Clean Water for Rural Honduras

by EcoLogic Development Fund
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Local partners and community members constructing firebreaks in Northern Honduras

EcoLogic works diligently with our local partner organizations to build resilience in rural communities through our solutions that protect both people and the planet. Yet, in addition to our ongoing work, there are situations that emerge  that demand urgent and immediate action. A current example of this is happening right now in Honduras, in what experts are rightfully calling this an ecological catastrophe. An abnormally severe outbreak of the southern pine beetle—Dendroctonus frontalis—is ravaging pine forests across the country. While this beetle has long been present in Honduran forests, climate change and its effects are causing more frequent and severe outbreaks.

The pine beetle attacks pine forests, particularly those that have been weakened by lightning or fires, or where there is high stand density. Once 20-30 pines are attacked, southern pine beetle infestations can spread rapidly if no control is applied. Under conditions of outbreak, the bark beetles can then kill healthy pines, too. The bark beetle develops within the bark of infested pines and new adults then fly in search of a new host.

In order to control the spread of the pine beetle plague, EcoLogic and its partners will continue implementing the strategy promoted by the Honduran Forest Conservation Institute (Instituto de Conservación Forestal, ICF), which advises to cut down infected trees as well as healthy trees within a 50 meter radius of infected areas (a distance which prevents adults from reaching new healthy pines). Given this necessary clearing of trees, reforestation of healthy trees and ongoing management are key components of the response. Firebreaks will continue to be built, along with controlled burning and removal of combustible matter, and the forests will be monitored by rangers.

The Honduran government has declared the situation a national emergency, given the beetle’s dramatic destruction of primary forest and the associated risk of wildfire. Critical forest habitats for Honduras’ notable biodiversity are disappearing at alarming rates. According to recent press reports, the pine beetle plague has destroyed about 1 million acres of pine forest, equivalent to one quarter of Honduras’ primary forest cover. Read that again, one quarter of Honduras’ primary forest cover. The situation demands immediate attention to both halt the spread of the plague and restore degraded areas to ensure the perseverance of wildlife, natural resources and rural communities.

The Honduran government launched a national response to the outbreak. Honduran military units were deployed to help combat the plague. While some of EcoLogic’s partner communities were reached by the national support provided, their work was short-term and communities were mostly left on their own to continue controlling the plague and manage its devastating impacts. Our local partners have worked tirelessly to combat the outbreak, but are in urgent need of additional resources in order to bring it to a halt and restore affected areas.

Local communities are keenly aware of the pine beetle plague and are eager to address it to save their forests, however, they are still without the resources they need. Without adequate equipment and personnel, the infestation will continue to spread and advance deforestation throughout the region.

EcoLogic field technicians and local partners are knowledgeable and experienced in effective reforestation methods, and are prepared to incorporate strategies recommended by the Honduran Forest Institute (ICF by its Spanish acronym) to combat the outbreak and protect reforested areas from infection and forest fires. We have identified critical areas within our project sites that require immediate reforestation, particularly in key watersheds and surrounding buffer zones. To protect restored areas from pine beetle infestation, EcoLogic and its partners plan to reforest with a variety of tree species, including Simarouba (bitterwood),Leucaena leucocephala (white popinac), Acacia amarilla (lebbeck), Cassia fistula (golden rain tree),Inga edulis (ice cream bean) and Albizia saman (monkey pod).

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Measuring the width of firebreaks to ensure the containment of forest fires

However, EcoLogic and our partners—communities, local leaders, and civil society organizations that are forest-dependent, need more help to ensure our efforts are successful. This plan is time and labor intensive, and will require dedicated field staff to control and prevent outbreaks. The process of reforestation we will follow is key to addressing the impacts of the pine beetle plague, particularly for the restoration of critical habitats for forest-dwelling species. With your continued support we can address some important immediate needs.

We rarely do this in our eNews stories, as we want these articles to be informative and explanatory, but given the circumstances, we invite you to join us in taking action.

You can make a contribution that will help us comat this plague and assist this effort through our donation page. You can also share this article with friends, family, colleagues, and anyone in your network that may care so that they can take action, too!

Building partnerships to fortify the efforts of local people is our approach, and rural people in Honduras desperately need all the partners and commitments possible to help combat this devastating ecological outbreak.

You can help save Honduras’ forests!

