For the Forests, For Water, For Life
The March for Life left Juticalpa, Olancho,
to begin the week-long journey to the capital
after a Mass conducted by Father Andrés Tamayo.
The march was organized to defend Honduras’ forests and
succeeded in focusing the whole country’s attention on this issue,
which is linked to the continuing struggle against the
privatization of water.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Father Tamayo, the diocesan priest in Juticalpa, the capital of the eastern department of Olancho, organized and led the March for Life in defense of the country’s forests. Some 2,000 people began the march at the cathedral, after the Mass. Seven days and over 200 kilometers later, 15,000 people streamed into the capital city of Tegucigalpa on the morning of June 26. Inhabitants of neighborhoods along the route poured into the streets to greet the marchers in a massive show of sympathy for them and their cause. “Loggers: Watch Out for Tamayo!” one banner said. “For the forests and for life, this march won’t be forgotten,” read another.
A voice in the wilderness is heardMany years earlier, as the priest of the San Francisco de la Paz parish, Father Tamayo began to warn the Honduran government of the danger to the region’s water supply and the very lives of its inhabitants posed by the indiscriminate cutting of Olancho’s extensive forests. According to calculations by environmentalists in Olancho, unmanaged exploitation has generated no less than $45 billion over the last 20 years, making the forests a real treasure chest for the handful of families that control this business under the wing of the state.
In the beginning, Father Tamayo’s words were carried away by the wind. The people in his parish listened closely to his homilies, but to the public authorities, he might as well have been a voice in the wilderness. Over time, though, he began to plant seeds in the minds of his parishioners, people in other parishes and the small, emerging environmental groups. His defense of the forests began to have a public impact when Carlos Luna was elected mayor of the municipality of Catacamos, in Olancho, and put saving the forests on the municipal agenda. The results were swift: loggers murdered Luna in May 1998. His killers received direct, precise orders from the son-in-law of the then-president of Congress, whose family has close ties to the logging business.
$40,000 for his headAndrés Tamayo, 47, was born in San Vicente, El Salvador. He came to Honduras in 1983 and has been working in Olancho ever since, most recently as the parish priest of Salamá, a town of 70,000 inhabitants. Two months before the march, in early May, the loggers sent him a warning: either leave the country before May 31 or pay with his life. He reported that they had offered $40,000 for his head.
This threat brought considerable national and international attention to Father Tamayo’s persistent struggle. When he called on people to join in the March for Life, he received support not only from the communities of Olancho but also from many sectors of the Catholic Church, as well as many Protestant churches and social and grassroots organizations from all over the country.
The March for Life had a specific objective: to stop the logging in Olancho and everywhere else in the country. The marchers’ main demand was that the government immediately declare a moratorium on logging as a condition to begin talks aimed at establishing the responsibilities of the state and civil society in protecting the forests and ensuring their rational, well-managed exploitation.
Among their other demands was that the government identify and bring to trial the loggers responsible for killing people who defend the forests and the environment in general, such as Luna, and deal with those who issue death threats to many others in addition to Father Tamayo. The Honduran justice system has a dubious history in this area, as it has worked hard to avoid trying either the killers or the brains behind the murders of environmentalists Janeth Kawas, Carlos Luna, Carlos Escaleras and Carlos Flores, the first three of whom were murdered in the late 1990s and the fourth less than two years ago, very close to Father Tamayo’s parish.
First a moratoriumSome sectors have criticized the call for a moratorium as a prerequisite to establishing new measures to protect the forests. They argue that it won’t resolve the problem but would affect thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on their work in the sawmills, and that trees have to be cut to keep the forests healthy.
Father Tamayo is firm on this point, however. “First there should be a moratorium, then an audit would be done, then a method defined to ensure the forests’ recovery, in which we can learn how much is to be invested in reforestation and who will pay for it.”
As a prerequisite, the moratorium is also an important sign that the government has the political will to put an end to abuse of the forest. It is no solution to the problem, but it is at least a sign. Obviously, it would have to be established in such a way that it doesn’t harm poor peasant farmers who cut trees for firewood or to build their houses. The proposed moratorium would cover commercial logging, and is aimed at halting the destruction that enriches a handful of people who don’t care about the damage they’re causing us all.
The moratorium is urgently needed so that the forests can be audited. Stopping the chainsaws and illegal logging would make it possible to determine what actions the Honduran Forest Development Corporation (COHDEFOR) should take, and would move Honduras that much closer to the discussion and approval of a new forestry law. The path to take could be mapped out from there.
According to another priest from Olancho involved in this struggle, “The moratorium is not something we’ve just dreamed up, nor is it an emotional proposal; technical specialists have determined that it’s necessary and will produce immediate results.”
