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The area that would become Honduras was home to the precolonial city of Copan. The ecology of the region was heavily modified by its pre-Columbian residents, though with the decline of the Classical Mayan civilization, the area was reclaimed rain forest and jungle. The country was later colonized by Spain, but not without the resistance of indigenous Lenca peoples of the central highlands. Following independence in 1821, the country fell under the influence of a number of large plantation-based corporate interests, including United Fruit. The unequal trade relationships and land management initiated in this period had a lasting effect on the socio-ecology of the country even into the late 20th century, when insurgency wracked the country.
The Republic of Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and 53 percent of the people live in poverty. With a per capita income of $2,900, Honduras is ranked 160th in world incomes. Inequality is rampant, and the richest 10 percent of Hondurans hold 42.7 of national resources. Some 28 percent of the population is unemployed. Around 61 percent of rural Hondurans are engaged in the agricultural sector, and workers involved in agriculture, forestry, and fishing make up one-third of the labor force. Honduran natural resources include timber, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, iron ore, antimony, coal, fish, and hydropower; but resources have been overexploited.
Honduras borders the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Fonseca in the North Pacific Ocean, resulting in a coastline of 508 miles (820 kilometers). The wellknown Mosquito Coast is located along a section of the Caribbean border. Honduras is mountainous with a narrow coastal plain. The climate varies from temperate in the mountains to subtropical in the lowlands. Dry and rainy seasons are unpredictable. The Caribbean coast of Honduras is subject to damaging hurricanes. In 1998, for example, Honduras was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which took the lives of some 5,600 people and racked up around $2 billion in damages. Although earthquakes are common, they tend to be mild.
The population of 6,975,000 has an increasing rate of HIV/AIDS (1.8 percent) that contributes to lower-than-average life expectancy (69.3) and growth rates (2.16 percent) and to higher than average infant mortality (29.32 per 1,000 live births) and death rates (6.87 deaths/1,000 population). Some 10 percent of the population lacks access to safe drinking water, and 32 percent have no access to improved sanitation. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Reports rank Honduras 116th out of 232 countries on general quality-of-life issues.
The urban population of Honduras is expanding, producing an increase in environmental problems. Massive deforestation is a result of logging and frequent clearing of land for agriculture. Mining, uncontrolled development, and poor agricultural management have led to land degradation and soil erosion. Water pollution is widespread in freshwater sources such as Lago de Yojoa and in rivers and streams. In 2006, scientists at Yale University ranked Honduras 52nd of 132 countries on environmental performance, in line with the relevant geographic group and well above the relevant income group.
In the 1940s, Salvadorans initiated a cotton boom in Honduras that led to the displacement of small farmers. During the 1960s, forests were destroyed to provide pasture for the growing livestock industry. In 1969, the “Soccer Wars” led to the expulsion of Salvadorans as Hondurans reclaimed their land. Both the Salvadorans and the Hondurans engaged in poor agricultural practices, using DDT, dihedron, toxaphono, and parathion. A 1981 study revealed toxic levels of pesticides in the bloodstreams of the population and in surface and groundwater. The production of cotton left a lasting legacy of soil depletion and erosion, increased numbers of harmful insects (leading to greater amounts of pollutants), and land and water contamination.
Forests that range from montane to rain forests make up 48.1 percent of Honduras. Honduras is losing more forests than any other country in Latin America; from 1990 to 2005, 37.1 percent was lost. The government protects only 6.4 percent of the land, including the Tigra Cloud Forest Park near Tegucigalpa and the Copan National Park, where Mayan ruins are located. The Rio Platano Reserve has also been set aside to promote greater biodiversity, and ecotourism is viewed as a way to preserve the coral reefs of the Islas de la Bahia. Ten of 173 endemic mammal species are threatened, and five of 232 endemic bird species are in endangered.
During the 1980s, environmental groups organized, but internal corruption in the 1990s resulted in a withdrawal of international funding. The Ministry of Natural Resources works with a number of agencies to implement and enforce a body of laws that promote protection, conservation, restoration, and sustainable development. Enforcement of environmental laws has been difficult, due in large part to a lack of funding. Honduras participates in the following international agreements: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, and Wetlands.
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Latin America and the Caribbean: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2004);
- Carolina Marui, Environmental Law Enforcement and Compliance in Central America (Center for Environment Law, 1996);
- Michael Painter and William H. Durham, eds., The Social Causes of Environmental Destruction in Latin America (University of Michigan Press, 1995).