Jeanette Kawas National Park
You step off the boat over the seaweed-filled water and onto the sandy beach of Punta Sal. With every step you take, crabs scatter away, trying to avoid being stepped on. You sit down on a rock where the sand fades away to a dark loamy soil and change into your hiking shoes, realizing now that they will definitely be needed. The curious crabs cautiously venture closer to you. One crawls up on your backpack, another on your shoe. You stare at each other tentatively.
Your guide beckons you to continue, and smiling to yourself, you finish lacing up your boots. You hit the trail, which winds up and down through the hills, in some places at very steep inclines, and is strewn with rocks and fallen trees. You are amazed at the lush greenery that you pass through and are enchanted by the songs of the tropical birds that you hear and see jumping from tree to tree along the trail. You travel from one side of the park to the other, where you pause to take a refreshing swim in the ocean.
On the way back, you travel by another system of trails. These are also small, slippery, and winding. You hear the eerie screams of howler monkeys in the distance. A few minutes later, you pass literally underneath them. Having returned to the other side of the island, you pause under some almond and coconut trees. Your guide cuts open a coconut and lets you take a swig of its sweet milk. You return to the boat. The guide navigates it towards a Garifuna village where you will stop to eat freshly caught and cooked fish with beans, rice, and fried platanos.
Jeanette Kawas is one of the largest protected areas in Honduras. It is located just off the northern coast of Honduras. Its 78,150 hectares (782 square kilometers) consists of 14 different ecosystems:
§5 non-marine wetlands
§4 marine types
The ecosystems include rainforest, cloud forest, lagoons, estuaries, wetlands, mangroves, sandy beeches, and 5 miles of coastal waterways, including coral reefs. Its mangrove forests are the best preserved on the Atlantic coast, and the coral barrier reefs in the park are the largest on the continent of Honduras. The park is extremely species rich. It contains:
§499 plant spp. 68 reptile spp.
§151 mollusk spp.345 bird spp.
§142 insect spp.49 mammal spp.
§70 freshwater fish spp.51 coral spp.
§12 amphibian spp.
§six species of marine turtle
§five fish species
§five species of reptiles
§twelve species of mammals
The park also has a number of rare and threatened species, including:
The park was once home to a tribe of indigenous people called the Garifuna, but after 1910, when a railway opened up the area, thousands of Honduran farmers migrated to the region, clearing the forest for crops and cattle, and utilizing the area's abundant fishing waters. This continued until the deforestation caused the erosion of more than 1000 hectares.
After this occurrence, an organization known as PROLANSATE obtained legal backing and founded the park in 1992. PROLANSATE, or the foundation for the protection of Lancetilla, Punta Sal, and Texiguat, all of which are protected areas within Honduras, is a local conservation group that has worked for years to protect the estuaries and mangroves of the northern coast of Honduras. Its mission is to conserve the natural resources, the environment, as well as historically important sites and cultural values of the country. They also set up environmental workshops to help inform and train surrounding communities.
For a long time, the park was known as Punta Sal, which is the name of the most popular island in the park and is also its point of highest elevation. Its name was changed a few years ago in memory of a former president of PROLANSATE, Jeanette Kawas, who was murdered while sitting in her office at home in 1995 for her opposition to proposals that called for the draining of some sites in the park for developmental purposes. She had also vigorously campaigned against the squatters and cattle ranchers who were advancing towards the park's center, and also tried to prevent logging within the park. Her murder still remains unsolved.
The park contains many buffer zones, where most of its inhabitants live. Some 1,500 indigenous people live in scattered villages within the park's boundaries. They live in thatched huts along the sandy shores and make their living by fishing. Around 20,000 more people live in areas surrounding the park. They also earn their living by fishing. Only small-scale fishing is allowed within the park, because commercial fishing would quickly destroy the park's resources.
The Garifuna are also under the park's protection. They arrived on an island in the Caribbean coast in 1634 when English slave ships from Africa wrecked off the coast. Here the survivors joined the Arawak Indians, and began a new life and a new culture. In 1795, a war broke out between the English and the French over the island. The English won, and the Garifuna were transported to the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras. Roatan proved to be a very inhospitable island, causing the Garifuna to migrate once again to the coasts of Central American countries, including Honduras. The Garifuna are known mostly for their music and dance, called the Punta.