Students receiving the school supplies!
Students receiving the school supplies!

In 2013, EcoLogic held a competition among its partner organizations, with the goal of recognizing community-led innovation with a $10,000 prize. Our Honduran partner, the Alliance of Municipalities of Central Atlántida (MAMUCA), was selected as the winner of the EcoLogic Innovation Award and they invested the funds to pilot their recycling exchange shop concept.

Now, two years later, we are elated that the shops continue to grow, all on their own. This is a case that truly demonstrates the potential of locally-sourced, locally-led innovation: MAMUCA had the idea, EcoLogic added enough financial support to get the wheels turning, and community members take it from there!

Our Project Technician with MAMUCA, Víctor Daniel, provides us with the most current update below…

This was an original idea from  MAMUCA—EcoLogic’s local partner in our Towns for Environmental Corridors and Communities. MAMUCA has established exchange stores, where you can receive school supplies or even food in exchange for dropping off recyclable materials. Members of local water councils – community groups with which EcoLogic partners  to protect natural water sources – run the stores. So, for example, in each area where there is a water council and an exchange store, a community member can bring in plastic bottles (PET), aluminum, iron, or any other recyclable and receive a pound of beans, a pound of rice, butter, or soap, for example. Or, what we have experienced here with the water council of El Pino and with the schools we work with in the community of Arizona, kids basically collect bottles and aluminum cans from the streets, forests, and rivers and they receive school supplies in exchange—like pencils, pens, notebooks, erasers, markers, colored pencils, crayons, and things like that. So it’s always an exchange.

After piloting the exchange store concept in the community of La Unión, it was replicated in Santa Ana. Now, five communities have exchange stores! At this time, we’re really focusing on schools and children for this project because students can easily receive school supplies and because it teaches, reaffirms, and incentivizes the necessity to clean up our natural environment. The concept gives concrete, immediate benefits to the children when they take action to clean up their communities and environment. Also, it’s an opportunity to put into practice what they learn in the classroom related to environmental protection.

In sum, this is a very unique, exciting, and successful initiative. Many community leaders from other parts of Honduras have come to see the stores and learn from MAMUCA’s experience. In addition, the recycling stores have brought attention not to themselves, but also to other initiatives that EcoLogic and MAMUCA implement together, such as fuel-efficient stoves, wastewater drainage systems, agroforestry parcels, etc. So we’re strategically using the interest around the stores as an entry point to educate people on the variety of sustainability efforts underway in the region and how they can get involved!

Weighing recyclables to determine exchange values
Weighing recyclables to determine exchange values
Students collecting recyclables around a town
Students collecting recyclables around a town
Residents of El Eden (Photo: Pat Goudvis)
Residents of El Eden (Photo: Pat Goudvis)

There hasn’t been much good news out of Honduras recently. One of the poorest Latin American nations, it has been afflicted by a series of natural and political calamities. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed over 14,000 people, impacted a third of the population and did $3.8 billion in damage—three-quarters of the nation’s total GDP. Droughts followed, reducing corn and bean production by 50 to 70 percent in some years. In 2009, an elected President was overthrown by the military. And in 2014, hard times in Honduras made the U.S. news, as a stream of unaccompanied children fled to the United States.

There is, however, another Honduras, a place where—despite adversity—small, rural communities are getting on with the business of living sustainably and dealing effectively with the vagaries of extreme weather, all on a shoestring budget.

As often happens, trouble breeds opportunity: This good news story emerged from the vortex of Hurricane Mitch on the steep southern slopes below Pico Bonito National Park. It revolves around the efforts of organized communities and the leadership of one man. Carlos is the President of the Association of Water Boards of the Southern Sector of Pico Bonito National Park (abbreviated AJAASSPIB in Spanish). This tall, middle-aged cattle rancher, resembling a Hollywood Western movie star, is leading 28 communities in 14 watersheds to create a more resilient local water supply system as a hedge against the dangerously erratic weather brought by climate change.

Recovering from Hurricane Mitch

The Pico Bonito communities possessed a decades-old, poorly maintained water system with basic infrastructure that did the job: It brought water down from Pico Bonito National Park to homes and livestock. Local water boards were given charge of the system by the Honduran government, though they were mostly inactive. Then came Mitch.

