The Mangrove Controversy
How many of the mangroves can be cut down before the system’s balance tips? No one exactly knows the answer to this question. Yet many people are concerned that that moment is now and with every eliminated mangrove, the Bay Islands reduce their chances at keeping healthy reefs and developing long range sustainable tourism.

April 1st, 2006
by Thomas Tomczyk


Children playing on a mangrove tree at Las Palmas.

Children playing on a mangrove tree at Las Palmas.

PMAIB is studying the fragile interdependency between dredging, the mangroves and the reef. But understanding the delicate balance between the mangroves and the marine environment is more of an art than a science.

While the total mangrove area is constantly being reduced, in 2000 Utila had the largest amount of mangroves in the Bay islands (1,220 hectares); Roatan had 804 hectares of mangroves, while most of Guanaja’s 311 hectares of mangroves were destroyed during Hurricane Mitch.

Few Bay Islands residents fully appreciate the role that mangroves play in the fragile archipelago ecosystem. “Mangroves break down the sewage that might otherwise impact the reef much more,” said Rich Wilson of Coral Reef Alliance. Where mangroves once served as filters, the indiscriminate building of roads and stripping of land causes massive erosion that ultimately ends up in the sea and on the reef. With many mangroves gone, the Roatan shore is filling out with sand and earth and the reefs are being covered by waste, chemicals and algae.

The rate of the development of the island has surprised many and caught many off-guard. A 1994 study by PMAIB concluded that the biggest negative effect on the reef at that time was from human waste. A far second was deforestation. Carla Ventura, of PMAIB, emphasized that the study was done before dredging was undertaken on such a widespread scale across the island. “Every day someone on the island is cutting mangroves,” said Ventura. The project began in 2003 and is funded by Inter American Bank.

Businesspeople and developers have a lot of money at stake. Their investment is directly tied in with the main attraction of the island: the reef. If its condition deteriorates, Roatan will stop being an attractive place to visit and live for many people. The land and house values will be adversely affected, and everybody will lose. That is a long term possibility. In the short term, things seem more open to interpretation.

The close proximity of nature with tourism areas is not conducive to protecting the environment. The environment almost always ends up on the losing end of the stick. Some believe that the interests of developing a tourism industry, local housing and protecting the environment are mutually exclusive, or at the least, their coexistence is very difficult. “In practice it’s almost impossible to have a park next to a growing urban area,” says Antoine Pomerleau, manager of the West Bay-Sandy Bay Marine Park.

The entire Utila community of Camponado begun in 1999. Acres of property were lotted out for hundreds of small house lots on what used to be a mangrove wetlands

The entire Utila community of Camponado begun in 1999. Acres of property were lotted out for hundreds of small house lots on what used to be a mangrove wetlands

The effects of the disappearing mangroves are becoming more and more apparent. An eight-foot-deep dolphin enclosure that was in use at Anthony’s Key Resort since 1989 was flooded with silt from erosion. Its depth has fallen to two feet and the enclosure was closed in November 2005. “I had to abandon the pen that filled with soot and gunk. We can’t even have dolphin shows there anymore,” said Julio Galindo, the resort’s owner and Roatan municipal council member.

Part of the difficulty in preventing the mangroves from being cut lies in actually locating the mangroves that are being damaged or destroyed in time. Other then the limited patrolling done by BICA and Marine Park, the task of watching over the mangroves is left to private citizens, who often feel intimidated by the big scale developers.

There is a basic issue of conscience at stake: whether to act or report when someone sees damage being done to the environment. This can bring the risk of coming in conflict with some influential businessmen, or even local government. The other choice is to sit back and ignore the obvious. According to Lidia Medina, head of Roatan Municipal’s Environmental Unit, the majority of environmental denouncements come from foreigners.

