How Solving a “Cattle Conundrum”
Would Help Protect Wildlife in Honduras


Jaguars are one of the most iconic species found within Honduras’ wildlands. Credit: Levi Novey / USFWS
Jaguars are one of the most iconic species found within Honduras’ wildlands.
Credit:
Levi Novey / USFWS


Imagine walking through a lush rainforest in the heart of Central America. You’ve come for adventure and to see one of the wildest, least explored areas left on Earth. Minutes into your walk, you are already fantasizing about telling people how you checked another item off of your bucket list. They’ll be envious and think you are pretty cool—you feel pretty sure about that.

Next, you hear and then see a pair of colorful yellow birds. It’s the first wildlife you’ve seen since leaving the small gateway village for the wilds and they serve as cheery forest ambassadors beckoning you onward in the hopes of seeing a jaguar or tapir. Perhaps one of these animals has also decided to follow the path for its own convenience.

You know that this place, the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve, has incredible biodiversity. Your mind turns toward discovery, and potentially finding ruins or artifacts that were part of the lost “Great White City,” or the City of the Monkey God as National Geographic called it in an article that helped inspire your trip.

After a few sweaty and quiet hours, you see what looks like an opening up ahead. Excited, you hurry to it, hoping that you’ve come to a valley in between the mountains where you can get a great vista of your surroundings and maybe even a river, where you could catch a glimpse of a flock of scarlet macaws soaring through the air. You get there… and it’s not what you expected at all.

You do in fact get a view, but not the beautiful valley you had thought you would get. Instead, it’s a mix of stumps and downed trees. You can’t be sure, but the denuded landscape looks like it goes on for some distance. After snapping a photo with some cognitive dissonance, you return to the path and decide it’s time to get back to your lodging and a shower before dark.

Stumps. Credit: Levi Novey / USFWS

Credit:
Levi Novey / USFWS

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Honduras’s Cattle Conundrum

My colleagues and I recently traveled to Honduras. Our goals were to meet some of our conservation partners and better understand the challenges they face, particularly with protecting the area known as La Moskitia.

Moskitia is one of the five largest remaining wild areas in Central America. Protecting the Moskitia and the other four areas is the essential cornerstone of our agency’s Central American wildlife conservation strategy. While there are certainly other important areas that interest us and remain ecologically intact in Central America, these five wild places represent the best chance to conserve large, contiguous areas of habitat for the benefit of Central America’s wildlife and people.

A map of the 5 largest remaining wild areas of Central America. Credit: Wildlife Conservation Society

Credit:
Wildlife Conservation Society

Stretching across much of southeastern Honduras and also a big portion of northern Nicaragua, the Moskitia region is comprised of a variety of habitats, including lush green rainforests, mountains, rivers, streams, and savanna-like seas of grass similar to what you might see in Florida’s Big Cypress and Everglades National Parks. This diversity in places to live, of course, makes it a great area for wildlife. A series of protected areas are contained with the region. The largest and best known is the World Heritage Site known as Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve. So it’s really simple: rather than protecting one or several species, we are trying to protect the entire series of landscapes and the wildlife within them.

Working with our partners at Wildlife Conservation Society, we launched a project in March to fly over the Moskitia and the other four priority areas to document and assess the human footprint on these areas. Unfortunately, as written about by our colleague Jeremy Radachowsky immediately following the megaflyover expedition, the Moskitia is perhaps the most threatened of the five areas, with illegal cattle ranching reaching deep into its areas designated for conservation. This is not to say that the other areas don’t face other significant conservation threats, but what is happening in Honduras is particularly troubling. So what are the reasons for so much cattle ranching?

These photos were taken on a follow-up overflight with the Honduran Air Force near and within Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve in October. They provide a bird’s eye view of what deforestation for cattle ranching looks like in Honduras. Credit: Levi Novey / USFWS

These photos were taken on a follow-up overflight with the Honduran Air Force near and
within Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve in October. They provide a bird’s eye view of what deforestation
for cattle ranching looks like in Honduras. Credit: Levi Novey / USFWS

Much of the demand for beef is coming from within Honduras itself. In Honduras, beef is considered to be a posh kind of meat to eat, and has a certain degree of social aspiration to it. That’s not to say that it’s totally inaccessible price-wise, it’s just a more expensive protein than the more commonly selected fish or chicken would be.