“After Mitch, there was almost nothing left. The entire water infrastructure was destroyed,” Carlos told me as we walked around the Emerald Hummingbird Reserve, near Pico Bonito National Park where he was hosting a delegation from the EcoLogic Development Fund of Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the storm the Honduran government was in deep crisis. “International help began to arrive, and there arose the idea that the [water] boards could really administer the water systems,” says Carlos. “Before Mitch, the boards were created by the law, but they didn’t really function, they didn’t collect the fees, the systems weren’t maintained, and they deteriorated a lot. Then Mitch finished them off. After Mitch, we started again from zero.”

The 28 communities are located along the southern boundary of Pico Bonito National Park, in an ill-defined buffer zone below the protected summits. Pico Bonito is one of the crown jewels of Honduras’s poorly funded system of preserves. At 117,110 hectares (290,000 acres) it is the nation’s second largest park.

Topping the Nombre de Dios Cordillera mountain range, Pico Bonito shelters lush tropical broadleaf forests of mahogany and cedar, with hundreds of rare medicinal and ornamental plants. Endangered mammals roam its slopes, including anteaters, wild boars, monkeys and jaguars. Its 350 bird species make it a major destination for U.S. and European birders.

Pico Bonito forms the cornerstone of a larger protected landscape, including the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge with its mangroves, Texiguat Wildlife Refuge with its cloud forest, Nombre de Dios National Park, and the desert-like Emerald Hummingbird Sanctuary where Carlos was entertaining his visitors.

Sustaining drinking water in a semi-arid land

Pico Bonito’s Caribbean side is protected both by steep inaccessible slopes and, ironically, by the banana and pineapple plantations that ring it; it receives plentiful rainfall. The southern side of the park, where AJAASSPIB works, is a different story. Here the high peaks of the Nombre de Dios Cordillera create a “rain shadow” beyond which the moisture-soaked clouds of the Caribbean do not pass; this leeward slope receives a small fraction of the rain of the windward side.

Here the 28 water-stressed communities have banded together in the Association of Water Boards. “With help from the Pico Bonito National Park Foundation and EcoLogic, we developed statutes and rules—administrative systems designed for the needs of each community,” Carlos explains. The communities all agreed, “for example, that the water should be shared fairly. It should be for human use only, not for animals. There would be a standard fee for everybody. It’s all on a voluntary basis; it’s an honor, a service to the community,” he says. A great deal of attention was put on efficient organization. AJAASSPIB pulled together all the local water boards and worked with small communities that didn’t have one.

Fito, a well-known Honduran environmentalist and one of the founders of the Pico Bonito National Park Foundation, elaborates: “After the hurricane we needed to reconstruct the water systems and the water boards. As the communities established their protected areas in their upper watersheds, we helped the areas get officially recognized as ‘protected forest and water zones.'”

The community challenge went beyond organizing and building infrastructure. In many cases, the slopes above had been heavily deforested by cattle ranching and logging. Aquifers were not being charged and streams were not running steadily.

A bigger roadblock: The watersheds all were on private lands. So the communities set out to do something truly extraordinary. They worked together to re-establish the high slopes as property held in common to protect water resources for all the local families.

Reversing the Tragedy of the Commons

Zumilda, a bespectacled, retired school teacher and AJAASSPIB treasurer explains how the rules work in the Pico Bonito communities: “If people don’t pay their [water] fee, their service is cut and they have to pay a fine. It’s a fine of $10 with a month grace time, but if they don’t pay two months, then the service is cut. The treasurer has her accounting book and registers everybody’s payments.”

But the Pico Bonito communities still faced the bigger problem of how to handle private ownership of the watersheds. They solved it by turning the steep south slopes of Pico Bonito back into a commons.

The people in each community “are buying land from their neighbors in the upper slopes. The neighbors know it’s for the benefit of everyone, and there is good consciousness. They have to negotiate with them, settle on a price. Some people ask for more, some people ask for less. There are always installment payments because people are poor,” explains Carlos, EcoLogic’s Program Officer for Honduras.

These very poor communities engaged in delicate negotiations with their neighbors and painstakingly assembled pieces of land to protect the precious water supply. Today, they are real estate developers with a community mission: putting together a big enough property to assure reliable freshwater for themselves and future generations.

