The Patuca River is a long, shining serpentine — achingly beautiful — ribbon that travels through the last great swath of pristine rain forest in Central America. On the map, the region is a fat green stripe, indicating two national parks end to end. But the water, as I trail my fingers in the warm bath, is tawny brown. It is carrying way too much sediment: acres of earth washed down by the deforestation that’s making way for cattle ranches along the supposedly protected banks, and tons more dumped by construction on a massive hydroelectric dam a day’s voyage upstream.
Both are existential threats to this place and its people. And both are products of the pervasive and sophisticated corruption that characterizes the Honduran government.
I have spent a decade living through and researching how corruption has helped fuel some of the world’s most significant security crises — from the expansion of violent extremism to revolutions and their bloody aftermaths. Last year, I began wondering whether similar links exist between corruption and another grave threat: environmental devastation. It didn’t take long to find them.
Corruption, in this context, should not be understood as merely the opportunistic lapses of an underpaid game warden or a customs agent who looks the other way in exchange for an envelope. Rather, in Honduras and more than 60 other countries worldwide, senior officials, key business leaders and out-and-out criminals weave themselves into sophisticated networks for the purpose of maximizing personal gains. Natural resources are a principal source of the cash these kleptocrats capture.
One of the most lucrative rackets is oil. Nigeria’s national oil company, to pick an egregious example, could not account for nearly $20 billion in revenue from 2012 and 2013 alone. A byproduct of such looting — and the predatory attitudes it engenders — is the oil-soaked Niger Delta. The once-vibrant web of winding creeks and inlets is black with sludge, its mangroves gone, grasses and palm trees reduced to tar-smeared stumps. People who once navigated their slender-bowed boats and swam, fished and gathered shellfish there now find an oily sheen in their well water. They suffer skin and lung ailments.
Royal Dutch Shell admits to more than 1,800 spills there in the past decade. In January 2015, Shell agreed to pay $84 million to settle a lawsuit about just two of these. Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International, Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency continues to certify visibly filthy areas as clean.
This pattern is consistent across the corrupt countries I have studied: Agencies charged with protecting the environment are rendered functionally inoperative — budgets are slashed, staff is short or demotivated, equipment goes missing. Predatory extraction of natural resources for personal gain requires lax enforcement of whatever regulations exist. In Nigeria’s case, the predators aren’t just the huge oil multinationals, whose behavior may be encouraged by the ambiguous nature of many of their dealings with officials they know are corrupt, but also host-country operators and outright thieves, who often work in partnership with government institutions. When they see the magnitude of the theft at the top of the pyramid, they consider themselves entitled.
In countries that lack hydrocarbons, other natural resources substitute. The investigative charity Global Witness has documented the Cambodian ruling clique’s control of an illegal logging syndicate that is stripping the country of its tropical forest.
The United States obviously does not fall into the same category as Nigeria or Cambodia when it comes to corruption. Still, certain trends should alarm Americans. Consider West Virginia, where, in 2004, the chief executive of Massey Energy smeared a judge and bankrolled the campaign of a previously unknown judicial rival, who, once elected, ruled favorably on cases affecting the coal company — including at least one the company had lost in a jury trial. Judge Brent Benjamin argued that there was no basis for presuming that the $3 million Massey spent on his campaign might affect his impartiality.
This is the same Massey executive who was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate mine safety rules in a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. Over the years, Massey has taken advantage of the lax enforcement guaranteed by the coal industry’s hold over West Virginia politics, not just to repeatedly ignore health and safety requirements, but also to decapitate forested mountains and routinely dump rubble, slurry and wastewater into the state’s rivers.
Another conduit for corruption: dams. Brazil’s sprawling corruption scandal has implicated several mega-dams in the Amazon. One of them, Belo Monte, would displace at least 20,000 people and extinguish some of the world’s most diverse habitats, in some areas flooding and in others drying up hundreds of square miles of rain forest and croplands, according to studies by International Rivers and others. It would produce more greenhouse gases than an equivalent fossil fuel plant, for at least 20 years. One executive in the construction consortium was sentenced to a 19-year prison term for corruption and money laundering, and the consortium is under investigation for allegedly paying millions in bribes to Brazil’s beleaguered then-ruling party to secure the concession.