In twelve years there’ll be no more forests leftOlancho’s environmentalists know how important an immediate moratorium is as a prerequisite to any talks. Some 40,000 trees are cut each day, resulting in the disappearance over the last 20 years of 70% of Olancho’s forests. Some 44 hectares of forest are lost every hour in Olancho, which amounts to over 400,000 per year.
At this pace, all of the forests will have disappeared by 2015, and the water and even the communities themselves will disappear along with them. Where there used to be a lush, green landscape filled with the sound of rivers and waterfalls,
we are already beginning to see a tree cemetery, an interminable monument of rocks and dry river beds. Olancho’s environmentalists also know that social violence will follow deforestation as the scarcity of water triggers a massive migration to urban areas.
Olancho, Honduras’ green beltOlancho is the largest of Honduras’ 18 departments, larger even than El Salvador, covering over 24,000 square kilometers. It contains the most extensive forests in the country, nearly 2.5 million of the total 11 million hectares of forest, as well as the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, patrimony of humanity.
Our country’s “green belt” is also its most severely deforested region, however. According to public information, 80% of the trees cut in Olancho are felled in violation of the regulations contained in the current Forestry Law. COHDEFOR has been unable to enforce management plans or control logging areas, but that is not due to mere incapacity; it is widely known that some of its officials have worked with the loggers to enjoy the benefits of the “merciless logging,” as Father Tamayo describes it.
The mafia of “lumber barons” Just as some regions of the country—Colón and Gracias a Dios in the northwest of Honduras, for example—are under the virtually complete control of drug traffickers, Olancho and a good part of Gracias a Dios are controlled by the loggers. Mayoral and parliamentary candidates in Olancho receive money from the “lumber barons” so that once elected to public office they will be obliged to return the favors received.
More than a few of these elected officials immediately begin to facilitate the destruction of the forests and become direct beneficiaries of the business. When a candidate who doesn’t accept money from the wood barons is elected, the result is inevitable: either they resign or are killed, as happened to Carlos Luna.
The Church regains credibilityThe March for Life began in the Olancho diocese as a proposal by the Environmental Pastoral under Father Tamayo’s leadership. No demonstration of its size has been seen in Honduras for years, and it caught the whole country’s attention for over a week. Through it, the Catholic Church has reclaimed one of the paths it appeared to have abandoned: prophetic words and action on issues of national importance. Unlike other massive mobilizations of a religious nature that have skirted the responsibility to transform reality, this one has helped restore the credibility of the Church’s mission.
For the 2002 celebration of the 500th anniversary of the first Mass held on the continent, the Church called a gathering in the port of Trujillo, but it served merely to polish the Church’s image. In the March for Life, on the other hand, the Church brought a huge crowd together not for a celebration centered on the Church, but rather under a banner that expresses the essential Christian mission: to defend life.
The President refused to receive themThe March for Life carried a list of demands to present to the Honduran government’s highest authorities. The marchers went first to the National Congress but the congressional leaders were out, attending to matters “of greater importance.” They then continued to the Presidential Palace, where the march was cordoned off by dozens of anti-riot police. Exhausted and with aching feet, Fathers Tamayo and Osmín Flores; the bishop of Juticalpa, Franciscan priest Mauro Moldoon; and representatives of nearly 30 environmental, human rights, student, indigenous and labor organizations hoped to speak with the President.
President Maduro refused to see them, however, sending mid-level representatives in his place. “Either we talk to the President or we won’t talk with anyone,” Father Tamayo said. “We’ve spent years talking with officials of COHDEFOR and other state offices, and we’ve never found them willing to listen, much less able to make decisions. If we don’t talk with the President, we’ll be wasting time and just doing more of the same.” President Maduro remained behind closed doors and that same afternoon made statements to the press saying that the march had been unnecessary since he had already given instructions to protect the forests and sanction anyone who breaks the law.
Loggers yes, gangs noWith this arrogant attitude, the President demonstrated that protecting the forests and the environment are not part of his government’s agenda, unless these issues appear in a proposal made by international organizations.
President Maduro’s central issue remains the fight against crime. The day after the march, surrounded by his principle security advisors, he made a public announcement that he would be taking further anti-crime measures. Days later, Maduro sent Congress a bill to “prohibit criminal gangs, prohibit their existence and penalize membership in them.” This fight has only one objective: to persecute young people in the marginalized neighborhoods of the country’s major cities.
Flanked by the media, Maduro’s security minister personally leads armed men on daily sweeps of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula to surprise young gang members or anyone who might be suspected of being a gang member because of their age or attire or the expression on their face. The security minister is a chip off of a sinister block: a nephew of General Álvarez Martínez, who made his macabre mark on the country during one of its worst moments by helping implement the national security policy of the 1980s.