The fragmented private properties have been assembled into a common property belonging to the entire community. So far, AJAASSPIB has extended its reach to 14 micro-watersheds and 28 communities. Nine community-protected areas—ranging in size from 52 to 1,193 acres—are now recognized by the Honduran government. Total protected watershed lands top an impressive 5,453 acres. Restored forests are now growing on the formerly degraded lands, extending habitat for species found in the national park. The communities have established regular watershed patrols made up of residents to prevent tree cutting, clean intake pipes and check on storage tanks.

Managing watersheds, strengthening communities, setting an example

The cooperative process initiated by AJAASSPIB has unified the communities it serves; collections of households with traditional ties are developing into a close-knit organization with a common purpose. This success hasn’t gone unnoticed by neighboring communities.

“That a water board is active, that [it] is taking care of the system, that [it] is dealing with community problems—that strengthens the community,” says Carlos. “It can even affect other communities. When one community sees what another is doing… they want you to come help them.”

Establishing the inter-community water partnership has been slow going. It started after Hurricane Mitch, but AJAASSPIB wasn’t formed until 2006, and only now is it seeking formal legalization. But the results are clear. A string of community-protected areas now exists along the southern buffer zone of Pico Bonito National Park, with ongoing reforestation and monitoring by the communities, who also keep an eye on the park.

The accomplishments of AJAASSPIB have gained international notice. In 2011, Swiss Re named the AJAASSPIB-EcoLogic partnership the runner-up recipient for its ReSource Award for Sustainable Watershed Management. In 2012, it won one of the Equator Prizes offered by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In 2013, it was one of ten finalists for the Solution Search: Adapting to a Changing Climate contest sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and Rare. In 2014 it won the first Innovation Prize given by the Yale chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters. Zumilda, the retired school teacher, traveled to New Haven, Connecticut to receive the prize.

Lessons learned by the Pico Bonito communities are being applied in the larger landscape. Today, the Alliance of Municipalities of Central Atlantida (MAMUCA)—located between Pico Bonito and the Texiguat Wildlife Refuge in what is called the PIBOTEX corridor—is strengthening local water boards to manage their watersheds.

EcoLogic and AJAASSPIB have also entered into an agreement with the municipality and town of Olanchito, with nearly 80,000 inhabitants, to help them protect the city’s 17,550-acre Uchuapa-Pimienta watershed. The first step, as at Pico Bonito, was to organize neighborhood water boards in the city.

All of this comes none too soon, as Honduras begins to feel the escalating impacts of climate change. “Within living memory, important deviations from the average climate have been observed in Honduras,” notes a recent UNDP report, perhaps understating the reality. In the 1990-2009 period, Honduras ranked as the third-most-affected country by extreme weather events globally. Over that period, 53 events killed more than 300 people per year on average, with annual economic losses of some 3 percent of GDP. Climate scientists project a hotter drier future for much of Honduras, but with more intense and damaging rainfall events, and more intense hurricanes.

Elsewhere in Honduras poverty and violence still reign. But the Pico Bonito National Park communities, though still poor, have learned a great lesson. They are now richer in their capacity to work together, with a more resilient organization and infrastructure to assure that their water supply can withstand the storms and droughts of the future. EcoLogic is proud to work with AJASSPIB, all thanks to your continued support. 

Kenia by the San Lorenzo river in Honduras
Kenia by the San Lorenzo river in Honduras

“We need to protect the environment because the environment is our life... If [we] don’t, I think we will be left without water.” In her recent interview with EcoLogic Kenia reflects about her personal experience as a member of a Water Committee in rural Honduras.

In the village of San Lorenzo,  Kenia lives with her husband and two daughters.  She describes San Lorenzo as a beautiful community of about 30 families where small-scale cattle ranching and farming are the primary livelihoods.  Growing up, Kenia observed and was inspired by her parents’ strong involvement and contributions to their community. She wanted to follow in their footsteps.  Now, when there is a problem,  such as a water shortage or community disagreement, people call on Kenia.  As a community leader, she welcomes her neighbors with open arms into her home, where she does what she can to resolve the matter.  

