Marching for Life: An Interview With José Tamayo

A Honduran priest has organized a grassroots environmental movement to protest illegal logging and government corruption—with stunning results.

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

To see the full scope of the environmental destruction going on in Central America, one need look no further than the Department of Olancho in Honduras. Over the past several decades, Olancho, a 24,000 square-kilometer land and forest reserve, has been decimated by logging, as its forests are cut down and cleared away for commercial agriculture. Unregulated logging has already destroyed half of Olancho's 12 million acres of forests, and the resulting erosion has dried up much of the region's water supply. The fragile Olancho ecosystem, which includes over 500 unique birds, rare rainforest species, and many endangered plant and animals, is in danger of vanishing. And meanwhile, the majority of people in the area receive very little of the wealth derived from the logging—those proceeds go to large landowners, businessmen, and, of course, the corrupt Honduran government—while subsistence farmers have seen their crops ruined by degraded forests and resultant flooding. Whatever the economic benefits of Honduras' industrialization, they have certainly not been shared by all, and few have even stopped to consider whether they are worth plundering Honduras' rich resource base.

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But the inhabitants of Olancho aren't just sitting by and waiting for their forests to disappear. One Honduran priest in particular, Father José Andrés Tamayo Cortez, has over the years helped to organize an army of environmental activists to protest the illegal logging—and the government forest policies that enable it—with truly stunning results. In 2003 Tamayo led a 3,000 person "March for Life" that traveled 120 miles to the capital, bringing environmental issues to the national spotlight for the first time in ages. A second "March for Life" in 2004 drew 5,000 people to protest corruption in the government's National Forest Agency, and the marches have inspired activists throughout the country to organize against environmental destruction. Among his demands, Tamayo is calling for a freeze on logging until conservationists can take an audit of the forest and determine how best to preserve Honduras' forests, as well as new policies to enable local communities to benefit from the resources they own.

Activism, of course, is not without its risks. In the years Father Tamayo has spent organizing workers and protesting unregulated logging, he has been subject to death threats, violent assault, and constant harassment. Business interests in the country have a long history of intimidating activists. In 1975 two priests, Colombian Father Ivan Betancourt and US citizen Father Michael Cypher, along with 10 other organizers were murdered after speaking out and organizing against a local land grab. Three members of the Environmental Movement of Olancho were shot and killed in 2003, including a 23-year-old priest. But Tamayo, who is 47, has refused to give in, and his unyielding efforts and wide following have made it impossible for the Honduran government to ignore the grievances of the Olancho community.

Tamayo, a 2005 recipient of the Goldman Prize for environmental activism, recently sat down to talk to Mother Jones about his efforts in Honduras, and the future of the environmental movement in Central America.

Mother Jones: How has commercial logging affected Honduras, and in particular the Department of Olancho?

Father Tamayo: Olancho is the biggest department in the country—it was once the central agricultural region in all of Central America, and in 1980 it was included as part of a land and forest reserve, in response to the looting that was taking place there. Back in 1975, politicians and landowners and foreign companies were trying to takeover the land there; so we organized a march to stop the invasion and the expropriation of Olancho. And during this first march, there were people who were assassinated, possibly by the Honduran military—among them were two priests who were buried in a well so that they would not be found.

Today, what most concerns the inhabitants of the Department—and these are subsistence farmers, families living there for hundreds of years, two hundred years maybe—is the battle over natural resources: minerals, water, and the forests. Illegal logging is destroying what was once a very productive area. And at the same time, there has been an exodus of people from Olancho who have been depending on those natural resources. It used to be that people would immigrate to Olancho because it was still a reserve. But now those people are being dispossessed, evicted, because of the takeover of those lands that they had been depending on.

MJ: Can you explain the government's role in all this?

JT: In an effort to make the expropriation of Olancho a legal action, the government has validated the right to land by transferring it to the Spanish crown. So they said, anyone who has the original title to a land—originally granted by the Spanish Crown—would be given the crown. So you had wealthy landowners, businessmen, owners of logging companies who weren't even living in Olancho coming and saying, "Oh, my great-great-great-grandfather was given a land grant in this region," going to Spain, getting the land grant, and then being given the land by the government. But it's simply a political maneuver to create legality for something that is completely illegitimate. You have people with land, but without land titles. And people without land, but with land titles.

MJ: So the government is basically colluding with logging companies and other industry leaders to expropriate the land. Why is this all done?

JT: The companies are the sponsors, or godfathers you could say, of the government: they finance campaigns, they install their own people into government. Often what they're do with these land grabs is not really distributing among themselves but repaying a favor or responding to a favor that has been done.

What's also worrisome for us is that there's a lot of foreign aid coming in providing investments for rescuing or helping a particular industry or a particular area in Honduras. But often this money ends up in the pocket of government officials. So how it is possible that these international agencies providing aid don't know how to uncover corruption, and just become blind to it? They, too, are complicit.

MJ: Now can you describe the Environmental Movement of Olancho? Who is part of this coalition, and how did it come together?

JT: We started as a grassroots organization—the movement was based the strong experiences of the people living in the region, having lived through events such as climate change and the loss of crops over the years, and we've been reflecting on these issues. People have been thinking about how, despite all this richness in Olancho, there is still so much poverty in the area. That has brought us together. Our members include subsistence farmers, youths, teachers, families. We have helped shape this into a movement that is located in Olancho, but has also become a movement that has influenced the entire country. This is not a local struggle we are engaged in. So we have taken action, as with the march we did called the "March for Life," which was a political action. We have people with training, who are educated, who go around organizing communities, and to bolster the efforts of communities to organize themselves.

