flood cycles that regularly wash nutrients over their agricultural lands would be changed. And road construction would open their forests to an unstoppable invasion of loggers, poachers, ranchers, and drug smugglers. The government plans to build a military base to protect the construction project. “These impacts will be fatal for the survival of the Tawahka as a unique people,” says their elected leader, Lorenzo Tinglas.

Cultural Survival gives more detail on precisely how the forest will be changed by the proposed dams, despite their location outside the boundaries of the reserve:
In the river, fish species that migrate upstream from the ocean during part of their life cycle would be blocked by the dams, threatening local extinctions. Downstream from the dam, the river’s volume, flow, and temperature would change, altering the habitats of shellfish, reptiles, amphibians, plants, and bird species. Upstream, the reservoirs would submerge rainforest vegetation, soils, and organic matter, which would emit greenhouse gases as they rot.

What makes the contrast in environmental approaches to the shark reserve and the Patuca dam intelligible as policies of one and the same government?

Understanding that in the end, the current Honduran administration is motivated by business.

In the Caribbean, preserving sharks will help preserve and increase tourism. The Rio Platano Biosphere might well face a future of increased tourism, if current plans for new airports continue, but for the moment, wild rivers in Honduras are economically most beneficial if they are dammed for hydroelectric generation.

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