What Happened to the Trees?
Squatters Slash and Burn Hillsides above Roatan’s Watering Place

May 10th, 2016
by Robert Armstrong

As Roatan enters another dry season, squatters from the Honduran mainland are clearing land on the southern slopes of the island’s mid-island ridge for at least the fourth consecutive year. Island property owners staged a protest march last Friday demanding official action against what they see as “invaders” who they claim are not only usurping their property rights but also threatening the watersheds they depend on for drinking water. This is what we had to say about the issue three years ago.

(First published in the print edition of the Voice in August 2013)

In recent months subsistence farmers from La Colonia, above Roatan’s Sandy Bay, have crossed over the mid-island ridge and begun slashing and burning the landward-side slopes, portending possibly serious erosion in the upcoming rainy season.

“There’s going to be a lot of mud coming down this valley,” said Ron Griffith, a North American expatriate who owns several lots along the ridge line. That would threaten the clear waters and reef environment between Flowers Bay and Coxen Hole – some of the most beautiful on the island.

A scorched and denuded hillside above Roatan’s Watering Place, where squatters from La Colonia, across the mid-island ridge, have been encroaching since December.

A scorched and denuded hillside above Roatan’s Watering Place.

Griffith said people from Colonia Balfate, where poor migrants from the mainland have been settling on the hillsides for years, breached private fences along the ridge in at least four places last December and set nearly the whole valley on fire above Watering Place, just west of the Coxen Hole cruise ship port, around Christmas time. Since then squatter settlements have emerged and spread throughout the area, he said.

“It’s a free zone. They intend to strip this whole valley out,” said Griffith. “They’re trying to turn this whole area into a mainland farm with no trees on it. … like it’s Olancho.”

Lidia Medina, who heads the Roatan Municipal Government’s environmental unit, said a team comprising staff of her unit, Roatan Marine Park, the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA) and the Bay Islands Tourism Free Zone (ZOLITUR) documented extensive damage in the valley during a three-week field survey in February.

“The entire Watering Place watershed has been affected,” Medina said. She said the slashing and burning violated numerous national and municipal laws and regulations, as well as the management plan for the Bay Islands National Marine Reserve.

Medina said the team submitted a report to Central Government authorities requesting that the environmental violations be stopped and prosecuted (the municipality has no law enforcement powers). She said the matter lay in the hands of Public Ministry prosecutors as of July.

Meanwhile, John Nelson, whose family owns some of the affected property, filed a private complaint for land “usurpation,” leading to some arrests.

“Lately we had an order from the judge,” said Nelson. “We went up there with the police … and we removed all the stuff … We got it done.” But he said the damage was already done. “Plenty of the trees is gone,” he said, seriously damaging the watershed. “As you can see, this gully, this run right out to the sea.”

A makeshift settlement in Cedar Gully, near the crest of Roatan’s mid-island ridge, sits below a barren slope that was slashed and burned last Christmas to plant subsistence crops.

A makeshift settlement in Cedar Gully, near the crest of Roatan’s mid-island ridge, sits below a barren slope that was slashed and burned last Christmas to plant subsistence crops.

Although Nelson claims to have halted the invasions at least on his holdings,  freshly cleared slopes and new structures were evident on a hike through the valley July 10. “That wasn’t even here a month ago,” Griffith said, pointing to a scorched field and ramshackle settlement. “That fire’s not more than two days old, at the most.”

Medina said her investigation indicated some of those clearing the land were caretakers in the employ of the landowners, and she said some affected property owners had not filed complaints for the depredation of their lands. She said the courts would have to sort out who was responsible – the squatters or the landowners, or both.

Whoever may be responsible, Medina said there was nothing left to hold the soil in place when the seasonal rains come in October. How serious the impact will be on the valley and the coastal waters and reef system below will depend on how heavy the rains are, she said.

Medina’s hope is that authorities can stop the invasions, prevent them from spreading to other valleys, then plant some vegetation next year to stabilize the soil in the already denuded areas while beginning the long process of reforestation and restoration.

“We have to do it,” she said.

Griffith said he did not want to come off as an “ugly gringo” and understood those settling the valley were just trying to survive the only way they know how. But he and Medina agreed such activity, condoned on the coast, cannot be permitted on the Bay Islands because of their sensitive ecology and its importance to the tourism  that is the mainstay of the island economy.

“There’s too much at risk,” Griffith said.

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