During two weeks in July 2004, Roatan’s BICA (Bay Islands Conservation Association) office received seven different complaints about the mangroves being cut. Only two or three of the whistleblowers actually visited the site they were concerned about. When BICA receives a legitimate complaint, it contacts an environmental unit at the Municipal and conducts an inspection.

The other problem is that Bay Islanders are confused as to whom to contact and how. There is confusion about who issues permits for environmental projects and the minimal fines that are allotted by Municipal Environmental units. “The fines are ridiculous. They are out of context with reality,” said Ms. Irma Brady, Director of BICA Roatan.

The municipal environmental watchdog isn’t doing much to protect the mangroves, or prosecute the violators. In 2005 Lidia Medina, head of Roatan Municipal’s Environmental Unit, tried five cases of mangrove destruction. In 2005 and 2006 Roatan Municipal applied no fines, and passed all cases to the Roatan fiscalia, where the perpetrators worked out a first-offenders “substitute compensation.” “We are frustrated, but can’t do anything about it,” says Medina.

Currently the role that the Municipal plays is very limited. “They don’t issue permits, but they don’t prevent from anyone from cutting mangroves either,” says Alvin Jackson, Marine Park board member. The Roatan Municipal fines max-out at Lps. 5,000 and Medina thinks raising the fines to Lps. 50,000 and actually applying them before sending them to the fiscal would make a greater impact. The decision to increase the fines lies in the hands of the Municipal corporation.

According to Brady the biggest mangrove destruction case since the founding of BICA in 1990 was the cutting of mangroves in Mud Hole. BICA performs annual overflights to document Roatan’s deteriorating environmental conditions; these sometime serve as evidence in criminal cases.

The construction laws on the books are often vague and open to abuse. The definition of “high tide” is not precise enough and prone to “interpretation” by developers. Establishing an accurate high tide line creates a problem. The law doesn’t stipulate when the high tide measurement should be taken. On the Bay Islands there can be a difference of five meters, depending on which time of year and on the lunar cycle.

Unlike in developed countries, Honduras has no architectural boards to safeguard against the potential adverse effect of structures that are a detriment, yet fulfill all the building law requirements. Honduras may have some of the more stringent environmental legislation in the region, but the enforcement of laws is virtually nonexistent. “Until now, none [cases] that I know of has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Brady.

A mangrove area is used as a garbage dump site on Utila.

A mangrove area is used as a garbage dump site on Utila.

Lack of safety mechanisms in the construction of artificial beaches and structures close to shore proves to be another big factor in the disappearance of the mangroves. To avoid public scrutiny, much of the mangrove destruction/construction is done under cover of night and on weekends. The mangroves are cut, then compacted and filled, sometimes burned, or removed from the site. “Pure greed. Everybody that has two cents wants to buy land and put a hotel on there,” said Brady.

The increase in mangrove cutting in the first months of 2006 could be attributed to the change of the local government. Many feel some people are taking advantage of the inexperience of the new Roatan Municipal government and testing how far they can push the laws protecting the environment. “Whether we like it or not, the economic aspects dominate [the government’s priorities],” said Brady. “They’re loving it to death.”

Joe Solomon, Municipal Judge, says that many local people build high expectations in foreign investors without disclosing the restrictions on developing local properties. Still, there are plenty of people who well understand environmental laws and choose to ignore them. One of the more typical cases of the destruction of mangroves comes from West End’s Mangrove Bight where in the last decade a dozen cases of mangrove destruction took place.

A Marine Park ranger inspects the mangrove destruction at a Mangrove Bight property belonging to Anthony Grayson and managed by Carlos Montoya.

A Marine Park ranger inspects the mangrove destruction at a Mangrove Bight property belonging to Anthony Grayson and managed by Carlos Montoya.

