TED Case Studies

Honduras and Deforestation

Case Number: 440

Case Mnemonic: HONDURAS

Case Name: Honduras and Deforestation

I. Identification

1. The Issue

The 525,000 hectares of Rio Platano Biosphere in Northeastern Honduras protect the largest intact lowland tropical and pine forests within Honduras. The official designation of the Biosphere as a reserve to protect and conserve biodiversity, however, has not halted deforestation within the protected area. The downing of maple and pine trees within the reserve affect not only the immediate surroundings but also the water supply and species conservation throughout the country. The indigenous populations who reside in the Mosquitia, the region of Honduras where the Rio Platano Biosphere is located, also face serious dilemmas as both the resources of the forest and their tribal rights to the land are under attack.


2. Description

Indigenous groups such as the Miskito, Pech and Tawaka have inhabited the Mosquitia region in Northeastern Honduras for hundreds of years. In 1980, the Honduras government set aside 525,000 hectares (almost 2000 square miles) of tropical forest in this area to be included in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR). The conservation of the species within this reserve has been funded by both the Honduran government and several international organizations, including UNESCO and the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF). In 1980, UNESCO also realized the importance of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve by placing it on its list of World Heritage Sites. Despite these protective measures, the forest within the RPBR is under attack by loggers seeking pine and mahogany and the approximately 40,000 indigenous peoples who inhabit the area are fighting to maintain the integrity of the forest.

The RPBR contains the largest virgin broad leaf rain forest in Honduras. Some of the flora species that grow in this area include pine, mahogany, cedar, balsa, ceiba, guayacan, rosewood and sapodilla and rare orchids (Parent 1994). The region also houses numerous animal species, including quetzals, jaguars, ocelots, harpy eagles, iguanas, alligators, falcons, macaws, toucans, tapirs and spider monkeys. Some of the rarest plants and birds in Central America depend on the forest for survival.

Although the government of Honduras designated the RPBR, it failed to implement any means of monitoring the activities within the forest. Colonization of the forest by poor Hondurans seeking land, lumbering, migratory agriculture, cattle ranching and illegal wildlife trade continue to deplete the valuable resources of the forest with little or no recourse sustained to the culprits of these activities. Because neither the government nor any other organization is capable of administering this area, deforestation continues at an alarming pace. In 1968, 46,000 square kilometers of Honduras' total 112,100 square kilometers were forests and woodlands (UNESCO 1991-2). By 1988, only 31,000 square kilometers were forests and woodlands. In this twenty year period, 14.5 % of the forests in all of Honduras were lost to deforestation (UNESCO 1991-2). In the 1980s, the deforestation rate of all Honduran forests reached a mean annual rate of 2.3% (UNESCO 1991-2). Click here to see a map of Forest Cover and Protected Areas in Honduras (The above map is courtesy of the WWF).

Honduras' main exports consist of coffee and bananas, generating 51% of total Honduran export revenue in 1995 (U.S. Department of State 1996). Honduras' principal commodities include coffee, bananas, textiles, timber, citrus, shrimp and wood products (CIA 1995). Incentives to preserve the forests are not based on the economy since the timber itself earns money and the cleared land can then be used for farming or for coffee or banana plantations. The rain forests of the Mosquitia, especially that contained within the RPBR also directly affect the coastal, marine and savannah ecosystems of northeastern Honduras. The increased trade in wood, wood products and furniture has augmented demand for the mahogany and pine trees located within this reserve.

In order to promote conservation and protection, however, the Honduran government created a ministerial position, the Secretariat of the Environment (SEDA), to monitor general environment practices and an oversight committee, the Honduran Cooperation for Forestry Development (COHDEFOR), to administer all forest lands. These agencies have largely ignored the RPBR (WWF 1996). Although a moratorium has been declared on the downing of timber in the Reserve, trees continue to fall. Local residents of La Mosquitia claim that "workers have floated 30,000 board feet of mahogany logs down the Paulaya and Tinto Rivers on route to Palacios" (Griffen 1997).

