The Río Plátano Biosphere, in the Gracias a Dios department of Honduras, is a reserve that is home to one of the tropical rainforest remnants in Central America, inhabited by more than 2,000 indigenous people who preserve their customs and traditional life, according to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.
This area is part of La Mosquitia, one of the largest forests in Mesoamerica, a region where criminal groups carry out their illegal activities, including narcotrafficking, money laundering, looting of archeological sites, trafficking of flora and fauna, and illegal gold mining, according to the 5 Great Forests of Mesoamerica Initiative of the U.S. nongovernmental organization Wildlife Conservation Society.
“In the last decade of the last century the forest was razed to build roads, airstrips, and clandestine jetties. They took over the region,” German Licona, a Honduran lawyer and security advisor, told Diálogo on July 15. “The communities survive without electricity, potable water, and roads. They are only connected by bridle paths and navigable rivers that allow them to reach the big cities.”
Transnational criminal organizations have reportedly built 216 airstrips that contributed most to the destruction of the natural reserve, Hondudiario reported on June 8.
“[The narcos] brought coca varieties and adapted them to the climatic conditions of soil and altitude,” Honduran Vice Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Jorge Salaverri told Honduran daily La Prensa. “They have the strains and seeds that they reproduce in Patuca, Olancho department. In the Río Plátano reserve we detected three plantations.”
One of the most recent criminal activities affecting the environment is an illegal road in the Honduran Mosquitia that connects the municipalities of Dulce Nombre de Culmí, Olancho department; and Wampusirpi, Gracias a Dios department. The Honduran National Institute of Forest Conservation declared the road illegal while inhabitants reject it.
“We must be clear that these investments and the neo-colonization to destroy the forests are driven by money laundering and narcotrafficking,” Luis Solis, director of the Honduran National Institute of Forest Conservation, told Honduran newspaper El Libertador. The road has been in existence for about 10 years but was recently widened. “[We] must be vigilant because there is loss of forest cover to build cattle ranches, which are responsible for 95 percent of the deforestation in that area.”
According to Hondudiario narcotraffickers invest in cattle ranches as a way to take over territories and launder money. The felling of forests opens roads to transport illegal products and extract precious woods without control and also opens areas to cultivate coca, a situation that is increasingly damaging the ecosystem of La Mosquitia. To combat this problem, strategic allies are key.
“It is important to get support from the United States through U.S. Southern Command, to obtain technological and telecommunications logistics that allow geo-referencing of the areas that criminal groups use as routes, whether by land, air, or sea,” Licona said. “For example, through the Coast Guard, we can get support to have a greater presence at sea and combat the transfer of drug boats to the United States.”
In February, the Honduran Armed Forces welcomed a delegation from the U.S. Office of Security Cooperation to coordinate and plan support operations to rebuild the capabilities of the Army, Air Force, and Navy in the fight against narcotrafficking and environmental protection, with the Río Plátano Biosphere as a priority.
Inhabitants of La Mosquitia have reported that narcotraffickers who have entered Honduran politics offer small amounts of money for the land, or threats to those who refuse to make the transaction, La Prensa reported.
“They have destroyed between 4,000 and 5,000 blocks [some 3,500 hectares] from Guarunta to Coco Segovia,” Evelys Murphy, a member of one of the indigenous territorial councils, told La Prensa on June 7. “There are fellow countrymen who dedicate themselves to crime and others are forced to give in. They sell 10 blocks [7 hectares] but the narcos take more. If they don’t sell the land, they shoot them.”
La Mosquitia not only struggles against transnational criminal groups, but also against multidimensional poverty, which, according to World Bank data published by EFE on June 8, stands at 71.8 percent in the region; above the national average. In addition, 43 percent of people in the area lack reliable access to affordable and nutritious food, EFE reported.
“It is urgent to form an interinstitutional task force to recover areas controlled by criminal groups,” Licona concluded. “We must establish sustainable territorial control, involving locals in local development activities.”