By Warren Darrell, a professional engineer with an M.S. in environmental engineering. Warren is an EcoLogic ambassador and communicates with his communty about the work of EcoLogic and the environmental threats that Mesoamerica's rural communities face.
As a volunteer ambassador with EcoLogic, I have had the wonderful experience of visiting rural families and indigenous people in Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and Central America) and seeing them conserve the natural environment while improving their living conditions. I would like to share with you some of what I have seen and learned.
EcoLogic supports community efforts by promoting:
Agroforestry - combining trees with agriculture
Forest preservation and restoration
Fuel-efficient household woodstoves
These measures protect water sources and improve nutrition and living standards for rural and indigenous people. They also mitigate human-caused climate change and defend nature and all people from its harmful effects by:
Maintaining and increasing the absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide by tropical ecosystems, and retaining the carbon in vegetation and soils
Protecting and fortifying agricultural soils, and diversifying crops, thereby sustaining agricultural productivity and income during the dry months and the torrential rains, which are increasing in severity as the climate changes
Protecting forested watersheds, which preserves water supplies, minimize flooding, and provides species habitat
Reducing the quantity of wood burned as household fuel
Slash-and-burn activities destroy the environment and increase greenhouse gas emissions
Tropical forests such as this in the Nombre de Dios mountains of northern Honduras, are “carbon sinks”, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and retaining much of the carbon in biomass and soil. This is near Pico Bonito National Park.
However, nearby, I also saw subsistence farmers practicing “slash-and-burn”, in which they clear the forests for agriculture. The result is a destructive cycle, as the cleared soil is rapidly depleted and eroded, reducing crop yields. Within a few years, the farmers must abandon the worn-out soil, and clear and cultivate different plots, as indicated by this patchwork of partially recovering vegetation. The farmers are thus caught in a cycle of poverty and resource depletion, and the nearby intact forest is at risk. Slash-and-burn degrades the tropical forest, and, due to the loss of tree cover, increases the risk of landslides, floods, and loss of water supplies. Some farmers have told me they know this, but they do what they must for family survival.
The burning biomass and the exposed soil release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing the rate of global climate change. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office has stated “From 2000 to 2005, the loss of forests, primarily in tropical developing countries (contributed) ….approximately 12 percent of global GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions…”
Sustainable agroforestry vs slash-and-burn agriculture
By integrating trees with agriculture, the farmers harvest fruit and useful wood from the trees, and spread the tree prunings upon the soil, protecting it from erosion and desiccation, and suppressing weeds. The prunings eventually decompose, enriching the soil. The result is more and better soil than with slash-and-burn, greater crop yields, and better ability of the soil and crops to withstand drought and intense downpours.
Near Arizona, Honduras. Farmer Roberto is proud of his field of nitrogen-fixing Inga trees. He uses the smaller prunings for mulch and the thicker branches for kitchen fuel.
Forest Preservation and Restoration
EcoLogic supports the work of community associations and indigenous people to preserve and restore their forests, usually for the purpose of watershed preservation.
Well-vegetated land, such as this area near Pico Bonito National Park, preserves its soil and allows rainwater to soak in. This moderates streamflow and flooding during the wet season, and maintains streamflow and groundwater for domestic and agricultural use during the dry season.
Deforested land does not absorb much rainwater, resulting in flooding and soil erosion during the wet season and water shortage during the dry season.
Healthy forests mitigate climate change by absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, and they provide natural habitat for species preservation. The White House Plan to Conserve Forests states that forests, if conserved, could significantly contribute to the reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C.
30 square miles of the Uchapa-Pimenta forest reserve in Honduras provides water for 78,000 inhabitants of Olanchito City and nearby settlements.
By the year 2000, the forest had become degraded by illegal wood poaching, livestock overgrazing, and the southern bark beetle, thus threatening the sustainability of the area’s water supply.
Trees killed by bark beetles. The defense is to maintain a healthy ecosystem and to prevent illegal logging from damaging standing trees.
EcoLogic assists the Municipality of Olanchito and area water associations in forest protection by assisting with agroforestry, volunteer firefighting, and forest wardens. Forest protection and reforestation were initiated in 2007. By 2020, the watershed function had been largely restored.
On foot and equipped with a machete amongst jaguars cougars, and poachers, Ramon patrols the forest to prevent illegal wood harvesting.
Fuel-Efficient Household Woodstoves for Healthier Homes
Firewood is the primary cooking fuel in rural Central America and is also used for comfort heating in the highlands. It is often burned in inefficient open fires or crude stoves, which waste much of the heat and emit smoke that damages the family’s lungs and eyes.
Harvesting large amounts of firewood degrades the already-stressed forests and requires a lot of time and effort from women and children.
Fuel-efficient stoves consume about one-half the firewood as a crude stove. EcoLogic helps community members construct their own fuel-efficient stoves.
Each homeowner contributes some of the cost and much of the labor. In addition, they are instructed in forest preservation and stove operation and maintenance. In some communities, building stoves have become a vehicle for women’s leadership development.
Women love their new stoves – a cleaner more healthful home, a safer kitchen, and less effort gathering firewood.
EcoLogic is deeply grateful to Warren for his incredible support and leadership as an Ambassador, volunteer, and friend. ¡Muchas gracias, Warren!
Warren Darrell is a professional engineer with an M.S. in environmental engineering from the University of Alabama. His career includes engineering and management of energy efficiency improvements. He is an active volunteer in Central America with the EcoLogic Development Fund.