Negotiations around the timber trade deal between Honduras and the European Union show how diverse interests can be reconciled in a divided land. Isolda Arita reports.
Honduras is a nation riven by conflict, with the disputed presidential election in November 2017 and its violent aftermath a glaring example.
The dangers faced by those who defend their land and natural resources from the corporations and authorities apparently hellbent on destroying them is another. Honduras has the highest murder rate of environmental and land activists per capita.
According to Global Witness, there have been more than 120 deaths since 2010 – including that of Berta Cáceres. Cáceres was a champion of indigenous peoples’ rights who led vigorous campaigns against illegal logging and hydropower dams, among other things. For this, she was murdered in her home in March 2016.
Her death sparked international outrage and today symbolises how corruption and human rights violations are deeply entwined with the exploitation of Honduras’ natural resources. Any moves to reverse this must therefore be embraced.
The negotiations around the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) which Honduras and the European Union began in 2013, offer a glimmer of hope for a path forward. The VPA is timber trade deal in which privileged access to European markets is granted to countries that reform their forest laws (and then implement them properly).
While there are divisions over participation in these negotiations among indigenous groups, some of whom do not recognise the new Honduran government’s legitimacy - more on which later - the process has so far been remarkably free from the rancour and entrenched positions that define so much of Honduras’ political landscape.
Given that forests are the country’s most valuable renewable natural resource and play a key role in the lives of the indigenous peoples and agroforestry communities, much rests on the VPA outcome living up to the expectations of those taking part.
Illegal logging costs Honduras dearly – both in the amount of forest lost every year, and in the taxes which go unpaid. Over four decades, it's been estimated that an extraordinary 1.7 million hectares of Honduras has been deforested.
What’s more, illegal logging is heightening the impact of climate change, which Honduras has been identified as being more vulnerable to than anywhere else in Central America.
The underlying causes of this flourishing illegality were highlighted in a 2013 study published by the Research Centre for Democracy (CESPAD), which states: “Fragile, weakened forestry governance persists, permeated by permanent abuses of power, breaches and violations of the law, anomalies in technical reports, complicity between local organisations and timber companies to gain logging permits, tree felling in protected areas, tax evasion and fraud… .”
The crime of logging forests on indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands is also pervasive - with bribery, intimidation and even violence against the local population commonly used to help carry it out.
It is within this profoundly troubling and fragile environment that the VPA aims to end the trade in illegal timber. And, against all odds, it seems to be working.
Carlos Pineda, secretary of the VPA Technical Unit at the National Forest Conservation Institute (ICF in Spanish), says the VPA process so far has been “highly inclusive and attained high levels of sustained participation from people involved in forestry across the country.” But while Pineda might be expected to sing the praises of the process, he is not alone.
The involvement of civil society organisations and indigenous and Afro-Honduran peoples in the VPA discussions is a landmark in itself - albeit one not without some controversy.
Edgardo Benítez, of the Tawahka people of La Mosquitia, and Armando Córdova, of the Tolupán people, who are from Yoro, both stunningly beautiful and fertile – yet impoverished – areas in north central Honduras, are leaders of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Conpah), an organisation which has been part of the VPA discussions since the second round of negotiation.
For Armando, the VPA is related to “a process of struggle for the liberation of indigenous territories.”
The VPA negotiation process has given Conpah the opportunity to propose reforms to the Honduran legal framework. Benítez explains that perhaps the most ambitious proposal is a law of title deeds, “to reclaim the lands within our ancestral territories that have been unscrupulously titled in favour of third parties, a process which has been the cause of bitter conflicts.”
Conpah leaders are optimistic about the VPA, since it recognises indigenous and Afro-Honduran peoples as distinct actors and right holders in the process, as established in the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No 169), the American Declaration of Indigenous Peoples, and the Rio Declaration of 1992.
Yet participation among indigenous groups has not been unanimous.
While a significant block are taking advantage of the VPA process to push for recognition of their rights and gain concessions that they would not otherwise have had, others have opted out of the process, unwilling to offer legitimacy to a government that they suggest doesn’t warrant it.
Among the indigenous and popular movement organisations who refuse to recognise it, is the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), which Berta Cáceres co-founded.
Yet the fact that they have opted out of the process, rather than been excluded from it, is itself a measure of progress – and as such, offers a break from the depressing situation of recent years.