In a recent case in February, Marine Park rangers witnessed the cutting of thick mangroves on property belonging to Anthony Grayson, a US businessman. Even though Grayson, who comes to Roatan sporadically, declined to talk to Bay Islands VOICE about the matter it is actually Carlos Montoya, his property manager, who is responsible for coordinating cutting the mangroves and bringing in truckloads of gravel to create fill for an artificial beach. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” said Salomon about Montoya. While Grayson and Montoya have avoided appearing at the DGIC regarding the mangrove cutting case, Marine Park has filed a case against them in the fiscalia. “We look at this as a criminal case,” says Joe Solomon.

In fact, destruction of mangroves is by definition considered a criminal act and the majority of cases have been forwarded to the fiscalia. But developers are taking advantage of the failing system. Many property owners feel that their seafront property is worth more without mangroves and with a beach. “They want the law to apply to everyone but themselves,’ said Brady.

Mangroves are protected by a number of legal documents: international, national and specific to Bay Islands. The superseding document is an international law, a RAMSAR Convention, to which Honduras is a signatory. The Honduran constitution protects mangroves as a “national asset” and acts against them are considered criminal. Forestry and fishing laws both protect the mangroves in their regulations as well.

‘Acuerdo Municipal No. 2’ from 1991 controlled all development done on the Bay Islands. In 2005 another, even more stringent, law controlling development in the Bay Islands was passed. Each Bay Islands Municipal protects the mangroves, and the municipal environmental unit is responsible for protecting the plants. Honduras may have one of the toughest environmental laws on the books, but the history of applying it is negligible.

Although each governmental entity down the ladder can make mangrove protection more stringent, they cannot erase the protection that is assured to the trees. Environmental permits issued by a Municipal are often not enough on their own to ensure a project is legal. Many projects, dependent on their size and scope, require Ministry of the Environment (SERNA) approval. Brady says that she never heard of any project that SERNA did not approve, nor does she know of any fines or legal judgments that were passed against an environmental case on Roatan.

Mangroves are not the only shore type entity protected by law in the Bay Islands. The iron shore, or exposed coral, is also protected, yet several West Bay and West End developers took advantage of the lax enforcement of environmental laws. “People can get away with murder. You should take TJ [Lynch] on the plane and have him deported,” said Julio Galindo, a West Bay Development Association president and municipal council member, about the destruction of iron shore by a Canadian developer and realtor at the Costa Tesoro project in West Bay.

While deportation in such cases remains unlikely, a first time environmental violator is more likely to get a slap on the wrist and buy himself out. According to Fatima Ullao, Bay Islands DGIC chief, the Roatan Fiscalia has worked out “a substitute penalty plan.” for first time environmental offenders. For cutting mangroves, the offenders buy the fiscalia a computer, and DGIC ends up with an occasional printer-scanner.

Some resorts like AKR, Palmetto Bay Plantation and Barefoot Cay see mangroves as an asset in attracting tourists. An AKR bungalow amongst mangroves.

Some resorts like AKR, Palmetto Bay Plantation and Barefoot Cay see mangroves as an asset in attracting tourists. An AKR bungalow amongst mangroves.

everyone is pessimistic about the reduction of mangroves in the Bay Islands. According to Gerardo Salgado, sub-secretary of SERNA, barring a natural disaster, the number of mangroves on the Bay Islands 10 years from now should be no fewer than there are here today. “If we follow, implement and enforce the results of the PMAIB technical findings we are going to improve the overall environment of the Bay Islands,” said Salgado.

While most Bay Islands developers focus on run of the mill tourists looking for a sandy patch of sand, others focus on attracting more educated and wealthy tourists looking for an unique experience. “The challenge is to be creative enough not to destroy the nature around you,” said Gary Chamer, owner of eco-friendly Palmetto Bay Plantation. Also AKR, Mango Creek Lodge, Barefoot Cay developed trails through mangroves and built buildings without destroying them.

Bay Islands will be getting more nature reserves and parks. Astrid Mejia from PMAIB says that within two to three years the Bay Islands will have 12 designated marine and land protection areas. At least the three land parks will all have a ranger staff, a ranger station and marked borders. [/private]

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