While coffee production is an important economic force in Honduras, it also contributes to many of the country’s environmental issues. First and foremost, coffee is not a plant native to Honduras. Many of the areas where it is now grown, especially in Western Honduras, are former cloud forests. I have already mentioned some of these problems, but this post provides a brief look at a few of the more pressing problems. Much of the environmental degradation is a result of misconceptions about land use and the impacts that poor management have on the environment’s capacity to provide important resources. The environmental issues can’t be totally blamed on coffee farming, but the industry does play an important role. In general, Honduras’ land resources have been over-exploited, and there are numerous reasons for concern regarding deforestation and the prevalence of unsustainable agricultural practices.
The government has begun to address some of the larger environmental problems of rampant deforestation and water pollution. Unfortunately enforcement of many of existing and new laws is uneven at best.
Slash and burn cultivation of land, including for the expansion of coffee farms has contributed to tremendous deforestation in Honduras. Demand for firewood in the heating of large industrial coffee dryers has also contributed to the problem. Other crops and the large international demand for timber contribute to cause deforestation as well.
The general colonization of forest landscapes by rural Hondurans seeking land, lumbering, migratory agriculture, and cattle ranching continue to deplete the valuable resources. Deforestation also causes further land degradation and soil erosion because of the improper land use practices such as farming of marginal lands.
Almost all water in rural Honduras comes from mountain streams and watersheds. Unless a town or village is in close proximity to a water source, the people cannot use it as drinking water because there are no treatment measures. In most cases, kilometers of PVC pipes bring ‘fresh’ water to communities. Honduras has 96 cu km of renewable water resources, with 91 percent used in farming activities. The de-pulping coffee process is very water intensive. A further environmental hazard of de-pulping is the highly acidic water that is expelled with the outer coffee grapes. If this water is not set aside in oxidation ponds for treatment, it can saturate the natural water supply and affect soil acidity. In addition, cultivation of steep terrain and the high use of agrochemicals in coffee and vegetable production have left streams and aquifers polluted and full of silt.
Honduras is considered a biodiversity hot spot because of the numerous plant and animal species that can be found there. However, widespread exploitation of natural resources has also eliminated the natural habitats for many of Honduras’s species. Only six percent of the total land area in Honduras was protected in 2001 and it is often difficult to enforce protection of protected areas. In the same year, seven species of mammals were threatened. Four breeding bird species and seven reptiles were also threatened. Thirty-four plant species out of 5,000-plus are endangered.
The Good News:
Because coffee in Honduras is shade grown, under the right circumstances it can replicate natural forest diversity. Farmers who plant or encourage a mixture of shade trees encourage natural rain forest canopy environments that revitalize bird life. Other farmers and cooperatives are making their own compost from coffee berry shells left over from the de-pulping process. Many mid- to large-scale farmers have oxidation ponds on their property in order to prevent acidic pulp water from entering the water stream.
A majority of the coffee producers I spoke with mentioned the importance of preserving the environment and were taking concerted efforts to limit their environmental impacts. So despite the continued presence of many environmental problems, environmentalists are encouraged by the increasing environmental consciousness among all sectors of the population.
Information from Trees for the Future , Encyclopedia of the Nations and U.S. Library of Congress,
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