The road through Honduras’s Caribbean coastal mountains is a muddy rut even in the dry season, skirting within inches of vertical slopes that plummet into rivers and the rainforest it traverses. For years it has been the only artery for trafficking illegally cut mahogany out of the rainforest, the loot from a not-so-lucrative practice that threatens the integrity of the nearby Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.
Since August 2005, however, loggers from Guayabo, a village of half a dozen homes, have used the road to haul the region’s first legally and sustainably extracted mahogany to a stockpiling center it shares with two other villages, Sawacito and Mahor. Together, these three villages have formed a cooperative and filed for legal permission to extract mahogany. These efforts prompted the Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation organization, to tap the villages as pioneers of certified sustainable forestry in Honduras, and link them to U.S. guitar manufacturer Gibson, as part of the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program.
Through a business liaison brokered by the Rainforest Alliance, subsistence farmers and loggers are now lugging mahogany planks out of the woods on muleback, cutting them with donated planers and table saws and stacking them for shipment to the U.S. None of the loggers has ever seen a Gibson guitar, but the company that has outfitted the likes of rock and blues legends Santana and B.B. King is paying them $40,000 monthly for a container of two-foot mahogany blocks—a windfall to the loggers, and, because the wood is harvested sustainably, a line of defense for the wildlife in the biosphere reserve.
“This is the best market we’ve seen,” Guayabo logger Alcides Escaño says. “We used to sell wood for four or five lempiras (less than $0.25) per foot to national companies. Now we sell directly to the buyer for almost 40 times as much.”
With training from Rainforest Alliance foresters Medardo Caballero and René Lara, the woodsmen work on the fringe of the reserve’s protected buffer zone to salvage flawless mahogany blocks from trees felled by storms or left behind by loggers, which they then cut to Gibson’s exacting standards. Whenever live trees are harvested, the loggers adhere to a management plan approved by the State Forestry Administration, which allows controlled logging in buffer zones around reserves and in areas of cultural significance.
José Álvarez, the community’s gray-haired, often shoeless patriarch, can point to marked changes in the woodsmen’s attitude toward the forest in which they live. “We used to throw everything on the ground, but now we pack out our trash and go back to pick up what we find that wasn’t ours,” he explains. “We replant after cutting, which we didn’t do before, and we don’t clearcut a whole area. Things are going well for us. There’s no reason to cut illegally.”
Gibson’s SmartWood Guitars
When guitarists take possession of a Gibson guitar containing wood certified by the Rainforest Alliance under the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, they are acquiring more than a beautiful, handcrafted instrument. They are joining Gibson’s commitment to the environment, as the final link in a chain of responsibility that extends back through Gibson’s manufacturing process, through the wood vendors, all the way back to the harvesting and milling of mahogany trees.
Gibson began working with the Rainforest Alliance ten years ago, introducing the SmartWood Les Paul in 1996 to symbolize this new commitment and to raise industry awareness of the need for responsible forest management. Since then, Gibson has quietly moved closer and closer to a goal of 100 percent certified wood, and the majority of Gibson products now have certified content.
The Daily Reality of Logging in Honduras’s Rainforests
Two by two, loggers ford the meandering bends of the Guayabo and the Paulaya rivers with mules in tow. When the mahogany blocks are cut, the loggers lash them to a wooden frame on a mule’s back and let the animal navigate its own way down the forest’s slick slopes to the first of dozens of river crossings they must make each day. In some places the wood must be hauled on muleback for up to eight hours before it reaches a road where it can be loaded onto a truck. If the rain catches the loggers in the woods, they slash banana and palm leaves with machetes and, within minutes, string up a lean-to to wait for a dry spell to crank up their chainsaws.
The village of Guayabo is one of the many clusters of wooden homes interspersed among the curves of the Río Guayabo, a fickle neighbor that cuts them off from the forests—their livelihood—and each other when it swells during rainy season downpours. Chickens, ducks, pigs and cows mill about on the usually muddy roads between the houses, which are surrounded by the most remote reaches of the biosphere reserve.
Though he’s grasping a chainsaw, local resident Omar Antonio Rivera sounds like a hopeful ecologist. “Over the years we’ve seen the animals move farther and farther away, and there aren’t as many fish in the streams because of all the hunting and fishing here, but the idea is they will come back because of our conservation work.”
Seeing the chainsaw in Rivera’s hands, Rainforest Alliance forester Lara, who has worked in Honduran forestry for three decades, describes it ominously as, “the machine that is destroying the world—along with the match.” He says every household in the region has a chainsaw.
On the road to Guayabo, fires set by slash-and-burn cattle ranchers are so commonplace Lara only notices when he doesn’t see the snaking plumes of smoke. The rising tide of burning and illegal logging prompted the government to unleash the Honduran army on the forests. Soldiers now guard the roads through villages like Guayabo and patrol the woods, confiscating mahogany and other timber from unlicensed loggers.
But Lara knows his work with the local loggers fosters the responsible use of chainsaws and a respect for the natural world. “I like what we’re doing here,” he says. “It’s a response to illegal logging that meets national and international demand.”
Widespread, Lasting Change through Forest Certification
Since 1989, the Rainforest Alliance has promoted sustainable forest management. In nearly 50 countries, it has certified more than 71 million acres (28 million hectares) of forests to standards established by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The Rainforest Alliance is the largest certifier of forests accredited by the FSC, the international organization that sets standards for responsible forest management worldwide. The Rainforest Alliance first certified forests in Honduras in 1997, and it now guarantees the sustainable management of 86,500 acres (35,000 hectares) in the Central American country.
Through its Training, Research, Extension, Education and Systems (TREES) program, headed by Caballero in Honduras, the Rainforest Alliance trains and prepares communities for FSC certification and facilitates links to certified markets. Caballero and Lara are working among seven other villages in the country that together manage a combined forestry concession area of more than 173,000 acres (70,000 hectares). When these lands are certified, they will triple the area of certified forestland in Honduras, a country where, as Lara says, “thousands and thousands of people live off the forests and even the president was once a lumberjack.”
This collaborative effort is funded by the U.S.-based aluminum producer Alcoa and Gibson. The Rainforest Alliance coordinates with the GTZ-funded “Protection and Management of the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve Project,” which trains communities on forest management practices.
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