The culprits of the downed mahogany trees remain unknown, although locals believe that it is the work of illegal lumberjacks attempting to earn much-needed extra money. The rampant poverty in Honduras has forced peasants to seek any method possible to earn money and, more often than not, these measures include slash-and-burn techniques of deforestation as well as the downing of timber. The land opened up by deforestation provides many peasants with money earned from the timber itself as well as the value of the land agriculturally. Approximately 200,000 acres of forest are eliminated each year because of the deforestation activities of peasants searching for land and money (Gollin 1994). To many peasants who can barely afford to eat, the monetary value of the timber and the cleared land far outweighs the environmental damage.

This environmental degradation extends far beyond the loss of trees. Honduran biologist Ernesto Vargas observes that "the process of deforestation has disrupted the ecological equilibrium in Honduras" (qtd. in Gollin 1994). Many rare plants and animals inhabit the Honduran rain forest, including such rare and/or endangered species as the quetzal, the harpy eagle, the iguanas, the tapir and orchids that depend upon the biodiversity of the forest area of the RPBR. The loss of the ecological niche for these species would eventually result in the loss of the species themselves. Moreover, scientists agree that deforestation decreases rainfall, increases evaporation and often leads to drought-like conditions. Water then also becomes a major source of revenue as well as an important resource for the country. The WWF notes that "the forest of La Tigra, for example, provides the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, with 40% of its drinking water. Experts estimate that the forest's water supplies are worth over US$100 million" (WWF 1996). The value of the water provided by the forests rests not only in its necessity for its life-sustaining ability but also in its capacity to provide power to hydroelectric plants. In 1994, Honduras suffered from severe power outages because the El Cajon dam became dry. The hydroelectric plant, which from 1985 - 1990 met about 70% of Honduras's electrical needs and created US$8 million a year in electricity exports, became non-functional when the water levels dropped so severely due mainly to the deforestation of Northern and Northeastern Honduras, where the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve is located (Gollin 1994).

The administration of the RPBR has been minimal thus far by the Honduran government. As trees continue to be felled illegally, the forest faces depletion and, consequently, the indigenous confront more problems. The wood of mahogany and pine is in great demand, especially in the United States. As long as these timbers continue to bring in money for the Honduran peasant, the trees will continue be downed, legally or illegally. Until U.S. buyers and importers regulate from where they buy the wood and avoid purchasing timber that was downed in an environmental preserve, the forest of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve will continue to be depleted with little or no recourse taken by the Honduran government. For this reason, the indigenous groups in the Mosquitia have joined forces with domestic and international non-governmental organizations in an attempt to salvage the Mosquitia rain forest. The WWF, for example, has several projects in the RPBR that, in conjunction with the Canadian International Development Agency and the VIDA Foundation (for the Morocon Forestry Project), seek to develop "people-centered conservation and development" (WWF 1996). According to several project summaries, the primary objectives include community forestry, long-term conservation and management of the area's natural resources and training (WWF 1996). In order to halt the deforestation process of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, these steps, in conjunction with a widespread effort reaching from Tegucigalpa to Toronto, need to be undertaken.


3. Related Cases



Keyword Cluster

4. Draft Author:

Danielle Morello, June 1997


II. LEGAL Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

DISagree and ALLEGEation

6. Forum and Scope:


7. Decision Breadth:


8. Legal Standing:




9. Geographic Locations

10. Sub-National Factors:


The deforestation of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve affects the existence and livelihood of the indigenous groups who reside in the rain forest. The Miskito, Pech and Tawaka populations have lived in and off of the forest for centuries. These groups are inextricably linked to the resources of the forest, but have no legal claim to the land. Legally, the land belongs to the Honduran government, but ancestors of the indigenous groups have inhabited this land for centuries. Without legal possession of the land, however, land tenure will remain an issue for these groups as they try to protect their land and their rights to it.

11. Type of Habitat:



IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:

Regulatory Standard [REGSTD]

By creating laws to protect the rain forests from further deforestation, the Honduran government has created a regulatory standard by which deforestation can occur only in specified areas and under controlled situations. Enforcement of these designated reserve zones, as witnessed through the continued downing of trees in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, is severely lacking. Agencies have been created with the express purpose of monitoring and administering the forest lands, but thus far these agencies have been ineffective in controlling the illegal downing of trees.

