Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
February 16, 2009
Honduras priest leads fight to save the forests
Subsistence farmers defend their land against commercial logging
BY PAUL JEFFREY
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
SALAMA, HONDURAS – The country’s environmental movement in Honduras has significantly slowed deforestation in one section of the country, but an activist priest says he will keep up the pressure against commercial logging.
“We have neutralized the enemy,” said Father Jose Andres Tamayo, the parish priest in this ramshackle town in Olancho, a once heavily-forested central department of Honduras.
“We haven’t won everything we wanted, but we’ve achieved a greater level of awareness and changed the mentality of people in the government offices where decisions are made,” he told Catholic News Service.
“In this region we’ve stopped 80 per cent of the illegal logging.”
Subsistence farmers in Olancho have joined with community and religious leaders to defend their lands against unrestrained logging.
“They’ve taken charge of assuring compliance with a government ban on logging. What began as resistance has led to vigilance, and we continue accompanying the people as they seek to use the resources in sustainable ways,” said the priest.
Tamayo brought the homegrown environmental movement here to international prominence in 2003 when he led a seven-day, 190-km march to Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital. The protesters claimed that the massive deforestation produced by illegal logging had dried up rivers and exacerbated poverty.
Yet the government refused to meet with the marchers, and the following month a member of the Juticalpa Diocese’s environmental ministry was gunned down. Other killings followed.
The intimidation did not deter the burgeoning movement, however. Tamayo, accompanied by military bodyguards, led two additional marches to the capital.
Honduran President Mel Zelaya, who took office in 2006, has incorporated many of the environmentalists’ demands in government policies. As a result, the movement’s tactics have changed.
“Before we went out and confronted them on the roads, blocking the logging trucks. Today we’re sitting at the negotiating tables. We’ve been able to create a politics of dialogue where we can continue speaking the truth,” Tamayo said.
Last year the government declared a ban on the extraction of logs from several municipalities around Salama. The environmental activists want the wood to be processed locally into furniture and other goods before being shipped to the cities.
“We’re creating a model for how to take advantage of our resources while also protecting them. The communities have to transform the resources, using them in a way that doesn’t threaten their very life,” the priest said.
While Tamayo has long been the public face of the country’s environmental movement, he is backed by a legion of poor people, many of them women, whose dedication to the cause emerges from the environmental deterioration they have witnessed.
“When I was a kid, there were springs all through the mountains here, and now there are hardly any,” said Minda Gradis, who is active in the local Salama chapter of the Environmentalist Movement of Olancho.
“We old people may not worry about it, but our children and grandchildren will benefit from what we’re defending now. So we’re showing the young how to fight for the environment. We take our kids to the blockades where we stop the logging trucks. Kids today need to learn how to stop a logging truck,” Gradis told CNS.
Despite the movement’s achievements, Gradis said its members remain vigilant. “We’re ready for whatever. We’ve maintained ourselves without money, gotten wet, but we’ve done whatever was necessary. If we hear a chainsaw in the woods we go running to check it out. I’ve slept many a night in the woods in order to wake up there and scare off the loggers.
DEFEND WITH THEIR LIVES
“We defend the life around us with our lives. If we hadn’t done this, we’d live in a desert today,” she said.
The movement’s successes have not stopped the threats and intimidation, however, and Tamayo continues to be accompanied by military bodyguards wherever he goes.
It is not just the lumber barons he has upset. The isolated mountains of this part of Central America are filled with landing strips where drug traffickers refuel on their way north. The network of criminal interests in the region is threatened by any initiative that empowers local residents to take control of their communities.
In September, Tamayo’s name appeared on a list that included supposed dissidents who were being monitored by the police.
The list also included Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno, the Jesuit superior for Honduras, and Bishop Luis Santos Villeda of Santa Rosa de Copan.
ROLLER COASTER SUPPORT
Catholic leaders in Honduras have alternately embraced Tamayo and at other times distanced themselves from the Salvadoran-born priest.
“The Church’s leaders are fearful, more interested in saving doctrines than saving people. But we don’t complain, because they’ve come along, bit by bit, accepting us,” Tamayo said.
The environmental movement is planning a fourth national march for May, but rather than beginning in the forested interior of the country, it will begin in San Pedro Sula, the country’s industrial capital on the north coast, then wind south to Tegucigalpa.
“There are more people along that route, and we’ve discovered that as we talk with people as we pass through their communities, we achieve a lot. And we want to make the issues we’re raising more accessible to the media,” Tamayo said.
The priest said organizers are already working with schools and other community groups along the way to plant a million trees during the passing of the march.