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World Wildlife Magazine

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Agua Dulce

Renewing freshwater resources and strengthening livelihoods around the Mesoamerican Reef

Luis Hernández knows his crops. “Allá es yuca.” That’s cassava. “Allí hay un plátano.” Right there is a banana plant.

Walking down the neat rows of a highland farm in the Sierra del Merendón, a rural belt of mountains in northern Honduras, Hernández pauses to name each crop we pass. It’s mid-morning in mid-October—late in the rainy season—and around us the clouds that blanketed the mountainsides at dawn are lifting away unevenly, trailing tattered hems over the patchworks of forest and farmland on each slope.

Hernández, who lives in one of the houses clustered farther up the hill, has dark, thoughtful eyes and a small frame that looks smaller still against the panorama behind him. In one row he points out coffee bushes, legume trees and tomato plants; the next row of yellow-green stalks, he says, is all corn.

“When you see a mountain or slope that was completely eroded and had no trees, and you go back and see that there are banana trees, forest trees, orange trees—that everything is greener—you know this freshwater conservation work is worth the effort. ”

María Amalia Porta
WWF Mesoamerican Reef Office

“That’s called intercropping,” says José Vásquez, leader of WWF’s agriculture work in the region. As he walks over to join us, Vásquez explains that such alternating rows strengthen a plot’s ability to retain the soil while also increasing the number of harvest periods per year.

“First [they harvest] the corn, then the bananas, then the coffee,” he says. “Otherwise they would only be planting corn.”

The mountains of the Sierra del Merendón are home to dozens of small communities that depend, like this one, on subsistence farming. Intercropping is a new technique here. As we follow a winding footpath down the hill, José Gómez, a veteran farmer in a red t-shirt, calls our attention to other improvements. A raised circle of soil around a tree trunk forms a mini-terrace on a steep slope, protecting the roots from erosion. A notch cut into the hillside, discreet but deep, catches water that might otherwise wash straight down the field.

These methods were introduced to Gómez’s community several years ago through a partnership between The Coca-Cola Company and WWF. The partnership is working to conserve the region’s fresh water through a number of initiatives with different local stakeholders, which include private companies, regional nonprofits and farmers such as Gómez.

Gómez was one of the first farmers in the community to start collaborating with the partnership, after recognizing that its agricultural projects did not just aim to protect the mountain’s forests and rivers: they also aimed to boost the productivity of the farms.

“The idea is to work with communities…and help them improve their livelihoods,” says María Amalia Porta, a senior program officer in freshwater for WWF Mesoamerican Reef office and the manager of the partnership’s work in the region since its launch in 2007.

Farther down the footpath, rushing water becomes audible. Porta says it’s one of the numerous small tributaries that feed into the larger Manchaguala River, which in turn flows into the Chamelecón— a major river that carries the fresh water from these mountains northeast until it empties into the Caribbean about 40 miles away.

From Cloud Forest to Coral Bed

One of the biggest reasons behind the partnership’s work in the Sierra del Merendón is the destination of that fresh water when it eventually reaches the sea: a massive coral reef.

The Mesoamerican Reef is the second-longest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, stretching almost 700 miles from the tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to the coastal waters off Guatemala and Honduras. In addition to at least 66 different coral species, the reef supports five species of marine turtle, more than 350 species of mollusk, and more than 500 species of fish, including rainbow-colored parrotfish and filter-feeding whale sharks, the world’s biggest fish.

Globally, reefs generate billions of dollars in revenue each year through tourism and recreation, biodiversity, coastal protection services and fisheries. Studies of reefs in the Caribbean have estimated that they annually account for several hundred million dollars through fisheries and several billion more through tourism.

The reef also supports more than 2 million people in the region, and the fishing boats roving its waters and the umbrellas dotting the white shorelines nearby attest to the very real economic values attached to its underwater ecosystem.
All of the smaller watersheds feeding into the Chamelecón constitute a single river basin system; there are about 400 such basins draining around the Mesoamerican Reef. And like the coral community itself, the ridge-to-reef system is one that rests on delicate and tightly interwoven balances. The human population in the L-shaped band of terrain bordering the reef has exploded since the mid-20th century, straining all of those balances through increased human activity in the form of commercial development, industrial processes and agriculture.

