Trees Down, Lights Out in Honduras

Scientists link deforestation to disruption of country's water supply, which has left a giant hydroelectric facility inoperable

IT'S 6:00 p.m. in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, and the streets surrounding the Parque Central are busy with shoppers.

Vendors selling cheap plastic sandals and polyester clothing manufactured in local factories shout to customers over the noise of a dozen portable generators. The scent of frying chicken mingles with diesel fumes, while uniformed guards cradling M-16s lounge near the generators that are parked in front of a few well-lighted businesses.

Elsewhere, there is no electricity at all. The city is dark, or lighted only by candles. A shopkeeper stretches his hand, palm up, from the door of his empty grocery. With the sad smile of a campesino, or peasant farmer, in a field of parched corn, he says, ``If it rains, they might turn the lights back on.''

Electric power has been severely rationed throughout Honduras since last spring, when the government suddenly announced that water levels in the nation's largest reservoir were down 200 feet. The giant hydroelectric facility at El Cajon, 112 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa, was essentially nonfunctional.

El Cajon, which means ``the box,'' was built during the early 1980s with $750 million in loans from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). From 1985 until 1990, the dam's four giant turbines supplied 70 percent of Honduras's needs and created $8 million a year in electricity exports. By early 1994, however, the situation had changed dramatically.

Water levels in the reservoir fell well below the level of the power plant's main intake channels, and just 10 feet above the less-efficient backup channels, forcing a dramatic decrease in power generation. Over half of the 25,000-acre reservoir system had become a giant mud flat.

As El Cajon's turbines fell silent, the National Electric Company (ENEE) discovered that oil-burning plants taken off line in 1985 hadn't been ``mothballed'' and could not be recommissioned.

Since then, ENEE has been doling out power in four- and six-hour units to different cities and regions on an irregular schedule while begging for emergency loans from the World Bank to purchase power and generators from Mexico.

Businessmen such as Pepe Herrero, who runs a food-processing plant in La Ceiba, have spent scarce foreign exchange on imported generators and diesel fuel. ``What else can I do?'' asks Mr. Herrero. ``Let everything rot?''

``This year alone, Honduras will spend $60 million on imported energy, and even that is not enough to sustain the economy,'' says Arnoldo Bertran of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Effects hard to measure

The IDB estimates that power shortages are costing Honduras $20 million a month in lost industrial production, but the real effects of the crisis are difficult to measure.

Office workers chat idly near open windows, their fax machines and computers inoperative. Cement mixers are silent, paralyzing the construction industry. Airline-reservation systems have collapsed in chaos and, since pumping gasoline requires electricity, long-distance transportation has become unpredictable.

Newly elected President Carlos Reina publicly accused former President Rafael Leonardo Callejas of intentionally draining the El Cajon reservoir in the final months of 1993 in order to sabotage the new administration. But the root cause of the power crisis is more difficult to reverse than mere political maneuvering. Taxi drivers, politicians, and campesinos can all explain the source of the crisis with one word: deforestation.

``The process of deforestation has disrupted the ecological equilibrium in Honduras,'' admits Ernesto Vargas, biologist and ENEE's chief of watershed management at El Cajon. Thick forests absorb rainfall through both living plants and in mulch, providing a gradual flow into subterranean streams, rivers, and reservoirs.

By contrast, scientists have observed that deforestation leads to decreased rainfall, increased evaporation, and general drought-like conditions. When rain does come, violent erosion carries topsoil into rivers.

As part of a belated effort to fight deforestation in the 3,200- square-mile El Cajon watershed, the Honduran Forestry Development Corporation (COHDEFOR) recently shut down six sawmills operating illegally near the reservoir.

But another 20 are still in operation. ``Lumber extraction is a problem, but not the main problem,'' says Wilfredo David, COHDEFOR's El Cajon specialist. ``Sawmills cut only 800,000 cubic meters of lumber per year. Campesinos wielding machetes cut 6 million cubic meters of firewood.''

Demand for lumber and firewood by a rapidly growing population, combined with the persistence of slash-and-burn agricul -ture, is deforesting Honduras at a rate of nearly 200,000 acres per year, a significant area in a country smaller than Pennsylvania. Migratory farmers burn tropical forests, plant corn and beans in the ash-enriched soil, then move deeper into the forest to repeat the cycle when the land is exhausted.

Chet Thomas of the nonprofit group Aldea Global works with farmers in the El Cajon region, teaching residents regenerative agricultural techniques that improve the soil while encourag-ing them to plant cocoa, orange, mango, and avocado trees.

``It's insane,'' he says. ``They spent the better part of $1 billion on the dam, but not $5,000 on protecting the watershed.''

Becky Myton, an ecologist and adviser to the Honduran minister of the environment, was on a commission that reviewed the plans for El Cajon back in 1982. ``The consensus was that we shouldn't build such a big dam and that a strict watershed-management plan was necessary, but we were overruled in both cases by the IDB and local economic interests,'' she says.

Reforestation effort

Finally, on Sept. 30 of this year, the IDB and the government of Honduras agreed on a $20.4 million emergency loan to reforest and protect the El Cajon watershed.

``It's too late,'' says Ciriaco Andino, head of Watershed Management at SANAA, the government agency in charge of water resources. ``Even if we planted 10 million trees per year, it would take us 20 years to restore the ecosystem.''

Mr. Andino opposes COHDEFOR's plan to introduce rapid-growing ``exotic'' trees such as eucalyptus, which could upset the balance of local insects, birds, and mammals.

``The IDB program is better than nothing,'' counters Dr. Myton. ``The whole country will go down the tubes if we don't start reforesting.'' She is concerned that, if sediment levels in the reservoir get any higher, the dam will not be able to come back on line even if the water level rises.

``If you want my opinion, not as an expert, but as the son of my mother, we don't really need reforestation,'' says ENEE's Vargas in his office near the reservoir. ``What we really need is to protect the area, leave it alone, and let nature recuperate.''

Many Honduran officials have come to believe that, just as the outflow of water through the dam's turbines can not exceed inflow to the reservoir, a society that cuts wood faster than trees grow cannot prosper for long. ``The future of El Cajon is the future of Honduras, and the future of the world,'' says Vargas. ``Either we establish a political and economic regime based on sustainable development or, well - there is no other alternative.''

Some officials at institutions such as the IDB and the World Bank have recently come to agree.

``Our aim has always been to abolish poverty,'' says Kenneth Newcombe, chief of global environment coordination at the World Bank. ``Now we understand that solving poverty and protecting the environment go hand in hand.''

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