Patuca II Project: A Global Alert
There is no project in Central America, apart from the Panama Canal, of grander scale than the Patuca II project. And there is no greater threat to the forests and the natural wealth hidden in the “Mesoamerican biological corridor” than this gigantic transnational project.
Honduras' Mosquito Coast, or Mosquitia, in the extreme northeast corner of the country, gets more coverage in the national media for having become a bridge for international drug traffic than it does for its poverty and abandonment. In June, La Prensa, San Pedro Sulas' daily newspaper, dedicated whole pages to fantastic stories about the frenzy of abundance the area's inhabitants have been living since becoming cocaine dealers.
The paper described the modus operandi of the cartels that function in the region. The drug shipment is set adrift on the high seas by South American boats that are not about to challenge Honduran authorities and the DEA, which monitor the national waters. The coastal inhabitants then search for the floating bales to later sell them to local drug bosses, bankers and intermediaries of a network whose tentacles reach all the way to the United States.
According to La Prensa, cocaine traffic would appear to have produced such an economic boom in the entire Mosquitia that the traditional forms of subsistence—agriculture and fishing—are becoming mere memories of a sad and backward era. Today, La Prensa would have us believe, the "old" poor can acquire whatever the modern world can offer them for a comfortable and happy life, thanks to their fat incomes from dealing drugs.
Still Unknown and Abandoned Such sensationalist, broad brush stroke stories spark indignation among all honorable residents of the region. Far from enjoying the booty that the media attribute to them, these people are still working their fingers to the bone just to survive their poverty.
The increase in drug traffic in the Mosquitia is an indisputable fact, as the region's authorities, grassroots organizations and general population all admit. But this illicit business is limited to a small part of the region's 16,630 square kilometers and benefits only a few of its over 50,000 inhabitants.
At bottom, what these stories show is a profound ignorance of the Mosquitia's reality and the desire of some media to divert public attention from the serious problems the region is facing. The "magic" of communication is trying to transform a forgotten Maconda into a kingdom of abundance, hoping that the state's absence will be read fatalistically and the voracity of the transnationals and other ravagers of the ecology will be seen as indispensable manifestations of globalization.
A "Troubling Vacuum" These media are simply following in the footsteps of an old and deeply rooted Honduran custom: ignore the Mosquito Coast and always attribute the worst to it. Describe it as an eccentric, remote and inaccessible region of unowned forests. Although the region belongs to the Honduran nation, most citizens in the rest of that nation still know nothing about it; nor has it been fully accepted into the nation's history.
As recently as the 1950s, when the German scientist Karl M. Helbig explored Honduras' northeast region, he was unable to find any exact map of this portion of the nation's territory. This motivated him to draw up some maps himself and to write and publish one of the most complete monographs on the Mosquitia that exist even today.
Helbig writes that government functionaries knew so little about the region that when he informed them of the invasion of part of this territory by Nicaraguan troops, they admitted knowing nothing or else denied the veracity of his facts.
Ignorance of the region was not limited to Hondurans. According to Helbig, the maps of Washington's Aeronautical Chart Service made no reference to it until 1953. A "troubling vacuum" was his conclusion regarding this situation.
Four decades later, Hondurans still view the Mosquitia much as they do the far-away Amazon region. There is no longer a vacuum of information, but disdain and an absence of any strategic vision for this region continue to predominate.
Cultural Frontier The Mosquitia is the second largest territory in the country. It is located mainly in the department of Gracias a Dios, between the Patuca and Segovia rivers, but one of its extremes extends into the neighboring departments of Olancho and Colón. Its other, historically defined extreme extends across the border into Nicaragua and all the way down that country's coast to Bluefields.
It has the lowest population density of any territory in Honduras: 2.8 inhabitants per sq. km in 1996. The majority of its inhabitants are Miskito. Minority groupings include several thousand ladinos— recently arrived or native born—and similar numbers of black Garífunas and Tawahka and Pech indigenous peoples. The bulk of these inhabitants live in small communities dispersed along the rivers, coastline and interior grasslands. The ethnic diversity makes the Mosquitia Honduras' cultural frontier.
Patrimony of Humanity The Mosquitia's natural wealth is immense. Three reserves alone cover approximately a million hectares. These are the Río Platano Reserve, which was declared patrimony of humanity by UNESCO; the Reserve of the Tawahka Asangni Biosphere; and the Patuca National Park. In addition, the Mosquitia's grassy plains make up Honduras' most extensive intact rainforest area and form part of the "Mesoamerican Biological Corridor," which runs from Mexico to Colombia and contains some of the richest biodiversity on the continent. This wealth, of world importance, is currently threatened by dangers that come not only from drug traffic.
According to charges by grassroots indigenous organizations such as the Moskitia Asla Takanka (MASTA) and the Tawahka Indigenous Federation of Honduras (FITH), the two most serious dangers right now are the transnational project Patuca II, to build a hydroelectric dam on the Patuca river's watershed, and the "colonization front," formed by migrant peasants, lumber dealers and livestock and agroindustrial companies, all of which are moving through the region destroying its natural reserves.
Financed by the World Bank? The hydroelectric dam, a project of Harza Engineering Company International and Panda Energy International, will be built on the Río Patuca, a few kilometers from the Río Platano and Tawahka reserves, and will generate 700 megawatts of electricity.
According to these two transnational firms, the project will harness the hydroelectric potential of the Patuca—the longest river in the country—with the construction of a 45-sq. km reservoir and a 105-meter high dam which will store 1.39 million cubic meters of water.
Harza signed a letter of intent with the National Electrical Energy Enterprise in 1996, obtaining the rights to build the project, which will be financed with foreign private funds. The construction is scheduled to get underway in mid-1999 and the energy supplied by the project, which, according to calculations, should eventually satisfy the demand of several Central American countries, should begin to be available by the year 2003.
In declarations by representatives of indigenous organizations and other groups involved in the Platform created to oppose the project, the World Bank is mentioned as one of the project financiers through its International Financial Corporation (IFC). But in a conversation with indigenous leaders, a World Bank official insisted that no formal commitments exist between his institution and Harza. He added that, even if there were, the construction companies would have to comply with the environmental requisites established by the World Bank.
Endangered Treasures The nongovernmental organization Moskitia Pawisa (MOPAWI), which is based in the region, drew up its commentaries and observations about the Environmental Impact Study proposed by Harza. MOPAWI argues that, with the exception of the Panama Canal, it is the largest project in Central America, and as such requires an environmental strategy prepared by highly skilled and experienced personnel. It adds that the Honduran government lacks the environmental, security and operational personnel qualified to supervise a project of such scope.
The area in which the Patuca II project will be located extends over an important portion of the rainforest, butting on the Tawahka Indigenous Reserve, the Reserve of the Río Platano Biosphere and the proposed protected areas of the Río Patuca-Bosawás, zones that house the second most extensive rainforest on the continent, after the Amazon. The risks and dangers identified by MOPAWI are, among others, the loss of biodiversity and the increase in colonization and deforestation with the opening of access roads to the region. One such road will be a 100-km highway between the Catacamas municipality in Olancho and the area that the dam will occupy.
MOPAWI argues that a water-retaining structure as large as the one being projected would pose a significant risk for people and property near the dam should any defect occur. In addition, the Miskito and Tawahka communities located downriver from the project would be exposed to greater pressures from the ladino population migrating from further inland, which would put the very survival of these communities at risk.
Another negative point is that the dam and other components of the Patuca II project will be located in an area full of archeological sites that are extremely valuable for Honduras and for humanity. These would unquestionably be destroyed by the project, as already happened in the case of the El Cajón dam in the northern department of Cortés.
Why So Huge? This project not only contains many risks, dangers and possible damage, but also raises many questions. Why was this precise spot picked for the dam's construction? Why is such a huge project still being considered the solution to Honduras' energy problems if growing demand outstripped the capacity of the other hydroelectric giant, the El Cajón dam, even before the country had finished paying the debt contracted to build it?
The Honduran government has not sufficiently explored other alternatives to generate electrical energy that are cheaper, more sustainable and more protective of the environment. MOPAWI and other organizations and experts have presented such alternatives: the construction of small, decentralized stations; small and manageable hydroelectric schemes; renewable energy technologies such as solar, eolic and biomass; or more efficient ways to use the already available energy. All these alternatives would reduce the high costs of megaprojects such as Patuca II and would avoid its terrible ecological risks.
50 Groups Against Patuca II The opposition of grassroots indigenous groups has been joined by a growing number of other organizations, including two municipalities, school districts, environmental groupings, NGOs and other groups within and outside of the region. By now over 50 groups oppose the project and have created a coordinating body, the Patuca II Platform, whose objective is to join forces and create public opinion awareness in Honduras and abroad about the negative consequences that the building of the hydroelectric project could have on the protected areas, the indigenous peoples and the environment of the whole Mosquitia.
Three declarations have already come out of the assemblies held by the Platform. They are known by the name of the place in which each was signed: Catacamas (Olancho), Ahuas (Gracias a Dios) and Tegucigalpa. The "Declaration of Catacamas" minced no words in declaring that the building of the dam threatens the fragile ecosystems of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and would push the human settlements concentrated within it to the limits of survival.
In mid-May the organizations meeting in Catacamas rejected the project, condemned the government's negotiations with the transnational companies and demanded firmness from the state in conserving and protecting the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and in adopting measures to stop the tree felling and the agricultural and livestock advance in the reserves of the Río Platano Biosphere and Tawahka and in the Patuca National Park.
Carlos Luna, Martyr in Catacamas Catacamas is the gateway to Honduras' magnificent natural reserves and the corridor through which the various colonizers are advancing with the greatest speed and danger. A few days after the Declaration of Catacamas was issued, one of its signers—ecologist and municipal alderman Carlos Luna, a fierce opponent of those who are razing the forest—was murdered.
His death joined that of Janneth Kawas, an environmentalist killed some years ago for defending the same just cause. The two crimes remain unpunished, though the police insist that they are still working to clear up both cases. Today the protection of Honduras natural resources is turning into a battlefield in which the most committed end up risking even their lives.