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:


14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

15. Trade Product Identification:


16. Economic Data

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. In 1995, Honduras had a per capita income of approximately US$654 per year (U.S. Department of State 1996). In 1995, the unemployment rate was approximately 15.9%, though this masks severe underemployment (U.S. Department of State 1996). According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. exported U.S.$680 million worth of goods and services while Honduras exported U.S.$590 million in 1995 (U.S. Department of State 1997). Barriers to direct foreign investment have decreased significantly over the past few years as Honduras has created Export Processing Zones to lure foreign investment. The volatile political situation in Central America in the 1980s and early 1990s often deterred foreign businesses from investing in Honduras, but the recent attempts at democratic stability by both Honduras and its neighbors have aided in the expansion of the free market and investment.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


18. Industry Sector:


19. Exporters and Importers:



V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:


21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: Many

Type: mahogany, pine and many rare birds, animals and plants

Diversity: yes

22. Resource Impact and Effect:

HIGH and PRODuct

23. Urgency of Problem:

HIGH and approximately 50 years

24. Substitutes:

Conservation [CONSV]


VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:

The deforestation of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve indirectly affects Central America and Honduras, but it directly affects the indigenous groups which reside in and rely on the forest. The Miskito, Pech and Tawaka people have lived in the Mosquitia region for centuries. These indigenous populations rely heavily on the forest for survival and practice subsistence ecology to preserve the integrity of the forest (Parent 1994). These indigenous groups extract shelter, food and medicines from the rain forest; they fish, hunt, gather, farm in the forest while conserving its resources and ecosystem (HondurasInfo 1996). In 1992, the indigenous within the Mosquitia region united to protest the Honduran government's consideration of allowing a Chicago-based paper bag and cardboard box corporation to lease the remaining virgin pine forest within the Mosquitia. The Stone Corporation sought a contract to harvest the pine tress without undertaking effective reforestation policies. Furthermore, the indigenous groups believed that their forest would be destroyed and thus their livelihood. The contract negotiations were halted and the Stone Corporation did not receive the contract (O'Rourke 1992).

26. Trans-Boundary Issues:


27. Rights:


The indigenous groups in the Mosquitia region do not have legal rights to the land of the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. Land tenure disputes have made it to the Honduran Congress which is currently in the process of deliberating a law which would guarantee the Tawakha group legal ownership of the land inhabited by their ancestors for centuries. If this bill passes through Congress, it would set the precedent for all the indigenous groups in the Mosquitia who are facing pressure, opposition and repression by migrants from other regions of Honduras who are seeking land and money. As these migrants slash and burn the land and cut down timber, the indigenous lose their land and a large part of their culture.

28. Relevant Literature

Central Intelligence Agency. "The World Factbook page on Honduras." http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/

"The Economy." http://hondurasweb.com/econ.htm

"Ethnic Groups." http://hondurasinfo.hn/ethnic.html

Gollin, James D. "Trees Down, Lights Out in Honduras." Christian Science Monitor. November 15, 1994, p. 12.

Griffen, Wendy. "Lumberjacks Down Mahogany Timber Despite Moratorium." Honduras This Week. http://www.marrder.com/htw/special/environment/13.htm

"Honduran Ethnic Groups." http://www.hondurasinfo.hn/ethnic.html 1996.

"Honduras Projects Backgrounds." World Wide Fund for Nature. 1996. http://www.panda.org

O'Rourke, Dara. "Stone Axes Honduras." Multinational Monitor. March 1992, p. 6-7.

Parent, Derek A. "Rio Platano UNESCO Biosphere Reserve." http://www.vir.com/~derekp/ 1994.

UNESCO, United Nations Environment Program. Environmental Data Report 1991-1992.

U.S. Department of State. "Background Notes: Honduras 04/97." http://www.state.gov/www.background_notes/>

U.S. Department of State. "Honduras: Economic Policy and Trade Practices Report (1996). http://www.state.gov/www.issues/economic/trade_reports/latin_america96/honduras96.html


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