The latter two have had particular impact in Guatemala and Honduras, where manufacturing and farming form the economic backbone of the regions affecting the reef. In the valleys and flatter regions, wastewater from factories, large-scale farms and communities has carried harmful pollutants out toward the corals.

Higher up, in the foothills and mountains themselves, poor farming techniques have increased soil erosion, burdening the waterways with excess sediment that essentially chokes the corals and spurs harmful amounts of algae growth.

Ridge to Reef

The Mesoamerican Reef forms one end of a broader ecoregion that begins farther inland, in high-altitude cloud forests such as those in Manchaguala. It’s an area bound by the flow of fresh water, which collects in the mountains and trickles into creeks and streams that flow, eventually, into major rivers that empty into the Caribbean. Evaporation along the coasts generates moisture in the air that drifts inland, completing the cycle.

the water cycle

1. CLOUDS AND RAIN

Moisture condenses around the mountains and enters the ground through fog and heavy rainfall.

2. DOWNWARD FLOW

Groundwater from the soil, along with runoff, erosion and other pollutants, enters streams and small rivers that carry it downhill.

3. GATHERED WATERS

Small rivers feed into larger ones that wend their way through foothills, valleys and flatter regions.

4. INTO THE OCEAN

The fresh water flows out into the sea through the mouths of the major rivers.

5. COAST AND SEA

Currents carry some of the fresh water out to coral reefs lining the seafloors along the coasts.

6. EVAPORATION

Water evaporates over the shoreline and shallow waters of the coast, and the heat pushes it upward, renewing the cycle.

  • Man in a truck in Honduras

    A man holds on to a tire during a bumpy ride along the Manchaguala.

  • The floodplain of the Manchaguala River

    The floodplain of the Manchaguala River, which channels water from the mountains into the larger Chamelecón River.

  • José Vásquez, the director of WWF’s agriculture programs in Mesoamerican Reef catchments, surveys a mountainside farm in the Sierra del Merendón.

    José Vásquez, the director of WWF’s agriculture programs in Mesoamerican Reef catchments, surveys a mountainside farm in the Sierra del Merendón.

  • Coke Bottling Plant in Honduras

    Freshly capped Coca-Cola bottles snake along a conveyor belt on the plant floor of Cervecería Hondureña.

  • A boy from one of the farming communities in the Sierra del Merendón stands near a roadside.

    A boy from one of the farming communities in the Sierra del Merendón stands near a roadside.

  • Men in a boat in Honduras

    Two boaters paddle seaward through the mouth of the Chamelecón. Puerto Cortés, the city that surrounds the river mouth, is the country’s principal seaport and a major commercial hub.

  • Boy on the shore in Honduras

    A swimmer stands on the eastern bank of the Chamelecón in late afternoon.

Only Natural

Most of the people in José Gómez’s community have never seen the Mesoamerican Reef. But in the three years since the new farming techniques were first implemented, what they have seen is a very clear transformation creeping over their fields.

For illustration Gómez needs only to point to the neighboring mountainsides, where a number of alarming contrasts are visible. One nearby plot, which lacks any sort of terracing, has an incline so steep its rows of banana plants look ready to tumble into the valley. Another mountainside is veined with an unusual number of pale brown lines—pathways carved by erosion rather than human hands—while multiple mountains display dark patches devoid of any greenery. Those patches have been used to grow a single crop of corn, José Vásquez explains. “When that corn is harvested…the bare soil is left there.”

To measure the effectiveness of the new farming techniques, the partnership is monitoring changes in soil erosion and assessing how particular methods enable the hillsides to retain more water over time. Similar research is happening throughout the regions bordering the Mesoamerican Reef thanks to longstanding support from the Summit Foundation, an organization working to promote human well-being and global sustainability. Additionally, through two weather monitoring stations that were installed in the upper and middle levels of the watershed, the partnership is gathering data that can help determine how much fresh water is being captured, inform decision making about irrigation and crop cycles, and establish severe-weather early warning systems. This work has already led to reductions in pesticide toxicity, and water and fertilizer use.

