The Front

Stone Axes Honduras

DESPITE SIGNIFICANT deforestation over the last 10 years, Honduras still has the largest standing pine forests in Central America. Now Stone Container, the Chicago-based world leader in paper bag and cardboard box production, appears to be on the verge of decimating what remains.

 Stone is in the process of finalizing a contract with the Honduran government to "lease" the remaining virgin pine forests in Honduras for the next 40 years. The company plans to harvest the pine for pulpwood, which will be used in the production of items such as paper bags and packaging containers. The contract awaits the approval of the Honduran Congress.

 Under the terms of the contract, which was recently leaked in Honduras, Stone would be granted virtually unrestricted rights to harvest between 1 and 2.5 million acres of pine forests throughout the country. The contract requires Stone to pay the government a "fair market price" for the trees it harvests, but does not denote what the price will be.

Many different segments of Honduran society, including foresters, environmentalists, business people and Miskito Indian groups, have united to oppose the deal. Jose "Pepe" Herrera, director of the Fundacion Cuero y Salado, a Honduran environmental group, summarizes the sentiment in the country, saying, "Never in history have the Honduran people united so strongly in opposition to anything. We've been used and abused by everyone. ... This time everybody has gotten together and said, ĉEnough! We don't want this.'"

 Critics say the project will cause land erosion, sedimentation of rivers and lakes and loss of diverse flora and fauna. Although Stone admits it has done no environmental impact assessment for the region, the company claims its "best management practices" will minimize any negative effects.

A contract with only loopholes

 A careful review of the contract drafted by Stone's lawyers shows the extraordinary nature of the agreement. Stone will be allowed virtual impunity in harvesting the 900,000 acres (approximately 1,500 square miles) of pine forest in the La Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras, an area made famous by the movie "The Mosquito Coast." La Mosquitia's grassy plains, thick pine forests, tropical jungle, rivers and lagoons make up Honduras' last "green frontier."

Environmentalists believe the contract will allow Stone to cut trees of any size and age. The contract permits cutting of "all standing, fallen, growing or later grown pine trees having a diameter at breast height of at least twelve (12) centimeters and less than thirty (30) centimeters; also any larger pine trees to the extent such trees are unsuitable for use as sawtimber because of the quality of the trees or the unavailability of a market for ordinary use as sawtimber."

Although the Honduran government will pay Stone to manage the forest, the contract contains no reforestation requirements, only a provision mandating that the harvesting of pine forests results in long-term "sustained yield."

Another loophole in the contract allows Stone to expand beyond the area it says it plans to harvest, through an allowance based on meeting a minimum pulpwood volume. No figure is mentioned in the contract, but the Honduran press has reported that Stone is guaranteed a yield of 500,000 metric tons of wood chips annually.

Many of the restrictions written into the contract apply only to the areas of natural pine that Stone cuts for the first time. In deforested areas where Stone replants pine or other fast-growing trees, the contract states that "the trees will be utilized by Stone for its own benefit at no cost to Stone." Stone will thus benefit from any replanting it chooses to do, and will most likely establish plantations of the fast-growing gmelina arborea, a species not natural to Honduras, as the company has previously done in Costa Rica.

What Honduras gets and what it gives

 The Honduran government's incentive in ceding control of its natural resources to a foreign-based multinational corporation is simple. With the country struggling with a foreign debt burden of more than $3 billion, the government is eager for any means to attract foreign capital.

Stone claims the project will be a boon for the Honduran economy. Gerald Freeman, senior vice president and general manager of Stone's forest products division, predicts that "several thousand people will earn a living from the project and it will generate millions of dollars for local economies each year."

 But when the costs that the government will incur meeting the requirements of the contract are figured in, any profit for Honduras is questionable. And of course Freeman's estimate ignores the long-term environmental costs to Honduras.

 The contract stipulates, for instance, that "the Government will cooperate with Stone in providing, maintaining and improving roads and bridges for access to specifically assigned forest areas. In case such work is to be performed by Stone, the Government will provide or obtain the necessary and appropriate rights of way." The government is also obligated to "assure that Stone is provided, at reasonable prices, electric power, transportation and communications services, as necessary or appropriate for the efficient management of Stone's business in Honduras."

