(This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue as the cover story)
Every year at the beginning of the dry season Honduras goes through a Danté-esque moment of smoke, haze and high levels of air pollution produced by the burning of forests, pastures, agricultural plots and grasslands. When the wind blows this smoke out to sea it can blot out the sun over the Bay Islands and foul the air just as sun-seeking tourists are flocking to the islands for the summer beach season.
Smoke was particularly thick over Roatan this year for part of Holy Week in April, spoiling the experience for some visitors. The national media reported widespread forest fires on the mainland during that period.
Honduran forests are disappearing at a rate of 3 percent a year, mostly because of poor farmers slashing and burning them to plant subsistence crops. However, most of the forest fires occur in the pine forests of the interior. Forests on the North Coast are mostly broad-leaf rainforest, cloud forest, montane and elfin forests, which do not burn as easily as coniferous forests. The mountains surrounding La Ceiba, just across the water from Roatan and Utila, are lush and contain world-class rivers with spectacular waterfalls and crystalline water. They can still easily ignite because of a very dry mulch forest floor. But the deforestation rate on the North Coast is only about half that of the interior, and burning forests contribute only about 10-20 percent of the smoke we see over the islands this time of year.
The majority of the smoke originates from farmers preparing their next planting by burning their plots and ranchers burning cattle pastures to obtain a resurgence of new grass. Ranchers burn their pastures to eliminate unwanted weeds and ticks and to save money on labor, herbicides and pesticide. Hunters burn forests and grassland to flush out wild game.
Large sugar plantations account for more than 20 percent of the smoke, burning their plantations to prepare the crop for cutting. Sugar cane has leaves with spiny hairs called trichomes that make it impossible for workers to cut the cane by hand unless they are burned off first. The burning process not only causes air pollution, it is also extremely dangerous, generating a staggering number of fatalities, with Nicaragua having a disproportionate share. Some countries have prohibited this practice and introduced sugar cane varieties without these micro spines. Others are mechanizing the process.
In addition, many Hondurans, including on the Bay Islands, burn their trash in the open during the dry season, because municipalities do not provide adequate trash collection service. Much of this trash consists of plastic bags and synthetic packaging that emits toxic fumes when burned. Respiratory diseases are rampant during the burning season.
There are proven agricultural practices that do not require burning that can generate more than seven times the income for our farmers compared to maize and beans. Highly impacted hillsides that have been previously cleared and burnt can be rehabilitated into superb productive land through agro-forestry.
A typical one-hectare agro-forestry parcel might be planted with rows of plantains, pineapples, coconuts and fruit trees, enclosed by a perimeter of hardwood species. This combination of crops not only enhances biodiversity, it also gives campesino families more diverse sources of income and sustenance while reducing erosion and enhancing the soil’s moisture retention, thus making both the land and those farming it more resilient to both environmental and economic shocks.
Some environmentalists demand a sustainable environment but forget that we must first provide campesinos and their families with a sustainable diet. They cannot plant trees to bring back the forest and wait 20 years to harvest them. They need to eat today.
Agro-forestry provides farmers with food and high-value products to sell in a short time. In 12-18 months an agro-forestry farmer can sell export-quality plantains. Within three to four years rambutan and coconuts, which have high demand and excellent prices, are in full production.
Interestingly, even though plantains are a mainstay of the Honduran diet, we still have to import them, and local farmers who produce them have a guaranteed buyer.
In the longer term, the perimeter of a one-hectare agro-forestry plot can produce 50-100 mature hardwood trees. A single mahogany tree can generate close to $1,000 in 20-25 years.
Another proven model for hillside farming without yearly burning is alley cropping. Under this methodology, Inga trees are planted in wide rows, with a cash crop planted in between. The Inga trees provide mulch from their leaves and are periodically pruned to provide firewood for cooking. Cutting trees for firewood is one of the biggest contributors to deforestation in Honduras as half of our population still cooks with firewood or charcoal. In the drier areas of the country, shade from the Inga trees helps the soil retain moisture, allowing campesinos to reap two annual crops of corn or beans instead of one.
In addition to reducing seasonal air pollution from burning, improving food-security and increasing rural incomes, these combination cropping practices also provide integrity to the hillsides so they will not erode in a hurricane, bringing mudslides into our villages and sediment plumes over our coral reefs.
During Hurricane Mitch in 1998, almost 100 percent of the bridges that were destroyed had deforested river banks and upper watersheds. Conversely, 100 percent of bridges with healthy watersheds survived intact or with minor damage.
Extreme weather events like Hurricane Mitch are expected to occur more frequently with global climate change. The best way for Honduras to adapt to climate change, therefore, is to cover denuded hillsides with productive agro-forestry crops.
We cannot afford infrastructure such as levees, sea walls or containment walls in our rivers. The best and cheapest engineering to protect our rivers and reefs are the root systems of large trees.
Every major agricultural university in the world has concluded that the proper vocation of most Honduran soils is agro-forestry. Our soil cover is very thin and located in mountainous topography. Deforested hillsides planted with traditional crops in the traditional way easily erode and fall apart with heavy rains. Root systems from income-generating trees are the best methodology to hold them intact. Simultaneously, the income they generate provides socio-economic stability to campesino families, making them less likely to migrate into national parks and protected areas, like the Bay Islands, to slash and burn the forest to eke out a living.
Pepe Herrero is an environmentalist, river kayaker and farmer based in La Ceiba and member of the Bay Islands Voice’s advisory board.