Amid a surge in palm oil exports to Europe, illegal clearing of protected forests in Honduras continues to worsen as authorities fail to crack down on illegal farms and “palm laundering”
Palm plantations developed at the Jeanette Kawas National Park, Honduras.
The Jeanette Kawas National Park
on the north coast of Honduras, a biodiversity hotspot, has seen worsening
levels of illegal deforestation for the cultivation of oil palm.
In the past most oil palm
cultivation took place in the park’s buffer zone, where it can be done legally,
but invasions of its core area – where oil palm monocultures are banned – have
intensified in recent months.
PROLANSATE, a conservation NGO in
charge of the park’s management, told Earthsight that the relentless advance of
oil palm cultivation has led to a surge in illegal invasions and deforestation.
“We’re putting too much pressure
on the buffer zone, which is spilling over into the core area,” executive
director Nelbin Bustamante explained. “The concept of the buffer zone, meant to
protect the core area from all that is external to the park, is not working due
to all the plantation pressure.
“When you go [to newly deforested
areas] you find no one, only one or two hectares of cleared forest. Then you go
back a while later and you find palm already planted.”
PROLANSATE has provided
information detailing the illegal farms operating in the core area to the local
prosecutor’s office. However, it usually takes three or four years before
Bustamante points to a lack of
resources to deal with the problem: “We have five protected areas but only one
law enforcement agent to deal with them.” Jeanette Kawas alone covers an area
of nearly 80,000 hectares (ha).
Cultivation of oil palm in the Jeanette Kawas National Park has caused damage to biodiversity and wetlands.
To make matters worse, judges are
often unwilling to allow cases of illegal deforestation to proceed in court.
Not a single farmer has been convicted of illegal deforestation.
This has motivated palm farmers
to further expand into the core protected areas of not only Jeanette Kawas, but
also the Punta Izopo National Park.
PROLANSATE estimates that
Jeanette Kawas, where authorities did visit in 2018 to
gather evidence of illegal deforestation, has lost around 12% of its
original forest cover.
Plantations in the core area can
vary in size from two to fifty hectares and some illegal deforesters have
enough resources and political influence to disrupt conservation efforts. A
biologist at PROLANSATE was reportedly threatened at
gun point and Bustamante told Earthsight the NGO has suffered reprisals for its
Palm oil companies buying palm
fruit from farmers in the region should control the origin of their fruit to guarantee
its legality. In reality, the practice of “palm laundering” has allowed illegal
farmers to sell their fruit to these firms via intermediaries, who are often
legal growers registered by the companies as authorised suppliers.
Bustamante explains that
laundering also takes place when illegal farmers sell their fruit to
distribution centres which then sell them on to palm oil companies. “The
distribution centres should check the origin of the palm, but in practice there
are no controls,” he says.
Palm laundering has taken place
for several years but has intensified recently. According to PROLANSATE, a
drive by Honduran palm oil companies to obtain international certification –
including from the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – may help explain
In the past there was little need
for laundering as it did not matter much where the fruit came from but as
companies attempt to get certified they need to demonstrate their palm comes
from legal sources. This is allegedly working as a boost to laundering
practices as it becomes the only way for illegal farmers to continue to sell
“It [Certification] may force the
companies to act responsibly and adopt better practices, but there’s still much
to be done,” Bustamante said. “We don’t have confidence that [the palm oil
companies] will do the right thing.”
Grupo Jaremar, which produces a
quarter of all Honduran palm oil, is certified by the RSPO. A 2017 investigation traced
a supply chain from an unlicensed producer within Jeanette Kawas to the firm.
Jaremar recently told Mongabay it
is increasing its efforts to detect illegalities in its supply chain.
Palm oil production is of
mounting importance to Honduras’ economy. It is the country’s fourth largest
export according to the World Bank.
The country is now the
largest palm oil exporter. Between 2014 and 2018 Honduran exports of palm
oil to the European Union soared from 170,000 to 426,000 tonnes, Earthsight
analysis of trade data shows.
This growing demand is having a
negative impact on the park’s biodiversity. “We’ve lost large areas of wetlands
and mangroves,” Bustamante said. “There has been considerable displacement of
species, for example the manatee, which is a very iconic species in Honduras.”
In 2017 the Laguna de los Micos,
a fresh water lagoon, reportedly lost 80% of
its fish stocks due to extensive fertiliser and pesticide run-off from the
plantations, while the use of pesticides has caused health problems among
communities. Worse may be to come as low 2019 rainfall has cut off the lagoon
from the sea which is allowing chemicals to concentrate at worryingly high
levels, PROLANSATE claims.
“The state has showed little
interest in addressing the environmental impacts of palm oil,” Bustamante
The NGO has called on authorities
to show the political will to conduct proper environmental assessments and make
the necessary resources available for law enforcement.