 Meeting Stone's energy, communications and transportation requirements will require enormous new investments by the government. Even the largest city in La Mosquitia, Puerto Lempira, has no running water in most houses and offices, has no phone system and only provides electricity from 6 to 9 at night. There is no road to Puerto Lempira, only a river. Thus the Honduran government may be required to build a road through the jungle to ease the company's access to central La Mosquitia. Neither the cost nor the impact of these actions are discussed in the contract or mentioned by the principals supporting the project.

 Neither the government nor Stone have discussed the long-term costs of depleting the natural resources of Honduras. As Pam Wellner of the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network points out, "Anytime you cut an old-growth forest for pulp, you're liquidating long-term resources - such as watershed, wildlife, firewood, tourism - for short-term profits."

Stone Container: pulping the earth

 Stone's motivations in acquiring rights to cut and manage Honduran land are multifaceted. Stone has demonstrated an aggressive strategy for global production and distribution of its products. With supplies of pulpwood diminishing in the United States, Stone, the Honduran contract notes, has a "continuing interest in developing new sources of wood fiber, both for use in our mills and for sale on the international market." Stone also recognizes the enormous potential for profit from developing a pulpwood industry in Central America. Stone has been working in Costa Rica for several years, developing plantations of fast-growing exotic species for pulpwood. And, like Honduras, Stone is strapped with its own debt problem. Through a series of junk-bond leveraged acquisitions, Stone has built up a $3 billion debt. The huge profits it would potentially realize in Honduras will help pay off these debts.

 Paul S. Howell, Stone's general manager for International Market Development, recently explained his view of the deal to the Honduran press, saying, "Right now, the pine trees are not worth anything" to the people of La Mosquitia who live in the forests and jungles. He added, "We want to change that. We really want to make a difference here."

 The inhabitants of La Mosquitia and others throughout Honduras fear, however, that they will end up paying "the difference." Their protests have shaken the resolve of the ruling National Party, forcing a delay in the Honduran Congress's vote to ratify the Stone agreement, which was originally scheduled for the week of February 3.

In response to this delay, Stone has launched a publicity campaign in Honduras to try to win support for its plans. A "supplementary agreement" designed to answer protesters' concerns is currently under discussion, with the agreement and the original contract likely to go before the Honduran Congress in the next several weeks.

-Dara O'Rourke

Food that Glows

IN A MOVE that may eventually make much of the U.S. food supply unsafe to eat, Vindicator, Inc. of Mulberry, Florida began operations in January 1992 as the first food irradiation facility in the United States. Vindicator has exposed one 1,100 pound batch of fresh packaged strawberries to radiation, and plans to begin irradiating other fruit, along with poultry, within the next few months.

Proponents are promoting food irradiation as a means of extending the shelf life of food and killing insects and bacteria. The process exposes food to gamma radiation from either of two radioactive isotopes: cobalt-60 (used at the Vindicator plant) or cesium-137. The radiation penetrates the food and kills some harmful organisms. The food itself does not become radioactive. The process has been endorsed by the UN World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

 Critics of food irradiation are concerned, however, that the process reduces the nutritional value of food and may produce chemical changes in irradiated food that could have toxic effects. They say that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has relied on inadequate testing to support its approval of irradiation of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, teas, spices, pork and poultry. They also express concerns about the environmental effects of the process, and with possible hazards faced by workers in irradiation facilities.

Harley Everett, executive vice president of Vindicator, says that the purpose of food irradiation is to "save lives" by preventing cases of food poisoning, such as salmonella in chicken. Everett says claims that irradiated food is unwholesome or unsafe to eat are "baseless" and that "thousands of studies repudiate [the claims] totally."

The FDA, however, relied on only five studies in making its 1986 decision to allow food to be irradiated.

Some medical experts, in fact, contend not only that the agency has relied on an inadequate amount of testing, but that the five tests accepted by the FDA for review do not support the safety of food irradiation. Dr. Donald Louria, chairman of the preventive medicine department at the New Jersey Medical School, reported in the September 1990 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that a department review of the studies found that two of them were "methodologically flawed. ... One of the two also suggested that irradiated food could have adverse effects on older animals. In a third FDA-cited study, animals fed a diet of irradiated food experienced weight loss and miscarriage, almost certainly due to irradiation-induced vitamin E dietary deficiency." Louria concludes that these "three studies do not document the safety of food irradiation and why the FDA relied on them is mystifying." The other two tests investigated effects of diets consisting of food irradiated at doses below the current approved level of 100,000 rads (poultry can be exposed to 300,000 rads).

 Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois, says that food irradiation "has never been tested in accordance with standard toxicological procedures."

Many consumer groups and medical experts say the studies that have been conducted strongly suggest food irradiation makes food unsafe to eat. Studies show that irradiation produces unique products in food which may cause mutations, leading some critics to suggest that irradiated food may prove carcinogenic. According to Food & Water Inc., a New Jersey-based consumer organization which coordinates educational projects on food safety and environmental issues, tests have indicated that irradiation kills off bacteria that ordinarily signal spoilage of foods (through bad taste or smell), which may allow other dangerous bacteria to grow undetected. Tests have also shown that irradiation stimulates carcinogenic aflatoxin-producing molds, according to Food & Water. Epstein says that tests in which irradiated food has been fed to lab animals, and in one case to children from India, have found reproductive effects in rats and monkeys, and chromosomal damage, especially polyploidy, in rats, monkeys and the children.

Irradiation reduces the nutritional value of food as well. Epstein says loss of nutritional value is of particular concern since food irradiation is being promoted as a means of extending the shelf life of food shipped to undernourished people in the Third World.

 Consumers who wish to avoid purchasing irradiated food may have difficulty doing so. The FDA requires that radiation-exposed food be labelled with a written warning and a "radura" - a symbol of a stylized flower that may be confusing, since it closely resembles the symbol for the Environmental Protection Agency. However, no label of any kind is required for foods prepared in restaurants or institutions, or for prepared or packaged foods that contain irradiated ingredients (for example, a loaf of bread made with irradiated wheat would not have to be labelled).

 Critics of food irradiation are also concerned about environmental hazards associated with the process. Michael Colby, director of Food & Water, says that increased transport and handling of highly radioactive materials and wastes on highways will threaten numerous communities with contamination in the event of an accident. Other risks include increased worker exposure to radioactive materials and the potential for the contamination of irradiation facilities' immediate environment and nearby groundwater supplies.

 There have been numerous reported cases of accidents and violations of worker and environmental safety at existing irradiation facilities (used primarily for sterilizing medical equipment). In 1974, whistleblowers at the Isomedix company in New Jersey reported that radioactive water had been flushed down toilets and had contaminated the pipes leading to sewers. In 1986, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) revoked the license of a Radiation Technology Inc. plant, also in New Jersey, for repeated environmental and worker-safety violations. In June 1988, Radiation Sterilizers in Decatur, Georgia reported a leak of cesium-137 that had been provided by the Department of Energy to sterilize medical supplies and consumer products. The leak contaminated 25,000 gallons of pond water, as well as workers' clothes and cars. It also resulted in the contamination of some irradiated products such as milk cartons and saline eye solution. Federal and state officials say that all contaminated products were recovered before reaching the marketplace.

Colby says the nuclear industry is promoting food irradiation to improve its image and prospects for survival. He calls food irradiation "a blatant attempt to put a smiley face on the nuclear industry." Food irradiation would guarantee a future market for reactors producing isotopes such as cobalt-60. Vindicator purchases the radioactive material from the recently privatized Canadian company Nordion (formerly the state-run Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.). According to a book on food irradiation written by Tony Webb and Tim Lang of the London Food Commission, Nordion has been aggressively marketing cobalt for the process, particularly in developing countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Many critics also suggest that one reason irradiation is being promoted is to serve as a commercial outlet for waste, such as cesium-137, from nuclear weapons production. Colby says, however, that the use of cesium in food irradiation has been "on hold" in the United States since the accident at the Georgia plant.

 Most powerfully, perhaps, critics of food irradiation challenge the need for the process at all. Colby says it is "outrageous ... to take on such health and environmental risks" for "a frivolous and unnecessary technology." Incidents of salmonella poisoning signal a need to clean up the poultry industry, not to expose chicken to radiation, he says. Epstein says exposing consumers, workers and the environment to the risks of irradiation is "reckless Russian roulette."

 - Holley Knaus