By Kryt, Jeremy
Earth Island Journal , Vol. 26, No. 4
Precious Metals--Laws, Regulations and Rules
Rain Forests--Laws, Regulations and Rules
Rain Forests--Latin America
Timber--Laws, Regulations and Rules
Environmental Activists--Laws, Regulations and Rules
Precious Metals Industry--Laws, Regulations and Rules
IN EARLY SEPTEMBER 2007, in defiance of multiple death threats from illegal loggers who opposed their mission, a GPS mapping team made its way by motorized canoe down the Patuca River and into the remote and lawless Tawahka Asongni Biosphere Reserve of Honduras. The Tawahka is one of several linked parks and reserves in the region generally known as Moskitia, a vast swath of savannah and rainforest that takes up most of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua. It is one of the wildest areas left on earth--a sparsely settled wilderness beyond the rule of law. In Moskitia crimes often go unsolved and wanted men can disappear with ease, as the Tawahka team would ultimately learn.
The expedition planned to erect a series of GPS markers in the Tawahka Reserve that would help the Honduran government establish a protected zone in Moskitia, which has been battered by illegal logging. According to the US-based Environmental Investigation Agency, Honduras suffers from one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. From 1990 to 2010 Honduras lost an average of 363,584 acres of trees per year, more than a third of its total forest cover. Much of the logging has been done illegally, the trees cut without permits in the frontier-like stretches of Moskitia, where black-market timber syndicates have free range.
In order to slow the rate of illegal logging, the 2007 mapping team was on a two-part mission. First, they would estabfish and demarcate a zona nuclea, a protected, logging-free zone that encompassed the heart of the Tawahka Reserve. The second phase consisted of training and equipping the local Indigenous inhabitants of the deep forest with GPS technology, so that they could accurately track the whereabouts of illegal loggers operating in their midst and then report them to national law enforcement authorities.
Word of the team's mission had leaked out and the expedition was attracting unwanted attention even before it left the mountain town of Catacamas. Several team members had received phone calls or letters warning them that they would be killed if the expedition went ahead. It was widely assumed that the threats had come from people connected to the illegal logging syndicates, which are feared in the hinterlands, and so big and powerful as to cost Honduras up to 6 percent of its GDP each year in lost timber revenues. In the face of the threat from the timber barons, the team sought safety in numbers. It would travel in a small flotilla of canoes that carried more than 30 workers and researchers and would be guarded by a small contingent of armed Honduran soldiers.
Then there was the expedition's leader Mario Guifarro. A compact, muscular man of Mestizo descent who wore a .357 revolver in an old army holster and insisted on lugging his guitar through the jungle, Guifarro was locally famous as a tracker, guide, and all-around wilderness savant. "Don Mario knew the country better than anybody," says Donald Flores, program coordinator for the Institute for Cooperation and Self-Development (ICADE), the Honduras-based NGO that, along with several European partners, had backed Guifarro's mapping expedition. "He spoke the languages of the Indigenous people, and he understood their cultures. He could live in the rainforest with nothing but a machete, and he knew what plants to eat, and which ones to use for medicine."
Flores had been working on conservation-related projects with the Flamenco-playing, jaguar-tagging Guifarro since 1998, and he knew that Guifarro's reputation for bravery had made him a target for the logging companies. "[Guifarro] was a leader who generated respect in the field because he worked so hard and led by example," Flores said recently during an interview at the ICADE office in Catacamas, in the mountainous Olancho region of Honduras. Flores himself has been threatened many times. In 2006 he suffered an assassination attempt during which he was shot six times from close range. …