Use it, or Loose It
[private] Sadly, the Swan Islands Marine Reserve belonging to Gracias a Dios department, are one of the most forgotten and neglected part of Honduras. While the islands are a little used resource today; its resource: surrounding reefs, animals and land could in a few decades be a priceless jewel. That is if the government of Honduras manages to protect it and doesn’t fall trap to developers eyeing the islands for tourist development schemes.
The island’s discovery dates back to 1520s when the Spanish named them San Millan. The Swan Islands served as a base for an English buccaneer Captain Swan and renamed after him. While Cayman Islanders knew of and used the islands in 1800s, it was an American, John White, who in 1857 claimed the islands for the US under the US Guano Islands Act.
While the guano act allowed US citizens to claim “terra nullius” islands around the world it did not specify which country would have the rights to the possessions once guano deposits were exhausted. Thus, after much back-and-forth, in 1971 US turned the jurisdiction of Swan Islands back to Honduras. The islands infrastructure: buildings, landing strip, water tanks and generator have fell into steady decline spiked up by periodical hurricane.
Today the seven Honduran soldiers stationed on Swan are not protecting the islands, but rather stranded there – 60 days at a time. They have no vehicle to get around the island, no boat, not even binoculars and have no way of confronting fish poachers even if they spotted them. Their most sophisticated piece of machinery they handle is a weed whacker. Thus the most significant impact they have is weeding a 500 meter grass landing strip that almost no one uses.
The Swan soldiers sleep on hammocks made out of fishnet in a destroyed skeleton of a building. They have few medicines and their one generator is run once a day in the evening to power the freezer that holds food supplies. The only well on the island has become salty and soldiers have to rely on water that is brought to them by boat from Puerto Castilla.
This is no way for a country to treat and equip its military. This it is no way for a country to protect its Marine Reserve and animals in it. While this is obviously a sad state of affairs, Honduran government has no incentive to change it in any way as the drug traffickers aren’t seemingly interested in Swan Islands either.
From an environmental perspective the animals living on and around them would be better off and better protected if US was running things. Swan based soldiers mention that a few years ago a group of people hunted down the once ample and large iguanas of the island. Today, the Swan Islands iguanas are small and not easy to spot.
Swan’s five mile protected waters and reefs have been obviously poached as well. According to Roatan fishermen the Jamaican have been fishing the area around and directly adjacent to Swan Islands for decades, particularly the two Honduran fishing banks located 130 kilometer from Swan: Rosario Bank and Misteriosa Bank. The affects of the fishing can bee easily seen on Swan Islands: the grouper and snapper are few and afraid of humans.
Netting that could be used in fish traps have washed out on Swan’s beaches and nearby reef. “It’s more than likely that poachers are doing this,” said Bay Islands Commissioner Evans McNab. The Honduran government has ongoing problems keeping foreign, especially Jamaican, fishermen from Honduran waters and encounters of Jamaican fishermen according to McNab are “frequent.”
If Honduran government can’t manage these islands maybe, after 40 years of trying, it should give the islands back to US. The US has done a fair job of administering many of the guano islands and protecting its flora and fauna. One such example is Navassa Island that US disputes with Haiti. US Fish and Wildlife Service administers the islands and its 400,000 birds couldn’t be happier. From an environmental point of view I seriously doubt that Haiti could do a better job of taking care of these islands. Swan Islands Booby birds, iguana, agouti, the reefs and its fish couldn’t care less who “owns” the islands as long as they are left in peace and protected. So Honduras government: protect it or give it up! [/private]