As we walk back up the footpath toward the top of the farm, Lindsay Bass, a senior program officer in freshwater for WWF-US, remarks that even without such data in hand you can see “a really good demarcation line that shows the difference” between this farm and surrounding ones. “It’s moving,” she says, “from disturbed to natural.”

“Natural” is also the adjective Olga Reyes chooses when asked how the partnership first decided to work in the region.

Reyes, the public affairs and communications vice president of Coca-Cola’s Latin Center Business Unit, explains that partnering with WWF in this particular watershed makes sense because it will help conserve freshwater resources vital for the environment in the region. “But I think the added value,” she says, echoing Porta, “is working with the [local] community…so that they see value in protecting water.”

The partnership started that engagement with local stakeholders through several projects in Guatemala: one introduced sustainable farming methods to 11 rural communities, another helped franchised Coca-Cola bottling plants boost their water efficiency, and a third established a local water fund. That fund, coordinated in partnership with Guatemalan nonprofit Fundación Defensores de la Naturaleza, used investments from downstream stakeholders to further conservation efforts in communities upstream.

Western Hemisphere, north to south: Northern Great Plains, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, Mesoamerican Reef Catchments, Amazon River, Atlantic Forests
Eastern Hemisphere, north to south: Amur-Heilong River Basin, Yangtze River, Koshi River, Mekong River, Great Barrier Reef, Zambezi River

Watersheds Worldwide

A major cornerstone of the partnership’s work is conserving key freshwater basins around the world. WWF and The Coca-Cola Company are currently focusing on 11 such regions—and while the regions themselves differ widely, addressing the challenges in each one requires common tactics.

In all of these areas, the partnership aims to collaborate with stakeholders from every sector and at every stratum of leadership—from local to multinational—to help ensure healthy, resilient freshwater basins. In addition to internal improvements to address Coca-Cola’s supply chain impacts, the partnership is also working to build widespread, comprehensive policy support and drive innovative, climate-smart solutions that will ensure a truly sustainable supply of fresh water for future generations.

The Mesoamerican Reef has been a core region for these activities since the partnership launched in 2007. Along with the Yangtze River, it is now one of two focal areas whose models are being expanded and whose accomplishments are informing the partnership’s strategies in every other basin.

“Smart” Water

The success of those initiatives has led WWF and The Coca-Cola Company to launch similar initiatives in Honduras—not just with small farmers such as José Gómez, but also with a loose consortium of regional nonprofits, municipalities, large-scale farms and local companies. One of those companies, a franchised Coca-Cola bottling plant called Cervecería Hondureña, sits farther down in the Chamelecón’s freshwater system, in a quiet outskirt of the city of San Pedro Sula.

Each month, Cervecería processes between 45 and 48 million liters of Coca-Cola, Fresca and Dasani drinks, along with a number of local Honduran brands. A day before our walk through the highland farm we toured the mechanized jungle of the plant’s interior, following an observation deck past room after room of hulking machinery and twisting pipes. Thousands of jittering bottles animated every surface, moving endlessly forward over conveyor belts, down chutes and under busy mechanical arms.

Cervecería’s processing manager, Juan Madrid, took several of us down onto the plant’s actual floor. Though he explained the functions of the different machines largely through gestures because of the noise, he shouted when we reached one particular conveyor belt. “This is the dry lubricant!”

Most of the conveyor belts used in other plants require a water-based lubricant to run smoothly and prevent grating of the different parts against each other. Cervecería, however, has switched to a dry lubricant for the majority of its belts, including the one Madrid pointed out.

The dry lubricant is one of a number of water-saving techniques that have helped Cervecería reduce its water consumption by an average of about 282,000 cubic feet per year—the equivalent of roughly three Olympic swimming pools—since it began working with the partnership in 2009. That year, the plant’s water efficiency index was 2.37, meaning it used 2.37 liters of water for every liter of finished beverage it produced. By 2012, the index had fallen to 1.93. The target for 2014 is 1.60, which would save 60% of the water used in the manufacturing process.

After the plant tour, Nathalie Cáceres, executive director of Fundación Cervecería Hondureña, took us to an outdoor wastewater treatment facility where the water used in the bottling process is cleaned and recycled through several reactors and an oxidation lagoon. Beside the facility was a tree nursery, which the company’s foundation uses in a number of green education programs for local schools and small business owners.

