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Irate in the Caribbean

How the Honduras Coup Threatens the Hemisphere’s Largest Coral Reef

Roatan, Honduras: There’s a troubling silence beneath the palm trees of this Caribbean island paradise, and the quaint sandy streets are empty of tourists. No Jimmy Buffett or Bob Marley tunes are to be heard in the ramshackle beach bars, and many shops and restaurants have been forced to close for lack of business.

“Bookings are down 50 percent since June, and 66 percent overall since this time last year,” said P.J. Rowntree, owner of the Coconut Tree Divers, a once-thriving scuba shop in the town of West End on Roatan. “And it’s the same situation for all the other [scuba shop] owners. We’re all in the same boat. The travel advisory just wiped us out,” Rowntree said, referring to the U.S. State Department’s warning against unnecessary travel to Honduras, issued in the wake of the June 28 military-backed coup, which toppled democratically-elected President Mel Zelaya, and paved the way for a far-right takeover of the Honduran economy. 

“[The U.S.] issued a travel advisory for the whole country,” said Rowntree, who is originally from the U.K., but has been living on Roatan for the last 16 years. “But we’re a long way from the mainland. There hasn’t been any coup-related violence out here,” said Rowntree. “But, thanks to the warning, divers who would normally come here are finding other places to go.”

When the economy crashed after the coup, and the tourists stopped coming, unemployment on Roatan skyrocketed, forcing many to live on the streets. The murder rate (especially for expatriates) has risen exponentially, and an increasing number of desperate locals have taken to raiding already-dwindling fish stocks out on the reef.

Paradise Lost?

The Bay Islands form the southern horn of the great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest coral system in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a delicate area already considered by many scientists to be endangered due to pollution and overfishing.

photo of an island from the airJ. Kryt photoThe lee side of Roatan, as seen from the air. The 49 sq. mile island is
second in annual cruise ship visits only to Cozumel in the Caribbean,
with over 250,000 tourists per year. These numbers have already begun
to strain the Roatan's support systems – garbage and sewage run-off now
poses are serious threat to the nearby reef, and fresh water tables on the
island are running low.

Despite the region’s vulnerability, the cash-strapped coup regime is already planning to step up exploitation.

“We intend to pursue future development options, of course,” said Valerio Gutierrez, Secretary of State under the coup regime, during an interview in his office in Tegucigalpa. “And we’ll seek to bring in more tourists. The tourism situation is bad, but we haven’t given up. We’ve been negotiating with several different cruise lines this summer.”

But out on Roatan the combination of tourism’s rapid fade and the sudden cut in government aid has left Marine Park rangers unable to carry on vital re-education levels for fisherman, and forced them to cut back on staff and anti-poaching patrols.

“It feels like [the government] just doesn’t care what happens out here,” said Grazzia Matamoros, executive director of the Roatan Marine Park. “They haven’t even explained why our funding has been held up.”

At the same time, said Matamoros, the general atmosphere of lawlessness and corruption makes enforcement of conservation-themed development codes almost impossible. The cutting of supposedly protected mangrove forests is common, as is nearly-unrestricted dredging on or near the reef.

Matamoros – who is originally from the capital, but now lives full-time on Roatan – said park rangers have often brought charges against illegal development projects, but that the judges routinely dismissed the cases, or issued slap-on-the-wrist fines, that did not in any way deter future infractions. “All of that has gotten worse since June,” said Matamoros, who also reported a sharp increase in the number of transitionally-owned resorts and large hotels that had been buying up beachfront property in recent months, despite the general economic downturn.  

“The big boys are buying up whatever they can,” she said. “And the small hotels are going broke.”

Underground in the Islands

The ruling establishment in Honduras, as well as the U.S. State Department, seem to have pinned their hopes for reconciliation on the much-contested presidential elections, set for November 29 – but many locals on Roatan say they don’t have much faith that free or fair elections can take place under a military dictatorship. At the same time, they say, there don’t seem to be a lot of other options.

photo of two men shaking handsJ. Kryt photoDeputy U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Craid Kelly
shakes hands with military-backed dictator Roberto Micheletti, November
10 in the Presidential Palace, Tegucigalpa. After initially stating that the
legal, coup-ousted president of Honduras, Mel Zelaya, had to be re-instated
in order for presidential elections to go forward on November 29, the U.S.
State Department has done an abrupt about-face in recent weeks. A few
days after this photo was taken, the State Department officially announced
it would recognize the upcoming elections, "whether Zelaya is restored
or not."

“There is a resistance here, but it is very far underground,” said Gabriel Natividad, 32, a Zelaya supporter who said he would not vote in Sunday’s elections. Natividad, a caretaker and handyman at a medium-sized resort near the town of West End, said some of the teachers on the island had organized against the pro-coup forces, but the few marches they’d been able to pull off had been very poorly attended, nothing like the vast spectacles happening on the mainland.

“There are grave problems of poverty [on Roatan], and Zelaya tried to help us,” Natividad said. “Many of the poor support him for that. But the foreign hotel- and restaurant-owners out here don’t want to pay more in wages, or provide benefits like insurance. So of course almost all of them have backed the coup. And the workers are scared to speak out, because they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

Natividad spoke quietly when we met in town, and constantly scanned the street for someone who might be listening to his words. “There are many here who would like to join the resistance, but they’re afraid,” he said.

According Natividad, the greatest challenge with mounting any kind of anti-coup movement on Roatan lies simply in coordinating with like-minded activists in the capital. “The government controls all the media out here,” he said, “so we have no idea what is really happening with our companeros elsewhere in the country.”

Of Lionfish and Men

Even before the coup, the Roatan eco-system – both above and below the waterline – was in trouble. According to local scientists and marine park workers, vast stretches of mangroves have been irrevocably lost, and overfishing has taken a massive toll on fish populations out on the reef. Once a sleepy paradise for scuba divers and backpacking eco-tourists, in recent years Roatan has become an ultra-popular destination for cruise ships – and second in yearly visits only to Mexico’s Cozumel. But while the cruise ships do aid the economy, the massive vessels also dump tons of sewage and oily water in pristine eco-systems, and disgorge hundreds of amateur snorkelers around delicate corals.

But all of that pales in comparison to the latest threat – a hostile takeover of the region every bit as dangerous as the one happening back on tierra firma. Only this putsch is happening below the waves, and these putschists are fish. Pterois volitans, to be exact. Better known as the Red Lionfish. And, according to locals, this predator usurper is just as voracious and implacable as his bipedal counterparts in the capital.

photo of a many-rayed colorful fish underwaterJens Petersen photoAlthough many scientists believe the Caribbean lionfish infestation began
with the accidental release of six sexually mature adults off the coast of
Florida during Hurricane Andrew, American marine biologist Jennifer Keck
believes those original numbers have been augmented over the years by
irresponsible aquarium buffs. "People buy the lionfish because it looks cool,"
Keck said, "But they they find out it eats everything else in the tank. And
then, whoosh, it gets tossed in the ocean."

“They’re voracious hunters. One medium-sized lionfish can consume thirty juvenile fish in half-an-hour,” said Jennifer Keck, an American marine biologist currently employed by the Institute of Marine Science on Roatan. “They can decimate an eco-system in just a few years,” Keck said.

The first lionfish had been spotted at Roatan on May 22, just a few weeks before soldiers kidnapped President Zelaya and flew him into exile, allowing the far-right Micheletti regime to seize control of the Honduran economy. Since then, the business elites who backed the coup have increased exploitation of mineral and timber wealth, and many small farmers have lost their lands.

“[The lionfish] just open up these massive, toxic fins, and corral whatever smaller organism they come across. And the fish have never seen a predator like that. They don’t have any defense mechanisms for it,” Keck said. The University of California-trained biologist also said that budget cuts since the coup had made it harder to mount patrols against the lionfish, as well as the poachers who are sapping the reef.

A native of Indo-Pacific waters, where large numbers of grouper and other predators keep their populations in check, the lionfish began colonizing the Caribbean in 1992, when hurricane Andrew smashed up a Miami aquarium, allowing six mature animals to escape.

