Berta Cáceres was a human rights and environmental activist in Honduras, Central America. This blog puts her life into a conservation perspective for all people of Honduras, and all citizens of the natural world.
Guest blog written by Mark Bonta.
David Anderson and I wrote ‘Birding Honduras: A Checklist and Guide’ in 2003, when a mere handful of Hondurans and foreigners birded regularly in the country. The Honduran Tourism Institute distributed it widely with the intent of inspiring Hondurans and attracting more ecotourists, and as top guide Alex Alvarado said to me recently, it achieved that effect. Since then, the level of expertise and enthusiasm among birders in and from Honduras has skyrocketed, accompanied by the amazing community effort of eBIrding. The Asociación Hondureña de Ornitología (ASHO, Honduran Ornithological Association) and several of its local chapters hold bird fairs, bird blitzes, and bird walks on a regularly basis. Several national parks now have canopy towers, birding trails, and trained bird guides, and eco-lodges attract well-heeled clients for some of the best views anywhere of Lovely Cotinga, Great Potoo, and Keel-billed Motmot. There is a national “avitourism” strategy, a network of private reserves catering to birders, an ASHO-published journal, and several Facebook pages. Though no Spanish-language field guide to Honduran birds exists yet, one English-language guide was published in 2015, with a Peterson guide to northern Central America set to come out in late 2016. In addition to birding activity, ornithological research has also proceeded apace in Honduras, with major studies by David Anderson at LSU, Ruth Bennett at Cornell, and others, including of Golden-winged Warbler (ongoing), Red-throated Caracara, Honduran Emerald, and Three-wattled Bellbird (ongoing). Honduras’s country list has skyrocketed from 701 confirmed species in 2003 to over 760 now, with an average of five new ones added every year, and 800 an attainable goal within 10 years. On eBird, Honduras is now one of the top 30 countries in the world in species and in checklists, and was ranked in the top 15 in Global Big Day 2015 statistics.
All this is proof that Honduras is experiencing its own birding miracle. A culture of bird-watching is being engendered before our very eyes, and additional guidebooks (in Spanish?!) and high-profile birding events over the next couple of years will keep the momentum going, bringing birds and bird tourism increasingly into the Honduran national consciousness. But why is Honduras, by all accounts one of the most violence-ridden places on earth, so enthralled with birds? Wouldn’t birds be the last thing people would be concerned about? I think the answer I have come up with tells us a lot about the power of birds and birding to heal the human spirit. In the grotesque world of the Honduran everyday, birds transcend the horrors that have beset this country like few others. Very briefly: grinding poverty, massive corruption, Cold War repression, economic and environmental ravages of Hurricane Mitch, massive out-migration to the US, including of unaccompanied minors, rise of brutal LA-derived street gangs, economic collapse, systematic human rights abuses. This was the 1980s and 1990s, but it was accompanied by the formation of many protected areas, new and better environmental laws, and hundreds of local environmental and social rights groups and a growing pro-environmental consciousness among ordinary Hondurans. But then, a military coup (2009) and the influx of 80% of the world’s cocaine, with the near-complete collapse of law and order and targeted assassination of anybody protesting or writing about social and environmental justice, as drug money washed through all economic sectors of society and government. Just last year, with the take-down of the narcotrafficking criminal structure, things started to get better, but Honduras remains a traumatized country with sky-high levels of clinical depression. Hence, as it has been explained to me, birds. Honduras, one of the weakest states in our hemisphere, has been on the receiving end of every miserable scheme ever designed to corrupt, indebt, and destroy in the name of profit. Until the rise of biodiversity, Honduras’s wealth was measured in bananas, shrimp, logs and silver. Birds, and all of biodiversity, transcend that, representing in situ wealth that is far more and better than what can be measured in dollars. Birding can be therapeutic anywhere, but in Honduras, I am convinced that as a part of nature appreciation in general it offers the potential not just to escape the horrendous everyday, but also to help us all heal.
