The tiny village of Las Marias lies on the banks of the Rio Platano, deep in the heart of Mosquitia, Honduras – the so-called "Little Amazon" of Central America, the largest area of tropical rainforest north of the Amazon Basin. In recent years, however, Mosquitia's magnificent isolation has been shattered by intruders: drug smugglers and heavily armed squatters.
This is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Central America, spanning the Honduras-Nicaragua border: a vast region of swamps, mangroves, and tropical forest, covering some 25,000 square kms – the size of southern England. With a population of only about 2,000 families of indigenous people, Mosquitia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the perfect habitat for many rare animals, including jaguar, tapir and macaws.
But those animals are not alone in finding the area hospitable. The dense tree cover also offers the ideal hideaway for smugglers who are cutting landing strips deep in the jungle, as transit points for drug shipments flown up from South America. The "narcos" – ruthless crime syndicates whose gang wars claim thousands of lives on city streets from Bogotá to New York – are threatening the indigenous cultures and nature preserves of Central America too.
One day at the end of last year, the villagers in Las Marias – indigenous Pech people, who live mostly from fishing and hunting – were alarmed to hear a helicopter descending on their abandoned airstrip on the edge of the village. There are no roads here: the only links to the rest of the country are an offroad drive, a boat, or by air.
"When the helicopter landed, a group of soldiers jumped out and squatted down, pointing their guns," remembers villager Doña Blanca. "Their faces were painted and we felt scared. An American officer came over to us and asked if any narcos' planes had landed here recently. Five minutes later the helicopter took off again." Doña Blanca assured the officer that no planes had landed there for a long time. They have become used to hearing low-flying aircraft, but are never sure whether it's a drug traffickers' plane, or one of the occasional US reconnaissance flights, from its base in central Honduras, the largest US force in Central America.
As Doña Blanca and her neighbours were greeting their unexpected visitors, her husband Manolo was walking in the jungle. He wanted to verify rumours that illegal settlers – "invasores" – were cutting down the forest. The suspicion is that with their wads of cash and heavy weapons, the settlers are being paid by the narcos as a way to launder their profits and act as a smokescreen for their landing strips hidden deeper in the jungle.
With Manolo was naturalist guide José Aguirre, who has brought adventure travellers to the area for the last 20 years. "Long before we reached the clearing, we could hear the chainsaws," said José. "But we didn't want to confront these outsiders. They carry AK-47 machine guns and the villagers are very nervous about getting into a conflict with them."
"As we got closer, the sounds of the chainsaws grew louder and we heard trees falling, with a huge splintering crash. When we reached the edge of the clearing, we were shocked at the size of it. It must have been as big as 40 football pitches."
What José and Manolo saw was a scene of devastation: jagged stumps and scattered tree trunks lying amid tangled vines and bromeliads. Majestic giants of the jungle – such as the ceiba, sacred tree of the Maya, who believed it formed a link between the land of the living and the underworld – lay flattened and lifeless.
A few days later, José reported what he had seen to the Instituto Nacional de Conservació* y Desarrollo Forestal (ICF), the government department responsible for the conservation and management of its forests. The wider picture he described revealed the threat not only to the primary rainforest, but also to its indigenous inhabitants. The "atrocity" of deforestation, he wrote, had been going on for more than a month, with more than 40 hectares stripped. He described settlers who frightened villagers by coming into their communities bearing AK47s and offering them large sums for their land. He told of young women abducted and forced to marry for their land rights.
"If this illegal settlement is allowed to continue, then soon the indigenous communities will be driven out," he concluded. "They will be marginalized to the riverbanks and will no longer have the sustainable use of the forest that they have always had." And, José warned, the authorities were not paying attention. "Urgent military intervention is needed, not just in the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve, but in all of Mosquitia," he wrote. "Let us put this place in order, so that the indigenous inhabitants may feel that they are truly Honduran citizens."
His view is echoed by MOPAWI, the main conservation NGO in the area. Only able to provide one official to oversee the whole region, it warns that permanent, properly trained and equipped guards are needed. It also says that alternative sites outside the Reserves should be set up, where settlers can legally raise cattle and harvest timber. And it argues that local community groups should be involved to report on illegal settlements, deforestation and looting of archaeological sites, and they should be protected against the risk of reprisals. In the face of government indifference to the growing urgency, however, MOPAWI's plan of action for Mosquitia is just a wishlist.
Back in Las Marias, Manolo says he is going to keep a close eye on the settlers from now on. But he regrets the new mood of suspicion upsetting the trust that has always bonded his village. "I am going to patrol the trail by the clearing where these settlers are working," he says. "But how can I stop them if they cut down more trees? Who is selling them this land? Land has always belonged to our community. Land is our community. But now we are beginning to mistrust our own neighbours, and that makes me sad."