No respite for Honduras’ protected forests as illegal oil palm continues to advance

Friday, June 14th, 2019

Amid a surge in palm oil exports to Europe, illegal clearing of protected forests in Honduras continues to worsen as authorities fail to crack down on illegal farms and “palm laundering”.

The Jeanette Kawas National Park on the north coast of Honduras, a biodiversity hotspot, has seen worsening levels of illegal deforestation for the cultivation of oil palm.

In the past most oil palm cultivation took place in the park’s buffer zone, where it can be done legally, but invasions of its core area – where oil palm monocultures are banned – have intensified in recent months.

PROLANSATE, a conservation NGO in charge of the park’s management, told IDM that the relentless advance of oil palm cultivation has led to a surge in illegal invasions and deforestation.

“We’re putting too much pressure on the buffer zone, which is spilling over into the core area,” executive director Nelbin Bustamante explained. “The concept of the buffer zone, meant to protect the core area from all that is external to the park, is not working due to all the plantation pressure.

“When you go [to newly deforested areas] you find no one, only one or two hectares of cleared forest. Then you go back a while later and you find palm already planted.”

PROLANSATE has provided information detailing the illegal farms operating in the core area to the local prosecutor’s office. However, it usually takes three or four years before authorities investigate.

Bustamante points to a lack of resources to deal with the problem: “We have five protected areas but only one law enforcement agent to deal with them.” Jeanette Kawas alone covers an area of nearly 80,000 hectares.

Cultivation of oil palm in the Jeanette Kawas National Park has caused damage to biodiversity and wetlands. Photo courtesy of PROLANSATE.

To make matters worse, judges are often unwilling to allow cases of illegal deforestation to proceed in court. Not a single farmer has been convicted of illegal deforestation.

This has motivated palm farmers to further expand into the core protected areas of not only Jeanette Kawas, but also the Punta Izopo National Park.

PROLANSATE estimates that Jeanette Kawas, where authorities did visit in 2018 to gather evidence of illegal deforestation, has lost around 12 per cent of its original forest cover.

Plantations in the core area can vary in size from two to fifty hectares and some illegal deforesters have enough resources and political influence to disrupt conservation efforts. A biologist at PROLANSATE was reportedly threatened at gun point and Bustamante told IDM the NGO has suffered reprisals for its work.

Palm oil companies buying palm fruit from farmers in the region should control the origin of their fruit to guarantee its legality. In reality, the practice of “palm laundering” has allowed illegal farmers to sell their fruit to these firms via intermediaries, who are often legal growers registered by the companies as authorised suppliers.

Bustamante explains that laundering also takes place when illegal farmers sell their fruit to distribution centres which then sell them on to palm oil companies. “The distribution centres should check the origin of the palm, but in practice there are no controls,” he says.

Palm laundering has taken place for several years but has intensified recently. According to PROLANSATE, a drive by Honduran palm oil companies to obtain international certification – including from the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – may help explain the trend.

In the past there was little need for laundering as it did not matter much where the fruit came from but as companies attempt to get certified they need to demonstrate their palm comes from legal sources. This is allegedly working as a boost to laundering practices as it becomes the only way for illegal farmers to continue to sell their fruit.

“It [Certification] may force the companies to act responsibly and adopt better practices, but there’s still much to be done,” Bustamante said. “We don’t have confidence that [the palm oil companies] will do the right thing.”

Grupo Jaremar, which produces a quarter of all Honduran palm oil, is certified by the RSPO. A 2017 investigation traced a supply chain from an unlicensed producer within Jeanette Kawas to the firm. Jaremar recently told Mongabay it is increasing its efforts to detect illegalities in its supply chain.

Palm oil production is of mounting importance to Honduras’ economy. It is the country’s fourth largest export according to the World Bank.

The country is now the world’s eighth largest palm oil exporter. Between 2014 and 2018 Honduran exports of palm oil to the European Union soared from 170,000 to 426,000 tons, IDM analysis of trade data shows.

This growing demand is having a negative impact on the park’s biodiversity. “We’ve lost large areas of wetlands and mangroves,” Bustamante said. “There has been considerable displacement of species, for example the manatee, which is a very iconic species in Honduras.”

In 2017 the Laguna de los Micos, a fresh water lagoon, reportedly lost 80 per cent of its fish stocks due to extensive fertiliser and pesticide run-off from the plantations, while the use of pesticides has caused health problems among communities. Worse may be to come as low 2019 rainfall has cut off the lagoon from the sea which is allowing chemicals to concentrate at worryingly high levels, PROLANSATE claims.

“The state has showed little interest in addressing the environmental impacts of palm oil,” Bustamante added.

The NGO has called on authorities to show the political will to conduct proper environmental assessments and make the necessary resources available for law enforcement.

Image on homepage shows palm plantations developed at the Jeanette Kawas National Park, Honduras. Courtesy of PROLANSATE.