Nature’s Refuge at Port Royal
While Roatan is known for its Marine Park, few people know that the island also has a designated terrestrial park, Port Royal Wildlife Refuge (Port Royal Park), one of only a few protected land areas on Roatan. While the Marine Park is managing to patrol around 20% of the island’s reef, the vast majority of Roatan’s land is unprotected. On Roatan, an island the size of 49 square miles (31,360 acres), the protected land area comprises only 3.9% of the total – practically all of it the Port Royal Park. In 2010, one of the last areas of undeveloped land on Roatan is making its stand.
The eastern part of the island is dryer than most of Roatan’s western side and offers a unique microclimate. Trade winds pick up moisture as they blow east to west over Roatan, but around Port Royal large patches of the pine forest have been replaced with grasses and shrubs.
For now at the Port Royal Park green parrots still fly overhead, and the park’s watusa and iguana populations are quite healthy. However, protecting the park from hunters of deer, and poachers looking for green parrots is now a new priority. Two rangers have been hired to patrol the park, and the next step in the process is to fence the entire park. Erick Anderson, East End resident and BICA (Bay Islands Conservation Association) board member, estimates that five to six miles of fencing will be needed for that purpose. Anderson was instrumental in creating the Port Royal Park.
The idea of a park began in the 1970s when land was still plentiful, Roatan had no roads, only trails, and had only a fraction of today’s population. The park was created in 1978 with Santos Guardiola Municipality decree number 22 which established the park and mentions the park size as 500 hectares (1,235 acres),” mas o menos [more or less].” Santo Guardiola Mayor Puchie signed the document that gave the park its legal status. “He [Mayor Pouchie] had enough vision to sign the decree,” says Erick Anderson.
In Honduras, untitled land (which the area of the park was in the 1970s) is considered ‘national land,’ and while it is a national resource it is also an invitation for land grabs and abuse of resources that the state has little interest and resources to protect.
To most Roatan residents back in 1970s, the land in the hills above Port Royal seemed useless: to unfertile to be used for farming or even pastures and too remote and inaccessible to be considered for homes. The park’s land is sandy, acidic soil, not good for planting. At the time, the only interest people had in the land that now is part of the park was in logging, and deer and iguana hunting. Oak Ridge residents would use the land to gather free post wood.
In 1984, Operation Raleigh, a UK organization similar to that of America’s Peace Corps, brought in student volunteers who placed 89 markers marking the boundaries of the park. For the protection and growth of the Port Royal Park, the big break came in 1989, BICA became involved in the protection of the park.
In 1989 BICA was named by CODEHFOR as the administrator of the Port Royal Park. BICA’s involvement was badly needed as pressure on the park boundaries and exploitation of its resources has increased. Since the 1970s the attitudes of people have changed and people see the land as a potential way to make money by selling lots and building homes. Since the 1990s a number of roads have been pushed through and one of them crosses the park connecting the north shore with Port Royal. In summer, illegally set brush fires rage for days destroying dry pine forest and exposing soil to erosion, causing visible scars across the landscape. The thin soil blows away in the wind and plants have a hard time anchoring and growing in the exposed areas.
The park’s boundaries don’t touch water, but do get very close, just a few hundred feet in one place. These boundaries are much under attack. People who see the park as a frontier waiting to be conquered have begun to encroach on the park properties. A war of attrition is fought over the 89 markers demarcating the park’s boundaries. According to BICA, the park is constantly under threat from people moving fence boundary posts, producing fictional land title documents and constructing homes within the park boundaries.
After decades of struggle, there are skeptics about the Port Royal Park’s boundaries, or whether it is, in fact, legitimate. “The port royal wildlife refuge is not real. The land has a lot of owners such as the Greenwoods, Ebanks, Coopers, and many more,” wrote Chestlee G. Dilbert, who himself is attempting to set up another protected area in Calabash Bight.
“Things are not as easy to identify as they seem. The legal questions are quite complicated… the park boundaries were never properly defined,” said the technical assessor of the SG Municipality, who did not want to be mentioned by name. “Even the [Santos Guardiola] Municipality has sold land that is part of the park,” said the source. “The idea is not to look for the entire 500 acres, but as much as possible. There are just so many people who have claimed part of the park.”
The Honduran central government recognizes the park and, confusingly enough, adds an extra 374 hectares to its territory. The 2005 official map of “Honduras’ Protected Areas” locates the “Port Royal Wildlife Refuge” with an area of 874 hectares and references the legal creation of the park to two decrees: Santos Guardiola Municipal decree 20-1978, and Res. AFE: 012-98.
The 2005 map also specifies two other parks in Santos Guardiola Municipality: Saint Helena Wildlife Refuge (1,422 hectares) and Barbareta Marine Reserve (10,108 hectares) created in 1982 where BICA is also designated as an overseer. In total, there are nine official and proposed protected areas in the Bay Islands.
One idea envisioned by BICA members is creating a corridor that would connect the park land to Saint Helene and its protected mangrove area; constructing a visitors center is another idea. Anderson speaks of the intrinsic value of the park, a place where people can visit to regenerate and refresh their spirits.
The protected park area is not only a safe haven to the plants and animals of the island, but could one day serve as a tourist attraction to the visitors to the island. With cruise ship companies turning Roatan into an ever expanding tourist destination, new attractions are in high demand. One vision of Port Royal Park is to create hiking areas in the park, creating an alternative tourist attraction for tourists who don’t want to dive but want to be a bit more active than just sitting on the beach.
While many see Roatan’s biggest asset to be its reef, the reef couldn’t exist without the island itself. The reef’s future depends not only on management of the waters around the island, but of the land adjacent to it. The condition of the island’s forests, mangroves and beaches have a direct relation with the condition of the island’s reef and the very health and survival of Roatan’s Marine Park depends on sustainable management of its land and its future as a tourist destination. [/private]