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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Hurricane Mitch's Central America Disaster: The Human Contributions

Air Date: Week of November 13, 1998

The devastation to Honduras and Nicaragua from hurricane Mitch is being called the worst of its kind in two hundred years, taking thousands of lives and leaving the region's food supply, landscape, and economy in ruins. Laura Knoy talks with Jim Barberack about what land use decisions and practices may have contributed to the extent of the damage. Mr. Barberack spent more than twenty years working in Central America where he helped set up Honduras’ national park system. He now works with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in Gainesville, Florida.

Transcript

KNOY: While progress at the climate change negotiations in Argentina moved at a gradual pace, the aftermath of severe weather further north in Central America was rapidly coming to light. Hurricane Mitch, the fourth most powerful hurricane ever recorded, took thousands of lives and left the region's landscape and economy in ruins. Honduras alone lost 70% of its agricultural production, including much of its lucrative banana industry. Poor land use practices exacerbated damages to the hardest hit regions. That's according to scientists and land management specialists like Jim Barberack. Mr. Barberack spent more than 20 years working in Central America and helped set up Honduras' national park system. He's now with the Wildlife Conservation Society based in Gainesville, Florida. In terms of environmental damage, he says, Hurricane Mitch chose an extremely vulnerable target.

BARBERACK: Central America has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the tropics. The region is losing about 3% of its remaining forest cover every year. A study that was just published by the Central American Government's Joint Environmental Commission this week estimated that the amount of deforestation per year in Central America is right about 1 million acres per year. And this is a very small region. It's only 5 times the size of Ohio.

KNOY: What caused this deforestation?

BARBERACK: Several combined causes. One of the most important is that the region, particularly Honduras and Nicaragua, have one of the highest rates of population Groth outside of sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, a large percentage of these people are peasants who depend on migratory agriculture, often on steep hillsides that really aren't appropriate for agriculture or grazing at all.

KNOY: Can you explain that a little bit more? You know, why those practices are so devastating, or are so harmful to the land?

BARBERACK: When done by indigenous cultures, for example, in the Amazon, on relatively flat soils where the fallow period is measured in decades, slash and burn is actually a very appropriate type of land use. However, in areas like Central America, with a dense rural population, where fallow periods are very short and where soils, particularly in Honduras, are very poor, after only 1 or 2 years the high rainfall and steep slopes contribute to erosion and loss of soil fertility, so the farmers have to move on. Usually, after this happens, they invade remaining forest nearby and also the agricultural lands are converted into pasture, which just continues the downward spiral in land productivity.

KNOY: What about shrimp farming? That is also an important type of farming to the area.

BARBERACK: Particularly in southern Honduras, in the Gulf of Fonseca, which is a mangrove-rimmed bay along the joint borders of Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, much of the remaining mangrove has been converted to shrimp farms over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, much of the dikes and the engineering works that are necessary for this type of shrimp production were affected by the hurricane.

KNOY: What role do international corporations have in promoting these agricultural practices that you're talking about?

BARBERACK: In general, I think that the major issue regarding, for example, the banana companies right now is that they're going to have to do massive layoffs, and that is going to have a tremendous economic impact in the coastal areas. And concern to somebody like me, who tries to set up and protect national parks is going to be, there are going to be tens of thousands of unemployed people without a way of making a living that are probably going to feel it is necessary to invade remaining forest, return to subsistence agriculture, hunt game, extract forest products to eke out a living until things like the banana farms get up and running again within a year or two. They have to make major investments in engineering works before they can hire back their workers. So I think that that is going to be a major post-hurricane disaster affecting the remaining patches of forest throughout the affected areas.

KNOY: So, what lessons are there, Jim, if any, after Hurricane Mitch?

BARBERACK: Well, obviously, so soon after a major tragedy like this, it's not an appropriate time to be pointing too many fingers. The loss of life and economic hardship to 2 of the countries that were already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua and Honduras, is great. And that should be the focus of most people's efforts for the foreseeable future. But as aid agencies begin to plot out a road map for what many hope will be a sort of mini-Marshall Plan to aid particularly these 2 countries, and also El Salvador and Guatemala and Costa Rica, that were affected to a lesser degree, that investments in agriculture and in helping the rural poor, particularly orient these people toward crops and locations that are actually suited for agriculture and livestock growing. If we don't tackle these issues of what to do with these millions of people who are living in absolute dire poverty on hillsides, these poor land management decisions will continue to haunt us.

KNOY: Jim Barberack is with the Wildlife Conservation Society. He's based in Gainesville, Florida. Jim, thanks a lot.

BARBERACK: Thank you very much.

 

 

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