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Honduran priest recognized as environmental hero with $125,000 award

Honduran priest recognized as environmental hero with $125,000 award

Honduran priest recognized as environmental hero with $125,000 award
By Tina Butler,
April 22, 2005

Father José Andrés Tamayo Cortez, Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Honduran priest, Father Andres Jose Tamayo, did not set out to be the country’s leading environmental activist, recipient of countless death threats and an all-purpose, non-violent crusader against the wholesale destruction of his parishioners’ community and livelihood—but he is. Compelled from out behind the pulpit and into action, Tamayo is viewed as the new face of the country’s changing attitude about the treatment of the environment. The priest’s obvious initial role was to provide religious guidance and counsel to the people of Salama, but he soon found the majority of the community’s woes stemmed from recent changes in the environment. Rapid deforestation and the subsequent general environmental degradation in the area were resulting in failing crops, due mainly to limited and polluted water supplies. Precious topsoil was being lost to erosion as the trees’ root networks that normally provided natural anchors for soil were no longer in place. And while regular precipitation has become increasingly scarce, when rains do come, runoff of the thinned soil deposits sediment into the water supply, ruining it. All the symptoms of deforestation in this rural, agrarian province of Olancho were resulting in the classic, heartbreaking side effects. Tamayo saw no choice but to get involved and address the problems faced by members of his community head on.

On April 18th, 2005, Father José Andrés Tamayo Cortez was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. The Prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to preserve and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk. Each winner receives an award of $125,000, the largest of its kind.

The Goldman Prize was founded by Richard N. and Rhoda H. Goldman (1924-1996) and the first Prize was awarded in 1990. The Goldman’s hope in starting this annual prize was to demonstrate the international nature of environmental problems, to draw public attention to global issues of critical importance, to reward individuals for outstanding grassroots environmental initiatives and to inspire others to emulate the examples set by the Prize recipients

The Goldman prize profiles Tamayo as follows:

During his tenure in Salama, Tamayo has created an army of environmental activists comprised of residents who feel they have nothing more to lose in following him; all of their traditional means of livelihood, namely their crops, have been compromised or destroyed by the degraded forests and resultant agricultural failures.

Olancho serves as a disturbingly representative model for the whole of Honduras, a country where at least half the forests have been eliminated due to various activities including fuelwood collection, timber harvesting, clearing for cattle pasture, and commercial and subsistence agriculture. Deforestation occurs at the alarming rate of over 252,400 acres (102,200 hectares) per year and the majority of the population sees little of the wealth derived from Honduras’s rich but increasingly plundered natural resource base.

Tamayo’s desire to defend what remains of Honduras’s forests as well as the well being of his people is fierce and he is not one to compromise. It is his all or nothing attitude that has nurtured the rampant hostility from the logging companies and his failures to get protective legislation passed by the Honduran government. The priest wants to halt logging in Olancho for ten years so that a comprehensive audit of the forest may be performed and an inventory of biodiversity recorded. He wants to ensure that a complete picture of the present state of the forest is captured so that the appropriate conservationist recommendations and actions will be taken and followed. Tamayo’s other main concern is that the local communities will benefit from the profits of their resources, as opposed to outside businesses. Both the government and higher-ups in Tamayo’s church are against a complete freezing of logging activity, fearing destabilization of both the economic and social persuasions. So currently, an entirely unofficial moratorium is enforced in Olancho, with the employment of guerilla-esque tactics of blocking roads, bridges and permit-legit logging teams whenever and wherever they occur.

Outside of Salama, Tamayo has been active on a much larger scale. In June 2003, he organized and led the 7-day Marcha Por La Vida (March for Life) to the capital to propose his demands for the freeze and meet with the president, Ricardo Maduro. Starting with 2500 participants, Tamayo arrived in Tegucigalpa 40,000 strong, but Maduro did not meet with him. For his part, the President does show interest in working toward a brighter environmental future for Honduras, trying to impose more logging controls through new forestry legislation, but he cannot get Tamayo behind him without backing the moratorium. The short term economic cost from the freeze is a valid concern for Maduro and his country, but nearly as profound a cost as the environmental degradation and an ultimate fate of no trees and no profitable resources. Trees are the livelihood, but there is a painfully finite end to that supply.

While his followers revere Tamayo, he is reviled by those in the powerful anti-logging and timber industries he seeks to subvert. Numerous threats have been made on the priest’s life as well as on those of his comrades—three members of Tamayo’s Movement of Olancho (MAO) have been shot and killed, including a 23 year old priest, Carlos Arturo Reyes, shot in his own backyard on July 18, 2003. Sadly, an Amnesty International Urgent Action alert had been issued for Tamayo and his followers just a few weeks prior to the killing. The perpetrators of these actions are likely members of the notorious “logging mafias” and it is unlikely that these occurrences will come to an end. Reportedly, there is a list allegedly drawn up by sawmill owners in Olancho of potential targeted environmentalists.

Honduras is home to the ancient Mayan ruins of Copan (top), the pristine white sand beaches and reefs of Roatan (middle), and incredible biodiversity (bottom).

More Honduras pictures.

Tamayo remains unfazed by and baldly candid about these very real dangers posed those who resist his fight to save the forests. The mission statement of his Marcha Por La Vida in June 2003 affirms the following; “Something new and noteworthy has been born in Olancho, a feeling capable of uniting the voices of non-violent resistance for life. And this means that in the face of chainsaws and trucks, no longer will anyone stay quiet, even if we have to give up our lives to those who stand in our way.” Conversely, the mayor of Salama, Jose Ramon Lobo, a man Tamayo has clashed with on the economic issues tied to his anti-logging stance, made the following remarks in May of that same year, “the environmental problems in Olancho will only be resolved by ordering the killing of Father Tamayo.”

The priest recognizes the highly political repercussions of his actions from an economic standpoint and anticipates the threats from various parties. Since his incumbency as unofficial head environmentalist cum logging eradicator began, the town sawmill and four woodworking factories have shut down. As a result, over one hundred jobs have been lost and the crime rate is rising. For a small town, the aftershocks run deep. Tamayo is not blind to these things, but holds to his convictions that the short-term economic downturn is nothing in comparison to the long-term effects of deforestation in the region, with resultant problems such as continually failing crops, increasing aridity and a growing exodus of people to urban areas in Honduras as well as the United States. The land can no longer support the people.

Members of the logging industry and the mayor of Salama alike argue that aridity and the drought problems of the past few years are natural effects of cyclical weather patterns as well as part of the broader phenomenon of global warming and claim to be beyond control and influence of the current environmental state. But the nearby hamlet of Jimasque presents dismal evidence that debunks this logic. In this small town of 500 inhabitants, water has to be brought in from a mountain spring fifteen miles away because of water table depletion. Eight years ago, the nearby Agua Caliente River was full of bass and surround by healthy, lush pine forests. Today, there are no fish, the hills are bare and the river is a mere trickle when it does actually run.

With a passionate crusader for the environment and the people who need their habitat intact to survive and a progressive president, regardless of their positive or negative reception, Honduras seems poised to make some profound changes in the next few years. Under Tamayo’s aggressive yet visionary influence, and perhaps with some serious compromise on the part of the Honduran government, the people of Salama and greater Olancho might live to see a restored land and a bright future.

This article is based on an earlier report, Forest Fight

Further reading:
“Creating a Logjam in Honduras” Chris Kraul March 21, 2005 Los Angeles Times:

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