Peace in Central America Threatens the Environment

by John Burnett

For anyone watching the news in the 1980s, Central America was a land of leftist revolutionaries, right-wing militaries, and peasants caught in the crossfire. In those days, green signified camouflage fatigues, not a lush rainforest.

It was tough being an environmentalist in the eighties as Guatemala was trying to put down a rebel insurgency.

"Ten years ago, I couldn't talk to you about this situation," says Jorge Cabrera, a leading Guatemalan environmentalist, "I could be in very serious danger of extinction. But now, there's more freedom."

The end of the bloody civil wars has permited an environmental movement to blossom in Central America. People have recognized the fact that this land bridge between two continents contains a wealth of biodiversity worth preserving. Costa Rica and Panama together have more bird species than the United States and Canada combined.

But while the war was bad for environmentalists, the conflicts were, in their way, good for the environment. The terrorist bombings, kidnappings and land mines scared away timber and mining and petroleum companies.

"During the war, there was a positive result for nature, in a way," says Marco Gonzalez, an environmental lawyer from Nicaragua. "I remember visiting border areas between Honduras and Nicaragua in 1991, and I was amazed to discover how much the forest had grown in 12 years of conflict, because there were no people there."

U.S. anthropologist Mac Chapin noticed the same thing in the rainforests of Nicaragua and Panama where he works on land tenure issues with indigenous groups.

"People were fighting," Chapin says, "they weren't occupied in the pillageof natural resources."

Today, political stability, trade liberalization and privatization have created a more attractive climate for foreign investment.

"The sheer scale of investmentthreatens to open up vast expanses of previously undisturbed natural areas. And the rate at which new concessions have been granted over just the last five years means that this threat is an immediate concern for conservation," concludes a recent report by Conservation International, looking at resource extraction throughout Latin America.

Says Mac Chapin: "Everybody's going after the natural resources right now as never before."

To name a few of the larger projects under way:

  • In Panama, copper and gold mining concessions have been granted on Kuna Indian territory.
  • In Guatemala, the Canadian company, Norcen Energy Resources, has announced plans to explore for oil in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala.
  • A Korean logging company is in the Atlantic coastal forests of Nicaragua.
  • A Malaysian timber company is in the Mayan forest of Belize.
  • And in Honduras, a Dallas oilman is building a giant sawmill amid the pine forests.

Central America is trying to make up for lost time. It must rebuild economies devastated by the wars, and address the crushing poverty that fueled the guerrilla movements. In this light, foreign investment doesn't appear so sinister to some analysts in the region.

"It's a good thing peace has broken out and foreign investors are now taking a much greater interest in this region and are much more willing to come here and look at the potentials of Central America for economic growth," says Stacy Rhodes, Guatemala-based regional director of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

On the whole, conservationists doubt the mining, timber and oil companies will behave responsibly, given the lack of environmental protection laws and monitoring in most of Central America.

But some environmentalists are encouraged, now that the wars are over, that the seven countries are finally talking seriously about the environment. And in one ambitious project, they're discussing the creation of a Meso-American Biological Corridor that would stretch all the way from Mexico to Panama.


Copyright 1998 John Burnett

This article or any portion of the article that appears on UT-LANIC may be downloaded, quoted or referenced with the stipulation that it be credited to John Burnett, correspondent for National Public Radio.

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