They are one of the least known and most unusual black cultures in the Americas. They are also one of the most threatened, because of the beauty of their homeland and its tourist possibilities. Developers are using every method that they can to get their hands on the land – legal, immoral, illegal, and even criminal. The Garifuna are being dispossessed of their lands to make way for hotels, condos, swimming pools, fast food parlors, shopping centers, airports, and vacation homes.
The park tries to incorporate the Garifuna tribe into the workings of the park. They are hired for such jobs as tour guides and security guards. The park is also trying to find ways to protect the land and preserve the culture of the Garifuna. Currently there is a program led by PROLANSATE to teach the younger generation and interested adults how to make Garifuna-style handicrafts using native plants. The Garifuna also provide opportunities for tourists to get to know the Garifuna culture, in coordination with the park. Here is an example of one such tour:
§Day 1: Spend the day in a Garifuna community; swim, fish, and eat with the villagers.
§Day 2: Experience spirit and lifestyle of Garifuna; paddle through the mangroves, bird/wildlife watch, fish, learn how to cook Garifuna style.
§Day 3: Travel to Punta Sal; picnic, swim on unspoiled beaches; cross to Tela Bay and the village of Miami, eat and meet people; tour the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens
§Day 4: Visit Garifuna village in Colon; paddle through mangrove, bird/wildlife watch, visit nearby villages, fish, cook, relax on beech.
The park is experiencing many problems. This area was probably the hardest hit during Hurricane Mitch. Three of the rivers running through the park became one large lake. Forty percent of the park's forests were severely damaged. Miles upon miles of land were completely covered by water. Eighteen villages were flooded and had to be evacuated. In some places, water rose to the rooftops.
PROLANSATE made efforts to assist hurricane victims who lived around the national park area. PROLANSATE provided corn, beans, rice, flour, sugar, and oil to assist over 260 families in replanting. They also began reparation work on the roads, schools, and community centers.
During the rebuilding, agroforestry was emphasized and taught to the farmers so that the soil will be protected in the future. Most village leaders are fully aware that it was the rampant deforestation that increased the damage caused by Mitch, and now realize the need to maintain forest cover to protect their land and water resources. But, there is still an urgent need to increase environmental education so that communities can take effective action to better protect forest cover and reforest barren areas.
Human activity is destroying many of the lagoons. Sugar refineries and palm-oil factories pump waste into rivers that flow directly into the park. A fish farm that was established upstream from the park accidentally released a species of exotic fish, known as tilapia, into the park when its stocking tanks broke. This is causing compatibility and competition problems for the native species. PROLANSATE is working to reduce the population of the tilapia in these lagoons.
Deforestation and erosion have caused the destruction of a lot of the park's habitat and the death of some of its coral reefs because of increased sedimentation. Commercial felling and burning of the forest occurs within park boundaries, as does ranching, industrial and subsistence farming. 82% of the people living within park boundaries depend on the park for fuel wood. PROLANSATE has launched a campaign to teach farmers to plant trees with their crops so they will eventually no longer need to cut down the park's forest.
Over-fishing is a major problem. Fishing boats damage reefs with anchors and fishing equipment. Manatees are caught within fishing nets and drowned. Many are also hit by the propellers of speeding boats and killed.
The most important threat within the area is the advancing of cattle ranching and squatting towards the center of the park. People are illegally settling in park boundaries and campesinos continue to slash and burn around the park perimeters. Poaching and commercial hunting occurs. At least three species of mammals have been reported as going extinct through habitat disturbance and hunting. Park rules are not well enforced, and the punishment and fining system need to be refined.
There is another devastating problem that the park is facing. An airborne virus known as the Lethal Yellow Disease is killing out an important northern coast species of coconut trees. The park has set up a nursery to raise different varieties that are resistant to the disease while still being as useful as the one that is currently infected. There is a current recommendation to people who have infected trees, known by their pale yellow color, which is to cut them down and burn them to prevent the further spreading of the virus. It is thought that the coconut species currently infected will soon become extinct.
Jeanette Kawas National Park is an important sanctuary for Honduras' coastal ecosystems, wildlife, and indigenous people. It is equally important to the rest of the world. It is my hope that this park will always be protected from destruction.
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Volgenau, Gerry. "In Honduras, the Garifuna culture fights for survival." Detroit Free Press.
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"Joint Effort to Save Lagoon Livelihoods in Honduras." Honduras This Week: Online.
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