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Olancho: A Land Where Forests Fall

By By Thelma Mejía*

Led by a Salvadoran Catholic priest, residents of Olancho, Honduras, reaffirm their conviction that they will fight to the end to save their forests from destruction.

TEGUCIGALPA - The resistance movement against logging in the forests of the northeastern Honduran department of Olancho is strong and is showing signs of constituting a new environmental culture, Roman Catholic priest and ecologist Andrés Tamayo told Tierramérica.

Disgusted that deforestation is turning the local landscape into desert, the residents of Olancho have responded to the Salvadoran priest's call to fight the indiscriminate felling of trees in the area.

Tamayo, 46, says he has received death threats as a result of his efforts. He led a five-day march to the capital in late June to protest the destruction of the Honduran forests.

And thousands of people from the towns of Azacualpa Valley, in the western region of Santa Barbara, followed the Olancho example earlier this month, protesting the depredation of their local forests.

The nascent Azacualpa movement in defense of the environment is led by another priest, Marco Aurelio Lorenzo, and is demanding a partial ban on the extraction of lumber and greater protection for the area's watersheds.

Tamayo says he launched a "battle to the end" against environmental destruction because he has seen how people suffer from water shortages as supplies dry up due to excessive deforestation.

At least half of the 2.5 million hectares of Olancho forests have been devastated, according to the governmental Honduran Forest Development Corporation (COHDEFOR), in this country with some 11 million hectares of forests.

The advance of the farm, livestock and industrial frontier is one of the main causes of reduced forest coverage. But illegal logging also plays a major role.

Along the little-traveled highway to Olancho, one can see -- in the full light of day -- 15 or 20 trucks carrying felled trees. Tamayo says there is even more truck traffic at night.
Environmentalists say the over-exploitation of the forests has transformed Olancho into a desert-like arid sierra because the removal of vegetation makes it impossible for the soils to retain moisture.

"I am just one voice and not headline news. Yes, I fear death, but I will not cease in the fight that I have begun: saving the forests of Olancho from destruction," says Tamayo. "Even if it does seem overly romantic to talk about the environment and birds dying."

Local residents are calling on the government to issue an urgent decree banning commercial logging in Olancho and to draw up a sustainable forest policy for the surrounding areas.

With the additional demands for citizen oversight in forest management and an in-depth technical review of the exploited sites, the "March for Life" departed from Salamá, where Tamayo is based, and made the 280-km journey to Tegucigalpa, receiving water, food, clothing and solidarity from the people along the route.

But once they reached the capital, Honduran President Ricardo Maduro did not receive the pro-forest demonstrators.

Tamayo says he was disappointed that the president declined to meet with them, but that he felt strengthened nevertheless because "we have developed a new popular pedagogy in which the energy of the people proves that our struggle is justifiable."

In a conversation with Tierramérica, President Maduro said, "I ordered specialized 24-hour protection for the priest. I defend life and I believe theirs is a just cause. I don't want my government of the Honduran state to be tarnished by an unjust death."

Fernando Lardizábal, president of the Honduran Lumber Association, says his organization will oppose any effort to ban logging in Olancho because it would lead to great financial losses "and we would have to lay off workers."

The lumber executive rejected the notion that loggers are to blame for the death threats that Tamayo has received. He recommended that the priest "preach the Gospel, and let us do our work."

Since Tamayo arrived in Honduras 20 years ago, he has worked in the most far-flung villages of Olancho, whose rich forest and cultural history includes deadly fights over land and trees.

Environmentalists Carlos Luna and Carlos Flores were murdered in 1998 and 2000, respectively. Activists Janeth Kawas and Carlos Escaleras were killed in the northern coastal region in 1995 and 1997. Honduran justice authorities have yet to resolve any of those murders.

Backing Tamayo and environmental groups in their efforts is Bertha Oliva, of the Committee of Families of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH).

Oliva said she is upset by Maduro's refusal to meet with the marchers. "We brought him an opportunity on a silver platter to begin serious discussion about the forest problem," she told Tierramérica.

Of the nearly 100 sawmills in the country, 51 are found in Olancho, though now only 18 are active because lumber revenues are on the decline, she said.

Honduran law permits the extraction of 1.2 million cubic meters of lumber annually. But the true volume is much higher "because there is no control over illegal logging. The losses are great, but we don't have exact figures as to how much," said Gustavo Morales, COHDEFOR manager.

* Thelma Mejía is a Tierramérica contributor.

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