Given the lack of economic opportunities in Honduras, raising cattle is one choice that is available to people who can make their way out to the Moskitia and adjacent regions. In these locations, protected areas currently have large swaths of land available for the taking and law enforcement has an extremely limited presence. This inaccessibility has made it a place that is also appealing for narcotraffickers and other dangerous people to reside.

Clearing and burning the forest provides grazing land for cattle, even in areas that aren’t the flat fields you might be picturing. Cows graze and are fattened up before being transported back down river toward Honduras’s largest cities. They are sometimes exported to Guatemala, where demand for beef is also high among the country’s 16 million people, or further onward to Mexico, where demand and prices are even higher. Honduras has a population around 8 million people, and has approximately 3 million registered cows according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States, or 1 cow for every 2.5 people. There are likely even more cows that are not officially documented.

Emaciated cows. Credit: Levi Novey / USFWS

Credit: Levi Novey / USFWS

We know that some of these illegal cattle operations are actually supported by organized, powerful, and influential people. Cattle ranching can be used to launder money and hide other illegal activities. It can also serve as a form of steady employment (even when occurring illegally), with a demand for a product that is “hot” in the market and to some peoples’ eyes, with a seemingly endless forest to supply public lands free of charge for grazing and other resources. Illegal cattle ranching can undercut legal producers due to an unleveled playing field.

Cattle production is also highly inefficient in terms of food security – studies generally indicate that it takes approximately ten times more land to produce the same amount of protein with beef as it does with beans. Even more worrisome is the fact that Central America is facing drier and longer droughts due to climate change, and cattle ranching is both water intensive itself and degrades watersheds that wildlife and people need to survive. When you add it all up, it makes for a very complicated conservation equation with so many cultural, political, and economic forces at play.

Implementing Solutions to Address the Cattle Conundrum

Our aim is not to “say no” to beef and cattle ranching, but to certainly “say no” to illegal cattle ranching in areas of Honduras that are designated for conservation. So how is that achieved? We can’t claim to have a single solution in mind that will solve the cattle conundrum, but we do have a few ideas.

While organized criminals and drug traffickers certainly use the Moskitia for illicit activities, there are other people living there too. Among them are many indigenous groups, who face the challenges of maintaining their cultural heritages, while adapting to modernity, in the context of few economic opportunities, and the presence of narcotraffickers and illegal colonizers in their lands.

Recently our partners with the Honduran Forest / Park Service (ICF) signed a new agreement with MASTA, a group that represents a large number of indigenous communities in La Moskitia. The agreement provides legal ownership to the communities of their lands, with an understanding that they will help develop conservation management plans and work with ICF to develop strategies that enhance law enforcement for agreed upon regulations and prohibited activities. There are other aspects to the agreement as well, including a provision to help identify more funding and opportunities for indigenous youth to obtain educational scholarships to study natural resource and forest management.

We are hopeful that MASTA and the communities they represent can continue to serve as stewards for the Moskitia, and that by working with ICF they can continue to grow their ability to take on conservation challenges including illegal cattle ranching. In addition to supporting them in their collaboration, we recognize that we can also play a role by using the findings we obtain from the analysis of our megaflyover expedition data with WCS. We plan to use it to inform Honduran political leaders, the media, and the Honduran public of the extent to which cattle ranching has impacted their country in the Moskitia and model different policy actions that can be taken to lead to more prosperous outcomes for both Honduras’s economy and environment. We anticipate that the results of the megaflyover for the entirety of Central America will be complete by this summer. We hope that the findings can be used to protect wildlife and landscapes in Moskitia and throughout the Central America region.

Team members from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Conservation Society, and senior staff from Honduras’ Forest / Park Service (shown here) met in October to discuss collaborative efforts and also held meetings with local partners including MASTA. Credit: ICF

Team members from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Conservation Society,
and senior staff from Honduras’ Forest / Park Service (shown here) met in October to discuss
collaborative efforts and also held meetings with local partners including MASTA. Credit: ICF

While we know that these contributions alone will not solve the “cattle conundrum” in Honduras, having concrete information to work with will be a building block to help the country and the region address this conservation challenge. Central America’s unique landscapes and wildlife need more protection, and we want to help our local partners succeed in this endeavor.

Levi Novey, International Affairs Program