Thousands of farmers confront logging companies exporting wood to the United States
May 21, 2007
Salamá, Honduras — As Father Andrés Tamayo puts his cassock on to celebrate Mass, a group of soldiers with M16 rifles take their positions in the small colonial church.
Once at the pulpit, the slight-framed priest from Salamá rebukes illegal loggers before a congregation of farmers that have got used to seeing him with the military escort that the government assigned to him last year.
“I put myself in God’s hands every day as if it was my last day,” Tamayo, 50, says. “But I won’t stop struggling because I’m following my conscience of justice and truth and, if death should come, I will have served God and my people,” says the priest, who was an altar boy of Monsignor Romero, the Salvadoran priest that became famous for defending human rights and the poor and who was murdered in 1980.
Ever since 2001, Tamayo has led a farmers’ movement against loggers illegally exploiting Olancho, an eastern department similar in size to the neighboring Republic of El Salvador and which, despite its more than 1.5 million valuable hectares of forests, is one of the poorest, with more than two thirds of its population living on less than $1 a day, according to data from the United Nations.
Honduras lost 35 percent of its forests (2.5 million hectares) between 1990 and 2005, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), mainly due to illegal logging of pine and precious woods, most of them intended for export to the United States and the Caribbean. Tamayo, who estimates that Olancho lost more than half of its forests during that period, will travel to Washington in June to show his support for a bill in the United States Congress which seeks to crack down on illegal wood imports.
Indiscriminate logging has put the region on the verge of an armed conflict. Nine environmentalists have been murdered in the past decade, according to the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights, which this year asked the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) for assistance in investigating the assassinations.
The latest deaths occurred in December, when two environmentalists were murdered (in execution fashion, supposedly by policemen) in a town near Salamá, according to a report by Amnesty International. Sandra Ponce, the special prosecutor for Human Rights, believes the policemen had been “hired” by logging companies operating in Olancho.
Tamayo, who in 2005 received the Goldman Prize, also known as the Environmental Nobel, says that he has been given three ultimatums to leave Salamá and, in 2003, loggers paid $40,000 to a hired assassin, who did not have the courage to kill him and confessed the plan to him instead.
“He came as if for confession, but there was something strange about him, and he said, ‘Don’t be scared, I’m not here to kill you but to let you know,’” the priest recalls.
Prosecutors and reporters covering the conflict say that they, too, fear for their lives.
At his office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’s capital, where he keeps two pistols and a subgun, the environmental prosecutor, Aldo Santos, confesses that he is afraid of being killed: “Yes, I’m scared. We’re usually armed, it’s part of our job.”
Willing to die for their cause
Enrique Flores, the presidential advisor, says that “the government is worried” by the environmentalists’ deaths, but they are not planning on assigning an escort to other supporters of the priest, as requested by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (ICHR).
Some of the priest’s followers, also known as “tamayistas,” who are organized into the Environmental Movement of Olancho, or MAO (its Spanish acronym), believe that, as soon as the government removes the escort, the loggers will kill the priest, and they are talking about starting a guerrilla if something happens to him.
“I’d be happy to die for a good cause,” says Santos Efraín Paguada, who explains that he joined the struggle when his corn and bean crops began to wither because of the lack of water. “At the beginning, we were not really aware of what we were doing, we were there just because the Father was there. Then we felt the impact, and that it was something that was ours.”
Pío Voto, president of the Honduran Timber Association or AMADHO (its Spanish acronym), blames small clandestine logging companies for the illegal logging, and accuses ecologists of exacerbating the conflict and of causing losses of thousands of dollars for the industry, which exports products to the United States and the Caribbean for over $46 million a year, according to Honduras’s forestry agency Cohdefor, which regulates the forests’ exploitation since the 70s.
“It’s not true that loggers want to kill Andrés Tamayo,” Voto says, in his office with walls covered with pine, in Tegucigalpa. “There’s a strong campaign, but it’s against the industry.”
Investigations by the Honduras’s Office of the Environmental Prosecutor and other Honduran institutions have implicated large logging companies in illegal trafficking through participation in deceitful auctions, billing fraud, bribing, influence trafficking for getting profitable contracts or illegal wood purchasing.
A 2005 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO that investigates environmental crimes worldwide, documented illegal logging activity by those companies in Olancho, some of it in protected parks. “Large logging companies are totally involved in illegal logging,” says Andrea Johnson, one of the EIA investigators.
Illegal trafficking is so deeply rooted in the country’s economy that corrupt politicians, forestry agents, prosecutors and policemen make it possible for a large part of the illegally harvested wood to be “legalized,” according to EIA, and sent to the United States in the form of broomsticks, tomato stakes and other products. EIA estimates that Honduran loggers export to the United States twice what they officially report in their country.
Ramón Alvarez, manager of Cohdefor, which is confronting ecologists, believes illegal logging is not as extensive as they say, and maintains that the problem with large logging companies is that they do not always abide by forestry regulations.
“Since 1992, there’s a regulation in Honduras under which every pine area that is logged must have been regenerated three years later. In the United States, there’s an almost identical requirement. The difference is that, in the United States, it is complied with, while in Honduras, it’s not,” he explains.
The countryside’s impoverishment and militarization are the most tragic part of the conflict. Last year, the government deployed 2,000 soldiers to prevent bloodshed in the increasingly frequent clashes between farmers and logging companies.
The farmers’ ecological movement has grown due to the uneasiness in rural areas. Loggers, usually hired from other towns, get just a few cents of a dollar for cutting down a pine tree that has taken 20 years to mature. Exploitation falls on a few logging companies: four companies account for 75 percent of production, according to data from Cohdefor.
“You go to those communities, where the forest is their main natural wealth, and they are poor, relegated, isolated municipalities that force a lot of people to go to the United States,” former congressman Efraín Díaz relates.
Logging activity in Salamá and its surroundings, banned by the government since 2006, threatens the Telica River basin, on which, according to ecology-concerned farmers, more than 43,000 people depend, a region that four decades ago was known as “Central America’s granary” for its agricultural richness.
Father Tamayo, who for the past eight years has only eaten what his people gives him because of “a promise I made to God,” says that hunger has increased among his congregation. “Meat, there’s almost none,” he explains, and points at some corn flakes packages over his kitchen’s fridge, which he regards as “a privilege.”
Tamayo says that he began his struggle in 2000, when he saw that a farmer was about to be buried in a plastic bag, with no wooden coffin, in a town where there were many sawmills. The priest dragged the body to the town hall, where he began to talk against logging companies and corruption within institutions because, he says, when he saw that image, “I blew my top.”
Exports to the United States and the Caribbean
$18.3 million in pine wood (United States) $2.2 million in broomsticks (United States) $2.2 million in tomato stakes (United States) $1.4 million in doors and windows (United States) $27.6 million in pine wood (Caribbean)
Source: data from Cohdefor, 2005
Honduras in figures
7.5 million inhabitants Area of 11.2 million hectares
68 percent of rural population live on less than $1 a day
$3,000 annual income per person 10,200 Hondurans emigrate every year