General Description / Cultural Significance
The pine tree, Pinus oocarpa, also known locally as ocote, is the national tree of Honduras. The fragrance of the pine tree is well-known in Honduras, and the resin of the tree has been used in traditional medicine to benefit a variety of conditions. The tree is most important for commercial timber production. However, the farming and export of wood from the pine tree is tied up in the ongoing social conflict over land rights in the country, between powerful elites and farmers, which has only been made worse since the country’s 2009 political coup.
Indigenous people in Honduras have made good use of the pine tree. The Lenca people plant the trees to provide shade for coffee growing, which can then be exported and create revenue. They also use the wood of pine trees in order to cook food. The Lenca have fought to preserve their own ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants and their uses, in order to create an autonomous healthcare system. They also don’t wish to rely on the government to provide them with healthcare, which they feel is too inaccessible and expensive for marginalized groups of the country. So protecting biodiversity is important to them, and other indigenous groups like the Garifuna people, who have been fighting to keep and live off their land for decades.
Climate Change/Conservation Status
Honduras only accounts for 0.1 percent of global carbon emissions, yet they are severely affected by emissions from other countries. In November 2020, two massive hurricanes hit Honduras. Caused by the climate crisis, Eta and Iota struck within the same two weeks, disasters so proximate to each other that they shocked even weather experts.
Besides climate change disasters, pine trees, Honduras’ most dominant flora, have suffered what has been called an “ecological catastrophe” at the hands of the Southern Pine Bark Beetle, an insect the size of a grain of rice. Global warming has spawned an explosion of the beetles, which have munched their way across the country. In order to contain the insect, Honduran soldiers had to cut down all infected trees. In 2015, it was estimated that over one million acres of pine forest, which is the equivalent to a quarter of the country’s primary forest cover, had to be cut in order to create buffer zones and save trees. Experts believe that the prolonged drought that the country has experienced weakened the trees, making them susceptible to the bark beetles.
When the beetle effects the tree, it lays its eggs under the bark. To fight the larva, the tree secretes a resin to try to protect itself. Despite the defense mechanism, the trees have been unable to fight off the insects.
Within just a few years, entire forests have been devastated. The plague has been an enormous environmental and economic loss for the country, but on top of that, local communities witnessing the deforestation have been deeply saddened by the loss of the old-growth forests of this emblematic tree. Many of the indigenous peoples’ spirituality is tied to the environment, and they have depended on the trees for their shelter and other resources that it provides. The tree has been interwoven into Honduran culture for successive generations. For example, the indigenous people have made pine baskets from the needles with regional, cultural designs that are sold to provide livelihood for many families.
Additional deforestation has resulted from logging and clearing land for agricultural purposes, and from 1990 to 2000, Honduras had the leading deforestation rate in the world. Organizations such as Global Witness, which has investigated the continued environmental devastation in Honduras, has found that projects run by country’s ruling elite are using military forces to steal land for themselves or their corporations. There are ongoing reports and legal cases involving those trying to protect the forests and the environment that have been murdered by government forces or hired assassins, employed by benefiting corporations. More than 120 people have been killed since 2010, and innumerable others have been imprisoned or savagely attacked.
Corporate farming also contributes to deforestation in the country, as do pesticides. Not only has social conflict over land been perpetuated through the production of palm oil, but the actual production of palm oil causes deforestation of forests that sequester carbon, and ultimately destroys the land. Crops like coffee, when impacted by inconsistent weather patterns and hurricanes, also require farmers to move crops to higher altitudes and therefore causes more deforestation.
Virgin forests, such as those in Honduras, are a unique feature on the planet today, and create ecosystems that offer benefits that include water regulation and nutrient recycling. Old-growth forests range, on average, from 250 years old to 1000 years in age. As of 2021 Honduras is home to 154 threatened plant species.
The loss of forests means that hundreds of species of birds, mammals, and reptiles, not to mention unique species of vascular plants, also lost their habitats. With the trees cut down, the animals die off, and the people who have shared the forests with these animals go hungry.
The effect that deforestation has had on watersheds and water control continues to be a problem. This can also have an effect on rising temperatures and local rainfall, and, of course, such deforestation increases greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere around the world.
The forests are slowly growing back, and there are efforts to replant the most devastated zones with indigenous pinecone seeds, though much of the forests are beginning to regenerate naturally.
Mexican yellow pine
Pino de Colorado
Pino de Ocote
Abbott, J., 2018. Indigenous communities carry on Berta Cacéres’ work by defending nature and health care in Honduras. Waging Nonviolence. [website]
Farion, A, 2013. Pinus oocarpa. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. [website]
Graham, K., 2015. Honduras has ‘ecological catastrophe’ with Southern pine beetle. Digital Journal. [website]
Kyte, B., 2017. Honduras: the deadliest country in the world for environmental activism. Global Witness. [website]
Leiya, N., 2017. Honduras manages to stall pine-munching bugs’ march. Science X Network. [website]
Pelliccia, M., 2018. Cooperative agroforestry empowers indigenous women in Honduras. Conservation News. [website]
Ramsey, S., 2021. Why Honduras has become one of the world’s most dangerous places for land rights activists. Sky UK. [website]
WordPress, 2015. Deforestation in Honduras. WordPress. [website]