A resplendant quetzal - a green bird.

Developing a Carbon Market: Tree Hugging for Conservation in the Honduran Cloud Forest

Forestry student Joe Salmona spent six weeks with Operation Wallacea in the Honduran jungle collecting data on forest carbon as part of their long-term biodiversity monitoring programme which provides data sufficient to join a carbon trading scheme.

Most people haven’t heard of Honduras. And if they have, they know precious little about it.

This small mountainous nation in Central America is the poorest country in the Americas. In recent years, Honduras has developed a reputation as a dangerous country. The Australian, UK and US foreign departments all have warnings about travelling to Honduras on their websites.

Frighteningly, as recently as 2015, Honduras claimed the highest homicide rate in the world. Within 48 hours of arriving in San Pedro Sula, I managed to have my credit card skimmed.

After leaving the city, I soon discovered that Honduras is a country of extreme natural beauty, and home to a unique culture that I have never experienced before.

I was lucky enough to accept a position as a forest structure scientist with British NGO Operation Wallacea (Opwall), a global network of academics dedicated to the conservation of biodiversity.

The mission: a team of five forest scientists, headed up by Rik Barker, needed to measure over 130 plots each season to get an idea of how the forest is changing and, most importantly, how much carbon exists within it.

The location: the cloud forests of Cusuco National Park in the northwest of Honduras.

Cusuco National Park is not small – about one-quarter the size of the ACT. So, it takes a lot of effort to measure enough trees to estimate carbon within the whole park. There are seven camps within Cusuco, and, by each campsite, there are several long-term monitoring sites. Some are only a few metres away; others are a tough three-hour hike in rugged terrain.

With the incredible help of high-school and university students from around the world, I spent six-weeks as a scientist and teacher collecting data on carbon storage in the forest – by hugging trees. The diameter of the tree at shoulder height is a surprisingly good guide for its carbon. As it turns out, wrapping a tape measure around and hugging a tree is the scientific way to measure carbon storage!

All of this work is contributing to the preservation of a unique natural wonder. Cusuco is situated high in the clouds of the Sierra Del Merendon where North America meets South. Its geographical setting as a high-elevation ‘island’ is part of the reason why the area is such a biodiversity hotspot, acting as an important refuge for plants and animals.

In fact, out of 173 000 protected areas, Cusuco finds itself in the top 50 most irreplaceable for herpetofauna, birds and mammals; and the top 25 for amphibians specifically.

Despite a history of intense logging and exploitation, the forest is recovering and is home to some exquisite animals and plants that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

In my six weeks under the canopy, I saw breathtaking birds like the mythical resplendent quetzal and the keel-billed toucan and a raft of venomous snakes. The fer-de-lance, an aggressive and highly toxic snake is not an uncommon sight. As are coral snakes and pit vipers, which are known for biting the local guides. On consecutive days, two of my colleagues managed to step on a ‘timbo’ – a venomous Honduran montane pit viper – but were fortunate not to get bitten.

Less dangerous, and perhaps most impressive, are the dozens of amphibians and invertebrates that occur only in Cusuco National Park. The global spread of the chytrid fungus that is decimating local amphibian populations resultingly highlights the pressing nature of amphibian conservation.

Deforestation has had devastating effects on the resident fauna, reducing the already limited habitat. Finding evidence of the existence of the endangered Baird’s Tapir and near-threatened Jaguar is becoming more difficult each year.

Cusuco is under serious and imminent threat from industries that carry out regular deforestation in the area. Since operating in Cusuco in 2003, Opwall’s annual monitoring surveys on the forest structure have shown deforestation is increasing at an unprecedented rate, particularly on the west side of the park.

Huge chunks of the forest are illegally cut down and burnt each year during Opwall’s off-season by local villagers. The tropical mountainous environment of Cusuco provides the best growing conditions for coffee trees, and they grow best when they are mono-cropped or with a patchy overstory of trees. Sadly, when the forest is cut down to make way for coffee, not even the timber is salvaged.

The infliction of carbon into the atmosphere is a less obvious, but nonetheless serious, impact of deforestation. When trees are cut down and burnt, most of the stored carbon releases into the atmosphere. Coffee trees only store a fraction of the carbon of the mature forests they replace.

Currently, there is no financial incentive to discourage villagers from destroying the forest. There are no rangers or resources to monitor the forest. The Honduran army provides the only physical protection of the park, however even this is on an ad-hoc basis.

This is where Opwall comes in.

Under the leadership of Opwall’s Head of Research Dr Dan Exton and the Cusuco National Park Senior Scientist Dr Danielle Gilroy, Opwall is applying for funding under the National Forests Standard (NFS) scheme to sell the carbon stored in Cusuco’s trees. The aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and safeguard biodiversity by reducing deforestation and land degradation.

Unlike centralised carbon schemes like REDD+, the NFS system is designed to deliver resources directly to the areas of greatest need. In this case, funds can be used to protect the forest through patrols and legal enforcement and to provide micro-finance loans to local communities engaging in sustainable food production.

It is the responsibility of the Honduran government to approve the arrangement so that the NFS can issue Natural Capital Credits (NCCs). These credits are denominated in tonnes of avoided CO2 emissions and rated by biodiversity and the risk of deforestation based on socioeconomic datasets that Opwall has collected. Foreign companies can buy NCCs to offset their operations. Even if they destroy only one section, the whole forest itself loses value as an asset.

Placing a value on the park’s carbon and biodiversity provides an incentive to conserve rather than to deforest for coffee. Only then might we take into account the long term considerations of this forest in the clouds.

If you would like to get involved as a scientist or as a student, feel free to email me at joseph.salmona@anu.edu.au or visit https://opwall.com.

Acknowledgements: This trip could not have been possible without funding from PARSA’s Student Extracurricular Enrichment Fund (SEEF).