"To Touch a General is like Touching God": Protected Areas in HondurasSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Walk into almost any souvenir shop in Honduras, and you are likely to see a colorful wall map highlighting the country's national parks and protected areas.
The map, complete with photo inserts of resplendent and unpopulated Nature, is the most visible symbol of the increased efforts among government agencies, United Nations' officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to promote eco-tourism as a form of "sustainable development."
However, the map's boundary lines and idyllic photos obscure the social tensions and political conflicts that underlie efforts to restrict resource use in protected areas. Conservationists in Honduras have found themselves at odds with ranchers, multinational corporations, the military elite, and campesino organizations, as the rule of law clashes with traditions of usufruct and privilege.
At times these confrontations have turned violent, as in the case of Jeanette Kawas, a leading Honduran environmentalist who was assassinated in her home in February, 1995. More often, struggles over resources involve much less dramatic interactions between government officials and the individuals and communities that live in places considered by the state to be ecologically important.
One such place in Honduras is the U.N.-designated Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve in northeastern Honduras. In 1995, members of a Garifuna community near the buffer zone denounced a retired army General for logging in the reserve's "ecological buffer zone." Shortly thereafter, a story about the alleged logging activities appeared in a national newspaper. The Attorney General's office decided to investigate the matter and solicited technical support from the Ministry of Environment which in turn assigned a field specialist, a man I will call Juan Medina, to the investigation.
I met Juan Medina one night last year in the house of a mutual friend. He had much to say about his recent site inspection of the buffer zone, but he feared that he would jeopardize his career by including certain information in his official report. When I offered to record his story, Juan readily agreed and asked me to get it published in the United States. What follows then, are his words, transcribed and translated, and edited only when I considered it necessary for clarity.
Juan Medina's story
I caught a bus to the town of Saba where I was to meet two agents from the Attorney General's office. The two arrived, much to my surprise, in the General's car, with the General. The agent named Fallas approached me and said, "You've really pissed-off the General."
"Why?" I asked.
"He hasn't told me. I'm going to call him over now," said Fallas, motioning to the car. As the General came within ear-shot, Fallas told me, "You're going to write a very objective report."
[Juan interrupted his narrative. "You can see," he explained to me, "how from the outset, Fallas wanted to demonstrate his power before the General." Juan continued:]
We agreed to meet the following morning to begin the inspection of the General's property. Fallas and the other agent, a young guy named Padilla, left with the General. The next morning I was startled to again see the two agents arrive in the General's pick-up truck. One of them had a Colt .45, the kind used by the military here. I climbed in the back of the pick-up and we headed to the site of the alleged logging activities. As we entered the buffer zone area, the General told me, "There isn't any deforestation here. Not a bit. But you watch and let me know when you want to stop and see something."
A few minutes later, we passed what appeared to be a newly-opened road leading into the General's property. "Let's see this," I suggested.
"No," answered the General, "You know, some guys with a tractor got in here and made this opening. They entered without my permission and cut a road about five kilometers long in order to cut mahogany. I had to throw them off the property because I don't allow anyone to cut even a single tree on my land."
We continued on. At an opportune moment, I asked Padilla where he and Fallas had spent the previous night.
"Ay, if you had seen it..." he began. "We got drinking with the General. Damn, we drank. In fact, I'm a bit hung-over this morning."
"But where did you sleep?"
"We stayed in the General's house."
"Great," I told myself, "My entire investigation is being undermined; it's three against one."
When we finished our tour, the General invited us to breakfast. "Look, this area is very dangerous, very bad. That's why I always carry a fire-arm," the General explained, revealing his 9-millimeter pistol. In his car was an AK-47. "When I was active duty," the General continued, "I never used a pistol, not until I entered civilian life did I begin to carry one."
"It's true, it's true. I never saw you with a pistol," Fallas confirmed. Just then I realized that Fallas must have known the General in the past. I began to feel very intimidated; I decided that my inspection would have to be superficial.
"If you want to explore the area, go on," encouraged the General as he handed me a pair of binoculars. "There's no deforestation around here."
Later, we went to collect testimonies in the Garifuna village. On the way, Fallas informed me, "The General believes that you're the one who blew the whistle on him."
"I have absolutely nothing against him," I replied, "but I'm not afraid of him either."
The first person we interviewed told us that he knew nothing about logging in the area. However, another villager told us that the General had workers extracting logs during the night and hauling them to the beach with tractors. Immediately after hearing this testimony, Fallas told me, "I am not taking this last statement into consideration."
"Three against one," I thought to myself, "I'm not going to take down any more testimony; they could kill me right here."
"Let's go," I said, and we climbed into the General's truck. This time I was in front with the General.
"Look," he said, "Only by killing some off will we be able to work things out in this country. Because there are people who like to go about trashing one's dignity without any proof."
"I don't believe that killing is a solution," I replied.
"You know why I don't do it?" the General continued, "Because I'm a Jehovah's Witness. But if it were not for that..."
"If you find my presence offensive, I'll get in back," I offered.
"No, no. You stay," he replied.
The General then began to tell me about his children and the Christian education that he was providing for them. Back at the hacienda, I made a brief visual inspection. The Garifuna had mentioned some specific cases of deforestation but at that point I was no longer interested.
After the inspection, Fallas told me, "Look the General believes that you were the one who denounced him." I decided that my only way out was to address the General directly. "Listen, I'm going to tell you how it is. The complaint that appeared in the newspaper was paid for by the United Nations. If you want to sue someone, sue the U.N."
Juan ended his story. "It was a farce," he assured me. "When one speaks of 'protected areas' it's really a farce. The Garifuna say that truckload after truckload of hardwoods are being extracted from that area on a weekly basis. 180,000 board feet a week. A car goes in front to make payoffs at highway check-points."
He sighed, "That, more or less, is the story of what it means to confront the powerful in this country. To touch a General is like touching God. Everyone is afraid. But as an environmentalist, one has to take a position because history isn't written in silence..."
Environmental protection and the rule of law
Juan's narrative is one of intimidation and fear. It reflects the power politics between Honduran institutions, expressed as an intimate series of exchanges between individuals. In one sense, nothing happened. There was none of the violence, torture or physical abuse that has marked the recent history of Central America. Instead psychological terror was created by isolating Juan physically and mentally. What ostensibly began as an investigation of the General ended as an interrogation of Juan Medina, who stood accused of soiling the General's reputation. Ultimately, the General successfully turned the tables and got the would-be prosecutor to tell him who had blown the whistle.
Juan's story reveals how power is exercised in the intimate social spaces seldom found on official maps. It also illustrates the difficulties of a divided and impoverished state in creating anything more than a facade of justice. During my year's stay in Honduras, stories of land invasions and timber-poaching regularly appeared in the newspapers. Neither generals nor squatters are likely to respect protected areas, so long as civil institutions fail to enforce laws in a just manner.
The emerging environmental movement in Honduras is challenging projects that displace people and accelerate the consumption of natural resources in the name of development. However, if environmentalists in Honduras and beyond fail to recognize the interdependence between social justice and the conservation of biologically diverse environments, "protected areas" will amount to little more than a utopian ideal displayed in U.N. conferences and souvenir shops.
John Soluri is a doctoral candidate in History with an M.S. from the School of Natural Resources and Environment. His dissertation examines the history of environmental and social change along the north coast of Honduras.