When it comes to the community’s need for clean water, Kenia has played an active role as a member of their water committee for about 15 years, through the Association of Water Committees of the Southern Sector of Pico Bonito National Park (AJAASSPIB in Spanish), one of EcoLogic’s local partners in Honduras. Before AJAASSPIB’s involvement, Kenia says that her community struggled with a lack of organization in managing its microwatershed.  Thanks to AJAASSPIB and EcoLogic’s help and educational workshops, however, Kenia’s community has seen some very positive changes. For EcoLogic, sustainably managing a microwatershed means providing resources to help communities like San Lorenzo reforest degraded land in their microwatersheds in order to reverse damaging erosion and protect the health of the area’s brooks and springs. They now have reliable access to potable water and community members have been making their payments.  

They use the funds collected from water users to keep the microwatersheds in good condition.  According to Kenia, the people in her community understand their water situation and when they have problems, they bring them to the committee.  The committee then works with the help of AJAASSPIB to resolve them.  As Kenia proudly puts it, “Everyone has been collaborating…we resolve any problem and continue moving forward. We support each other.”      

The water committee and AJAASSPIB have been working hard introducing new fuel-efficient stoves in local homes. When asked if she has seen a reduction in firewood use and health improvements in her community since the introduction of these stoves, Kenia replied, “Of course! People, women in particular, are very happy and grateful...”  She went on to explain how, thanks to the new stoves, there are no longer dangerous levels of smoke--that can trigger serious health problems--filling homes.      

Although Kenia and her community have taken tremendous steps forward for their society and environment, there is still much work that remains.  For instance, they are currently dealing with a pine beetle infestation in and around the microwatersheds that has advanced fairly quickly and is causing harm to the trees.  Kenia says her community is worried and looks forward to finding a solution to this problem with the help of the national forestry institute (ICF) and local organizations.  

Despite the myriad of challenges Honduras and its people continue to face, one must admire Kenia’s continuously optimistic and positive tone throughout her entire interview. With every piece of good news she shares, she quickly follows it with the exclamation: “We are so happy!” or “We are so grateful!”  There is no denying the positive impact organizations like AJAASSPIB and local water committees have had not only on the environment and access to clean water, but also socially.  Workshops, meetings, and community planning have helped bring communities together under the common interest of protecting their water sources, and, as Kenia would add, their source of life.   

Woman at eco-friendly stove in El Nance, Honduras
Woman at eco-friendly stove in El Nance, Honduras

Thanks to your support, thousands of people in northern Honduras now have access to safe drinking water managed by the local community. Collecting a small monthly fee, our local partner, the Association of Water Councils of Pico Bonito National Park’s Southern Sector  (AJAASSPIB in Spanish), provides comprehensive watershed management and environmental education services to a population of about 11,000. AJAASSPIB is made up of 28 water councils and their inclusive payment-for-ecosystem services model has been an inspiration. The municipality of Olanchito has launched a program to duplicate and expand upon this model, with the goal of providing clean water for 40,000 of the city’s inhabitants.  

 

Collective ownership has been a key part of conservation and development, as our goal is for local communities to provide as much direction as possible. Before devastating Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998, water boards did very little, and after the hurricane, water infrastructure had to be reconstructed from scratch. More than 14,000 people were killed, and the landscape was torn apart.  Yet in a striking reversal of the “tragedy of the commons,” people came together, turning the area’s heavily deforested slopes into a collectively owned property that they could restore. The approach we are helping Olanchito develop is working to achieve the same feat on a much larger scale.

 

Access to clean water will make a big difference for the residents of Olanchito, and we are excited to see our work in Honduras expanding with rural communities at the helm.  The change we’re seeing is both environmental and social. AJAASSPIB’s model has become an inspiration for a larger municipality, and this unique rural-to-urban “idea innovation flow” has been extremely empowering for our rural partners.

 

AJAASSPIB and EcoLogic’s partnership also has been honored with several international awards, including the2015 Yale International Society of Tropical Foresters Innovation Prize for “outstanding initiatives in biodiversity conservation at the landscape level,” the 2014 Energy Globe National Award Honduras, the 2012 United Nations Equator Prize, and second place for the 2011 Swiss Re International ReSource Award. At EcoLogic, we are grateful that this award offers recognition for our local Honduran partners, and allows them to share their experiences to inspire others, not only in their home communities, but around the world.

 

Please consider donating to protect and revitalize the water sources thousands of Hondurans depend on. We greatly appreciate your support!

 

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Organization Information

EcoLogic Development Fund

Location: Cambridge, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.ecologic.org
Project Leader:
Alexa Piacenza
Program Associate
Cambridge, MA United States
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