Director of Protected Areas and Corridor Conservation, Mexico and Central America
Over the past 32 years, I have had the pleasure of working throughout Central America on protected area issues. When I first moved to the region, I lived in a country, Honduras, which was ruled by the military. I lived through a bloodless coup, immediately recognized for what it was by my Honduran housemate when the TV went blank and then patriotic songs came on the air.
I then had the chance, as a lowly Peace Corps volunteer assigned to the newly-created Honduran Wildlife Department, to accompany my bosses and coworkers to explain to the ruling military junta why it was important to create a national park to protect a cloud forest that was the principal source of water for the capital city, Tegucigalpa. To his credit, the general leading the triumvirate signed the decree creating the park, and another creating Central America’s first large biosphere reserve – over half a million hectares – on his last day before turning power over to a democratically elected president.
I have, I must admit, also taken advantage of the military for conservation goals – using Hueys from the now-disbanded Panamanian Defense Forces to do a multi-day aerial reconnaissance of forest cover in the entire country before the fall of Noriega, or using US Southern Command choppers to do overflights as part of park planning efforts in Costa Rica.
||"Guns, many of the high powered variety left over from the conflicts and not just shotguns and 22 rifles, are far too common in the region."|
I have had my share of run-ins with guys with guns – full body searches by Kaibil special forces in the Petén in the darkest days of the Guatemalan conflict, being "retained" temporarily by the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres in the highlands of the same country until a "voluntary war tax" was paid; walking on trails in conflict areas of El Salvador and Nicaragua where, locals told me, explosions in the night meant unfortunate armadillos had just successfully contributed to land mine removal efforts. Since then, I have watched as most of the countries in the region gradually made peace with themselves and each other, and as democracy spread.
Unfortunately, though peace "broke out" throughout Central America by the end of the 1980s, it meant that all hell broke loose on the remote, lawless agricultural frontier zones throughout the region. Peace has not meant any let up of human pressure on the region's wildlands and wildlife. Guns, many of the high powered variety left over from the conflicts and not just shotguns and 22 rifles, are far too common in the region. Pent up pressure for land and resources that was held in check while the countryside was unsafe meant that deforestation rates in all of the countries increased, and remained high, once the conflicts ended. Ex-combatants lacking jobs often took their woodsmen skills and guns to the agricultural frontier and started cutting trees instead of dodging bullets – increasingly, with chainsaws instead of the traditional machete.
|"As crime rates have increased dramatically in the region, neither tourists nor rangers are safe."
While marijuana cultivation has long occurred in remote parts of the region without undue violence, the cocaine trade has brought an increased level of violence to the coastal zone. I was just on a turtle nesting beach in Nicaragua where the responsible NGO makes clear to its unarmed rangers that whenever a mysterious boat with several 200 hp motors appears on the horizon, they are to get the hell out of there rather than risk their lives. Rangers in coastal parks and reserves throughout the region have to be particularly vigilant given the constant flow of drugs and boats (even home-made submarines!) that are now a regular fixture on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central America.
And as crime rates have increased dramatically in the region, neither tourists nor rangers are safe – I was in Tikal in Guatemala just a few years ago when, after a group of tourists was assaulted by thieves, a pursuing ranger was killed in a gunfight. Big city environmentalists are also targets. In Guatemala, just this year, the country's leading environmental lawyer, who has valiantly publicized many threats to the country was nearly killed in an assassination attempted. Likewise, several leading environmentalists in Honduras have been assassinated trying to stop deforestation or create parks and reserves to save remaining forests.
All in all, peace accords and an end to civil wars and the peaceful resolution of international conflicts – such as the recent resolution of the Honduras-El Salvador border dispute that led to war in 1969 and simmered for several decades thereafter, or more cordial relations between Belize and Guatemala as their dispute also goes through arbitration – have not led to any reduction in pressure on natural resources in the region. Nor has the escape valve of "el norte" through which millions of Central Americans have moved to the United States.
Slowly dropping population growth rates and the rural-urban shift might, one would think, also reduce pressure on the environment, but regularly updated maps of the expanding agricultural and cattle frontier in northern Guatemala, eastern Honduras and Nicaragua, and the agricultural frontier in both western and eastern Panama show that, except in Costa Rica, negative trends continue. War and conflict were certainly not the answer, but peace has left a lot to be desired as well!
LEARN MORE: Read more scientists' accounts of working in conflict areas.