Our base for field activities in Gualaco, Olancho, is slowly becoming a full-fledged field station

The Parque Ecologico y de Agricultura Sostenible Las Orquideas -- Las Orquideas, for short -- is the property, brainchild, and creation of Isidro Zuniga (pictured at right), and its story is told below. A central goal of don Isidro, and by extension the HOCC, is the continual improvement of Las Orquideas until it is becomes a principal location for innovative environmental education, biological research, outreach, and sustainable agroforestry in Honduras. Please scroll down to find out how you can contribute

The Struggle Behind Las Orquideas

Visitors to Las Orquideas today include government dignitaries, school groups, tourists who come to bathe in the Babilonia River, biologists, sustainable development experts, and others who may have little or no inkling of the 20 years of struggle and hardship that have spurred Isidro Zuniga, with the help of his family, to create an environmental oasis in a country besieged by forest destruction, extreme poverty, and societal violence. Las Orquideas is widely considered the finest example of a private ecological reserve--though it is far more than that--in Honduras, and this is an extraordinary accomplishment in a country where the wealthy, who can afford the "luxury," sometimes set aside tracts of their own land for nature, but the poor are lucky to survive. The Zuniga family has never had much cash income, so subsistence agriculture for their-day-to-day diet is an important function of their property. But Isidro Zuniga's whole idea was to also establish a refuge for nature, and he has strictly protected over 100 hectares of tropical dry broadleaf forest, pine forest, and oak woods, which has led to astounding regeneration and natural restocking by fauna that had been hunted out before he acquired the land in the 1990s.

Locally, Zuniga's actions two decades ago to protect his land against invasive hogs, burning, and hunting was considered counterproductive and downright odd, since prevailing wisdom had it that productive land needed to be heavily utilized. Isidro Zuniga, a person who is not averse to giving a passerby a 30-minute lecture on loving Nature as punishment for catching them discarding a candy wrapper, has applied his environmentalist orthodoxy to all aspects of land management. A certain share of orchard fruit is left on the trees to attract frugivorous birds and mammals. Undergrowth is very carefully cleared, to avoid undue damage to plants, in agroforestry plots such as cacao and coffee. Burning is avoided, and plenty of time is spent stopping neighbors' fires from damaging his land. Nowadays, his 100% chemical-free agroecosystem feeds his family, and provides an example for once-skeptical neighbors. Amazingly, given the general lack of outside financial support, he has been able to construct a range of infrastructure for Las Orquideas with earnings from biodiversity monitoring contracts, food sales to bathers in his swimming hole during holiday season, and other miscellaneous sources.

Las Orquideas contains several signposted nature trails (as well as a central access road, storehouse and kitchen, fishponds, the beginnings of a water system, an outdoor classroom, and ample space for tents. It is certainly "rustic" compared to the well-funded locations that abound elsewhere, but beginning in Summer 2015, the Honduran Conservation Coalition began basing its field expeditions there and providing volunteer labor to make the types of low-cost improvements that can gradually turn Las Orquideas into a location capable of hosting a full array of groups for workshops and long-term research (see below).

Isidro Zuniga's path to success was marked by several struggles that have left their mark on the local community of El Ocotal and on the environmental history of Honduras. His property straddles the Babilonia River, downstream from what were once a dozen waterfalls plunging a combined 2,000 feet of elevation, one of the most recognizable and spectacular landmarks in the country. A hydroelectric company gained the upper hand against environmental activists in the early 2000s and diverted the river water into a mini-hydro (which abuts Orquideas), but not before confronting a determined community that went as far as occupying the grounds of the Honduran National Congress for several weeks, until they were driven out by water cannons and their village was occupied by military police. Memories of this struggle have faded for many, but it was a turning point in Isidro Zuniga's career, as he endeavored to protect what he could as powerful new forces began to win the battle for control of Honduras's resources, and poverty, seemingly worsening every year, was never alleviated for those who, for lack of better tools and techniques, continued to destroy the forest. Despite the fact that Mitch, the most devasting hurricane to affect the New World in recent times, had ravaged Honduras in 1998 with floods and mudslides hugely exacerbated by deforestation, little changed. Then, in 2009, a military coup occurred, and Zuniga was one of the first to reach the frontlines of peaceful protest in Tegucigalpa, only to be beaten by police and left for dead. This experience left him sadder and more cautious, and he turned increasingly to improvement of his own creation and away from bigger political battles. Unlike many private landowners, however, Zuniga reached out to whomever could support this vision and provide him with visitors, funds, or simply validation. He became one of the founding members of the Honduran Conservation Coalition in 2011.

Improvements to Las Orquideas

(this is where YOU come in)

The HOCC is interested in donations of time (sweat equity), funds, expertise, and equipment to expand and improve Las Orquideas Field Station. We are an all-volunteer outfit without even a field vehicle to our collective names, but we can humbly say that we have been able to do a lot with very little. Typical of small groups, we are quite nimble and flexible in our decision-making. More than anything, we need VOLUNTEERS and INTERNS willing to spend a few days or a whole summer (or any time else that is convenient) to offer their expertise and labor; we also need EXPEDITION PARTICIPANTS to help defray the costs associated with the kind of exploratory activities we are known for -- blazing paths for others to follow, facilitating discovery of new species, providing the basis for better protection of existing parks and the declaration of new parks... Here is a list of what we hope to accomplish at Las Orquideas, with your help:

Immediate

 

