Honduras has a reputation for violence. People see the consistently high homicide rate, read the scare stories and tend to steer clear. It remains one of the few countries where travellers are still nervous to visit. The stigma that has lifted somewhat in Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia, still hangs over Honduras. Of course, there are inherent dangers in Honduran society, but it need not elicit such a fearful response. Honduras has a real problem with gang warfare, brought about by the drug trade to the United States. Turf wars routinely claim lives. But in the midst of all this violent warfare, there is another fight that the country is losing: the conservation battle.
Honduras is a mountainous country, full of rainforests, cloud forests, mangroves and savannas. Everywhere you look, the horizon is jagged. Tegucigalpa has crammed itself into a bowl-shaped valley, and the roads snake away from the city, up and around these towering obstacles. While this landscape makes building infrastructure a challenge, it does spawn extreme biodiversity. However, a mixture of corporate greed, political corruption and powerful drug barons is threatening Honduras’ most prized asset.
Lake Yojoa is a hotbed of biodiversity, home to almost 400 species of bird, but the surrounding area is suffering from deforestation, development and cattle ranching, and the lake itself is being polluted by heavy metals from nearby mining activity. In La Mosquitia, home to the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, land is continually being cleared for agricultural purposes. It is a similar story in Olancho, one of the country’s eastern departments, where excessive logging is damaging the landscape. You get the picture.
Fortunately, conservationists are fighting back. However, tragically, many are fighting this battle with their lives. Berta Cáceres, a prominent activist for the environment, women’s rights and indigenous groups across the country, was murdered on 3rd March 2016. She had been campaigning against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam and had received threats from DESA, the electricity company responsible for the project. In 2007, DESA received a $24.4 million loan from the regional Central American Bank.
Sadly, the death of Berta Cáceres is the trend rather than the exception, not only in Honduras, but in the region as a whole. Lesbia Yaneth Urquía was murdered in July as she fought against the construction of another dam, this time over the Chinacla River in western Honduras. Horrifically, since 2005, more than 40 environmental activists have been killed in Mexico, Central America and Colombia.
It is no wonder Honduras has this violent reputation. The majority of news stories focus on death; this article, alas, is no exception. But it is worth noting that these people have not died in vain. Hondurans are rightly proud of their country. In championing environmental causes they have allowed diverse life forms to flourish. For the tourist, taking buses through the capital and hitch hiking in a tuc tuc after dark are as safe as anywhere in the region. Numerous national parks are increasing the country’s popularity as an ecotourism destination. And most importantly, since the death of Berta Cáceres, plans for the construction of the Agua Zarca dam have been abandoned.