Hurricane Mitch highlights the dangers of deforestation

Originally published
Hurricane Mitch washed away years of progress in reforesting the mountain slopes along the Caribbean coast of Honduras. But the Canadian Director of the Hardwood Forest Development Project, Richard Trudel, believes the hurricane's destruction clearly demonstrated the importance of maintaining the rainforest.

"There is more interest now in reforestation because many people believe deforestation had a direct effect in the disaster," said Montreal-born Trudel.

Trudel is a forestry engineer who has worked in Honduras for the past 10 years. He is co-directing the CIDA-funded project to manage and protect the tropical rainforest.

Trudel explained that deforestation meant there were fewer trees to soak the water when a whole season of rain fell in just four days during the hurricane. Forests retain the water in mountain watersheds and anchor the soil. Deforestation contributed to massive mud slides that buried entire villages and swollen rivers that swept away people, farms and homes.

Trudel said on rivers well protected by trees, such as the Rio Danto, there was visibly less damage than along other rivers in the area.

Changing farming practices

The tropical rain forest on the Caribbean coast of Honduras is disappearing at a rate of 80,000 hectares or 2.5 per cent a year, caused mostly by farmers burning trees to create arable land. However, once they cut down trees on the steep slopes to plant corn and beans, the fragile soil is quickly washed away and the farmers move on to clear more land.

The Hardwood Forest Development Project is working with subsistence farmers like Fredesvinda and Alejandro Vindel. Through the project the Vindels learned how to reforest steep slopes, terrace land and plant fruit-tree barriers to prevent soil erosion. By planting fruit trees they received from the project's nursery and other new crops they found they could make a living for their six children off the plot of land where they were. They were able to stop moving and clearing new areas.

The Vindels, like nearly 70 per cent of the farmers in Honduras, lost their crop of corn and beans to the hurricane. The Vindels also lost half of the fruit trees that have been key to improving the family's standard of living. Many other families lost their homes.

Co-ordinating emergency assistance

When the hurricane hit, Trudel set aside his forest management work to co-ordinate Canadian emergency assistance to the 118 mountain villages involved in the forestry development project. Trudel managed an emergency relief fund to buy food and medical supplies. With the help of the Honduran and Canadian military, emergency food rations were distributed to more than 12,000 people in shelters in the town of La Ceiba and to the villages of the project.

"Now we are beginning a new project with a reconstruction plan for each community for rebuilding roads, houses, schools, community centres and health centres," said Trudel. "We also provided seeds to support farmers to plant crops for the beginning of the agricultural cycle in December. If farmers didn't plant then it would be necessary to have more international support for food for next year."

Using food aid for reconstruction

Trudel said the Canadian funds for reconstruction will go toward food-for-work programs in which local villagers receive food packages in return for a day's labour. He said it is the best way to combat hunger and joblessness while reconstructing the roads and other infrastructure essential to rebuild communities.

Part of that reconstruction will involve getting woodcutters quickly back to work to produce the lumber needed to rebuild local houses. Through the project, 1,200 woodcutters have had access to credit to buy chain saws and frames to guide cutting. These portable sawmills allow the woodcutters to saw wood more quickly and use more of the wood from a tree than they could with the manual saws they once used. The woodcutters are also involved in forest management plans to prevent random cutting.

Reconstruction will also mean continuing to support farmers like Fredesvinda and Alejandro Vindel as they rebuild their farms and plant new trees.

For Trudel, continuing to work with woodcutters, farmers, ranchers and government to preserve and manage the rainforest is one way to prevent future disasters.

For more information, please contact:

Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)
200 Promenade du Portage
Hull, Quebec
K1A 0G4
Tel: 819 997-5006
Toll free: 1-800-230-6349
Fax: 819 953-6088
For the hearing and speech impaired (TDD/TTY): 819 953-5023
Internet address: http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca