GUAYABO, Honduras – Plumes of smoke from fires set by slash-and-burn cattle grazers have become such a routine sight on the highway to the Río Plátano Biosphere that lifelong forester Rene Lara only comments when he doesn’t see any.
The new landscape of the Honduran forests in this northeastern region of the Caribbean coast is an ominous one: burning undergrowth, rigs, trucks and oxen hauling trees toppled by chainsaws.
Lara calls the chainsaw “the machine that is destroying the world.” He said every household in the forested region has one –this in a country whose license plate reads: “Protecting the Forests.”
But Lara’s work is now part of a solution that has arisen in response to unfettered logging and the squalid poverty of the communities that are clearing much of the forests. As a forestry consultant for Rainforest Alliance, a conservation organization that pioneered the concept of sustainable-forestry certification in 1989, Lara and work partner Medardo Caballero are helping local woodsmen legalize their operations and implement sustainable forestry practices.
Under the organization’s guide, the loggers are starting to harvest saleable wood from trees knocked down by storms, culling old tress and allowing younger ones to grow, leaving most of the forest intact to allow proper regeneration. The work is helping to foment a new respect for the forests.
José Álvarez, the gray-haired, often shoeless patriarch of Guayabo, one of the four villages on the outskirts of the reserve in which the Rainforest Alliance works, has witnessed a shift in the woodsmen’s treatment of the forest.
“We used to throw everything on the ground, now we pack up our trash and pick up other trash we find,” he said. “We replant after cutting, which we didn’t do, and we don’t clear-cut a whole area. Things are going well for us.We don’t have to cut illegally.”
Some 100 woodsmen, who account for most of the combined male population of four villages on the outskirts of the reserve, manage 86,500 acres (35,000 hectares) of forest in the reserve’s buffer zone.
Through a business deal Rainforest Alliance brokered with U.S. guitar manufacturer Gibson, the impoverished loggers and subsistence farmers select and cut two-foot mahogany blocks by chainsaw to fit Gibson’s standards, strap them to frames on mules and follow the animals as they slide down muddy slopes and forge rivers before the blocks are trucked to a stockpiling station for precision cutting and planning. They cooperatively own the station and the equipment and sell the finished, value-added product for about $10.50 a block.
They have never seen a Gibson guitar, but the company that has equipped the likes of rock and blues legends Carlos Santana, B.B. King and Eric Clapton pays them $40,000 per month for shipments of 4,000 blocks.
Since they sold their first truck container of blocks in August of last year they have earned more money than they had seen before for their efforts and no longer leave the indelible imprints of clear-cuts and fires on the land.
“This is the best market we’ve seen,” said Alcides Escaño, a logger from Guayabo. “We used to sell wood for four or five lempiras (less than $0.25) per foot to national companies, now we sell directly to the buyer for 100 lempiras ($5.30) per foot.”
The reserve of more than 1.3 million acres (525,000 hectares) is one of the last bastions of tropical rainforest in Central America, and it is losing ground in a two front war: cattle raising and illegal logging.
The efficacy of the unlicensed loggers prompted President Manuel Zelaya to deploy the army to protect the forests earlier this year. Soldiers now patrol the muddy roads to the villages, confiscating illegally cut trunks looted from the forests and curtailing the black-market industry.
The Rainforest Alliance works to help foresters in seven other villages in the country counteract deforestation and earn respectable livings from the forest. Those villages manage a combined area of more than 70,000 hectares of forests that is in the process of certification.
Once certified, they will triple the area of certified land in Honduras, a country where, as Lara said, “thousands and thousands live off the forests and even the President was once a lumberjack.”
The hope is that the new emphasis on sustainability will help undo some of the damage that’s already been caused to the environment.
“We’ve seen over the years the (wild) animals are living farther and farther away and there aren’t as many fish in the streams because of all the hunting and fishing here, but the idea is they will come back with our conservation work,” said longtime woodsman Omar Antonio Rivera.
Robert Goodier is Communications Coordinator for Rainforest Alliance.