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Honduras - Deadly harvest: how demand for palm oil is fuelling corruption in Honduras

Park ranger Adonias Cruz was out monitoring illegal oil palm crops in Blanca Jeannette Kawas national park, on the north coast of Honduras, on 10 September, when an unknown armed man came to his flat and rang the bell. When the stranger realised Cruz was out, he left him a death threat.

“I had already received death threats from people in the community for leading a team to eradicate a new oil palm plantation in the central zone of the park,” says Cruz. “It was frightening to know they were in my flat and that everything could have ended differently if I had been home that day.”

Cruz, 28, is one of four park rangers dedicated to protecting national parks and monitoring illegal oil palm crops in Honduras. It is a high-risk job: groups linked to the exploitation of palm oil in environmental reserves and drug trafficking have made it clear they are ready to kill if they think the agents interfere too much in their business.

“Most people see us as their enemy. We can have friendly conversations with everyone here, but you never know who will be behind the next assassination attempt,” says Cruz.

Fellow park ranger Cesar Ortega, 22, adds that the team’s work is monitored by the criminals. “From when we leave the office, they know exactly where we are and where we are heading. They have people at every intersection calling in our position and asking if we are with soldiers,” he says.

Cruz and Ortega are two of the many rangers who have been threatened while fighting against the rapid spread of oil palm plantations. Palm oil, especially from the oil palm’s fruit, has become an essential export business in Honduras, used in the food industry, in beauty products and as a biofuel. Its low production costs make it a cheap substitute for most oils, such as sunflower and olive, significantly lowering manufacturing costs in global markets.

Palm oil accounts for about 40% of global demand for vegetable oil as food, animal feed and fuel – about 210m tonnes. Between 1995 and 2015, annual production quadrupled, from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes, and it is expected to quadruple once more in 2050. Latin America, the fastest-growing producer, accounts for almost 7% of global palm oil production.

In Honduras, oil palm gained traction as a crop in 2014, when the former president Juan Orlando Hernández invested almost $72m (£57m) in loans and grants to incentivise its cultivation. “All one needed was the willingness to plant oil palm, and the rest was served on a plate,” says Pablo Flores Velásquez, professor of environmental investigations at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH).

The problem is that the extensive cultivation of oil palm has not only proved to be lucrative, but also poses a risk to the environment. “The oil palm presents a serious threat to the biodiversity of the wetlands and the water quality communities depend on,” says Velásquez. “As a monoculture, the installation and establishment of the crop necessitates the complete eradication of the biodiverse area, paralysing the ecosystem completely and permanently.”

In Honduras, these crops – whose harmful effects on the soil can create “green deserts” – account for almost 4% of all exports, mostly going to the Netherlands, the US, Italy and Switzerland, with a value of $334m in 2021. Six large companies control the production, and two claim more than half of all exports.

Nevertheless, 60% of the production in Honduras is in the hands of smallholders, who sell to corporations for refinement and export. Palm oil is highly lucrative for the farmers and provides an income every 15 days. The regional price of palm oil fruit varies greatly, from about 2,400 lempiras (£77) a tonne during low season to double that in summer.

Andres Cartagena, 75, a cattle farmer since childhood, has switched to harvesting palm oil. “I’m old, and it is a steady income that needs less hard work and attention,” he says. “It’s just easier money.”

Besides the environmental problem, illegal oil palm crops are also used by drug traffickers in Honduras and Latin America, supporting laundering and transportation.

According to Frances Thomson, Latin America specialist in the Centre for the Study of Illicit Economies, Violence and Development, agribusiness is now essential to the drug economy, fulfilling multiple roles. “Investment in agribusiness provides a means for legalising the income from drug trafficking. For the traffickers, oil palm crops are also a way of legitimising their presence in the territory and securing physical control over the land required for trafficking routes,” Thomson says.

“Narco traffickers often choose oil palm investments specifically because many Latin American governments offer incentives for this crop such as tax breaks, subsidised credit and grants.”

This demand for space to plant the crop has led to a proliferation of illegal plantations, with fatal consequences for environmental activists across Honduras and Latin America. According to a report by Global Witness, 177 Latin American environment defenders were killed in 2022, 14 in Honduras, with some of them engaged in palm oil prevention programmes. Honduras was declared the deadliest country to be an environmental activist in 2017.

National parks such as the Blanca Jeannette Kawas – named after a murdered environmental activist – are the most heavily affected. Since 2016, there has been a massive increase in oil palm plantations in the park, which is managed by NGOs such as Prolansate (Protection of Lancetilla, Punta Sal and Texiguat).

Nelbin Bustamante, executive director of Prolansate, says it has been impossible to eradicate all illegally planted oil palm crops, especially with the resources at his disposal. “We used to have only two full-time rangers, but that is not enough considering we are in charge of monitoring four parks, which make up more than 700,000 hectares (1,700,000 acres),” he says.

The Guardian joined the rangers on a recent operation in the core zone of the park, looking for new deforested spaces. Several young oil palm oil crops were found. “This all used to be mangrove, which is not only extremely important for the environment but is also endangered in these areas,” says Cruz. “They are not done yet here.”

During the operation, the rangers detected the noise of a chainsaw and an axe in the mangroves. They tracked down the sounds, chasing two individuals through thick mud and chest-high water, apprehending an 18-year-old woman while the other person fled with the chainsaw.

After the arrest, a community leader approached on a motorcycle and argued for the woman’s release. After a lengthy discussion, Bustamante let her go. “If we had tried to take her to the prosecutors’ office in Tela, the community would have blocked our way out,” he says.

“Here we are exposed to institutional failure. We are not able to do anything more than monitor and report. Eradicating oil palm crops here would be certain death for us,” Bustamante says. “Every time we send in a report, something rarely happens. We have reported cases of illegal oil palm crops in the national park that date back 10 years and still haven’t heard back from the responsible institutions.”

According to the rangers, some people in the prosecutors’ office are also landowners and conflicts of interest can arise. One recalls a case where his team arrested a group of people deforesting a large space in the park’s core zone. As they returned with the group, the prosecutor claimed misconduct in the arrest, which almost resulted in a lawsuit. “We later found out that this prosecutor owned land close to where we made the arrest. So who will prosecute the prosecutor?” the ranger asks.

One prosecutor in Tela, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the corruption of public officials and conflicts of interest are part of the problem. “Many environmental investigations are very specific, and it takes more time for us to make a case. And they usually don’t go well,” he says. “Witnesses are extremely vulnerable. They can be threatened, killed, or paid to keep quiet. If we try to approach people from the community who might have witnessed environmental destruction, most stay silent because of the potential repercussions, and we cannot build a legal case.”

In December 2022, President Xiomara Castro’s government established the Third Brigade for Environmental Protection, also known as the Green Battalion. This force is dedicated to work with conservation NGOs and, according to the activists, it is a step in the right direction. However, they say it is not enough.

“They established the Green Battalion but did not consider logistics. That means we had a battalion dedicated to us, but they are based in La Ceiba, two hours away, says Bustamante.

“Whenever we want to work with them, we must get, feed, and drive them everywhere. So, sadly, it has not been such a great success.”