The gigantic 'sea of garbage' in the Caribbean with plastic, dead animals and even bodies

Cans, pots, plastic cutlery, old clothes, syringes and even dead animals...

This is the typical scene for any dumpster. But this is not just any trash.

It is an island of rubbish that floats in the Caribbean Sea, between the coasts of Honduras and Guatemala, a layer of discarded objects that periodically reach the beaches and which has lately become a source of tension in bilateral relations between the two countries.

While not a new phenomenon, it is unknown to much of the international community. Even so, images of the "sea of ​​garbage" in northern Honduras have gone viral on social media in recent weeks.

British photographer Caroline Power published several photos that showed the waters near the tourist island of Roatán, covered in a mass of debris of all kinds.

After the publication of the photos and the arrival of floating garbage in several municipalities on the north coast of Honduras, both governments held a meeting to discuss possible solutions to the imbroglio that has been going on for more than three years, according to local authorities.

But conversations grew tense on one key point: who is primarily responsible for the spills?

On the one hand, Honduras accuses its neighbor of causing the pollution that affects the beaches of Omoa, Puerto Cortés and the Bay Islands. On the other hand, Guatemala says that it is the neighboring country that spills the garbage that affects it.

After bilateral meetings, the Tegucigalpa government gave its Guatemalan neighbor five weeks to control the spills.

Otherwise, they say, they will resort to international organizations and treaties.

The effects

Carlos Fonseca has lived for 60 years in the Travesía community, in the municipality of Puerto Cortés, in northern Honduras, and says that a few years ago it became routine to clean the garbage that reaches his home.

"In the rainy seasons, we clean early in the morning and in the afternoon it's full of rubbish again, as if we hadn't done anything. There are piles and piles of rubbish everywhere," he tells BBC Mundo.

Fonseca says that it is the neighbors who, in most cases, are in charge of cleaning up the garbage that reaches the beach, in view of the passivity of the municipal authorities.

"It's an unfortunate situation, because it's garbage, it brings diseases. I don't know if it's from here or Guatemala, but for us it's a nightmare," he says.

José Antonio Galdames, Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment of Honduras, told the BBC that the problem of garbage arriving in the country is becoming "unsustainable" not only for the municipality of Omoa, one of the most affected, but also for some islands and beaches that constitute some of the main tourist destinations in the Central American nation.

In the minister's opinion, the presence of floating debris has a negative impact on four basic dimensions, as it causes environmental, ecological, economic and health damage.

"People don't want to go to the beach because they're afraid of contamination. It's not good to lie down on sand where you put your back and there's a needle underneath, or you go into the water and you're afraid to find something contaminated," he says.

Ian Drysdale, an environmental engineer who coordinates an initiative to protect the Mesoamerican Reef System, guarantees that this coral barrier, the second largest in the world, is one of the main ones affected by waste.

"Due to the movements of the marine currents, this can have a negative impact on the entire barrier, both in the part that belongs to Honduras and in the part that belongs to Guatemala. I have already found garbage several times in the coral reef region", he tells the BBC Mundo, the BBC's Spanish service.

behind the 'guilty'

But where does so much garbage come from?

Galdames says that behind the current pollution is the garbage that flattens the Motagua River, which crosses most of Guatemala and flows into Honduras.

"Most of the Motagua basin is on the Guatemalan side. Of the 95 municipalities that are along the river, 27 are dumping solid waste. We only have 3 municipalities that border the river. Therefore, 86% of discharges come from them. ", says the Honduran minister.

He adds that when his ministry officials carry out inspections, they often find objects written "Made in Guatemala."

But that, he claims, is not the worst.

"We are receiving clothes, plastic, hospital waste, objects stained with blood, needles, syringes, animals and even human bodies," he says.

The minister's version indicates that, in the absence of landfills in most of these communities in Guatemala, during the rainy season, the water drains the garbage into the river, which takes it to the sea and then, through the movement of sea currents, moves to some municipalities and islands of Honduras.