And the future? The deforestation drama goes back many years and the illegal loggers are now admittedly too numerous to be controlled by the state’s current structures and measures. Nonetheless, it is also true that Maduro’s government supports and represents the business sector most closely tied to the groups irrationally exploiting natural resources and is thus committed to guaranteeing their impunity.
This is a very serious problem. The present and future of the country depends on how and how soon its natural resources are effectively protected. The impoverishment of broad sectors of society will inevitably lead to increasing destruction of the forests, with the ensuing loss of water, while the voracity of a few members of the business community is already rushing the country towards this same tragedy. Honduras’ environment is now also threatened from outside, by many of the projects contained in the free trade agreement with the United States, Plan Puebla Panama and the envisioned Free Trade Area of the Americas.
For the forests and the waterThe fight undertaken by the Church and Olancho’s environmentalists is also a brilliant chapter in the fight in defense of water. Without trees there is no water. This fight for the forests is thus linked to those being waged in Honduras against privatization of the public water supply.
On March 4, Congress members signed a resolution agreeing to indefinitely suspend discussion of the proposed Water and Sanitation Law, and to do a series of consultations aimed at achieving consensus on the formulation of a bill that represents the interests of the country’s diverse sectors. Despite that pledge, however, members of Congress were ready on April 7 to present a bill shaped along the same lines as the previous one. Grassroots organizations in Aguán, El Progreso, Santa Bárbara and Tegucigalpa wrote Congress a letter reminding the legislators of their commitments and informing them that the organizations had begun the consultation process to gather people’s ideas about water, on the basis of which they would draft a bill to be presented to Congress in the first week of July.
A water law defined by the peopleAs the March for Life headed towards the capital, representatives of the grassroots organizations defending public access to water were meeting to compile the ideas offered during those consultations and draft the bill. On June 28, municipal assemblies were held to present, discuss and approve the 58 articles of the proposed law on water and environmental sanitation. The representatives of the participating social, community and grassroots organizations enthusiastically received the proposal.
On July 1, for the first time in Honduran history, a delegation representing diverse social sectors delivered the proposed bill to members of Congress for their discussion and approval. Its main thrust is to guarantee the population access to drinking water as a public good and a human right to be ensured to present and future generations. It proposes to improve the population’s quality of life through an efficient water and sanitation service, strengthen autonomous national and municipal institutions and the community organizations that provide and administer drinking water and sewage services, promote community participation to guarantee efficient provision of drinking water and establish mechanisms to protect water resources through watershed conservation.
The principles of the water lawUnlike the measures proposed by international organizations regarding the exploitation and privatization of natural resources, this bill defines water as a public good belonging to the Honduran people and establishes the satisfaction of their basic needs and environmental conservation as priorities in the use of water.
The proposed bill recognizes that access to drinking water and basic sanitation services are among the “second generation” social, economic and cultural human rights, and establishes the state’s responsibility to ensure that the Honduran population has access to them. It also establishes the strategic nature of water, stipulating that it cannot be ceded in any way to foreign individuals or companies.
The proposed legislation is based on several principles. First is the principle of equity: the whole population has the same right to access and enjoy water and sanitation services, and the state must give priority in these services to the social sectors that have been historically and geographically relegated. Second is the principle of solidarity: people with limited resources will be able to access water and sanitation services under special conditions, with solidarity among users. Third is the principle of protecting watersheds: state institutions and citizens both have a responsibility to protect and conserve water in all forms. And finally it upholds the principle of grassroots consultation, since the population will have the right to participate in planning and implementing projects, works and decisions that affect or may affect the bodies of water, water systems and water and sewage pipes in their communities.
From protest to proposalsMany people had doubts about the March for Life. Yet it was a success that mobilized the nation’s conscience. Many people also doubt the effectiveness of the legal fight for water, while others have decided to remain quiet, believing that things can’t be changed. But at a time when defending the environment is an urgent necessity,
all fronts, including legislative proposals, are vital for the country’s social, grassroots and environmental organizations.
Naturally, the bill proposed by Honduras’ social and environmental organizations will clash with the proposal made by the giant to the North. Honduran organizations have fought for nine months to block the approval of an imperialist law. Now they have moved from protests to proposals. If the legislators don’t take them into account, these organizations will have the best possible argument to justify stepping up the struggle. Honduras must be built from within, with the Honduran population and on behalf of national interests, to keep things from continuing to be destroyed as they are today. But the present and future of our country are currently being defined from outside, without the country and against the country.