  • Entrance road maintenance and trail maintenance and improvement

  • Walking bridge re-construction

  • Latrine improvement

  • Dormitory improvement (and possibly construction of new dormitories, if funds become available)

  • Improved water system

  • Re-construction of outside classroom

  • Georeferenced biological inventories of ORCHIDS property

  • Help with a Master Plan

Medium and Long Term

 

  • Solar power

  • Indoor classroom and laboratory space

  • Cafeteria

  • Multiple dormitories

  • Apiary

  • Museum with specimen collections

  • Environmental library

  • Purchase of neighboring properties, restoration, and protection of habitat corridor to Sierra de Agalta National Park

  • Your idea here: _______________

Opportunities for Field Research

Las Orquideas is a relatively dry and accessible site near a major paved road. It is also a jumping-off spot for numerous camps in remote locations throughout eastern Honduras, providing researchers, ecotourists, and volunteers easy access to Central America's greatest wilderness and to its least developed and in many cases most traditional communities. We already are happy to support research projects in a vast array of disciplines, and we also have several pet projects of our own that we hope to continue, accomplish, or at least begin over the next few years (see list below). Here are the protected areas accessible by road from Las Orquideas:

 

Sierra de Agalta National Park -- 3 hrs hike to nucleus

Gualaco Cycad Reserve (Teocintes de Saguay) -- 1 hr drive

El Carbon National Park -- 1 hr drive

Sierra del Rio Tinto National Park -- 1 hr drive

Montaña de Botaderos National Park -- 2 hr drive

El Boqueron National Park -- 2 hr drive

La Muralla National Park -- 3 hr drive

 

El Armado Wildlife Refuge -- 3 hr drive

Misoco Biological Reserve -- 3 hr drive

Pico Bonito National Park -- 4 hr drive

Honduran Emerald Reserve -- 4 hr drive (emeralds are also found within a 20-min. drive)

Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve -- 4 hr drive to buffer zone

Tawahka-Asangni Biosphere Reserve -- 1 day

Patuca National Park -- 1 day

 

 

BELOW ARE SOME PROJECTS FOR WHICH WE NEED COLLABORATORS. RESEARCHERS ARE ALWAYS WELCOME TO STAY AT LAS ORQUIDEAS!

 

 

 

  • Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao). A small population persists in the pine forests of northern Olancho, but we are unsure of its size and movements.

 

  • Cycads. Inventories and protection of edible cycads in eastern Honduras is still incomplete. We also continue to support the annual Teocinte Festival every April, the only one of its kind in the world.

 

  • Archaeological Inventory of Gualaco. We have teamed up with the local Cultural Society to help them identify, valorize, and protect both pre-Columbian and post-1500 sites. Gualaco contains some of the most important ruins in Honduras, the 'lost city' of Tayaco chief among them. It also contains the remains of several 18th-century Franciscan missions to the Pech.

 

  • Folk Music Repository. With the 2014 initiation of the "Dia de Gualaco" every September 30th by municipal decree, folk music is beginning to enjoy a Renaissance here. Some 15 local string bands still exist, playing music rarely heard any more in other areas. We are intent on recording and annotating as much of this as we can (and spreading the movement), cognizant of the cultural importance that this effort once had under somewhat similar circumstances in mountainous parts of the eastern USA.

 

  • Honduran Emerald. We plan to move forward in our support of local landowners who are almost solely responsible for protection of this endangered species and its unique thorn forest habitat.

 

  • Avifauna of Botaderos. We have seen at least one unidentifiable taxon in this most isolated of Honduran montane forests, and in partnership with research institutions, plan to spend time every year gaining a better understanding of its birds. Many South American rainforest species reach their northernmost limits here.

 

  • Ascent of Cerro Corozal. Left "unconquered" by our trip in 2012. Corozal, located in Pico Bonito National Park, is higher than Pico Bonito itself--indeed, it is the highest coastal mountain on the entire east coast of North and Central America, and exceeded in height southward only by the coastal mountains of northern South America.

 

  • Protection and Legal Declaration of the Montaña de Jacaleapa / La Crudeza Forest. Territory used by the Nahoa indigenous group, it is an isolated and increasingly fragmented mid-level montane forest within a corridor of highland habitat between Sierra de Agalta and Montaña de Botaderos. It is visited by Scarlet Macaws as well as Red-throated Caracaras.

 

  • House paintings and traditional ceramics. Disappearing fast in remote mestizo and indigenos communities of northern Guata and Gualaco are two decorative traditions preserved by women. House painting is done with a rainbow of mineral paints, by hand, in intricate abstract and floral designs, and along with ceramic paints is the one of the very few remaining iconic traditions of a nearly-forgotten and abandoned culture.

 

  • High altitude explorations in the Cordillera de Agalta (various locations). The 120,000-hectare cloud forest of the Cordillera is very poorly known, and nearly endless potential options exist. Research in the high-altitude limestone forests, which contain abundant sinkholes within virgin cloud forest, are high on the list.

 

  • Ongoing monitoring of birds across the region (numerous species of concern) and support of research in 'suspect' taxa -- those, we have been insisting for years, whose study might reveal the basis for declaration of distinct species (for example, the Wedge-tailed Sabrewing)

 

  • Support to numerous existing protected areas. Described on other pages.

 

  • Support to local communities seeking to document their own biodiversity and to prevent unwise use of resources by local or outside interests (an abiding concern)

 

  • Support (biological inventories) for Pech communities seeking to protect their microwatersheds from encroaching settlement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honduran Conservation Coalition

science-driven, community-focused