Spring Break, 2008 Engineers Without Borders & Ecological Engineering in the Tropics
The students of the ESF chapter of Engineers Without Borders were in Honduras to work on providing potable water for the residents of Buena Vistaan isolated village community of 300 people near the north coast on the dry side of the Pico Bonito mountains. At the same time, students taking Ecological Engineering in the Tropics (EET) with Professor Ted Endreney, traveled to rainforests, coral reefs, and Mayan ruins.
Fifteen students, 8 of them women, 14 ESF (1 SU), 60% engineers, the rest from EFB, WPE, and FNRM, arrived at San Pedro Sula airport with me for 12-days of ecological engineering in the tropics. Fito Steiner, our field guide and my assistant with translation, arrived 30-minutes after us, flying in from Texas. On our bus from SPS to Tela, along the Caribbean, we look out over fields of cane sugar grown for rum production, among other uses. The trip should take 1.5 hours, but several bridges are under construction due to the November 2005 Hurricane Gamma, which killed more than 30 in Honduras and destroyed infrastructure along the North Coast. Students are asking lots of questions about colorful trees lining the road, and some are corozo palm, fox tree, Cortez tree, flame of the woods, and secropia. They see these trees in multi-cropping landscapes, where roadside houses use them along with mango, avocado, citrus, and vegetable gardens and free-range chickens and pigs, to subsist. Intermixed are large tracks of African Oil Palm, which are grown for cooking oil and increasingly as a biodiesel feed. The plantations are extensive, and increasing in scope, to the detriment of coastal wetlands and forests. Students also note the trash scattered along the road, which is seemingly incongruent with the vibrant landscape.
The challenges students address this week will include use of ecological engineering designing to restore watershed structure and functions to benefit society and nature. They may choose to create or utilize a trash collection incentive that improves soil and water resources, public health, and augments eco-tourism. Prior to the trip, the students read textbook chapters and ecological engineering design, and several journal articles on Honduran social, economic, and science problems and initiative. Our hotel is along the beach, and the rest of the day is spent settling into country. Several students are already buying local jewelry and having their hair braided, others are playing frisbee on the beach and swimming. All are inspired to learn more and put their knowledge to practice.
Update from student Scott Mastin
So after a half hour delay at Hancock we got here on time. We had an hour and a half drive to the hotel we are spending tonight and tomorrow night at. I hope to be able to upload the images tomorrow.
When we got to the hotel, we all proceeded to run into the ocean thats less than 50m from the deck of the hotel. We just have completed an ethnic dinner and are relaxing.
Tomorrow we are going to a National Park and a few other places.
Well, it's my turn to go deal the cards, Scott
Jeannette Kawas National Park is our destination, which we reach by a 30-minute boat ride out to Punta Sal, west of Tela. This point of land is 80% mangrove wetland, surrounded by some high cliffs and tropical moist forest. The trip is to expose students to some coastal ecosystem structure and functions, and identify activities and plans that apparently threaten its sustainability. Fito leads us on several trails, providing a clear viewing of Howler Monkeys along with several other exciting animals, always connecting the fauna to local flora and the ecosystem functions. Wild banana (Mussa silvestria) is growing throughout the park, along with black and white mangrove along the trails. We swim in one protected embayment, some students examining the coastal pools for species of marine organisms. For lunch, we boat to another secluded beach and are served fried fish, plantains, and rice, and then take a snorkel to see off-shore coral reef clusters. Our return to Tela is spectacular, with the boat cruising along and between several wave-washed boulders and cliffs, showing us species of iguana and sea-birds. Some of the threats to this ecosystem and Park include local chronic pressures of poaching animals and cutting tropical hardwood timber to generate income, but more severe is an acute threat resulting from a governmental tourism development plan for 3 new 2000-room hotels, built by filling mangrove wetlands with adjacent golf courses and shops.
Triumpho de la Cruz, a Garifuna Village east of Tela, is our late afternoon and evening trip. The Garifuna use a distinct dialect ("ida bina" is "how are you"; "buita binafi" is "good morning"), and practice cultural rites with west African roots. The students are here to learn how this coastal community utilizes nature, and apply this knowledge with generating design plans for similar Garifuna villages stretching from Punta Gorda, Belize to Bluefields, Nicaragua. The Garifuna have a direct connection with the sea, using fishing along the littoral shore, to provide household food and income. Their boats typically come from dug-out trees. Their homes are built with materials ranging from rods of wild cane filled in-between by packed clay, to mangrove wood boards, or concrete block. Most houses and beachside champas (gazebos) are roofed with fronds from the corozo palm. They also maintain banana/plantain, corn, and cassava (yucca or manioc root) fields in the nearby forest, and may have vegetable gardens in their yards, along with free-range chickens and pigs. Many families also have income sent by relatives living in the US. These villages receive numerous visitors, who enjoy the unique style of food, and the distinct percussive music and dance, known as punta. Students are given their first ecological engineering design challenge before dinner, and they tour a beach with areas littered by trash, and visit a river that flooded during Hurricane Gamma to tear out crossing roads and destroyed riverbank homes. It seems headwater areas suffered from aggressive forest cutting, and restoration of forest land management is needed to absorb runoff from these tropical storms.
Update from student Scott Mastin
Today we traveled to the National Park at Punta Sol, Blanca Jeannette Kawas for hiking and discussion of problems with the integration of society and nature. We had lunch from the other side of the island. We had some down time to relax and enjoy the ocean. After a short layover at the hotel we traveled to Triumpho de la Cruiz, a village where we went to see the effect of storms (Gamma) on society. The Gamma storm modified a small ocean bound flow into the new Gamma River that is primaraily surface flow. We ate dinner as the darkness swept over the community, and ventured back to our hotel for much needed rest.
Hasta luego, Scott
A cold front arrived last night, bringing pelting rain and strong winds, driving the sea into a froth, pushing surging waves toward the hotel. We have no power and intermittent water supply, so the breakfast is delayed. By 8 am the students are on the bus and we start our planned trip to Lancetilla Botanical Garden, and we hike the grounds in the rain. Here the students take a long, detailed, tour of tropical trees and other plants that might provide important structure and function in their restoration designs. The Garden was founded by Dr. Wilson Popenoe of United Fruit Company, and it occupies 1600 hectares, with a display, experimental, and reserve zone. The site is managed in part by the Zamorano Pan-American Agriculture School, located several 100 km in southern Honduras. In the display zone, signage is colored to denote use, with green indicating hardwood, yellow ornamental, red fruit and medicine, and black as poisonous (with fruit and medicine applications). The site has a germplasm bank, and students begin asking about viability of certain plants to serve in designs, providing benefits to society and nature. The rambutan tree could potentially provide 1500 fruits per year at 9 yrs age, selling at 1 Lempira per 3 fruit. The mangostein tree at 10 years could provide a similar fruit yield, but at 2 Lempira per fruit. The germplasm products are taken by extension agents, called enlace, to nearby hillside villages. Nearly the entire north coast is lined by mountains, part of the Cordillera Nombre de Dios, and slash-and-burn agriculturists have increased in numbers. They are finding it difficult to regenerate soil productivity after harvest of annuals, and more perennial crops are considered an improvement for income and in hillside restoration to regenerate canopy cover and reduce soil erosion.