Oxford University research published in 2014 indicates that most such dams worldwide will not recoup the cost of their construction, let alone improve standards of living for local populations. Such “white elephants” may not even be meant to serve their stated purposes. Rather, in the words of James Robinson and Ragnar Torvik, authors of an earlier study on large infrastructure projects in developing countries, “it is the very inefficiency of such projects that makes them . . . appealing” as vehicles for channeling money into the hands of a ruling coterie.
Honduras’s Patuca III dam is just such a project. According to lawyer and veteran environmental activist Mauricio Torres, the river probably cannot build up sufficient pressure to generate the intended 104 megawatts: The water is too shallow and the topography too flat. A 2008 government-sponsored environmental impact assessment was “so weak,” according to a 2012 letter from the Inter-American Development Bank to the Honduran government, “that we could not even envision starting to study [Tegucigalpa’s request for project funding] seriously.”
Mario Vallejo, a specialist in environmental law, is not surprised by such meaningless environmental oversight. He says it’s the norm in Honduras. “There’s an evaluation process that must happen before construction on such projects can begin,” Vallejo explains. “But typically, work starts before the study is even completed. Developers get a license in a single day. It’s called temporary, but it won’t be revoked. And the impact assessments, when they’re completed, accommodate what the constructors want.”
When the IDB declined to finance Patuca III, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China stepped in with a loan. The Chinese engineering firm Sinohydro is racing to complete work by next spring, but the contract has raised eyebrows, even in kleptocratic Honduras. The somewhat independent Honduran National Anti-Corruption Council is investigating several officials at the national electricity agency for the alleged embezzlement of more than $4 million from the construction of the barracks that house Sinohydro’s technicians and laborers.
Among the failings the IDB’s assessment identified, the Honduran government neither adequately consulted with nor compensated affected communities. On a trip to the area last summer, two Honduran naturalists; my sister, artist and photographer Eve Chayes Lyman; and I amply confirmed that finding. Villagers told us that they signed for government distributions of rice, for example, and that those signatures were later used by the state electricity company as evidence that they approved of the dam.
According to media reports and numerous interviews, a 2015 protest against the project in Tegucigalpa was defused when the largest landowners — many of them wealthy absentee landlords — were paid off.
“The rich got a higher price for their land than we did,” said a farmer we met on the road, riding a mare with a chestnut foal trotting behind. “They asked us and we said no. This earth doesn’t have a price. But the rich said yes, and we’re backed into a corner.”
Late last year, when the second installment of promised compensation payments failed to materialize, landowners protested again, temporarily interrupting work on the project.
Every single person we interviewed along the river, above and below the dam site, detested the very idea of Patuca III. “It’s a barbarism to nature,” said a man who ran a small lunch counter by the work site. “And the people living according to their ancestral traditions will be the worst affected.”
To talk to them, the indigenous Tawahka and Miskito peoples who live downstream of the dam, we took to the river in one of the long wooden boats, “pipantes,” that are the only mode of transport along the sinuous, silver artery. “This river is the road for all these communities,” said Gil Cardones in Krautara, the first Tawahka village we visited. “Already, the water’s so low it’s hard to navigate in winter.”
According to the IDB’s and other studies, changes in the river’s flow also threaten several species of migrating fish, as well as lizards, crocodiles and turtles. “Now our people are having to abandon fishing,” a young teacher told us at a community meeting in the largest Tawahka village, Krausirpi. “We are losing this whole part of our life and culture. The fish and turtles will go extinct.”
Until recently, the Tawahkas hunted and foraged and fished and interspersed crops with untouched ground and overgrown fallow, preserving this last uninterrupted stretch of rain forest. Patuca III will accelerate its destruction.
For mile after mile upstream of this village, we had seen it: trees hacked off with machetes, the splintered stumps jutting skyward. The tropical wood isn’t even salvaged. “They make boards to build their camps and burn the rest,” said a man who’d asked for a ride in our boat. “It’s too expensive to transport.” Lime-green, deathly silent grass takes over where once stood a vibrant, multistory forest filled with countless varieties of trees, vines, air plants, orchids, a riot of birdsong and hundreds of endangered species.
