Message in the Plaza: Landscape, Landscaping, and Forest Discourse in Honduras

Article excerpt

Tegucigalpa, Honduras, December 2001. A city bus--retired from its former life as a school bus in Minnesota--crawls along with the traffic, pumping out diesel exhaust. Under the driver's side window is a bumper sticker whose message, like the other messages in this landscape, offers some insight into the contemporary thought and culture of Honduras. Its message is also, I believe, pertinent to a consideration of forest issues and perception in Honduras: "We'd better plant some trees or we're screwed."

A repeat-photography study I conducted in Honduras examined landscape change in a portion of the country between 1957 and 2001 (Bass 2003; see Figure 1). The photographic pairs generated for each site, separated by a period of forty-four years, can be compared to assess change. (1) One basic finding of this project was that all of the photographic pairs, including those of town plazas, show increased numbers of trees. As public spaces, plaza landscapes offer insights into both the observed increase in trees and some of public discourse on forest issues and change.

The underlying thesis of this study of landscape and environmental perception is that plazas in Honduras also serve as landscapes of environmental communication and play a role in communicating specific messages about forests and forest issues in the country. The plazas' success in disseminating forest messages is reflected in the contrast that exists between actual landscapes and how people perceive and talk about them.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

PUBLIC SENTIMENT AND THE FORESTED LANDSCAPE

One day, while conducting the repeat-photography study, I was sitting on some boxes of vegetable oil and rice on the back of an oxcart parked in front of a dusty, white adobe building in the village of Yarula, high in the mountains of southwestern Honduras, where life is slow, quiet, and windy. The food was donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and was so labeled. The man who had built the oxcart, a member of the indigenous Lenca group, was about to take food home. Don Leonidas, who had just signed the food out to the cart owner, stood next to me. We talked about the place, about the landscape spread out below us--a mosaic of dibble-planted cornfields and forest patches of pines and broad-leaved tree species.

Knowing that I was interested in the past and that I had a photograph of the place from 1957, Don Leonidas held forth on what had changed in the ensuing half-century. Conditions had improved, he said, citing the coming of the road in the 1980s, electricity in 1992, bus service in 2000--"before that we had only Toyotas"--and better health care, houses, and schools. "Life is better here now," he repeated, noting the efforts of foreign-aid groups--nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) from Ireland, Germany, and the United States, to name just a few. Pointing to a nearby house constructed of cement blocks and roofed with sheets of corrugated metal, he said, "There are no more bajareques (2) here either. Yes, in the country there are, but not here. It's better."

However, he also asserted that one aspect of life had worsened. "In the 1950s there were more clouds. And more rain. The crops were better. Because there was more rain. Now, because of all the deforestation around here, there are fewer clouds and less rain." He pointed out across the hills below us toward El Salvador to the south. "It's a problem."

I looked out across the landscape at which he was pointing and compared it with the 1957 photograph of the Yarula countryside. I saw what seemed to be more trees, not fewer. Although the nearest weather station recorded a 17 percent decrease in precipitation, from an annual average of about 71 inches in the 1951-1954 period to 59 inches between 1987 and 1990 (Zuniga Andrade 2000), Don Leonidas's assessment of deforestation seemed at odds with the comparison reflected in the photograph. …