TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – A new threat is hitting Honduran forests: drug trafficking.
Every year, the Central American country loses 50,000 hectares of forest due to drug trafficking, according to Orlando Núñez, coordinator of the National Strategy against Illegal Logging at the Forest Conservation Institute, a government body dedicated to protecting Honduras’ forests and wildlife.
“Drug traffickers cut down trees in remote areas in the north of the country to build hidden, illicit airstrips,” he said.
The most affected area is the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, which is located between the departments of Colón and Gracias a Dios and covers an area of 390,000 hectares. The reserve was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“Narco-trafficking has found an ideal spot to set up in the Río Plátano Biosphere since 90% of the reserve is uninhabited,” Núñez added.
According to the National Strategy against Illegal Logging, 351,000 hectares of the reserve are forestland, with the rest home to human settlements.
“Transporting drugs by plane and boat has increased on Honduras’ two coasts but the most used area is the [isolated] northeast coast,” stated the Indigenous Peoples and Rural Communities defending Territorial Rights report released in March by the Salvadoran Research Program into Development and the Environment NGO.
Since 2009, the presence of organized crime groups in Honduras has increased, the report added.
Cartels operating in the area use residents to fell trees or burn timberland so they can build illegal airstrips, Núñez said.
“They normally use intimidation to get what they want, but at times, people are paid for being useful to drug traffickers – these are poor areas so they are easily manipulated,” he added. “Locals set fire to the forest for subsistence farming but also to create clandestine runways.”
Of Honduras’ 8.5 million residents, 64.5% are considered poor, having a monthly income below US$128, according to the 2013 Permanent Household Survey from the National Institute for Statistics.
Between January and April, 405 fires destroyed 36,050 hectares of forest nationwide, according to Óscar Triminio, a spokesperson for the Honduran Fire Department. The most affected departments are Tegucigalpa and Gracias a Dios.
In 2013, 512 fires destroyed 58,113 hectares after about 411 fires damaged 51,342 hectares in 2012, Triminio said.
To combat drug trafficking in the biosphere reserve, authorities increased the number of military forces in the region in 2012, according to Col. Marco Antonio Leiva, the head of the Support Commando Unit for Ecosystems and the Environment (C-9) at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Honduras is taking firm steps to defend its forests, ecosystems and environment from its enemies,” he added. “This is why the National Congress passed decree 041-2011 in August 2011, increasing C-9 Commando forces to 2,000.”
The unit previously had 293 officers divided among 21 detachments.
Results have been positive.
From 2011 to April 2014, 125 illegal airstrips were destroyed, according to Julián Hernández, a spokesperson for the Security Secretariat.
“Eighty percent of the runways destroyed nationwide since 2011 were located in the reserve,” he added.
Additionally, the government in April installed radar at La Mosquitia in the country’s northeast to focus on monitoring airspace for possible incursions by narco-trafficking flights. The radar will be part of a three-radar system costing US$25 million, according to Hernández. The three-radar system will be operational in the coming months.
“The Honduran government is committed to fighting drug trafficking,” he said. “This is why we recently purchased three radars to prevent Honduran airspace from continuing to be used to transport drugs.”