‘We are going to be left with nothing’: Indigenous communities battle deforestation in Honduras

Estimated read time 7 min read

Avilés Morphy pulled out his mobile phone and swiped through the photos until he reached a shot showing fallen trees in what looked like the aftermath of a hurricane. “That was a big forest and look how it is now: everything’s been destroyed,” he says. “And these are the coordinates.”

Then he played a video. The camera focused on a startled man wearing a red track-and-field shirt, resting his back against a post as he responded to questioning.

“How much land does [your boss] have?” asks Morphy, prodding at the amount until the man confessed about 690 hectares [1,700 acres] of rainforest, about 100 hectares of which had already been clearcut.

“How many cattle does he have?” Morphy continues.

“Right now, there’s only eight,” says the man. “The rest left.”

“Every year, they clear the forest like crazy, so it ends up like a desert,” says Morphy, 40. “We told them that we are the owners.”

The video was taken during a vigilante patrol conducted by Morphy and others from Mocorón, an Indigenous Miskito village in north-eastern Honduras. A few days later, members of the nascent territorial watch committee sat around a table and engaged in a heated debate about what steps to take next.

The committee members are part of a growing number of Indigenous people across the remote department of Gracias a Dios who are rising up against the criminal forces behind an unprecedented wave of deforestation and colonisation in their territory. Whether that means continuing with the patrols or something much more dramatic hangs on the action – or inaction – of the government.

“We could confront [the colonists], but there may be bloodshed, and that’s what we don’t want,” says Morphy. “We want the justice system, the government and the military to do their job and evict these people.”

The forest of Mocorón is part of a vast biological corridor called the Moskitia forest, which spreads across a transnational Indigenous territory of the same name. If the frontline of deforestation were to reach the village, it would mean in effect that the corridor has been severed and much of the forest lost.

“It isn’t just the Moskitia that benefits from the forest, rather all of Central America and practically the world,” says Morphy. “We can’t sit with our arms crossed.”

In 2013, the Honduran government initiated the transfer of the land titles of Gracias a Dios to the Indigenous Miskito, Pech, Tawahka and Garifuna people, who, over the next few years, divided the land among 15 territorial councils and federations.

It was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for land rights and was supposed to slow deforestation and colonisation. In the years that followed, however, the problem only got worse. The government had given the land to the people but neither the authority nor the resources to manage it.

In 2019, the government created a commission for the reclamation of the land of the Moskitia. But the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic the following year grounded it right as deforestation really took off.

Now, after a change of government and more than a year and a half into the tenure of centre-left president Xiomara Castro, a glimmer of hope that her administration might yet act on land reclamation is all that is keeping some communities from taking matters into their own hands.

“If there weren’t that, it’s likely that the communities would rise up, they would rise up to defend their territory. They are practically ready,” says Santiago Flores, a Miskito lawyer and activist. “But we have told them, let’s not risk it, let’s not confront them, let’s hope that the authorities play their role because they are committed to protecting territories and natural resources.”

But patience has run so thin that some are ready to take up arms and apply “Indigenous law”.

“If the government doesn’t do its part, we are going to fight,” says Bruno Banegas, a grizzled 72-year-old with a beard and a camouflage cap who stood before the others in Mocorón. “We have plenty of courage.”

That courage has been tested in the past. Mocorón was a training ground and refugee camp during the 1980s contra war in nearby Nicaragua, and Banegas is one of many people in the region who fought in the conflict. “Just give me 30 men to train and a few arms,” he says.

In 2015, a much larger group of people in the nearby Miskito community of Auka did pretty much what Banegas suggested, arming themselves and kidnapping settlers who they tied up and held as prisoners in a schoolhouse before eventually agreeing to release them to authorities.

“The territory council decided to undertake self-reclamation,” says Flores. “They were just showing that they had the capacity to do things on their own.”

The movement’s leader was jailed, though freed shortly after by an indignant crowd of supporters. No lives were lost in the incident, making it somewhat of an idealist’s illustration of how self-reclamation could play out. In a land of many legends, the people of Auka became another.

But the battle is one that must be fought on many fronts. Ruthless drug traffickers and their associates fuel much of the deforestation, and while most are outsiders, some of them are Indigenous people, even leaders.

To see how things could go wrong, the people need only look across the border to Nicaragua, where colonists have massacred Indigenous people, serving as a warning that any action is likely to elicit an even stronger reaction. Honduras and Nicaragua are two of the world’s most dangerous countries for land defenders.

Members of the territorial watch committee in Mocorón weigh the risks against what they stand to lose. Bonifacio Graham, 63, worries that, if nothing is done, “we are going to be left with nothing, not even water to drink”.

On the committee’s first patrols, members were accompanied by soldiers from a nearby base for security. When the Guardian accompanied them on a patrol, they headed out alone, unsure of what – or who – they might encounter.

After crossing the Mocorón River, Morphy led the way through replanted forests that had been cut during the contra war to provide for the roughly 20,000 refugees. Dotting the trail were clearings in differing stages of cutting or regeneration where the people rotated crops.

When the trees grew taller, older, white-faced, and howler monkeys called and barked from the canopy while tapirs and other floor-dwellers left their tracks or scuttled away in the thick underbrush. Thin logs lined the trail like rollers to a shack where towering mahogany trunks were carved into dugout canoes.

After six hours, Morphy tracked the route on his hiking app until the forest was thinned to a clearing. Giant hardwoods angled across a floor of sawdust and withered branches. “Improved land, that’s what they call it,” he says, glaring at fallen red mahogany trunks.

Despite its value, most wood is simply burned or left to rot. Once the forest turns to grass, it sits mostly empty. Land speculation drives more deforestation than the march of cattle.

“Once it has grass”, says Morphy, “it’s worth much more.”

Source: theguardian.com

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