Disappearing Opportunities



1998: Hurricane Mitch

In November 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated the Central American countries of Nicaragua and Honduras, while inflicting heavy damage on neighboring countries. Economists say that the hurricane may set back the Nicaraguan and Honduran economies years, even decades, by wiping out important agricultural regions and destroying infrastructure. Floods, landslides, and disease caused by Central America's worst natural disaster in generations killed well over 10,000 people.

While the damage from Mitch, at one point a category-5 hurricane, was inevitable, much of its devastation was made worse by deforestation. Aerial surveys reveal that landslides occurred on hillsides that had been cleared of their vegetation for agriculture and human settlements. The lack of vegetation to anchor soils meant rivers of mud accompanied the rapid runoff from heavy rainfall and buried entire villages. In areas where land was not cleared for agriculture, few landslides occurred. Relatively unscathed by Mitch were hillside plots farmed in a traditional method whereby crops like coffee and cocoa are grown under the shade of canopy trees. Leaves dropped by the trees provide nutrients for the crops, while tree roots anchor the soil and prevent against erosion and deadly landslides. This farming technique, long advocated by ecologists and environmental groups, is ideal for community-based conservation because it preserves biodiversity and forest functions, while providing high yields and large crop variety for participants.

Despite the widespread destruction in deforested areas, the relief effort in Central America will likely spur more deforestation as new patches of forest will be cleared to make up for the agricultural lands lost during Mitch.
 
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Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2005