Another hitchhiker helped us understand how even apparently petty local corruption contributes to the devastation. As she grew comfortable with us, she began excoriating the mayor who presides over that stretch of river. Government-funded small-scale development projects, such as village cleanups, used to provide a trickle of cash that residents need to buy amenities, pay for boat rides to larger towns a few times a year or to purchase medicine, she said, enabling them to retain their lands in an area bereft of public services or access to local markets where they could sell crops.
But under Mayor Walter Bertran Gonzales, the cash-for-work program stopped.
“He gets 25,000 lempiras (about $1,100) in public funding to spend on this project, 25,000 for that project, but he carries it off on his shoulder,” a farmer in the village of Bilalmo had told us the previous day. Newspaper reports echo the corruption allegations. As the projects dried up, depriving villagers of the meager wages they earned from making small repairs to public facilities, cleaning up their communities or other such efforts, residents turned to their only recourse: selling their land.
“In just the past year, almost all my neighbors have sold their land,” the hitchhiker told my sister. “People have no other way to get money.” The buyers “bring in outsiders to clear it and plant pasture for cows.” Several people displaced from this area are known to have fled north to the United States.
According to some who dared talk about it, many of the buyers are narco-traffickers or their proxies. In the article “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation,” Kendra McSweeney and her co-authors note the “close correlation between the timing and location of forest loss and drug transit.” Buying and “improving” land by converting tropical forest into ranches is a good way to launder money. With two dozen villages about to be submerged or badly affected by this dam, and the pockets of wealthy absentee landlords suddenly flush with compensation, the hunger for land will only intensify.
But all of these transactions our passengers described are illegal. Under the 1999 decree that established territories downstream of the dam as a national park, its lands are either inalienable public patrimony or the collective property of indigenous peoples, and only inhabitants present when the decree was enacted may live there. The prosecutor’s office has pleaded a lack of resources to investigate complaints, says Erik Nielsen, one of the authors of the narco-deforestation article, so the “sales” proceed unchecked.
Such pretexts are to be expected in a country that is almost a textbook case of the systemic corruption I have been studying. Economic activity is dominated by fewer than a dozen families. Congress, operating out of a dilapidated 1950s building, has passed law after law lavishing incentives on their businesses, and helping President Juan Orlando Hernández consolidate power and shroud government activities in secrecy.
Environmental activists — in the world’s deadliest country for their work — have documented systematic bias on the part of the legal system, including persistent police harassment and false accusations leading to lengthy and expensive proceedings or unjust convictions. In the case of Berta Caceres, a locally beloved and internationally celebrated campaigner who was assassinated last year, the preposterous initial police suggestions that a botched robbery or a “crime of passion” had taken place, and the rush to investigate Caceres’s fellow activists, fit the pattern.
After intense international pressure, the former vice minister of environment is in jail pending trial for illegally issuing the permit for the dam that Caceres was protesting. If the allegations are accurate, it would be another example of the Environment Ministry’s rubber-stamping that experts and practitioners describe.
Given Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile anti-corruption campaign, Chinese businesses are beginning to think differently about corporate social responsibility in cases like this. In fact, in 2013, Sinohydro pulled out of the project Caceres died protesting.
Patuca III is far worse, yet Sinohydro continues work on it.
And it’s not as though its construction will improve ordinary Hondurans’ lives, even if it does generate electricity. With the country losing nearly a third of its power through poorly maintained transmission systems, the explicit objective is to sell electricity to neighboring countries, according to Giovanni Ayestas, head of social relations at UEPER, the government agency managing Patuca III. And thus generate a cash flow ripe for capture.
Stepping ashore as we nosed our boat onto the bank below her village, our hitchhiker summed up what we had been hearing for days: “That dam will kill us.”
It won’t leave the rest of us untouched, either. Irreplaceable environmental treasures such as the Patuca River and its surrounding national park belong to us all, not just to a handful of kleptocrats. Only persistent public pressure can reliably protect the wild lands that are everyone’s birthright — whether they lie in national monuments west of the Rockies or in Appalachia or along the Patuca.