Wednesday, September 05, 2012

A clearcut problem

Corn-field clearcuts around Santa Rita, Copan
What would bring 20 busy coffee producers out to a mid-day meeting on watersheds? The realization that if there's a solution for what's happening to the water supply on their fincas, it will have to come from them.
The meeting was the first in what sounds like a long, slow process to have the Marroquin watershed in the hills above Santa Rita, Copan, declared a protected area.
Some 16,000 families rely on the water that flows from this area. But climate change and the dramatic loss of forest has taken a toll. One producer at the meeting - organized by Honduran NGOs and regional groups working on such problems -  figures his water supply is half of what it was a few years ago. That's a scary development in a country where access to water for crops and consumption is still far from a given in rural communities.
Much has been made in the international press about the loss of forests in Honduras. In the last four years the country has lost more than 33 per cent of its once-abundant forests, triggering problems ranging from mudslides and erosion to flash floods and road washouts.
The effect of deforestation on watersheds is more subtle, yet devastating over the long term. A forested hillside acts like a sponge for absorbing rainwater. Forests not only prevent heavy rains from wreaking havoc as they tear down slopes in a torrent, they retain water long enough that  underground sources can be replenished.
Climate change is already shortening the growing season dramatically in Honduras. Parts of the country lost half their corn and bean crops this summer when the rains didn't come. Old-timers say you used to be able to count on the rainy season arriving like clockwork every May 3; now, it's mid- to late June, and even then farmers can't be sure.
Deforestation is adding to the crisis.
The blame typically gets put on illegal logging, which conjures images of well-organized mahogany thieves smuggling valuable timber out of the country with no thought to the damage they're doing. And yes, that happens.
But the problem is more complicated than that. With almost 70 per cent of the population living in poverty, many of the country's forests are simply being cut down in tiny bits and pieces by millions of people trying to eke out a living.
Look up into the hills from virtually any road in the country and you'll see the endless checkerboard of subsistence corn crops that now grow where trees once stood. Coffee crops prefer shade and in theory are a good fit with forests, but in the higher altitudes where the temperatures are cooler, it's not uncommon to see land clearcut by small producers for coffee as well.
Firewood continues to be a major source of cooking fuel for Hondurans, and not just the poorest families. Propane is expensive when you're going to be slow-cooking beans every few days for hours at a time, so virtually every home has a wood-burning fogon in the kitchen. Poor families from the villages around Copan make the trek into town every day with bundles of firewood scavenged from the hillsides for sale in town.
No doubt each corn farmer, each firewood seller, feels like they're barely making a dent in the forests of Honduras. But the collective damage is significant. Processes like the one to declare the Marroquin watershed a protected area are intended to raise people's awareness of that collective impact, and to make a plan together for what can be done about it.
Nor is logging the only threat. Bathrooms are still something of a luxury in rural Honduras, and sewage collection is even rarer. Coffee growers don't always pay attention to what happens to the toxic runoff from the pulping process. Runoff from animal waste and chemical fertilizers add to the problem.
Honduras has plenty of rules, regulations and laws; what's missing is enforcement. So the mere declaration of a protected zone doesn't mean much on its own. Much of the work at the meeting in Los Planes de La Brea this week involved gathering the names of property owners who have forest land in the watershed, because no solution can come without their co-operation.
The coffee producers agreed on a bigger invitation list for the next meeting later this month, one that includes municipal staff from neighbouring communities as well as public and private landowners in the watershed. With so much at stake, a plan can't come soon enough.

1 comment:

Lennor said...

Jody, thank you for highlighting this agelong problem.
It will be difficult to reach a conclusion soon.
It seems in many 'poor' villages some folk decide to be the super 'bosses' and everyone else has to follow their lead.

All the best greetings from Inselnest ...Lennor