Andres Tamayo, for eight years the priest for this farming town in the
piney woods of central Honduras, doesn't look like a man who can
marshal a thousand followers at a few hours' notice.
48-year-old Roman Catholic priest is, in his own words, a "short
Indian," balding and lumpily built, who usually dresses in faded jeans
and ragged golf shirts. Away from the pulpit, he easily is lost in
Yet when he preaches, his arms waving and his tenor
voice booming, his usually timid flock of poor farmers and careworn
homemakers is galvanized, eager to be transformed into a corps of shock
troops to stop what he calls indiscriminate environmental destruction
by the country's loggers.
After decades of mismanaged logging
that has erased half of Honduras' forests, rural communities such as
Salama are left with what residents say are the consequences of
deforestation: ruined water supplies, eroding topsoil, thinned-out
wildlife and a dried-out climate. Many say they have nothing to lose by
"The padre is our guide," said Alonso
Santos Paz, an impoverished farmer who said he had grown desperate with
the failure of his bean and corn crops the last two years for lack of
water. "If it weren't for what our family members send us from the
[United] States, we'd be dying of hunger here."
A dozen times
last year, the people of Salama and thousands of other followers
blocked highways and bridges to stop timber lorries, took over city
halls and shut down logging operations here in Olancho province, which
has the nation's largest timber reserves.
From this backwoods
parish, Tamayo has built a nationwide following — last year, he led
40,000 protesters from across Honduras on a march on the capital
against wholesale deforestation. He has become Honduras' leading
The firebrand priest seems on a collision
course with loggers and is aware of the possibly lethal consequences.
Many of the nation's timber cutters are ruthless outlaws who have
formed logging mafias and killed activists who got in their way. Since
1996, three members of Tamayo's Environmental Movement of Olancho,
known by its Spanish acronym, MAO, have been gunned down.
killing last month of an American nun, Dorothy Stang, who had battled
illegal logging in the Amazon rain forests in Brazil, brought home the
risks to Tamayo.
"Death can come at any time," said the priest,
adding that he had been threatened numerous times. A priest driving a
car like Tamayo's was shot at in December, and Tamayo was run off the
road in January in what he suspects may have been an attempted hit.
"They haven't changed me. I haven't stopped talking. Maybe they've waited too long to kill me," he said, smiling.
Tamayo has demanded an immediate moratorium on logging until forests
can be inventoried and guarantees put in place that all timber be
milled and worked in the communities where it was cut. The government
opposes a freeze — as do Tamayo's superiors in the church. The
country's leading prelate, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, withdrew
official church support for Tamayo's march on the capital last year
after the government convinced him that the demonstration could
destabilize the country.
With or without government or church
approval, Tamayo's movement enforces an unofficial moratorium in
Olancho. Phalanxes of demonstrators shut down logging whenever and
wherever they hear of it, even if the loggers have permits.
Last month in a forest 15 miles west of here, about 100 of Tamayo's
followers descended on a logging crew, swarmed over equipment and
formed human chains around trees. The loggers had what appeared to be a
permit and had brought 20 armed state police to enforce it, said Efrain
Paguada, one of Tamayo's aides. Still, after a tense standoff, the
loggers called off the cutting.
"We know we could die defending
the forests," said Paguada, a hard-bitten army veteran whose return to
farming in his hometown of Silca has been a failure. The 46-year-old
says he hasn't been able to grow a decent crop for three years because
of the drought, and now devotes much of his time to helping Tamayo,
often as his bodyguard.
"I'd rather die all at once," he said, "than live to see my children die slowly of thirst."
Paguada said Tamayo's followers would avenge any attempt on the
priest's life: "If they touch the padre, you would see some real
violence that would never end."
Tamayo's followers see him as
courageous and principled; his opponents see him as radical and
unbending. Even many who agree that deforestation is a problem say a
moratorium isn't feasible in a poor country where tens of thousands of
people depend on timber for their livelihoods.
Ricardo Maduro has tried to impose tighter controls on logging during
his three years in office but acknowledges that his government is no
match for the rapacious mafias. He said he sympathized with the
"We're aware that the forests aren't managed
as they should be, in a sustainable manner, and that the communities
don't receive the benefit they should," the Stanford-educated economist
said. "But I also think they are simplistic in saying, 'Well, the
solution is to stop everything.' "
Maduro and members of his
administration say they have tried for months to get Tamayo to join
negotiations on a new forestry law but the priest has stayed away.
