The Next Costa Rica?
Environmental activism takes root in Honduras
By Tina Butler, mongabay.com
April 18, 2005
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.
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.
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.
A brief history of recent Honduran government activity demonstrates a promising direction for the country, despite current conflict and environmental problems. In 1993, the government passed its first environmental law, and in 1995, the government created a new position of environmental attorney general to help regulate development and resources, currently held by Aldo Santos. Organizations and initiatives have been created such as PLANFOR, the ten-year (1996-2014) forestry action plan and COHDEFOR, the Honduran Forest Development Corporation, both of which play critical roles in shaping the environmental future. COHDEFOR has designed numerous forest management plans for different companies under PLANFOR and reaped unanticipated and impressive profits. In July of 1997, the organization donated five million lempira to the Indian land title program via President Carlos Reina.
While this historic and gesture seemed generous and groundbreaking, it is difficult to avoid questioning whether the politically problematic and inconsistent president was not simply capitalizing on a PR opportunity or some kind of damage control. Giving back land rights to the original inhabitants has to be a good thing, but some numbers are troubling. According to James Gollin, a writer for planeta.com, in 1995, sawmills cut only 800,000 cubic meters of lumber, while machete-wielding campesinos cut six million. Further, while these organizations have hopefully only the best of intentions for the environment, some problematic methods have been recommended. COHDEFOR, recognizing the need for reforestation, has proposed the introduction of fast-growing “exotic” trees like eucalyptus instead of native, and typically slow growing tropical hardwoods, which experts argue would interfere with the indigenous environment and natural balance of native species. Like the creation of jobs versus the preservation of forests, this solution is not without conflict and fallout.
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. Ideally, the country will follow a path similar to Costa Rica, and realize there is much more money to be made cutting a trail through the forest than cutting all the trees down. Ecotourism, with its own set of intrinsic problems aside, is the best possible outcome for Honduras’s environmental and economic future. 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.
On April 18, 2005 Father José Andrés Tamayo Cortez won the prestigious 2005 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.
“Creating a Logjam in Honduras” Chris Kraul March 21, 2005 Los Angeles Times: