“It’s going to keep raining over waterlogged soil. The land can’t handle so much water”. This is how the leader of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) described the situation in Honduras in a tweet on November 231. And she was right. The next morning, La Lima, a city in northern Honduras, flooded for the fourth time in a fortnight. The massive amounts of rainfall brought to the country by Hurricanes Eta and Iota caused the Chamelecón and Ulúa Rivers to burst their banks. The first rains of November swept over the Maya Canal and the other embankments that protect La Lima, located just off the Caribbean coast. Without this protection, water, mud and rocks overwhelmed houses and farmlands, an image now common throughout the Sula Valley.
Until a few decades ago, rivers like the Chamelecón and the Ulúa, part of a great hydrographic network in Honduras, were navigable all year round. However, in certain areas the rivers have narrowed to a trickle, which can even be crossed on foot during the summer months. That is, until it rains like it has in recent weeks.
Experts increasingly point to deforestation as one of the main causal factors for such massive floods. According to Héctor Orlando Portillo, a biologist with the Science Foundation for the Study and Conservation of Biodiversity, “This is happening as a result of deforestation across the lowlands, midlands, and highlands where these rivers originate. One of the reasons for this deforestation is our population’s dire economic and social situation, which is a result of the negligence of consecutive governments and the constant marginalisation of our people.” According to data from the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre, roughly 1.2 million hectares of forests have vanished from Honduras over the past sixty years. Over the past two decades alone, Honduras has lost between 23,000 and 58,000 hectares of woodland per year.
Specialist Engineer in the Management of Natural Hydrologic Disasters, Juan Mejía, explained to Radio Progreso that 77% of Honduras is mountainous. However, logging on the mountains has reduced their capacity to retain water. As they lose forest cover, mountainsides become more susceptible to landslides and erosion, while rivers cut through anything in their path. This is exactly what has happened in the Sula Valley, where vast swathes of monoculture in rice, sugarcane, and to a lesser degree, banana, have also contributed to these effects. “If the central and western mountains were appropriately reforested, soil would be more resilient and would retain more water, releasing it little by little”. Similarly, Mejía, who is also Director of Research at the Wide Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ), notes that “forestry policy does not just cover the prices of wood, it also covers what these forests mean for these mountain ranges”.
“We must demand that these predatory companies that are destroying nature stop at once. How will these rivers ever stop flooding, when in the highlands, where the water sources are, there are not only people but also megaprojects that are destroying our forests?”, Miriam Miranda denounces. Once again, she notes that Honduras needs its forests to capture and hold rainwater before it falls to the more populated lowlands. Miranda also references climate change, with Honduras being one of the world’s three most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis according to the Germanwatch 2018 Climate Risk Index.
The fight for forests
Together with deforestation, MADJ also refers to other businesses practices such as large-scale constructions in fragile environments, mining, and the diversion of rivers, which they claim “are connected to an economic model that impoverishes and kills anyone who opposes these practices”. In fact, according to a 2019 Global Witness report, Honduras is now the most dangerous place in the world for defenders of land and the environment, when measured by killings per capita. In the majority of cases, these defenders are also subjected to violence, defamation, and criminalisation. According to data from Vía Campesina, there are currently approximately 7,000 criminalised defenders in Honduras, 1,700 of whom are women.
One of these women facing threats and harassment for her defence of indigenous territories is Felicita López, Women’s Coordinator for the Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz (MILPAH). From the municipality of Santa Elena, where she lives, López has spent years defending natural heritage from hydroelectric interests with ties to a Deputy in the National Congress of Honduras. She has also spent many years working to prevent the 26 logging concessions and environmental permits that currently threaten the department. “The Forestries Conservation Institute (ICF) grants the concessions without consulting the affected communities, and without investigating the environmental impact these projects will have on the communities’ water sources”, explains López.
In order to prevent this deforestation and defend land and indigenous territories, peasant organisations like the CNTC and Vía Campesina presented this February a draft Emergency Law for the Reactivation of the Agricultural, Livestock and Forestry Sector to Combat Poverty. Among the document’s proposals is “a massive reforestation plan, prioritising preservation areas and national hydrographic production areas”. In this way, they hope to avoid it once again raining over waterlogged soil.