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Tuesday, November 17, 1998 Published at 01:00 GMT

World: Americas

The curse of cut trees

Exceptional damage - deforestation left nothing to keep the soil

By the BBC's special correspondent in Honduras, Ben Brown

Honduras needs its trees - Ben Brown reports
There is not much left of the once fabulous forestry of Honduras. About half the trees of this country have disappeared over the last few decades - they have been chopped or burnt down.

Hurricane Mitch

Deforestation has been a concern for environmentalists for quite some time, as they fear that the systematic slaughter of the forests will eventually suffocate the earth. But felling rainforests seems to have taken its toll much earlier than expected.

For now it seems that Hurricane Mitch has been far more deadly than it need to have been, just because the forests were no longer there. Trees help the soil absorb water, but without them, the torrential rain dumped by Mitch caused lethal mudslides that buried people alive.

[ image: Mudslides filled up entire houses, and buried people alive]
Mudslides filled up entire houses, and buried people alive
Dr Carlos Medina, a former environment minister of Honduras says that some of the places worst hit were exactly those, where the trees had long gone.

"I think that the destruction produced by Hurricane Mitch was compounded by about 30% by this deforestation," he said.

It is not just felling that threatens the forests. All too often Honduran peasant farmers start forest fires - they burn the woods so that they can cultivate the land, growing corn and beans in particular. It is the same slash and burn that has ravished so much of the world's rainforests.

Illegal logging has done plenty of damage, too.

But in Honduras it is poverty that is the real problem. Few people have gas or electricity, for them the main source of energy is the forest. They simply cut down trees for fuel. Now environmentalists hope that the carnage caused by Hurricane Mitch will at least make Hondurans think twice about what they are doing to their trees.

"I am sure this is going to result in much more serious attempts to halt deforestation," says James Smyle, a forestry expert. But he adds that the key to the problem is poverty.

While many people have to struggle for survival, environmentalists and their causes are not particularly popular in Honduras. Over the last few years, two of them have even been shot dead - murdered, because hey were campaigning to save the rainforest.

The message that Honduras does need its trees is not an easy one to sell.

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