Just the other day, Berta Caceres was murdered. She was indisputably Honduras’s highest profile environmentalist, and in 2015 won the coveted Goldman Prize for her work to defeat a hydroelectric project threatening indigenous Lenca lands. Supposedly, the Goldman affords high-profile activists a measure of protection from assassination—and according to Global Witness, Honduras leads the world in rate of environmentalists murdered. But in the Honduran waking nightmare, no one is immune. Death squads linked to transnational corporate interests and their local subsidiaries send us the message, again and again, that money (for them) comes first, while the environment and its defenders, mostly poor and often indigenous, are expendable. Dozens of hydroelectric projects, wind projects, and mines of all descriptions are slated for development, often linked to narcotics laundering schemes, and not infrequently placed inside national parks (a situation of very dubious legality). Honduran billionaire bankers hide behind suit-and-tie legitimacy and multiple front companies, murders go unsolved, and thus is Honduras’s tragic landscape wrenched open for foreign investment. Export schemes from oil palms to sweatshops necessitate more available energy, and this is gruesomely greenwashed as “eco-friendly” after being permitted by the government in a corrupt process whereby biologists and others throw the environmental impact assessments to their corporate clients and downplay effects on human communities (rarely consulted), natural habitats, and species (many of which are not even included in shoddy, pseudo-scientific reports).
None of this “business-friendliness” is making average Hondurans, who subsist on two dollars a day, better off. What is improving Honduras are local efforts toward community-based conservation and truly sustainable development. In Berta Caceres’ region, local municipalities in the 1990s were the first to close their lands completely to loggers; towns in the area I work, Olancho, followed. Once this was achieved, and as laws began to favor local conservation, forests began to recover. The town of Gualaco, where I have worked for 25 years, is considered one of the greatest successes in community forestry in all of Central America—its people learned the bitter lessons of massive pine logging (which never benefited them) and hydro development (ditto), both leaving a trail of murders and their land worse off, so they turned to sustainable conservation of water and forest resources.
Now, birders go to Opatoro, La Paz, to see rare cloud forest species like the Blue-throated Motmot on communally-owned Lenca lands, and to remote Olancho pine forests under 40-year sustainable community harvest leases to search for Red-throated Caracara and Ocellated Quail.
Berta Caceres’ murder was a turning point. In creating a martyr, her murderers spoke to us directly: we can and perhaps will get any of you, at a time and place of our choosing. As an act of terrorism rife with symbolism, this was intended to further demoralize and intimidate the Honduran populace and its multitudinous foreign supporters, but of course it is having the opposite effect. We have turned a corner and are now more willing than ever to speak out and act out to stop the injustices. We will speak out about those who do wrong, and do our utmost to promote those who do right.
I recently led a “birding for conservation” study tour to expose birder-conservationists from Pennsylvania and New Jersey to Honduran realities. We visited a sustainable, bird-friendly coffee farm in Marcala and attended the first-ever Honduran Migratory Bird Festival in Catacamas, with a Golden-winged Warbler theme. We stayed at locally-run places, ate locally-grown food, and tipped guides and landowners engaging in conservation actions. One highlight was Isidro Zuniga’s Las Orquideas nature preserve and organic farm, something he has done on his own, with minimal outside support, to demonstrate to his neighbors that protecting the environment is the right thing to do. Another was Julio Bu’s hummingbird feeders outside La Esperanza. Don Julio is a 78-year-old conservationist of sparse economic means who is converting his patch of pine forest to a nature-themed retreat. We visited on a tip from William Orellana, co-owner of Beaks and Peaks guide company, who is helping don Julio bring in eco-tourists. We sat enthralled as Green Violetears and White-eared Hummingbirds zipped by our faces. A few days after we passed through La Esperanza, Berta Caceres was murdered.
This post is my response to that atrocity and to the outpouring of sympathy that ensued, including from the people on my tour, who didn’t shrug it off or turn their backs, but rather asked how they could help and continue to be involved. Bear witness to the magnificence of Honduras’s people, its landscapes, and its biodiversity. Come to Honduras and investment your own money in the local economy. Volunteer your birding skills in marathons and blitzes; join rapid assessment teams to the dozens of locations that have never been eBirded, birded, or ornithologically studied. Adopt a reserve. Honor Berta and the hundreds of victims before her by speaking out about the injustices and making sure that people understand how birds, community-based conservation, and environmental justice are all interconnected.
Mark Bonta is a geography professor at Penn State Altoona and the author of Seven Names for the Bellbird: Conservation Geography in Honduras (Texas A&M Press, 2003). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.