Rafael Maldonado, from the Center for Environmental and Social Legal Action in Guatemala, supports this theory and adds that, behind this situation, there are mistaken policies of successive governments in the country.

"The responsibility for this garbage conflict lies with the Guatemalan government, which for years has avoided taking measures to prevent further dumping into rivers," he says.

According to the expert, to avoid the million-dollar public investment to create a system capable of preventing garbage from ending up in rivers, Guatemalan authorities have been delaying since 2006 a regulation to prevent the contamination of the Caribbean.

“What is happening in Honduras is the result of poor environmental management in Guatemala. Honduras is receiving garbage from much of Guatemala, including the capital, which dumps its garbage into the Motagua River and takes it to the sea. years and governments didn't pay any attention to not having to make the necessary investment," he says.

However, Guatemala's Environment Minister Sydney Alexander Samuels believes his country is taking the necessary steps to control evictions in the Caribbean and guarantees that Honduran rivers are primarily responsible for the current situation.

"The accusations only take into account the part of Guatemala. They must also consider what they are doing. They have a river there, the Chamelecón, which is practically a sewer from Puerto Cortés and San Pedro Sula. Most of the garbage that has arrived. Roatán is from Honduras," he told BBC Mundo.

Samuels maintains that his government has never received information about the aforementioned discovery of human bodies among the garbage transported by the river.

"I've never heard of human corpses there. If that's the case, it would have to be investigated where they came from. I hadn't heard that," he says.

"Yes, we contaminate the Caribbean Sea through the Motagua River. But I clarify that it is not only the Motagua, but also the Chamelecón and Ulúa (two rivers in Honduras), and I also assure you that next year we will no longer be transporting garbage to this sea, as we will have all the infrastructure to prevent this from happening," he says.

The environmental engineer consulted by the BBC, on the other hand, also believes that Honduras has a responsibility in the current "sea of ​​garbage".

"There are many communities in Honduras that don't even have a truck to collect garbage. We dump garbage in rivers and more than 80% of Honduran rivers flow into the Caribbean Sea. This custom of blaming the other for your responsibility is very common. I think the garbage problem is everybody's problem," he says.

Pressures and solutions

In addition to the dispute over responsibilities, another issue that generates controversy between the two countries is the possible solutions to this situation.

The Honduran Environment Minister, while not wanting to ignore the neighboring country's work to contain the eviction, questions that Guatemala's proposals are oriented "in the medium and long term".

"They are talking about solutions that will take effect in 2018. But we ask them to take immediate action: clean up the rivers, clean up the beaches, stop littering the rivers and close down illegal dumping. And that they establish a system. early warning so that we can be prepared to know that the garbage will arrive," he says.

"We are not looking for problems, we are not looking for lawsuits. We are looking for common but differentiated responsibilities, that is the principle. If you have responsibility for 86% of this basin, it should be your responsibility to look for a solution," he adds.

Galdames says that if he does not receive a positive response by the end of November, his country will take action before international organizations.

"If they don't do anything within five weeks, we reserve the right to proceed in accordance with what is established in international agreements that exist in maritime waters, shared border areas and all international agreements related to the protection of biological diversity," he says.

But on the Guatemalan side, immediate measures are not contemplated.

“I believe there is no moral here to be talking about this that they are going to sue Guatemala or that they want compensation, as they tried to mention, because I believe their rivers are the ones that are pouring. this problem until August of next year. I don't know what Honduras is doing. Honduras is doing absolutely nothing," said Minister Samuels.

"With what morale do they come to tell us that they want short term measures. What do they want? Concretely, there are no answers. The short term is August 2018. They have nothing, neither short nor medium nor long or anything . This is the question that needs to be clarified", he adds.

But while the end of the dispute over garbage disposal between the two countries is still uncertain and government-level solutions are being contemplated, a silent river of floating garbage continues to reach the shores of Honduras.

"Now, a cold front has arrived and this will bring more rain. And we know that when it rains the beach is full of garbage. It has been like this for years," says Carlos Fonseca, from the Travesía community.

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