From Mexico To Colombia The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is made up of natural strips, habitats or blocks that go from Mexico all the way down to Colombia. In the rich diversity of this corridor exist different ecosystems that shelter species of world value.
The Honduran section of this biological corridor includes all the protected areas and those yet to be officially protected. Honduras has 107 protected areas, which cover a total of 24% of the national territory, some 2.5 million hectares. Despite their designation as "protected areas," over half of their total area has already been turned over to agricultural activities. The Río Platano Reserve covers 525,100 hectares, the Reserve of the Tawahka Asangni Biosphere 233,142, and the Patuca National Park has an expanse similar to the latter.
"Colonization Front": An Intrigue of Interests Various state reconnaissance missions sent to the region between 1990 and 1993 registered the presence of 20-30,000 inhabitants settled along the Río Platano, some 3,700 of whom had already penetrated into the nucleus of the Reserve. Something similar was happening in the nucleus area of the Tawahka Asangni Reserve and in the Patuca National Park.
This human contingent—the "colonization front"—is growing with the passage of time. It is creating serious conflicts in the region and its destruction of the natural wealth is very threatening.
Who makes up this colonizing front in the northeastern region and what interests move around it? A recent study attempted to respond to this key question. The first wave, says the report, appears to be poor peasants from the south, accustomed to clearing the forest. Following their tracks come others who are anything but poor: medium and large cattle ranchers who buy the land and the "improvements" made on it by the peasants to turn it into pastureland. On occasion one finds prior commitments and agreements between the two groups.
The big cattle ranchers are usually "influential politicians" or military officers, such as those who established themselves along the borderline of the Tawahka Reserve, denounced at the time by Tawahka indigenous representatives. "More recently," adds the study, "it is known that agroindustrial enterprises have begun to purchase land in the proximity of these regions to develop plantation projects, possibly of African palm."
Another important group in the colonization front is that of fellers of fine woods. Armed with chain saws and motor vehicles, they are destroying extensive areas of the forest with complete impunity.
The study concludes with this: "The testimonies of the affected indigenous populations and of field technicians reveal a whole scheme of utilizing political, military and economic power, and of the need of poor peasants to use the existing institutional weakness to their own advantage, joining the game of land speculation and depredation."
There is little if any incentive for the region's communities to participate in caring for the protected areas, and society in general has limited information about the value of these areas. Honduras' natural riches are thus unprotected and civil society has a very hard time developing more significant activities.
MASTA Proposes Solutions The XIII ordinary congress of MASTA, the organization representing the Miskito people, held at the end of May, put this region's current agenda in perspective and proposed some alternative solutions to the complex set of problems that keep the Mosquitia submerged in poverty, insecurity and abandonment.
Drugs and Damaged Divers Drug traffic was one topic of discussion in the MASTA congress. Community leaders expressed their worries, especially about the increase in drug use among the youth.
The situation of indigenous divers incapacitated by the exploitation to which they are subjected while free-diving for lobsters and shrimp is another issue of particular concern to MASTA. The number of divers permanently injured by being pushed to dive into deep waters and return quickly with their catch is growing daily. In violation of the International Labor Organization's Convention 169, the fishing companies do not comply with even minimum security requisites to protect the indigenous workers. MASTA and other Miskito organizations are demanding that the Honduran government provide support to rehabilitate the lung-damaged workers and immediately pass a decree that regulates submarine fishing activities and provides protection and guarantees for the workers.
The Land: Indigenous Treasure The problem of land and its legal status continues to be a central problem. The lack of deeds for the spaces occupied by Miskitos and other original peoples is a challenge for the organizations that represent them. It is as well for the state and for the legal system currently in effect.
In recent years, the communities of the Mosquitia have publicly demanded that the state title the lands occupied by the region's peoples, respecting their traditions and cultures. But very little progress has been made in addressing this problem. The Miskito organizations will submit a bill on the issue to the National Congress for its consideration and to the National Agrarian Institute, which is responsible for adjudicating and titling lands in the country.
The social democratic bent and negotiating inclinations of the Institute's Liberal director, Anibal Delgado Fiallos, encourages the indigenous organizations to hope for a favorable solution. As their leaders well know, however, power in Honduras does not reside in state institutions. It is monopolized by political and economic elites, who are increasingly linked to global capital.
The People: Another Treasure But there are always fissures. Global interests have also made sustainable natural resource management a priority theme. Very diverse world organizations are interested in preserving Honduras' incredibly rich biodiversity, which is currently being threatened by the Patuca II project. In addition, natural resources and indigenous lands are themes linked to the application of "ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries," ratified by the Honduran Congress in 1994. The indigenous organizations are demanding its implementation.
Although the indigenous are requesting state intervention to resolve the most urgent problems, they are also making efforts on their own to consolidate their own organizations' mobilizing and proposing capabilities, which are still not strong enough. As has been demonstrated at different moments, however, these organizational weaknesses are compensated for by the indigenous leaders' capacity for dialogue, which shows their political maturity and skills. This is unquestionably one more of the values that the Mosquitia, this singular region of Honduras, is amassing.