Tamayo said he decided against participating when it became clear that
the government opposed any moratorium, "even for a minute," and
insisted on the right to name all three members of a crucial
intervention committee that would have the right to stop logging and
launch investigations at any time.
"There was no consulting, no pluralism on these themes," Tamayo said.
Tamayo's alleged inflexibility is also an issue with Salama Mayor Jose
Ramon Lobo, a bitter foe of the priest who says he wants "rational"
logging to resume. He said Tamayo's moratorium had forced the town's
sawmill and four woodworking factories to close down. More than 100
jobs have been lost, the mayor said.
"The economic cost of
Tamayo's stoppages is serious," he said. "We have families in trouble
and a crime rate that is rising. We have invited Father Andres to talk,
but he hasn't come. It's because he is a radical. He doesn't want to
concede anything. He must always prevail."
lumber industry, which cuts 50% to 80% of all timber in the country,
blamed Tamayo's campaign for violence on roads and at legally permitted
logging sites. Total cutting last year was only one-quarter of the
trees auctioned off by the government, partly because logging crews and
truck drivers were intimidated, said lumberman Pio Voto Rinaldi,
president of the Honduras Timber Assn.
"People now view the
entire industry as delinquents, like we are Al Capone and Lucky
Luciano," Rinaldi said. "We always suffered some image problems, but
now it's the fashion."
Tamayo responds that legitimate
loggers are too lax about buying wood from the shadowy mafias and that
government officials charged with regulating logging and processing are
Call him an idealist or a radical, Tamayo
has made the environment a political issue as rarely before in
Honduras, said Aldo Santos, the nation's top environmental prosecutor.
The special prosecutor, a post instituted in 1995, brings cases against
those who "abuse the nation's natural resources," mostly illegal
loggers, Santos said. He insisted that his office had teeth: Several
cases have resulted in prison terms, he said.
acknowledged that Honduras may lag behind other countries in taking on
the issue. "In relation to other Central American countries, it's
probably been a little late in coming," Santos said.
late than never, Tamayo said during a trip this month to Jimasque, a
drought-stricken town of about 500 people. He said that if
out-of-control logging continued, the country would turn into an arid
wasteland — as some patches of Honduras already have. Hilly stretches
of Highway 15 connecting the capital, Tegucigalpa, to Olancho already
look devoid of life.
Tamayo said that when he arrived in Salama
eight years ago, the nearby Agua Caliente River was filled with bass
and the town surrounded with thick pine forests. Now the fish are gone,
the river has all but dried up, and, except for one hill west of town,
the surrounding area has been mostly stripped of trees. That hill
remains lush "because we defended it," the priest claims.
Even more barren than Salama is Jimasque, a bastion of support for
Tamayo, where water is now piped in from a mountain spring 15 miles
away because deforestation has destroyed the water table and caused
streams to dry up.
The loggers association and Salama Mayor
Lobo argue that the aridity is a result of cyclical weather patterns
such as El Niño as well as global warming, and that many other parts of
the world are drying out because of circumstances beyond any local
Tamayo and the people of Jimasque aren't buying
that. "The drought is due to the cutting. Since they cut the trees, the
creeks have been dry now for 12 years," resident Alejandro Jaguada
Residents said the loss of water and climate change
that followed the clear-cutting of nearby forests a decade ago had
prompted an almost wholesale flight to Honduran cities or the United
States. "We're living on crumbs," said Milvia Ayala, a homemaker. "The
new generation is realizing that every day we are poorer here because
it doesn't rain."
The padre said the issue of the environment
found him, not vice versa. In ministering to the rural poor, he said,
their most pressing problems involved increasing scarcities of wildlife
and rainfall, not to mention the hardships and fights over diminishing
water resources. The situation pretty much forced him to take up
environmental activism, he said.
"I'm a man of action, not only words," Tamayo said.
The next morning, Tamayo delivered his weekly homily in Silca, five
miles east of Salama, where he rallied his followers to stay firm in
the face of intimidation from the logging mafias. His aide Paguada said
threats to the priest's followers had been increasing and that one of
the padre's young leaders had been gunned down under suspicious
circumstances in December.
In his talk to the parishioners,
Tamayo framed their struggle in biblical terms, identifying their cause
with Jesus, and regarding the opposition as corrupt Pharisees.
"Truth has to be stronger than fear, stronger than power, and stronger than a uniform," he said. "That is the word of God."
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