“They’ve populated the Caribbean in under twenty years – it’s a problem we can’t control,” said dive-shop owner Rowntree. “I remember a year ago, when we heard they were in Belize. Now we’ve caught ten here in the last seven days. And more than thirty since June.”

Rowntree also said that the decline in tourism had directly impacted the spread of lionfish: with less diveboats going out, divemasters have fewer opportunities to spot and sequester the invasive species.
“We just can’t stop them,” said the blunt-speaking Englishman, sounding, in his fearful frustration, not unlike the Gabriel Natividad had spoken of the coup-plotters. “In the Pacific they spawn just once a year – but the water is so much warmer here in the Caribbean. They can spawn up to three or four times a year, releasing millions of eggs each time – and they don’t have any predators. . . I don’t see how you can stop something that blows out a million eggs every few months. They are just not designed to be in this eco-system.”

Marine biologist Keck said the lionfish can survive in depths of up to 400 feet, making eradication almost impossible. “Any kind of management plan involving people trying to control the numbers [is] limited by the diving depths. So no matter what we do we’re still going to have this breeding population,” said Keck.

“This could be the most devastating invasive species in marine history,” Keck added, citing the fact that, as the lionfish work their way through the food chain, reef-cleaning herbivores like parrot fish disappear, and algal growth quickly smothers corals. “The problem is here, and it’s not going away anytime soon. We now have to contend with the attack of the lionfish, in addition to the political crisis.”

It’s the commercial fisherman who will be hit the hardest, Rowntree said. “Out on the banks, a few miles from here, where the big trawlers work. Just wait until the lionsfish have been working on the juveniles for seven or eight years,” he said. “There won’t be a thing left out there.” 

Last Days of the “Zona Libre?”

Back in the winter of 2007, President Zelaya had made good on one of his campaign promises, and permitted the Bay Islands to become an autonomous, tax-free zone, meaning that revenues from hotels and other cruise ship terminals would go directly to the communities. Even at the time, Zelaya’s decision was enormously unpopular with business leaders and the far-right in Honduras – the very same elements who backed the coup. Consequently, on Roatan, there has been much speculation as to whether or not the “tax free” days are over.

photo of a child hugging a statue, armored riot police in the backgroundJ. Kryt photoA young boy plays on a statue of the Honduran warrior chief Lempira, who
led the indigenous resistance against the conquistadors, and gave name to
the national currency. The statue stands in the courtyard before the National
Congress building – the soldiers and police in the background guard the
entrance. During the run-up to the disputed elections on November 29, the
nonviolent, anti-coup resistance movement has carried on daily protests in
front of the Congress building, urging the restoration of
democratically-elected president Mel Zelaya.

According to Secretary of State Gutierrez, there are already development plans “before Congress” concerning the decision to build another facility for cruise ships, and to begin drilling for oil in surrounding waters. Many analysts believe that, if enough money is at stake, the Bay Island’s tax-free status would simply be too tempting a source of revenue for the isolated coup government to pass up.

“While the future of the Honduran economy is up in the air, everything is more at risk in the country, due to the coup,” wrote Grahame Russell, co-director of the U.S.-based NGO Rights Action, in an emailed response. “How this is going to end, I don’t yet know. I see possible scenarios, none are good,” wrote Russell, whose group has been aiding Honduran conservation activists for more than a decade. “Clearly, the [moneyed] elites have a different vision of Honduras than Zelaya or the popular movement.”

On Roatan, the tax-free autonomy is understandably popular, and many fear a return to the days when Tegucigalpa drained the island’s coffers.

“I hope not,” said Marine Park director Matamoros, when asked about the potential loss of those Zelaya-era freedoms. “It’s a different world out here. People don’t really see themselves that closely tied to what’s happening on the mainland. Until a generation ago, we weren’t even owned by Honduras. I think there would be a lot of resentment, if we had to suddenly start paying taxes [to the capital] again.”

Russell also remains concerned: “I do not doubt, and fear, that if the coup regime wins the day, they will again – and perhaps increasingly – treat Honduras (its land, resources, and water front) as a great piñata to be exploited to the highest bidder …”

Jeremy Kryt, Contributing writer, Earth Island Journal
Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.

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