MJ: This training and organizing, how do you prepare people to organize and fight for their land?

JT: The majority of people who we work with live directly off the land. No one has a steady job, no one is employed. Their life is like this: on the days they work, they are able to eat; on the days they can't work, they don't eat. So there are three concepts which we communicate to them. One, everything that you see around you where you live, this belongs to you, this is yours. Second, we explain to them their rights. Third, we communicate the idea that the day that you lose these things which belong to you, you will be worse off, more poor. The community consists of people who range from poor to indigent, that is the range. So on the day that they lose even the small resources that they have, that is the day their death is prepared.

MJ: Now how did you come to be involved personally in this movement?

JT: I'm a priest, but I'm more a priest who celebrates life rather than celebrates mass. I've been living among the people—as they say, I've come down from the mountain, down to the city. And I want to share with you that many of these things, the vestments, they spook me. I feel like a stranger with those things. But I've come to the idea that I've had to express or describe the things that are going on right now, in this world. That's what carried me, and I feel happy with the people of Olancho, because I feel that I'm part of this community, that I'm responsive for them. And I know that our struggle for liberation has to come from the community. So this keeps me centered, grounded, strong. To this day, no one has been able to come and subordinate me, no one has been able to make be quiet, pay me off, bribe me, change my mind, corrupt me. I've been faithful to the people and faithful to God.

MJ: How would you say religion has influenced this movement?

JT: Being a priest has meant that I have this already-assumed acceptance among the grassroots community. Although, at the same time it brings various accusations from the people who oppose us, from the people who we are struggling against…

MJ: Now after the 2003 "March for Life" campaign, you met with the Honduran president, how did that go, what came out of that meeting?

JT: The government likes to talk, but it's mostly just to clean their hands and make it look like they're doing something. After the first march, they didn't even talk to us. After the second march, in 2004, they wanted to meet us then but really just to placate the population. So we decided we didn't want to meet with them because we knew their strategy. We haven't really achieved substantial changes yet. But the government's afraid of our organization now that we have a little more standing. We can turn out a lot of people, and we're getting international attention. We've brought the logging issues to the table, at least. And the government is using the law, their role as the government, to attack and repress what we're trying to do. But we're resisting.

MJ: There have been attacks, death threats, even assassinations against protestors and community leaders. Has the government cracked down on any of this?

JT: No. To the contrary, in fact. For example, when we're taking action and protesting they militarize the region we're in. There's a legal persecution going on, especially against our leaders, to block our actions. There have been assassinations of leaders, and you can say that the businesses do it or the government does it, but really it's the same… When we go out to do a march, the government comes in to block it, but when there's actually an assassination, the government doesn't do anything to investigate it.

MJ: In your view, what should the Honduran government be doing to change its logging policies?

JT: First, monitoring. They have to do an internal restructuring in the government—reorganizing who's in charge of things, who's doing the purchasing—to make it more transparent, less corrupt. Second, the businesses are inserting their own demands in the laws governing the land and resources, but the law should be taking in account the people's needs and criticisms. In the short term the government needs to stop seizing these resources. But the internal restructuring of the government is so important, but it's hard, the government is so corrupt, there's so much robbing going on. In 1995 they created the Honduran Corporation for Forest Development to manage the forests, but they've become part of the problem. The ones who are supposed to be vigilant are the same people that are part of the whole process.

Up in North America, too, other countries need to stop taking advantage of these resources. It's not just an issue down in Honduras—you have to stop the demand as well as the supply. 80 percent of the forests are cut down illegally, and if they're being exported…. Other countries also shouldn't being helping with loans to finance these illegal logging projects.

MJ: Are you seeing much of an international response to your efforts?

There are grassroots nonprofits that support us. We've had meetings with the Department of State, the EU, the World Bank. But many officials just tell us, "We know we have to reduce poverty, we know about the environment, we're doing something, you just have to go slowly. You can't attack the government." That's the expression that officials use. I see a lot of goodwill and movement forward in the NGOs. In fact, there's something very curious—during our second "March for Life" in 2004, for example, the Honduran government made a law so that foreigners couldn't accompany us on the march. They investigated foreigners that were involved in the march. So they're worried about this growing.

MJ: What are your plans for continuing to call attention to deforestation and other environmental disasters in the region?

JT: One of the big projects we're working on is a march called the "Continental March", stretching from Panama to Mexico. To protest the extraction of resources. To protest the privatization of services—electricity, water, education all privatized. How is someone going to have access to that if it's privatized? The subsistence farmers don't have enough money to pay for food. To protest CAFTA. In the whole region, the Central American governments have already approved CAFTA—they're just waiting for the United States to approve it in Congress. But it's an under the table business down here, everything happening without consulting the people. So the people want to rise up and they want to do something strong, to have impact.

At this point, we have credibility. We've created a movement. The businesses want to destroy us, but we've resisted until this point. The question, though, is how long can we resist? Because one day it's possible that the people will get tired, and will prefer to look for food than fight for the cause. That's why we need to create a movement that's moving forward but also gaining strength, not only in numbers but in strategy. That's what I'm most interested in.

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