Half of the trees grown in the nursery are donated to reforestation efforts in parks and along riverbanks. Some of those sites are as far away as the Manchaguala, where the foundation recently contributed more than 400 trees to reforest the banks of one of the Manchaguala’s tributaries. Others are right around the corner. Cáceres drew our attention to a small waterway behind the nursery, Río Piedras, that feeds into the Chamelecón.

A few years ago, she said, the five-block stretch of Río Piedras bordering the nursery was a garbage dump caked in trash. So the foundation cleared it and reforested the banks, which are now dense with greenery.

  • “I didn't know that if I planted a seed I was helping the reef.”

    José Gómez
    Farmer, Sierra del Merendón
  • “There were two [weather monitoring stations] in Belize and one in Honduras [in 2006]. Now in Honduras, we have [about] 20, and in Belize we have seven. So the system is growing.”

    José Vásquez
    Director, WWF Honduras
  • “At the beginning it wasn’t so easy because of our culture, but now we have benchmarks and compete.”

    Juan Madrid describing how the lack of a recycling culture in Honduras made implementing the partnership’s requirements a challenge. Now, different departments of the bottling plant compete with each other to see who can work the most efficiently.

    Juan Madrid
    Processing Manager, Cervecería Hondureña
  • “I love to…work with the communities, understand what matters to them. Sometimes we have mistaken ideas of how they live but also how they work and how they sustain their livelihoods.”

    Marìa Amalia Porta, senior program officer, WWF Mesoamerican Reef office
  • “If we go alone we’re losing time.”

    Miguel Angel Yagüe explaining the need for more collaboration between different sectors of society to achieve better environmental solutions. Azunosa is currently working with Bonsucro to receive certification in sustainable sugarcane production, and has implemented a number of other environment-conscious mechanisms such as steam-powered processing equipment, a chemical-free fungus that acts as a pesticide, and a mahogany forest planted to protect communities bordering the farm from harvesting activities.

    Miguel Angel Yagüe
    General Manager of sugar cane company Azunosa
  • “Here [in Honduras] it rains a lot, so people believe there’s plenty of water, and they can use an unlimited amount. They don’t understand that the type of soil, the construction [work], the roads, and…human activity affect it.”

    Nathalie Cáceres
    Executive Director, Fundación Cervecería Hondureña
  • “We have to go back to our communities to spread the word. We need to keep planting more trees and giving life to this beautiful nature that we have. ”

    Virgilio Reyes
    Farmer, Sierra del Merendón

Everyone’s Business

“If all businesses [in San Pedro Sula] could do this,” José Vásquez says of the Río Piedras transformation, the city would turn green overnight. He does add, though, that there’s a fertilizing company nearby looking to replicate the foundation’s practice in some land around its own facilities—and multiple others that have lately been asking for advice.

Throughout the first phase of its work around the Mesoamerican Reef, the partnership has leaned heavily on a handful of local and regional partners who—like Cervecería, Fundación Cervecería and José Gómez—saw the value in collaborating with WWF and Coca-Cola on freshwater conservation before there was widespread recognition of the need for such work.

Now, the partnership has been renewed through 2020, and one of the priorities of this new phase—in the Mesoamerican Reef and the partnership’s other watershed regions worldwide—is securing a bigger, broader array of partners to help strengthen and accelerate the momentum around watershed conservation.

Such conservation is an obvious priority for a beverage company like Coca-Cola. “Our entire value chain…is dependent on water,” says Greg Koch, Coca-Cola’s director of global water stewardship. “From the product to the manufacturing, the ingredients, you name it. We invest and partner on…watershed issues because they’re vital for the health and growth of our business and the communities we are a part of.”

But the message the partnership has been working to communicate, and aims to communicate still more broadly over the next seven years, is that water conservation should be everyone’s priority—because water is everyone’s business. Here in northern Honduras—where the cloud-draped mountains taper to foothills, and the foothills flatten into sugarcane and banana fields, and the fields give way to noisy cities and ports that open, through rivers like the Chamelecón, out into the Caribbean—that realization is clearly on the rise.

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World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

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